Buddhism & Politics in Sri Lanka


A review of Ruling Religion: Buddhism, Politics and Law in Contemporary Sri Lanka, by Benjamin Schonthal.

A legacy of colonial rule, a civil war persisting for over two decades, and the emergence of monastic parliamentarians are just some of the problems that have complicated the relationship between religion and politics in Sri Lanka throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries. While many studies have interrogated the construction of ethnicity, the ascendancy of fundamentalism, and the growth of nationalism, no previous study has attempted to take the approach employed by Benjamin Schonthal in his groundbreaking dissertation. Schonthal looks to the ways in which religion, politics, and the law have become intimately entangled in the language of the national constitution of Sri Lanka itself.

As Schonthal makes clear in his introduction, the complicated relationship between religion, politics, and the law is not endemic to Sri Lanka, but rather a symptomatic problem of modernity around the globe. Schonthal’s many comparisons to constitutional and legal controversies involving religion in other countries, including India and the United States, help to situate his study within a broader and quite timely context. Following John Comaroff, Schonthal questions whether we might be in “an age of ‘theo-legality’,” and notes that the Sri Lankan case has much to tell scholars of other locales (p. 5).

The concept of “ruling religion,” developed by Schonthal, refers to efforts “to determine and canonize formal legal rules through which governments may effectively and legitimately rule over a religiously diverse citizenry” (p. 3). In the case of Sri Lanka, this refers to the government’s efforts to “rule over” an especially diverse population of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others within a democracy. While Buddhists form the majority of the nation’s population, the difficulties in “ruling religion” do not derive simply from an effort to manage the majoritarian force of Buddhists against the need for minority rights. There is a peculiar problem here, and Schonthal turns to an historical analysis of the language employed in the nation’s constitution, and the history behind its development, in order to better understand and critically assess the intricacies of law and religion in the country.

The portion of the current constitution that informs this study is Chapter II, Article 9, which reads:

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 [Buddhist institution], while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e) (p. 14).

Article 10 provides for “the rights of individuals 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) confirms “the rights of citizens to ‘manifest’ religion in ‘worship, observance, practice or teaching’ in a group or alone, in public or in private” (p. 14). For Schonthal, the inherent discord visible among these statements reveals how the constitution “packages evasion in the guise of resolution” (p. 17). In other words, the fact that Buddhism is to be given “the foremost place” within the nation while the government is charged to simultaneously maintain the freedom of religion for all signals an evasive tactic by which two distinct understandings of religion, a Buddhist-centric and a Classical Liberal, have been combined in order to mollify their proponents rather than denote a clear winner in the debate. The result, as Schonthal goes on to prove, is that:

[A]ttempts in Sri Lanka to harmonize religious interests through drafting, revising and applying constitutional law have produced precisely the opposite of what academics (and lawmakers) predicted: they have deepened and preserved the very conflicts that they were designed to reconcile (p. 9).

In the first chapter, Schonthal examines the history behind the drafting of (at that time) Ceylon’s first independent constitution (the 1948 Constitution) throughout the 1940s. In doing so, he categorizes three contrasting approaches to ruling religion: “the preventative, protectionist and promotional” (p. 33). Those taking a preventative approach sought: “to prevent the introduction of partisan religious sentiments into political and legal institutions” (p. 33). The protectionist stance “aimed to protect the religious rights of individuals,” and the promotional approach “sought a constitution that actively promoted the vitality of Buddhism and would repeal or revise any existing laws that appeared to disadvantage Buddhist monks or laymen” (p. 33).

Through a careful analysis of the documents stemming from the Ceylon National Congress and the correspondence of individuals associated with (or in some instances critical of) the Congress, Schonthal deftly evaluates the varied discourses on religion and the constitution in play during these formative years. He focuses particularly on D.S. Senanayake and Ivor Jennings (preventative), the Young Turks who opposed them in the CNC (protectionist), and the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (promotional). Schonthal carefully acknowledges that these three approaches were not “entirely separate alternatives,” and that “there were many politicians and religious leaders, pre- and post-1948, who were sympathetic to multiple models and who preferred to blend elements of all three” (p. 76). Yet, he argues that each of these distinct approaches “proved remarkably durable in the twentieth-century history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, each providing a different roadmap for the ideal goals and rubrics for ruling religion and realizing religious freedom” (p. 77). Ultimately, the preventative paradigm of Jennings and Senanayake would prevail in the 1948 Constitution, but all three approaches, Schonthal contends, continued to shape and inform future discourses on religion and law in the country for the remainder of its history.

In his second chapter, Schonthal investigates the period in between the framing of the first constitution of an independent Ceylon in 1948 and the second constitution, which emerged for (a renamed) Sri Lanka in 1972. Here, debates over revising the 1948 Constitution’s language on religion occurring throughout the 1950s and 1960s, to satisfy either protectionist or promotional views, receive a careful study in two parts. Schonthal shows how politicians during these decades “became increasingly vocal in their commitments to ruling religion, but equally indecisive and ineffective in articulating how, precisely, abstract paradigms might be implemented” (p. 80).

The career of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike features prominently in the first part of this chapter. Considering how many scholars of religion and politics in Sri Lanka (Tambiah, Scott, Seneviratne, DeVotta, etc.) mark Bandaranaike’s victory in the 1956 elections as a major turning point in Sinhala ethno-nationalist dominance, Schonthal provides a much-needed reassessment. He interprets Bandaranaike’s impact through a narrative of his efforts (and ultimate failure) to simultaneously, and perhaps naively, promote Buddhism and ensure the ‘fundamental rights’—here informed by an Indian model—of all citizens through constitutional reform, which Schonthal reads as a protectionist endeavor. In doing so, he provides a novel look at the dilemmas Bandaranaike and his party faced at the dawn of an emergent Sinhala nationalism.

The second part of this chapter explores developments in the 1960s, especially a Joint Committee, headed by the United National Party (UNP) to revise the constitution. Here, Schonthal notes how “one sees evidence, for the first time, of a growing concern over how might one reconcile the idea that the government ought to give Buddhism a special place while insuring equal rights and nondiscrimination for other religious groups” (p. 131). That is, the tensions, which Schonthal has pointed out were present in the very founding of the 1948 Constitution, began to find a widening public recognition and to enter more fully into political discourse at this time. Yet, it would not be until the 1970s that such tensions led to a new constitution.

The drafting of the second constitution for the island—the first Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka—ratified in 1972, is the topic of Schonthal’s third chapter. Specifically, he sees the Buddhism section of this constitution, or Chapter II, as employing a “grammar of evasion,” a strategy that hoped to incorporate the competing views on religion and the state that had emerged since the original 1948 Constitution without privileging one view over another (p. 137). As Schonthal states “Chapter II produced in rhetoric what could not be produced through politics: a common ground between two opposing visions [protectionist and promotional] of law, religion and the state” (p. 136). This chapter of the dissertation comes in four parts, each concerned with a different point in the chronology of the formation of the constitution’s Buddhism section: earliest proposals and drafts, public responses, debates in the Constituent Assembly, and the finalizing of the chapter. The variety of archival sources (in English, Sinhala, and Tamil) that Schonthal draws from here, including speeches, letters, proposals, memoranda, etc.—most of them largely ignored by scholars of religion and politics until now—provides a wealth of new information regarding the nature of the debates that surged around the place of religion and the state in late twentieth century Sri Lanka.

The fourth chapter of the dissertation moves away from the history of constitutional production and into an investigation of the ways in which the constitution has been used in a variety of litigations post-1972. In the first part of this chapter, Schonthal reviews two important facets of the context surrounding these proceedings: “the joint-rise of militant Tamil separatism and ‘territorialized’ Buddhist nationalism; and a change in the governing ideology of the state between the 1970s and 1980s from welfare socialism to economic liberalism” (p. 209). The second part of the chapter draws from around fifteen different court cases that invoke the Buddhism section of the constitution to protect Buddhism from perceived threats. Schonthal classifies these cases into four types based on the different understandings or, as Schonthal describes them, idioms, regarding what needs protection: Buddhist autonomy from the state, orthopraxy, sacred places, and protection from profanation. The court documents, newspaper articles, and interviews that Schonthal utilizes here provide a rich and well-textured reading of the cases. This chapter concludes that each case contains a similar “claim that a certain bill or a certain government initiative contravenes or is likely to contravene constitutional duties to protect and foster Buddhism” and that the litigants are also a relatively homogenous set of “Buddhist petitioners includ[ing] persons representing and/or affiliated with prominent Colombo lay-Buddhist organizations, such as the ACBC, YMBA or SUCCESS” (p. 257).

The final chapter before the conclusion investigates one especially tendentious issue, religious conversion, in an effort to understand how constitutional law has affected Sri Lankans’ understandings of religious difference. Schonthal examines various proposals aimed at managing the conversion of a person to another religious tradition, largely from Buddhism to a form of Christianity (often Pentecostal). The efforts of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) to enact a bill prohibiting unethical conversions feature prominently in this chapter of the dissertation. Schonthal concludes that these debates on conversion reveal how Sri Lankans “remained trapped within two opposing modes of religious governance embedded in Sri Lanka’s constitution, neither of which could be exclusively affirmed and neither of which could be exclusively denied” (p. 322). That is, since the mode of governance holding that Buddhism should receive a privileged place and be actively fostered by the state coincides with the competing ideals of religious freedom and equality, the constitution actually promotes such conflicts on conversion and has no real means of allowing the law to negotiate and settle such grievances adequately.

In the conclusion, Schonthal reiterates his major points, but he also makes a call to scholars of religion and politics in other settings to “look for and scrutinize instances of legal evasion in other projects of ruling religion around the world” (p. 331). He draws helpful comparisons between the Sri Lankan case and those of other regions, such as Sudan, where the rule of law, or more precisely the effort to rule religion, has not forestalled or prevented conflict but has actually and ironically “been a project through which social, political, religious divisions have been deepened, hardened, fixed, rendered more absolute and more acrimonious” (p. 343).

This dissertation presents a novel approach to the study of religion and politics in general, even as it provides a tremendous amount of insight and new information for the study of religion and politics in Sri Lanka specifically. I believe Schonthal, upon publication of this work, has the potential to inspire further studies of law and religion in other settings, and his unique ability to conjoin legal studies with the study of religion certainly serves as a way to reinvigorate each field and to promote an interesting and potentially fruitful set of interdisciplinary discussions for the future.

Jonathan Young
Department of History
The College of the Holy Cross

Primary Sources

The Constitutions of Ceylon (1948) and Sri Lanka (1972)
Sri Lankan National Archives
Sri Lankan Parliamentary Library
University of Colombo Library
University of Peradeniya Library

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 362 pp. Primary Advisor: Wendy Doniger.

Image: Monk in front of Big Buddha statue in Weherahena Temple. Wikimedia Commons.

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