16 December 2014

The Soma Hamuduruwo who remains eleven years later

A little over ten years ago, there was a General Election.  This was in April 2004.  It was an election that was won by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) but was one that was marked by the entry of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and through them a visible and decisive presence of bikkhus in parliamentary politics.  What happened thereafter is history. 

The JHU, although only nine-strong in a 225-member Parliament, nevertheless orchestrated the election of W.J.M. Lokubandara as the Speaker.  The intervention of Rev Athureliye Rathana Thero at the Aid Group Meeting in Kandy stopped foreign funds being legally channeled to the LTTE.  The ‘fast unto death’ launched by Ven Omalpe Sobitha Thero outside the Dalada Maligawa similarly helped scuttle the P-TOMs arrangement.  The JHU would later lend support to Mahinda Rajapaksa in his first presidential election, with the party leadership scripting most of what came to be known as ‘Mahinda Chinthana’. Then there was the march to Mavil Aru precipitating a decisive political decision to launch a to-the-end battle with the LTTE. 

When the JHU’s history is written, there will be mention of work done, proposals made and rejected, shifting of loyalties and even splits.  These are remembered.  What is not being said and hasn’t been said for years is that one of the key factors that led to the political formation and which helped the JHU become the ‘game changer’ that it has evolved into is the extensive and thankless work of the little remembered and much vilified Ven Gangodawila Soma Thera. 

Ven Gangodawila Soma Thera spoke simply about simple things.  He responded to what many felt was an existential threat to Buddhists in multiple forms.  For all the ‘Buddhist’ trappings of the constitution, homage to the Sri Maha Bodi and the Dalada Maligawa by politicians, layers of pirith nool wrapped around their wrists, celebratory splashes during Vesak and Poson, it was clear then (as it is now) that the commanding heights of the economy including key decision making bodies were peopled by non-Buddhists (in a country where Buddhists make up close to 70% of the population).  Vilification of Buddhists and Buddhism was ‘par for the course’ for self-styled ‘intellectuals’.  The use and abuse of constitutional provisions to prey on relatively poor Buddhists with the intent of ‘conversion’ was (and is) out of control. 

While the Chief Prelates of the Buddhist Order sat on immense wealth and did little or nothing to uplift the lay Buddhists, Ven Soma went about saying what was politically incorrect.  He laid it out as it was.  He spoke against the myriad ritualistic practices that had got added-on as faith-items of lay Buddhists.  He spoke against life practices that could wreck families and condemn communities to impoverishment.  He inspired young people to return to the doctrine.  He brought people to the temple. 

Ven Soma was a revivalist of a particular kind.  He addressed largely a cultural and civilizational angst of a particular community.  He drew from the Dhamma, this is true, but less to show pathway out of sorrow than to make personal lives more wholesome and alleviate the anxieties of the Sinhala Buddhists.  Buddhists from all parts of the country attended Ven Soma's funeral.  The outpouring of grief was unprecedented.  No politician or even artist has been mourned in anything close to the way Ven Soma was.  

When he did delve into the Dhamma for other beyond-community concerns, Ven Soma Thera was less effective.  In fact he wasn’t very coherent, losing the thread of the point he was making courtesy almost habitual and frequent venture alone the byroads of elucidation.  He was naturally vilified by the usual suspects in the five-centuries long cultural, religious and political persecution of Sinhala Buddhists who have little time and energy and no eyes at all to see doctrinal disjuncture in any other religious community in the island. 

Ven Soma Thera died under mysterious circumstances.  To date investigation into that tragic moment has not yielded satisfactory conclusions.  Those who demanded a proper investigation and who used that demand to gather votes have ‘moved on’.  Ven Soma Thera, in that sense, or rather the death of Ven Soma Thera was nothing more than ‘stepping stone’ for people on a political journey. 

Eleven years on, there’s little or no mention of Ven Gangodawila Soma Thera.  Perhaps this is because the country is once again excited about a major election.  The issues he raised remain.  And yet, in some small way and perhaps for reasons unplanned by Ven Soma Thera there is a greater interest in the Dhamma among Buddhists, especially the youth.  While naturally there are bikkhus whose sermons are so popular that they have been surrounded by wealth gifted by the devoted, there are others who have invited a deeper study of the immense doctrinal wealth that is Buddhism. 

Ven Soma Thera’s in-your-face political project helped some but in the end the Buddhists did not benefit.  It was the interest he sparked in the Dhamma that stayed and will, in the end, provide answers to the existential angst of this religious community.  As it should be, one might add. 



Varuni CIS said...

Ven Soma thero still lives in the hearts of many Buddhists, eventhough the JHU has conveniently forgotten that it was Soma thero who awakened the Buddhists in recent histroy.

varuni said...

Ven Soma thero still lives in the hearts of many buddhists. Eventhough the JHU has conveinently forgotten about him , most buddhists think of Soma thero as the monk who awakened the Buddhists in recent times.( The Anagarika Dharmapala of modern times)