The unexpected demise of the effervescent colossus among the community of the Maha Sangha in contemporary times, The Most Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha Nayake Thero who was greatly admired and endearingly respected by all walks of life for his distinctive articulation, outspoken and fearless stance on socio-political issues that have plagued the fabric of our society for long, touched all Sri Lankans deeply as the news about his loss, broke in Singapore.
Our protagonist, Ven Sobhitha Thero who had a reputation for being a forthright social critic stood out not only as a clever epigrammatic Dhamma orator across the island, but also as the unfailing social reformer who championed the cause of the under-privileged, and single-handedly rose against corrupt politicking that has brought about an immense destruction to the Mother Lanka in our post-independence era.
"Ven Sobhitha Thero who had a reputation for being a forthright social critic stood out not only as a clever epigrammatic Dhamma orator across the island, but also as the unfailing social reformer who championed the cause of the under-privileged, and single-handedly rose against corrupt politicking that has brought about an immense destruction to the mother Lanka in our post-independence era"
In his 60 years of monk hood, needless to repeat, he emerged himself to be one among the handful of erudite and most articulate Buddhist monks that inextricably intertwined ethno-religious issues with those of socio-political importance and dimension. His entire monkhood was devoted for resolution of issues, pertaining to the Sasana, nation, language, society, morality, politics, education and more prominently the progress of the country at large as a civilized society.
Born in Maduluwawe, Padukka, Ven. Sobhitha Thero, having entered the monkhood at the age of 13 years in 1955 received his higher ordination on June 15, 1962 under the tutelage of the then Sri Naga Vihara incumbent, late Ven. Mulleriyawe Rewatha Thero, Ven Dewahandiye Sri Saddhatissa Nayake Thero and Ven Angammana Gunarathana Thero, both from Kotte Road Sri Jayawardhanaramaya and entered the Vidyodaya University ( currently the Sri Jayawardenepura University) for higher studies after completion of his Pirivena education at Kelaniya Vidyalankara Pirivena. He became the incumbent at Kotte Sri Naga Viharaya in 1967 and founded many a daham project in the premises. Upon his graduation - B.A (honours) degree, our amiable Thero as a young dynamic monk commenced his teaching career and later became the Principal at Sri Perakumba Pirivena, Ethul Kotte and the Principal at Kuda Uduwe Nalanda Pirivena after he had a stint as the vice principal at Gangodawila Subhadrarama Pirivena.
As he himself declared during his 70th birth anniversary felicitation ceremony at the BMICH in May 2012, the Ven Thero, born to a middle-class family in Maduluwawe, refreshed the memories of his humble beginnings and told the gathering how he underwent hardships as he took to schooling where he used to walk back and forth about 5-10 miles every day from home to the school, for which he could now be really proud as he used to reminisce such practices as exemplary to the budding youth and all other segments in society.
Dedication for Public Well being
Ven Sobhitha Nayake Thero’s sustained role as a social reformist distinctively unparalleled went deep into the hearts and minds of the people who kept closely in touch with this personage, largely because of his soft-spoken and friendly nature. His patient hearing to grievances or criticisms, maintaining the highest degree of composure was remarkably noteworthy and his charming smile, robbed the hearts and minds of everyone who came before him. He symbolised the true compassion that a Buddha Puthra should harbour, irrespective of his hectic day’s workload or schedules. This embodiment of virtues was also the guiding light to hundreds of novice monks who reached him in search of solutions.
In essence, he carved a niche for himself among the masses as the defender against injustices of all sorts and corrupt political machinations, following the words of the Exalted One who instructed his followers, the Bhikkus to wander and render work for the benefit of the multitude of the masses (Charatha Bhikkawe Charikan….Bahu Jana Hithaya-Bahu Jana Sukhaya). He was exactly the living replica of such a follower of the Buddha until the last moment of his illustrious life which could be documented in many volumes.
His epoch-making characteristics inevitably favoured the oppressed as a true patriot cum social worker as he gradually began to fathom out the social realities, shedding a sarcastic eye on the stereotype. He had the wisdom of focusing on issues and systems that erode the social fabric in the land in varying proportions. He foresaw all those and raised his piercing voice against tyrannical suppressive measures of respective governments or their leaders.
While growing to be a towering strength to all, he all alone flexed his muscles, pooh-poohed Machiavellian practices of corrupt political stalwarts and began to publicly ridicule them, despite many risks, involved in such verbal attacks during those dark days. His Kotte Sangha Sabhawa stood behind him and supported his initiatives. Besides his role as the incumbent at his simple abode, Kotte Sri Naga Viharaya which functions as the umbrella centre for more than 50-75 organisations, Ven Sobhitha Thera spearheaded the well-known National Campaign for a Just Society, Temperance Youth Organization, National Heroes’ Foundation, National Sangha Council, All island Pirivena Teachers’ Association, Sri Lanka-Korea Buddhist Association, Eye Donation Association, etc. His multi-faceted society-oriented assignments which received his patronage, leadership and guidance were numerous as he himself once publicly admitted because they all liked him so much and were behind his lively advice.
Our beloved Nayake Thero was one among the firsts to visit the so called ‘border’ villages with lorry loads of relief items when the war was waging. He slept inside jungle temples with village monks whose poor hamlets faced terrorist threats from time to time. His consoling words of Dhamma and spiritual blessings to hundreds of our battle-fatigued war heroes who were vigil in the north and east round the clock for the sake of peace then, relieved them of their stress, fatigue and isolation from others. His soothing and inspirational words were a disguised blessing which they even to-date recall with gratitude.
Preacher Par Excellence
The Ven Thero mainly due to his inborn talents enjoyed his own intonation pattern of articulating most difficult sections in Dhamma, Tripikata and the Buddha’s doctrine in an impressive manner which lured the devotees en masse. On some days, he had to deliver more than 3-4 sermons (Bana) every evening at a stretch at different venues, leaving some 30-45 minute gaps in between because of the popularity he had mustered as someone who could simplify and explain even complicated Abhidhamma sections of Buddhism to laymen. Our monk was so magnanimous that he never wanted to decline any invitation if his hectic schedule somehow or other permitted it or otherwise. Otherwise he himself used to propose an alternative date with a kind comment to ensure that his dayaka who invited him would go off fully contended.
His erudition in Dhamma as a true ‘Buddha Puthra’ enabled him to reach every layer in our society, mostly the underprivileged in far remote areas, and in many instances, the Thero after accepting what he was offered as ‘Pirikara’ for a sermon, returned all of them then and there to the same rural temple with overwhelming pleasure. His economical (alpechcha) life pattern using no footwear for any occasion was evident wherever he went and stayed, no matter how influential or powerful the invitee would have been. He was the same to everyone. His exceptionally talented Dhamma sermonising ability surpassed all other orators as they were well blended with earthly examples and humour.
Devotees used to flock in their hundreds and attentively listened to his sermons everywhere because those Dhamma story texts were explained, extracting refreshingly down-to-earth parallels in our day-to-day society, most of which sometimes found articulation through sarcastic similes. His preaching was rich in metaphor and thought-provoking. To cite one example: His interpretation to the popular belief of 33 billion celestial deities (thisthun kotiyak deviwaru) was one such unforgettable remark he often used to quip, saying that those gods appear to be living forever and would never diminish in number which is not realistic, in his opinion. His was a life full of excitement and devoted to the best interests of the public, no matter whether it was day or night or where he would be.
Social Reformist Role
Ven Thero’s pervasive role as a socio-political cum religious reformer in the past 3-4 decades distinctively came to the fore during different stages of the country’s social and political crises and upheavals as well as during urgent moments of decisiveness. As a vibrant catalyst, he threw his full weight behind struggles against attempts of the terrorists for separation of the country, deprivation of student rights, injustices against public sector employees, ordinary folk, etc. Of them, his dedication to the ‘Maubima Surakeeme Viyaparaya’, National Sangha Council, and lately to the mobilisation of more than 70-75 civil organisations under the campaign for a just society (saadarana samajayak sandahawu viyaparaya) which is believed to have now laid the concrete foundation for the much-awaited social reforms after an absence of nearly 65 years of our independence, looms prominent. This turning point in his lifespan, in my opinion, brought his reformist vision to the zenith as political complexities in the year 2014 took a dramatic turn against the then regime’s plethora of undemocratic moves and corrupt practices that were fast brewing in society. Our monk unmoved by various manipulative schemes of ill-doers did not bother to mince his words to call a spade a spade, and as a result his genuine efforts have begun to blossom with the advent of different public forums, such as the ‘Purawesi Balaya’ (Citizens’ Power), coming up as an organized collective voice of the civil society which highlights social issues in correct perspective. Never had there been such powerful civil assemblies, comprised of mobilized segments of our society voicing their concerns against those in power jointly and unanimously, were in existence in such strong proportions. This novel emergence of civil might, of course considered as a very progressive and a democratic right of the denizen, itself will serve as a fitting tribute to this great scholar. The architect of those healthy and positive wings rising above petty self-centered motives, never bothered about his health, nor did he feel that he should examine his own health at least once in a way. That was how our most revered, Ven Sobhitha Thero spent the day. Although he was considered a radical leftist in the formative years, his maturity made him to be an apolitical character with the highest degree of integrity and impartiality in the face of very many formidable challenges that he faced during his journey to achieve social justice.
In the 1970s, he was regarded a traitor to the then regime and came under physical harassment, together with scholars, like late Dr. Ediriweera Sarathchandra. In the 1980s and early 1990s/2000s his association with progressive fronts and drives, like the Mawbima Surakeeme Viyaparaya, National Sangha Council, etc antagonised the authorities, but his unflinching passion and determination drove him up until the collective goal. With passage of time and owing to the flood of public appeals, this religious giant’s final national voyage to establish a corruption-free social democratic governance, began to take roots in early 2014 as a formidable force to be reckoned with since his foresighted pleas for rectification of those rampant social ills, fell on deaf ears at that time.
Stories abounded in Media those days that certain political elements were even trying to harm his life as he was marching to be an unbridled national leader. Thus stories swiftly rumoured that he was to be a presidential candidate but he gradually grew to be the only beacon of hope for the suffering masses, by then thoroughly fed up with the chaotic and fast degenerating politicking.
This much-admired firebrand overwhelmingly inherited the gift of the gab, and his inspiring elocution as well as the spirited eloquence, perhaps not found among any of his contemporaries, came under criticism too in many political quarters, but his determination and perseverance overcame all those trivial hurdles in a humble manner, making him more energetic, undeterred and unmoved. That was what Ven Thero meant to be, he firmly believed.
The revered orator, Ven Sobhitha Thero was an exceptionally sensitive human being who saw no bounds in his compassion and empathy towards others. Political stalwarts who criticized or abused him in public had to come back to him, apologised to him and asked for pardon or clemency. My recollection goes to the times how this concerned monk when Field Marshal Fonseka was made to leave the Army to take to politics, had a very moving and candid pow-wow with this writer in his monastery, apparently being unable to tolerate and cope up with the injustice, meted out to the former war veteran by the then authorities. Disgusted Ven Thero disagreed with that government decision vehemently and spoke bitterly, urging rectification, hinting that he would otherwise place the issue before the public unless nothing was done at the then government level. He thus honoured his commitments and fought for the well-being of others, despite the risks that would befall him. It was an arduous task with so many others, holding varying ideas but he never thought twice. Such was his valour and fearlessness as the Buddha preached. He possessed the extraordinary ability to work both with youth or the adults in unison even amidst trying circumstances, a quality that is generally lacking in our approaches.
There were times when his Dhamma sermons were not permitted in the then SLBC but those elements did not have the courage or the ability to pose a setback to his brilliant career which had a magnificent personality in it. Power hungry political elements used various tactics to silence his reverberating voice for the sake of their own ends during 1980s, but failed miserably. Despite those threats, he harboured no malice towards any of them and ignored them as evident in his memoirs, now compiled into a book.
Information further confirmed how the late Thero, irrespective of his convalescence while lying in the hospital even in the final few days, was eager to learn what was going on in the country and maintained close contacts with social and political developments that were unfolding under the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremasinghe. The habit of reading was inherent in him and his memory never failed him. He remained an avid reader of all daily newspapers. Just a few days before this great monk was flown to Singapore with a relapse, he was fairly in good spirits in the room on the 9th floor at the private hospital along the Norris Canal Road where I had a very brief interaction with him with a wish for fast recovery. Leaving an additional note in the Visitors’Book, I left his serene smile after exchange of a few words and pleasingly assuring that I would call on him again. Those last glimpses in the hospital would certainly continue to reverberate for years to come and remain etched in my memory for ever. In the same vein, his temple too was eagerly getting ready to receive him back for the annual Katina on Saturday (7) since our Thero himself has pledged that he would be present for the event. Fate however worked otherwise and speedier than him, depriving us of this roaring lion.
His elevation, identical with glorious prelates of yesteryear, like the Most Ven Kudahapola Thero, Ven Wariyapola Sumangala Thero, Ven Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero, Ven Tibet Mahinda Thero, Ven Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero, Ven Gangodawila Soma Thero, the Buddhist revivalist, Anagarika Dharmapala, et al who purely with the sole intention of bringing about a reformation in society, would be definitely remembered since he was, to contemporary Sri Lanka, a preacher, a social critic, a beacon of hope, a revolutionist and a social reformer par excellence. The fitting tribute that all of us could offer to this visionary Sri Lankan Maha Thero is nothing else but the realisation of the noble goals that he set, launched and was striving tirelessly to achieve in the best interests of our country. His demise would certainly portend a catalyst to regenerate and revive those great ideals from the point he paused and left us behind as his mortal remains are left at the parliament grounds on Thursday (12).
Bhante ! as they say: ‘ Men are judged by what they have achieved for this society and not by their words’ . You deservingly honoured those words and bade adieu to us to meet again somewhere, some day.
May our Ven Sobhitha Thero attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana !