July 31-- With Ramadan and Khao Phansa coinciding this year, Southeast Asians have had a rare chance to celebrate two great religious festivals at the same time
Gold leaf is pressed onto a Buddha statue by a devotee at a temple in Bangkok
on Asahara Bucha day on July 22. Asahara Bucha marks the Buddha
The ongoing observation of Ramadan fasting from dawn to dusk by Thai Muslims, and Thai Buddhists' entrance into the religious period of Khao Phansa (Pali, vassa) - the three-month rains retreat for monks and laity on the path to seeking enlightenment - are both seasons for religious reflection and humane acts. The humane aspect of all religious rituals gets eclipsed as adherents of religions focus solely on the differences of their content, often resulting in conflict or the manipulation of religion for ulterior motives.
The goals of Ramadan and Khao Phansa are to instill a spirit and sense of mercy and compassion towards all beings. Ramadan is a month of appreciating God's mercy in the form of abundance of resources for our comfort, by practicing mercy and sharing and charity towards others. Unfortunately, interpretations of religions obscure the universal intent of these religious events. They tend to be interpreted along ethno-religious lines, resulting in socio-religious exclusivism. Such a reductive approach to the rituals of festivals like Ramadan, Khao Phansa or Christmas often blur their sacred and humane dimensions.
The contemporary age of globalisation, rooted in commercialism and a technocratic approach to living, is reducing religions to a calendar of rituals performed every year. Religions become reduced to racial, tribal and communal identities, as seen in the rise of many identity based conflicts such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, southern Thailand and the Philippines. In many countries it is also reflected in xenophobia against immigrants.
Karen Armstrong, a scholar of world religions, sees compassion as the common ground between religions. Compassion transcends religious, ideological and national differences. It can help restore compassionate thinking as inspiration for a compassionate religious, moral and political life. Compassion builds empathy; it is the core of all religious and ethical systems. Non practice of compassion is a source of injustice, conflict and violence.
Religious rituals, as a source of religious experience, are the grounds for building compassion. Religious rituals based upon the examples set by the founders of religions give meaning to life. They represent the expressive and participatory aspects of a religion. As transformative experiences, rituals represent the socio-psychological and the cultural face of religions. Rituals connect the individual with the sacred; they renew life, enabling us to be fully human.
All religions prescribe fasting as a means to form character. The objective of Islamic fasting is to nurture the practice of mercy and compassion. Fasting in Islam constitutes total abstention from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse from dawn until dusk, and is directed toward two aims: self discipline and empathy towards other members of society, in caring for the poor and the needy.
The goal of fasting is to encourage piety and thanksgiving. The Prophet Muhammad remarked that fasting is an act of sacrifice, which leads to the forgiveness of sins. Fasting builds deep spirituality. All physically healthy Muslims who have attained puberty are obliged to fast. Those who are sick, pregnant or travelling are exempted. Children, the very elderly and the incurably sick are also exempted.
Reduced intake of food calms passions and emotions, resulting in an increase of patience, forbearance, steadfastness and discipline. Fasting teaches humility and modesty, removing arrogance and developing a consciousness of God.
The Muslim fast builds social and spiritual solidarity and respect between Muslims and their non-Muslim friends and neighbours. Ramadan is a month of concentrated worship and charity. Well-to-do Muslims distribute zakat - a poor tax amounting to 1 or 2 per cent of their annual income - as charity to the poor and needy. The Koran prescribes zakat to be distributed to all without discrimination, for there is no religious difference in the human pangs of hunger and need.
The Zakat offerings are for the poor and needy, those who work to collect them, those whose hearts are brought together, the ransoming of slaves, debtors, in God's way, and the traveller; so God ordains; God is all-knowing, all-wise (Koran 9:60).
The end of Ramadan is celebrated as the festival of Id al-Fitr (the festival marking the end of fasting). The day is marked by joyful celebration, exchanges of visits and expression of joy at the fruitful completion of the Ramadan fast.
This year is a rare occasion when Southeast Asian Muslims and Buddhists celebrate Ramadan and Khao Phansa at the same time. This is due to the two festivals converging according to the lunar and sonilunar calendars. This year's concurrence may not have been widely noted because of the predominantly ethno-religious profiles of Islam and Buddhism in the region. It is time to start transcending this ethno-religious mindset if ASEAN is to become an integrated community of 600 million people of diverse backgrounds, with many sub-minorities among them.
Such an initiative has to be undertaken as an educational project at all levels in both the religious and secular spheres. It requires introducing a broader humanist understanding of what constitutes ethnicity, language, culture and religion, and to promote the acceptance of religious pluralism by shifting from the current misgivings about such pluralism and inter-religious dialogue that prevails among the official religious bodies of several countries in the region. Understanding and appreciation of religious events will contribute to building peace and reducing conflict, which does not only result from economic disparities.
Ramadan and Khao Phansa are times for contemplation, meditation and mercy and compassion - which, hopefully, are not just practiced for a short period until the festivals return next year.
Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf is director of the Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, the College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.