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61st Independence Day

Achievements and challenges of a nation

Mr. David Hussey, M.A., in his book, Ceylon and World History, summarises twenty centuries of Ceylon history - the period from Vijaya to the coming of the Portuguese.

“The coming of Vijaya and his followers, about 486 B.C., began a reign of prosperity which reached its height in the reign of Tissa and Duttha Gamini. After that, Ceylon entered upon a long period of slow decline, due largely to Tamil invasions. The decline was averted for a time by vigorous Kings, chiefly by the great Parakramabahu, but it soon set in again.

Culled from ‘The Revolt in the Temple’ composed to commemorate 2500 Years of the Land, the Race and the Faith, published in 1953.

“By 1505, the wars with the Tamils were over. The long and fierce struggle had spoiled the glory and destroyed the prosperity of the Sinhalese Kingdom; but at the end of it the Sinhalese had the two things which they most valued, their religion and their distinct nationality, still in their hands. They had gone through a terrible struggle to keep them, but they had kept them, and to that extent they had won.”


Building of Independence Hall.

Now, this is altogether a singular and outstanding achievement for a small nation like the Sinhalese. For twenty centuries they stood up manfully against powerful foes in the face of overwhelming odds, with varying success may be, but with matchless courage and determination all the time. At the end they definitely preserved the national religion and their distinct entity as a nation.

For a large measure of this triumph credit it due to the Sangha. It was they who, since Mahinda Thero converted the country to Buddhism, acted with unsleeping vigilance as the guides, guardians and the sponsors of the future of the Sinhalese nation. It was they who, as the upholders of religious and moral authority through alternative travails and triumphs, preserved the unity of the Sinhalese as a distinct people.

The discharge of this dual responsibility, that of acting as the religious as well as social guides of the Sinhalese, is in terms of the last words of the Master on his deathbed, a service which devolves even today on the Sangha of Lanka. He prophesied that Lanka would be the repository, for full five thousand years, of the pure doctrine.

For the effective fulfilment of that prophecy two parties were and are necessary, the Sangha to keep the Torch burning, and the lay people to bear that Torch. Both parties did not fail to shoulder that responsibility for the last twenty centuries, and the nation, if it is to justify its existence, will have to continue to shoulder that responsibility in the same way, during the next twenty-five centuries as well.

From the time of Mahinda Thera, the great procession of spiritual elders who followed him have been continually keeping this dual responsibility in the fore-front of their thoughts and actions.

Is it necessary to add that this nation should fit itself in every possible way to bear the great Torch in the future? For a similar reason therefore, the Sangha of old, through their influence with the kings of Lanka, took it upon themselves, as a duty incumbent on them, to do everything possible to elevate the living conditions of the Sinhalese people.

The temple, for centuries, was not only the centre from which radiated the spirit of religious devotion, but was also the force which invigorated the people and held them together. We are at present being unconsciously carried on by the momentum of twenty centuries of Buddhism. Our duty today, however, is to see to it that the lofty ideals of service to our fellow beings, which are an inherent part of our mission, are vividly realised and deliberately placed in the fore-front of our policies.

Happily for us, our national chronicles have recorded for posterity the manner in which the Sangha of old not only wielded influence in the election, coronation, and conduct of kings and sub-kings, but also, whenever the occasion arose, directed and actively participated in the work of the emancipation of the country and its people.

The Mahavamsa describes with much feeling how five-hundred members of the Sangha accompanied the army that Dutugemunu led to liberate the nation from the galling thrall of a foreign yoke. The Mahavamsa has references not only to what we may call these periodical “Revolts in the Temple,” but also the exercise by the Sangha of their influence in the direction of the every-day life of the State.

The same chronicle mentioned (Ch. 24) that, when King Kavantissa (2nd century, B.C.) died, Tissa, the younger son, crowned himself King. Dutugemunu came with armed forces and fought his brother who, when defeated, appealed to the Thera Yodhagatta Tissa - “I have done ill, Sire, I will make my peace with my brother.” The Thera took Tissa in order to effect a reconciliation and, leaving him on the stairs, went into the presence of Dutugemunu and pleaded for the penitent prince, and the brothers were reconciled.

We find it recorded in that same chronicle (Ch. 33) that, on the death of Saddha Tissa (2nd Century, B.C.) a younger brother of the late King was elected as Sovereign, with the consent of the Sangha, at a meeting held at the Thuparama.

It next mentioned that Aggabodhi I (6th century, A.C.) “Kept piously to the instructions of the Bhikkhu Dathasiva.”

A more positive reference to the political influence of the Sangha appears in Chapter 57 where it is stated: “Since that time (7th Century, A.C.) the Sovereigns of Lanka act according to the counsel of the Bhikkhus who hold the leading position.” Again the same chronicle (Ch. 60) records the bestowal of the office of Sub-King, and later of King, on Jayabahu (11th Century, A.C.) by the Sangha of the eight Chief Viharas together with the Chief Officers of State, etc.

An 11th Century Tamil inscription states that Vijaya Bahu I wore the Sacred Crown with the sanction of the Sangha.

The Mahavamsa further tells us that when Parakrama Bahu, after a long campaign against his cousin Gajabahu II (12th Century, A.C.) the King of the Rajarata, had brought his adversary to the end of his resources and the prize of the sovereignty of the whole Island was within his reach, the Sangha of the three Fraternities of Polonnaruwa intervened and brought about a reconciliation between the two princes. As a result of this, the dominions of Gajabahu were restored to him, and Parakrama Bahu retired to his own principality of the Dakkhinadesa, on the understanding that, upon the death of the former, he would become entitled to the sovereignty of the Rajarata.

It is also stated in the same Chronicle that, immediately after the cessation of hostilities, Gajabahu went to Madirigiriya Vihara and had the fact of his bequest of the Rajarata to Parakrama Bahu written on a stone in that place.

One of the most important epigraphical discoveries of recent times is this rock inscription recording the “Peace Treaty” between Gajabahu II and Parakrama Bahu I, at the ancient Vihara at Sangamuva, near Gokaralla, in the Hiriyala Hat Pattu of the Kurunegala District.

Again the Mahavamsa (Ch. 87) says: “Hereupon he (Parakrama Bahu II, 13th Century A.C.) summoned the Great Community (Sangha) in great numbers, and the King asked them: ‘Which of these six princes, my sister’s son and my own sons, is worthy of the Royal Crown?’ “

Coming to later times (15th Century A.C.), when one of the Kings fell a victim to a ruse by a Chinese general and was carried away as a prisoner to China, and the country was in a state of confusion resulting from the absence of a rightful Sovereign, it was a Hierarch of the Sangha, Vidagama Maha Swami, who put an end to the attempts of ambitious Chieftains to seize the Imperial power, by placing on the throne Parakrama Bahu VI of Kotte.

It was the Sangha who saw to it that, in that Treaty by which this Dhamma Dipa, (“Isle of the True Doctrine”) was transferred to a Christian Crown, were embodied those clauses by which the indigenous, political and religious institutions were carefully preserved and expressly safeguarded. And it was again a member of the Sangha, Wariyapola Nayaka Thera, who protested when an attempt was made to haul up the British flag before the signing of the Convention.

This rapid survey of history shows that the claim of the Sangha today to be heard in relation to social, political and economic problems and to guide the people is no new demand, but a reassertion of a right universally exercised and equally widely acknowledged, up to the British occupation of the country.

We are passing through such an era of change as has never been seen in the past.

To realise high aims, to be unselfish, to do good - these opportunities are offered to the present generation.

It is within your power and ours to usher in the birth of a new nation and to realise a new vision of the true meaning of life, for the vast multitude of the sons and daughters of Lanka.

We must now ever be mindful that twenty-five centuries of history are looking down upon us, and that the privilege of moulding and setting into motion another twenty-five centuries of history is in our hands.

Let us not fail to cherish our heritage, nor ignore this great privilege.

Thus do we declare

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