The Vegetarian Movement in Sri Lanka

The following is the text of the speech of Bandu Masakorala, delegate of Sri Lanka Veg. Soc. to the 1999 congress:
Sri Lanka is a country with 25 centuries of recorded history, with two chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, describing the story of civilisation in the island from the 6th century before Christ. Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C. and has remained since then as the dominant religion of the country. The other main religion of Sri Lanka is Hinduism, which in its Vedic form was probably the first major religion that was practiced in the country. Up to this day, 82% of the population belong to these two religions. As we all know, both religions give the utmost importance to Ahimsa, the principle of non-violence to all living beings.
Like in any other culture, in Sri Lanka too reality and ideals have never been co-equal. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka has some impressive records from an animal rights' perspective. The first animal sanctuaries in Sri Lanka were established by Buddhist kings in pre-Christian times. There have been five kings of Sri Lanka who proclaimed what was called the Maghata rule which completely prohibits the killing of all animals in the kingdom. The first such king was Amanda Gamani who lived in the 1st century.
Until the advent of western colonialism, the consumption of animal food was minimal and the slaughter of cattle was regularly prohibited. Up until the early decades of the 20th century, fishing and hunting and other forms of killing animals were limited and people who resorted to these occupations had absolutely no social status.
The situation began to change gradually from about the 16th century when the first colonialists arrived in the island. It began to change more rapidly when the country started to adopt the practices of western economics in the 19th century under British rule. The advent of factory farming took place only very recently, and with aggressive techniques of marketing, the habit of consuming mass produced and imported foods of animal origin is now at an all-time high.
Although the principle of Ahimsa was highly respected, it must be said that vegetarianism as such was strictly followed only during the periods when the Maghata rule, which prohibited all killing, was in force. The history of modern vegetarianism seems to have had its beginning in Sri Lanka about one hundred years ago. The oldest vegetarian literature available is dated 1902. Between then and now various vegetarian societies came into existence and faded away with the demise of their founders, some of whom were veterans who fought a valiant struggle against a developing habit which had the support of government - which was always controlled by a partially westernised elite. Unfortunately conservative Buddhist monks never took a stand in favour of the budding vegetarian movement.
One of the unforgettable names in the history of vegetarianism in Sri Lanka is that of Dr E W Adikaram. A radical Buddhist educationist, he established the vegetarian habit in several schools with which he was connected. In the early seventies he started an organised campaign against meat-eating, tobacco and alcohol. In 1982 he established the Sri Lanka Vegetarian Society in Colombo and another society by the same name in Matara. The movement suffered a setback after his death in 1986 but was revived last year and has now joined hands with the other numerous but less well-known and smaller Ahimsa and vegetarian societies that always existed in the island. We still lack a well-knit united vegetarian movement, but the trend in favour of adopting a vegetarian life-style is definitely gathering momentum, as can be seen in the numerous pro-vegetarian writings in the press and the occasional but very effective presentations in the electronic media. The Sai movement, which has a considerable base among both Buddhists and Hindus of Lanka, is staunchly pro-vegetarian and is beginning to organise itself in this field in a strong way.
The strategy of the SLVS which I have the honour to represent at this momentous 33rd World Vegetarian Congress has been two-pronged. On the one hand it tries to appeal to the historic principle of Buddhist and Hindu Ahimsa and on the other it seeks to draw inspiration from the world-wide modern vegetarian and animal rights movements. Both are potentially effective strategies and from a philosophical angle they are mutually supportive. I believe ours is the first vegetarian society of Sri Lanka to get affiliated to the International Vegetarian Union.
In pursuance of our strategy we do a regular campaign of leafletting and the publication of a vegetarian magazine, of which the fourth issue is now in the press. In these publications we rely heavily on the historic religious teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism and also on the mass of emerging medical evidence which favours the adoption of a plant-based diet for mankind. We also try to educate the public on the environmental implications of vegetarianism.
The health issue is particularly important, as one of the greatest stumbling blocks confronting the vegetarian movement is the entrenched opinion that a non-meat diet is nutritionally deficient, an opinion that has been inculcated by the western medical profession and gleefully spread by several vested interests in commercial, governmental and certain religious quarters. The religious approach is important because another great stumbling block in our way is, sad to say, the apathy of the conservative Buddhist establishment represented by some of the most senior members of the monastic order. Their attitude towards vegetarianism at times goes as far as positive opposition. We believe that we are taking the right step in meeting this challenge head on and it is a happy augury that more and more monks are becoming vegetarian. We have even succeeded in helping to found an organisation of vegetarian monks whose recruits are mostly young and university-educated. It is still a fledgling organisation and we will try our utmost to strengthen its hands.
One of our regular activities is to visit Buddhist temples and with support of like-minded resident monks, we hold seminars on the major retreat days of the religious calendar. The seminars are followed by distribution of our leaflets and our magazine. During the last seven months we have visited twenty four temples and addressed the devotees who are assembled for religious observances.
In the last analysis, we see all our work, even where it is geared to educating our fellow citizens of the environmental and medical benefits of a plant-based diet, as a part of the larger and fundamental issue of reminding ourselves of the roots of our spiritual civilisation which has been firmly anchored in the teaching of Ahimsa and the inter-connectedness of all life. Like all our brothers and sisters in the world wide vegetarian movement we are firmly convinced that the future is on our side. In seeking to accelerate our march to that future we whole-heartedly try to harmonise our activities with what we have inherited from the past. What we seek is a harmonious inter-linking of us and our fellow creatures, our planetary environment and the roots of our own spiritual history.