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Monk in the national struggle

Sobhitha Thera:



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A felicitation ceremony will be held the today (May 29) at 3 pm to mark the 70th birthday of the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha thera who as chief Incumbent of the Sri Naga Vihara, Kotte, was a pioneer in the national struggle and gave a unique leadership to the Sinhala-Buddhist community. Mahanayakas of the three Buddhist sects will participate in the felicitation ceremony.


By Dharman Wickremaratne


The Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha thera was born to a rural farming family in Maduluwawa, Homagama on May 29, 1942. He was one of three children the other two being girls. He entered monkhood at the age of 13 in 1955 and received higher ordination in 1962. I came to know him as the monk in our village temple in 1970. Since 1976 to date, Venerable Sobhitha, now Chief Incumbent of the Sri Naga Vihara, Kotte, and other monks of the same temple are provided with ‘heel dana’ (morning alms) at our home on the 22nd of every month. This has continued uninterupted for the past 36 years.


Ven. Sobhitha thera received his primary education at the Maduluwawa School in Homagama. Thereafter having done higher studies at Vidyalankara Pirivena he read for his MA degree at the Sri Jayawardenepura University where he also became the Students Union President in 1964. He has taught as a lecturer at Siri Perakumba Pirivena, Ethul Kotte, Nalanda Pirivena, Kudathuduwa and Subhadrarama Pirivena, Nugegoda. He joined the Sri Naga Vihara, Kotte under the patronage of the Venerable Mulleriyawe Rewatha in 1954. Every month, Ven. Sobhitha participates in over a 100 religious events. He is a preacher popular not only among people in Sri Lanka but also among Sri Lankan expatriates in the Middle-East and Europe.


He was among the leaders who openly condemned the Jayewardene Government’s high-handed actions harassing masses. He formed the Sinhala Balamandalaya in 1982 and gave his unstinting support to the Sinhala Veera Vidahana. Towards the end of the 1980s the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha had become the symbol of the bhikkus who stood with the people in their struggles although he never joined any political party. After the People’s Alliance won the general elections of 1994 President Chandrika Bandaranaike, then PM, visited the Sri Naga Vihara for the first time to perform religious activities. But that did not deter the Ven. Sobhitha from criticizing her government’s policies that did not serve the interests of the people.


Four-decade cause


For nearly four decades, the Venerable Sobhitha stood up for the cause of truth, justice and fair play. As a result he suffered much insults and abuses. But he was never shaken by such harassment and faced challenges fearlessly. As a journalist I have closely associated with him throughout the 1980s. Undoubtedly it was the Ven. Sobhitha who fired the first salvo against the Jayewardene Government and organised the massive campaign against its virtual autocracy. His pioneering effort saw the beginning of the end of the UNP rule.


Ven. Sobhitha was also a militant monk who gave leadership to the progressive struggle waged for the protection of the motherland. In this context he belongs to the generation of such bhikkus as the Ven. Udakendawala Saranankara, Ven.Kotagama Vachissara and Medagoda Sumanatissa. Ven. Sobhitha was a great strength to the armed forces that worked for a durable and sustainable peace during the anti-LTTE war. He despised opportunism and the lust for power and money. When his attempts to solve problems in a friendly manner failed he adopted a militant stance. In all these instances the patrons of the Naga Vihara, Kotte, the people of Pitakotte and those in the vicinity extended their full backing to the Ven. Sobhitha.


The government sacked 40,000 public sector employees in the 1980 general strike and broke the backbone of the trade union movement. Thugs were deployed to violently break up pickets, token strikes and fasts staged in protest. In 1986 the Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda thera led a historic, massive nurses’ strike which continued for 26 days. It was organised to deal with the government’s threats and intimidation. In this struggle he had the unstinting support of the Ven. Sobhitha. Consequently the strike helped to revive the trade union movement which had been all but paralysed.


Fast-unto-death


When the bhikkus staged a fast unto death opposite the Buddha statue at Thunmulla junction Colombo in support of the nurses’ strike, they were abducted around 12 midnight and taken to the General Cemetery, Borella. This was the work of the then Senior Superintendent of Police (Colombo South) Abdul Gaffoor. The abduction sparked off a massive protest and the Ven. Sobhitha was able to turn it into a national issue with the support of many others. Consequently over 5000 people marched under Ven. Sobhitha’s leadership towards President J.R. Jayewardene’s residence defying the curfew, police barriers and tear gas. Eventually the demands of the striking nurses were met.


In 1987 when the then government banned May Day celebrations Ven. Sobhitha was able to organise a May Rally with the participation of thousands at the Abhayaramaya, Narahenpita assisted by the Ven. Muruthettuwe Ananda, defying the government ban. I still remember when the police fired upon the rally killing two persons, Ven. Sobhitha going before the police fearlessly and appealed to them to stop firing.


Another instance I witnessed his bravery was the day when the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed in July 1987 when Ven. Sobhitha gave leadership not only to over 25,000 people but also to leading politicians who opposed the accord. In accordance with Buddhist principles, his stance when fighting for rights is that death is better than living like coward. I was a witness to his arrest on August 1, 1987 under Emergency regulations, accused of inciting disturbances. When a senior police superintendent and his men came to the temple premises to arrest him nearly a thousand people prevented it. But Ven. Sobhitha said he was prepared to meet any challenge for the sake of the people’s struggle. He spent nearly a month in police custody and it gave him further courage.


Ven. Sobhitha is among the foremost figures in Sri Lanka’s Sangha Sasana which comprises around 30,000 monks. Having reached 70 years of age this noble bhikku has given a unique leadership to the Sinhala Buddhist community. He has dedicated himself to the country’s progressive movement, making his temple a place of refuge. He is like a giant tall tree standing among us. He was without question, a pioneering monk in the national struggle. We wish him good health and long life so that he will have the strength to continue his invaluable work on behalf of the country and the people.


(The writer could be reached at ejournalists@gmail.com)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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