A Tribute to an Erudite Monk

sobitha theroThe demise of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera at a hospital in Singapore yesterday brings to an end a life spent not only propagating the Dhamma but also fearlessly battling political giants without fear or favour across four decades.

The seventy three-year-old monk, despite his vociferous advocacy of causes that he believed in, retained the respect of even his adversaries because he was widely perceived as man of proven integrity in what were tumultuous times in Sri Lanka’s recent political history.

Ven. Sobhitha Thera was born Pathirage Don Rathnasekara as the second child of Pathirage Don Peiris Appuhamy, a carpenter by profession, and his wife, Balagala Kuruvita Arachchige Karalina Haminey hailing from the sleepy village of Maduluwawa near Padukka in the Avissawella electorate.

Ordained as a monk at the age of thirteen, Ven. Sobhitha Thera received higher ordination seven years later. Initially he attracted the attention of the masses with his Dhamma sermons with his characteristically mellifluous style of preaching which came to be followed by many other monks of his generation.

Executive Presidency

The Dhamma sermons of Ven. Sobhitha Thera and another contemporary Buddhist monk, Panadurey Ariyadhamma Thera was to spark a Buddhist revival of sorts in the early eighties. They both advocated Sinhala nationalism to some degree but Ven. Sobhitha Thera was more politically minded.

Ven. Sobhitha Thera was not a scholar monk with doctorates before his name. Nevertheless, his sermons commanded an enthusiastic following at a time when exposure through electronic media was still in its infancy because he preached a brand of Buddhism that advocated common sense and practicality.

The Thera was among the first to agitate against the Executive Presidency when its architect, President J. R. Jayewardene was at the height of his powers – and the full extent perils of such a presidency were yet to be known. It was to become a recurring theme in his political philosophy.

For his efforts, Ven. Sobhitha Thera, along with the doyen of the Sinhala theatre Ediriweera Sarachchandra, was infamously attacked by goons hired by the United National Party (UNP) in 1979 at the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. Rather than being deterred, it spurred the monk to continue his struggles.

In the years that terrorism flourished under the command of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Ven. Sobhitha Thera stood steadfastly against them. However, he was never accused of being racist because he was able to make the distinction between the Tamil community in general and the LTTE.

Ven. Sobhitha Thera rose to national prominence in 1995 when he headed the Jathika Sangha Sabhava. In this role he mentored many a Buddhist monk and the result was that monks became a force to be reckoned with for successive governments trying to deal with the menace that was the LTTE.

Buddhist monk of unimpeachable character

This was to evolve in to a trend that saw the emergence of Buddhist monks seeking representation in Parliament which became a reality in 2004, under the aegis of the Jathika Hela Urumaya. However, Ven. Sobhitha Thera preferred to watch from the side-lines, eschewing a role in active politics.

Through all these years in the limelight, Ven. Sobhitha Thera’s disdain for the Executive Presidency remained. He agitated for this time and again but his pleas fell on deaf years as the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa gained popularity, especially in the aftermath of the war victory over the LTTE.

However, as the impunity in the Rajapaksa regime grew, Ven. Sobhitha Thera became the driving force behind a new organisation, the National Movement for Social Justice which protested against its excesses. It brought together diverse social, academic and political forces under one umbrella.

Ven. Sobhitha Thera being a respected Buddhist monk of unimpeachable character, Rajapaksa found it difficult to challenge him directly. The Thera’s stature and influence grew as even the UNP stumbled to defeat after defeat in the face of clever political manipulations by the Rajapaksa government.

Those close to the monk say that he was particularly incensed by two actions initiated by the Rajapaksa government: the treatment meted out to former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. They convinced him that he should act.

If one person should take the credit for engineering the downfall of the Rajapaksa regime, it would be Ven. Sobhitha Thera. Convinced that the regime did more harm than good, he initiated contacts with political leaders who he thought could be brought together for a common cause – defeating Rajapaksa.

The temple where Ven. Sobhitha Thera was the Chief Incumbent, The Naga Viharaya in Kotte, became a political hub. The Thera actively mediated between erstwhile arch rivals Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga and mooted the concept of a ‘common’ candidate against Rajapaksa.

New regime

The concept gained currency but there were no takers. Had Wickremesinghe announced himself as the candidate, his record of dealing unsuccessfully with the LTTE would have been highlighted. Kumaratunga had shed much of her charisma and popular appeal which propelled her in to office.

These circumstances prompted Ven. Sobhitha Thera to declare that he himself would run against Rajapaksa if the need arose. But being politically savvy, he knew that as a Buddhist monk, it would be difficult to attract the votes in the North and East, a sine qua non for any candidate to defeat Rajapaksa.

What was publicly not known at the time was that negotiations were underway with Maithripala Sirisena, then the Minister of Health in Rajapaksa’s government. The Thera was instrumental in convincing Sirisena to defy Rajapaksa and announce himself as the ‘common’ candidate.

The rest, as they say, is history. However, to his credit, Ven. Sobhitha Thera remained as critical as ever even after President Sirisena formed his government with Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Time and again he admonished the new regime for its tardiness in pursuing reforms and fighting corruption.

Ven. Sobhitha Thera was happy that his political dream- pruning the powers of the Executive Presidency- was achieved to some extent. His passing away on Sunday robs the nation of a great reformer of our times, but most of all an activist of unblemished integrity at a time when such men are rare. (Daily News)

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