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Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law
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Book description

It is widely assumed that a well-designed and well-implemented constitution can help ensure religious harmony in modern states. Yet how correct is this assumption? Drawing on groundbreaking research from Sri Lanka, this book argues persuasively for another possibility: when it comes to religion, relying on constitutional law may not be helpful, but harmful; constitutional practice may give way to pyrrhic constitutionalism. Written in a lucid and direct style, and aimed at both specialists and non-specialists, Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law explains why constitutional law has deepened, rather than diminished, conflicts over religion in Sri Lanka. Examining the roles of Buddhist monks, civil society groups, political coalitions and more, the book provides the first extended study of the legal regulation of religion in Sri Lanka as well as the first book-length analysis of the intersections of Buddhism and contemporary constitutional law.


'There is nothing the study of law and religion needs more than deeply informed political and religious histories of postcolonial states and societies. This is exactly what this book offers. In an exhaustively researched legal ethnography of the treatment of religion in Sri Lankan constitutionalism, Benjamin Schonthal explores how Sri Lankans have wrestled with the tensions generated by a legal order that guarantees religious rights while also granting to the majority religion of Buddhism its 'rightful place'. Is it possible for the state to protect a tradition without interfering in it? Who speaks for Buddhism in these debates? This sobering story of the limits of law is a must-read for scholars of religion and politics, Buddhist studies, and comparative constitutional law.'

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd - Northwestern University, Illinois

'Based on field observation, interviews, and a host of multilingual documents that include court records, parliamentary debates, and media reports, this work is a rich and vivid contribution to the study of religion, law, and politics in Sri Lanka. Meticulous in its detail, and strikingly imaginative in its conception, the work shows how the top-down constitutionalist attempt to negotiate an inequality of religions alongside an equality of citizens has led to the accomplishment of neither, and, even worse, the stimulation of the very conflicts and disharmonies the constitutionalist effort was meant to adjudicate and resolve in the first place. The work also yields fresh perspectives on the idea of ‘the Buddhist State', a concept that has a long history and ongoing importance, particularly today, in South and Southeast Asia.'

H. L. Seneviratne - Professor Emeritus, University of Virginia and author of The Work of Kings: The New Buddhism in Sri Lanka

'Constitutions are supposed to resolve social and political cleavages, but can also exacerbate them. In this wonderfully rich and original study of Sri Lanka, Schonthal exposes how constitutional language provides new fuel for political conflict over religion, providing a cautionary tale. A great theoretical and empirical contribution to the literature on comparative constitutional law.'

Tom Ginsburg - Leo Spitz Professor of International Law and Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago

'All in all, this is a book that stands as an exemplar of how a dedicated scholar trained in relevant languages and working across disciplines on a single country case study can produce methodologically and conceptually significant research. And it is a book that challenges socio-legal researchers seeking to contest rather than simply affirm the received wisdom on the religious politics of comparative constitutional law to take more seriously those places, like Sri Lanka, and traditions, like Buddhism, that are usually relegated to the literature’s margins. With Buddhism, Politics, and the Limits of Law, at least, Sri Lanka’s experiences with pyrrhic constitutionalism shall now not be left out of the conversation.'

Nick Cheesman Source: Law and Society Review

'Schonthal’s account is meticulously researched and filled with fascinating details. Reading his historical account of the constitutional discourse culminating in the Buddhism chapter, one gets a unique glimpse into the personalities and ideologies that shape constitutional change in Sri Lanka.'

Jaclyn L. Neo Source: ICON

'Anyone interested in how Constitutions manage religion should read this book. In addition, scholars who find themselves surrounded by an unwavering faith in the Constitution will have their assumptions about the inherent goodness of constitutional law shaken. The arguments in this book have long-lasting and broad implications for the way in which we think about and study law and religion. Schonthal’s book has resonance not only for contemporary debates in other Buddhist majority countries that constitutionally recognize Buddhism, such as Myanmar and Thailand, but also for broader debates over the relationship between religion and constitutional law.'

Melissa Crouch Source: Asian Journal of Law and Society

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A note on references: The following list refers only to the published sources, including published pamphlets, used for this research. References to other archival sources – including draft laws, bills, petitions, legal submissions, documents from the case files, interview transcripts, newspaper reports and other unpublished materials – appear in the footnotes of the individual chapters of this book.

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