The giant behind the revival of Buddhism | Daily News
Most Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera:

The giant behind the revival of Buddhism

Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera instructing a class at Vidyodaya Pirivena in Maligakanda, Colombo.
Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera instructing a class at Vidyodaya Pirivena in Maligakanda, Colombo.

Our Most Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera was born on January 20, 1827. It was a dark era in the history of Sri Lanka where the country which suffered tremendously under the suffocating rule of Portuguese and Dutch colonists at the time, was forced to officially surrender itself to the British Empire. Thus on March 2, 1815, Sri Lanka lost its 2,538 years of independence by becoming a colony of the British Empire. Governor Robert Brownrigg who signed the Kandyan Convention by promising to preserve the status of Buddhism as the country’s main religion went back on his words once he came to power, by making it a priority to spread the word of Christianity throughout the country.

Several decades after that, the Buddhist faith among the people started deteriorating. To salvage the situation, Ven. Weliwita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja Thera started a religious revival which brought all the Sangha in the country together. However, the attempt was not successful due to various disagreements among different sects of the Buddhist Sangha. The situation became so bad that in 1852, James De Alwis who translated Sidath Sangarawa into English, predicted that by the end of the 19th Century all Sinhala poets would begin their work by asking for the triple blessings of the Lord instead of the blessings of the Triple Gems. As was published in the Journal of the Pali Text Society on October 25, 1861, he had stated,

“There are indeed good grounds for believing that Buddhism will at no very distant period disappear from this island. What I believe is that if Christianity was spread throughout the country little by little without alerting the general populace, the prevalent false beliefs and foolishness in the country would lessen before long.”

This statement was in agreement with a French newspaper journalist, Bertholomeusz, who stated that the Sangha in Sri Lanka is too weak to protect the Buddhist era from fading away, and that there is no sign whatsoever of this situation changing in the near future.

It is evident that the British Empire, which had governing power over the whole country at the time, hoped to completely eliminate Buddhism from Sri Lanka and build an empire of Christianity in its stead. In order to firmly establish their power in the country, this was a necessity. Therefore, Christian missionaries were sent to Sri Lanka from Europe in order to establish schools and start spreading Western culture in the country. In a letter sent to the British politician, William Wilberforce, in England, on June 13, 1816, Governor Brownrigg stated that there were enough reasons to believe that Buddhism as a religion would soon disappear from Sri Lanka.

It was in such a dark period of time in Sri Lanka that a precious baby boy was born to Dandegoda Gamage Christina and her husband Don Johannes Abeyweera Gunawardhana Liyanarachchi. The boy was baptised at four years of age and was given the name Nicholas. If he was not given such a Christian name, he wouldn’t have been allowed access to any of the schools established at the time. Since the firstborn son, Louis, of Gunawardhana became a disciple of Christianity as a result of his close association with fathers at the Christian Church, the five-year-old Nicholas was handed over to Ven. Sobhitha Thera at the village temple. The little boy who grew up under the guidance of Buddhist monks was allowed access to the Central School at Galle Fort, as he was among those who were baptised by the Christian Church.

The village astrologist who checked the horoscope of Nicholas managed to convince his father that the boy was very unlucky, and that he would die at a very young age due to his bad luck. This prediction completely changed the course of this young boy’s life. In 1840, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk at the Temple of Thotagamuwa , Thelwaththa, Galle, under the supervision of Ven. Mabotuwana Rewatha Thera and Ven. Malagoda Siriniwasa Thera.

As a monk, he was given the name Hikkaduwe Sumangala. He was fortunate enough to study under the guidance of many erudite monks such as Ven. Walane Sri Siddhartha Thera, and he studied hard till he mastered several languages including Pali, Sinhala, Sanskrit, and English. In 1848, his higher ordination as a Buddhist monk took place at the Malwathu Buddhist Chapter House in Kandy. As a young novice monk, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera started tackling the criticisms against Buddhism by Christian missionaries through publishing his comebacks in printed media. In 1858, to loosen the hold that other religions had over the Southern Province of the country, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera established a printing press named “Lankopakara,” and started printing books – and most importantly, the Buddhist newspaper “Lankaloka.” Further, several Sinhala Buddhist schools were founded under his patronage and they were provided with all the required facilities. In 1871, Ven. Thera moved to the Maligakanda area, and in 1873, he initiated the establishment of the treasure house of knowledge, “Vidyodaya.”

Even those who followed the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, such as Rev. Kojin Gunaratana, Rev. Kojina Kondanna, Sato and Tochibana, from foreign countries like Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh and Japan, also came to Vidyodaya Monastic College to study the teachings of Theravada Buddhism under the tutelage of our Ven. Thera. Ven. Dhammananda Kosambi Thera who travelled to Sri Lanka from India, also studied under the guidance of our Ven. Thera.

Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera who participated in the famous Panadura debate in 1873, made sure that Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera also came along to assist him with the debate. The debate became so famous that information about it was also published in a magazine called “The Truth Seeker” in America (Thomas Paine who played a major role in creating the Constitution of the United States was also one of the patrons of this magazine). As a result of the published article about this debate, many important persons such as Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and the Russian philosopher and author, Helena Blavatsky, were encouraged to visit Sri Lanka. On May 17, 1880, they both embraced Buddhism as their religion at Vidyananda Monastic College in Galle, and started studying the Pali language and Buddhist philosophy under the tutelage of our Ven. Thera.

They understood the importance of education and how it could be used to salvage the pitiful situation that the Buddhist religion in Sri Lanka has fallen into. As a result, Parama Vignanartha Corporation was established in Colombo. In 1895, this corporation established Ananda Vidyalaya in Colombo with the Cambridge graduate A.E. Bultjens of American descent as its principal. This was followed by the establishment of several other schools in the country such as Nalanda Vidyalaya in Colombo, Dharmaraja Vidyalaya in Kandy, and Mahinda Vidyalaya in Galle.

In 1885, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera chaired the committee which designed the Buddhist flag. Many foreigners who were interested in studying Buddhist philosophy came to Sri Lanka just so they could meet our Ven. Thera and study Buddhism under his guiding hand. Thomas William Rhys Davids (1867) who was the Magistrate of Galle at the time studied Pali language from several Buddhist monks including Ven. Yathramulle Dhammarama Thera, Ven. Dodanduwe Piyarathanathissa Thera, Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Thera, and Ven. Waskaduwe Subhuthi Thera. He also made sure to meet often with our Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera to discuss Buddhist philosophy in depth, and thus he amassed a vast wealth of knowledge regarding Buddhism. This provided our Ven. Thera with an opportunity to associate with, and build friendships with, many important figures of British rule in Sri Lanka and to earn their respect. These relations allowed Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera to get a fine understanding of how he should go about explaining the Buddhist philosophy to foreigners so they could clearly understand exactly what Buddhism is about.

Paul Dahlke, of German descent, was a famous Buddhist philosopher who came to Sri Lanka specifically to meet Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera so he could study the doctrine of non-self (Anathmavadaya) as taught in Buddhism.

The youth, Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala, had written a letter complaining about the British Governor in Sri Lanka to the Foreign Affairs Secretary in Great Britain, in the name of our Ven. Thera. Though at the time our Ven. Thera was not aware that such a letter had been sent in his name, he was not bothered by the fact once he did get to know about it. Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera was invited to an international religious conference held in Chicago 1893 as the representative of the Theravada teachings of Buddhism. However, at our Ven. Thera’s request, and with his blessings, Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala participated in the conference in his stead, and brought about a wave of interest regarding Buddhism in America. This built a great rapport between Ven. Thera and Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala. It was Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera who became the very first chairperson of Mahabodhi Society. Ven. Thera supported and guided Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala all through his efforts to re-establish Buddhism on the Indian sub-continent.

In January of 1891, Ven. Thera made sure to send Ven. Kojin Gunaratana Thera, of Japanese descent, along with Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala, when he made his way to Bodh Gaya in India. However, Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala had to leave India that very same year in order to ask for the support of the Japanese Government to rescue Bodh Gaya from the clutches of other religions that sought to destroy the sacred place. Upon his arrival back in India, he was greatly dismayed to discover that Ven. Kojin Gunaratana Thera had passed away.

Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera firmly stated that the best way to re-establish Buddhism in India is to educate the Indian scholars in the Pali language. In 1907, upon Ven. Thera’s request, Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala, together with the help of Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, Chancellor of the Kolkata University, established the Pali Language Department within the university. With permission from our Ven. Thera, Ven. Sooriyagoda Sumangala Thera was invited to Kolkata to become the very first Head of the newly-established department.

Great intellectuals such as Dr. Nalinaksha Datta, Sukumar Datta, Dr. B.C. Low, Dr. B.M. Baruwa, Anukul Chandra Baruwa, and Deepak Kumar Baruwa graduated from the Pali Language Department, Kolkata University, and went on to contribute their valuable services in universities all over India as well as in Europe. Even some well-known Sri Lankan scholars, Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera, Ven. Uruwela Dhammaratana Thera, Sagara Palansooriya, Siripala Leelarathna, Wimalananda Thennakoon, D.E. Hettiarachchi and Jinadasa Perera also graduated from the same Department in the Kolkata University, India. The scholars thus graduated, Ven. Jagdish kashyap Thera and Ven. Uruwela Dhammaratana Thera together established the Nalanda University, which gifted the world with many more great Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Cambodian and Sri Lankan scholars. Among them were Most Ven. Akuratiye Amarawansa Thera, Ven. Raddalle Pangnaloka Thera, Ven. Ganegama Saranankara Thera, Ven. Kananke Wajiragnana Thera and Ven. Hagoda Kemananda Thera. Most of them went on to provide their valuable services at Vidyodaya Monastic College in Sri Lanka. The Pali Language Department, which was first established only in the Kolkata University, was later on established in several other universities, such as Varanasi, Delhi, Pune as well as in Magadha University.

(The writer is the Chief Sangha Nayaka of America, Pamankada Sri Maha Viharaya, Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara of Los Angeles, USA)