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.


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.


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!


As Buddhists, should we further milk local Talibans?

No doubt that Buddhism is the most flexible, tolerable and nonviolent religion in the world. Some of its pillars, known to Buddhists for more than two and half millennia, such as ‘ahimsa’ (nonviolence), ‘samanathmatha’ (equality) and ‘upekhaka’ (indifference) constitute the very basis of civilized life.

The same thing can be said about the sea too. It is vast, calm and deep. Still there can be tsunamis.

The first wave of so called ‘Sinhalese Buddhist’ talibanic tsunami hit us in 2003 – in the immediate aftermath of the demise of Ven. Gangodawila Soma thero. Racism and ethnic hatred are not uncommon in Lankan society but there were no precedents for the abuse of religion for political purposes at such low level. Not even in 1956, with the liberal unleash of chauvinism under the opportunistic leadership of S W R D Bandaranaike.

To give credit to those who deserve it, Ven. Soma thero has always been reluctant to jump to the mud hole of politics. Perhaps he realized it was not his forte. Perhaps he was not dreaming for a Mercedes Benz. In the non-materialistic universe of Ven. Soma thero the place for a Bhikku was at a higher orbit – not so close to earth. So he kept out of politics, leaving it for mortal souls like ourselves.

The politically motivated JHU Benz-wallahs were the opposite. Seeing the opportunity they jumped immediately –like bunch of pariah dogs jump for a bone or bitch under heat. They could win nine seats in the 2004 General Election – a significant number for a party born yesterday – but little did the apolitical upasaka ammas who voted under a kind of religious giddiness know what was in for them.

Ever since it was a bumpy ride. Benz-wallahs broke every possible rule in the book. They sold car permits, abducted their own colleagues, threw ‘parusha vacha’ and ‘pisuna vacha’ not only at political enemies, but also at others belong to different factions. Staged few dramas like the event at Sharuk Khan’s show. (Poor Sharuk! He never returned!) During a ‘fast unto death’ (rather fast unto hospitalization) event at Kandy JHU cheevaradharis behaved like common thugs in closing down the shops.

Still there is something called ‘karma’. We saw it at work when some of them got their testicles massaged by the good doctor Mervin Silva reminding us ‘ditta dhamma vedaniya karmaya’.

All this would have been fine. We would have been enjoyed the comedy if not the believers of other religions were unnecessarily brought in the middle of all this.

Christians and Catholics were the first victims. Overnight even the Sinhalese Christians became non-indigenous; non-Bhumiputra, ‘arrived yesterday’ outsiders. All Christians and Catholics were the target for handful of conversions that have been carried out by few non-traditional and small Christian groups. The madness knew no limits. Only God would have known how many churches have been burnt down ever since.

Then the Muslims. Courtesy of JHU , poor in Ampara were denied shelter simply because of their belief. When thousands of Muslims were unceremoniously chased off from Glennie street there wasn’t anybody even to raise a voice.

Things would not have been so deplorable if not for the Kurrakkan uncle – the opportunists’ opportunist – who saw nothing wrong in riding this racist wave for his own political gains. The outcome was catastrophic. The level of racism unleashed at the 2005 Presidential election was incredible. The divisions in society caused deep wounds, which will never be healed. All these because of the greed of one individual – to make his the royal family of Lanka.

The recent incidents in and out of the Supreme Court too are the continuation of the same drama. What Taliban wants it clear. They look for a discrimination that treats them better than the rest of the society. Muslims chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ is not tolerable; but noise pollution by temples is not only acceptable but welcome as well. No, we do not want to stand for anybody. We are supreme and above the law. See where they are leading?

As Buddhists, how long are we going to tolerate this Taliban mafia? Shouldn’t it high time that we stand up and say we are tired of all this nonsense and that as Buddhists we do not expect to be treated better than the rest – rather we do not want anyone else mistreated?

These are questions we should ask ourselves as Buddhists, Sinhalese and Sri Lankans. It is not a question of a political party. It is a question of our common future. The damage caused by these extremists to the Lankan society is no means small. We already live in a highly divided society thanks to all racist forces that divided us ever since 1956. Isn’t this the time to use our brains and not our hearts?

Election campaigning…….…in the land of rising sun

I am at Lahugala, in the Ampara district. Write this just after finishing another round of campaigning and conducting pocket meetings.

Entire Eastern province has caught the election fever.

Election campaigning is fun. What adds to our enthusiasm is the awareness of the impending danger.

Pillayan’s henchmen are waiting to kill us. He is a terrorist and should not be trusted. The only shield we have against his arms is the support of the people. Whatever the powers this terrorist has we do not think he can just shoot anyone and flee. But the danger is there, everywhere. We have got over with is now. Pillayan’s terrorism should not stop us in our fight for democracy.

Just a brief background of the work I do.

I am in charge of six villages in Lahugala. They are Panama North, Shastrawela, Panama West, Lahugala, Pansalgoda and Hulanuge. My job is to campaign but I take pleasure in educating them on the danger of electing an armed terrorist – or more precisely letting his get elected through inaction. (That is what Pillayan tries to do. Massive pool riggings are expected on May 10th. That is why I said this is a fight for democracy. If Pillayan wins the losers will only be the people of this country.)

The areas I cover are predominantly Sinhala. Lets say 80%. But there are Tamils and Muslims as well. Travel few kms away the composition changes. For example the nearby Pottuvil area is predominantly Muslim (more than 90%)

JHU tries to do some campaigning here, with the backing of Pillayan’s gunmen, but without much success.  JHU MP Akmeemana Dayaratne thero is using 16 government vehicles. (This is illegal but there is little we can do. Baduth hamuduruvange, naduth hamuduruvange!) We see these government vehicles run everywhere with Pillayan’s henchmen in black sit in the front seats. They do not show arms openly but surely they are under the clothes.

People themselves have started responding to JHU campaign negatively. Villagers ask where were all JHU supported when they were in trouble. JHU had to give up their initial idea of having a political meeting at the Lahugala temple, because villagers vehemently opposed it.

There is no sign of JVP – either faction.

I am still not sure exactly what sort of tricks Pillayan will pay in pool rigging, but even with that I am sure we would win Ampara with a significant margin. That is the level of support we receive at ground level from poor people who no more want to live under the twin tragedies of war and rising cost of living. People are determined to end the suffering and I do not think even the guns of Pillayan can stop that kind of determination.

Finally, this is a beautiful area. I wish I am on vacation. (More about the area on my next posts)