Ven. Gangodawila Soma thero (1948-2003) : The political character of a religious leader

ven_soma_thera_is20031224Fifth death anniversary of Ven. Gangodawila Soma thero today, provides an ideal opportunity to revisit his role in Lanka’s socio-political space. This brief post intentionally avoids discussing his role as a religious leader because (a) this site has more to do with politics than religion and (b) for most Soma thero was discussant of the semi-political programs like ‘Anduren Eliyata’ and not the author of religious text like ‘Buddha Stupa’.

The term ‘politics’ does not stand for party politics. Unlike the JHU MPs – who never hesitated before prostituting their respected positions in society to play a petty political role –Ven. Soma thero treated party politics more like a plague. Repeated requests by acquaintances to join racist political parties were politely rejected. Still he was not politically immune. Intentionally or not, Ven. Soma thero has made his mark in Sri Lanka’s political history.

It all began in mid 1990s. ‘Anduren Eliyata’ (from darkness to light), in first ITN and then TNL, was what made his larger than life image. Before that, even in Australia, where he lived for seven years Ven. Soma thero was known only as a religious leader, not too different from any similar missionary Bhikku.

Two transformations in society assisted his almost overnight popularity.

First was the expansion of the class of novae-riches. Started in 1977-aftermath by mid 1990s it has reached culmination. Based mostly on semi-urban areas, the religious exposure of this new middle class was limited. Further they had too little time for the intricacies of abhidharma. What they wanted an instant version of Buddhism. Like instant noodles, it has to be pre-cooked to be made consumable within the shorted possible time. Simple and straightforward language of Soma thero appealed to this crowd. In spite of his famous phrase “Oya eththoma kalpana karala balanna” (You think for yourself) Soma thero provided little to ponder. His messages were simple and straightforward. His language was lucid. Even the relatively less educated could follow him.

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The other reason was the widening gap between the political thinking of then government and masses. Globalisation, market reforms and ethnic cohabitation made foundation of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge government – at least theoretically, though it was too inefficient to implement much. Thinking of the majority, just like today, was diametrically opposite. All they wanted was to live within their own cocoons, hallucinated by the memories of the so called 2,500 year old history. Soma thero’s anti-globalisation, anti-market lullabies became popular at the very rate the government becomes unpopular.

He was also smart taking a go on the popular issues. Soma thero was no Kavoor, but his opposition to Satya Sri Sai-Baba worked perfectly. Probably not because the masses were intellectually matured to accept the reality, but the social status a section of the novae-riches craved to achieve through the blind worship of Sai Baba was prevented by Soma thero’s discourse and offset the mass- jealousy. So he was successful where Kavoor failed.

His anti-Valentine day politics was even more successful. The feudal society that believed only in latent love approved the Soma thero’s opposition to open expression of it.

His ostensible arguments against Valentine Day were: (a) True Love is perpetual; therefore no need for a special date and (b) it is too commercialised. The same arguments hold true also for Vesak or Poson. Still nobody argued, perhaps not wanting to be branded as an anti-Buddhist.

At least two Buddhist intellectuals questioned Soma thero’s approach. One was Lal Hegoda, an elderly gentleman, better known as a photographer and poet. Hegoda questioned whether he preached ‘Budu bana’ or ‘Soma bana’. The other was Dayaratne Ranashinge, author of the popular series of books ‘Nivana’. Sadly, apart from Asraff, who once got into a famous debate with him, nobody seriously questioned his political discourse. Asraff too challenged only the veracity of facts, and not opinions. Still he showed us what shallow waters Soma thero was swimming in. When asked to name a village, alleged to have ‘destroyed’ by ‘Muslim politicians’ drawing high tension wires over it Soma thero went speechless. He also admitted he has actually not visited Dhigavapi area and had to depend on secondary sources. This was nothing but the same JHU philosophy that puts ideology before facts.

‘Untimely’ is the adjective that used frequently to describe Soma thero’s death. He was 55 – about 15-20 years less than the life time of an average Sri Lankan. Still, for someone who has undergone heart surgery once, the extreme St.Petersburg cold can be fatal. It was the same cold that killed tens of thousands of German soldiers during the last phase of World War II. Prof. Chandrasiri Niriella’s post mortem confirmed the cause of death.

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Still facts are not something the ideological maniacs appreciate. Their cried made Chandrika government appointing a commission– none of the members having any knowledge in forensic medicine. As expected, this commission did not reveal anything new. If publicly hanging the ‘Christian Fundamentalist’ culprits was what the extremists fantasized, they lost hopes. I guess Prof. Shantha Jayasekera still teaches theology and space technology at International University of Fundamental Studies and offers fake doctorates to those recommended by his brother.

The drama that followed aimed not respecting Soma thero, but building political futures of others. It was the crucial moment at least a section of Buddhists supported Bhikkus entering into political sphere. It was the turning point of demolishing all what build to achieve lasting peace through an honorable solution accepted to all. Finally it was a Gymkhana won by someone down Hambanthota. Not that these things be blamed on Soma thero. His well intentions were misused by a group of political thugs who hijacked the mass emotion.

Our unreserved respect goes to Ven. Soma thero for his honesty and straightforwardness.

His contribution to the society would have been certainly more meaningful if he confined activities within religious sphere.

May he attain Nibbana!

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