GANGODAWILA SOMA THERA: AN ILLUSTRIOUS AND INSPIRATIONAL LIFE 
Posted on December 12th, 2017

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane  

Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera’s untimely death occurred 14 years ago, on December 12, 2003. He was 55 years of age.  It was one of the greatest losses of the nation. The   spontaneous outpouring of grief especially among our people was unprecedented in the living memory of our motherland. Millions of Sinhala Buddhists, including those living overseas, were shocked and grieved at the loss of an outstanding monk. The crowds that flocked to Colombo from all parts of the country to pay their last respects have been unparalleled in living memory. This is reflective of the overwhelming reverence and adoration that people had for this exemplary Bhikkhu whose selfless service rendered to the nation will always be remembered with an overflowing sense of gratitude.

At the time of his death, Soma Thera was 55 years of age. He was ordained as a bhikkhu when he was 26 years of age. Before ordination he had his education at the Isipathana College, Colombo. As a Bhikkhu, he received training at the Bhikkhu Training Centre in Maharagama, under the tutelage of the highly reputed Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Maha Nayake Thera and Venerable Ampitiye Rahula Maha Thera. After obtaining his higher ordination in 1976, Soma Thera was deeply involved in research on the dhamma, and became a keen student of Buddhist meditation. He practiced meditation in distant, isolated locations in Sri Lanka.

In the late 1980’s, on invitation, he visited Australia and established Buddhist Viharas in Victoria and Melbourne. After spending seven years in Australia, in 1996, he returned to Sri Lanka and began a countrywide programme of promoting the Dhamma, Buddhist culture and values. He soon became a dhamma preacher par excellence and traveled widely across Sri Lanka, throughout the whole year and many thousands flocked to listen to his sermons wherever they were held. He was exceedingly popular and was highly venerated by Buddhists in general. His role as a leading Buddhist communicator, a social reformer cum defender of the Sinhala-Buddhist identity, came into prominence with his extensive involvement in the electronic media and public discussions, debates, and sermons. He was listened to and watched by many, on television and radio, and read by many via the news media where he was a highly popular and respected dignitary.  He spearheaded the cause of reviving Buddhism and Sinhala culture, and restoring a sense of nationalism and pride among the Sinhala-Buddhists. Highlighting the plight of Sinhala Buddhists and promoting their welfare were among the prime objectives of his campaigns.

INTERACTING WITH SOMA THERA

It was in the summer of year 2002, or about one and half years before his untimely death, that I met Venerable Soma when he visited Toronto, Canada. It was the Nayaka Thera of the Toronto Mahavihara who requested me to organize a programme of activities for Venerable Gangodawila Soma, in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. This enabled me to renew my relationship with Soma Thera I had met before in Sri Lanka, and whom I held in great esteem. I had the privilege and honour to take Venerable Soma Thera to several places in Ontario and Quebec provinces. In these long driving trips, spanning over several days, to the venues of his speaking assignments and other places of interest in Canada, I had many opportunities to interact freely with this outstanding person, on various issues and subjects that were of common interest to us.

I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities to closely associate and interact with Buddhist bhikkhus belonging to all major Buddhist traditions. This was possible owing to my academic-professional activities and involvements in a wide range of countries in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. I should state with all honesty, that Venerable Soma Thera is among the few Sri Lankan Bhikkhus for whom I have the greatest respect. He was an exceptional Bhikkhu, endowed with a very sharp and clear mind and a highly developed power of reasoning and verbal expression. He was not only well versed in the Dhamma, but had a tremendous capacity to share it with others, with utmost clarity and simplicity. Having known him closely I can say that Soma Thera was an exceptional bhikkhu who lived a calm, serene and disciplined life. Piety, wisdom, and erudition were conspicuous elements of his impeccable character. He was an embodiment of Buddhist morality with unmatchable virtue, of cheerful equanimity and a serene face and smile that reflected his inner composure. One of the noblest examples he left for us was his preference for simplicity in all his activities. He led a simple life with the minimum of possessions. He was in every sense a practicing Buddhist bhikkhu with well-developed skills in Buddhist meditation. His publications bear testimony to the depth of his knowledge of the dhamma and meditation practices.

Our close association continued even after his return to Sri Lanka, where I met him on several occasions. Interacting with him was a breath of fresh air for me. He spoke freely and eagerly on many serious issues and trends pertaining to Buddhism, Buddhists, Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka. We also spoke on the increased interest in Buddhism and Buddhist practices in the West, and the strong influence of the Dalai Lama in bringing about this trend. I found Venerable Soma to be well versed in Tibetan Buddhism and places where this tradition is prevalent. I clearly recall his mentioning a region in Russia having a large indigenous Russian Buddhist community, observing the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He spoke of the problems faced by this community in the past, and on unethical conversions to Christianity that is affecting this community at present. Also, he mentioned that the oldest Buddhist temple in Europe is in St. Petersburg. It was shocking and most distressing to me to hear that he died in St Petersburg.

HIS SERVICE

As far as Sri Lankan Buddhists are concerned, Soma Thera will be best remembered as the one and only Dhamma preacher par excellence of contemporary times. He visited many remote areas to spread the message of the Buddha. He explained in most straightforward terms how to lead simple and meaningful lives based on the Five Buddhist Precepts. In some instances, authorities had to stop traffic when thousands began to flock to listen to him in temples and other public places where he conducted sermons. His sermons were delivered most effectively in simple Sinhala language. He used the simplest possible language in clarifying and explaining the intricacies of the Dhamma in a manner that was lucid, understandable, and most convincing. His simple explanations on difficult and varying Buddhist perspectives and concepts enlightened the public en- masse and were fascinating. His role as the leading Buddhist communicator of modern times, social reformer cum defender of the Sinhala-Buddhist identity and its rights, came into prominence with his extensive involvement in the electronic media and public discussions, debates, and sermons. In his popular television programmes “Anduren Eliyata” and “Nena Pahana”, watched by millions, he never trimmed words to express what he frankly meant on a subject, nor did he at any time abstain from submitting a positive and viable alternative that could help one get out of an impasse or any problem that plagues someone. His sermons and television discussions drew the undivided attention of the young and the old, the Buddhists and the non-Buddhists alike.

HIS IMPACT

He became a beacon of hope for the common masses since his ocean of knowledge on Buddhist canons, scriptures and literature remained unchallenged, well respected, and thoroughly logical. His erudition, enriched with scientific psychoanalytical perspectives, his clarity in perceptions, pitch and intonation in his verbalizations, no doubt prompted his audience to be glued to their television sets. He possessed the capacity to be unbiased, conscientious, and upright before all national and religious problems. The masses felt that they found expression for their worldly, social, and political problems through Soma Haamuduruvoo. His followers admired him for his courage in propagating a pure, superstition-free Buddhism. He spoke about the relevance of Buddhism and Buddhist principles for the contemporary world. He took up day-to-day problems and pointed out how these could be solved by following the pristine Buddhist precepts. His practical approach to the teachings of the Buddha influenced many to change their lifestyles. In his discourses he often opened a dialogue for us to inquire from ourselves whether we are honestly Buddhists and what are the characteristics of a Buddhist and by what are we to measure ourselves. One reason for Soma Thera’s immense popularity was that in his sermons he spoke on contemporary secular, social, economic, and political problems. He did not hesitate to express, in the strongest terms, the frustrations of the common man vis-à-vis the governments of the day. His sermons reached the hearts and minds of not only Buddhists but non-Buddhists as well. He had a very good knowledge of other religions.

He challenged the worship of gods and avatars by Sri Lankan Buddhists. He pointed out that such worship was contrary to the teachings of the Buddha. His simple advocacy was to encourage the inquirer to seek refuge purely in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, and not in mystic powers appealing for mere worldly gains. Buddhism tells its followers to be self-reliant, and not to depend on Gods and other supernatural forces. Also, the Buddha does not grant boons. Self-confidence taught in Buddhism was the only god for him. In pursuit of his noble ideals, Soma Thera’s unswerving efforts revolutionized Buddhist psyche and disposition to such an extent that some Buddhist temples discontinued patronizing deity worship. Also, Soma Thera was very troubled by the Satya Sai Baba cult, which had swept Sri Lanka. The elite of Sinhala-Buddhist society had become ardent devotees of Sai Baba. He thought it was sacrilegious for Buddhists to get swayed by such gibberish.

Soma Thera was in the forefront in campaigning against “unethical conversion” to Christianity and Islam, and the encroachments by Muslims of archeologically significant Buddhist sites and the destruction caused by Muslims to monuments found in these historic sites. He was not against any religion but was against poaching of this sort. Conversion to Christianity became a major issue in Sri Lanka when Christian sects, with heavy funding from western countries and South Korea, entered the scene to exploit the poverty, lack of economic development, and the displacement and deprivation brought about by the racist Tamil LTTE menace that plagued the country at the time. Those involved in unethical religious conversion activities promised people instant cures and solutions to problems with all types of enticements being offered to the poor.

NATIONAL-CULTURE

Venerable Soma cherished Sri Lanka’s national Sinhala Buddhist culture and heritage. He spearheaded the cause of reviving Buddhism and Sinhala culture, and restoring a sense of nationalism and pride among the Sinhala-Buddhists. He fought relentlessly for the survival of the Sinhala people and their culture, which were being threatened by Westernization and a striking lack of nationalism. He mentioned that Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was getting eroded by a perceived inability to face up to the challenge posed by minority Tamil militancy and a tendency to give in easily to influences from the West. Theravada Buddhism, the core of the Sinhala identity, was being subjected to an unmitigated and multi-dimensional onslaught from alien forces. The people were aware of these, but they did not, and could not, articulate them, because power was firmly in the hands of a Westernized, comprador bourgeoisie. It was through Soma Thera that the suppressed feelings of the people found utterance. He personified Sinhala-Buddhism, becoming a “totemic figure”, an “icon”. He courageously defended the rights of the Sinhala community and Buddhists at a time, much like today, when identification with either of them was considered racism and bigotry. With his sermons and interviews on television, he lifted the spirit and morale of the Sinhala people.

“JANA-VIJAYA”

He spearheaded an inexorable effort combined with the sustained campaign to introduce “clean politics” by establishing the “Jana Vijaya Foundation”. The objective was to mobilize the well-mannered citizens of the country to have a positive influence on political decision-making. He wanted all patriotic men to resist and make decision-makers drop foul practices for the benefit of the masses in the country. Soma Thera, the socio-cultural reformer of the times, to his credit, was explicit in his criticism leveled against corrupt politicians. Through Jana Vijaya, he assembled thousands and thousands of youth in the island who were yearning for a morally rich Buddhist leadership. Through publication of a popular newspaper on Dhamma and Buddhist way of life, he took his message to grassroots level. National and religious issues, in his view are interwoven and could not be isolated from the body politic of the country since it was finally the bounden duty of the state to give pride of place to Buddhism, as enshrined in the constitution. Morality was the key to any righteous society, he argued. Stimulus he gave in this direction was overwhelming and result-oriented. His outright assertions, meant to help create a statehood ruled in accordance with Buddhist principles of righteous living, were food for thought and some politicians.  He awakened the nation with his forthright views on national issues. He opened people’s eyes to the dangers that lie around and ahead of us. Citing clearly and rationally, the socio-economic trends in Sri Lanka, he warned the Sinhala Buddhists of the imminent danger of decimation of the Sinhala race and the adulteration of Buddhism by worship of gods, and moving away from practice to ritual.

Non-alcoholism was a key word in him. He spoke strongly against smoking and drug abuse. Undoubtedly, the ‘Mathatha Thitha” programme of the last government was inspired by Soma Thera. This itself was a remarkable achievement at national level by this great monk.  I recall the great interest with which he gathered many latest research publications on harmful impact of alcohol use, drug abuse and smoking, while he was in Canada. I later understood that he got them translated to Sinhala and used the information in his televised sermons and disseminated them for the benefit of youth involved in programs that he personally organized and promoted. One of his most outstanding missions was to mould the younger generation to live according to the Dhamma. He had the right approach in handling youth problems and soon they rallied round him in an organization called ‘Tharuna Saviya’ or Strength of the Youth. From every corner of the island, youths dedicated to the unfailing observance of five precepts taught in Buddhism, flocked, and rallied round him in veneration and began to follow his teachings.

RELEVANCE OF SOMA THERA

Given the drastic social changes taking place today and the threats and challenges faced by Sinhala Buddhists, the future of Buddhism and its continued relevance to our society depends much on how successfully our Buddhist leaders, especially our Bhikkhus can bring back to our people and reinforce the essential core of Buddhist values. Our Buddhist Bhikkhus provide a beacon and an anchor to Buddhism in our country, a living connection to the wealth and insight of thousands of years of Buddhist tradition. Their enormous humanitarian and social welfare service during the tsunami crisis in our country is reflective of the power of compassion ingrained in them by Buddhism and their inherently benevolent and ethical lifestyle as Bhikkhus. In the light of today’s challenges faced by Sinhala Buddhists, the influence and connection of Bhikkhus can be quite effective if they learn and become skilled, like Soma Thera, at how to present the Buddha Dhamma in a format that is effective to contemporary society. Like Soma Thera, they should spearhead the cause of reviving Sinhala Buddhist culture, and restoring a sense of nationalism and pride among the Sinhala-Buddhists. Venerable Soma Thera has become an enduring legacy of our nation, because he lived up to these expectations.

Today, there is a great need for the caring and sensible Buddhists within and outside Sri Lanka to organize themselves to avert the erosion of Buddhist values occasioned by the lack of enlightened Buddhist leadership, both ordained and lay. A realistic strategy and approach need to be developed, to directly address the glaring problems facing contemporary Buddhists and ways of helping to reform and re-invigorate the Sangha need to be identified in a pragmatic manner. In contemporary times, in Sri Lanka, with its cluster of occasional bafflement, discord, and uncertainties, mostly because of devious and unethical actions of some non-Buddhist elements mostly Christians and Muslims, backed by foreign funding, the relevance of propagating the Buddha’s teachings, cannot be overemphasized. Buddhists need not be doormats” to these divisive forces with hidden agendas that aim at undermining Buddhist norms and values that form the foundation of our Buddhist nation, for over two thousand two hundred years. We must be protective of our culture which appears to be threatened by various strong forces both local and foreign. It is time that we made a determined effort to counter this trend, and reclaim our cultural heritage. We know that it is in our own culture where we instinctively feel most comfortable and where we are ourselves. It is by sharing our cultural norms with the younger generation, and helping them to incorporate its values to shape their lives that this great cultural inheritance can be sustained for succeeding generations. Soma Thera’s life and teachings inspired many of our nation’s contemporary Buddhist leaders – lay and ordained, and movements. Our present day Bhikkhus and Buddhist leaders should be happy and grateful that destiny bestowed us with such an enlightened contemporary, a role model for generations to come.

Although his life was rather short, Soma Thera’s impact has become legendary. He left a lasting imprint on both the Sri Lankan and the international social and religious scene. His death is admittedly an irreparable loss to Sri Lanka at a time his services were most relevant and required. The influence of his mission is still felt in the Sri Lankan social scene and is bound to continue for many more years to come. The impact he has had on the lives of all those who encountered him directly and indirectly has been remarkable. Memories of his life, rich with experience, wisdom and dedication will continue to resonate for many years. His name will be honoured with undying gratitude by many generations to come. What his departure reminds us is the fact that time is ripe for Sri Lankan Buddhists to re-evaluate and re-think of their collective stand on national and religious issues of their motherland.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane                                                                    daya.hewapathirane@gmail.com    

3 Responses to “GANGODAWILA SOMA THERA: AN ILLUSTRIOUS AND INSPIRATIONAL LIFE ”

  1. RohanJay Says:

    What I like most about Soma Thera besides being an excellent Sri Lankan Sinhalese Buddhist Priest. Who stands up for the rights of Sinhalese Buddhists is he is not intimidated or backs down or takes crap from violent muslims! From what I understand he was one of the first priests to warn Sri Lanka of the looming Islamic threat to Sinhalese Buddhist culture and way of life. Time has proved him correct with potentially 32 violent muslim terrorists who joined ISIS during the Syrian war who came from the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Who have now returned to SL and could pose a clear and present danger as they are deadly violent Muslim terrorists who committed atrocities in Syria against innocent people. I hope the Sri Lankan military hunts these muslim terrorists down and round them up and put them on trial before they become a menace to innocent people in Sri Lanka in future.

  2. Christie Says:

    “He challenged the worship of gods and avatars by Sri Lankan Buddhists. He pointed out that such worship was contrary to the teachings of the Buddha.”. That is what brought his end. Hinduthwa got him in Ukraine.

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ven Soma Thera was an exceptional Buddhist priest, courageous, truthful and able.

    During Cold War times (1946-1991) and even in the aftermath, anyone who did good work for Sri Lanka was eliminated, one way or another, by some party or another.

    “Grabbing Lanka” is the name of the Game going on.

    What evil times we live in !

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