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Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, the indomitable orator

by C. V. Rajapakse

At the beginning of the 16th century European races landed in Sri Lanka and various attempts were made by them to dilute and replace our Sinhala culture with theirs. In this context the missionaries played the key role and they functioned with the idea that ours is a primitive culture and the people were also such. They were considerably successful over a period of time and gradual process of degradation and eradication resulted in the decline of our culture and religion.

As they were the rulers, people went after them and then started to follow their religion and culture in order to gain various positions and other material benefits from them. Situation at a time (around 1870) was such that where education alone at the time of our Gunananda Thera was concerned there were only two Buddhist schools in the country - in Panadura and Dodanduwa with an attendance of 246 children as against 805 Christian Schools with an attendance of 78086 children, in the country.

In this situation, the need of the hour under such conditions was an educated dynamic and able person, and at that time emerged Venerable Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera.

It was around the last quarter of the nineteenth century well known debate between the missionaries and the Buddhists had taken place and Panadura Debate - in August 1873 - took the most prominent place in these debates.

The Christian side was supported by able clergymen. On Thera had on his side people like Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera etc. Ven. Gunananda was the accepted leader of the Buddhist side and his education has helped him to a greater extent along with his eloquence to give leadership as he supposed to have studied as a layman and had undergone some training also under Christian clergymen, for a few years.

He was born in Balapitiya had entered the Buddhist Order at Deepaduththaramaya - Kotahena which happened to be the first Buddhist temple in Colombo with a history of over 300 years. Subsequently this was known all over as Thai Temple in Sri Lanka since a member of the Thai Royal family had been Ordained by Waskaduwe Subuthi Mahanayake Thera and this Thai priest lived at this temple from 1904 - 1911. Thai kings had visited this temple on several occasions. Chaitya there had been built according to Thai Style and this is the only Thai temple in our country.

At this temple Vesak Poya day was declared a Holiday. Our Thera was one of the pioneers who created the Buddhist flag and at this temple in Kotahena the Buddhist flag was hoisted for the first time in Sri Lanka. Gunananda Thera had published several Buddhist periodicals which included 'Riviresa', 'Lakmini Kirana' and 'Sathya Margaya', to give leadership to the cause of Buddhism.

With his counter campaign in defence of Buddhism took him to every nook and corner of this country and thousands flocked to hear him wherever he addressed people.

As stated earlier the most important debate is accepted as the Panadura Debate and John Capper of the Ceylon Times published the entire debate in Book form. Colonel Olcott having read this book decided to visit this country with his party and what he has done for the revival of Buddhism in this country - is now history.

Olcott had described Gunananda Thera as "the most brilliant Polemic Orator of the Island, the terror of the missionaries, with a very intellectual head, most brilliant and powerful champion of the Sinhalese Buddhism". A well-known missionary Rev. S. Langden had written to the Ceylon Friend in 1873, after hearing Gunananda Thera speak; "There is that in his manner as he rises to speak which puts one in mind of some orators at home.

He showed a consciousness of power with the people. His voice is of great compass and he has a clear ring above it. His action is good and the long yellow robe thrown over one shoulder helps to make it impressive. His power of persuasion, shows him to be a born orator".

He was known as "Great Orator" - Wadibhasingha - who was the key figure in the start of Buddhist revival of this country in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, passed away in 1890, after rendering such a yeoman service to the Sinhalese Buddhists

- Nama Gottam Najirathi -
(the writer is Additional District Judge of Matale)

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