Animal Friendly Cultural Heritage and Royal Decrees
in the Legal History of Sri Lanka

by Senaka Weeraratna

Contemporary Sri Lanka is the heir to a rich and unique pre-colonial history in respect to Animal Welfare. Historical rock inscriptions and ancient chronicles e.g. Mahawamsa, reveal that extensive state protection was granted to animals and the slaughter of cows was strictly prohibited.

These historical sources further reveal that the ethic of Ahimsa (non-violence towards other sentient beings) a cardinal tenet in Buddhism and Hinduism, was a paradigm of public administration and justice in pre-colonial Sri Lanka.

The trusteeship power of the State was extended to protect animals, birds and other living creatures of the land pursuant to a moving plea made by Arahant Mahinda to King Devanampiyatissa in their very first encounter at Mihintale about 2300 years ago, in the following words:

"Oh! Great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land as thou. The land belongs to the peoples and all other beings and thou art only the guardian of it."

The inspiration for this noble pronouncement may well be attributed to two sources:

Duties of the Cakkavatti King
a) The Buddha’s discourse in the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta (Digha Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka) where the Buddha in spelling out the duties of an ideal ruler declared:

“ The Cakkavatti King (Righteous King) will give protection, shelter and ward both to the different classes of human beings, and also to birds and beasts”, and

b) The policy of 'Rule of Righteousness' adopted by Arahant Mahinda’s father the Emperor Asoka of India (3rd Century BC) who accepted state responsibility for animals and granted them protection via edicts inscribed on rocks all over India (the Asokan Edicts). These edicts were legal pronouncements based on ethical teachings.

Asokan Model of benevolent state
Arahant Mahinda’s declaration set the tone for the creation of an Asokan model of benevolent state in Sri Lanka. The social and legal history of Sri Lanka provides innumerable examples of the Buddhist attitude to animal life. Our former Kings established some of the worlds' first wild life sanctuaries. Five of the kings governed the country under the 'Maghata' rule, which banned completely the killing of any animal in the kingdom. The five kings were 1) Amanda Gamini (79 - 80 AD), 2) Voharika Tissa (269 - 291 AD) 3) Silakala (524 - 537 AD) 4) Agga Bodhi IV (658 - 674 AD) 5) Kassapa III (717 - 724 AD).
( Vide ' History of Buddhism in Ceylon 'by Walpola Rahula, First Edition, p.73)

Royal Decrees
King Silakala (524 - 537 AD) decreed the 'preservation of life for all creatures' throughout the Island. King Kassappa IV (898 -914 AD) granted safety to all creatures on land and water and in doing so observed in all respects the conduct of the ancient kings. Virtuous Kings moved by compassion for animals distributed 'young corn full of milky juice' to cattle, and rice to the crows and other birds. King Mahinda IV made arrangements for the distribution of rice cakes to apes, wild boar, gazelle and dogs. King Parakramabahu I had commanded that 'safety of life' protective measures be extended to all creatures without exception living on dry land and in the water on the four uposatha days in every month. ( Culavamsa - for further details on protection afforded to animals under pre-colonial kings, refer 'The Legal Heritage of Sri Lanka' by Dr. A.R.B. Amerasinghe, Colombo: Sarvodaya: 1999, pp.130-133).

Animal Hospitals
Several Kings established Animal Hospitals and one King i.e. Buddhadasa (341 AD) became a reputed medical and veterinary surgeon.

The people, influenced by the principle of 'Ahimsa' generally kept away from occupations that required the killing of animals to earn a living e.g. hunting, fishing and the slaughter of animals for food. Those who resorted to these activities were usually relegated to the margins of the society.

King Elara
A close examination of Sri Lanka's historical rock inscriptions and perusal of the ‘Mahavamsa’ would show that animals had occupied a higher place in the country's moral agenda. During the time of King Elara (circa 200 BC) according to a legend as recorded in the ‘Mahavamsa’ the King’s son while driving a chariot had run over a calf. The distraught mother cow had then run to the King’s Palace and rung a bell to draw the attention of the King to the harm inflicted on her calf by the reckless Prince. The King after an appropriate inquiry had then punished his own son.

Animal Sacrifice - A Criminal Offence

Ibn Batuta, the 14th Century Arab traveller refers to the sight of a co - religionist (a Muslim) in Kurunegala whose limbs had been amputated as punishment on the orders of the King. On inquiry Batuta had been told that the King had spared the man’s life but nevertheless had his limbs amputated because he had unlawfully slaughtered a cow, for the purpose of an animal sacrifice. This was a criminal offence punishable usually by death.

The above examples illustrate the extent to which the former rulers were prepared to act to protect and enforce the legal rights that animals, particularly the cow, enjoyed in the by gone era.

Decree of King Kirthi Sri Nissanka Malla
There were constant appeals from the rulers to the public as seen in the epigraphical records to extend compassion to animals, grant freedom to birds and spare the lives of fish in the lakes. An inscription engraved in an upright stone slab at Ruwanwelisaya, Anuradhapura, which is a transcript of a decree issued in the late 12th Century by King Kirthi Sri Nissanka Malla who had his Royal Capital in Polonnaruwa reads as follows:

"Ordering by the beat of the drum that no animals should be killed within a radius of seven gau (leagues) from the city, he gave security to the animals. He also gave security to the fish in the twelve great tanks, and bestowing on (the region's people) gold and cloth and whatever other kind of wealth they wished, he commanded them not to catch birds and so gave security to birds ………….".

Being sentient beings like humans, animals were recognised by the traditional Lankan society as having moral claims to reasonable consideration of their basic interests.

Taboo on consumption of meat
As regards the consumption of meat, Percival says, "They never eat meat, or anything that has had life" and Tennent says, "The mass of the population were nevertheless vegetarians and so little value did they place on animal food". ( quoted in Amerasinghe "The Legal Heritage of Sri Lanka , p.132 )

Upon the entry of western influence to Sri Lanka commencing in the 16th Century, the high moral value extended to non - human sentient beings began to decline and the habit of flesh consumption gradually grew among the people. Also occupations that were associated with the killing of animals, which fell outside the trades recommended as the means for a Right Livelihood by the Buddha in the Noble Eightfold Path, gained greater acceptance in society.

Today in modern Sri Lanka there is widespread encouragement by the Government for people in both urban and rural areas, mostly Buddhists, to indulge in inland fisheries and rear animals e.g. chicken, goats, pigs and cattle for slaughter.

This policy is far removed from the ideals that the Buddha proclaimed when he advised rulers that birds and beasts should be given “ward and protection”.