I have been associating with Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha Nayaka Thera for over two decades in different fields of activity - education, youth leadership and temperance work, to name a few. What I noticed was that the Venerable Thera had a very clear perspective of what needed to be done and had no hankering to call a spade a spade. He never spited another but said what has to be said without fear or favour and also a smile on his face.
Though not in temperance, I remember very well how he was pleading with the Minister of Education, as a member of the Buddhist Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Education of which I too was a member, to give to the Buddhist children at least what the government has granted to the Muslim children for their religious education. ‘Although Buddhist children are in a majority we are not asking for any special privileges or favours’ he said. ‘We are satisfied if the Buddhist children are given, at least, the same facilities enjoyed by the Muslim children’. The way he placed the cards on the table, made everyone feel how underprivileged the Buddhists were, in spite of constitutional obligations to protect and foster Buddhism in this country whilst ensuring to all others full freedom to practise their own religions. It is sad that with all the pleadings the issue of appointing sufficient number of teachers proficient in Buddhism to teach Buddhist children in government schools is not fully resolved yet.
It was in 1975 that he formed the Temperance Youth Organisation of Sri Lanka (TYOS) at the request of Venerable Kalukondayawe Pannasekera Nayaka Thera, who was the President of the Sri Lanka Temperance Association for over 30 years. He bemoaned the lack of interest of the youth in temperance work, in spite of them being the most vulnerable. He was keen to get the youth involved and there was no other better choice than Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera, who showed leadership qualities from his University days, where at one time he was elected the President of the University Students’ Union. He was very successful, and by 1980, according to a Report presented by him at a Youth Congress of IOGT International held in Sweden, there were over 80 branches throughout Sri Lanka with over 50,000 youth members. This shows his capacity not only as a leader but also as an organiser. For networking he had a quarterly publication called Amadyapa Handa or the Voice of Temperance. With external assistance TYOS was able to have its own Press for propaganda work relating to temperance. In my capacity as the President of Sober Sri Lanka in 1992, and later as the Chairman of the IOGT Regional Council for South & South East Asia, and still later as a member of the Executive Committee of IOGT International, I always sought his advice and good counsel.
" We have to take decisions not thinking of the present but of the future. We have to keep in mind that it will be the innocent lives of our own children who will get shattered. We have to face the current problems with new dynamism. Even with difficulty these organisations have to be kept alive. "
The problems faced by temperance workers is very succinctly articulated by Venerable Sobhitha Nayaka Thera in his reminiscences when two young members of TYOS interviewed him when preparing a book in his honour on his reaching the age of 70. The book was published in May 2015 with the title Vadhibhasinhayano – Maduluwawe Sobhitha Yatindra Jivitavalokanaya His upright (ujupatipanna) character trait seen throughout his life is well depicted in his own assessment of TYOS to which he gave leadership. The passage that is translated appears in page 90 of the book referred to above.
“When we were getting a bit old I entrusted it (TYOS) to the youth. They carried on for some period of time. But later the organisation reached its lowest ebb. It is correct to say that it was almost dead. It was only in 2011 that it was possible to revive it and set it on its feet once again. Today our organisation is 40 years old.
Yet, what has gone to the heads of the people today is that this (curbing alcohol use) is an impossible task. Even though the theme of the Sambuddhatva Jayanti Year was Pilivetin Pelagesemu (meaning reorganising and revitalising our moral life by observance of the Five precepts), in that year the sale of alcohol products was one of the highest. The Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) in Kandy is surrounded by liquor shops. Even if we shift the Dalada Maligawa no one will dare think of shifting the liquor shops. Even today, under different names liquor shops are opened near places of religious worship and educational institutions. There is no one to oppose such occurrences. It is not the concern of anyone. What opposition was there to get legislation passed for a good thing like the display of graphic health warnings on cigarette packets!! From undertakings like Casinos the devastations that would happen in future would not be any different. Because of that we should start to rethink on these matters. We have to take decisions not thinking of the present but of the future. We have to keep in mind that it will be the innocent lives of our own children that will get shattered. We have to face the current problems with new dynamism. Even with difficulty these organisations have to be kept alive. It is because of such organisations that we have been able to keep the alcohol and tobacco industries at bay even to this extent. I am of the firm conviction that this should get the same priority that was given to the extermination of terrorism in our country. If not, in the future, the country will get inundated with liquor shops and casinos. Because of that, whatever the impediments, we shall continue this work in the future as well.”
Unfortunately for all of us and especially our country he did not live long to continue this task. It is a mission unfulfilled. I went to pay my last respects to this undaunted temperance worker and I saw the many banners hanging along the road. The thought occurred as to how many of those ‘wishes’ printed for display were genuine. Was it more to give publicity to the organisation that displayed the banner rather than a genuine commitment for the cause?
Let us look at this issue from a different angle. The problem of alcoholism is now universal. The United Nations thought it fit in September 2011 to have a summit on the issue of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). Most of the deaths occurring today are not due to communicable diseases like TB, Malaria, Polio, etc. In Sri Lanka nearly 70% of the deaths are due to cancer, heart and lung diseases, diabetes and high blood pressure, which are termed NCDs or lifestyle diseases. The vector in all these diseases are transnational companies selling death and are prepared to stoop to any low level like bribing politicians or even governments to continue their disgraceful operations against mankind. The causes for NCDs have been identified as tobacco and alcohol use, wrong food habits encouraged by multinationals and fast food chains like McDonalds, KFCs with media support, and sedentary life. The summit ended with a political declaration that for the first time enunciated a total government and society approach to curb the NCD epidemic. Goals with targets have been set and will be closely monitored by international bodies like the WHO. For instance, as regards tobacco use, a 30% reduction in tobacco prevalence by 2025 has to be achieved. Similar targets are there for alcohol use, consumption of fatty foods and salt intake. No government machinery can reach out to every family or family unit, but in a country such as Sri Lanka, religious institutions like the temple could do much under the leadership of organisations like TYOS, SLTA, etc.
The National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) is in a way a NGO creation. Personally, I am aware of the different traumatic situations in connection with that endeavour. Hence, I am of the view that NATA should be giving priority to capacity building of such people’s organisations. Capacity building is not merely holding seminars but ensuring the sustainability of the organisations that have been existing so far by keeping their heads up under very dire conditions. The temperance movement in Sri Lanka is a moral force that has been prostituted by all the governments that had come into power so far.
When Mr. J.R. Jayewardena met and explained to Venerable Kalukondayawe Pannasekera Nayaka Thera his concept of a Righteous Society, it is recorded that the Nayaka Thera had stated ‘At last, now I can die peacefully’. Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha Nayaka Thera who followed his footsteps had a similar vision when he came to the forefront to fight for and create the present government advocating Good Governance or Yaha Palanaya. The future is anyone’s guess; but the stakes are high.