The Legacy of Lakshman Kadirgamar: From Vesak Day to National Pride

Lakshman Kadirgamar was a rare human being and a great Sri Lankan. May his memory be a blessing to us all!

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The Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, calling on the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on February 26, 2005.

The following is a tribute to the late Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar, the former Foreign Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka, who won UN recognition for an international Vesak Day holiday twenty-four years ago.

Buddhists annually celebrate the Vesak Full Moon Poya Day as the day that the Birth, the Enlightenment, and the Parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha (the Enlightened One) took place twenty-five centuries ago. The founder of Buddhism was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama at Lumbini, in the southern part of present-day Nepal, north of India, in 623 BCE, as officially recognised by the World Heritage Convention of UNESCO. The place is protected by the government of Nepal.

This year (2024), Vesak Day was observed in Sri Lanka on 23 May. According to reports, its characteristic resplendence was somewhat dimmed by the prevailing bad weather. Thailand hosted the 19th United Nations’ Vesak Day at Ayutthaya, Bangkok, on 19-20 May, jointly organised by the Thai government and the Supreme Sangha Council of that country. Vesak Day was not celebrated as a UN-recognised international holiday before the year 2000. On 18 May that year, Vesak Day was marked as an international holiday by the UN for the first time. This was due to long-overdue recognition won for it at the world body by the then Sri Lankan Foreign Minister (indisputably the best we’ve ever had), Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar (LK), as, in his own words, ‘…acknowledgement of the contribution that Buddhism, one of the oldest religions in the world, has made for over two and a half millennia and continues to make to the spirituality of humanity…’. This achievement was made possible, probably almost entirely, by the force of his personality and his standing among his colleagues from diverse nations (politicians and diplomats) in that august assembly. Even LK himself didn’t expect the enthusiastic support he got for his resolution from countries (that have little to do with Buddhism) such as Iceland, Ireland, Slovakia, Spain, the USA, Turkey, and the Russian Federation.

In my personal estimation, LK, with his unmistakable overall cosmopolitan outlook, was the only true nationalist politician the country has had for nearly half a century. Feelings such as patriotism and nationalism become pernicious religions when they are adopted to serve one’s own narrow selfish motives, consciously or unconsciously. LK did not ‘become’ a patriot or a nationalist to hoodwink the masses and grab power for ego aggrandisement and family-bandyism, evils that we have so long indulgently tolerated in our elected rulers. (Aside: Even if not assassinated by the LTTE as he actually was on 12 August 2005, had he continued with his cosmopolitan nationalist politics, LK wouldn’t have survived long in one piece among his contemporary political friends and foes alike, who are still alive!) His concern for the good of his own people, fellow Sri Lankans, was a manifestation of his non-sectarian concern for all humanity (inspired no doubt by his Christian upbringing, reinforced by his later discovery of the commonality between Christ’s and the Buddha’s teachings). That must have been a key factor behind his determination to have Vesak recognised by the UN.

As the scion of a generational Anglican Christian family, Lakshman Kadirgamar was invited to deliver the Rev. Celestine Fernando Memorial Oration on 9 October 1992. The topic he was given was ‘The Social Relevance of the Bible for Our Times in a Non-Christian Society’. He asked for and was granted ‘the liberty to treat the topic assigned to me in any manner of my choice’.

Justice C.G. Weeramantry, who was in the audience, praised LK’s speech as ‘a memorable exposition of comparative religion in a historical setting. He described different creeds as “the historical formulations of the formless truth”, and spoke of the different shapes of vessels which contained the treasure which was “one and inviolate”…’. But, unsurprisingly, LK’s lecture did not go down well with some Christians because of his laudatory references to the Buddha. LK had said: “Among the inspiring treasures of the human spirit is the memory of Gautama, the Buddha. His hold over the imagination of millions of our fellow human beings is immense; his inspiration to braver and nobler living for centuries is incalculable; his contribution to the refining of the spirit of man and the humanising of human relations is immeasurable. And yet, attempts were made by men fighting under other flags, earnest lovers of their kind no doubt, to destroy the memory of that great soul, to terminate his influence. We can only attribute those efforts to prejudice, to ignorance”. In my opinion, these words of LK are still most relevant to the deplorable situation in Sri Lanka, where disgraceful unprovoked attacks are being made on the Buddha, his teachings, and the Sangha by certain money-driven miscreants in the service of evil extremist political and religious ideologies.

According to someone present at that lecture, Kadirgamar’s main thesis was that Christianity shared many values and teachings with Buddhism and that Jesus had been influenced by the teachings of the Buddha. These views correspond to the thesis in the famous book by the German theologian Holger Kersten titled “Jesus Lived in India – His Unknown Life Before and After the Crucifixion.”

Lakshman Kadirgamar was a rare human being and a great Sri Lankan. May his memory be a blessing to us all!

I wish to thankfully mention here that, in the preparation of this brief memorial tribute, I drew the above information about the late Lakshman Kadirgamar (which supplemented my own prior knowledge about him) and what I have put within quote marks from ‘THE CAKE THAT WAS BAKED AT HOME LAKSHMAN KADIRGAMAR: Snapshots of the Man’s Life’ by his daughter AJITA KADIRGAMAR, pp.302-316 (Vijitha Yapa Publishers, Colombo, 2015).

Rohana R. Wasala

Rohana R. Wasala is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian, with a background in academia.

1 Comment

  1. The best and greatest Foreign Minister Sri Lanka has ever had. He would have been a brilliant President or Prime Minister but never got the chance, so cruelly assassinated by the LTTE terrorists.

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