Engaged Buddhism and Literature: The Art for Peace in Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost

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Author: Hsu Shounan
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,353 words

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[(essay date spring 2007) In the essay that follows, Shounan regards Anil's Ghost as centered around the notion of achieving peace, claiming that the novel serves as an extension of A. T. Ariyaratne's Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement--known as "engaged Buddhism"--whose doctrines Ondaatje utilized in an attempt to offer a peace-keeping solution for the war-torn country.]

Most critics of Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost concern themselves with the issues of justice, identity, and truth. Other critics, such as Geetha Ganapathy-Doré, treat the question of art. It is therefore surprising that, when dealing with an author who was born in Sri Lanka and whose relatives have been there for several generations, critics should approach his work about Sri Lanka predominantly from a Western point of view. Further, one cannot but wonder whether or not a writer as sensitive to postcolonial issues as Ondaatje would approach a country that has been under Western rule and influence for hundreds of years and offer his answer to the ethnic war there from a predominantly Western point of view. John Breslin notes that Ondaatje has done much research before writing this peace book (26). It is my belief that, in writing Anil's Ghost, Ondaatje could not but see that Sri Lanka is a religious country and might very well have availed himself of A. T. Ariyaratne's famous Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement as a general model to ground his answer to the ethnic war. To read Anil's Ghost with the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in mind not only enables a better grasp of Ondaatje's specific answer to the war but also sheds light on the power of literature as a supplement to Buddhist teachings.

In the following I first examine the cause of the Sri Lankan civil war and Ondaatje's understanding of it. Then I argue that Ondaatje's answer to the Sri Lankan civil war starts with self-awakening and ends in all-awakening. Self-awakening involves the ability to go beyond representation, to recognize the interdependence of living beings, and to forgive the enemy. All-awakening begins a social reform that has power not on the top in the social hierarchy, but at the bottom, and that works from the bottom up to create an anti-capitalist society of traditional values. This progress from self-awakening to all-awakening and the reform of society from the bottom up basically reflects the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement's political agenda, too. Ondaatje's special contribution lies in making Buddhist understanding artistically accessible at a time when the traditional Buddhism in Sri Lanka has become a slogan for collective identity. Also, by turning all the main characters into artificers, by compressing in Anil's ghost individuals' sufferings and sacrifices that stem from a national past, Ondaatje demonstrates how literature can effectively combine an earthly peace movement with imaginary creation.

I. Cause of the Sri Lankan Civil War and the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement

At the first sight, Ondaatje's confrontation with the Sri Lankan civil war between the majority Buddhists Sinhala and the minority Tamils, mostly Hindus, can appear as a lack of sufficient concern...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100108166