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VENERABLE WELIWITA SARANANKARA MAHATHERA

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

His complete title was Venerable Weliwita Asarana Sarana Saranankara Sangha Raaja Mahathera(1698-1778)

FOREMOST PATRIOT OF RECENT CENTURIES

Preeminent among the patriots of the recent history of our country, he is remembered with utmost veneration by all Sinhela people of our motherland. He was indisputably the foremost Sinhela Buddhist patriot and a true leader of Sinhela Buddhists during the colonial period of our country. His initiatives, patronage and contribution to the revival and strengthening of the Buddha Sasana (organization), the Sinhela language and Buddhist culture, are immeasurable and unsurpassed by anyone during the colonial and post colonial period of over five centuries.

HIS EARLY LIFE

Venerable Weliwita Saranankara Mahathera, was born in Weliwita in the hill country, in the year 1698, and was named Kulatunga Banda. This was a time when Sinhela Buddhist education was in disarray owing to the social instability and upheaval brought about by foreign invasions and atrocities. Literary activities were almost absent. The sangha community was in disarray. De-robing of monks was rampant owing to varied difficulties in leading such a life.

In spite of this situation, owing to his unfailing perseverance and determination, he as a young person, ventured from place to place and from teacher to teacher to learn Pali and Buddha dhamma. He underwent great difficulties in the process. He secretly visited learned Buddhist teachers such as Leuke Ralahamy who was a prisoner at the time, to learn the Pali language, and soon became extremely proficient in the language.

HIS DHAMMA KNOWLEDGE

Soon, his knowledge of the Dhamma and the Pali and Sinhela languages was unparalleled at the time. He was a popular preacher and was known widely in the Sinhela community. He possessed a compelling intellect and a commanding yet unassuming presence. It was customary for him to obtain his daily dhana by resorting to ‘pindapaatha” or visiting households where food was offered. Owing to this, he was referred to as Pindapaathika Weliwita Saranankara Thera.

The then king Sri Weera Parakrama Narendrasingha was overwhelmed with the great intellect and knowledge and the writing abilities of this monk, and invited him to write the book “Saarartha Sangrahaya”. Besdies this, he also wrote two Commentaries on the Sinhela Bodhi Wansaya and the Bhaishyamanjusaava. Overly impressed by these works, the king was instrumental in building and offering to the monk, the famous Kundasale Raja Maha Viharaya. Subsequently, a Bhikku organization called Welivita organization was established, consisting of many monks from various parts of the country.

At this time the Dalada Perehera and the perahera’s of the four devalas took place separately. On the initiative of this monk these peraheras were combined as one gigantic cultural festival which became the annual spectacle of the Central capital –Mahanuwara until today.

RESTORATION OF THE UPASAMPADAA

The Upasampada or the customary higher ordination of Buddhist monks was lost in the country owing to the disarray brought about in the country by ruthless foreign invaders and plunderers starting with the South Indian Tamils and subsequently by the Portuguese Catholics and the Dutch Christians. This custom was lost to the country for some fifty years during the period of turmoil owing to foreign atrocities. There were no senior Bhikkhus with higher ordination and necessary standing and qualifications to provide higher ordination to the Samanera or novice monks.

Venerable Weliwita Saranankara Mahathera was instrumental in seeking and obtaining assistance from Thailand and reinstating this long held custom of the Sangha community. The restoration of the Upasampada in the country was one of the greatest and most enduring legacies of this outstanding Mahathera.

With the assistance of the reigning king Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe, he sent delegations to Thailand then referred to as “Siyama” to invite senior Thai monks with higher ordination to visit Heladiva to reinstate the institution of Upasampadaa. Three delegations were sent at different times. Delegations consisted of de-robed monks, ministers and lay members. Owing to an accident faced by the sailing boat in which the first delegation traveled, all were drowned. In the second attempt, all but one of the delegates survived while the others perished on the way owing to ill health.

The third attempt was successful and this was during the reign of king Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe. This delegation consisted of prominent monks and ministers who met the Thai king and senior monks of Thailand and obtained the Upasampadaa. The delegates returned to Sinhale in the year 1746, on the Esala full moon day. This delegation was led by Venerable Upali Mahathera.

This delegation returned to the Trincomalee sea port and the letters from Thailand were presented to the Weliwita thera. The Upasampadaa ceremony was held in the Malwattu Maha Viharaya in Mahanuwara on a grand scale on the Esala full moon day of the year 1753. After this ceremony, the king

The story of the bringing of higher ordination to the country is recorded in detail, in the Thai language. This document is found in the Malwatte Maha viharaya. The story is story is also found in the book “Sanharaja viththiya”.

APPOINTED SANGHARAAJA

Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe bestowed the Sangharaaja title (King of the Sangha) to Venerable Weliwita Saranankara Mahathera

In the “wataapatha” or the Award Paper compiled personally by the king and presented to the Weliwita monk, the king refers to the country as “tilake” which means the three parts of the country – the Ruhunu, Maayaa and Pihiti rata. Together, these three parts of the country were known during the time as “Threesinhale”.

After becoming the Sangharaaja, he was involved extensively with activities to revive the Sasana by assisting the Sangha, in particular the samanera or sangha novice to pursue their learning and service to the nation.

He was in no way interested in material possessions such as land, buildings and property in general. Instead, his interest was focused on the development of an exceptional Sangha community in the country, and the welfare of the monks that he led. He traveled extensively in the country, especially in the south to organize and restore the former prestige of the Sangha.

The leadership position and strong influence of the Sangha community of recent times, owes much to the work of this monk and his friend king Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe. He was the chief architect of the great revival of the Sangha evident during and after the latter period of his life.

BUDDHIST LITERARY REVIVAL

He was deeply interested in expanding his knowledge of the dhamma and propagating the dhamma. He wrote extensively. The Sinhela language and literary activities saw a significant improvement during this time owing to the initiative of this monk. This development is of great importance because prior to his time, Sinhela literary activities had declined greatly. He with the help of the king brought an overall cultural resurgence among the Sinhela Buddhists in particular, and in the country in general with his initiatives in the areas of literary revival and bringing about conditions that led to the significant expansion of the generation of ordained and lay writers and poets, restoration of Buddhist temples, monasteries and places of learning, building of new temples and the significant expansion of the Sangha community in the country. All Buddhist temples damaged or destroyed by the Chola Tamil invaders and the ruthless Portuguese Catholics,

Were restored and new vihares built, onebeing the magnificinet Gangaramaya at Levella Mahanuwara. Among prominent vihares restored elaborately were Dambulla, Dalada Maligawa, Degaldoruwa, Ridee Vihare, Hindagala, Medawela, Suriyagoda and Mulgirigala.

GENERATIONS OF BHIKKHUS

No Buddhist monk in the past was known to have had such an outstanding impact on the Sangha community of the country, and who had such as vast number of outstanding disciples who held leadership position in Buddhist temples scattered all over the country. Among these disciples were Buddhist scholars of outstanding repute. These monks in turn helped to develop extensive generations of monks:

Among the well known generations of monks that emerged owing to the efforts of this great monk were those associated with the following viharas:

Kasaagala, Mulgirigala, Kamburupitiya, Okandapola,

Kelani, Muthugala, Kalundewe, Ride viharaya,

Kamburuwelle, Weligama, Kerathige,Weragoda,

Medawela, Tissawa, Diyahunnatha, Welagama,,Annoru,

Nakkawatte, Nettipola, Kassamgamuwe, Ganegoda,

Ginigathpitiye, Meddepola, Rambukkwella, Degaldoruwa

Madagamuwa, Kahatapitiya, Edanduwila, Nagolla,

Bomaluwa, Galamadama, Inguruwatte, Ganegoda Hallena,

Bambunupota, Hindagolla, Galmoratuwa, Wehatenna,

Maakehelwala, Dikpitiya, and Hurikaduwa among others.

It was the development of these vihara sangha generations that has led to the further multiplication of vihara generation of contemporary times.

FIRST WRITINGS AND DRAWINGS ON PAPER

The popular practice at the time in the 18th century, as it was before, was writing or inscribing on ola palm-leaves and compiling the leaves into a book. The first reference to writing on paper was at this time. The king presented the monk with a blank paper book. The monk got his disciple venerable Iriyagama to write the Visuddhi margaya in this paper book. It also contains colour paintings of the suvisi vivaranaya, sath sathiya, diva guhawa, and the dhahamsonda jataka story. This is the first reference to paintings on paper during the Mahanuwara period.

ATTEMPTS TO KILL HIM

The commanding influence he had on the king, the Sinhela nobility and the Sinhela people was well known to the Christian Dutch colonialists. They made several attempts to murder him, but failed. The nobility provided the monk with necessary protection. A leading Christian clergyman of Colombo was in the forefront to kill the monk and with the assistance of some missionaries made a foiled attempt to poison the monk. This story in narrated in a book written during this time titled “Mandaarampura Puvatha”.

Patriot D. B. Jayatileka has written a book on the great service to the nation by this outstanding scholar monk with exceptional leadership qualities and overflowing altruism. A statue of Venerable Weliwita Saranankara Sangharaaja is found in the Dambulla vihare, and a painting of the monk is seen in the Dalada Maligawa. He passed away 227 years ago, in the year 1778, on the Esala Full moon day in August. He was and continues to be a great source of inspiration to the Sinhela Buddhists.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane


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