In each and every Buddhist household, a place of prominence is dedicated to the Buddha statue. The statue is venerated and worshipped. Flowers, incense and oil lamps are offered to the statue along with Buddha Pooja. At all times, the statue is treated with reverence and held sacred, equivalent to the Buddha himself. With time, as with all things, the statue undergoes wear and tear. Then comes the dilemma of how to dispose the statue.
Bellanvila Raja Maha Viharaya is an ancient temple with a long history of religious heritage. The sanctity of the temple is partly rooted in the sacred Bellanvila Bo tree which is considered one of the 32 saplings that sprang from the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, during the 3rd century B.C.
Thousands of devotees arrive to receive the blessings of the hallowed Bellanvila temple each year. The Buddha statues are a curious sight that meet the eyes of devotees who step near the taps to sprinkle water on flowers. Behind the taps, on the raised platform forming a part of the outer pavement of the back of a Kovil is an assortment of Buddha statues, neatly arranged in rows.
These statues are small and could be carried by hand, the Buddha in His many meditative postures. Some are coloured and others pure white. Most of these are clay statues while few are wooden. The most interesting feature of these statues is that they all have suffered some form of damage and therefore have been discarded. On one wall of the building where the statues could be found, hangs a plaque requesting devotees not to leave discarded Buddha statues at the temple.
Prof. Malinga Amarasinghe of Kelaniya University, Archeology Department, commented that there are no guidelines on disposal of damaged Buddha statues from homes and generally the statues which are left at temples are buried. He explained that if Buddha is depicted at inappropriate places it is deemed an insult to the Buddha and therefore is punishable.
Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Media Secretary, Thilak Kumara Rathnayake, said that although the discarding of damaged Buddha statues at temples has been subject to debate recently, up to now there are no rules or regulation on disposal of statues.
When asked Bellanwila Rajamaha Vihara, Deputy Incumbent, Ven. Prof Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thera acknowledged that these were statues discarded from homes, which people leave at the temple. “This is a practice that people should refrain from,” he emphasized. However, this is a practice most in the Buddhist community is guilty of, where the fear of disposal of Buddha statues drives them to leave the broken Buddha statues in a corner of the temple instead. “These statues are mainly made of clay from earth. So, once they are damaged, the best thing to do would be to bury the statues.”
Pictures of various Buddha statues are widely used in calendars which are disposed after a period. Images of the Buddha are also used in postcards and various other publications, most of which are flippantly disposed at some time or another. Ven.
Wimalaratana Thera said that images of the Buddha should not be used in calendars and postcards.
“There are other things that symbolize Buddhism, maybe these should be used instead. Otherwise these calendars carrying images of the Buddha is later used to wrap betle. It is better if newspapers could refrain from printing images of the Buddha as well, since these are also used to make paper bags and wrap items”, he said.
Ven. Wimalaratana Thera also pointed out that Buddha statues from ancient temples should be conserved due to historical value.
For centuries after Parinirvana of the Buddha, there were no images of the Buddha. Other symbols such as Dharma Chakra were used to symbolize the Buddha instead. It was believed to be disrespectful to mimic Buddha’s features and the statues started emerging only in the first century CE, in the regions of Gandhara and Mathura, in India. Gandhara Buddha statues are of ancient Greek influence, considered to depict a realistic figure of the Buddha. The depiction of Buddha via statues later spread to other countries, including Sri Lanka.
The practice of leaving damaged statues at religious premises is not a phenomenon restricted to the Buddhist community. This is a common practice among Roman Catholics as well, where they either leave the statues within the church premises or hand them over to a priest. The underlying notion is similar. They also believe it’s disrespectful to throw away a statue symbolizing a saint or Jesus Christ.
According to Archdiocesan Director for Social Communications, Father Edmond Tillekeratne, these statues are only a symbol and thus could be thrown away just as any other damaged household item. “It is a symbol that is being thrown away and there is no intrinsic value in a symbol. The distinction must be made clear,” he says. He further elaborated that the damaged statues left at the church would be thrown away in the end.
This portrayal of the divine and honouring them in the form of statues came into Christianity soon after the Roman Empire embraced Christianity in the 4th Century BC. This was believed to be the influence of the Roman practice of portraying and worshipping their gods as well as emperors.
In Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara’s 1987 novel Gal Pilimaya Saha Bol Pilimaya (The Stone Statue and the Hollow Statue), a replica steals the limelight of its original ancient statue. Most villagers begin to worship the replica, which is considered to possess miraculous powers. Painted gold by a local politician, it was then endorsed by popular Buddhist monks, to the agitation of Upali, the curator of the original statue. Eventually his son’s friend destroys the replica by blowing it up and dies in the process. The story highlights the difficulty of distinguishing between real and unreal due to political exploitation of traditional cultural icons.
The story was inspired by a visit to the Gal Viharaya by the author during 1986, where he observed people worshipping a model of the original Gal Pilimaya placed next to it. Dr. Amarasekara thought what he saw symbolized ‘the age of the counterfeit.’
Referring to the practice of discarding damaged Buddha statues at temples, Dr. Amarasekara commented: “These are based on belief. People believe it is a bad omen to have a broken statue at home. It has nothing to do with truth but people have to live with beliefs since it is a part of life.”