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.

vsomaphd

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

  1. Shouldn’t he be ‘Dr.’ or ‘Prof.’? After all, he was awarded the doctorate or whatever. So if you call Mervin de Silva, Dr. You should give the same respect for Soma hamuduruwo too.

  2. It is ironical that only UNP remember Soma thero after five years. For those who got enough political mileage from his cadaver, he is of no use anymore. How sad. JHU has no commemorations. Buddhists have forgotten Soma thero. Is this due to their well known forgetfulness?

    Ajith, I am sure Soma thero will thank you from wherever he is now, at least for remembering him still.

  3. Dear Ajith,

    You or your writers just like all other decadant UNPers (including myself) are trying to find fault with JHU, Soma Thera, etc. etc. Why don’t we look at our own weaknesses including those of UNP organisation, leadership and policies. Our weakness, inefficiency and ineffectiveness only created a lacuna which was very well utilised for promoting various ideologies and organisations.

    By being critical and cynical we only get self satisfaction.

    BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE PLEASE, PLEASE ENSURE THAT OUR LEADER KNOWS THE NATIONAL ANTTHEM BY HEART LIKE ALL LEADERS AMERICA AND OUR OWN EVEN PRIMARY STUDENTS FROM MAHA VIDYALAYAS.

  4. You foolish Luxman, our leaders knows by heart the American and British anthems why the hell they should be worried about Anthem of Siri Lankan godayas. We are only with International Media, not with locals. those are only for SBs and sajiths

  5. අනේ හාමුදුරුවනේ මළාම ඔහොම තමයි. දැන් බලන්ඩකො මං ඉන්න කාලෙ හැම එකාම මට වැඳගෙනනෙ හිටියෙ. මැරිලා අවුරුද්දක් ගියා විතරයි මගෙ වසන්ත පුතාටවත් මාව මතක නෑ නෙවැ.

    මං මැරිලා අවුරුද්ද පිරෙන දවසෙ බන්දුල පද්මකුමාර මුල් පිටුවෙ කිව්වලු මං ගැන පත්තරවල තියෙන්නෙ ඇඩ්වර්ටීස්ට්මන්ට් එකක විතරයි කියලා. ඉතින් බලහල්ලකො. කෝ අර මට වැඳගෙන හිටපු එවුන්?

    ඔබ වහන්සෙට විතරක් නෙවෙයි, අපේ සිංහල මිනිස්සු හැමෝටම සලකන්නෙ එහෙමයි. මැරුණට පස්සේ වැදගත්කමක් හම්බවෙන්නේ දේශපාලන වැදගත්කමක් ඇති මුර්ත ක්ලෙබර වලට විතරයි. දැන් බලමුකො කදිරගාමර් මහත්තයා, ජෙයරාජ් මහත්තයා, පාරමී කුලතුංග මහත්තයා කාටද මතක? ඒ කාලෙ නම් ඉතින් ඒ මුර්ත ක්ලෙබර වලින් වැඩක් ගත්තා තමයි. දැන් ඉතින් උන්දලා ඕනෙයැ.

    කොච්චර අද වැඳගෙන හිටියත් ගෝඨාභය උන්නැහේටයි පොන්සේකා මහත්තයටයිත් ඉතින් මැරිච්ච දවසක මෙච්චර තමා. ඒ ඉතින් සිංහල මිනිහගේ ජම්ම ගතිය. ඇදේ දාලවත් අරිනව බොරු.

  6. Soma thero’s emergence and popularity were also symptomatic of how a majority of Sri Lankan Buddhists prefer style over substance. Apart from what you have identified, another factor that helped launch Soma thero as a nationally known figure was the media.

    The late Ajith Samaranayake touched on this when he wrote, in his Sunday Essay on 21 December 2003 in The Sunday Observer:
    “Here he was very much a product of the media for it was the Government-managed ITN through the series ‘Andurin Eliyata’ and the newspapers which provided him with a platform. Through these agencies he was able to address a wide audience and secure instant popularity quite disproportionate to his late appearance on the national landscape having lived for long in Australia. He was Sri Lanka’s first television bhikkhu.”
    Full essay found at: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2003/12/21/fea01.html

  7. @Nalaka,

    I agree with you. TV-preachers are not uncommon in other countries. Still it was novel idea in 1990s in SL. Ven Soma thero was the first to introduce the phenomenon, but we see many followers. (including upaska Chandana Jayaratne)

    I guess it was not too different to then Radio Ceylon introducing one hour ‘bana’ programme. Many monks became instantly famous thanks to radio.

  8. A forensic expert gave evidence and it was judicially concluded that Ven Soma’s death was due to a heart attack. Why on earth was a commission thereafter as if judicial decision cannot be accepted? OK. Why has the JHU just dropped the Commission report? Did they think that once succeeded in entering politics on the dead body of the Ven. Thera,it is no longer necessary to bother about the Thera?

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