Sri Lanka: Monk and his Legacy

Most Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero paved the way for the world to discover the knowledge of Buddhism 

Abbot, Aggamaha Panditha Ven. Dr. Walpola Piyananda, Chief Sangha Nayaka of America, Pamankada Sri Maha Viharaya, Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara of Los Angeles, USA

Our most Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero was born on 20th of January 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 2nd of March 1815, Sri Lanka lost its 2538 years of independence by becoming a colony of the British Empire. The 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 Thero 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 year 1852 that Mr. James De Alwis, who translated Sidath Sangarawa in to English, predicted that by the end of 19th Century all Sinhala poets will 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 25th of October 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's 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 13th of June 1816 Governor Robert 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 Mrs. Dandegoda Gamage Christina and her husband, Mr. Don Johannes Abeyweera Gunawardhana Liyanarachchi. The boy was baptized 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 first born son, Louis, of Mr. 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 Thero 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 baptized 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 Thero and Ven. Malagoda Siriniwasa Thero. 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 Thero, 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 Thero 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 Thero 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. Thero moved to 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 Theravadha Buddhism under the tutelage of our Ven. Thero.  Ven. Dhammananda Kosambi Thero, who travelled to Sri Lanka from India, also studied under the guidance of our Ven. Thero.

Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thero, who participated in the famous Panadura debate in 1873, made sure that Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero 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 (Mr. 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 17th of May 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. Thero. 

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 Thero chaired the committee which designed the Buddhist flag. Many foreigners that were interested in studying Buddhist philosophy came to Sri Lanka just so they could meet our Ven. Thero 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 Thero, Ven. Dodanduwe Piyarathanathissa Thero, Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Thero, and Ven. Waskaduwe Subhuthi Thero. He also made sure to meet often with our Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero to discuss Buddhist philosophy in depth, and thus he amassed a vast wealth of knowledge regarding Buddhism. This provided our Ven. Thero 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 Thero 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 Thero 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. Thero. Though at the time our Ven. Thero was not aware that such a letter had been sent in his name, he wasn’t bothered by the fact once he did get to know about it. Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero was invited to an International Religious Conference held in Chicago 1893 as the representative of the Theravadha teachings of Buddhism. However, at our Ven. Thero’s request, and with his blessings, Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala participated the conference in his stead, and brought about a wave of interest regarding Buddhism in America. This built a great rapport between Ven. Thero and Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala. It was Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero who became the very first chairperson of Mahabodhi Society. Ven. Thero supported and guided Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala all through his efforts to re-establish Buddhism on the Indian sub-continent. 

In January of 1891 Ven. Thero made sure to send Ven. Kojin Gunaratana Thero, 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 Thero had passed away. 

Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero 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. Thero’s request, Rev. Anagarika Dharmapala, together with the help of Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, Chancellor of the University of Kolkata, established the Department of Pali language within the University. With permission from our Ven. Thero, Ven. Sooriyagoda Sumangala Thero 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 Department of Pali language, University of Kolkata, 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 Thero, Ven. Uruwela Dhammaratana Thero, Mr. Sagara Palansooriya, Mr. Siripala Leelarathna, Mr. Wimalananda Thennakoon, Mr. D. E. Hettiarachchi and Mr. Jinadasa Perera also graduated from the same Department in Kolkata University, India. The scholars thus graduated, Ven. Jagdish kashyap Thero and Ven. Uruwela Dhammaratana Thero together established the University of Nalanda, which gifted the world with many more great Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Cambodian and Sri Lankan scholars. Among them were Most Ven. Akuratiye Amarawansa Thero, Ven. Raddalle Pangnaloka Thero, Ven. Ganegama Saranankara Thero, Ven. Kananke Wajiragnana Thero and Ven. Hagoda Kemananda Thero. Most of them went on to provide their valuable services at Vidyodaya Monastic College in Sri Lanka. The Department of Pali Language, which was first established only in the University of Kolkata, was later on established in several other Universities, such as Varanasi, Delhi, Pune as well as in Magadha University.

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