Vesak Day Almsgiving hosted at Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka in New York. Source: Sri Lanka Permanent Mission to the UN. - Photo: 2024

Vesak at the United Nations: Still not a UN Holiday?

By Dr Palitha Kohona

(Former) Ambassador of Sri Lanka to China and (former) Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations,

COLOMBO | 25 May 2024 (IDN) — Sri Lanka celebrated the Vesak day 2024 last week with much pomp and ceremony in historic Matale where the Buddha’s teachings were first formally documented in the first century B.C. at the Aluviharaya Rock Temple and religious observances took place in almost every temple in the country. Prior to that, the Master’s teachings had been transmitted orally from teacher to pupil.

Vesak is the premier religious festival in Sri Lanka, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and the passing of the Buddha, with colourful electrically lit decorations illuminating private homes and main streets and alms being offered to all passers-by along main roads.

In New York, the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka co-hosted an impressive event at the United Nations with Thailand to observe the United Nations Day of Vesak. Many other Sri Lankan missions around the world did the same.

The History of the Demand to Declare Vesak a Public Holiday

Many leaders have clamoured to make Vesak an internationally recognised day and a holiday over the years. Anagarika Dharmapala, American Civil War veteran Henry Steel Olcott, theosophist Madame Blavatsky, educationist Museus Higgins and others were at the forefront of this effort.

They succeeded in having Vesak declared a national holiday in Sri Lanka during the colonial period (in May 1885) by Governor Sir Arthur Hamilton and were responsible for the design of the Buddhist flag (1885).

Their efforts were taken forward later by the likes of L.H. Metthananda and Gunapala Malalasekara who wanted the United Nations to declare Vesak a holiday given that over 500 million around the world professed to follow the teachings of Gautama the Buddha.

The political headquarters of the UN, located in the United States, and dominated by Western Christian values, was not receptive to the suggestion, even though the sixties saw an Asian Buddhist, U Thant heading the organisation.

In fact, all General Assembly committees sought to complete their workloads by early December so that delegates could reach their own countries, those days by ship and then by train, in time for Christmas. This practice continues, with the exception of the Fifth Committee, although delegates travel by air these days.

Foreign Minister Kagiragamar Takes the Challenge to the United Nations

In the late nineties, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadiragamar, with his impeccable charm overwhelming erudition, called on the UN to declare Vesak a holiday. Sri Lanka was supported by 15 other countries, some non-Buddhist, including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, but this endeavour failed due to the lack of sympathy on the part of the Secretariat.

The Secretariat advised that the days allocated for holidays at the UN were already occupied by host country holidays and Christian and Islamic holy days. Any additional holidays on the UN calendar would result in an extra cost to the Organisation and an unbudgeted item for the UN.

The Fifth Committee of the General Assembly balked at the prospect of additional costs and as a compromise proposed that the UN recognise Vesak as a special day but NOT as an extra holiday. The sixteen countries which advanced the proposal, including Sri Lanka settled for this diluted fall back option.

The first meeting marking Vesak as a special day at the UN was hosted by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador John de Saram at the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium.

Sri Lanka Celebrates Sambuddhatwa Jayanthiya in an Unprecedented Manner at the United Nations in New York.

In the lead up to the Sambuddhatwa Jayanthiya (celebration of the Enlightenment) of Gauthama the Buddha in 2011, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to observe the event in a high profile manner, including at the UN in New York.

The Mission in New York, which I headed at the time, quickly mobilised the support of the Buddhist countries and a range of other countries to celebrate the event. The Secretariat, including the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who repeatedly referred to the fact that his mother was a Buddhist, was brought on board.

In addition to the obvious religious aspect of the event, the Mission of Sri Lanka recognised the potential for projecting a softer and likable image of Sri Lanka through a high profile celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment at a time when allegations of human rights violations in Sri Lanka were crowding the media.

The Sambuddha Jayanthi celebrations in New York, commenced with 200 monks from different traditions, Heenayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, walking in single file from opposite the UN building to the Dag Hammarskjold Tower. It was a memorable and unprecedented sight.

Along the way they were offered alms (pindapathaya) by hundreds of devotees from different countries. The chief monks (the Mahanayakas) from Mongolia and Vietnam were among the participants, as were leading monks from Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.

Many monks from temples in different parts of the US also participated. Breakfast (heel danaya) was served at the common room of the Dag Hammarskjold building where I, as the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka, the chief dayaka, presided. The large Sri Lankan community participated in the event with undiluted enthusiasm.

Following the heel daane, the monks assembled at the General Assembly Hall which was packed to capacity. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and I chaired the meeting and delivered the welcome speeches. For the first time ever, the GA Hall reverberated to the rhythm of pirith-chanting by 200 monks.

This had never happened in the GA Hall before. A discussion followed, with key-note addresses being delivered by the Reverend Gunerathana and Bhikku Bodhi (the ordained Buddhist Jew from Brooklyn). A display of historic Buddhist art was organised in the Kuwait Boat Room at the entrance to the GA Hall.

Many Buddhist countries and countries with Buddhist connections contributed valuable pieces to this exhibition. The day’s events were concluded with a buffet dinner for over 1200 guests.

The annual UN Vesak Day event continued to be held at the General Assembly Hall until renovations to the Secretariat building forced the venue to be moved to the temporary new building. The call for Vesak to be declared a UN holiday kept bubbling away in the background.

Sri Lanka Again Requests the UN to Declare Vesak a Holiday

In 2014 the Permanent Mission of Israel requested the UN to declare Yom Kippur, a day significant to 13 million Jews, a holiday. Curiously, the Secretariat which had previously found many reasons for refusing to accommodate the request from Sri Lanka to declare Vesak a holiday, now declared that it saw no financial or other reason for objecting to Israel’s request.

The Israeli request was resisted by Saudi Arabia. Grabbing the opportunity presented, the Ambassador and Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka (Chamitri Rambukwella was the Vice President of the Fifth Committee at the time) again asked that Vesak be declared a UN holiday. It successfully lobbied other member states and the Secretariat and received substantial support.

However, to the surprise of many, the Indian delegate to the Fifth Committee threw a giant spanner in to the works by first refusing to join the emerging consensus and later suggesting that four days sacred to Indian religions as possible candidates for holidays. (Guru Nanak Day, Mahvir Day, Maha Shiva Rathri and Pongal).

All requests now seemed likely to be rejected but Sri Lanka kept up the pressure as did Israel with the massive support it could readily muster in New York. Eventually, at the eleventh hour, a compromise emerged, The Fifth Committee agreed and the General Assembly unanimously endorsed that no meetings of the UN will be held on the day of Vesak at duty stations where there was a Buddhist majority and the day was a local public holiday.

Any employee of the UN wishing to observe the appropriate Buddhist rituals could also take leave on this day. While this is not what the Buddhist world had been clamouring for many years, it was another significant step on the way.

Prospects for the Future

With the UN Vesak celebrations being held in Sri Lanka and in other Buddhist countries this month, an opportunity presents itself to lobby for support for the demand to declare Vesak a UN holiday—a demand that will have the blessings of over 500 million Buddhists around the world.

Sri Lanka could also use this opportunity to mobilise the support of fellow Buddhist countries in a soft power outreach given the attractiveness of the Buddha’s message of peace and loving kindness (metta) in an increasingly strife torn world.

The message of peace is likely to resonate loudly in the hallowed halls of the UN in New York at the moment. One of the key legacies that Sri Lanka is capable of bequeathing to the world today is the message of peace enshrined in Buddhism. It will also help soften the image of a country besmeared by other factors. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Related article:

Photo: Vesak Day Almsgiving hosted at Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka in New York. Source: Sri Lanka Permanent Mission to the UN.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top