By H.L. Seneviratne –
Walpola Rahula’s Bhiksuvage Urumaya (The Heritage of the Bhikkhu), published in 1946 envisaged a new kind of monk, cultured in both Buddhism and modernity, and socially and politically activist. The public discussion and the social effect that ensued had the positive result of empowering the monk, but unfortunately that empowered monk had also imbibed a narrow conception of society and polity, that of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, a conception that eventually placed the country on the path of ruin. The defining political flowering of which the empowerment of the monk was part was the general election of 1956, in which the monks also played a significant role.
A striking fact of this context was that the monks were unprepared and unqualified to play the role they were empowered to by Rahula’s classic. It liberated the monks from obligations of ritual duty, but these monks had neither the knowledge nor the training nor the ethical commitment to use that freedom in the service of the general good. With the opening of the Pirivena universities, a large number of young monks received an education of sorts, but it was not an education that equipped them with the necessary wherewithal to perform the needed national task. This lack of fit between empowerment and preparedness led these monks in two different but not always mutually exclusive directions: (1) engaging in financially and/or politically profitable activity and (2) embracing Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. Thus, it was to the decline rather than enrichment of the society that this young, educated, and empowered generation of monks contributed.
In this dismal scene, there were a handful of monks who were commendable in their selfless commitment to social amelioration. The brightest star among these dedicated, responsible monks was the Venerable Madoluvave Sobhita. When I, as a student of contemporary Buddhism, first met the Venerable Sobhita in the late 1970s, he was still in a mood of mild elation at the nationalist victory of 1956. It is however to his lasting credit, both as a social observer and activist, that he had the truly Buddhist understanding and compassion to gradually notice the damage that 1956 brought to the country, a damage reflected in the chain reaction starting with Sinhala Only and leading to anti Tamil pogroms, the massacres by and of the youth of both the north and the south, the rise of private armies and the related collapse law and order, the rise of a violent and fraudulent political culture, and in general, the pervasive malaise epitomized by the Rajapaksa rule. The Venerable Sobhita had both the intellect and the moral courage to move away from the Cintana Parisad, the ideological core of the ultra Sinhala right wing Jatika Cintanaya.
This intellectual and moral shift, which obviously would have been a gradual inner process, came out suddenly into the open in the nation’s darkest hour in recent times, the passage of the 18th Amendment that abolished presidential term limits, enthroned Mahinda Rajapaksa, and laid the foundations of a dynasty. The passage of the 18th Amendment touched the conscience of a large number of concerned citizens, giving rise to profound brooding and alienation in individuals and groups, and to contemplation as to how the disastrous development could be reversed. That would take nothing less that the electoral defeat of Rajapaksa. Given Rajapaksa’s iron hold on power this was an unthinkable prospect. Yet courageous individuals and groups took upon the task, leading at first to a public discussion as to how this could be accomplished.
It was obvious that Rajapaksa could be defeated only by a united opposition, and a common candidate. The opposition groups however were so varied and fragmented, and the only idea on which all could come together was that of defeating Rajapaksa. There was also the common agreement that the ills of the system were largely rooted in the all powerful presidency, which made the abolition of the presidency a viable rallying point. Hence the idea came into being that a strong common opposition can be launched on the issue of abolishing the presidency, and the election could and should be fought on this single issue of abolishing the presidency. The next question then was who such a common candidate would be.
It is to the credit of the Venerable Sobhita, and testimony to his national stature that his name was proposed as the most widely acceptable and the most electable as “the single issue candidate”. No less to his credit is that fact that the Venerable Sobhita’s name was proposed by a committed Marxist, an engineer by training, and an academic by profession, Kumar David. (Although not to my taste, but to add to my point about the Venerable Sobhita’s national esteem, it could also be pointed out that Professor David is a Tamil and probably an atheist). As a footnote, and in all honesty, I must admit that I was at that time unaware of the Venerable Sobhita’s shift away from the ideas of the Cinatana Parishad, and publicly expressed skepticism about his suitability as the “single issue candidate”. It is much to Kumar David’s credit that he was far better informed than I was.
The “single” issue in the idea of the “single issue candidate” was that the united opposition would at the next presidential election field a candidate whose sole platform and function when elected would be to abolish the executive presidency. When invited to be that candidate by the movement taking form by then, the Venerable Sobhita turned down the honour by light-heartedly commenting that the two previous presidents who had pledged to do so forgot about it upon election to office, and he might be tempted to do the same.
The true significance of the campaign for a “single issue candidate” was the exponential growth and solidification of the opposition to the Rajapaksa rule that set in motion the processes that inexorably led to its defeat in January 2015, followed in August by the parliamentary defeat of the Rajapaksa faction. While the idea of the “single issue candidate” faded with the unexpected arrival of Maithripala Sirisena in the opposition camp, it can be stated without a shadow of doubt that it’s the citizen’s movement for the removal of family rule and the reestablishment of the rule of law that brought about the changes in January and August 2015. With the new image of defender of democracy added to his charisma as one of the country’s greatest preachers, there is little doubt that the Venerable Sobhita played a decisive role in the success of the citizen’s movement that ended the darkest era in our recent history. It is the task and responsibility of all citizen’s groups as well as concerned citizens to carry on the Venerable Sobhita’s noble and selfless legacy.
Dr.Rajasingham Narendran / November 10, 2015
Thanks for this dispassionate and factual article outlining the evolution of the political and religious evolution of Ven. Sobitha Thero and his liberation from the ‘ Chinthana’ doctrine. What was the late Thero’s role in the 1983 riots? I hear many accusations leveled on his role. Was he the same Sobitha Thero, who was politically active in that period?
Khema / November 10, 2015
Dr. Raja, here it is; By Dr Nimalka;
I was then the Secretary of the Development Commission of the National Christian Council. I had just passed out as an Attorney-at-Law. I was not inclined to continue as a practicing lawyer. Some leaders of the Student Chriatian Movement who had encouraged me to get a professional qualification quickly bundled me back into the safe heaven of a christian institution. I had dabbled in theology for a while at the Theological College of Lanka and they realised that my interest in liberation theology would serve the purpose of the NCC-DC which was pioneered by the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe and catholic priests like Fr Paul Casperz. They wanted an activist assistant. The NCC-DC was a path breaking experiment. We had Venerable Buddhiyagama Thero and the late Dr Rajasigham who was murdered inside the Welikade prison during the sinhala mob during the communal pogrom in July 1983 as members. It was truly an ecumencial initiative and was creating the much needed buddhist-christian dialogue. It is this urge to promote a closer alliance with what is happening in contemporary politics that lead me to attend this solidarity meeting held in the Kotte Naga Viharaya Temple. This is when I first saw, met and listened to Ven Sobitha and realised the strong leadership he provided in this struggle for rights.
Dr.Rajasingham Narendran / November 11, 2015
Thanks. It is interesting to know about Ven.sobitha’s political and very likely spiritual evolution. That is what made him a giant among amongst us. When Mahatma Gandhi was accused of inconsistency he is supposed to have said ‘ I know more today than I knew yesterday’.
Hamlet / November 11, 2015
Exactly, Dr RN.
We All Know more Today than we Knew Yesterday!
“All Conditioned Things are Impermanent”
Amarasiri / November 10, 2015
Prof. H.L. Seneviratne
RE: Maduluwawe Sobitha, From Nationalist To Democratic Activist
“This lack of fit between empowerment and preparedness led these monks in two different but not always mutually exclusive directions: (1) engaging in financially and/or politically profitable activity and (2) embracing Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. Thus, it was to the decline rather than enrichment of the society that this young, educated, and empowered generation of monks contributed.”
Thanks for the succinct summary.
“The brightest star among these dedicated, responsible monks was the Venerable Madoluvave Sobhita.”
“It is however to his lasting credit, both as a social observer and activist, that he had the truly Buddhist understanding and compassion to gradually notice the damage that 1956 brought to the country, a damage reflected in the chain reaction starting with Sinhala Only and leading to anti Tamil pogroms, the massacres by and of the youth of both the north and the south, the rise of private armies and the related collapse law and order, the rise of a violent and fraudulent political culture, and in general, the pervasive malaise epitomized by the Rajapaksa rule. “
Venerable Madoluvave Sobhita, saw the decline and took an activist role to correct it. ( Unfortunately, Prof. Ediriweera Sarath Chandra with his with Sinhala Bahu Drama, threw fuel into the Sinhala-Tamil Conflict for self-interest to further promote the lies and imaginations of Mahawansa, which Mahinda Rajapaksa further exploited).
“It is to the credit of the Venerable Sobhita, and testimony to his national stature that his name was proposed as the most widely acceptable and the most electable as “the single issue candidate”. No less to his credit is that fact that the Venerable Sobhita’s name was proposed by a committed Marxist, an engineer by training, and an academic by profession, Kumar David.”
It is a National loss as well as a Sinhala Buddhist loss, because Ven. Sobhita There could guide the masses away from Mara, MaRa, and even Marxists could see that clearly.
May Venerable Sobhita Thera Attain Nibbana.
Hamlet / November 10, 2015
“Was he the same Sobitha Thero, who was politically active in that period?”
According to the Buddha’s Dhamma, ‘All conditioned things are liable to Change’.
Dr RN, have you not changed your Stand and Opinions according to the Conditions prevalent at the Time?
The Truly Democratic Person is the One who can Seize the Moment and Change History for the Betterment of Mankind.
Let us continue to Implement His Vision for a United Sri Lanka!
John / November 11, 2015
I take following,
“to abolish the executive presidency, When invited to be candidate Venerable Sobhita turned down the honour, light-heartedly commenting, two previous presidents who had pledged to do so forgot about it upon election to office, and he might be tempted to do the same.”
I think, (obvious) though Ven Sobitha would not have done it, he would have been the best Executive President we ever had.
Now you see it , all those corrupt guys get away unscathed, corruption galore in Ranil/ Maithri govt, they think good governance is only amending / changing constitution .
What madness is this ?
Isn’t this a mistake ? by not getting Ven Sobitha to be the candidate ?
sama / November 10, 2015
This unique monk and his fearless activities were instrumental in changing the stupid masses making them aware the need of a change from Rajaakshe marauder politics to any other form which could restore some basic human rights- but after 17 August, he was unhappy looking at the very same folks to have voted for idiots but born criminals or ultra paranoids like Wimal Buruwanse and GOnwahanse (Gommanpila) again. All these dissatisfied him day to another. Not knowing what he thought and fought could not be achieved as dreamt, he had to spend being aside from even today administration. I still rememember that Great thero was vehemnetly oppsoing the appoinments of UPFA defeated candidates to the current parliament.
Even if MY3 and RW are telling the world that Great monks dreams became reality since 08th Jan, but they have to work hard to bring all the Rajapkashe goons to prisons. Rev. Sir, your legacy is unique. No other son of the mother lanka fought in the recent years as you led it. May you attain Nibbana.
thondamanny / November 10, 2015
We always knew it.
Sinhalayas did not need enemies as they were enemies themselves.
After 30+ years, still they could not learn a lesson or two out of
Velu Anna’s doctrine.
Sinhalayas can never be united BUT are good critics.
No wonder the the West revel in Sri Lanka’s democratic Politics.
Give us self rule and we shall show unity. None will criticise anyone and no infortion will leak out of our region
Add to the woes of sri Lanka, the great Monk has pushed the country down a precipece………….Not the roller coaster has just begun.
Sri- Krish / November 10, 2015
Why do you want to dig up the past?. let the past remains wherever they were.
What we are interested is the present, immediate present.
let the past of Vena Sobitha remains unknown!
Do not join with those who in the name of historic truth or research throw mud
it is only pyrrhic victory
CountryFirst / November 10, 2015
With all due respect to the memory of Venerable Sobhitha Thero….
Dr. Seneviratne states: “Venerable Sobhita’s name was proposed by a committed Marxist, an engineer by training, and an academic by profession, Kumar David. (Although not to my taste, but to add to my point about the Venerable Sobhita’s national esteem, it could also be pointed out that Professor David is a Tamil and probably an atheist). ….in all honesty, I must admit that I was at that time unaware of the Venerable Sobhita’s shift away from the ideas of the Cinatana (sic) Parishad, and publicly expressed skepticism about his suitability as the “single issue candidate”.
As an academic, how can Prof. H. L. Seneviratne write of Bhikku Sobhitha with no reference at all to a book by his colleague and mentor in the field, Harvard’s Professor S. J. Tambiah, famously titled “Buddhism Betrayed”, which carried a controversial cover picture of Bhikku Sobhitha with clenched fist raised in challenge?
The book was banned in Sri Lanka but served the LTTE cause well, and affected Sri Lanka’s international position as a Buddhist nation.
Can we prod Prof. Seneviratne’s memory to write about the book and the significance of Bhikku Sobitha on the jacket’s front cover?
Hamlet / November 13, 2015
Here is a Quote from Ven Sobitha:-
“Mahattayo, everything is subjected to change. When we realize that our conduct is not according to accepted norms and practices – and especially to the guidance of our most respected teacher we should change – and that is what we call maturity,”
CountryFirst / November 13, 2015
Hamlet: It is not the Venerable Sobhita ‘changing course’ as he ‘matured’ that is a matter of concern for us, for that is quite acceptable. But what raises concern is that an academic who writes authoritatively of the Thero’s life suppresses or ignores critical information pertinent to Sri Lanka regarding a book authored by an internationally recognized scholar at Harvard no less, which used its jacket cover for depicting the Thero in a highly controversial pose, bringing shame to Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy. It looks a lot like intellectual dishonesty to those aware of the events of the time. ‘Maturity’ could also be expected from the good Professor, don’t you think?
paul / November 10, 2015
Ironic is it not that MR went the other way, from democratic activist to nationalist dictator?
Native Vedda / November 10, 2015
“Ironic is it not that MR went the other way, from democratic activist to nationalist dictator?”
True from a terrorist defending Human Rights activist to chief of Kleptocracy to a war criminals.
Also from an ardent anti Hindian to a little sister of Hindia to a clever dick pro Chinese (marriage of convenience).
Jaffna Man / November 10, 2015
I have very mixed feelings. Back in the 1990s with the war on, I remembered the Thero only by his Singhalese militancy depicted on S. J. Tambiah’s book cover. Negative feelings were reinforced when he came to the university to speak and nationalist colleagues became aggressive that I refused to go.
Then last year when he was proposed as the common candidate, I was uncomfortable. Yet I held my peace thinking that people change and one must give them a chance. But never being sure, I never was fully for him.
He is dead now. It is impossible to have an honest discussion. Only positive sentiments will be tolerated. Recalling the negatives now is just not the done thing.
Any evaluation to be of value must await the next generation.
Sengodan. M / November 11, 2015
In a period of turmoil, there will be considerable wavering and vacillation even by those who are more detached than the others. Under such circumstances we should consider only the net contribution made, which for the Venerable Sobitha Thero is definitely on the positive side!
I think, on the whole, the judgement of Prof. H. L. Seneviratne is perfect! The country at this juncture needs more intellectuals of his calibre!
I too am a Jaffna man!
Shehan / November 11, 2015
“It is the task and responsibility of all citizen’s groups as well as concerned citizens to carry on the Venerable Sobhita’s noble and selfless legacy.”
I totally agree, Professor. The problem is that, judging from their recent actions, Maithripala and Ranil are following their own selfish agendas and probably couldn’t care less about what Rev. Sobitha recommended for the benefit of the country.
Just look at them disregarding Rev. Sobitha’s requests regarding his funeral. It’s all to do with what they can get out of the hoopla.
Bloody hypocritical frauds!
CountryFirst / November 11, 2015
To M. Sengodan et al.
Of course one can wish to ignore or even rewrite facts of history, but that does not behoove of academics like Prof H.L. Seneviratne, who is an internationally acknowledged authority on this topic, so hopefully we will hear from him.
Sengodan. M / November 11, 2015
You have to properly evaluate how progressively the Ven. Sobitha had evolved from the 1980s to 1990s. If not for his intervention with the proposal and sponsorship of the policy of a common candidacy actively promoted by those like Prof. Kumar David, MR will be in power today and the country would be sliding steadily to become another North Korea or Zimbabwe! For that single contribution alone the whole country comprising of peoples of different ethnic groups and faiths should be deeply indebted to him!
Some people will habitually look only at the negative side of things!
Native Vedda / November 11, 2015
“Some people will habitually look only at the negative side of things!”
I agree with you.
However one needs wisdom to drive the country forward before one utters and dwells in racist politics defined by parochial parameters.
We should be happy Sampanthan and Maduluwawe Sobitha thero have chosen the right path. Both proved that man’s capacity to adapt and change, change for the better.
However the question remains whether the state and politicians will change.
We need more refined Maduluwawe Sobitha theros to actively promote accountability, democracy, freedom of speech, rule of law ………….. rather than practicing tried failed old forms of parochial politics.
Sirisena Yatawara / November 11, 2015
There is two ways of Rev Sobitha has been committed that politics and democracy in Sri Lankan by the terms governances of democracy.
1 Rev. Sobitha want ousted MR ruling alliances.
2 He seek so-called social justice movement by an elected or by on selected new regime invented by US and Indian-RAW.
Rev Sobitha work whole heartedly both mission.
Our nation lost unitary state due to his mission.
Dr. Michael Fernando / November 14, 2015
Your short write up on Rev. Sobhita is brilliant and enlightening as many of Sri Lankans still do not understand the real meaning of the role played by Rev. Sobhitha in opening up a democratic space in this country. Your observations have a special weight as you are one of the few intellectuals who made a serious attempt to analyze the role of the buddhist monk in contemporary Sri Lanka in a creative manner.
As Rev. Sobhitha stressed we have to observe with “hawk’s eyes” whether present government will keep its promises and do our best to force it to abide by those promises.
CountryFirst / November 15, 2015
Interesting comment by Dr. MichaelF.!
Referring to Dr. HLS he says he is: “… one of the few intellectuals who made a serious attempt to analyze the role of the buddhist monk in contemporary Sri Lanka in a creative manner.”
‘Creative’ indeed!! .. and that is correct! More like re-creation by suppression of important facts associated with the Bhikku’s life…