Phalang Pracharath MP Parina Kraikup said the artworks, drawn by an unnamed student from the northeast and later displayed in an exhibition, deeply offended her Buddhist faith. The student herself tearfully apologized Saturday, saying she only wanted to show a battle of good and evil.
“I strongly disagree with this,” reads a Facebook post by Parina. “For me, seeing this makes me uncomfortable, because I am a Buddhist.”
“There are weird things creeping into our society these days, entering into our tradition, our courts, our monarchy, and now Buddhism,” Parina continued. “I demand answers from the teachers involved in these paintings. What happened to your fourth-year student?”
The paintings in question pasted Buddha’s head on the body of the Japanese superhero “Ultraman” in various poses, with a Louis Vuitton monogram in the background.
Parina was not the only one to lash out at the images in the latest row that pits traditional Buddhism against modern interpretations. Other government officials and hardline Buddhists also called them inappropriate.
“The paintings are hurting the feelings of Buddhists,” cultural minister Ittipol Khunpluem said. “I understand that it’s an expression of creativity, but I think it’s inappropriate because it’s mockery to religion.”
The paintings were initially displayed at Terminal 21 shopping mall in downtown Bangkok, but they have since been removed. The controversy also sent the hashtag #UltramanBuddhaStatue trending on Thai Twitter over the weekend.
“Too much freedom isn’t good. Our society has rules and customs. The teachers should have used their judgement to caution their students before such paintings were released and criticized,” Facebook user Yan Noombaankrai Huajaihugjing commented in a news thread.
“What religion does she adhere to? Why doesn’t she understand what is appropriate? She shouldn’t play with what people pay homage to,” another Facebook user Naphat Srimuang wrote.
The artist, who reportedly studies at Nakhonratchasima Rajabhat University, said she had no intention to mock the country’s most popular religion. Rather, she wanted to represent Buddha as a hero.
“I just wanted to show Buddha as a hero like Ultraman, who can resist the temptations surrounding him and also protect human beings from evil to keep the world at peace,” the student said in tears on Saturday in a formal apology to a senior monk.
Nakhon Ratchasima governor Wichien Chantharanotha said he has ordered all educational institutions in the province to inspect student works before making them public.
But famed artist and Buddhist designer Chalermchai Kositpipat said he saw nothing offensive in the Buddha-Ultraman paintings.
“The kid didn’t put Buddha’s head over a villain like Satan. She put it on a most virtuous character like Ultraman. What’s wrong with that?” Chalermchai, whose works include the Buddhist-inspired landmark White Temple, said in an online video.
“It’s ridiculous to see it as an insult to religion,” he continued. “Bringing her to apologize will affect [the creativity] of all youth in the nation … No one will dare to unleash their creativity. They will simply stay in the box and repeat the same interpretations of Buddha.”
Even a monk took to Facebook to calm fellow devotees down.
“I ask everyone to see what’s behind these weird images. What is the artist trying to present?” Phra Paivan Wannabud wrote in a post. “We shouldn’t look at the images alone and begin to criticize without considering the artist’s interpretation.”
Buddhism is generally treated with utmost respect in Thailand, where over 95 percent of the population follows the faith.
Unorthodox or satirical depictions of Buddhist imagery or holy men have often sparked backlash, from a movie scene with a monk crying, images of a ripped monk, to a Buddha statue lying on its back.
While Thailand has no formal national religion, several constitutional clauses require the state to “protect and uphold” Buddhism. Mockery of religious figures are also punishable by up to seven years in jail.