Sinhala unity, the foundation of national unity

– Ven. Madihe Maha Nayake Thera


by Deshabandu Olcott Gunasekera

The above is a quote of the late Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera whose 100th birth anniversary and the 10th year of his demise are commemorated this year. It may be useful to examine the validity of this profound statement of his in the present context.

Venerable Mahanayaka Thera was a champion of promoting unity. A topic that he often takes for his sermons was verse 194 of the Dhammapada, the English translation of which is as follows: "Happy is the birth of a Buddha, Happy is the teaching of the Noble Doctrine, Happy is the unity of the Sangha, Happy is the discipline of the united." His thoughts, words and deeds were always to bring about unity among those who were disunited. A few examples will show how he relentlessly worked towards this goal.

The Amarapra Nikaya of which he became the first Supreme Patriarch, consisted of 21 different sects, holding separately the higher ordination (upasampada) of monks of their respective sects. He worked relentlessly to bring these different sects together and the outcome of his efforts was the holding of a common higher ordination ceremony, thus bringing about the unity of the Amarapura Nikaya. This most important unifying vinaya act was performed at the Uposathagharaya situated at Siri Vajiranana Dharmayatanaya, Maharagama on July 13, 1969. It was a most historic event that was graced by the head of State, William Gopallawa.

Because of the ruthless suppressive actions against Buddhism and the Buddha Sasana by the Portuguese invaders who held the maritime areas of Sri Lanka succeeding the puppet regime of the Sinhala king of Kotte, baptized and consecrated as Don Juan Dharmapala, there was a time when there were no higher ordained Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka to perform the higher ordination of monks. A mission was sent to Thailand (then Siam) and the higher ordination (upasampada) under the Theravada Buddhist tradition was re-established in Sri Lanka in 1753. The Siyamopali Maha Nikaya of the Malwatta and the Asgiriya chapters was the consequence. In the early 19th century the Amarapura Nikaya and the Ramanna Nikaya were established after missions to Myanmar by Sri Lankan bhikkhus and bringing the upasampada from that country. These were considered as reciprocal actions of the Maha Sangha of Thailand and Myanmar because in both these countries the upasampada or higher ordination was established by Sinhala monks in the 13th century.

Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera when he was appointed the head of the Amarapura Dhammarakshita Nikaya in 1955, the youngest Mahanayaka Thera at the time, he reminded himself of the very famous words of Most Venerable Asarana Sarana Pindapatika Weliwitiye Saranankara Thera who was appointed the Sangharaja by King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe. They were ‘UDANGU NOVA MAHANA’, meaning ‘Bhikkhu, do not get elated’. Humility was his forte and later when he became the first Supreme Mahanayaka Thera of the Amarapura Nikaya, he had no qualms of visiting frequently the other three Mahanayaka Theras, who at times were junior to him by way of number of years after receiving higher ordination. He was successful in developing a very close rapport with them and thereby forging unity among the Maha Sangha. It was not by words but by action that he brought about this change. On national issues, it became possible to issue joint statements signed by all the four prelates. On almost all occasions, he himself took the document for the signature of other prelates. He saw the strength of a unified Sangha and worked untiringly towards that goal. His aspiration was to bring about a unity among the Sangha to lead the Buddhist cause and he was successful in achieving that to a great extent. When discussing matters relating to the Sasana recently, a leading Buddhist monk mentioned that today political and ideological differences are more visible than Nikaya differences.

Among the members of the Maha Sangha, there is no one in recent times that had written and spoken candidly on the multi racial issue than the late Mahanayaka Thera. He made presentations before the Sansoni Commission, which were later published under the title ‘Eelam the Truth’. He was an active member of the All Party Conference convened by J.R. Jayewardena in 1987, representing the Maha Sangha. Along with him was Venerable Walpola Rahula and Venerable Chandananda, the Mahanayaka Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter. They came up with a solution acceptable for all and according to the records had even the approval of the Tamil leaders who were members of the All Party Conference. Unfortunately, President Jayewardena did not heed the Sangha solution and finally nothing came out of it. The result was the continuation of the warring situation that became worse and worse in the later years.

One of the reasons adduced by the Venerable Mahanayaka Thera for such outcomes was the disunity among the Sinhala people due to the Westminster system of Party politics. He did not approve of this system as suitable for developing countries because of the divisiveness it brought about. He believed in a system where all representatives elected by the people share equal responsibilities for the betterment and welfare of the country. He often quoted instances from the Western world where at the conclusion of a Presidential election the defeated candidate after accepting defeat congratulates the victor and assures the fullest support for the good and welfare of the country. Not only in Sri Lanka but even in the neighbouring countries of the SAARC region elections are often followed by violence and continued obstruction to the process of good governance. Over the years there has been a complete politicizing and division of society to the detriment of the progress of the country. The latter becomes worse when the majority race in a multi racial country is divided. It is in this context that the Venerable Mahanayaka Thera made the profound statement that Sinhala unity is the foundation of national unity.

President Premadasa was one who believed in the wisdom of this statement. He coined a new word when addressing Parliament. Referring to the opposition parties, rather than calling them the viruddha paksa that has the meaning in Sinhala of ‘antagonistic, hostile, dissident, or inimical parties’, he used the word pratipaksa that has the meaning of ‘alternate party’. Unfortunately, a tradition has been built in Sri Lanka that opposition parties should always oppose whatever the party in power does. There is ample evidence from the annals of history where under grave situations threatening the very existence of a country all political parties had come together to steer the country to safety. For example, in England during World War II there was a national government under Winston Churchill, a Tory. After the September 11 holocaust in the US, the world witnessed how the Republicans and the Democratic Parties made joint statements.

It has been a different story in Sri Lanka. Even in the gravest moments, when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country was at stake and the country was besieged by one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations to usurp power and disintegrate the county, it was not possible for the main two parties to come to a common agreement. The Sinhala people were the most divided enabling the destabilizing forces both internal and external to gain ground. Hence, the situation has arisen today that although the LTTE was militarily defeated in Sri Lanka in 2009, it has been possible for the LTTE, fanned by a Tamil diaspora and Western countries, to have a pseudo Eelam outside the country. These forces have vowed to divide the country and have a separate State – the State of Eelam.

The present Government has been pushed to hold elections for the Northern Province. In spite of the development work we see in the Northern Province amounting to millions of dollars, the LTTE stance, voiced locally through the TNA party, has not changed. One should remember that even after the destruction brought about over 30 long years of internal strife, which killed thousands of Sri Lankans including soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice with their lives, because of the Buddhist upbringing there is no animosity in the hearts of the Sinhala people towards the Tamils. That is how a large percentage of the Tamil Sri Lankans are living outside the Northern Province among the Sinhala people. Under the 13th amendment to the Constitution that was thrust on the people of Sri Lanka by our neighbour India, the powers of the President and the National Parliament were curtailed and the subjects of Police and Public Order, Land and Land Settlement were given to Provincial Councils. Hence, it is not mere fantasy but a reality that there is a genuine threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, if a Provincial Council aligned to LTTE aspirations of a separate state comes into being. The time has come where all Sri Lankans and especially the Sinhala people who are around 15 million, which is 0.22 of the world’s population of 7,092 billion on whom the onus lies, to get united barring religious, political and ideological affiliations to preserve and protect a cultural tradition that has been enriching the world’s heritage for over two millennia. The words of wisdom of the Most Venerable Mahanyaka Thera that Sinhala Unity is the foundation of National Unity reverberates today more than at any time. The decision of the Sinhala people today will shape the future history of this country.

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