Epic clash within an emperor: Illusions shattered, enlightenment embraced | Sunday Observer
A textual exploration of Ksheera Sagaraya Kelambina

Epic clash within an emperor: Illusions shattered, enlightenment embraced

11 June, 2023

Continued from last week

The rebel leader’s disdain for the golden coin, engraved with the emperor’s face, reflects the distorted image we often hold of our rulers. Symbolically, the face on the coin appears warped, representing the misconceptions and misperceptions we have about those in power. It is only when the rebel leader discovers that the person closest to him is the actual emperor that he bows down in acknowledgement.

However, the rebel leader still clings to his preconceived ideas about the emperor and confronts him. He places his sheaf on the emperor’s neck and questions why the latter deceived them.

In a reflective moment, the emperor responds by stating that they were both deceived. This exchange raises questions about the validity of rebellions and revolutions. The unexpected turn of events occurs when the emperor is shot by an arrow, emphasising that reality can differ from the perceived truth.

The scene invites contemplation on the nature of power and rulership. It suggests that behind the grand titles and positions, there may exist genuine human beings with virtues and flaws. It encourages us to look beyond surface impressions and consider the complexities and depths of individuals, including those in positions of authority.

In a stunning twist, the emperor finds himself betrayed by the very individual to whom he offered his royal robes. This dramatic turn of events showcases the theme of false consciousness that runs across public opinion. Both the rebel leader and the ordinary villager play a pivotal role in emphasising this theme.

The rebel leader, driven by his own agenda and disillusioned with the emperor’s rule (relayed via regional leaders), represents a misguided consciousness that seeks to dismantle the existing power structure. By shooting the emperor, the villager embodies the betrayal and deception that can arise when individuals succumb to false beliefs and misguided ideologies. A misunderstood and misguided public outrage possesses the power to overthrow an innocent head of state – Sri Lanka has experienced it first-hand.

Dream and reality

The act of the emperor handing over his wealth to his queen consort holds significant symbolism, occurring both in a dream sequence and in reality. In the dream, we witness an emperor embarking on a quest, while in reality, we observe the emperor confirming and acting upon what he has experienced. The difference between the two instances is underscored by a crucial distinction in the manner in which the wealth is relinquished.

In the realm of reality, the emperor surrenders his signet ring, which represents his sole authority over the kingdom. While the consort observes with amusement, the emperor lets go of the ring with ease and relief. This act serves as a profound portrayal of his enlightenment and inner transformation.

As he parts with his symbol of power and control willingly, the emperor signifies a profound shift in his perspective. He recognises the transience and limitations of material wealth and authority, embracing a higher understanding and freedom from attachment. The ease and relief with which he surrenders the ring reflect his liberation from the burdens of worldly possessions, highlighting his journey towards enlightenment.

This symbolic gesture emphasizes the emperor’s growth and the depth of his spiritual awakening. It serves as a reminder of the impermanence of earthly riches and the profound peace that can be attained through detachment and the realisation of higher truths.

The brochure provided at the premiere raises an intriguing point about the existence of an emperor like the one depicted in the story. Indeed, we cannot definitively ascertain whether such an emperor actually existed. Historical records are subjective and limited, offering only a written chronicle of events.

In historical accounts, there exists a possibility worth considering—that certain emperors, particularly those embodying spiritual enlightenment and the profound act of letting go, may have been unjustly overlooked or intentionally excluded.

This intriguing notion sparks a thought-provoking exploration of the untold narratives and hidden truths that lie beyond the pages of conventional history books. It invites us to question the motivations behind historical exclusions and ponder on the potential impact of these overlooked figures on our collective understanding of the past.

The writers of history may have prioritised materialistic achievements and grandeur, neglecting the spiritual glory of individuals who embraced detachment and inner transformation. Enlightened beings of this nature, on the other hand, may not have felt compelled to document their experiences and teachings for future generations. Their focus might have been on living and embodying the principles they espoused rather than leaving a written legacy.

In this context, we are encouraged to embrace the notion that truth and enlightenment can transcend historical documentation. We can choose to believe in the existence of extraordinary individuals who embody spiritual principles and inspire others through their actions, even if their stories have not been explicitly chronicled.

It urges us to consider the possibility of extraordinary beings who may have chosen to remain hidden from the pages of history, yet continue to inspire and guide us through their timeless wisdom and embodiment of higher truths.

Shedding worldly power for spiritual awakening

Indeed, in Buddhist literature, we come across mentions of a category of enlightened beings known as Pacceka Buddhas or Solitary Buddhas. Pacceka Buddhas arise during periods when there is no fully enlightened Buddha present in the world to teach the Dharma.

They attain enlightenment on their own, without the guidance of a Buddha, and they often remain in seclusion, not actively teaching others. In English translations of Buddhist literature, these beings are sometimes referred to as ‘private Buddhas’. This terminology may stem from the idea that Pacceka Buddhas attain enlightenment privately, without the public dissemination of their teachings to a large audience.

Interestingly, many of these Pacceka Buddhas were former emperors who once ruled vast empires but eventually grew disillusioned with worldly power. They chose to shed their imperial robes and embark on a solitary journey towards Pacceka Buddha enlightenment.

This intriguing aspect of their journey sheds light on the profound transformation that can occur when individuals relinquish their attachment to material wealth and prestige in pursuit of spiritual awakening.

Moreover, in Jataka tales, which recount the previous lives of the Buddha, there are instances where powerful emperors are portrayed as embodiments of spiritual virtue.

One such example is Makhadeva, an emperor who exemplifies qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and selflessness.

These accounts highlight the diverse narratives and archetypes found within Buddhist literature. They remind us that enlightenment and spiritual awakening can manifest in various forms, even within the lives of powerful rulers and leaders.

Embodying religious traditions

Throughout the film, spiritual enlightenment permeates every aspect. Yet it is the presence of the venerable bhikkhu that truly amplifies this theme. Whether the religious tradition depicted is explicitly Buddhist or related to another faith remains undisclosed. It leaves room for interpretation.

However, when the venerable bhikkhu reveals his age, surpassing a century, it serves as a powerful symbol of ancient religious traditions. It reflects the enduring nature of these age-old beliefs and their connection to the community and royalty.

Religion, in essence, acts as a bridge, linking the community with the ruling class. The clergy, represented by the venerable bhikkhu, embodies the amalgamation of community service and personal spiritual uplift. While some dedicated monks renounce worldly life entirely, opting for seclusion and retreat, others strive to strike a delicate balance.

These bhikkhus may find themselves occasionally compromising their own spiritual progress in favour of community service. This intricate dynamic highlights the inherent sacrifices and commitments that clergy undertake.

Indeed, the emperor serves as the central figure through which all these themes and nuances come to fruition. The character of the emperor acts as a conduit for exploring the multifaceted layers of power, responsibility, and personal transformation. It is through the emperor’s journey that we witness the complexities of leadership, the struggles between personal desires and societal expectations, and the delicate balance between power and humility.