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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera - the debator par excellence

by Prof. Tilak Kariyawasam

The flickering flame of the Buddhist revival movement, first started by Welivita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja gathered momentum again by about the latter part of the 19th century. During this time there came into the scene many monks who were not only erudite scholars but great patriots who were concerned about the plight of the nation and Buddhism. The colonial rulers were doing their best to undermine Buddhism through administrative policies that were favourable to the Christian Church and its missionaries.

There was discrimination on the basis of religion; being a Buddhist itself was a disqualification for social advancement of an individual. In fact, being a Christian and proficiency in English became the keys to success and materialistic advancement.

The governmental policy was to encourage conversion to Christianity. The whole education system was geared to produce Christians or at last to produce Buddhists who are indifferent to the cause of Buddhism and insensitive to the miserable plight of the Buddhist.

At a time like this the country was fortunate to have monks who were ready to take the vanguard of the Buddhist revival movement. The Paramadhamma Cetiya Pirivena, started by Ven. Valane Siddhartha, was greatly instrumental in producing monks of high calibre possessing the vitality and the farsightedness to lead the Buddhist revival movement. Venerable like Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Ratmalane Dhammaloka, Ratmalane Dhammarama, Vaskaduwe Subhuti and many others took upon themselves the onus of leading the Buddhist revival movement to counter the powerful anti-Buddhist movement openly carried out by the newly converted Christians, aided by the colonial government.

With the overt official support of the administrators the Christian missionaries were lobbying against Buddhists by distorting facts and discrediting Buddhism. They had all resources at their hands such as publications to spread ill-founded criticisms against Buddhism.

It is under these circumstances that the heroic monks of the time decided to take the bull by its horns. They thought the best way to face the Christian missionary onslaught was to openly counter argue, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala started a printing press to publish replies to Christian criticism levelled against Buddhism. Perhaps, this was the first press opened with such an objective. Two publications that came out of it, namely "Labdhi Tulawa" and "Agama Pariksava" did manage to send some kind of shock waves through Christian missionaries.

Encouraged by the success of such counter attacks, the Buddhist monks decided that the best way to deal with the Christian missionary propaganda was to debate them face-to-face. For, the success of such verbal encounters, they knew, they needed monks of excellent oratorical ability. And they were fortunate in finding one in Ven. Migettuwatte (Mohottiwatte) Gunananda. Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala filled the role of the resource person and Ven. Migettuwatte played the role of leading debator. Around these two eminent monks there gathered a team of great monks such as Venerable Dodanduwe Piyaratana Tissa, Waskaduwae Sri Subhuti, Weligama Sri Sumangala, Bulathgama Sri Sumanatissa, Kahawe Nanananda Potuwila Gunaratana and so on. Among these, the debator par excellence was Ven. Miggettuwatte Gunananda, the monk with the silver tongue and the lion's roar.

He was born at Migettuwatte (Mohottiwatta) in Balapitiya in 1823. He had shown his oratorical skill even in his school days. He had a close relationship with a Catholic Father who resided in a nearby church. With this relationship he had the opportunity to read the Bible and learn the Christian doctrine. He did this with the intention of becoming a Catholic Priest. But in the meantime with the acquaintance of the Buddhist monks in the nearby temples he changed his idea of joining the Catholic clergy.

One day he attended a religious festival in the Kumara Maha Viharaya in Dodanduwa which was also known as Gala Uda Viharaya. He was so much taken up by this event, that he spent a few days in the temple helping the temple activities. While he was engaged in the activities of that temple he changed his mind and wanted to become a monk. He entered the order as a disciple of the learned monk Ven. Thelikada Sonuttara Thera, who was the chief incumbent of that temple. He delivered an eloquent religious sermon on the very night of the day that he entered the order and through this won the admiration of many people in the audience.

Staying in the same temple which was a reputed centre of education, he acquired proficiency in oriental languages and Buddhism. While Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda was in Dodanduwa, he learnt that in Colombo the Buddhists were facing much trouble at the hands of the Christians. It is said in the magazine called Buddhist Brotherhood (Bauddha Sahodaraya) that in Colombo City the Christian power was such, that a Buddhist monk could not walk in the streets without becoming the butt of hints and sarcastic remarks from the Christians. Ven. Gunananda was greatly disturbed by this news. This made him decide to come to Colombo and reside in Dipaduttaaramaya - Kotahena. While he was there he started to deliver talks countering Christian arguments against Buddhism.

It was in the background that the first debate between Buddhist and Christian was held in 1864. This was in Baddegama. Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera along with some other monks such as Bulatgama Dhammalankara, Sri Sumanatissa, Kahawe Nanananda, Hikkaduwe Sumangala, Weligama Sumangala, Pothuwila Gunaratana participated.

That debate in Baddegama was not held face-to-face yet it created much interest among the Buddhists. As this was the first ever debate held, they could not agree on the exact modalities on which the next debate should be carried out. It is said that the Christian debators behaved in a rather unruly manner. It was thought that this kind of behaviour would lead to conflicts, and the Buddhists, who were in a majority, would naturally be blamed. Considering all these factors ultimately they agreed to continue the debate in writing. Though it started in Baddegama later on the writings were carried out in Galle. The two parties presented written submissions arguing and counter arguing.

After the debate at Baddegama on the 1st February 1866, there was a public debate at the Temple of Udanwita. This debate was carried out only for one day and after the debate Ven. Gunananda published the summary of the debate and in response to this counter publications also appeared. Therefore, Ven. Gunananda had to issue more publications with countering these.

As the spirit of debating mounted on both sides, Buddhists and Christians decided to face each other in another debate at Gampola, as agreed upon on the 7th June 1871. This debate was carried out on the 9th and 10th of June, 1871.

Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda participated as the chief spokesman for the Buddhists at that debate and he proved his ability as a great debator. The summing up given by Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda was so effective that the audience expressed their appreciation by crying "Sadhu" "Sadhu", and the jubilant crowd paraded with Ven. Gunananda thera in the town. It is said that at the end of this debate some of the Christians were so convinced, that they reverted to Buddhism.

After the debate, at the request of the people of Gampola, Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda delivered a sermon right throughout the night at a place called Bo-Maluwa-Kahatapitiya. He delivered sermons at other places such as Keerapane kade, and two sermons at the newly built Ambalama in Rambukpitiya, Nawalapitiya, and at Dolosbaga. After all these sermons at various places in Gampola, thousands of people at Gampola arranged a procession to take the Gunananda Thera to the Railway station at Peradeniya and send him to Colombo. People collected money worth 75 Sterling Pounds and gave it to Ven. Thera to print the sermons he delivered.

Two years after the Gampola debate, on the 24th of July 1873 an agreement was signed by the Buddhists and Christians to hold another debate at Panadura. The need for the debate arose because the Pastor David de Silva had delivered a sermon in the Wesleyan Church with regard to the Atman. Seven days after the sermon at the Wesleyan Church another sermon was delivered by Buddhists criticising the points raised by Pastor David Silva.

This culminated in the debate in Panadura. However this was not the only cause for this debate. The spirit of the debating on religious points came on more than 10 years ago.

This was probably a miscalculation on the part of Christians. Perhaps the Christians may have thought that the Buddhists were not educated and hence could be easily defeated at a debate. Probably they were not aware about the fact that the monks knew the art of debating enunciated in Pali scriptures and in some Sanskrit texts like Nyaya Bindu and Tarkasastra written by Dinnaga and Dharmakirthi. The Buddhist monks who were familiar with these texts did not hesitate to accept the challenge of Christians for public debates.

As agreed upon the debate started at 8.00 a.m. on the 26th of August 1873 at Dombagahawatte of Panadura. The first talk was given by Pastor David de Silva and when he finished his talk at 9.00 a.m. Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda started to reply, and he was the only spokesman on the side of the Buddhists and Pastor David Silva and Catechist Sirimanna represented the Christian side. At the end of the second day the debate was over and it was recorded that there was a jubilant exclamations from the crowd uttering "Sadhu" "Sadhu". The Christians did not like that at all. When the atmosphere became heated Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda raised his voice and ordered "everybody should be silent". The crowd became silent. After that both Buddhists and Christians dispersed without creating any ugly scenes.

A gentleman called Edward Perera prepared a summary of the whole debate in English. This had been arranged by the Editor of "Ceylon Times" John Cooper. Thousands of copies of this translation were published and distributed all over. When Mr. Feeble came to Sri Lanka he received a copy of that translation in Galle and took it to America and published it with an introduction explaining how the Buddhists in Sri Lanka have shown the real position of Christianity and named the book "Buddhism and Christianity Face to Face". One of the copies published by Mr. Feeble fell into the hands of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and it was after he read it that he became interested in Buddhism. He felt this is one of the religions he was looking for to unearth the secret of the Universe after which he formed the Theosophical Movement. After reading this book Colonel Steele Olcott came to Sri Lanka, in 1880.

With the arrival of Sir Henry Steele Olcott, the Buddhist revival movement got a dynamic leader who could deal with the colonial rulers on level ground. What is significant here is that it was Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda's eloquent presentation of the Buddhist point of view that attracted Sir Henry Steele Olcott and consequently accelerated the activities of the revival movement.

(The writer is Director, Postgraduate Institute Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya)

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