1956 – A Year of National and Religious Awakening
Posted on May 5th, 2014

By Senaka Weeraratna

 Buddhism has been the most powerful single factor in the development of Sri Lanka’s civilization. For more than 2, 300 years, Sri Lanka developed and projected a country image that was predominantly Buddhist. Though this pre-disposition was held back during the period of 450 years of western colonial rule, no sooner an opportunity arose after the grant of independence in 1948, the majority of the people again turned to Buddhism as expressive of their national identity and gave a mandate to a newly elected Government to restore Buddhism to its rightful place and make it an unifying and integrative force in the nation.


 The commemoration of the 2600th Sambuddathwa Jayanthi in 2011 revived memories of the Buddha Jayanthi that was commemorated in 1956, on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the Parinibbana of the Buddha. The event was commemorated by Buddhists all over the world. It was also a year of great national and religious awakening – a turning point in our history.

 Buddhist Commission Report

Though the movement of the Buddhist revival began in the late 19th century & gathered momentum in the first half of the 20th century, it was in the immediate post – independence period that Buddhist leaders such as Professor Gunapala Malalasekera and L.H. Mettananda saw an opportunity to remedy the historical injustices done to the Buddhists under three western colonial powers, through the establishment of a Buddhist Commission of Inquiry.

 When they proposed a State appointed Buddhist Commission to inquire into the grave injustices caused to the Buddhists, the then Prime Minister Mr. D.S. Senanayake, at first agreed to accede to the request and subsequently balked, saying that it would be a violation of the Soulbury Constitution.

 With hardly any other choice left they decided to appoint a Commission of Inquiry on their own to probe into the continuing system of education and other areas that denied Buddhists their rightful place. The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) established a Buddhist Committee of Inquiry on April 2, 1954. It became popularly known as the `Buddhist Commission’. It held its sittings throughout the length and breadth of the country.

 In addition to Prof. Malalasekera and L.H. Mettananda, the Committee comprised the Ven. Abanwelle Siddhartha, Ven. Haliyale Sumanatissa, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, Ven. Polonnaruwe Vimaladhamma, Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha, Ven. Henpitagedera Gnanaseeha, Prof. G.P. Malalasekera, P.de S. Kularatne, Dr.Tennekoon Wimalananda and D.C. Wijewardena. The Report was finally presented to the Maha Sangha and the general public at a Meeting held at Ananda College on February 4, 1956.

 Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) made a public declaration that he would implement the Committee’s proposals, if the MEP was elected to power at the forthcoming General Election in April 1956. In contrast, Sir John Kotalawala’s UNP government was found dragging its feet over the Committee’s proposals. This stance of Bandaranaike led to the Maha Sangha coming out openly in large numbers to back the MEP. Under the banner of the Eksath Bhikkshu Peramuna, Buddhist monks campaigned from house to house in support of Bandaranaike who also championed the cause of the ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’ (comprising Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru). The MEP swept the polls. UNP was reduced to a low 8 seats in the House. The electoral result was a watershed in the country’s history.

An abridged English version of the Report was published under the title, ‘The Betrayal of Buddhism’, which set out in detail both the injustices suffered by the Buddhists and the remedies, particularly in the education sphere. The Schools Takeover in the early sixties was an outcome of the recommendations made in the Buddhist Commission Report.

 Buddha Jayanthi in Sri Lanka

The Buddha Jayanthi in 1956 was celebrated with great enthusiasm and religious fervor. Energetic individuals and organizations had begun preparations several years before 1956 to mark the occasion with landmark events.

 Professor Gunapala Malalasekera, President of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress devised plans to mobilize the international Buddhist community. Distinguished invitees from several foreign countries and Sri Lanka, attending its inaugural meeting held in Colombo in 1950 decided to form themselves into the World Fellowship of Buddhists.

 Asoka Weeraratna founded the Lanka Dhammaduta Society on Sept. 21,1952 (later re-named in 1957 as the German Dharmaduta Society) which had a number of objectives, the principal one being to send a Buddhist Mission to Germany in 1956 to co-incide with the universal Buddha Jayanthi celebrations.

 Buddhist organizations urged the Government to celebrate the Buddha Jayanthi as a national event and defer the holding of the General Elections in 1956. On the 23rd of May, 1956 being the Vesak full-moon day, the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and other parts of the world celebrated the Buddha Jayanthi.

 The Government undertook numerous activities in commemoration of the Buddha Jayanthi. They included the appointment of a Committee comprising leading Buddhist monks and laymen to advise the Government on all matters relating to the Buddha Jayanthi celebrations, making arrangements to translate the Tripitaka into Sinhala and compile an Encyclopaedia of Buddhism in English as well as one in Sinhala, to compile other books dealing with the biography of the Buddha, his teachings and the history of Buddhism, the issue of Four (4) commemorative Postage Stamps to mark the event, the completion of the renovation of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy before the Buddha Jayanthi, offering assistance for the reconstruction of the Mahiyangana Thupa,were among the other undertakings pledged by the Govt.

 Buddhist Mission to Germany

At a Public Meeting held at Ananda College, Colombo on May 30, 1953 the findings of a survey carried out by Asoka Weeraratna on the current state of Buddhist activities in Germany and the prospects for sending a Buddhist Mission to Germany before the Buddha Jayanthi celebrations in 1956, were discussed. Hon. C.W.W. Kannangara, Minister of Local Government presided at the Meeting.

 The Meeting adopted a Resolution urging the Lanka Dhammaduta Society to take immediate steps to send a Buddhist Mission to Germany before 1956 in order to commemorate the Buddha Jayanthi and further that the Society should take immediate steps to establish a permanent Buddhist Centre in Germany comprising a Vihara, Preaching Hall, Library, and Settlement for Upasakas.

 Hon. C.W.W. Kannangara, Minister of Local Government, speaking from the Chair said that he had known the Hon. Secretary of the Society, Mr. Asoka Weeraratna from his boyhood and that he could vouch for his integrity. The Hon. Minister added that the Society was going to serve one of the greatest causes of Buddhism launched after the Great Emperor Asoka of India. He therefore urged that all Buddhists should back the Society in every way in order to help it to establish the Buddhasasana firmly in Germany before the Buddha Jayanthi of 1956.

 On August 7, 1956 a few months after he became Prime Minister, Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike declared open the new Headquarters and the Training Centre of the Lanka Dhammaduta Society (later renamed as the German Dharmaduta Society) at 417, Bullers Road (later re – named as Bauddhaloka Mawatha), Colombo 07. He said that Buddhism could be spread only on Buddhistic principles whether in this country or outside. He further said that the Mission to Germany was a very wise one because a number of people in the West were interested in the Buddha’s teachings. The Mission would give them an opportunity to study the religion and also spread the Dhamma themselves. He concluded by saying that if there was any assistance the Government could give the Society, it would not hesitate (Ceylon Daily News – August 8, 1956).

 On June 15, 1957 the first Sri Lankan Buddhist Mission to Germany sponsored by the German Dharmaduta Society and comprising Ven. Soma, Ven. Kheminda and Ven. Vinita from the Vajiraramaya, left for Germany. They were joined by Asoka Weeraratna, two weeks later in Berlin. Shortly afterwards the Venerable monks took up residence in Dr. Paul Dahlke’s Das Buddhistiche Haus. In December 1957, Asoka Weeraratna (Trustee) negotiated and purchased from the heirs of Dr. Dahlke, the Das Buddhistische Haus on behalf of the Trustees of the German Dharmaduta Society, which included, Hon. Dudley Senanayake, Henry Amarasuriya, Dr. P.B. Fernando and Mr. Nelson Soysa. Das Buddhistische Haus was thereafter converted into a Vihara by the GDS through considerable renovation and placement of Dharmaduta monks on a long term footing.

 Buddha Jayanthi in India
The Buddha Jayanti in 1956 attracted the attention of almost the entire world as several countries such as India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka put into effect elaborate programs to celebrate the event.

 The Government of India celebrated the event as one of great cultural significance for the country. Though born in Lumbini, Nepal, the Buddha delivered his Dhamma discourses mostly in India. A high-powered Committee was appointed with Indian Vice-President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan as Chairman and the chief ministers of several states as members, to make the arrangements. Public funds were made available for the celebrations, which included public meetings, exhibitions of Buddhist art, the visits of foreign Buddhist scholars, the publication of forty volumes of the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures) in Pali and Sanskrit, the issue of commemorative Buddha Jayanthi postage stamps, and the erection of a monument in New Delhi to mark the event.

 Sixth Buddhist Council in Rangoon in 1954

The Sixth Buddhist Council (Chattha Sangayana or sixth synod)was opened in Rangoon on May 17, 1954. It was sponsored by the Burmese Government under Prime Minister U Nu. A Maha Pasana Guha Cave, a great artificial cave built from the ground up and completed in 1952, served as the gathering place, much like India’s Rajgiri’s Sattaparni Cave that had housed the First Council immediately after the passing away of the Buddha.

 Like the preceding councils, its chief objective was to recite, affirm and preserve the genuine wording of the Vinaya, Suttas and Abhidhamma -the ‘pariyatti’ ””as related by the Buddha and his principal disciples. This Council was unique in that the 2,500 learned Theravada monks who participated came from eight countries””Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India and Nepal””unlike previous councils which had included monks from the host countries only.

 Ven. Nyanatiloka and Ven. Nyanaponika, two German monks, then residing in Sri Lanka, also figured prominently in the Sixth Buddhist Council. Scholar-monks of Sri Lanka played a significant role and the general editor with overall authority was a Sri Lankan who had settled down in Myanmar. The complete traditional recitation of the Theravada Canon at this Council took two years, from 1954 to 1956. The Council closed on the full moon day of May 1956, exactly two and a half millennia after the Buddha attained Parinibbana. The version of the Tripitaka which the Sixth Buddhist Council produced is recognized as being true to the pristine teachings of Gautama the Buddha and the most authoritative rendering of them to date.


Today, Buddhism has a greater appeal in the West due to an increasing number of people in these countries showing a preference for a philosophy and ethical system that places a high emphasis on peace, non – violence and compassion towards all sentient beings. In Asia, it is feasible for countries with pre-dominant Buddhist populations to consider developing closer ties with each other in the spheres of economic, cultural, and trade and investment.

 Further we see at the international level a large number of countries forming alliances on the basis of regional proximity, common cultural heritage or common religion. In this context it is worthwhile to consider the formation of a ‘ League of Buddhist Nations’ in the international arena which is not confined purely to celebrate the International Day of Vesak or such similar occasions.

 The celebration of Wesak shortly by the Buddhist world is an appropriate time to give careful thought to this idea.

6 Responses to “1956 – A Year of National and Religious Awakening”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    This happened in 1956 because SWRD came up with the SINHALA ONLY slogan.

    That is the right thing to do.

    IF he had NOT come up with that slogan, we would NOT know him. NO change in 1956. NO victory over EVIL in 1956.

    GOSL reversed this in 1987 and now SL is in DEEP trouble.

  2. sena Says:

    According to Lee Quan Yu, this was the beginning of Sri lanka decline. The Sinhala Buddhists who benefited from SWRD policies, settled in Colombo suburbs and did their utmost to emulate the dreaded “kalu suddas” shown in the divisive cartoon. They forgot their rural roots and rural compatriots and have used the education and other benefits they received thanks to SWRD, not to develop the country but to play the system (just like kalu suddas) and shortchange the productive rural areas which continue to date. And regarding the spread of Buddhism, it has come to a stage that Buddhists in the West are the ones who practice what Buddha preached while in Sri Lanka it has reduced to an orgy of rituals exploited by influentials to hide their corruption and crimes. Lighting 84 thousand oil lamps in already polluted cities is a good example of the sad state of the practice of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and its use as an exhibition of money and power obtained in most cases by compromising law and order.

  3. Christie Says:

    1956 is the death of Sinhala and the birth of the Sri Lankan. SWRD was the murderer who was a puppet of India, Indian colonial parasites and vermin.

  4. Nanda Says:

    1956 was the year Sinhala common people got recognition a humans. Then on wards hanumans who have been treated as the humans by British murderers were trying to burn Lanka with tails lighted with fire. Hanumans forgot that the tails were stuck inside the asses.

  5. Sooriarachi Says:

    In 1956 I was a supporter of UNP and blindly criticised SWRD for the Sinhala official language policy and the revival of Buddhism. Within a few years I realised he was correct. Even after independence the country was dominated by the English speaking Colombo elite, dressed in Western attire, many of whom were Christians, whereas the over 80% country Sri Lankans who had not mastered English or dressed like westerners remained as 3rd class citizens, with no future. With the enactment of Sinhala the official language and the national dress as the official dress, SWRD liberated the people in the village and gave them an equal opportunity to get into the mainstream. The blunder he made was not giving the Tamil language too an equal place and ignoring the English speaking population who were not conversant in Sinhala or Tamil. However, these issues were rectified later, but not before major agitations that divided the nation. Also, during this period Catholic action was rampant and it was the agitations of people like Malalasekara, Methananda that opened the way for equal treatment to the non-Christians. Looking back, the coming to power of SWRD in 1956 was a watershed event for equal opportunities, but his progressive policies could have been implemented at a slower measured pace and more diligently.

  6. Ananda-USA Says:

    Soorriarachchi said,

    “the coming to power of SWRD in 1956 was a watershed event for equal opportunities” … ABSOLUTELY!

    “but his progressive policies could have been implemented at a slower measured pace and more diligently” … DISAGREE! Slower would have not have met the aspirations of the disenfranchised in the country at that time, perhaps would never have been implemented or realized, and have led to a much worse revolution than the JVP rebellions that followed in Sri Lanka.

    There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.Delayed, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

    William Shakespeare

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