Continued constitutional recognition of the preeminence of Buddhism is no threat to the secular status of the Sri Lankan state
Posted on August 18th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

Fears have been expressed by concerned groups and individuals that the special place now enjoyed by Buddhism in the Constitution is likely to be done away with as part of the reforms proposed by the experts appointed to advise the government based on public representations. But government ministers confidently dismiss such concerns out of hand. Important though the subject of the place of Buddhism in the Constitution is, it should not be allowed to be used as a red herring for deflecting attention from other more pressing central issues that should be tackled during the imminent constitution making process to be launched by the current regime. As for this alleged constitutional threat to Buddhism, we can rest assured that there is nothing like that in the offing.

The existing republican constitution (as amended up to 15th May 2015, i.e., inclusive of 19A, the latest of its periodical amendments) declares Sri Lanka to be a unitary state. Chapter II (i.e., Article 9) concerns us here:

‘The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).’

Chapter III is headed ‘Fundamental Rights’, where Article 10 is as follows:

‘Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.’

And Article 14 (1) (e) is that ‘Every citizen is entitled to-

the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching;’

Some liberal scholars and politicians talk about a so-called Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism, which, according to them, has called forth answering fundamentalisms from minority groups. These theorists hold it responsible for the presence of the current ethnic problem that constantly undermines the political and economic stability of the nation state. The final report on Public Representations on Constitutional Reform (PRCR) (May 2016) attributes the present troubles to the so-called ethno-nationalism of different groups. Critics often feel that the reformers are targeting to neutralize the supposed ethno-nationalism of the majority community (which is, no doubt, another name for ‘Sinhala- Buddhist fundamentalism’ ) by modifying or suppressing altogether its various  manifestations, the ‘supremacy’ accorded to Buddhism being one.

The article in the current constitution that guarantees special recognition to Buddhism is viewed at least in three different ways: some think that such constitutional provision for Buddhism’s protection and growth is absolutely essential in view of the historical link between the Sinhalese, the country, and Buddhism; some subscribe to the view that though it is not necessary, it should be retained as a politically neutral feature that nevertheless symbolizes the predominant Buddhist culture of the country; a third group, perhaps a minority, opposes the continued inclusion of that article on the ground that, in their view, it harms the expected secular character of the country’s democratic government system, and that it institutionalizes discrimination against other religions. Conceptual misunderstandings also cause trouble. Public confusion over the concept of a ‘secular state’ in this context largely accounts for the controversy. The Sinhala translation of the word ‘secular’ as ‘anaagamika’ ‘not religious’, which is usually misunderstood as something immoral or bad adds to the confusion.

Chapters 4 (titled ‘Religion’) of the PRCR report deals directly with the problem we are talking about here. According to the report, three main positions were submitted before the committee: that the state should foster and protect Buddhism, which was countered by the view that the state should be secular, i.e., religion should remain outside the purview of the State, and the third position that all religions should be equally recognized and protected by the State, and hence the title of the relevant chapter in the Constitution should be ‘Religions’, and not ‘Buddhism’ as in the current one. Five of the six recommendations that the experts make (to be presented to the constituent assembly for debate) are for retaining the place of Buddhism in some form or other. The only incongruent one is No iv: ‘Sri Lanka shall be a secular State’. But, during submissions, it was pointed out that the Supreme Court on some occasions had stated that despite Chapter II and Article 9, Sri Lanka is a secular state. (This means that the mere inclusion (in the constitution) of the particular article conferring preeminence to Buddhism, given its unique character as a ‘religion’, does not make the State a Buddhist theocracy. So the secularists’ attack on that provision is unwarranted. – RRW). The preponderance of opinion in Chapter 4 of the PRCR report is in favour of retaining the article that grants Buddhism its special status, though with some explicit terms added that assure other religions equal rights (which is in effect what we already have).

For the majority of the majority Sinhalese, the matter is important because of the long established historical relationship that exists between the Sinhalese, the island, and the Buddha sasana (the Buddhist dispensation), something other ethnic and religious communities also recognize. This unique triad of a people, a land, and a moral philosophy fused into  an indissoluble organic unity forms the civilisational core of Sri Lanka’s identity as a unitary state. It is the civilization of an island people protected by the most powerful defence known to humankind, the sea, which also afforded the inhabitants of this island, as it did in the case of other insular peoples, the medium for the widest global reach achieved in their history (as evidenced by the advent of Sinhalese ambassadors in the Roman court during the reign of emperor Claudius [41-54 CE], trade ships from Sinhale to Egypt about the same time, Sinhalese Buddhist missionaries in China and other far eastern countries, visits of foreign travelers, and adventurers, exchange of scholars between local and foreign centres of learning, and Sinhalese architectural influence found in edifices built in Thailand and Cambodia , to cite just a few random examples that come to mind); the sea also made them separate, proudly independent, and watchful, and jealously cautious of foreign attention. (Concerns raised about the proposed Hanuman Bridge must be viewed against that ‘insular’ history.) But the Buddhist values that they shared with other nations made them broadminded, cosmopolitan, and inclusive towards minorities.

Such is their Buddhist heritage that still informs the broad cultural milieu of Sri Lanka irrespective of different ethnic, religious, and other social identities freely and unselfconsciously asserted and enjoyed by coexisting groups of people that compose its population.

At a ceremony of Buddhist monks held at the Sri Sambodhi Viharaya in Colombo about three weeks back to felicitate the newly appointed Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter, the Most Ven. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thera,  the Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith commented on the profound influence of Buddhism on the life and culture of all the people of our country. Speaking in Sinhala, he said: In Sri Lanka, there is a certain reality, something that affects the lives of us all. That reality is the Buddha’s teaching. The very air that we breathe is saturated with it. Whatever religion we profess, the shared heritage of this country, the essence of life in this country, its nucleus, is the Buddhist philosophy …… therefore we cannot set it aside; so, we don’t accept this secular state concept.” (Here he was implicitly referring to the alleged suggestion that the article in the existing Constitution that grants a special place to Buddhism be modified, replaced or removed in terms of the proposed reforms.) The new Mahanayake Thera also warned the powers that be not to try to impose on the country foreign inspired revisions that are detrimental to Buddhism and the nation. The Archbishop showed concurrence with the views of the Buddhist prelate. He solemnly pledged to work in brotherhood with the monks for the spiritual and moral uplift of all the people of the country. The Cardinal further said: We will not leave West’s human rights concepts to submerge our cultural heritage, or abandon it (in favour of those secular values). No human rights are realizable without (the support of) religion.” In conclusion, the Cardinal reiterated his readiness to cooperate with the monks in tackling such issues.

Our highest respect and reverence are due to the Right Reverend Malcolm Ranjith for expressing those generous sentiments. There is no doubt in my mind that the monks reciprocated those feelings. What better evidence could we adduce to prove that that there is not the sort of religious disharmony here that foreign meddlers wish there were so they could pursue their own agendas? His Eminence the Cardinal’s words light a beacon for the ship of the Sri Lankan state currently sailing through troubled waters.

9 Responses to “Continued constitutional recognition of the preeminence of Buddhism is no threat to the secular status of the Sri Lankan state”

  1. plumblossom Says:

    I would urge anyone with any influence whatsoever over these yahapalanaya government idiots if they know any of them personally, especially Sirisena, Ranil, CBK and Mangala traitors, please convey to them that the over 65,000 Sinhala people and their decedents ethnically cleansed from the North and the over 16,000 Sinhala people and their descendants ethnically cleansed from Batticaloa, all of who would now amount to over 1.3 lakhs of Sinhala people ethnically cleansed in the 1980s by the LTTE and Prabhakaran be resettled in the North and in the East immediately.

    What is unfortunately happening today is that the TNA racists are threatening the 32,000 Sinhala people living in the North at present to leave. This is called ethnic cleansing and it should be condemned totally. Not only this, even Sinhala university students who are studying at Jaffna University are being beaten up and threatened. This is totally unacceptable. Sinhala villagers are threatened by racist TNA councillors not to complain to the media about being harassed by the TNA. Other Sinhala villagers are being coerced and threatened by the TNA to sell their land and leave which they are increasingly doing, unfortunately.

    The only way that there would be lasting peace in Sri Lanka is if thousands of Sinhala people are settled in the North and even in the East. When people live side by side, by this I mean Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, there is much more harmony and peace and as a result development. This is the only way that peace and harmony will happen in Sri Lanka.

  2. Lorenzo Says:

    Secular?

    Why should SL be secular? Everyone has the same rights. That is all we need.

    What is the problem HINDUSTAN, SAUDISTAN and AMERICANISTAN people have with Buddhism?

  3. Nanda Says:

    Buddhism guarantees equal status to all human beings plus animals too. Buddhism teaches this birth Sinhalaya can be a Demala next birth – no other religion teaches that. What else you need ?

  4. Nimal Says:

    All religions taken serious divide people,bring conflicts and are exploited by the politicians like in SL to con people.We could do without it and to usher secularism is best for all communities.UK is an good example of a decent and a fair country for it’s citizens.We must promote UK as standard as I think decades ahead for the world we live,just as my contribution to cutting technology that one enjoy,even in a remote village.
    So glad to see so many taken up to the internet using their mobiles etc.When they come to realize the good world and standards that are enjoyed in developed countries abroad,they themselves will demand the same standards.Internet will unite the cultures,people and eventually the nations. Just in a matter of time……It’s inevitable.Then there will be a day of reckoning for wrong doers,just as in UK at present.In UK people are trying to fine tune the system even further.Many visitors to that country are amazed.
    One must realized and observed how Cameron resigned over simple ill judgement over Bexit and compare that to our greedy politicians where they don’t know when to get off when thrown out of politics.Truly shameful and this seems to be our culture we boast so much about.Hope the first world will impose their will by force on the suffering people of the poor nations.

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Sri Lanka should stop allowing the building of religious edifices.

    Land Claims are made through religious edifices, and it is not for Buddhists, though Lanka is a mainly Buddhist country. Lanka is too small a place (25,000 sq miles) for such games. Buddhists are loosing land, ever since 1505 to date.

    Better safe than sorry.

  6. Ananda-USA Says:

    Dear Nihal,

    UK a secular country? That IS NEWS to me!

    I am pretty certain it is not a secular country.

    It is, in fact, an Anglican Christian nation, officially recognizing the Anglican Faith as the State religion. It is a religion headed by Queen Elizabeth II the reigning monarch as the Defender of the Faith … meaning the Church of England …. in addition to being the Defrnder of the Realm …. with every official act solemnised by swearing on the King James bible, with most important government positions, including the post of constitutional monarch, reserved for Anglican Christians.

    Why do you think these reservations, and inmumerable others I have not identified here, exist IF NOT TO PRESERVE THE PRE-EMINENCE of the Anglican Christian Faith in the UK?

    I say, MORE POWER TO THE BRITISH who want to preserve their British ways! It is quite right and altogether proper to do so.

    It is in the same vein that the British voted to leave the EU: to preserve their unique way of life from unelected foreign bureaucrats legislating from Brussels without any regard for British culture and British values that the British hold dear! May they long prosper!

    Likewise, Sri Lanka should maintain BUDDHISM as the Pre-Eminent Faith of Sri Lanka and PRESERVE & PROTECT our Sinhala Buddhist culture and Sinhala Buddhist value permanently as thongs we the vast majority of the people of Sri Lanka hold dear. May we, the Sri Lankan nation long prosper!

    Meanwhile, as in Britain, freedom of worship should be guaranteed in Sri Lanka, as we hsve done since indeprndence in 1948, as they do TODAY (but not in the past when slaughter of people of other religions by drawing, quartering, and beheading by the state, and by burning at the stake by the churches was quite popular) in Britain!

    But Nimal, the UK is not a valid example of a SECULAR nation, it is the PERFECT COUNTER-EXAMPLE among democracies!

  7. Ananda-USA Says:

    Oops,

    I meant to say “Dear Nimal” and not “Dear Nihal”!

    My cell phone auto-corrections are driving me bats! My profuse apologies, Nimal!

  8. Nimal Says:

    Ananda
    UK is is truly a secular state you can ever get.Queen could be the head of state or head of the church of England but that doesn’t get in the way of people’s freedom to live the way they want with in the law.
    I hardly know Englishman who who goes to any church,in fact none at all, where over 50 I easily associate with.We too have created a Buddhist Association a couple of decades ago nearby and the followers only believe in the basic teachings that is sufficient enough.They follow the teachings without any frills and superstitions and gladly people in the street unknowingly follow the basic teachings as well that makes the country very civil,tolerant,respectful,etc.but it is very much lacking in SL.
    So come to UK and see for your self and every visitor from SL,once given a tour agree with me and some of them are politicians.
    Here is a good example.I met a very rich Senegalese business man who made his millions in France and decided to give up his residency in France and is now living in London and in his conversation he said if one ask a French cop to take a snap with him the cop will be suspicious and ask for his ID and even immigration status,in Senagal he will get a beaten and arrested and in US the cop refused and put his hand on his hand gun while in UK the police will be respectful and happily obliged.My son is a cop and he seems to oblige at least one person in a day and they avoid if they could any tourist areas as they are truly tired of it.
    My way of gauging the country is the way the politicians move about daily like going to the parliament on foot in spite of great danger to them from the Islamic terrorists.They all take that risk to prove to the people that they truly represent the people in so many ways and non play with the religion fool the people.
    30 years ago they had reservations about giving my rightful place(rank) according to my ability and qualifications,etc.
    In every APR my bosses found an excuse or two to deny it but being an understanding and a tolerant person push my self to get on first with the immediate colleagues who were not receptive at first but I broke the barriers gradually where in one occasion they boasted about their kids having a bust up at the football terraces during the weekends.They boast about this as if it was something of an achievement.It seems their kids never took education serious and felt sad and told them that the English people were so great once they ruled the world and the sun never set on their empire and now they have come to the gutter level where they have only a barmy army as a role model,feeling sad I have decided to leave my worldly comforts of a paradise and come to rescue them from their own folly as an appropriation of what good they did to us in Ceylon.
    My colleagues were watching me closely while I put myself above them in my work without ruffling feathers and they began to exercise their few brain cells and one day I was invited to a wedding and their wives were curious about what have been saying to their husbands during the work where I emphasized that their kids should be educated to meet the new and up and coming technological world or they will be left behind like leapers in society.They took my message and a decade later they were boasting about their children’s education and eventually the good jobs they have got which is the constant topic of our several get together where they come miles to be with me in central London.One time hostile colleagues at the pub after a drink where everyone is relaxed agreed with my line manager who too had a drink that I should get a managerial post and the colleagues were comfortable with me at the new post.With my business skills acquired from SL was able to persuade the people at the top to increase the budget and bravely move in to new cutting edge fields and we never looked back with so much money in our pockets.Today I am their role model and a role model to my son too, where two years ago we were held back in SL due to urgent medical procedure and all my son’s wedding ceremonies and receptions were all arranged by his English colleagues which I couldn’t done better and we stepped out of the plane to his wedding.
    So if you bark the tree the right way the world is your Oyster and out of my businesses I own,the worst performing is in SL and the other which I have a Sri Lankan.Other two are run by them without a hitch.
    People like Tilak knows me,I hope, and I do not seek publicity which is against the true teachings of the great teacher.Good day to you Sir.

  9. Nimal Says:

    Sorry for my grammar as I am always in a hurry,wished a day had more than 24 hours.I am sickened by the bickering between the politicians.Why can’t they compromise,come to a settlement of some kind for the sake of the country,rectify the wrong past and work together?
    Much to be done to improve the country.

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