Remembering Ven Soma Maha Thera on his 60th death anniversary
Posted on February 23rd, 2020

Shirley Pulle Tissera, President, Sri Lanka Situwarunge Sangamaya Courtesy The Sunday Times

Front row the Ven Soma Maha Thera and Ven Kheminda Thera before ordination and (inset) the Ven Soma Maha Thera

Soma Maha Thera was born on  December 23,  1898 in Kotahena, Colombo. His father was Emmanuel Marian Pererapulle and his mother Theresa Rodrigo Babapulle and his name was Victor Emmanuel Pererapulle. He received his entire education at St Benedict’s College, Kotahena, the premier Catholic school in Colombo and a school that also produced such great Buddhist leaders like Anagarika Dharmapala and Ven Narada Nayaka Thera.

He belonged to the Colombo Chetty Community. The Colombo Chetty Community known historically as Situ, Sitana or Setthi originally inhabited areas in and around Coorg and Benares. Their involvement and contribution to Buddhism dates back to very early times– it was a Setthi of Savastthi named Sudatha who became famous because of his unparalleled generosity to the Buddha and was known to all as Anathapindika. It is also stated in the History of Early Ceylon” by Prof Hema Ellawala that the Mother of Prince Vijaya and Princess Sangamitta was Videshi Devi the daughter of Deva Setthinater of Avanti. It was his seven sons headed by Prince Sumitta who accompanied the sacred Bo Sapling to Anuradhapura on the request of Kind Devanampiyatissa.

Ven Soma Maha Thera’s contribution to Buddhism in Sri Lanka started sometime in 1920 when he met W J. Oliver Soysa, one of the founder members of the servants of the Buddha”, the well known association which has its headquarters at Laurie’s Road, Colombo 4, and of which the Ven Kassapa Thera was the founder Patron. He was actively involved in the publication of blessing” which was edited by Dr Cassius Pereira and he along with Mr. Soysa founded the Fort Study Circle” and was elected the first Secretary. Later W Don Michael was elected Joint Secretary to assist him.

In the late twenties, having heard from  Wong Mow Lam, the Chinese scholar, who was in Ceylon for some time, that there were great possibilities for spreading the Theravada in his country and that there was much that could be translated from the Mahayana literature of China he together with his great friend and companion Ven Kheminda Thera went to Burma in 1934, and began their journey to China by way of Kawkerik, over the misty Dawna Mountains and across the border for 4 days on foot to Raehaeng in Thailand, and thence by bus, river boat and train through Svankaloke, Pisaloke and arrived in Krum Teb which is Bangkok today. They then went through Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong to arrive at Shanghai in China. They spent one year at Kawatana-Machi and translated for the first time the Chinese translation of the Vimuttimagga” to English.

Buddhist delegation to Bangalore

on the invitation of Sir Baron Jayatilleka Ven Soma Maha Thera visited Bangalore in 1939 again in the company of Ven Kheminda and Ven Naravila Dhammaratana Maha Thera and they were able to secure from the Government of Mysore a site for a Buddhist Centre. Due to ill health he had to rest and was invited by the Ven Nyanaponika Maha Thera to the Island Hermitage in Dodanduwa.

He lived in this hermitage from 1940-45 and from 1948-54, and it was from here that the first edition of The way of Mindfulness”(1941) and His last Performance” 1943 were written. He also edited the Anapana Sati” by Dr Cassius Pereira in 1943.

First Buddhist delegation to China

At the invitation of Ven Tai Tsu, the well known Buddhist leader of China, Ven Soma Maha Thera accompanied the Ven Madihe Pannasiha Nayaka Thera (later Maha Nayaka) to China to establish a Pali College in Sianfu, the ancient Buddhist Centre in Shensei Province the home of Fa Hsien the famous pilgrim. The Shanghai YMBA which was founded by him had nearly 300 members and his radio talks were very popular, he delivered lectures and sermons to large gatherings in Singapore and Malaysia and then on returning he initiated the founding of two important Buddhist Associations the Sasanadhara Kantha Samitiya” and the Banks Asoka Society” in 1950 and 1956 respectively, he was the founder patron of the latter.

Most of the editorials on the dhamma in the Buddha Jayanthi” and a large number of translations from Pali and German, besides original articles, and the Jayanthi Miscellany” were written by him. Ven Soma’s masterly articles The greatest Maha Nayaka Thera of our time” and the editorial A maker of Good Men” on the passing away of the Ven Paelaene Siri Vajiranana Maha Nayaka Thera was well accepted and written from his sick bed at the hermitage. Ven Soma was well known to English speaking audiences in Ceylon. Many will remember his talks over Radio Ceylon. He is also credited to have translated and edited the Satipatthana Sutta”. Ven Soma participated in the making of the Sima” chapter house at the Maha Bodhi Society’s centre in Bangalore during the Buddha Jayanthi celebrations in 1956.

First Buddhist delegation to Germany

On June 15, 1957, Ven Soma led the first Theravada Buddhist group from Sri Lanka to Germany. It comprised three Dharmaduta monks, Ven Soma, Ven. Kheminda and Ven.  Vinita all from the Vajiraramaya, Bambalapitiya. They were accompanied by W.J. Oliver Soysa, a close associate of the Vajiraramaya monks. Dharmapriya Mahinda (formerly known as Nelson Soysa) a Vice-President of the GDS had left for Germany earlier. The mission commenced its journey from Mihintale on Poson Poya Day June 11, 1957 with the blessings of the Maha Sangha and the Buddhist public.

The second stage of the journey to Germany began on June 15, from the GDS Headquarters, No 417, Bullers Road (now Baudhaloka Mawatha), Colombo 7. A motorcade of about 100 vehicles participated in the procession that escorted the three Bikkhus from the GDS to the Elizabeth Quay, Colombo Harbour . There, the GDS and the Harbour Buddhist Society organised a meeting under the chairmanship of the Ven Kalukondayawe Pannasekera Nayaka Thera.

Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike handed over a casket of sacred relics to the Ven. Soma Thera. Former Premier Dudley Senanayake presented the Buddhist flag to the mission to be used at the Berlin Vihara. The monks embarked on the voyage on board the `SS Orantes’ amidst cries of Saadhu, Saadhu” from the people who had come to witness the memorable ceremony. The ship reached Naples on June 29, 1957.

The mission upon disembarking at Naples proceeded to Frankfurt by train via Switzerland and was met by Asoka Weeraratna, who had flown in from Colombo. The mission then flew from Frankfurt to Berlin where members of the Berlin Buddhist Society greeted them at the airport. On July 2, 1957, the mission took up residence at the Das Buddhistische Haus in Frohnau, Berlin.

Ven Soma Maha Thera had written over 30 books on Buddhism. He  lived a life of a devoted follower of the Buddha and  was loved and respected by all those who knew him and many thousands benefited from his sermons and teachings. His passing away at Vajiraramaya, Bambalapitiya on Februrary 23, 1960 was a great loss to Buddhists and also to the Colombo Chetty Community in Sri Lanka

Shirley Pulle Tissera,

President, Sri Lanka Situwarunge Sangamaya
(2008 – 2010)

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