On the 21st September 2008, falls the 118th death anniversary of Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda who spearheaded the famous debates between the Buddhists and the Christians at Baddegama, Udanvita, Gampola, Waragoda, Liyanagemulla and Panadura in the 2nd half of the 19th century. He was born at Migettuwatta (Mohottiwatta) in Balapitiya in the Galle District on the 9th February 1823 to a Buddhist family. From his early childhood he had a close relationship with a Catholic priest who was residing in a nearby church. It gave him the opportunity to read the Bible in addition to so many other Christian books and study Christianity. He had at one point, the intention of becoming a Catholic priest. However, in the meantime, he came into contact with some Bhikkhus of the nearby temples. This caused him to change his mind about joining the Catholic Clergy. After few days he went to the Kumara Maha Viharaya in Dodanduwa which was also known as Gala Uda Viharaya and stayed there for some time. He was ordained a Bhikkhu by the Chief incumbent of the temple, Ven. Thelikada Sonuttara Thera. While staying in the temple, he acquired proficiency in oriental languages and Buddhism.
One day while he was reading the magazine ‘Bauddha Sahodaraya’, he came to understand that in Colombo city Christian power was such, that a Buddhist monk could not walk in the streets without becoming the butt of sarcastic remarks from Christians. Venerable Gunananda Thera was greatly disturbed by this news. This made him decide to come to Colombo and reside in Deepaduttaaramaya in Kotahena. While he was there he started to deliver talks countering Christian arguments against Buddhism. When Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa in the month of Poson (June) 306 BC, it received royal patronage. The idea that the King of Sri Lanka had to be a Buddhist was rooted in the soil and this was never changed until the Kingship was abolished in 1815. From 1505, the time the Portuguese invaded the country, the Sinhalese and Buddhism suffered a severe setback due to the acts of the Catholic Missionaries. With the deterioration of discipline within the Sangha, Theravada Buddhism would have disappeared from the country if not for the valiant efforts of Ven. Welivita Saranankara Maha Thera and King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe who revived Buddhism and the Sangha organisation by the introduction of Upasampada or the higher ordination from Siam in 1753.
Even though the fifth clause of the Kandyan Convention signed in 1815, guaranteed the protection of Buddhism and its places of worship, the British did not honour it after they established their supremacy in the Kandyan provinces. After the rebellion of 1818, the British while promising to protect Buddhism dropped the world ‘inviolable’ which appeared in the fifth clause of the Kandyan convention, thereby giving an indication of the relaxation of the guarantees concerning the protection of Buddhist places of worship and the Sangha. The missionary schools overtook the Pirivena or the Buddhist temple schools by the year 1827. There were 96 schools managed by the Christian clergy, while 94 pirivena schools existed in the Kandyan provinces. There did not exist a single school for the education of Buddhist children. Moreover, there were no schools belonging to the Government in the Kandyan provinces. In addition, the British Government declared Sunday a public holiday on the 6th April 1817, thereby, cancelling the Poya day holiday enjoyed by the Buddhists since 242 BC.
In 1832 Colebrooke introduced English as the medium of instruction in the Government service. As a result, all Government Sinhala medium schools were closed in 1832. Instead, English schools were opened in main cities all over the island. The Colombo Academy, now Royal College in Colombo 07 was opened in 1836 as a direct result of the new policy on education. There were only two Buddhist schools in the country - in Panadura and Dodanduwa with an attendance of 246 children as against 805 Christian schools with an attendance of 78,086 children, in the country in 1870.
At this juncture Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, came to Deepadutthaaramaya in Kotahena from Gala Uda Viharaya in Dodanduwa. In this particular era thousands of Sinhala people after learning English had become Christians in order to gain a livelihood. A Sinhalese villager could be trained to attack Buddhism within a year and in those days a salary of Rupees twenty per month was enough to make him offer his services as a Catechist to preach in the villages against the religion of the Sinhala people. The Christian missionaries began propagating the religion through pamphlets and books. When Rev. D. J. Gogerly of the Wesleyan mission published ‘Christian Pragnapthi’ in 1849, Venerable Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera replied with ‘Durlabdi Vinodimi’ in 1862 and Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera wrote ‘Christian Vada Mardanaya’ and ‘Samyak Darshanaya’ 1862-63. Soon the writings were replaced by public debates. Through journals like ‘Satya Margaya’, Satya Prakashanaya’, ‘Lakmini Kirula’, Christiani Wada Vighataniya’, and ‘Reversa’ and thousands of pamphlets, the Ven Thera, refuted the wrong views that were held by the opponents of the Sinhala people and Buddhism.
He led many debates on behalf of the Sinhala Buddhists. The Baddegama debate was conducted through the exchange of articles between the Buddhists and the Christians in February 1865. It originated from an argument between a young Buddhist monk named Sumangala and a Christian priest at a Viharaya in Baddegama, the Udanvita debate was conducted in a temple in Udanvita in the Satara Korale in 1866. It centred on the Creator, the redeemer and the Eternal Heaven. The Gampola debate was held June 1871 with Ven. Gunananda Thera and Pandit Batuwantudave for the Buddhists and Rev. Charles Carter and his team for the Christians. The Waragoda debate had been held in the year 1865 and the Liyanagemulla debate was in 1866.These debates culminated in the world famous debate held at Panadura from the 26th to 28th August 1873 as a result of a sermon delivered on the 12th of June 1873 by Rev. David Silva on the teachings of the Buddha with reference to the human soul. On the 19th of the same month it was taken exception to by the Buddhists, denounced as untrue and a debate was initiated by the Christians.
The Christians were represented by able men, the ablest debaters in the island whom their church could have summoned. Arrayed against Rev. Gunananda Thera were Revs. David Silva, S. Langdon, Principal of Richmond College. S. Tab, S. Cauls, C. Jayasinghe, F. Rodrigo, the catechist Sirimanne, Mudliyar de Soysa, Dunupola Nilame among others. Before this formidable opposition alone and undaunted rose the militant Rev. Gunananda Thera, his reasoning was so powerful, eloquence so convincing, that he annihilated his opponents. At this debate for the side of the Buddhists were Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti Thera, Potuwila Indrajoti Thera, Koggala Sangatissa Thera, Talhena Amaramoli, Mulleriyawe Gunaratana and Gunananda Theras. The debate ranged from the nature of God, the Soul and resurrection on the one hand, to the concept of Karma, Rebirth, Nirvana and the principle of Paticca - Sumuppada or dependent origination. The impact of the debate was phenomenal, Locally, it was the major force behind re-establishing the identity and pride of Sinhala Buddhists that was dwindling fast under the devious and oppressive practices of the ruling British, Internationally, it was instrumental in creating awareness about Buddha Dhamma in the West, a wealth of knowledge that was highly appreciated by the intelligentsia. Edward Perera, prepared a summary of the whole debate in the English language as arranged by the Editor of ‘Ceylon Times’ John Cooper. Thousands of copies of the translation were published and distributed. When Mr. Feeble came to Sri Lanka, he received a copy of that translation in Galle and took it to America and published it with an introduction explaining how the Buddhists in Sri Lanka have shown the real position of Christianity and named the book ‘Buddhism and Christianity face to face’. One of the copies published by Mr. Feeble fell into the hands of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and it was after he read it that he become interested in Buddhism. He felt this is one of the religions he was looking for to unearth the secret of the Universe after which he came to the island and formed the Theosophical Society. With the arrival of Sir Henry Steele Olcott, the Buddhist revival movement got a dynamic leader who could deal with the colonial rulers on level ground.
What is significant here is that it was Ven. Gunananda Thera’s eloquent presentation of the Buddhist point of view that attracted Sir Henry Steele Olcott, who came to Sri Lanka on the 17th May 1880, and consequently accelerated the activities of the revival movement. As a result, Buddhist high schools such as Ananda College, Colombo, Dharmaraja College, Kandy and Sri Sumangala College in Panadura were started. Ven. Gunananda passed away in September 1880.