12 August, 2020

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Buddharakkita Thera: A Modern Kingmaker

By T. Thurai –  

T. Thurai

T. Thurai

Part – 3 

It was a personal, as much as a political, grievance that led to the death of Prime Minister Bandaranaike in 1959. The conspiracy to assassinate him was master-minded by his erstwhile patron, the powerful Buddhist monk, Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera.

Buddharakkita was a king-maker. Chief Priest of the ancient temple of Kelaniya, he immersed himself in politics and affairs of business. He was also embroiled in a long-running court case by which he hoped to acquire direct control over the temple’s financial affairs.

As a novice at Kelaniya, he had found a patron in the person of Don Charles Wijewardene, son of the temple’s wealthy patroness and author of a pamphlet Revolt in the Temple in which he proposed that monks should resume their rightful place as advisers to lay rulers.

Don Charles came from a devout Sinhalese Buddhist family. His mother Helena had helped to restore Kelaniya Temple – once favoured by Sinhalese kings – from the decline into which it had fallen after centuries of colonial rule. He was at once a fervent Sinhalese nationalist and a supporter of the revival of Buddhism – two threads that rapidly became entwined following Ceylon’s Independence from the British in 1948.

It was probably thanks to Don Charles that the youthful Buddharakkita first encountered this new brand of political thought. It also seems likely that Buddharakkita was groomed for his future post as Chief Priest of Kelaniya by the Wijewardene family. How far they influenced his appointment to this post is unclear, but following Helena’s generous donations and bequest to the Temple, they must have felt entitled to some say in its future governance.

What is clear is that it was at Don Charles’s home that Buddharakkita met the woman who was to become his close friend, political ally and – it was rumoured – his mistress.

Vimala Wijewardene had married Don Charles after his first wife – Vimala’s elder sister – had died. She was young, beautiful and fascinated by politics. With Buddharakkita’s sponsorship, she would first become an MP, then a Cabinet Minister during Mr Bandaranaike’s incumbency.

Her loyalty to Buddharakkita would set her at odds with the Prime Minister, not only over matters of policy, but also on a more personal level. She blamed Mr Bandaranaike for failing to suppress anonymous leaflets alleging that she was Buddharakkita’s mistress.

When hundreds of Buddhist monks performed a peaceful protest outside the Prime Minister’s residence in protest against his accord with the Tamils, Vimala played a prominent role, negotiating with the besieged Bandaranaike and triumphantly announcing the abnegation of his pact to the crowd of protesters.

While Buddharakkita’s presence was not recorded, his influence was almost certainly exerted via the monks and Vimala. The highly-organised protest against an accord by which Mr Bandaranaike had sought to grant some degree of local autonomy to the Tamils bore all the hallmarks of Buddharakkita’s campaign strategy.

In 1956, the General Election had swung decisively in favour of Mr Bandaranaike thanks to Buddharakkita’s intervention. Under his direction, thousands of monks were mobilised to canvas for votes in rural areas. The result was a landslide victory.

However, political success came at a high price. Buddharakkita was later to complain that “in order to get this Party into power I have spent over a lakh” (i.e. 100,000 rupees). Financial hardship was almost certainly the motivation for the civil suit through which he attempted to acquire direct control over Helena Wijewardene’s bequest to Kelaniya temple; a source of funds which, by law, could only be accessed by the Temple’s trustees, not by its chief priest.

In short, it appears that Buddharakkita was broke. In a final attempt to recoup his losses, he invested in a shipping company whose success depended on the grant of a government contract to transport rice. His request for the contract was refused and it seems clear that he held the Prime Minister personally responsible.

Faced with financial ruin and the ingratitude of his former protégé, Buddharakkita is reported to have said of the Prime Minister: “He is of no use now; he must be driven out.”

The result was an assassination plot, masterminded by Buddharakkita, which led to the murder of the Prime Minister and the initial implication of Vimala Wijewardene. Although Vimala was eventually discharged, both Somarama Thera, the monk who pulled the trigger, and Buddharakkita were sentenced to death.

While Somarama Thera was hanged, Buddharakkita’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He died in jail in 1967.

Despite his undeniable influence, Buddharakkita barely rates a mention in the history books. One can only guess why. Yet this extraordinary story is a reminder of what can happen when the close bond between religion and politics turns sour.

*T. Thurai has an MA in Medieval History from London University. She worked for ten years as a journalist before qualifying as a lawyer. Her first novel The Devil Dancers is set in 1950s Ceylon and has received some excellent reviews across the Commonwealth, Russia and the USA. Extracts from the most recent review by Professor Walter Perera of Perideniya University can be found on the book’s website at: www.thedevildancers.com.

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    One more fact I remember from the period Wimala Wijewardene was the Health Minister in the SWRDB government was that nuns who were providing volunteer service in the various government hospitals were asked to quit. It was one of the early manifestation of intoIerant Buddhism in the body fabric of the then Ceylon. I yet remember the kindly manner in which these nuns served meals to my father who was warded after a motor vehicle accident. Many of these nuns were also mostly whites, were like angels to me as a child. The large slice of boiled Seer fish he was served at one meal yet lingers in my memory. Such food has also diasapeared from hospital menus now.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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      I hasten to second this comment. I too witnessed the totally selfless service of these dedicated nuns and the love they radiated as they lived their vows. And as I remember the comments and remarks of the time, I have to agree that it was early evidence of the vicious intolerance that infected our Buddhist citizens.

    • 1
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      In addition to what happened to the nuns a the General Hospital during Wimala Wimalawardene tenure as Health Minister, I can remember how she also had the cross sign that shows up on the gates of the hospital when it is closed,removed on the pretext that it is an eye sore to let it remain as an insult to the major religious sentiments.That shows how petty minded she was.

  • 0
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    Dear Ms, T Thurai,

    “Despite his undeniable influence, Buddharakkita barely rates a mention in the history books. One can only guess why. Yet this extraordinary story is a reminder of what can happen when the close bond between religion and politics turns sour.”

    Good, true Story. An event that took place when I was growing up as a child.

    A Sri Lankan example of the Sinhala Buddhist Monk-Ruler hegemony story. However, there are many such examples of Priest-Ruler stories, yes true stories.

    “While Somarama Thera was hanged, Buddharakkita’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He died in jail in 1967.”

    Somarama became a Christian before he was hanged, as he wanted to go to Heaven myth option, as opposed to the other myth options offered by Buddhism.

    DeJa Vu

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      Buddha Rakita also became a Christian in the jail.

      • 0
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        This is an excellent informative article by Thurai.

        A quick query to Sivananthan. Somarama thera converted to Christianity. But did Buddharakhita also do so? Are you sure?

        • 0
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          apparently wimala wijaywawardena too had become a Christian in her latter days!

  • 1
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    The danger of opening the Pandoras box of Religous Extremism and interference of the clergy in political affairs is all too evident today. The Clergy should limit their role to the places of worship and not try to become the leaders of society.

    Often it is the commercial interests at the back of all this. Ownership of lands, wealth, vehicles, power and influence temper the religous outlook of such holy men. Unfortunately the lay people tend to worship the priests, not follow the teachings.

  • 2
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    Buddharakkita exuded all of the monastic practices that the sangha wish would be kept confined in the temple. It is an open secret in SL that many (but not all) of today’s thoroughly modern priests think nothing of a bit of wine and women, boys and girls, a little ‘powder’, a little weed etc etc etc. The politicisation of our theravada monks is now complete and it is rare to find an apolitical monk in this country. So what does this all mean? It means that the future is bleak and the people will become more confused and disorientated as the parvenues, thugs and crooks take complete control of public affairs.

    • 0
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      Even though Buddhism as a religion is on the rise, practice of Buddhism is on the decline.
      The clergy who are expected to live a simple religious life while helping the society at large do the same have abandoned that path. The lay followers too are mostly name sake Buddhists not practicing the Dhamma but just follow the rituals.
      When a society as whole begins to rot just one part of it can not remain unaffected.

    • 0
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      The author has not named a key figure in this whole episode one Mr.Ossie Corea . Was it an oversight , or did she leave his name out on purpose so that she could hone in on the two Buddhist priests ?

      Slandering the Sangha at the drop of a hat seems to be the pastime of a number of bigoted CT readers. They are so blinded by their own prejudice that they choose to ignore the thousands of allegations of child sex abuse by their own bretheren – globally.

      • 0
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        Should they be praising the Buddarakkitas, Somaramas, Elle Gunawansas, Gnaneswaras then?

      • 0
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        Sarath,

        Yes the writer has left out Ossie Corea, indeed a most notorious thug and shady character at the time; he was charged (as were several others), but in fairness he was acquited. However, the story fails to mention H P Jayawardena, who owned a printing press and was a ‘fixer’ for Buddharakkita; he WAS found guilty and and along with Buddharakkita they were given life sentences for conspiracy (due to a technical cock up with the hurried legal drafting at the time).

        The author also fails to recall the legendary ‘late night discussions’ that took place at ‘Adisham’ that magical home from home in the Thangamalai Sanctuary. But ofcourse that was all very very hush hush.

        As for Somarama, the buddhist priest who pulled the trigger; he had to be weaned off drugs in Welikade prison.

        Another thing I distinctly remember; Somarama converted to christianity just before he died and I cannot remember there being any protestation from the sangha at his late epiphany. Very strange, given their present day protestations.

        Apropos your protestation that many of us have been ‘slandering’ the sangha – correction, I think you mean libelling – there is a small difference – one is spoken, the other written. As for me, what I said comes from living many years in town and village, and I will readily affirm that there are many thoroughly top class monks/priests who are shining beacons, but that must not deter us from speaking out against what we see and know.

        As for other religions/scenarios; we could have them ten-a-penny, any day of the week. But just let’s stick to the subject at hand, otherwise we’ll never get any other work done.

        Sarath, just a reassurance, in the coastal south where I am, we call a spade a spade, and we practice it without prejudice. It can be both a strength and a weakness but people who know us will tell you that it is done absolutely without malice.

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          Spring Koha
          Thank you. Point taken.

  • 0
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    How did a bankrupt Buddhist priest go right up to the Privy council?.

    Some probably couldn’t fire a Galkatass let alone a Colt or a S & W.

    Wimala’s Elite uncles organized the hit.

    And they had the right logistics across the board,from Cops,Barristers, Forensics and the Judges.

    Poor Some got done for nothing.

    According to Ms Thurai’s take Wimala’s toy boy was perhaps a victim too.

    • 0
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      poor Sumanasekera (Leela) does not understand that one does not need to be rich to go to the privy council! ,that shit only happens in SL courts dude

    • 0
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      Since you have no facts to backup your cockamamie theories, I’m not surprised you haven’t mentioned any at all.

      You just pulled these theories out of your backside.

      You are just throwing sheit around hoping that some of it might stick, ain’t you? Is that your whole strategy for defending Rajapaksas? Rajapaksas are definitely getting what they paid for.

    • 0
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      His brother, who was a well recognized doctor, resigned from governemtn and opened up few private surgeries in Kelaniya, Waththala, Hendala area. People came non stop filling his drawers. His sisters sold their properties. After the case was lost this brother left Sri Lanka ans held top posts in the UK, West Africa and Belize(when it was a British colony).

  • 0
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    Timely article – let BBS take stock of its activities.

  • 0
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    Prime Minister’s residence in protest against his accord (Banda-Chelvanayagam pact) with the Tamils, Vimala played a prominent role, negotiating with the besieged Bandaranaike and triumphantly announcing the abnegation of his pact to the crowd of protesters.

    Politics at high levels knows no caste or creed.

    Vimala Wijewardena was defended by C.S. Barr Kumarakulasinghe who was SJV Chelvanayagams Brother-in-law.

  • 0
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    I see a strange parallel between this story and the association of the monk(?) Rasputin and the Tsarina of Russia. It led to the fall of the tsars!

  • 0
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    From what i heard this Budharakitho chap was bedding many a lady of Colombo during his heyday!

  • 0
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    To me, the biggest lesson, comes from what happened to Don Charles Wijewardene and his family. With their wealth and political power they decided to “groom” a Buddhist Monk and look what ended up happening. Not only his own wife ended up in bed with the Buddhist Monk Buddharakkita, but they also lost their wealth, political influence and standing in society.

    Anybody care to guess which family is in line to be destroyed by the modern day Buddharakkita? Just like in the 50s, the minions will be too busy blaming the Tamils, LTTE rump as they are called today, until their own, pork gobbling, pet snake turns on them.

  • 0
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    We need more Buddharakkita Theras to eliminate ALL TNA leaders.

  • 0
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    same as Don Charles furniture company?

    • 0
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      No they were planters who owned thousands of acres ofr tea estates in Haputhale area. Don Karolis and Don Charles are Hevavitharanes’ from Moratuwa, family of “Anagarika Dharmapala, Family of Philanthropist.

      • 0
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        Thanks for the update….

  • 0
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    During a conversation I had with a veteran journalist now departed he told me that while he visited Horton Place, Buddha Rakkita Thero was sprawled on the settee his robe askew and a glass of whiskey in hand.

  • 0
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    Budhdharakkitha had a “Raja Yoga” in his horoscope, not a yoga to be a Buddhist monk. As a little boy ordained as a monk he came home after seven days saying he doesn’t want to be a monk. His father, for some reason(wishing Nirvana for himself and the mother?) wanted to donate his son to the “sasana”. So father advised him strongly and took him back to the temple where he became one of the best orators(Sinhalese) in Ceylon. His speeches lured more people than that for SWRD. He lived like a king, not like a monk. SWRD who was a Born Catholic, converted to a Buddhist made use of Budhdharakkitha to come to power.Once he was in power, until the case of the shipping line, Budhdhrakkitha was holding the reins(strings you may say).SWRD who never stood up for anybody walking onto his political platform, stood up only for Buddharakkitha.

  • 0
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    We all should take initiate to established a SECULAR government to get rid of allthese nonsense.Dema

  • 0
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    The sins committed by SWRD, Buddhist Monks and the repeated communal riots instigated by the Sinhala governments resulted in the appearance of LTTE leader Pirabaharan. UN should mention its reports on HR violations in Sri Lanka the main culprit is SWRD and his Sinhala only Policy.

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