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Seven-year-old Ismail Aslama, of Muslim parentage has undergone a complete transformation. He is now Rathnapure Siri Sudarshanalankara or Sudarshanalankaram.
The metamorphosis took place recently when his father, Hameed Ismail, took him to Chief Incumbent of the Dimbulagala Forest Monastery, Millane Siriyalankara who ordained him as a Buddhist monk. The boy’s mother working as a housemaid in the Middle East is not contactable to the family.

According to Siriyalankara Thera, the child is now residing alongside a mixed ethnic group of Sinhala, Tamil and Veddah children who have been ordained into monkhood. However, “consent” is the question that begs an answer.

Did the boy give his consent or was he mature in mind and body to consent to an issue that would alter his entire life. Impacts of poverty and parental neglect of children have dominated unilateral parental decisions.

A Life Member of the Sri Lanka Rationalist Association (SLRA), Dr. Kavan Ratnatunga explained that action should also be taken in this regard as allowing the act of ordaining the boy constituted a violation of the Government’s duty to protect the temple.
“Temples are not orphanages,” said Dr. Ratnatunga.

Temples should not be dumping grounds for those whom society deems, albeit wrongly, as flotsam. No human being regardless of the extenuating circumstances surrounding one’s birth or upbringing is flotsam.

The temple should be a place for those intellectually interested in becoming a monk and not be a place for those who don’t want to become one or have never thought of becoming one.

“When the temple is populated with the latter, it degrades the environment of the temple and creates frustration as seen in the case where monks run riot in the streets engaging in politics instead of being monks,” Dr. Ratnatunga said.

He also pointed out that religious indoctrination did not work as those ordained in such a manner would eventually run away and leave the Pirivena or seminary.

“Three years back, at a temple in Mount Lavinia, 19 children between the ages of seven and 12 from impoverished homes were ordained in a massive tamasha-like ceremony. Today, only three out of the 19 are left.

The large exodus of monks leaving the order after ordination is a significant fact in this equation. Most are ordained before they can intelligently decide their life’s path, be it spiritual or lay. Therefore, after these tender monks receive education in Pirivenas and universities and get exposed to a wholly different material world as mature adults, they have to make hard decisions regarding their future resulting in the exodus. In lay life children decide on their career paths after O Levels or A Levels, well after their sixteenth year with considerable maturity.

When the Buddha was asked what was the age someone could become a Samanera (a novice male monastic), he is noted in a sutra (an aphorism) in a Pitaka (division) (the Vinaya Pitaka or tenets and rules of the Vinaya code regarding discipline) of the Tripitaka (the Pali Canon), as saying that if a child can chase a crow, he or she can be ordained, which would mean that the child can be even four-years-old. The Government however won’t bring in legislation in this regard,” Dr. Ratnatunga elaborated.

Elsewhere, Professor at the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, Ittademaliye Indasara thera while confirming the analogy of the child chasing the crow and the age of ordainment, added that there were Pirivenas which ordained children for the sake of continuing the Pirivena by way of having students, which led to social issues and even monks disrobing. “As per Wathawath such as Upasajja Watha and Charya Watha, the relationship between the chief incumbent of a temple and a novice monk should be like the bond and love between a father and son”, he explained while adding that if the newly ordained monk was brought up in a temple or monastery from an early age and was well treated and looked after in such a manner with love, care and protection (and not abandoned to grow up on their own) and with their needs, wants and hopes being continuously looked into, they would not disrobe and leave the Sasana during adulthood.
“In the time of the Buddha, his son (when he was Prince Siddhartha) Prince Rahula and Sivali were ordained at the same age as the Muslim boy. There is no age limit placed on entering the Sasana, provided that the child consents voluntarily and the child is able to conduct his or her affairs, day to day matters involving excretory functions and the consumption of food among others on their own and the child’s parents or guardians consent to voluntarily,” Prof. Indasara added.

The Quranic verse 256 in the Surah, the Surat Al-Baqarah, ‘La Ikraha Fid-Deen’ quotes Allah as stating that there is no compulsion to become a Muslim.

The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) explained that the choice of faith to be a Muslim or not was not something anybody could be forced into but added that the handling of this particular incident and situation was the responsibility of the Buddhist clergy.

Judge of the Supreme Court of the US, Associate Justice William O. Douglas in a partial dissent in the 1972s Wisconsin v. Yoder case which dealt with whether the fundamental right to the freedom of religion outweighed the State’s interest or obligation in compulsorily educating children, emphasized that there was no particular reason to give the parents’ religious views special status when deciding upon the degree of deprivation of education of their children.

The Court ruling in favour of the former is now used as grounds for the right of parents to educate their children outside traditional public or private schools – such as through homeschooling while calling for children to be heard on the matter of ensuring the right to education and exercising the freedom of religion.

What about the child’s right to the exercise of the freedom of religion?
“To take up any path including a religious faith, willingness and desire should be there”, Media Secretary of the ACJU, Ash-Sheikh Fazil Farook said while adding that it should come from the individual in question. According to Farook, Islam made no mention of the age limit imposed on becoming a member of the Islamic faith and thereby a Muslim.
He also emphasized that unlike in the case of the Buddhist clergy where monks lived in monasteries and sacrificed enjoyments including entertainment, the Muslim clergy and scholars of Islam in practice of their faith led lives similar to the common man in terms of having a family life, being married with children, earning a livelihood and participating in communal and social life activities.

“All persons work according to their own beliefs and acceptances. Whatever the choice, in this case the one made by members of the family, were a calling made towards the future of the child,” Farook further elaborated.

Should our children, despite the vagaries of birth and the impoverished circumstances into which they are sometimes born in to, in this enlightened age which is in possession of worldly wisdom yet is often condemned to repeat the past from which it learns not, be the sacrificial lambs of the well-meaning parents or a dysfunctional social system?
DSJ