Thursday, February 19, 2015

Dawa Dangpai Losar, a tug of war between culture and religion

New Year greetings with flowers. Photo source: Ms. Sonam Wangmo, Facebook.

Today is the 1st day of the 1st month of lunar calendar and it’s celebrated as New Year in many Mahayana Buddhist countries. It’s the day to reflect on the past and rectify the mistakes we have committed. In Bhutan too, people celebrate this day as Losar, which means ‘New Year’ and it’s a feasting festival for families, friends and relatives. Traditionally, it’s said that people first go to temples and monasteries to make offerings and prayers and join their families, relatives and friends for the feast. But today, I don’t think people go to temples to offer prayers to Gods and deities but they do begin the day with special feast followed by traditional games like archery, Khuru and Doego. It’s a special day for all the families to join their friends and relatives to have fun together. People prepare special and delicious foods, both non-vegetarian and vegetarian items and enjoy among themselves with different types of drinks. It’s a great occasion for the entire nation except for the Lhotsham communities which do not celebrate it. This day marks the beginning of warm season that shall contribute to the regeneration of plants and flowers. Basically, it’s the beginning of a new cycle of the Buddhist calendar.

However while it’s a festive holiday, I feel that the way people celebrate the occasion seems to contradict somehow with the religious significance of the day. According to Buddhism, this month is also a month of miracles (Chhothruel Duechhen and hence, it’s a holy month). It’s believed that Lord Buddha exhibited a series of miracles from 1st to 15th day of this month to challenge the supremacy of six Hindu masters who first challenged him. It’s believed that through miracles, Lord Buddha managed to defeat his challengers and won the hearts of thousands of people who became his disciples. So, this month is supposed to be a holy month and it’s for this particular reason that the government has banned the sale of meat during this month. It’s as holy as other three months of the year during which the sale and purchase of meat is prohibited in Bhutan.

Despite the ban on the sale of meat during this month, people are culturally driven to buy and dry up large quantities of meat well ahead of the event. It’s sad to see the fact that more animals are slaughtered in advance just because of the ban. The government’s intention to impose the ban has been defeated. The government actually had thought that by imposing the ban on the sale of meat, the lives of some innocent animals could be saved at least during such holy months. But it has gone the other way round. Indeed, more animals are being slaughtered just weeks before the holy month comes and it’s true that people will be eating meat throughout what’s supposed to be a pure and holy month. So does it mean that the ban is only about not buying and selling meat? Does it mean that we can continue to eat meat? I think we have lost the underlying purpose of the ban. Just go to any hotel or restaurant during those holy months and you will have no problem getting any type of non-vegetarian foods. Most households will have a full stock of either dried or refrigerated meat. In fact, I think people eat more meat during the holy months than during other times.

So I can clearly see a conflict between our cultural practices and religious values especially during this month. At one hand, we are celebrating the day as the beginning of another Lunar year by feasting with near and dear ones at the cost of the lives of innocent animals but on the other hand, we have a ban on the sale of meat which reminds us that as Buddhists, it’s a sin to eat meat especially considering the degree of pain and torture innocent animals are subjected to in the slaughterhouses. We proudly say Bhutan is a Buddhist nation and Buddhism is all about love and compassion but when it comes to eating meat, I am beginning to question myself how capable are we of living up to our own beliefs and words. I am just wondering if such occasions as Losars be celebrated without meat as Lo Chhoes in Wangdue Phodrang and Punakha. I still regret why I was not able to quit meat much earlier. I have been a vegetarian just over three years now and I feel morally good about my decision. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil your festive mood by reminding you of the darker realities of how each piece of the meat you are going to enjoy today is extracted. We all know about it well. In the name of Lord Buddha, I wish you Tashi Delek for the Losar and may the Almighty bless you with lots of love and happiness. Even if you are non-vegetarians, please take meat only as a medicine for your health and do not forget to pray for the souls of those doomed innocent creatures. Happy Losar to all!

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