By Mohamed Harees –
‘Great countries are those that produce great people’ – Benjamin Disraeli
The Nation was left in shock and utter grief upon hearing the sad news of the demise of the Most Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratana Nayake Thero, who was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit , following unfortunate injuries sustained after an attack by a tusker at his Temple. Being an accomplished Buddhist academic and intellectual, the Ven. Thero became the Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepure in 2000, after occupying various academic positions within the University, apart from being a visiting Professor of the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, UK, at the time of his demise.
The Bellanwila Perahera is perhaps the biggest and the most popular Perahera after the Kandy Esala Maha Perahera. It was Ven. Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thero, who reportedly built on the foundation laid by his ‘Guru Hamuduruvo’, the Ven. Somaratana, considered the modern architect of Bellanwila. As an educationalist, having felt the imperative need to take a leading role in addressing the twin problems of youth unrest and unemployment, where a vast number of young persons in the country got stranded midway in their academic careers, he established the Bellanwila Community Development Foundation which provides training in 14 disciplines ranging from lathe-work, motor-mechanism to computer technology. This is but one laudable projects which he initiated and there were many others which benefitted the ordinary people in the country. He was also a respected author and a regular contributor to newspapers and journals on a wide variety of subjects ranging from Buddhism to day to day issues affecting the people.
Ven. Wimalaratana was also a bold and courageous religious leader, well-known for expressing his views without fear or favour, whose views were sought and widely respected by the rulers, the clergy, the media and the general public alike. He spoke his mind freely wherever they warranted, even in the presence of rulers of the time, criticizing them for the deteriorating state of affairs and political culture in the country.
One of his greatest contributions for the societal good has been his active and pivotal role in bringing hope among all communities to live in peace and harmony. Ven Thero has, for many years, been involved with interreligious harmony in Sri Lanka, in particular with regard to easing ethnic tension in the country. At an event in October 2017, Ven. Thero thero stated that the current government should in no way infringe upon the national unity that was established within Sri Lanka by implementing constitutional amendments that will be detrimental to national accord.
Post War Sri Lanka witnessed the emergence of many hate groups which attempted to interpret the victory of the government forces over the LTTE as the dominance of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. Their next target became the Muslims of Sri Lanka who have been living with the Sinhalese in South Sri Lanka for over 1000 years. They started off a well-orchestrated hate campaign with patronage from government higher-ups, to attack Muslim religious and cultural symbols as well as their religious practices and dresses. One of the favourite campaigns was against the Halal branding of the products in the market, initiated by the dreaded BBS which copied the 969 Virathu model. BBS organised many rallies calling for boycott of Halal goods , at which rallies youth activists T-shirts denouncing the Muslim halal method of slaughtering animals to eat. When the country was about explode in flames and the MR government was virtually siding with the BBS blaming the Muslims, there were many ‘behind the curtain’ discussions and negotiations initiated in good faith by some leading religious figures, business chambers like Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and leaders like Susantha Ratnayake among the Sinhala community to bring an amicable settlement with regard to the Halal issue.
Resultantly, when the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) eventually announced its compromise solution to the BBS created ‘Halal problem’, several senior Buddhist priests lauded that decision. Prominent among them was the scholar-monk, Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thero who stated that the BBS is not the sole-voice of Lankan monks. “He noted that in any community there are extremists, fundamentalists and other elements. Bellanwila Wimalaratana thera also said that the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka do not want to create a conflict between communities” (Colombo Gazette – 11.3.2013). Ven. Wimalaratana Thero, also hailed the consensus as proof that problems between religious communities could be resolved through discussion instead of fisticuffs.
This arrangement brought about by leading monks caught BBS in their wrong foot, which condemned the ‘compromise’ saying it was an evil plot hatched by foreign conspirators and unreservedly attacking all those they perceived as being architects of the resolution, including some members of the Sangha that were present at the joint press briefing the previous day, like Bellanwila Thero. Addressing the briefing, Ven. Thero welcomed the withdrawal of the logo but cautioned that it was neither a victory for the Sinhalese nor a defeat for the Muslims. “This is effectively a win-win for all communities. The people in the ACJU are our close friends. We thank them for their willingness to reach consensus on this controversial issue. Inter-religious bodies can work together in our country,” the Thero said. The monks and Muslim Ulemas displayed much bonhomie and goodwill during the trilingual media briefing. He also stressed that it should be intellectuals who should be resolving such issues, adding that no issue can be solved by fighting. Muslims therefore have an added reason to feel much grieved at the sad loss of this iconic monk for saving the country from a sure disaster at that time.
Muslims therefore join with other communities in paying their respects to the late Ven. Monk and are eternally grateful to him who, like icons such as Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero inspired our nation towards laudable ends – good speech, good conduct and peaceful living.
To conclude this article, I quote from the ‘Pakinnaka Vagga’ of the Dhammapada to understand his worth and his significance at a challenging point of history for mother Sri Lanka.
‘Saddho silena Sampanno — Yasobhogasamappito
Yam yam padesam bhajati — tattha tatth‘eva pujito’
(‘Who is full of faith and virtue,
Of substance, high repute,
Is honoured everywhere,
Wherever that one goes’)
So the sad loss of Late Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thero will be a big void, which the Sri Lankan Nation will find it difficult to replace at least in the short to medium term. May more Icons like him flower within the gardens of our Nation, to continue Late Thero’s philosophy of creating an inclusive Sri Lanka where all communities can live in peace and harmony.