The Heroic Wadeehasinha Mohottiwatte (Migettuwaththe) GUNANANDA THERA
Posted on June 24th, 2019

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane


The ‘Panadura Vadaya’, the historic debate of 1873, was a landmark in recent history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka owing primarily to the leadership, initiative and actions of one of the greatest sons of our motherland – Venerable Mohottiwatte or Migettuwaththe Gunananda Thera (1823-1890). He defeated our nation’s adversaries and was the major force behind re-establishing the identity and pride of Sinhala Buddhists who were subject to undue oppression and discrimination during the colonial era. The significance of Venerable Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera’s can be better appreciated when one considers the repressive colonial historical background and the appalling conditions under which he pursued his highly risk-ridden but heroic and courageous actions against powerful forces that had overall control over affairs in the country. 


With the arrival in 1505 of the European colonial powers for over 440 years, the Sinhala Buddhists, the dominant indigenous people of the island were subject to severe harassment, discrimination and exploitation by the brutal colonial masters on the one hand and their compatriots, the Catholic/Christian missionary workers on the other. The latter virtually dominated the island with the encouragement and assistance of the rulers to pursue their task of converting Buddhists (and Hindu Tamils) to Christianity. People were forced to change their traditional names and embrace Christianity if they wished to obtain employment under their regimes. School systems that were installed were instrumental is proselytizing Buddhists and Hindus.


Although the protection of Buddhism, its places of worship and the Sangha, were guaranteed by the British, under the ‘Udarata Givisuma” or the Kandyan Convention signed in 1815, once they had complete control over  the Kandyan kingdom, the British rulers disregarded this commitment and  resorted to actions that were aimed at undermining Buddhism and the Sangha community. One such action was in April 1817, when they cancelled of the Poya day holiday which the Buddhists have enjoyed since historic times, and in its place declaring Sunday as a public holiday. The many actions taken by British to undermine Buddhism incited the Maha-Sangha and the Sinhala people to revolt against the British in 1818. The aim was to regain the lost rights of the Buddhists. This national uprising was brutally suppressed by the British killing many thousands including Buddhist monks, and causing widespread property destruction, hardship and suffering to people.


Wadeehasinha  Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera was born on February 09, 1823, five years after the ghastly event of 1818, and throughout the early years of his life he was exposed to the severe hardships and discrimination suffered by Buddhists in the hands of the Christian colonial powers. He was born in the Mohottiwatte village in Balapitiya. The name given to him at birth was Gingama Migel Mendis. In his early childhood he had a close relationship with a Catholic priest who was residing in a nearby church. Some reports state that his exposure to Christianity made him think of becoming a priest later in life. However, later on, after coming into contact with Bhikkhus of nearby temples including Gala Uda Viharaya in Dodanduwa, he was more interested in learning Buddhism. His early education in Buddhism was at the Subadraramaya Purana Viharaya in Balapitiya, under Balapitiye Gunarathana Mahathera.  He showed much interest in Buddhist studies and displayed exceptional self confidence as a young boy.

When he was twelve years old, in 1835, with the blessings of his parents, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk and the name given to him at the ordination was Mohottiwatte Gunananda. He resided at the Balapitiye Subadraramaya Purana Viharaya as a desciple or pupil of Thelikada Piyarathana Tissa Thera. A few years later, with Balapitiye Gunarathana Mahathera, he moved to Colombo, and resided with him at the Deepaduttaaraamaya in Kotahena which was the first Buddhist Viharaya established in Kotahena Colombo in1832.


In the early decades of the 19th century, the Christian influence was dominant in the country, especially in Colombo. Conversion of Buddhists to Christianity was a common practice during this period. Many converted for personal material benefits and also adopted Christian names. The British administration accorded greater opportunities for Christians to progress in life, with better education and better employment opportunities.

Christian missionaries envisaged that the most effective way of converting Buddhists was through church-based schools. The British colonial administration encouraged and assisted this venture. The Missionaries enjoyed absolute freedom to propagate Christianity by opening schools throughout the country. Buddhist children attending these schools had bible lessons as a component of their school curriculum. They were also exposed to various Christian rituals, festivities and activities held in the church associated with the school. Both children and their parents were exposed to the special privileges and opportunities available for the school’s Christian children, especially for those intending to pursue higher studies or seeking employment in the public service. Inevitably, many Buddhist students eventually embraced Christianity in later life.

By the third decade of the 19th century, there were more Christian missionary schools in the country, assisted by the British administration, as compared to Buddhist schools and pirivena schools combined which had negligible assistance from government. There were government Sinhala medium schools which were used primarily by the Buddhists, but none were established in the Kandyan provinces which were almost exclusively traditional Buddhist areas.


In 1832, the British administration made English the medium of instruction in all government schools which led to the closure of all government Sinhala medium schools used by Buddhist children. They opened English medium schools in urban centres in Colombo, Galle, Kandy, Chilaw and Jaffna districts.  At this time, the British established the Colombo Academy or the present Royal College with the primary objective of producing English teachers for the new schools. The establishment of Catholic and Christian Missionary schools in the English medium also increased rapidly during this time, with assistance from the colonial administration.

As far as opportunities for better employment, especially in the public sector, English education was an essential requirement.  Also, Christians were accorded preferential treatment when it came to higher learning and better employment. It is reported that owing to the establishment of English schools and the preferential treatment accorded to those with English education and of Christian faith, the tendency was for many thousands of Sinhala Buddhists children who attended English medium schools to become Christians. As a counter measure, the initiative of Buddhist scholar monks, several Buddhist schools were started in different places in the country but they were faced with severe challenges. It is reported that in 1870, there were only two Buddhist schools in the country, in Panadura and Dodanduwa with an attendance of 246 children as against 805 Christian schools with an attendance of 78,086 children.

The intensity of conversion activities was such that in 1850, James de Alwis, Sinhala scholar, lawyer and theologian said that “before the end of the century Buddhism would disappear from Ceylon”. The Christian churches carried out a widespread campaign of propagating Christianity and discrediting and humiliating Buddhist teachings. It was customary for Christian priests to deliver public talks undermining Buddhism, which were openly insulting, abusive and vituperative. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera was deeply distressed and disturbed about the sad plight of Buddhists who were subject to discrimination and harassment by the Christian church and the British administration. He decided to move back to Balapitiya with Gunarathana Mahathera.


A few years later, Balapitiya Gunarathana Mahathera passed away which was a big loss for Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera.  A few months later, his father died. He was faced with a serious problem of not having anyone to look after his mother who was not in good health. This precarious situation led him to give up robes and return to lay life in order to look after his mother.  He went back to his original name of Migel Mendis. A well known Christian businessman in Balapitiya named Ibraham de Alwis who knew his parents, was sympathetic to the plight of this young man and helped him financially to take care of his mother. Although the young man was keen on being employed in order to earn an income, Alwis the businessman objected to it because he thought that the young man, Migel Mendis, who was a teenager by this time should be focusing on furthering his education. He considered Mendis to be a smart and capable individual. He introduced the young man to Peiris, a Christian teacher or Catechist who took the initiative of admitting him to Wesley College in Colombo. Wesley was a prominent Anglican Christian school in Colombo at this time. Here, Mendis had the opportunity to learn English and Christianity. He did well in his studies and won the admiration of his teachers because he was able to memorize the bible and recite it.

In the meantime, his mother was ailing in Balapitiya and Mendis who was in Colombo was depressed.  He began to lose interest in studies and wanted to be employed, so that he can earn an income and look after his mother. Although he was able to find a job at the Observer Newspaper, he could not continue with it because of the death of his mother. He was deeply depressed and returned to Balapitiya. At this time, his uncle or his mother’s brother, who was a Buddhist monk, known as Seenigama Deerarakkitha Thera, was living in the Kotahena Deepaduttaaraamaya Viharaya. He assisted young Mendis who was in his late teens at this time. Although he continued to live in  Balapitiya, on and off he visited his uncle at the Kotahena temple. During his stay in Colombo as a student and in his visits to Kotahena he was well exposed to the plight of Sinhala Buddhists who were subject to all forms of discrimination and harassment by the British and their Christian compatriots and henchmen.   


During this period, Mendis renewed his relationship with temples and many scholar Bhikkhus in Balapitiya and Dodanduwa. He was actively involved in the program of writing the Thripitaka on ola palm-leaves that was taking place at the Dodanduwa Gala Uda Viharaya. He developed great interest and skill in this activity. After the completion of writing of the Thripitaka on the Ola manuscript,  it was the custom to ceremoniously donate it to the Chief Prelate of the Viharaya at a grand religious festival. It was the tradition to invite a well-known scholar Bhikkhu to give the special sermon on this day. Mendis took a leading role in organizing this event and took the responsibility of inviting a prominent bhikkhu to give the sermon. By this time he had made acquaintance with many of the reputed scholar bhikkhus in the region.

A very large crowd gathered in the Viharaya for the festival. In the evening when the festival was about to begin, young Mendis came to the Viharaya in a most dignified manner with an ‘atapirikara’ in his hands. He walked directly to Sonuththara Mahathera who was the Viharadhipathi (the Chief Prelate of the temple), and respectfully handing over the atapirikara to him, requested that he would like to be ordained again as a bhikkhu. He mentioned that he was an orphan, with a fair exposure to Buddhism and is deeply committed to Buddhism.  He further said that during his stay in Colombo and in his travels within the country, he has observed and realized the discrimination to which the Buddhists were subject and how the Christian establishment was carrying out a campaign to discredit and humiliate Buddhism. He said that he has a deep desire to save the Buddha Sasana from being destroyed by non-Buddhist forces. He respectfully requested that he be ordained immediately. Deeply impressed by  Mendis’s words and his courage, the Viharadhipathy ordained this nineteen year old young man, under the same name he had before as a bhikkhu – Mohottiwatte Gunananda.

When the time arrived for the climax of the festival to have the sermon of a prominent scholar bhikkhu, Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera appeared in the bana-maduwa, in his yellow robes, in a most elegant manner,  to the surprise and utter joy of the crowd who loudly chanted ‘Saadhu Saadu”. His well-known sermon on this day was on the Maha Mangala Sutta which thrilled the large gathering of devotees. His sermon continued until the early hours of the morning as was the custom at this time.


Gunananda Thera obtained his higher ordination in 1844 when he was 21 years of age. This was at the Balapitiya Udakukkhepa Seemamalakaya. Thereafter, he obtained further dhamma education from reputed scholar bhikkus at the time. Subsequently, he moved to Kotahena Deepaduttaaraamaya where he established himself permanently. At the time when Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera, returned to Deepadutthaaramaya in Kotahena he found that many thousands of Buddhists have converted to Christianity in order to gain a livelihood. Knowledge of English was essential to get ahead in life at the time and often, after learning English, most Buddhists converted to Christianity in order to benefit by the preferential treatment and to secure better livelihood.

The Kotahena Viharaya was at this time in the midst of an exclusively Christian neighborhood and the Viharaya was surrounded by various Christian establishments. This was the time when Christians, especially Christian priests were quite active in openly conducting public talks against Buddhism and Buddhists. These talks were directly offensive, slanderous and derogatory, and contained information that was malicious and scornful.  In fact, this callous, insensitive and blasphemous attitude on the part of the Christian establishment that motivated Buddhist leaders such as  Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera to get to the forefront irrespective of the risks and challenges involved, in order to respond to the hateful and profane material against Buddhism spread by Christians, misleading the masses and undermining the faith and way of life of indigenous people of the country for over 2000 years. One could argue that it was the wrong and arrogant attitude of Christians that helped to create a strong Buddhist force challenging the Christian dominance and influence at the time. It was the lack of foresight on the part of the Christians that led to extreme forms of unpleasantness and disharmony between the adherents of the two religions, and the emergence of Buddhist leaders such as Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera, and finally the serious blow and setback, in actual fact the humiliating defeat suffered by the Christians in the religious debates in late 19th century culminating in the famous Panadura debate of 1873, which had international implications.

In 1849, when he was twenty-five years old, he held his first important public sermon in Colombo Fort at a place called Kottambagahayata. During his period of stay at Kotahena, Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera travelled extensively across the country giving pubic sermons to large gathering of Buddhists, on the need to protect and promote Buddhism and Buddhist way of living. He emphasized the need for Buddhists not to be victims of Christian conversion. He highlighted the falsehoods in Christianity and argued against the criticisms leveled against Buddhism by Christians. He showed the people the value of their Buddhist cultural inheritance.


During the latter half of the 19th century one of the cheeky and disrespectful methods used by the British to undermine Buddhism was the cutting down Bodhi trees and removal of Buddha statues in public places, especially at roadside and road intersections. In the pretext of road expansion many Bodhi trees and Buddha statues in and around Colombo city and other major urban centres were removed or destroyed by the British. As a direct counter measure against this unjust and reprehensible actions,   Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera organized the Bodhiraja Committee” consisting of prominent Buddhist leaders and began a huge campaign of replanting Bo plants and erecting Buddha statues at places where these historic Buddhist symbols were removed by the British. In addition, Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera made a formal complaint in writing to the British government in England against this unfair practice. This led the British Administration to abandon this shameful anti-Buddhist practice.


Even as a young bhikkhu, Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera was an indomitable orator. He was admired by both the lay and ordained Buddhists for his fearlessness, utmost courage and dedication to his cause of protecting and promoting Buddhism in the face of many challenges he had to encounter in the process. By about the middle of the 19th century, he had made over 4000 sermons in different places in the country and was known nationwide as a Bhikkhu leader with oratorical skills were unparalleled.


The Christian missionaries were propagating their religion through pamphlets and books. During the latter half of the 19th century, the Christian establishment began a widespread campaign primarily by means of publications strongly criticizing and undermining Buddhism and Buddhist practices. Many books and pamphlets were produced by them. They had enormous funds and no objections from the prevailing British administration to pursue this campaign. They had the support of the news media which they used profusely to undermine Buddhism.

The missionaries, who arrived in the island at the beginning of 1812, also established printing presses in the country. The Wesleyan Press printed and published the first Sri Lanka journal ‘Masika Thagga’ in 1832 and ‘Shathra Nidanaya’ in 1846. The Ceylon Observer established in 1834 was the first independent newspaper published in Ceylon. The Lakmini Pahana newspaper was printed in 1862 at a press owned by Hendrick Perera. The first unregistered Sinhala newspaper, Lanka Lokaya was printed in  September 1860 at the Lanka Loka Press in Galle. The first Sinhala Buddhist press was established in July 1862 and was known as the Lankopakara Press. The establishment of this press was a result of the Buddhist revival movement during the second half of the nineteenth century. Bulathgama Dharmalankara Sri Sumanatissa Maha Thera, the pioneer of the establishment of the Buddhist press, received necessary financial assistance to establish the Press from the King of Siam (Thailand).

In 1849, Rev. D. J. Gogerly of the Wesleyan mission published ‘Christian Pragnapthi’. e Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera and Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera responded to criticisms leveled against Buddhism contained in Christian publications, through the ‘Durlabdi Vinodimi’ and ‘Christian Vada Mardanaya’ and ‘Samyak Darshanaya’ during the period -1862-1863. Through journals like ‘Satya Margaya’, Satya Prakashanaya’, ‘Lakmini Kirula’, Christiani Wada Vighataniya’, and ‘Reversa’ and thousands of pamphlets, the Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera refuted the wrong views that were held by Christians.

The Buddhists were seriously handicapped owing to lack of access to printing facilities. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera rose up to the occasion and with the support of lay devotees, soon made arrangements to purchase a printing press. This led to a great proliferation of Buddhist publications. Many books, magazines, newspapers and handouts were published as replies to the arguments and criticisms leveled against Buddhism by the Christian establishment. They also highlighted the value of the teachings of the Buddha in understanding realities regarding life and as a path leading to the eradication of human suffering. The basic Christian beliefs and concepts were subject to strong criticism and questioning.

Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera was well known for his writings and many publications. His publication titled Bauddha Prasna” or Buddhist Questions was exceedingly popular and at one stage over 24,000 copies were distributed. These publications were of great appeal to the Buddhist public and the demand for them increased rapidly. Most of these publications were made available to the public at the sermons held countrywide by  Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera.  Among his many publications which were in great demand among the Buddhists were Lakmini Kirula, Sathya Maargaya (journal), Riviresa,  and Bauddha Edahella.  Among other popular publications were: Sathya Prakashanaya (journal),  Kristhiyaani Vigaathanaya,  Bauddha Prasna, ‘Durlabdi Vinodimi’, ‘Christian Vada Mardanaya’, ‘Samyak Darshanaya’,  ‘Lakmini Kirula’, Christiani Wada Vighataniya’, Lankakoka news paper, Sarasavi-Sandaresa, Sinhala Bouddhaya, Bauddha Sahodaraya (Sinhalese Buddhist Brotherhood) and thousands of pamphlets refuting the wrong views that were held by the opponents of the Sinhala people and Buddhism.                             


The Mid to late 19th centuries was a period that saw the rise of several important scholar bhikkhus in Sri Lanka whose overpowering influence had much to do with the survival and eventual revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Their impact was a definite reason for the strengthening of Buddhists as a force to withstand and challenge the serious intimidation and threats to which Buddhists and Buddhist education were subject during this precarious period in the island’s history.  Among the outstanding Bhikkhu leaders of this time were the following:

Venerables –

Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala (1827-1911) *1,

Weligama Sumangala (1825-1905) **2,

Dodanduwe Piyarathana Tissa (1826 -1904) ***3

Waskaduwe Subhuthi (1835-1917),

Walane Sri Siddartha (1811-1868)

Battaramulle Sri Subhuthi (1832 -1915)

Ratmalane Dhammaloka (1828 – 1887)

Kathaluwe Gunarathana (1832-1841)

Batapola Kalyanatissa (1810-1841)

Walpita Gunarathanatissa (1857-1920) 

Bulathgama Dharmalankara Sri Sumanatissa 

Koggala Sangatissa

Potuwila Indrajothi

Talhena Amaramoli

Mulleriyawe Gunaratana 

Bentara Atthadassi

Randombe Dhammalankara

Walpita Sumanatissa

Mohottiwatte Gunananda (1823- 1890)


Venerable  Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera, was one of the pioneer monks of the Buddhist revivalist movement in the 19th century Sri Lanka. The service rendered by him to the Buddhist Education is unparalleled. He was the founder of Vidyodaya Pirivena Maligakanda. He was well versed in Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit, English, Buddhism, History, Arithmetic, and Archaeology. As an erudite monk he has written many books and he started the newspaper Lankaloka, and helped in the publication of  “Sarasavisandaresa” and “Sinhala Bauddhaya”. He was one of the primary sources of information on Buddhism for Venerable Mohottiwatte Gunananda his contribution meant much for the success of the Panadura debate. Col. Henry Steele Olcott learnt Buddhism and Pali under guidance of Ven. Sumangala.


Venerable Weligama Sumangala Thera was an outstanding scholar bhikkhu with many important publications -Hitopadsesa Atthadassi, Hitopadsesa Padarthavykanaya, Upadesa Vinischaya, Siddanta Sekaraya. His work Siddhanta Sekharaya of 700 pages was printed at the Government Press in 1897. He established Saugathodaya Vidyalaya at Rankoth Vihara Panadura. He was a close associate if Sri Edwin Arnold the author of  ‘Light of Asia’.


Venerable Dodanduwe Piyarathana Tissa started the first Buddhist school in Sri Lanka, under the name Jinalabdhi Vishodaka at the Saila-bimbaramaya Temple in Dodanduwa, in spite of numerous challenges from the colonial administrators. His intention was to spread Buddhist education in the island and put an end to discrimination, deprivation and injustice caused to Buddhists  by colonial masters. In order to achieve this Piyarathana Thera formed a Buddhist Society called ‘Lokartha Sadana.’ His work attracted the attention Colonel Henry Steel Olcott several years before his arrival in the island in1880 and the two parties communicated through letters. On the initiative of Col. Olcott, Ven. Piyarathana Thera was conferred honorary membership of the Theosophical Society based in the United States. They jointly laid the initial groundwork for the revival of Buddhist education in Sri Lanka. Olcott, on the guidance of Ven. Piyarathana Thera, formed the Buddhist Theosophical Society in Sri Lanka.


Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera initiated and led many debates in defense of Sinhala Buddhists. He consulted many of the scholar Bhikkhu leaders of the time who were most forthcoming in providing Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera with necessary information and assisting him in various other forms. Debates were conducted initially through exchange of articles between Buddhists and Christians.

In 1865 was the so called Baddegama debate conducted through exchange of articles between the two sides.  What initiated this debate was a verbal argument between Venerable Sumangala – a young Buddhist monk of a Vihara in Baddegama and a Christian priest. The Waragoda debate followed in the same year and in 1866 there were two debates, one at  Liyanagemulla  and other Udanvita in the Satara Korale. In 1871 was the  Gampola debate held with Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera and Pandit Batuwantudave for the Buddhists and Rev. Charles Carter and his team for the Christians.


These debates culminated in the world famous debate held at Panadura from the 26th to 28th August 1873. The occasion for the Panadura Debate was triggered owing a highly offensive and scornful sermon delivered on the 12th of June 1873 by the Protestant priest Rev. David Silva on the teachings of the Buddha with reference to the human soul. This was delivered in the Wesleyan Chapel in Panadura which is one of the first churches established by the Wesleyan mission in the early part of the 19th century in an almost exclusively Buddhist area, and in the immediate vicinity of the historic Galkanda or the present Rankot Viharaya. At the time, this was a well known stronghold of Buddhists and Buddhist leaders, both lay and ordained. The intension of Rev. David Silva’s sermon was to disrepute and humiliate the Buddha. He criticized the teachings of the Buddha in a most sneering and abusive manner. Both the content of the sermon and the language used was malicious, slanderous and scathing.

Buddhist leaders of Panadura were hurt and they decided to invite  Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera to reply Rev. David de Silva. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera came to Galkanda Viharaya (Rankoth Viharaya) on 19th June 1873 and delivered the reply speech denouncing as untrue the arguments of Christians. However the people of either party were not satisfied with holding speeches in separate venues and face to face formal debate was initiated by the Christians. The  enraged Protestant missions challenged Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera to hold an open verbal debate to establish the truth of the faith. The monk accepted the challenge, and the dates for the historical  face to face debate was fixed with the agreement of both parties. Rules and regulations were decided by the debating parties after consulting each other. 

P. Jeromias Dias a Buddhist leader of Panadura at the time, prepared a large stage and the pavilion in one of his lands called Dombagahawatte near Galkanda Viharaya and the Wesleyan church. The pavilion was attractively decorated. The Christians were represented by able men, the ablest debaters in the island whom their church could have summoned. They included  Revs. David Silva, S. Langdon, Principal of Richmond College, S. Tab, S. Calls, C. Jayasinghe, F. Rodrigo, the catechist Sirimanne, Mudliyar de Soysa, Dunupola Nilame and assisted by a host of foreign and local theologians. The speakers for the joint protestant delegation were Rev. David de Silva of the Wesleyan mission and Rev. F. S. Sirimanne, a Catechist of the Church Missionary Society.

The Buddhist monks participating in the debate were Venerables:  Gunaratna Tissa Mahathera of Panadura,  Hikkaduwe Sumangala Mahathera, Weligama Sri Sumangala Mahathera, Ratmalane Sri Dharmaloka Mahathera, Waskaduwe Sri Subhuthi Mahathera, Batuwanthudawa Devarakshitha Mahathera, Potuwila Indrajoti Mahathera, Koggala Sangatissa Mahathera, Talhena Amaramoli Mahathera and Mulleriyawe Gunaratana Mahathera.  Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera was to lead the Buddhist side and be the sole speaker for the Buddhist delegation. 

The crucial debate commenced at the appointed time of eight in the morning each day and ended at five in the evening. The debate went on for two days. On the first day there were over 10,000 people to hear and see the debate from Panadura and the neighboring areas of Pasdun Korale and Raigam Korale, including more than one hundred Buddhist monks. The debate ranged from the nature of God, the Soul and resurrection on the one hand, to the concept of Karma, Rebirth, Nirvana and the principle of Paticca – Sumuppada or dependent origination.


The debate took place in a peaceful manner and Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera delivered the closing speech in the evening of the final day, and refuted effectively the malicious charges made against the teachings of the Buddha. At the end of the debate, it was quite clear to everyone that that the Buddhist side outshone others.  Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera presented the Buddhist point of view in a most eloquent manner.  His  reasoning was exceptionally powerful and his eloquence was most convincing which made the Buddhists the clear winners of the debate.  After the debate the thousands of people left the grounds shouting “SADHU SADHU”, jubilantly expressing their joy at the outcome of the debate.

The debate ended with a clear victory for the Buddhists. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera not only replied effectively to the fallacies of the Christian speakers, but also enlightened them on the principles and tenets of the Buddhist doctrine. Buddhists were overjoyed with the outcome of this historic debate. Festivities were held in every temple to mark their triumph and the effigy of Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera was carried in procession in every village. This triumph became a great source of inspiration, strength and courage for Sinhala Buddhists to work more vigorously to revive their lost glory.


Newspapers such as  the Lakrivikirana, the Ceylon Times and the Ceylon Observer carried reports on the debate. The Ceylon Times which was the leading English newspaper at the time sent a special representative to report the proceedings of the debate. A complete report of all the speeches corrected by the speakers themselves was published in English day by day. As arranged by the Editor of ‘Ceylon Times’ named John Cooper, an English summary of the whole debate was prepared by Edward Perera. This was printed in the form of a booklet including the proceedings of the debate under the title  “A full Account of the Buddhist Controversy held at Panadura in August 1873”.  Thousands of copies of this English translation were published and distributed widely.

Dr. James Martin Peebles an American happened to be in Sri Lanka during the time of the debate and had occasion to read the book on the debate published by the Ceylon Times. Upon his return to USA, Dr. Peebles published  the book with an introduction explaining how the Buddhists in Sri Lanka have shown the real position of Christianity. He gave the book the title “Buddhists and Christianity Face to Face”. As a result Europeans specially the intellectuals wanted to know about Buddhism and directed their attention towards Sri Lanka.


The aftermath and impact of the debate was extraordinary with far reaching national and international implications. It soon became the major force behind re-establishing the identity and pride of Sinhala Buddhists that was diminishing rapidly under the deceitful, repressive and authoritarian practices of the British Administration. Besides, the Panadura Debate contributed immensely as an eye opener for the Buddhists. It helped to accelerate the Buddhist Revival Movement.

Its international impact was equally significant providing the world with a wealth of knowledge that greatly appealed to and appreciated by the intelligentsia. It definitely helped to bring about increased awareness in the western world, about the teachings of the Buddha. Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blawatsky were among those deeply influenced by the contents of the book published by Peebles.  After reading it Colonel Otcott  become deeply interested in Buddhism. He felt this is one of the religions he was looking for to unearth the secret of the Universe. It was Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera’s eloquent presentation of the Buddhist point of view that impressed him most. Olcott described Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera as “the most brilliant Polemic Orator of the Island, the terror of the missionaries, with a very intellectual head, most brilliant and powerful champion of the Sinhala Buddhism”.


Colonel Olcott came to Sri Lanka on the 17th May 1880, and joined forces with Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera and all prominent Bhikkhu leaders to help accelerate the activities of the Buddhist revival movement that has gained extraordinary momentum at the time. After he came to the island with the support of Buddhist leaders he formed the Buddhist Theosophical Society where he worked tirelessly for the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. As a dynamic leader of this movement, he was able to deal effectively with the colonial rulers. The Buddhist Theosophical Society was instrumental in opening schools to provide  Buddhism- based education to the younger generation.

In 1881 full moon day of Vesak, Colonel Olcott, with the support of prominent Bhikkhu leaders inaugurated at Kelaniya a Buddhist National Fund for the promotion of the religious and secular education of Buddhist children and the dissemination of Buddhist Literature. Starting in 1881 Buddhist Sunday schools were started in several places within Colombo  including Pettah, Kotahena, Borella, Maradana, Barber Street, Messenger Street, Slave Island, Peliyagoda and Panchikawatte.  In 1886, the Sunday school in Pettah was converted to the Pettah Buddhist English School which was soon subject to improvement and became Ananda College. The initiative and interest taken by Venerable Maha Theras such as Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Mohottiwattte Gunananda,  Weligama Sumangala, Dodanduwe Piyarathana Tissa in furthering Buddhist education and in the establishment of Buddhist schools received a tremendous boost with the active involvement in this work of Colonel Olcott, who was particularly keen in promoting Buddhist English schools. This gave much strength to the Buddhist revival that was taking place across the country in the late 19th century.    

In 1888 there were eight Buddhist schools which increased to 99 in the year 1898. In 1898 there were 11,577 children in Buddhist schools. The Roman Catholics had 30,425; Wesleyans 22,808; Church of Mission 14,110. Thus Buddhists had the fourth place in regard to the number of pupils in their schools. In 1899 there were 134 schools in the list of Buddhist schools with an attendance of 15,490 children. In 1900 the number of schools increased to 150 in the Buddhist Theosophical Society’s list.

By 1902 the success of Buddhist work was so alarming to the Christians that the church missionary Society passed a resolution in that year against the employment of Christians who had at any time served in Buddhist schools. But this does not seem to have made much impression because in the following year the number of Buddhist  schools had risen to 174. No less than 185 schools of the Society drew a sum of Rs. 48,502.90 from government by way of grant in 1904.

That same year the Rev. G.B.Ekanayake writing in East and West showed a remarkable change in the attitude of the Christians church toward the Buddhist revival. The contemptuous indifference which in the earlier stage assigned to the revival an ephemeral existence and the violent opposition subsequently directed against it. Ekanayaka did not hesitate to admit that the current of Christian’s conversion had been effectually stemmed by the Buddhist revival.

In 1907 there were 215 schools of the Society of which 186 with an attendance of 23,975 had registered. In 1909 the number of schools increased to 224 and in 1914 to  230, and in 1915 to 249 schools. In 1917, the Buddhist Girls’ College (now Visaka Vidyalaya) was started. The 17 Buddhist English schools established under the Buddhist Theosophical Society  with an attendance of over 5,000 pupils with a staff of over 230 include Ananda College, Colombo; Nalanda Vidyalaya, Colombo; Dharmaraja College, Kandy; Ananda Sastralaya, Kotte; Olcott Vidyalaya, Colombo; Jinaraja Vidyalaya, Gampola, Taxila Vidyalaya, Horana; Sri Pada Vidyalaya, Hatton; Rahula Vidyalaya, Katugostota; Vijaya college, Matale; Anurudda College, Nawalapitiya; Buddhist English Mixed School, Dodanduwa; Mahinda Vidyalaya, Anuradapura; Gamini Vidyalaya,  Bentota; and Suriya Vidyalaya, Kolonnawa. The Sinhalese schools that were established at the time had an attendance of nearly 70,000 children.


On January 28, 1884, ten years after the Panadura debate, with the initiative of Sri Sumangala  Nayaka Thera, Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera and Colonel Olcott and the active participation of many lay Buddhist leaders, the Buddhaarakshaka Committee or Buddhist Defense Committee was inaugurated at a meeting held at the Vidyodaya Pirivena in Maligakande. Its primary objective was the safeguarding Buddhist interests. Muhandiran A. P. Dharma Gunawardana, Don Carolis Hewavitharana, H. A. Fernando, Carolis Pujitha Gunawardana were elected as the office-bearers of the committee while Colonel Henry Steele Olcott served as an honorary member. This Committee drew up six demands which were submitted to the British government through Colonel Olcott who visited England personally for the purpose in February 1884.

Subsequently a sub committee comprising Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera,  Hikkaduwa Sri Sumangala Thera, Don Carolis Hewavitharana, A.P. Dharma Gunawardana, William de Abrew, Carolis Pujitha Gunawardana, Charles A. de Silva, N. S. Fernando, Peter de Abrew and William Fernando was set up to look into the possibility of designing a prestigious symbol of identity for the Buddhists. The blue, yellow, red, white and orange coloured flag designed by Carolis Pujitha Gunawardana was unanimously accepted by the committee as the most appropriate symbol of identity of the Buddhists.

The Buddhist Defense Committee was instrumental in obtaining the approval of the British colonial government to restore the Vesak Poya holiday enjoyed by Buddhists since historic times, which was abolished by the Dutch in 1770 and also the traditional Sinhala New Year holiday. Vesak Poya was declared a public holiday on April 28, 1885 and a month earlier the Sinhala  New Year day was declared a public holiday. Vesak celebrations were held on a grand scale in 1885 throughout the country.


The heroic Most Venerable Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera hoisted the five coloured Buddhist flag for the first time at the Deepaduththaramaya Temple in Kotahena on the Vesak Full-moon Poya day of April 28, 1885. On this historic day, the sermon given by him to thousands of Buddhists is considered as one of his best. The flag was also hoisted at the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya, Hunupitiya Gangaramaya, Vidyodaya Pirivena and at the headquarters of the Buddhist Theosophical Society in Colombo. Anagarika Dharmapala hoisted the Buddhist flag at the Buddha Gaya temple on the Esala Full Moon Day in 1891. This flag is recognized and adopted today as the Buddhist flag of the entire international Buddhist community representing all Buddhist traditions.  

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane


* The Portuguese Catholics were most savage, cruel and inhuman persecutors of Buddhism and were responsible for widespread and senseless killings and the destruction of many Buddhist temples, monasteries and historical monuments and looting of valuable treasures. People were subject to  violence for over 150 years. They were forced to change their traditional names and embrace the Catholic faith if they wished to obtain positions under their regime. This state of affairs continued until they were expelled from the island by the Dutch invaders. Among primary interests of the Dutch was the propagation of Protestant Christianity and their policies and actions against Buddhists were not too different to those of the Portuguese. Embracing Christianity was necessary in order to take up employment in the government. Christian baptism was made mandatory for the registration of birth and no marriage was legally registered outside the church. The Parish School system introduced by the Dutch missionaries was instrumental in proselytizing Buddhists. They abolished the Poya holidays. This scornful period of Dutch rule ended in 1796 when they were ousted by the British.

This paper drew heavily from information contained in the following publications:

(1) Wadeehasinha  Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera,
Siri Vajiragnana Daham Passala Maharagama Publication,
Piyasiri Printing System, Gangodawila, Nugegoda (Second Edition, 2003)               

By Venerable Dedigama Sumanajothi Thera & Cyril Hewawasam

(2) Tracing the origins of Rankoth Vihara,    Lanka Gazette, October 12, 2010 By G L Peiris MP External Affairs Minister

(3)Commemoration of Panadura Controversy 
By Padmasree Samaranayake, 2005

(4) The Great Panadura Debate
Sunday Observer, June 13, 2010 
  By S. De F. Jayasuriya

(5)Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, the Indomitable Oratorby C. V. Rajapakse,  Daily News Sat Jan 25, 2003

(6)Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda
The Island – Sept. 21, 2008
By Walter Wijenayake
Book, published 1991                                                                                                      

(7) Kotahena Riot 1883:
A Religious Riot in Sri Lanka   
By G P V Somaratna’s 

(8) Sinhala Maha Sangha Parapura                                                                             (Biographies of the Noble Sangha Fathers of Sri Lanka) 2008                             Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda
By Walter Wijenayake 

One Response to “The Heroic Wadeehasinha Mohottiwatte (Migettuwaththe) GUNANANDA THERA”

  1. Gunasinghe Says:

    Thank you Dr. Daya Pathirana. It very moving story. In 19th century sinhala budhists had the courage to do these things. In 21st century some sinhala scholars like Senaviratna (affiliated with University of Virginia) and Gananath Obeysekera publishing articles denigrating Sinhala Budhists,

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