The Historical Role of Buddhism and significance of Article 9 in Sri Lanka’s Constitution


– by Shenali Waduge –

The most powerful single factor in the development of Sri Lanka has been Buddhism evidence of which is available through 2300 years of predominantly Buddhist  governance. The status quo changed only with the arrival of Western colonials in 1505 ruling, plundering and removing Buddhism from its foremost place among religions in the conquered territories of Sri Lanka, for a period of over 450 years. 2300 years of indigenous Buddhist rule against 450 years of enslaved colonial rule eventually granted independence in 1948 with the natural expectation that Buddhist national identity previously suppressed would through the newly elected Government be restored and the rightful place to Buddhism would be given while unifying and integrating the nation. The historical injustices meted out to the Buddhists and denigration of Buddhism by the colonials has to be accepted and corrected. It is histories justice to the Buddhists who looked after and preserved Sri Lanka. No one can deny the pre-dominant place of Buddhism and Buddhist rule historically and no one should demean the place of Buddhism stipulated in Article 9 of Sri Lanka’s Constitution. That pride of place cannot be usurped legislatively, constitutionally or by sporadic liberal notions out to erase historical cultural identities and change the entire demography of nations.

Buddhist Revival Movement

Let us review some historical facts.

The revival of Buddhism began in the late 19th century gathering momentum in the first half of the 20th century with Buddhist leaders like Professor Gunapala Malalsekera, and L H Mettananda among others foreseeing the opportunity to remedy the historical injustices done to the Buddhists under three western colonial powers. Thus, these outstanding figures of Sri Lanka pioneered the establishment of the Buddhist Commission of Inquiry. The aim was to collect evidence and record the grave injustices meted out to the Buddhists and thereafter proceed to rectify these historical injustices in a democratic way.

Their proposal for a State appointed Buddhist Commission to inquire into the grave injustices caused to the Buddhists was first agreed to by the then Prime Minister Mr. D. S. Senanayake but subsequently rejected  claiming it would violate the English induced Soulbury Constitution. It is said that the influential Catholic Church played a pivotal role in changing the mind of Mr. D.S. Senanayake on this issue. With no other choice, the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) under whose aegis public representations were made to the Government established the Buddhist Committee of Inquiry on 2nd April 1954 which became popularly known as the “Buddhist Commission”.

The Members of the Buddhist Commission included Prof. G.P. Malalasekera, L.H. Mettananda, Ven. Abanwelle Siddhartha, Ven. Haliyale Sumanatissa, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, Ven. Polonnaruwe Vimaladhamma, Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha, Ven. Henpitagedera Gnanaseeha, S. Kularatne, Dr.Tennekoon Wimalananda and D.C. Wijewardena.

They went virtually from village to village covering the entire country and probed the continuing system of education and other areas including employment in the state sector, the professions, the armed forces and the like  that had denied and were denying Buddhists their rightful place  in society. .

An abridged English version of the Report was published under the title “The Betrayal of Buddhism” by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. Details of the injustices suffered by the Buddhists and the recommended remedies, particularly in the realm of education were outlined. The Schools Takeover in the early sixties was an outcome of the recommendations made in the Buddhist Commission Report.

The report was finally presented to the Maha Sangha and the general public at a Meeting held at Ananda College on 4th February 1956.

The reactions of political parties to the Buddhist Commission report are noteworthy.

While the leader of the MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) Mr. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike gave a public declaration that he would implement the Committee’s proposal, if MEP was elected to power at the forthcoming General Election in April 1956, the UNP (United National Party) leader Sir John Kotelawala was found dragging his feet on the Committee’s proposals.

It was Mr. Bandaranaike’s bold and unequivocal stand that led to the Maha Sangha coming out openly in large numbers to back the MEP.

The Buddhist monks under the banner of the Eksath Bhikkshu Peramuna campaigned from house to house in support of Bandaranaike who championed the cause of the “Pancha Maha Balavegaya” (comprising Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru). It was no surprise when Mr. Bandaranaike leading the MEP swept the polls and the UNP was reduced to just 8 seats in the House. This electoral result was a watershed in the country’s history.

It must be borne in mind that it was the guarantee of rectification of the historical injustices and the persecution of the Sinhala Buddhists by the three colonial western Christian powers (1505 – 1948) rather than the promise of ‘Sinhala Only’ that captured the imagination and support of the Sangha and lay Buddhist public resulting in what may well be called the ‘Buddhist Revolution of 1956’.    

It was this same Sangha influence steered under the JHU and  other patriotic forces that took a very courageous and heroic stand at Mavil Aru in 2006 saying enough was enough and that the Sri Lankan State needed to finally take effective action against 30 years of LTTE terrorism that gave impetus for President Rajapakse to boldly lead the Sri Lankan military to declare war on the LTTE that liberated Sri Lanka of terrorism in May 2009. Thus, the leadership given to the country by Buddhists cannot be easily marginalized or forgotten. It was Buddhists and their undivided loyalty to the nation that led them to resist the colonial rulers even without sophisticated weaponry and became sacrificed in their numbers, justice for which is yet to come.

Sinhala Buddhist Kings

A country’s value is measured by its history and no one can deny the significant place of Buddhism in Sri Lanka’s history. We hold this premise to be true and all nations with similar history would join us in acknowledging this. Sri Lanka was led by approximately 180 Buddhist Kings who did not simply rule but left a legacy of heritage and culture that even modern engineering cannot match. The irrigation systems the manmade hydraulic water tanks and reservoirs are exclusive and unique. The Kings ruled following the Buddhist precepts (dasa raja dharma).

The 10 duties of the Buddhist kings are as follows:

Dana — Liberality, generosity, charity. (The ruler should not have craving and attachment for wealth and property, but should give it away for the welfare of the people.

Sila — a high moral character (He should never destroy life, cheat, steal and exploit others, commit adultery, utter falsehood, or take intoxicating drinks)

Pariccaga — sacrificing everything for the good of the people.( He must be prepared to give up all personal comfort, name and fame, and even his life, in the interest of the people)

Ajjava — honesty and integrity (He must be free from fear and favour in the discharge of his duties, must be sincere in his intentions, and must not deceive the public)

Maddava — kindness and gentleness.( He must possess a genial temperament)

Tapa — austerity of habits.( He must lead a simple life, and should not indulge in a life of luxury.  He must have self-control)

Akkodha – freedom from envy, ill-will, enmity (He should bear no grudge against anybody).

Khanti — patience, forbearance, tolerance, understanding (He must be able to bear hardships, difficulties and insults without losing his temper)

Avihimsa — non-violence, which means not only that he should harm nobody including other sentient beings, but that he should try to promote peace by avoiding and preventing war, and everything which involves violence and destruction of life.

Avirodha (non-opposition; non-obstruction) that is to say that he should not oppose the will of the people, should not obstruct any measures that are conducive to the welfare of the people. In other words he should rule in harmony with his people

The visiting Thai Prime Minister will acknowledge that the King of Thailand too follows the tenets of the Dasa Raja Dharma to this day. .

It was in 1948 after 133 years of British colonial rule and 450 years of foreign occupation that Sri Lanka was returned to the indigenous people.

The country’s demography, education system, culture had all been changed not by the indigenous people but by the foreign conquerors.  Therefore, no one can argue or oppose when the majority populace from whom the foreign invaders usurped power says they want the cultural system that existed through 2300 years to return.

On what grounds should Buddhism and Buddhist culture that existed for millennia be denied the place it held?

Sri Lanka’s Constitution – Article 9

Sri Lanka’s Constitution contains a separate chapter on Buddhism. Chapter 2 / Article 9 declares “ 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).

Article 10 – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion: 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. (this does not include a foreign culture disguised as a religion)

Article 14 (1) (e) – Freedom of Speech, assembly, association, movement:  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 or teaching;

Restrictions of these fundamental rights freedoms are given in Article 15

A lot of issues that have arisen over the years are legacies of the colonial past.

It was after the arrival of the colonial rulers that Christianity and Catholic faiths was introduced and a planned and systematic conversion of Sinhalese Buddhists took place. The Muslim traders who were all male, married Tamil women and women from South India brought for that purpose and converted them to Islam thus increasing Islamic presence. This is well recorded in history books.

While the practice of conversion and blessing for such is not advocated in religions belonging to the Hindu civilization (Buddhism and Hinduism) the Abrahamic religions (Christianity/Catholicism and Islam) rewards those who convert and those helping the process of converting primarily tapping their poverty because the handouts promised have been far more lucrative than what the Buddhists could  command  monetarily or otherwise.

It is in this context that the significance of Article 9 comes in to play. What cannot be forgotten by Sri Lankan citizenry and in particular its legislators present and future is that the place of Buddhism was not diluted by the indigenous people willfully. The place of Buddhism was incrementally taken away and it was upon independence that the rightful place of Buddhism should have been restored and why Article 9 of the Constitution demands that the Buddhist faith be fostered and protected by the State and not be victim to conversions as is presently taking place.

Therefore, the State that rules Sri Lanka virtually on the Buddhist vote must clearly demarcate what violates the constitution vis a vis Article 9. Freedoms and rights cannot overstep the place historically and culturally given to Buddhism.

Whatever freedoms and fundamental rights people are given what every person needs to at all times remember is that one’s freedoms cannot be upheld at the cost of another’s loss of freedom. Therefore, there are certainly moral boundaries that people need to be constantly aware of. The pied piper multiculturalism is simply a school of liberal thought professed and accepted without argument but has resulted in disarray of cultural structures that existed.

Multiculturalism is only a single school of thought amongst many. Countries are not ready to piggybank on ideas of ONLY liberal thinkers whose experiments have proven to be catastrophic in the wider context of its applicability. These free thinkers have upset demography, created total anarchy and when indigenous cultures protest they became the perpetrators and not the victims. No religion can argue morally quoting that people should have freedom to decide their religion when these very religions have programs to convert people to their religion.

Today, traditional churches are being replaced by a new set of organizations calling themselves “faith healers” and drawing large numbers of followers who are lured and converted using various methods. These are programs devised by their respective religions and driven by their religious followers. When such an impasse exists leaders of these religions cannot claim to use constitutional provisions to argue that people have a right to decide their faith.

Kandyan Convention of 1815

By virtue of Article 9 the State has a mandate to ensure that Buddhism maintains the “foremost” place and to do so the State cannot ignore the aspect of “converting” Buddhists to different religions and the Buddha Sasana Ministry which has State patronage must effectively address this without delay. The State and the Buddha Sasana Ministry has to protect the Buddhists from being manipulated and misled into converting and this argument cannot be taken to different directions by Abrahamic religions complaining it is denying their practice of faith. This is far from the truth. The argument is that Buddhists cannot be victims to lucrative coercions to convert from the Buddhist faith. The obvious contention is that in protecting Buddhists from conversions it will expose the ulterior objectives of those converting. There is nothing in Sri Lanka’s constitution that permits conversions.

If people can practice their different faiths without issues why would they want to create issues by going after an Article that has been part and parcel of Sri Lanka’s history and given explicit recognition in Article 5 of the Kandyan Convention of 1815.

Article 5 states that the religion of the Buddha is declared inviolable, and its rites, ministers (monks) and places of worship are to be maintained and protected. The Kandyan Convention was an agreement signed on the 10th of March 1815 between the British and the Chiefs of the Kandyan Kingdom,

The oft used arguments to denounce the majority and denigrate Article 9 is the hype associated with the slogan of “institutionalized majoritism” being chanted in cohesion to bring pressure on the State to evade their duty and to instead please the world.

There is another set of chants that say Sri Lanka’s Article 9 is not in keeping with the times and not “liberal” enough. The only message to be given to these liberalists is that Constitutions are not made to reflect the fashion of the day given that even fashions change every season! We do not want to subject ourselves to multicultural fevers that other nations now suffer so we prefer to simply throw the bathtub and the water.

The Constitution is clear. The foremost place of Buddhism is clearly defined. The Sri Lankan State and its emissaries in the form of all public officials are morally and constitutionally mandated to uphold Article 9 first.

Sri Lanka’s Role in guiding the destiny of Buddhism

Today, Buddhism has a greater appeal in the West due to an increasing number of people in these countries showing a preference for a philosophy and ethical system that places a high emphasis on peace, non – violence and compassion towards all sentient beings.

In Asia, it is an opportune time for pre-dominant Buddhist populations to consider developing closer ties with each other in the spheres of economic, cultural, and trade and investment. When at international levels a large number of nations form alliances on the basis of regional proximity, common cultural heritage or common religion (ex: Organization of Islamic Cooperation – OIC, World Council of Churches and the State of Vatican on behalf of the World’s Catholics) the world cannot deny a League of Buddhist Nations. In fact, Sri Lanka’s Government and the Thai Premier meeting at the end of this month must have this as a high priority item on their agenda.

In such a context the Government of Sri Lanka which is empowered by Article 9 to foster Buddhism should take an initiative towards forming a ‘League of Buddhist Nations’ in the international arena to become the collective voice of the Buddhists and work to safeguard and protect the interests of the Buddhist world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony.