Benjamin Schonthal, "Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of the Law: The Pyrrhic Constitutionalism of Sri Lanka" (Cambridge UP, 2016)


In his recent monograph, Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law: The Pyrrhic Constitutionalism of Sri Lanka (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Benjamin Schonthal examines the relationship between constitutional law and religious conflict in Sri Lanka during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Situating his study alongside broader conversations in the field of constitutional law and specifically debates about law's effects on religion, Schonthal challenges the widely-held idea that constitutional law, properly administered, is a useful tool for reducing conflict between and within religious communities. Drawing on unpublished and previously unexamined archival materials written in Tamil, Sinhalese, and English, Schonthal argues that in the case of Sri Lanka constitutional law has actually hardened pre-existing religious conflicts and encouraged religious actors to use the law and courts to frame a variety of legal fights in explicitly religious terms. The pyrrhic constitutionalism in the subtitle of the book is the term that Schonthal has coined to describe how, in this case, the practice of constitutional law actually exacerbates the very problems it was designed to resolve. In the first half of the book, Schonthal details the fascinating history of two of Sri Lankas most important constitutions--an initial one in 1948, and a revised version ratified in 1972--focusing specifically on the section that addresses Buddhism and religion. Many familiar with the post-independence history of Sri Lanka might interpret this section as but a product of Buddhist chauvinism and Sinhala nationalism. However, by looking at an impressive number of drafts and archival materials, Schonthal reveals that the process of drafting this religious clause was in fact a messy back-and-forth between several competing parties, including those who wanted the government to completely remove itself from religious affairs, those who wanted the government to proactively protect religious rights, and those who hoped the state would grant Buddhism a special, protected status in post-colonial Sri Lanka. He further shows that even among those who wanted Buddhism to enjoy special protection there was much disagreement about how the government should execute such protection, and to what degree the government should assume responsibilities traditionally allocated to the saṅghas elders or sometimes to the king. The second half of the book provides case studies that detail precisely how it is that constitutional law exacerbates extant conflicts within and between religious groups. After providing a number of examples of the way in which the Buddhism and religion clause created an incentive for Buddhist groups to use the courts as a space for publicly airing their grievances, Schonthal then moves on to the case of a monk who applied for a driving license but, after a long legal process, was eventually denied. Scholars of Buddhism will find this case fascinating regardless of their area or period of expertise, for this highly contentious case, which captivated the Sri Lankan media and public, gets to the heart of a perennial issue within Buddhist societies, namely the degree to which secular rulers should be involved in enforcing Buddhist monastic rules. In the book's penultimate chapter, Schonthal looks at Buddhist anxiety over religious conversion--specifically cases of Buddhists converting to Christianity--and again argues that constitutional law has inadvertently intensified this controversy. In the interview we barely scratch the surface of the book, and listeners interested in following Schonthal's arguments in greater detail and reading the case studies, most of which we could not get to in the interview, will have to pick up a copy of the book themselves. But our brief conversation should make it clear that the book will of great value to those interested in religious conflict (particularly as it plays out in the courts), in conceptions of religious rights, in Sri Lankan Buddhism, and in the relationship between the saṅgha and secular rulers.

Your Host

Luke Thompson

Luke Thompson's research focuses on medieval Japanese Buddhist intellectual history, though he has interests in Buddhism beyond Japan, and particularly in anthropological approaches to Buddhism.

View Profile