Our most venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera was born on January 20, 1827. It was a dark time in Sri Lanka’s history when the country which suffered greatly under the suffocating rule of Portuguese and Dutch settlers at the time, was forced to officially surrender himself to the British Empire. Thus, on March 2, 1815, Sri Lanka lost its 2,538 years of independence by becoming a colony of the British Empire. Governor Robert Brownrigg, who signed the Kandy Convention by promising to preserve Buddhism’s status as the country’s main religion, went back on his words when he came to power, making it a priority to spread the word of Christianity throughout the country.
Several decades later, the Buddhist faith among the people began to deteriorate. To save the day, Ven. Weliwita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja Thera launched a religious revival that brought together all the Sangha in the country. However, the attempt was unsuccessful due to various disagreements between the different sects of the Buddhist Sangha. The situation got so bad that in 1852 James De Alwis, who translated Sidath Sangarawa into English, predicted that at the end of the 19th century all Sinhala poets would begin their work asking for the triple blessings of the Lord instead of blessings of the Triple Gems. As published in the Journal of the Pali Text Society on October 25, 1861, he stated:
“There are indeed good reasons to believe that Buddhism will disappear at a time not far from this island. What I believe is that if Christianity gradually spread across the country without alerting the general population, the false beliefs and madness prevalent in the country would abate before long.
This statement was in agreement with a French journalist, Bertholomeusz, who said that the Sangha in Sri Lanka is too weak to protect the Buddhist era from demise, and that there is no sign that this situation will change in a near future.
It is evident that the British Empire, which held power over the whole country at the time, hoped to completely eliminate Buddhism from Sri Lanka and build a Christian empire in its place. To firmly establish their power in the country, it was a necessity. Therefore, Christian missionaries were sent to Sri Lanka from Europe to establish schools and begin to spread Western culture in the country. In a letter sent to British politician William Wilberforce in England on June 13, 1816, Governor Brownrigg said there was sufficient reason to believe that Buddhism as a religion would soon disappear from Sri Lanka.
It was during such a dark time in Sri Lanka that a precious baby boy was born to Dandegoda Gamage Christina and her husband Don Johannes Abeyweera Gunawardhana Liyanarachchi. The boy was baptized at the age of four and was given the name Nicholas. If he had not been given such a first name, he would not have been able to access any of the schools established at the time. Since the eldest son, Louis, of Gunawardhana became a follower of Christianity due to his close association with the fathers of the Christian Church, five-year-old Nicholas has been handed over to Ven. Sobhitha Thera at the village temple. The little boy who grew up under the guidance of Buddhist monks was allowed access to the central school at Fort Galle, as he was one of those baptized by the Christian Church.
The village astrologer who checked Nicholas’ horoscope managed to convince his father that the boy was unlucky and that he would die very young because of his bad luck. This prediction completely changed the course of this young boy’s life. In 1840 he was ordained a Buddhist monk at the temple of Thotagamuwa, Thelwaththa, Galle, under the supervision of Ven. Mabotuwana Rewatha Thera and Ven. Malagoda Siriniwasa Thera.
As a monk he was given the name Hikkaduwe Sumangala. He was fortunate enough to study under the guidance of many learned monks such as Ven. Walane Sri Siddhartha Thera, and he studied hard until he mastered several languages including Pali, Sinhala, Sanskrit and English. In 1848, his higher ordination as a Buddhist monk took place at the Malwathu Buddhist Chapter Hall in Kandy. As a young novice monk, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera began to grapple with criticism of Buddhism by Christian missionaries by publishing his reviews in the print media. In 1858, to loosen the hold of other religions over the Southern Province of the country, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera established a printing press named “Lankopakara” and began printing books – and more importantly, the Buddhist newspaper “Lankaloka”. In addition, several Sinhala Buddhist schools were founded under his patronage and they were provided with all the necessary facilities. In 1871, Ven. Thera moved to the Maligakanda area, and in 1873 he initiated the creation of the knowledge treasure, “Vidyodaya”.
Even those who followed the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, such as Reverend Kojin Gunaratana, Reverend Kojina Kondanna, Sato and Tochibana, from foreign countries like Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh and Japan, also came to Vidyodaya Monastic College. to study the teachings of Theravada. Buddhism under the tutelage of our Ven. Thera. Fri. Dhammananda Kosambi Thera who traveled to Sri Lanka from India, also studied under the guidance of our Ven. Thera.
Fri. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera who participated in the famous Panadura debate in 1873, made sure that Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera also came to assist him in the debate. The debate became so famous that information about it was also published in a magazine called “The Truth Seeker” in America (Thomas Paine who played a major role in the creation of the United States Constitution was also the one of the patrons of this magazine). As a result of the article published on this debate, many important people such as Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Russian philosopher and author Helena Blavatsky were encouraged to visit Sri Lanka. On May 17, 1880, they both adopted Buddhism as their religion at Vidyananda Monastic College in Galle and began to study the Pali language and Buddhist philosophy under the tutelage of our Ven. Thera.
They understood the importance of education and how it could be used to save the dire situation the Buddhist religion has fallen into in Sri Lanka. As a result, Parama Vignanartha Corporation was established in Colombo. In 1895, this company established Ananda Vidyalaya in Colombo with American-born Cambridge graduate AE Bultjens as director. This was followed by the establishment of several other schools in the country such as Nalanda Vidyalaya in Colombo, Dharmaraja Vidyalaya in Kandy and Mahinda Vidyalaya in Galle.
In 1885, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera chaired the committee that designed the Buddhist flag. Many foreigners interested in studying Buddhist philosophy have come to Sri Lanka just to meet our Ven. Thera and studied Buddhism under her guidance. Thomas William Rhys Davids (1867), then magistrate of Galle, studied the Pali language with several Buddhist monks, including Ven. Yathramulle Dhammarama Thera, Ven. Dodanduwe Piyarathanathissa Thera, Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Thera and Ven. Waskaduwe Subhuthi Thera. He also made sure to meet our Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera to discuss Buddhist philosophy in depth, and thus he amassed a vast wealth of knowledge about Buddhism. This provided our Ven. Thera with the opportunity to associate and form friendships with many important figures of British rule in Sri Lanka and to earn their respect. These relationships allowed Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera to fully understand how he should go about explaining Buddhist philosophy to foreigners so that they can clearly understand exactly what Buddhism is.
Paul Dahlke, of German origin, was a famous Buddhist philosopher who came to Sri Lanka specifically to meet Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera so that he could study the doctrine of non-self (Anathmavadaya) as taught in Buddhism.
The youngster, Reverend Anagarika Dharmapala, had written a letter complaining from the British Governor in Sri Lanka to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Great Britain, on behalf of our Ven. Thera. Although at the time our Ven. Thera was unaware that such a letter had been sent on his behalf, it didn’t bother him once he learned about it. Fri. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera was invited to an international religious conference held in Chicago in 1893 as a representative of the Theravada teachings of Buddhism. However, at our Ven. At Thera’s request, and with her blessing, Reverend Anagarika Dharmapala attended the conference in her stead and sparked a wave of interest in Buddhism in America. This built an excellent rapport between Ven. Thera and Reverend Anagarika Dharmapala. It was Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera who became the very first president of the Mahabodhi Society. Fri. Thera supported and guided Reverend Anagarika Dharmapala throughout his efforts to restore Buddhism to the Indian subcontinent.
In January 1891, Ven. Thera made sure to send Ven. Kojin Gunaratana Thera, of Japanese descent, with Reverend Anagarika Dharmapala, when he visited Bodh Gaya in India. However, Reverend Anagarika Dharmapala had to leave India the same year in order to seek the support of the Japanese government to save Bodh Gaya from the clutches of other religions which sought to destroy the sacred place. Upon his return to India, he was very dismayed to discover that Ven. Kojin Gunaratana Thera had passed away.
Fri. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera firmly stated that the best way to restore Buddhism in India is to educate Indian scholars in the Pali language. In 1907, at Ven. At Thera’s request, Reverend Anagarika Dharmapala, with the help of Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, Chancellor of Kolkata University, established the Pali language department within the university. Courtesy of our Ven. The crow. Sooriyagoda Sumangala Thera was invited to Calcutta to become the very first head of the newly created department.
Great intellectuals such as Dr Nalinaksha Datta, Sukumar Datta, Dr BC Low, Dr BM Baruwa, Anukul Chandra Baruwa and Deepak Kumar Baruwa graduated from the Pali language department at the University of Kolkata, and have continued to provide their valuable services in universities. everywhere in India as well as in Europe. Even some well-known Sri Lankan scholars, Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera, Ven. Uruwela Dhammaratana Thera, Sagara Palansooriya, Siripala Leelarathna, Wimalananda Thennakoon, DE Hettiarachchi and Jinadasa Perera are also graduates from the same department at the University of Kolkata, India. The scholars thus graduated, Ven. Jagdish kashyap Thera and Ven. Uruwela Dhammaratana Thera together created the University of Nalanda, which offered the world many other great Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Cambodian and Sri Lankan scholars. Among them were the most Ven. Akuratiye Amarawansa Thera, Ven. Raddalle Pangnaloka Thera, Ven. Ganegama Saranankara Thera, Ven. Kananke Wajiragnana Thera and Ven. Hagoda Kemananda Théra. Most of them continued to provide their valuable services at Vidyodaya Monastic College in Sri Lanka. The Pali language department, which was first established only at Kolkata University, was later established in several other universities, such as Varanasi, Delhi, Pune as well as Magadha University.
(The author is Chief Sangha Nayaka of America, Pamankada Sri Maha Viharaya, Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara of Los Angeles, USA)