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FOCUS September 1997 Volume 9

Articulating Human Rights in the Context of Buddhist Ethics in Sri Lanka

(This article is a short version of the research report from Sri Lanka on the cultural values and human rights project of HURIGHTS OSAKA. - Editor's note)


What would be attempted in this paper can be formulated in an abstract fashion as follows: Are notions of human rights as they are articulated currently of universal concern and applicability? Or else, are these notions constructed and thus have to be understood within clearly demarcated cultural terrains, demarcated by religion, ethnicity or other such markers? On the other hand, in the process of propagating values of human rights, is it necessary or even useful to legitimize such values on the basis of cultural continuity from the past as part of a specific way of life or culture? More clearly stated, is it necessary to argue that human rights should be upheld because they constitute part of a specific cultural realm or should they be upheld because they have universal applicability transcending more limited but potent cultural and socio-political boundaries such as those marked by ethnicity, religion, nation, and so on?

I would be attempting to probe these issues by focusing on the specificities of Sri Lanka. However, to make this analysis somewhat manageable I have opted to probe these questions with special reference to Buddhist religion and Sinhala society and notions of traditions and truth claims important to Sinhala Buddhists. In Sri Lanka, according to the 1981 census (the most recent available data) Buddhists constitute over 69.30% of the population (Department of Census and Statistics 1996), and all Buddhists are Sinhalas. Sinhala Buddhists are thus the most numerically prominent ethno-religious group in the country.

Ideas of Freedom of Thought and Expression in Buddhism and the Politics of Human Rights

Buddhism, perhaps more than any other major contemporary religion, places a high emphasis on freedom of thought and freedom of expression in terms of its doctrinal ethics clearly articulated in the discourses of the Buddha. The fundamental Buddhist doctrinal positions on freedom of thought, freedom of expression and intellectual debate are clearly represented in the Kalama Sutta in the form of a question by the representative of a community of people called the Kalamas and a rather long answer by the Buddha. Kalama Sutta formulates the question posed to the Buddha by the Kalamas in the following manner:

"There are some monks and brahmins, venerable sir, who visit Kesputta. They explain and expound only their doctrines, the doctrines of others they despise, revile and pull to pieces --- Venerable Sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them, which of these reverend monks and brahmins spoke the truth and which falsehood?" (Soma Thera 1981: 5).

To this question the Buddha answers in the following fashion:

"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, "the monk is our teacher." Kalamas when you yourself know: These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill, abandon them." (Soma Thera 1981: 5-6).

Thus it would be clear that what is considered freedom of expression, freedom of thought and debate in contemporary human rights discourse would be clearly entertained and could be absorbed within the ideas so profoundly and clearly presented in Kalama Sutta. At least, such a possibility seems achievable when the essence of Kalama Sutta is considered as a whole. But beyond this obvious fact, what does all this mean in terms of the reality of the human rights status in Sri Lanka and propagating of human rights values in that country? Has the Buddha's discourse on freedom of expression and thought made a significant impact in the nature of intellectual discourse and debate in Sri Lanka by virtue of Sri Lankan having a Buddhist religious majority? Moreover, in multi-cultural Sri Lanka, what is the particular use in reiterating Buddhistness of a particular set of values as a means of justifying or propagating such values as useful and meaningful as these values may be?

I would suggest that the attempt to answer some of these questions would lead to a rather disorganized state of reality rather than a coherent sense of meaning. The reason would be the ability to answer these questions in a relatively progressive fashion in this particular context, and not so progressively in yet another context or even in the same context if the questions are framed or perceived differently. I believe that this state of confusion would be clearly seen as this discussion progresses.

Let me once again address the set of issues I raised in the previous paragraph. It would be obvious that freedom of thought and expression is clearly sanctioned in Buddhism. In fact, a human rights activist as well as an academic interested in these issues could quote from the Kalama Sutta and attempt to argue quite successfully the need to create a society where such ideals would be realized. To discuss and attempting to safeguard these ideals in Sri Lanka should be considered as a matter of priority because there has been a serious erosion of these ideals over the last twenty years or so during which many democratic traditions and practices in Sri Lanka have been dismantled or subverted. In such a context, the activists who argue for the reinstatement of such values because they are also based on Buddhist ethics may have some success. On the other hand, they may not.

One of the fundamental questions we need to raise here is, at what point in such a discourse do we decide to emphasize the Buddhistness or apparent Buddhistness of a particular value or set of norms, and at what point do we elect to de-emphasize the Buddhist affiliation precisely because the Buddhist position may not be helpful in supporting the arguments we have in mind -- as in the case of Buddha's perception on the equal treatment of women? On the other hand, it may be difficult to refer to a possible Buddhist affiliation to a human rights principle, if the Buddhist values associated with such principles have already been subverted. For instance, as far as I can see despite Buddhism's adherence to freedom of thought and expression by all political regimes in contemporary Buddhist majority societies, from Sri Lanka to Cambodia and from Thailand to Burma, such rights are considered a hindrance to governance.

Moreover, it is also possible that the Buddhist conscience associated with these values may be already lost. Two years ago, I asked a class of about three hundred Sri Lankan undergraduates, most of whom were Sinhala Buddhists, whether they knew what Kalama Sutta was. The group also included about twenty Buddhist monks. Only three people raised their hands, including one monk. They had however, only heard about the sutta, but could not explain what its contents were or its basic positions. That experience has repeated itself in a similar manner a number of times since the first encounter. It seems to me that the kinds of values that were presented in Kalama Sutta have disappeared from the Buddhist conscience in Sri Lanka. In such a context, is there any particular utility in promoting a set of values on the basis of their affinity to Buddhist ethics when those ethics themselves have already disappeared from the popular conscience and public imagination. I would argue that it is not necessary to tell the average Sinhala Buddhist that freedom of expression and freedom of thought are good things for modern democratic existence because they have resonance with forgotten Buddhist ethics. It is far more easy and intellectually less cumbersome to argue that such values are good for modern living in a democratic society. That way, one also does not give a hegemonic position to Buddhism, which is already legally entrenched in the constitution, at the expense of alienating members of other religions. This last point also need further elaboration which I would do in the conclusion of this essay. That is, the problems and polemics of privileging the position of one religion or way of life in the propagation of human rights in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society which may lead to the creation of new problems rather than harmonizing existing cultural values and notions of human rights.

Buddhist Perceptions of and Attitudes Towards Violence in the Context of Modern Human Rights Notions against Violence

Over the last decade or so Sri Lanka has become better known internationally as a virulent site of political violence and a case study of conflict formation and mismanagement. The violence has been concentrated on two relatively easily identifiable geographic location, in the north east and in the south. In the northeast, the processes of political violence essentially manifested out of the state's failure of post-independent Sri Lankan governments to properly address the problems -- real and perceived -- of the Tamil minority who constitute the numerical majority in the northern and eastern provinces. The failure of the state to address these issues through democratic means utilizing the existing parliamentary system led to a violent uprising by Tamil youth. The Sri Lankan armed forces and police have been deployed to crush this rebellion. In the south, a Sinhala dominated insurrection against the state in the late 1980s have also led to a massive increase in political violence in the south and in the country in general. The net result of these two conflicts, and the dismantling of democratic traditions and the deliberate institutionalization of political violence by the United National Party government in its seventeen year-rule has been the spectacular growth of political violence throughout the country. Violence has become a major mechanism of governance, and the present government despite its rhetoric about peace and elimination of political violence clearly makes use of institutionalized forms of extra-legal violence for purposes of politics.

All this has happened in a country where the majority of the people are Buddhists. Moreover, in Buddhism there are clear sanctions against killing, and thus also against war and violence. These ideals are encompassed within the central Buddhist ethic of ahimsa or non-violence. The sanction against violence, particularly against killing is still very much part of the Buddhist conscience, unlike the case with the ideals of freedom of expression. Children are still socialized with that ideal early on in their lives, and school texts used for teaching Buddhism still emphasize this value as does the first of the five principle precepts of Buddhism - the Pancca Sila. At the most fundamental level, Buddhists are supposed to mold their lives in terms of the five precepts. By adhering to the first of these precepts a person takes the following undertaking: "I shall abstain from taking the lives of living beings" (Perera 1997). On the other hand there are a number of general references to violence and its consequences in the Dhammapada:

"All tremble at violence,
All fear death;
Comparing oneself with others
One should neither kill nor cause others to kill."
(Dhammapada, Verse 129)"

Victory breeds hatred,
The defeated live in pain.
Happily the peaceful live,
Giving up victory and defeat."
(Dhammapada, Verse 201)

The doctrinal positions against all types of violence is quite clear. No one is supposed to engage in violence. Those who do, have to face dire consequences in this life or the next in terms of karmic theory linking a person to numerous deaths and re-births (Perera 1997). Repercussions of violence is most graphically illustrated in the descriptions of the tortures violent individuals and other deviants have to endure in a variety of hells identified in Buddhism:

"Brahmin youth, here some woman or man is one who makes onslaughts on creatures, is cruel, bloody-handed, intent on injuring and killing, and without mercy on living creatures. Because of that deed, accomplished thus, firmly held thus, he, at breaking up of the body after dying, arises in the sorrowful way, the bad bourn, the Downfall, the Niraya." (quoted in Harris 1994: 15)
"Even so, monks, that anguish and dejection that man experiences while he is being stabbed with three hundred spears, compared with the anguish of Niraya Hell does not count; it does not amount even to an infinitesimal fraction of it; it cannot even be compared to it. Monks, the guardians of Niraya Hell, subject them to what is called five-fold pinion. They drive a red-hot iron stake through each hand and each foot and a red-hot iron stake through his breast. Thereat, he feels feelings that are painful, sharp and severe. But he does not do his time until he makes an end of that evil. " (quoted in Harris 1994: 15-16).

Such descriptions were part of the Buddhist texts, preaching, and later they were also depicted in temple murals and became an integral part of socialization in Buddhist societies, including Sri Lanka.

These descriptions were meant to serve as preventive mechanism, or as devises to control violence and other deviant practices. The point I want to make here is that a doctrine that so clearly deplored violence and described in detail the severe karmic consequences those who engage in violence would have to face is unlikely to even implicitly justify defensive political violence. Such a position will also clearly violate one of the most fundamental Buddhist positions: Hatred begets more hatred. Clearly, even defensive violence would lead to more offensive violence, and the cycle of violence would continue. In this regard, a passage in the Samyutta Nikaya makes an important point. A warrior explains to the Buddha that a warrior who dies while valiantly engaged in combat would be reborn in the midst of the Devas (gods) of Passionate Delight. The Buddha, however, while condemning this idea, states that a warrior is always motivated by the notion, "let those beings be exterminated so that they may be never thought to have existed" (Harris 1994: 19).

In the Sri Lankan context both in the past and present, selective political violence has been utilized by rulers and regimes without much problem irrespective of the numerous discourses and precepts that clearly prohibits violence against not only humans, but also against animals. Thus it is important to note, that the existence of ideal religious ethics comparable to contemporary norms of universal human rights does not necessarily mean that such religious values and ethics invariably become part of the day-to-day practices. In other words, there may be a vast gulf between ideal religious ethics and realities of routine practices.

Under these conditions, one needs to pose the question how such values which do not always constitute part of routine practices be used to propagate or justify human rights practices or concerns. Let me, for a moment, briefly articulate the manner in which the Buddhist principles prohibiting violence has been subverted in Sri Lanka.

More than the routine acts of violence what has been generalized and routinized are the violence in extreme conditions. The nature of what is extreme is defined by either the popular perception of the specific conditions involved or on the basis of the rulers' definitions. More than violence within Sinhala society, violence perpetrated by segments within Sinhala society inclusive of agents of the state and directed against members of ethnic or religious minorities have been much more readily justified irrespective of the aforementioned Buddhist ethics. In the process of investigating how contemporary violence in Sinhala society against minority Tamils was perceived and justified, I was struck by correlations between the past (as depicted in the well known historical chronicles of the Sinhalas and also embedded in the popular memory of the Sinhala people) and the present, and how often people reached into the past seeking justifications and explanations (Perera 1997).

Thus once again it should be obvious that a strong set of fundamental principles in Buddhism has been subverted at different historical periods in order to accommodate what were considered important conditions for the preservation of Sinhala people, Buddhist religion and the land of the Sinhalas (Sri Lanka). In much more recent times, Sinhala novelist and poet Gunadasa Amarasekera attempted to reformulate the Buddhist tenet against killing in order to suit the continuing war situation in the country. He argued that the first precept was only applicable to the members of the sangha, the Buddhist clergy, and not to lay persons. In other words, according to Amarasekera, to kill enemies or perceived enemies in the war or in other contexts was permissible (Perera 1997). Thus it should be clear that despite the existence of strong sanctions against violence in Buddhism, Sinhala political necessities in the distant past and in the present have led to their subversion or reformulation. Such a situation has become possible even while the non-violent ethos of Buddhism is well part of the conscience of the Sinhala Buddhists.

Under such circumstances, the legitimacy of attempting to use such concepts as a primary means of propagating contemporary human rights concerns and values may become problematic and unhelpful.

The Problem of Caste as a Condition of Hierarchy and Discrimination in Sinhala Buddhism

When Buddhism emerged and spread in India in the time of the Buddha, one of the reasons for its popularity was its clear stand against caste, the primary basis of social organization in India at that time. The caste system is based on an institutionalized system of discrimination based on notions of purity and impurity as well as inclusion and exclusion. Generally speaking, castes were relatively rigid ascribed categories which to a great extent was also defined on the basis of specific professional or service considerations. That is, different castes were linked to specific services or professions.

In simpler terms, the logic of the caste system was that inequality as opposed to equality was institutionalized within that system. The Buddha argued that a person cannot be considered impure and thus low on the basis of his birth. According to him such a categorization was only possible on the basis of a person's deeds.

That original ideal of non-discrimination in Buddhism has been seriously violated in the evolution of Sinhala Buddhism, and today even the clergy are organized into different sects on the basis of caste which the Buddha himself had preached against according to Buddhist literature and is also evident in the surviving discourses or suttas. But in Sri Lanka, despite the clear stand against caste discrimination in early Buddhism, those teachings apparently did not penetrate the foundations of pre-Buddhist social organization of (proto) Sinhala society.

Caste continues to be an important force in contemporary social organization, marriage patterns and political mobilization and electioneering. Moreover, the organization and the evolution of different sects within Sinhala Buddhism can only be understood on the basis of caste discrimination. The Siyam Nikaya is a Govigama caste-based sect, with a serious regional bias in its leadership positions. In other words, most of the sect's leaders are not only Govigama by caste but are also Kandyan in terms of region.

On the other hand, the Amarapura Nikaya is dominated by the Salagama caste, while the third sect in Sri Lanka, the Ramanna Nikaya admits individuals from all castes into its ranks as monks. In the context of the survival of the caste system and the apparent lack of influence of Buddhism over its continuity, we can pose a number of serious questions regarding the utility of using traditional categories or norms in propagating contemporary human rights values. For one thing, this is a clear example where not only traditional cultural values per se but also local religious conventions legitimizes discrimination. In such a context, if we pay too much attention to conventions and traditional cultural and religious values, we would essentially delegitimize our entire project precisely on the basis of traditions and cultural values.


Human rights should not be upheld on the basis of existing cultural values or because of continuity from the past, but because they are an essential part of modernity and a necessary precondition to safeguard the future of humanity, not simply the future of Asians, or Sri Lankans.

Such a position will create for us a legitimate interventionist position with no socio-cultural biases or pre-conditions to campaign for human rights as well as to critique problematic cultural values which already exist. If some of the traditional values are useful, so much the better. If not, from a non-conventional perspective we can critique them as inappropriate for contemporary society, irrespective of the fact that they may be deeply rooted in history, myth and so on.

On the other hand, looking for correlations between notions of human rights and cultural values and traditions in the context of a plural society such as Sri Lanka would lead to further complications. In such a context which cultural values do we privilege? Which values do we reject? Such a process of inclusion and exclusion could also lead to internal conflict within that society, particularly if such conflict situations already exist in some form. One could argue that we privilege selected values and norms from all constituent religious or ethnic groups in a given society. But then again, the problems I raised above regarding Buddhism will have to be raised once again here as well.

Under these conditions it seems reasonable to argue that the best option for Asian societies in general and Sri Lanka in particular, would not be to articulate human rights concerns within a paradigm of tradition and convention but within a clear paradigm of modernity and universality which would nevertheless not be hostile to historical memory .


Department of Census and Statistics, 1996. "Statistical Pocket Book of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka - 1996". Colombo: Dept. of Census and Statistics, Ministry of Finance and Planning.

Greenwald, Alice, 1978. "The Relic on the Spear: Historiography and the Saga of Dutthagamani." In Bardwell Smith ed., Religion and the Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka. Chambersburg: Anima Books.

Harris, Elizabeth 1994. "Violence and Disruption in Society: A Study of Early Buddhist Texts". Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.

Malinowski, Branislow 1954. "Magic, Science and Religion, and Other Essays". New York: Anchor Books.

Perera, Sasanka, 1997. "Traditions of Justifying Culturally Sanctioned Violence in Buddhist Sri Lanka: The Social Construction of the Ahosi Kamma Syndrome". Unpublished paper.

Perera, Ranjit, 1994 (Feb-March). "Jathaka Kathawe Nirupitha Sthriya." In Pravada, No. 6. Colombo: Pravada Publications. Soma Thera 1981.

"The Kalama Sutta: Buddha's Discourse on Free Inquiry". Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.

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