UDA KENDAWALA SIRI SARANANKARA
Posted on April 10th, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Ven. Udakendawala Siri Saranankara ( January 7, 1902November 13, 1966) was an outstanding political bhikkhu of Sri Lanka. He is forgotten today. However, his name should not be erased completely from history. He was continuously active under a hostile British administration, and unlike most activists of the time, he was very influential. His activism straddled both British rule and the subsequent period of independent rule. Saranankara was the first President of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka,  in 1943.  He was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize for the Consolidation of Peace among Nations in 1957.

In his autobiography, Saranankara had stated that he was orphaned when very young and was looked after by his elder sister. He became a samanera in at the village temple in his early teens. He then moved to Kospillewa Vihara near Gampaha, where he lived for many years.  Probably sensing his potential,   his superiors sent him to Paramananda Pirivena, Kotahena, but he did not like it there and returned to Gampaha.

Saranankara wished to work with Anagarika Dharmapala. Anagarika sent him, in April 1921, at the age of nineteen, together with Tennekoon Vimalananda, to work at the Mahabodhi Society in Calcutta. Instead, Saranankara went to Shantiniketan where he learned Bengali and studied Comparative Religion, Political Science and History.

At Shantiniketan, Saranankara came in contact with Tagore and the Bengal renaissance movement.   More importantly, he came in contact with the Indian National Movement and its main personalities.   He also met the Bengali communists and was inducted into Marxism by them.

The Indian national movement was particularly militant in Bengal. Saranankara witnessed a number of terror activities of the Bengali radicals. He recalled that they killed British officers in broad daylight. Two schoolgirls had shot a British government agent dead when he came to attend a ceremony in their school.

Saranankara came into contact with the young independence fighters there. He met the Chittagong young revolutionary Group in secrecy.   He went along to Chittagong, to help rouse them up. Chittagong at the time, we are told, was predominantly a Buddhist area.

Saranankara picked up all sorts of ideas during his stay in India.  The Bengalis, with their anti-imperialist fighting traditions, was critical of the non-violence movement of Mahatma Gandhi, saying that it was not the proper strategy to fight the British.  Years later, Saranankara wrote in his autobiography, Non-violence may be a great concept of Dhamma. Nevertheless, it has no meaning to the common man. More so, it has no bearing at all on a movement of national liberation.”

Throughout his stay In India, Saranankara sent essays on the Indian anti-imperialist movements to the journals, Sinhala Jatiya”, Swadesha Mitraya”, Sarasavi Sandaresa”, Saraswati”, Lakmina” and Sinhala Balaya”.

Having passed the London Matriculation Examination, Saranankara entered the Calcutta City College in 1931. He was the only Buddhist priest there. He promptly became the President of the Students Union.

He was closely watched by the British government.  In March 1932,  Saranankara was arrested for helping Bengali radicals in their subversive activities. He was jailed in Calcutta. In prison, he met Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian National Congress leader as well as members of the Communist Party of India.  Then he was exiled to Benares, under police surveillance. He was in Benares for nearly four years.

During his exile in Benares, Saranankara formed a Bengali Literary Circle which attracted young radical patriots. In 1936, Saranankara was seen at the head of a procession in Benares when the people demonstrated against the British Governor visiting the city. Despite police restrictions, Saranankara left Benares and came to Calcutta in April 1936. A few weeks later, Saranankara was deported to Sri Lanka.

On his return to Sri Lanka Saranankara plunged into Marxist politics. Saranankara became a member of the Central Committee of LSSP (est. 1935). He was very welcome because he helped to show that Marxists were not against religion. He had a hand in the LSSP newspapers ‘Samasamajaya’, and ‘Young Socialist’.

He was also involved in the trade union activity of the LSSP. He was a live wire in all trade union struggles, said Wiswa Warnapala. He presided over the first meeting of the Ceylon Trade Union Federation in 1940. In 1941 Saranankara tried to bring the farming sector also into this socialist fold. He set up Lanka Govi Sammelanaya. This was not a success.

Saranankara left the LSSP and joined the Communist Party when it was set up in 1943. Saranankara was the first President of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka. The most outstanding monk in the left movement in Sri Lanka, was Udakandawela Siri Saranankara, concluded Kumari Jayawardene.

He was one of the first monks to clash with prominent Sri Lanka politicians, observed Kumari Jayawardene. He seems to have started this when he was In India. In 1922 when the Legislative Council in Sri Lanka had walked out as a protest against government policies, Saranankara has sent a strong letter to T.B. Panabokke, the Kandyan member saying that his refusal to join the walkout was a disgrace to those Kandyans who had revolted. Panabokke had replied that he was loyal to the King and that Saranankara, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, was no credit to either the Buddha or Tagore.  Back in Sri Lanka, he was active in many battles against conservative politicians using temple sermons (bana) as a method of propagating socialist ideas, said Kumari Jayawardena.

Saranankara was sentenced to two years imprisonment for a seditious speech made at Tiranagama against World War II. He was in jail from 1942-1944. He refused to wear prison garb and insisted on wearing the Sangha robe in prison. The prison authorities agreed to this.

After independence, Saranankara turned his energies to Peace. Saranankara was active in the cause of world peace.  The World Peace Council was formed in 1949.  Saranankara created the local counterpart,  Lanka Sama Mandalaya which included, among others TB Subasinghe, TB Ilangaratne, and Vivienne Goonewardene.

In 1950 the World Peace Council initiated a petition to ban nuclear weapons, known as the Stockholm Appeal.  Under the leadership of Saranankara, Sri Lanka sent in 50,000 signatures for this. In recognition of this,  the World Peace Council, in 1957, organized a special conference in Colombo, the first to be held in Asia. It focused attention on the Buddhist attitude to nuclear testing. There were 400 delegates representing 69 countries.

Saranankara attended the World Peace Conference in 1952 and 1953. In 1954, he attended the Tokyo Buddhist Conference on Peace and went on to China. In 1956, Saranankara attended a World Peace Council meeting, to oppose the invasion of the Suez Canal, held in Bengal. He spoke in Bengali at this meeting.

In 1957, the UK was planning to test nuclear weapons in the Christmas islands ( Kirimati). The tests were carried out successfully, but Saranankara strongly opposed this in a radio broadest where he said he would go to Kirimati and there sacrifice his life. ‘This sent waves,’ said Wiswa. Nehru had praised his courage.  In recognition of his continued commitment to world peace, in 1957, Saranankara received the International Lenin Peace Prize for the Consolidation of Peace among the Nations.

Saranankara thereafter turned to the newly developing Asia and Africa Solidarity Movement. He was the first President of the Sri Lanka branch of this Movement. Saranankara also presided over the 2nd conference of the Asian and African Writers Union in 1962 in Cairo. The standing committee of this Union functioned from Colombo under Saranankara.

Saranankara was concerned about the plight of Vietnam,   which was then fighting the USA. Saranankara said that the international  Buddhist community should rally round the Buddhist community in Vietnam. Saranankara was the secretary of the Lanka Buddhist Vietnam Society.

In 1941, Saranankara started the journal Navalokaya. Navalokaya was published regularly for the next 25  years. It appeared even when Saranankara was in Jail. It was very popular and had a dedicated clientele.  I recall reading this as a schoolgirl.

 Navalokaya played a significant role in moulding public opinion in the country said Wiswa Warnapala. Navalokaya helped to propagate socialist ideas in Sinhala. Saranankara was able to put across Marxist ideas in Sinhala terminology, Wiswa said.

Navalokaya dealt primarily with international affairs.   The objective was to oppose ‘American Imperialism’   and counter anti-soviet propaganda. Navalokaya reported developments in Soviet Russia and activities of the  Soviet Sri Lanka Friendship Society. It also drew attention to the activities of its Communist Party of China and it emphasized the need to maintain good relations with China.  Saranankara did not forget Vietnam. There was a lot about the Vietnam War in Navalokaya, including a special issue.

Navalokaya also gave coverage to the national liberation struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Navalokaya became the vehicle through which information on Africa-Asia Solidarity  Organization, and  Organization of Africa-Asia writers,      were disseminated. Navalokaya gave considerable space to these events. Local issues were also discussed. The importance of national interest in the making of foreign policy was stressed.

Navalokaya encouraged contributions from young writers with ‘progressive views.’ , Navalokaya was therefore also a training ground for writers and many good writers started with Navalokaya. Saranankara wrote some at least, of the editorials and also had his own column.

The elite Buddhists who were supporters of the USA and a  capitalist economy objected to  Navalokaya and spread lies about it, saying that it was distorting Buddhism. The more the attacks, the more popular the journal became, observed Wiswa. 

Saranankara was known as a courageous writer who fearlessly expressed his views on matters national and international. He wrote a book on ‘why Sri Lanka needs Sama samajism.’ Piyadasa Sirisena replied, under the title ‘Communist falsehoods’.

Saranankara wrote a booklet My Country”,   where he attacked both  British rule and the slavish attitude of the  Sinhala people, especially those who worked for the British. Ten thousand copies of this booklet were distributed among the people.  He then received a warning from the British administration.

Saranankara was also interested in providing Sinhala translations of foreign literature. ‘Saranankara’s fluency in Bengali was very helpful to him when he started translating  Bengali literary works into Sinhala during the latter part of his life. Saranankara also translated Maxim Gorky’s book, Mother”.  If my recall is correct, Saranankara was also associated with the ‘Colombo poets’ of the time.

Ven. Udakendawala Siri Saranankara published his autobiography ‘Satanaka Satahan’  in 1965. I have not seen this book. I have used three other writings. They are Kumari Jayawardena ‘Bhikkus in revolt.’ Lanka Guardian.  July 1979  /  W.A.Wiswa Warnapala Udakendawala Siri Saranankara, an assessment of his role in the anti-imperialist struggle (2002) / W.A.Abeysinghe Sunday Observer, reproduced in Lankaweb  (2018). 

One Response to “UDA KENDAWALA SIRI SARANANKARA”

  1. Gunasinghe Says:

    Dear Kamalika, Very interesting article. I remember in 60’s I read the sinhala translation of the book Mother. Veri nice book. I did not know it was translatyed by this venerable Bikku. Thanks again for educating people like me.

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