The Buddhist Diwali

 

diwali

Diwali is the festival of lights for only a few Buddhists in India and Nepal. There are reasons though why their brethren should look at Diwali in a new light.

Buddhists celebrating Diwali do so in remembrance of Emperor Ashoka (r. 268-232 BCE). Around the year 260 CE, Ashoka embraced Buddhism and adopted the principles of the Dharma as the basis for his governance of his empire.

The practice of government should not tolerate suffering.[1] Ashoka in his edicts emphasized the importance of humane government and the welfare of his people. His state built infrastructure and provided free medical care to his subjects. He advocated religious tolerance and called for harmony and respect between all sects in the empire.

He is considered by many Buddhists as the ideal cakravartin,[2] the universal sovereign who rules benevolently. Ashoka unified the subcontinent and and his policy of Dharma applied equally to all of his subjects. In preaching virtue and benevolence in government, he can be seen as a political counterpart to the Buddha.

In today’s darkness, the light of Diwali deserves to shine in Ashoka’s example.

 

[1] Mencius

[2] Skr. “wheel turner”

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The 70th Anniversary of the Partition of India

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Seventy years on, there’s still hope.

On October 6, Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad spoke on the 70th anniversary of the Partition.[1]

Ahmad’s argued that the truth about the Partition must be known before there can be any meaningful reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Only if Indians and Pakistanis confront and accept what happened in 1947, can there ever be light.

For instance, many Sikhs revere the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh (1914-1974) as the icon of a bygone age. Some have suggested that he even gave sanctuary to Muslims during the violence of the Partition.[2]

 

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Ahmad’s research in the The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (which includes eye-witness accounts from Patiala including from members of the Sikh community), shows a Maharaja who planned to cleanse his kingdom of his Muslim subjects.[3]

This was a shock even for some of my better educated friends in Patiala to learn. Maybe it’s time to pierce the veil of lies and illusions both India and Pakistan have woven these past seven decades. The Partition has scarred the subcontinent. Now it’s time to heal. Seek the truth. Study extensively, inquire carefully, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.[4]

 

Notes

[1] The lecture was part of a conference presented by the South Asian Film Education Society and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy presented at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University between October 5th to the 8th.

Dr. Ahmad is a now retired professor who taught Political Science at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. He was also a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

[2] This last point is suggested by filmmaker Sara Singh in The Sky Below.

[3] Ahmad’s research has also been cited and excerpted in magazines and editorials like in the Hindustan Times, Frontline and Caravan.

[4] The words of the Chinese philosopher, Zhu Xi (1130-1200)

 

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Film Review: Menashe

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Director: Joshua Weinstein
Starring: Menashe Lusting (Mensashe); Ruben Niborski (Rieven); Yoel Weisshaus (Eizik)

In this tender drama on self, family and community, director Joshua Weinstein deftly weaves together the story of a father longing to be with his son in the face of opposition from the Hasidic Jewish community around him.

Menashe is a recent widower. After his wife’s death, his son, Rieven, was sent to live with the boy’s uncle. Menashe pleads the rabbi to let Rieven live with him but is told that he must first remarry and get his house in order.

He lives in a dingy studio apartment and can’t cook even the most basic of Jewish dishes. Nor does he have any desire to remarry. He convinces the rabbi however, that he will prove himself a good father by hosting the community at his home on the occasion of his late’s wife’s memorial.

Menashe is a rare look into the world of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Weinstein captures the cultural and social landscape with its yeshivas, matchmakers and Yiddish folk songs against the universal themes of a father’s love for his son and a man’s struggle to be himself.

Weinstein elicits sincere, empathetic performances from Lusting and Niborski which form the heart of the film. Coupled with a simple, human story and a realism rare in American cinema, they make Menashe an intimate, heartfelt film.

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Freedom of Expression in India

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Written by Randeep Purewall

On September 5, Gauri Lankesh was killed outside of her home in Bangalore. Gauri was Indian journalist and a vocal critic of the Hindu right. Her death is one in a growing funeral procession in India in which Hindu Nationalists are killing scholars and activists, assaulting students and banning films and books.

India’s Hindu Nationalist movement is a neo-fascist movement. It seeks to create and enforce a militant, statist nationalism and portrays itself as a protector of traditional national culture. It is racist, xenophobic and scapegoats minorities and routinely violates civil rights and liberties like free speech.

Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy. Freedom of expression lets us share information and ideas with one another and enables us to speak up against injistice. It lets us answer questions, chart new frontiers and realize what we as human beings.

Freedom of expression is no less important to modern India. It is a legacy of the freedom movement when Indian leaders were imprisoned for advocating non-cooperation. It helped turn international opinion against the British when the journalist Webb Miller reported on their atrocities in India.

This tradition of free expression is now undermined by Hindu Nationalism. In fact, many think that freedom of expression will soon be a thing of the past in India.

What’s happening in India though, is not unprecedented. In fact, freedom of expression has always been engaged in battle against the State. In 1644, the poet John Milton petitioned the English Parliament against censorship during the English Civil War:

“Let her [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Freedom of expression has fought openly with the Reign of Terror, Nazism, McCarthyism, the Indian Emergency and the War on Terror. If it is finally vanquished by the Hindu Nationalist, it will truly be history.

In memory of Gauri Lankesh (1962-2017)

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Film Review: “The Black Prince”

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Written and Directed by Kavi Raz

Starring: Satinder Sartaj (Duleep Singh), Amanda Root (Queen Victoria), Shabana Azmi (Maharani Jind Kaur), Jason Flemyng (Dr. Login)

In 1849, the British conquered the Punjab and deposed a ten year old king. The boy was baptized a Christian and exiled to England, where he grew up dancing in ballrooms, shooting wild game and holding court with Queen Victoria.

The Black Prince is the story of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Punjab. It’s a fascinating story of loss, colonialism and identity, making for a film rich in dramatic potential.

Sadly, Kavi Raz’  The Black Prince is more concerned with characterizing Duleep as an Indian national hero than in charting his own struggle.

The film has its charms. It’s beautifully shot and captures in detail the drawing rooms, gardens and stately palaces of the Victorian era. Satinder Sartaj gives a subdued performance as Duleep while Shabana Azmi’s performance as the fiery Jind Kaur is one of the film’s highlights.

Duleep and Jind Kaur however are mere players in this imagined rendering of India’s colonial past. Duleep is presented to us as the Anglicized Indian who becomes an awakened nationalist, but his inner life is left opaque. Who was Duleep Singh? What was he like as a husband and father? Did he really seek to liberate the Punjab from British rule?

These questions will have to wait for another film. The Black Prince is daring and ambitious in scope, but fails to do justice to the Last Maharaja.

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Cantonese in Vancouver

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Written by Randeep Purewall

Mandarin has overtaken Cantonese as the predominant non-English language spoken in Metro Vancouver homes.[1] That’s the latest report from Wanyee Lee in More Mandarin Than Cantonese Speakers, which featured recently in the Vancouver Metro.

The decline of Cantonese concerns many in Greater Vancouver. Fewer Cantonese speakers have been migrating to Vancouver in recent years. The Cantonese communities of Vancouver are aging and younger generations prefer to speak English.

Still, Cantonese is the third most spoken language in Metro Vancouver. And there are reasons to suspect why it won’t fade out just yet.

First, Cantonese is supported by an affluent community. This community represents a source of investment in the language. For instance, in 2015, the Watt brothers donated $2 million to the University of British Columbia, helping to create the first Cantonese language university program in Canada.

Second, Cantonese is a historically and culturally significant language in Vancouver. It is connected to the Chinese-Canadian heritage of Vancouver, including the community’s pioneers, Chinatown and generations of immigrants. Cantonese opera performances pack the M.J. Fox Theatre in Burnaby while local Cantonese television and radio command large audiences.[2]

Third, Cantonese forms an important part of the identity of Vancouver’s Hong Kong community. As Lee points out, most of Vancouver’s Chinese-Canadians from Hong Kong (or their descendants) live in East Vancouver. This gives Cantonese a geographic concentration in Vancouver and makes it a distinctive community.

Fourth, Cantonese will continue to have a role in an increasingly multilingual world. Many Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver in fact speak Mandarin and Cantonese. Cantonese is often spoken in one context while Mandarin and English are spoken in others contexts. Seen this way, Cantonese may end up co-existing with Mandarin in some instances.

The number of Mandarin speakers has increased in Vancouver, but Cantonese still has its speakers, its integrity and its heritage.

[1] According to the 2016 census, Mandarin has 138,680 speakers to 132,185 for Cantonese.

[2] Thank you to Dr. Jan Walls for your contribution here

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India at 70

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This year marks the 70th year of India’s independence.

Since 1947, India has grown to become one of the world’s largest economies. It has become self-sufficient in food production, developed a space program and created a large skilled, middle-class. And, it has maintained its democratic political system.

In India Unbound (2002), Gurcharan Das envisioned an India bypassing the industrial revolution to become an IT superpower. Shashi Tharoor spoke of a soft-power superpower spreading Bollywood and its spirit of religious tolerance globally.

Both men are loath to admit, however, that, for all its achievements and potential, India remains a poor country. It is poor in terms of the absolute number of its poor and in terms of its per capita income. Its governments have failed to invest adequately in health and education and India ranks lower than Sri Lanka and Indonesia on the Human Development Index.

India has failed to become an IT superpower. While it has produced successful companies like Infosys and Wipro, its high-skilled labour force comprises no more than 2% of the country’s labour force. Industry employs less than 15% of Indian workers with most eking an existence off the land.

India’s secularism and its democratic political system are also being eroded. Under Narendra Modi and the Hindu-Nationalist BJP, the Indian Government has curtailed freedom of expression and dissent by authors, students, scholars and filmmakers. It has also stoked violence against India’s Muslims through its cow-protections laws.

Its worth reflecting on what India is today and where it is going. In Midnight to MilleniumTharoor remarked that the BJP and Hindu Nationalists could not destroy India unless they destroyed India’s political culture of secularism and its acceptance of pluralism. With that culture now being undermined, can India be far behind?

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