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Communal Equilibrium in Sri Lanka: The Legacy of Venerable M. Sobitha Thera

Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera. From news.lk

Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera (1942–2015) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk and a nonviolent revolutionary who became one of the most inspiring and influential social reformers in the country. He had a powerful presence and could be said to truly embody the principles of the Buddhist teachings, which he used to promote both social and religious collaboration in order to foster interfaith and interethnic harmony for the benefit of all.  

Venerable Sobitha’s teachings had a profound appeal for people from all walks of life and every religious community. That he made a great contribution to restoring communal equilibrium can be ascertained from the words of N. M. Ameen, veteran media practitioner and president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka: “There were extreme circumstances where our community was facing uncertainties [during the previous regime]. We had no other person to turn to for assistance, but it was Sobhitha Nayaka Thera who openly appeared for our cause. . . . Therefore, Muslims from all over the country are visiting [his monastery] Naga Viharaya to pay their last respect to this great Buddhist leader.” (Daily Mirror) The Daily Mirror columnist Ranga Kalansooriya also stated: “I have never seen a funeral of a Buddhist monk before where other religious and ethnic communities took a prominent role not only in respecting the deceased but also in providing facilities to the massive crowds that gathered to pay homage to the national leader.” Even after Venerable Sobitha’s demise, the first tribute was written by a Muslim, the senior journalist Latheef Farook, who circulated it on social media.

Venerable Sobitha passed away on 8 November this year at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore. He was born on the auspicious day of Vesak, 29 May 1942, in the village of Maduluwewa in Homagama, Colombo District, in Sri Lanka’s Western Province, and given the birth name Pathirage Don Rathnasekara. He was ordained as a novice on 9 May 1955 at Kotte Sri Naga Viharaya under the guidance of the head monk, who was also his uncle. In 1962, he received higher ordination after studying at the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas (monastic colleges), and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in 1964. In 1967, he became the chief incumbent of Kotte Sri Naga Viharaya, and served there until his demise.

Venerable Sobitha was known as a spokesman for and prominent leader of the Sri Lankan people, an advocate for social justice, and a policy-maker. He formed the National Movement for a Just Society (NMJS), which emboldened the nation to topple a number of powerful political leaders, including the country’s president. According to The Buddhist Channel, as a young monk he drew inspiration from the 1956 socialist revolution that overthrew the English-speaking, pro-Western ruling elite, and brought a reformist government to power that accorded rights and justice to the long-suppressed Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority. Conversely, he was viewed as a Sinhala fundamentalist and nationalist by the Harvard social anthropologist Stanley J. Thambiah, who used a powerful image of Venerable Sobitha on the cover of his book Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (1992). The book engendered much controversy in the media and in parliament and was eventually banned in Sri Lanka, with Thambiah being portrayed by the Sri Lankan journalist and science writer Nalaka Gunawardana as a “Christian Tamil.” (Daily Mirror

Funeral parade for the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera in Colombo. Photo from demotix.com

In the 1980s, Sobitha Thera, concerned not only with nationalism but also with social justice and political issues, played a major role in advocating against the White Paper promoting reforms in education. In the latter part of his life, he focused on promoting democracy and strengthening communal ties to unite all communities in support of the common goal of bringing democracy and good governance to the country. Speaking at the funeral ceremony on 12 November, President Maithripala Sirisena remarked on his outlook as being truly inspirational: “I am here today as the President and the new government comprising the Prime Minister mainly because of the initiatives taken by the National Movement for Social Justice headed by late Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha Thera.” He stated that he would take every possible step to fulfill Sobitha Thera’s wish to develop Sri Lanka so as to guarantee social justice, working in accordance with his guidance and advice. (Asian Tribune)

In recent years, a number of countries in South and Southeast Asia have been threatened by outbreaks of so-called “communal violence,” in which extremist religious leaders have been responsible for provoking incidents of aggression. In Sri Lanka, the Bodu Bala Sena (2012), a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization founded by the Buddhist monks Kirama Wimalajothi and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, has played a major role in encouraging discrimination against non-Buddhists in the country. On the other hand, prominent monks such as Sobitha Thera considered the country’s issues objectively and spoke influentially on issues such as human rights, justice, violence, and coexistence with other communities.

Although in his early life Venerable Sobitha was involved in the nationalist movement, in 2006, when Ranga Kalansooriya made reference to Thambiah’s book, Venerable Sobitha responded with the Buddha’s great aphorism that “everything is subject to change,” and added his own words of encouragement: “When we realise that our conduct is not according to accepted norms and practices—and especially in following of our most respected teacher—we should change; that is what we call maturity.” (Daily Mirror)

“We promise . . . that we will work to fulfil the Ven. Sobitha Thera’s goals,” vowed President Maithripala Sirisena. (Asian Tribune)

See more

Venerable M. Sobhitha Nayaka Thera: We lost a champion in creating ethnic harmony and national reconciliation (Daily Mirror)
Death Of Popular Buddhist Monk Draws Attention to Failing “Revolution” (The Buddhist Channel)
Ven. Sobitha Thera campaigned to scrap executive presidency, effect electoral reforms and bring social justice (Asian Tribune)
Sobitha Thera left us at a time we really needed him . . . (Ceylon Today)
Sri Lankan Buddhist chauvinists provoke violence against Muslims (World Socialist Web Site) 

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