Thursday, April 7, 2011

Runner-up answer to prayer


Rajapaksa (right) at the Lord Venkateswara temple in Tirupati on Saturday morning. Picture by G. Vijayalakshmi

Hyderabad, April 2: Mahinda Rajapaksa tossed up a request but Lord Balaji shouldered arms.

Sri Lanka’s Buddhist President tried to seize the initiative for his country ahead of the World Cup final by praying at Tirupati’s Hindu temple.

Although his effort went in vain, it makes Rajapaksa a rare head of state or government to have publicly visited a shrine to pray for national sporting success.

Unlike some national leaders, Rajapaksa does not have to worry about going against a secular constitution because his country does not practise separation of state and church. Some nations, such as the US, are particularly sensitive about the issue.

Just two years ago, the US Supreme Court had rejected a school football coach’s appeal to be allowed to bow and kneel during pre-match prayers by his students, holding that as a public employee, he could not mix religion with his work.

At last year’s football World Cup in South Africa, though, Ghana President John Evans Atta Mill had prayed with the national football team in their dressing room before their last-16 game with the US, which the Africans won 2-1. Ghana is technically a secular country but allows the Sharia law in Muslim-majority areas.

Indian politicians and dignitaries do visit shrines but these visits are usually projected as private trips, although the objective is often political. During foreign tours as state guests, though, they often have to visit religious places as part of their itineraries worked out by their hosts. Even the communist Jyoti Basu had to make a trip to the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal to avoid offending his hosts.

Rajapaksa, though, made the detour to the shrine of his own accord as part of a trip to India as the government’s guest. He stayed the night with his family at the temple guesthouse and later flew to Mumbai to watch the final with President Pratibha Patil.

Even secular India is not blameless when it comes to Tirupati. Six years ago, 15 Indian Space Research Organisation scientists — of all people — had travelled to the shrine to seek blessings ahead of the PSLV C-6 launch.

The communist chief minister of Kerala, V.S. Achuthanandan, whose party does not look kindly at temple visits by members even before elections, today wished the Indian team success merely through an official statement.

Rajapaksa had arrived in a Lanka government aircraft last evening, driven to the temple and had a darshan. He later had another at 3am.

Sources said Rajapaksa told Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam executive officer I.Y.R. Krishna Rao that his government wanted to contribute towards devotee welfare initiatives at Tirupati. Rajapaksa apparently asked the Devasthanam to help set up and manage a Venkateswara temple in Colombo, and provide priests for rituals.

The Tirumala shrine had witnessed VIP visits for cricketing success before, but not one by a President. Representatives had come from all the IPL teams last year.


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