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Reinstating Animal Rights in Sri Lanka

Senaka Weeraratna speaking at the inauguration of DVA Sri Lanka. Image courtesy Senaka Weeraratna

On 24 May 2013, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk named Bowatte Indrarathana self-immolated in front of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, demanding an end to the slaughter of cattle. Ven. Indrarathana succumbed to his injuries soon afterward, sending a very strong message to Buddhists as well as practitioners of other religions in Sri Lanka about the emotional distress most Buddhists share over the loss of life of animals. A few years earlier, in 2008, a photograph of a cow bowing in respect to a Buddhist monk who saved her from the slaughterhouse went viral over Sri Lankan social media, prompting many questions over the ethics of meat consumption among Buddhists. In fact, in the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta (The discourse on the lion-roar of the wheel-turner) of the Digha Nikaya (Collection of long discourses), the Buddha stated directly that it is the responsibility of the ruler of a country to safeguard the welfare of all beings under his rule, including animals and birds. He never condoned the suffering of animals for the enjoyment of human beings.

Historically, the rights of animals were preserved in Sri Lankan society through a unique system. The realm of animals was considered a microcosmic representation of human society in which all animals’ lives were respected. Animals were ascribed to a particular caste according to a system resembling that among people; unlike in India, in Sri Lanka the caste system was primarily created by the power-holders in order to get the work done. Similarly, some of the animals were expected to perform certain duties in exchange for the care and protection of their human owners. For example, the duty of guarding the household fell to dogs, while cats were expected to take care of rodents, snakes, and other animals that might cause the household harm. The cry of the rooster served as the farmer’s wake-up call, and there is no indication that in early Sri Lanka chickens were raised for their meat. On the contrary—there are plenty of folk songs and poems lamenting the loss of a beloved chicken or rooster.

Meanwhile, a cow represented abundance, and the cry of a calf was considered auspicious for the family who kept it. Animals were assigned to castes according to their demeanor; for example, healthy cattle that had an active disposition were included in the “Berawa” caste. Low-caste elephants were never used in Buddhist ceremonies, and the Buddha’s tooth relic would only be carried by an elephant that belonged to the highest, “Saddantha” or “Chaddhantha” caste.* Historically, in many ways Sri Lankans treated animals much as they did their fellow humans.

Senaka Weeraratna, an honorary legal consultant on animal welfare and the chairman of the Sri Lankan branches of the organization Dharma Voices for Animals (DVA), had this to say on the subject: “Sri Lankans were noble people who respected all life in accordance with the Buddhist teachings. King Devanampiya Tissa [r. 247–207 BCE] after his conversion to Buddhism made the very first animal reservation in the world and outlawed hunting to a degree. Five kings who ruled the island adopted magatha rule, which effectively banned the killing and hunting of all animals. The five kings were King Amanda Gamini [r. 20–30], Voharika Tissa [r. 201–23], Sila-kala [r. 518–31], Agga Bodhi IV [r. 658–74], and King Kassapa III [r. 725–31]. The 14th century Arab traveler Ibn Battuta mentioned that he saw a Muslim man of Sri Lankan origin whose arms were amputated by the king as a punishment for slaughtering a cow. So, as you can see, the preservation of animal rights was of much importance in this Buddhist nation. Unfortunately, in the present day of rule we lack proper legal measures to protect animal rights in Sri Lanka.”

Senaka Weeraratna. Image courtesy Senaka Weeraratna

Dharma Voices for Animals opened chapters in the cities of Kandy and Colombo in 2015. This international organization based on the ahimsa principle of Buddhism advocates compassion for animals, raises awareness about the meat industry, and lobbies for the preservation of animal rights. DVA chairman Senaka Weeraratna is also the author of the proposed animal welfare legislation for Sri Lanka. “The draft proposes amendments to the existing laws, strengthening the laws concerning animal welfare,” he explained. “Unfortunately no legislation changes were made after the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance No. 13 of 1907, which was enacted during the British colonial era. We basically think this antiquated ordinance should be changed in such a way that the law enforcement is supplemented with greater power for upholding animal rights and welfare in Sri Lanka. The DVA and I want to see the return of Sri Lanka’s traditional and historical reputation for animal welfare.”

Venerable Siridhamma is a Buddhist monk studying at Sri Lanka’s University of Peradeniya. When asked to share his views on meat consumption and animal welfare, the usually silent venerable grew vociferous. “One cannot expect a country to prevent violation of animal rights as long as animal lives are sacrificed for meat production,” he said. “Even in the time of the Buddha, he refrained from allowing Buddhist monks the consumption of cattle meat. Sri Lankan Buddhists are unfortunately under the impression that if the animal was not specifically slaughtered for them, consumption of its meat is ethically acceptable. Yet, if they don’t buy the meat, who would the industry slaughter that animal for? Prevention of animal meat consumption is also closely related to preservation of animal welfare.”

The preservation of animal rights and their welfare involves many challenges. Dr. Keerthiratna, a veterinary surgeon, commented: “Let’s say we stop all cattle slaughter. Where do we leave the surplus and the ageing cattle? Do we have adequate facilities to care for a growing population of them? If the cattle get terminally sick with a disease, do we ethically get permission to put them down? If not, do we wait and watch all our cattle perish?”

While Sri Lanka has a 2,300-year-old association with Buddhism, it is now a multi-ethnic and multireligious country. Still, according to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, in 2010, 69.3 per cent of the population identified as Buddhist.** While some Buddhists rally for an outright ban on animal slaughter, the other religious communities see things in a different light. Meanwhile, politicians would not openly endorse a pro-Buddhist parliamentary act in support of animal rights through fear of losing minority community votes. “They are afraid of making such groundbreaking decisions,” Senaka Weeraratna added. “Yet it’s imperative that we take these steps and start an international movement to acknowledge the legal status of animals and recognize them in constitutions. That’s what international animal rights activist groups like WAN [World Animal Net] tries to do. If countries like India, Switzerland, and Serbia have included animal protection legislation in their constitution, Sri Lanka being a Buddhist country, why do we back out? It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’*** We are a great nation but we have lost our way.”

* See the chart of elephant castes in; see also The Kandy Dalada Perahera of Sri Lanka.  
** Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project: Sri Lanka
*** Mahatma Gandhi: Quotes

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Dharma Voices for Animals


Ananda, P. A. S. 2000. Sinhala Janashrutiya ha sattva lokaya (Sinhalese folklore and animal world)Colombo: S Godage & Brothers.

Ariyadewa, V. 2009. Boudhdha darshanaye bhavithaya ha vicharaya (Usage and criticism of Buddhist philosophy). Dehiwala: Buddhist Cultural Center.

Tan, P., trans. 2008 Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta. Accessed 27 June 2016.

Waduge, S. D. 25 October 2015. “Dharma Voices for Animals – Colombo Chapter inaugurated with call for creation of a caring and compassionate society in Sri Lanka.” Accessed 28 June 2016.

Weeraratna, S. 21 January 2016. “Buddhism, Animal Rights and Making of a New Constitution in Sri Lanka.” Accessed 28 June 2016.

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