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Pyrrhic Constitutionalism? Buddhism, Secularism and the Limits of Law in Sri Lanka, by Benjamin Schonthal

Wednesday, September 25, 2019 at 12:15pm

Myron Taylor Hall, 277
Cornell Law School, Myron Taylor Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

Of the seven countries in South and Southeast Asian with majority-Buddhist populations, six give special status and/or protections to Buddhism in their constitutions. These constitutional prerogatives give clear symbolic prestige to the majority religion. Yet what effects do such prerogatives have on the ways in which citizens understand and practice Buddhism in their daily lives? Do “Buddhist supremacy clauses” always work for the benefit of Buddhists, when they are invoked in the context litigation? How might the effects and history of these clauses compare with other special constitutional prerogatives given to religion, such as those given to Islam in the constitutions of Pakistan or Malaysia?

Drawing on my recent book, and ongoing research, I consider these questions in the context of Sri Lanka—a country that, for the last four decades, has given Buddhism “the foremost place” in its constitution. Through an analysis of Buddhist doctrines, monastic institutions and recent trends in socio-legal theory, I hope to complicate existing wisdom about how religious supremacy clauses work, while also rethinking the presumed opposition between secular constitutions and religiously preferential ones.

Benjamin Schonthal is Associate Professor of Buddhism and Asian Religions and Associate Dean (International) for the Humanities Division at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He received his Ph.D. in the field of History of Religions at the University of Chicago, where his dissertation received the 2013 Law & Society Association Dissertation Award. Ben's research examines the intersections of religion, law and politics in late-colonial and contemporary Southern Asia, with a particular focus on Buddhism and law in Sri Lanka. His work appears in The Journal of Asian Studies, Modern Asian Studies, Journal of the American Academy of Religions, the International Journal of Constitutional Law and other places. Ben's first book, Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law, appeared with Cambridge University Press in 2016. His current research project, supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, looks at the interactions of state law and Buddhist monastic law in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Southern Asia.

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Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Law School, Asian Studies, South Asia Program, Government, Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies


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