Buddhist Monks Heroes of Sri Lanka’s Freedom Struggles | Sunday Observer

Buddhist Monks Heroes of Sri Lanka’s Freedom Struggles

For millennia, Buddhist monks have played the historic role of defending the nation’s integrity. The Buddha had exhorted his disciples to wander from village to village instructing the people for their good and well being (Carata bhikkhave carikam bahujana hitaya bahujana sukhaya). The Buddha himself had taught how the righteous ruler should behave governed by the Ten Duties of the King (dasaraja dhamma), measures conducive to the welfare of the people.

Monks, therefore, played a leading role in all national and cultural activities. They were architects (example: the nine-storey Lovamahapasada), Chief Justices, sculptors and painters. As the intelligentsia, monks took a strong interest in national and political activities such as the selection and appointment of righteous kings. They provided the answers to the questions posed by European colonials on the Sinhala Constitution, laws and customs.

The untiring efforts of Velivita Saranankara in restoring the higher ordination in 1753 with the assistance of Siamese monks laid the foundation for the resurrection of the education of monks across the country.

Monks as freedom fighters

It was often the monks that stood up for the country. During the anti-colonial struggles, several rebellions were launched against the British under the leadership of monks to liberate the country in 181 8, 1834 & 1848. Giranegama Nayaka Thera of the Dambulla Temple acted as the leader of the Dambulla district. Nine monks were arrested in this revolt. Kudapola Thera was questioned, and shot dead in yellow robes. Several hundreds of other people were executed. Even on the last day the country was lost to the British, it was a monk who rose up to defy the British. Variyapola Sumangala Thera tore down the Union Jack, trampled it.

The English learnt early on, that the unity and solidarity of the Sinhalese was due to this close relationship between the laity and the monks and that the monks were sometimes the leaders and the freedom fighters. Governor Maitland wrote, “the influence of the priest is very great, even greater in many instances than that of the mudaliyars (local administrators) themselves.”

Resistance continued by Buddhist monks in the 19th century. They established new centers of learning and global contacts and gave birth to the International Buddhist movement. In the late 19th and early 20th century, they were in the forefront of social concerns.

Buddhists in the reform movement

The working class movement in Sri Lanka was closely associated with the Buddhist movement. The secretary of the first trade union formed in 1893 was Bultjens, a Burgher convert to Buddhism who later became the first principal of Ananda College founded through the activities of the Buddhist Renaissance. The meetings of the strikers were addressed by other Buddhists. In their strike in 1912, the railway workers were helped financially and organizationally by the two leading lay Buddhist leaders, Anagarika Dharmapala and Walisinha Harischandra who organized a mass meeting of the strikers at the Buddhist Maha bodhi College.

A protégé of another Buddhist school, A. E. Goonesinha was the major trade union leader leading several key strikes. His political journal, Swaraj, had articles written by Bhikkhus. The demand for Independence, as well as universal suffrage was strongly advocated by monks and the Buddhist movement. N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena and S.A. Wickremasinghe, the founders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party all studied in Buddhist schools, indirect outcome of monk movements in the 19th C and which inculcated patriotism.

Monks in anti-imperialist struggle

Many activist monks in the 20th century such as Kotachene Pannakitti, Naravila Dhammaratana, Bambarende Siri Sivali and Walpola Rahula actively took part in Indian Independence politics. Thus, Naravila Dhammaratana and Mapitigama Sangharakkhita took part in mass demonstrations against the British in India. The monk Saranankara became the student union leader of the Calcutta City College.

The British subsequently jailed him in Calcutta. In prison, he met with the Indian National Congress leader, Subhas Chandra Bose and Communist activists. After his release, he was exiled from Bengal and he moved to Benares. In 1936, when he returned to Sri Lanka, he became a member of the LSSP, which had been just formed.

Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Thera, another prominent monk supported anti-imperialism and campaigned for social justice, while Naravila Dhammaratana Thera publicized radical ideas in regular articles in the Silumina, the most widely read newspaper. When the Communist Party was formed in 1940, Ven. Saranankara joined it and later became its Vice President. He chaired in 1940, the first meeting of the Ceylon Trade Union Federation. He made a seditious speech and was again imprisoned for two years.

The monk Kalalle Ananda Sagara pointed out that as most monks were the sons of farmers and workers, this gave them added strength. The capitalist class he said was now alarmed at this alliance of the working class and Bhikkhus. These views presaged theoreticians of the Third World like Franz Fanon who argued for alliances between different social groups, the workers and the peasantry and lumpen elements to confront the colonial state. Monk publications like the Kalaya edited by Ven. Kotahene Pannakitti agitated for reform and used not only Buddhist history and theory, but also drew on contemporary Western writers. These monks were very cosmopolitan.

Monks’ Declaration of Independence

A crucial step of the mass entry of Buddhist monks into the political field since the 1940s was the formation of the Lanka Eksath Bhikshu Mandalaya. These Bhikkhus rejected the partial independence negotiated by D.S. Senanayake, and made their own Declaration of Independence. Many Bhikkhus also supported the general strike of 1946. The general demand was complete freedom from the British until Sri Lanka became a completely free dharmik nation that would fit into ”Asian civilization”.

But this renewed vitality of the monks was not just one of only harking back at the past, but of also incorporating modern knowledge. Thus one of the most influential documents in the 1940s, Bhikshuwage Urumaya (The Heritage of the Bhikkhu) by Ven. Walpola Rahula after a survey of the role of the Bhikkhus in 2,500 years of history made a call for a historical continuation of the heritage of the Bhikkhu, after imbibing modern knowledge.

Monks demand free education

One of the first important social struggles of the Bhikkhu organization in the 1940s was its support for the demand for compulsory free education in the country. It held widely attended meetings throughout the Island and raised public opinion. An important consciousness raising exercise was a several miles long petition to the government drawn up by the monks with signatures of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

The passing of the Free Education Act in The Legislature was seen as a victory of the monks’ agitation against establishment figures. As the prominent Tamil leader V. Nalliah put it, the passing of the Free Education Act was a result of the “agitation by Bhikkhus for the advancement of Buddhists and Hindus” and pointed out that even in Europe that Catholic priests had worked against such “noble movements”. The monks also now openly allied themselves with workers and reform causes, as for example their support for the Tamil worker Kandasamy killed in an agitation.

Monks in reconstruction

Thus the movement initiated by monks in 1946 attracted more and more monks to social reform and welfare activities. Ven Kalukondayawe Pannasekhara Maha Nayake Thera led a campaign for temperance and against other social ills as gambling and corruption. He also organized a “grow more food” campaign through the temples. Ven. Heenatiyana Dhammaloka Nayake Thera initiated a rural reconstruction movement under the leadership of monks in almost all important temples in the country. These societies settled disputes in villages. In many temples, medical centres and adult schools were opened, harking back to the temple’s historical role as center of learning and health provider. Homes for the aged and the needy were launched under the leadership of monks. The 1940’s set the tone for the subsequent political role of monks in the decolonization and reconstruction agenda. The struggle for independence and social reforms continues.

(This article first appeared in the Buddhist Times – January 2003)

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