Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala:
The great Buddhist revivalist
The 98th anniversary celebrations of the Late Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri
Sumangala Nayaka Thera will commence today (29) at the Vidyodaya
Pirivena in Colombo. He is considered to be one of the pioneers in the
revival of Buddhism and the tradition of oriental education during the
19th Century in Sri Lanka.
Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala
The greatest contribution of this prelate to the world of oriental
studies is the foundation of Vidyodaya Pirivena in 1873 which was
granted the university status late in 1959 by the Government of Sri
Today we find many academics, administrators, social and religious
workers among the past pupils of this Pirivena and University who
acquired both national and international reputation. Thus it becomes
fitting and proper for us to celebrate the death anniversary of this
eminent scholar and religious leader.
Sri Sumangala was born in Hikkaduwa during the year of 1827 to a
well-off Buddhist family. When this child completed the fourth year of
age his parents were compelled to take him to the head teacher of the
Christian church and baptize him according to the custom existed at the
time under the British rulers.
Every child during this period should be baptized irrespective of
religion if he intends to study in a Government school. Thus he was
registered in the church as ‘Nicholas’ which is the Christian name given
to him. However he did not continue his primary education in a
Government school conducted by the church.
Instead the child acquired reading and writing ability of Sinhala
under the directions of a Buddhist monk in his village temple.
Although the parents of this child attempted to send him to a
Government school they were prevented from doing so by an astrologer who
read his horoscope and predicted the failure of this little one to lead
a prosperous mundane life. According to the predictions of this
soothsayer the future of this child will be unfortunate and miserable if
he leads a lay life. Thus they decided reluctantly to offer him to the
Buddhist monks to be ordained. He was ordained as a novice in the famous
Totagamuve Rajamahavihara in 1840 and given the name Sumangala.
Initially the novice Sumangala studied Pali, Buddhism, Sanskrit and
Sinhala under his teacher Ven. Revata. He also learned English language
and Arithmetic from a lay teacher. After obtaining a comprehensive
knowledge in these subjects he came to Ratmalana Paramadhammacetiya
Pirivena to pursue his higher studies under the tutorship of Ven. Valane
Sri Siddhartha, the eminent oriental scholar at the time. Thus he had an
opportunity to study Buddhism and oriental languages thoroughly.
The novice Sumangala, being a studious and intelligent student,
mastered the entire ‘Tripitaka’ with its commentaries before he
completed his 20th year of age. He acquired the comprehending, speaking,
reading and writing skills in Pali and gained an advanced knowledge of
Sanskrit and English. His rare ability to quote various passages and
stanzas from Pali Tripitaka was marvellous and it created a great
respect within the community of Sangha and Buddhist lay society. The
scholarship during this period was based on the reading.
Ven. Sumangala’s fluency in Pali is associated with the higher
ordination ceremony (Upasampadaa) of young Sumangala at the Malvatu Maha
Vihara in Kandy. For this historic occasion he presented a verse
composition in Pali already prepared by him to the monks of the Malvatu
The monks raised doubts regarding his authorship of these poems and
requested him to prepare an instant verse composition on a given topic,
namely ‘the Mahanayaka of the Malvatu Chapter’. Within a very short
period of time the novice Sumangala composed a number of stanzas on this
topic and read them. Monks were amazed and appreciated his poetic skill
and proficiency in the Pali Language.
Gradually Ven. Sumangala gained a thorough knowledge in pali,
Sanskrit and Buddhism. He was considered to be the most distinguished
oriental scholar among the Buddhist monks and lay people.
He was invited to become the head of the Paramadhammacetiya Pirivena
in Ratmalana after the demise of his academic tutor Ven. Walane Sri
Siddhartha. Later he came to Maligakanda in Colombo and founded
Vidyodaya Pirivena, under the sponsorship of Vidyartha Sabha. It became
as the famous institution of learning in Sri Lanka and other foreign
National as well as international students learned at this
institution under the directions of Ven. Sumangala. He had a remarkable
memory. As his biography points out Ven. Sumangala could quote any
passage from Pali texts and commentaries without referring to books or
notes whenever he wants to clarify doctrinal matters to the audience.
Ven. Sumangala participated as the chief monk in the Dhamma Council
held in Pelmadulla, Sri Lanka in 1867. The erudite monks who assembled
there under his directions perused the entire Tripitaka carefully in
comparing with different Pali manuscripts and recorded all texts on palm
leaves with revisions wherever necessary.
He assisted the Elder Migettuwatte Gunananda by providing Buddhist
doctrinal details to be forwarded in religious debates that took place
between Buddhist and Christians.
He became a regular writer to the contemporary newspapers and
periodicals such as Lankaloka, Sarasavi Sandaresa and Silumina. Out of
his publications the following texts are of worth mentioning.
Sidatsangara Samaya Kavsekara Sannaya and Balavatara Tika.
The Balavatara Tika is an excellent text that depics Ven. Sumangala’s
deep knowledge in Pali language and grammar. There he discusses Pali
grammar analytically and arrives at logical conclusions. A very good
example will be his analysis on the grammatical category known as
As he points out the ‘third person’ both in Pali and Sinhala
languages comes first, and then the ‘second person’ finally ‘the first
person’. But in European languages including English ‘the first person’
is used initially and the ‘third person’ finally, the position of the
second person remains unchanged in all these languages.
On the basis of this analysis we may conclude that Ven. Sumangala had
a thorough knowledge of the grammatical structure not only of Pali and
Sinhala but also of European languages.
The biography of Ven. Sumangala includes an interesting incident
which is helpful to understand his proficiency in the English language.
This elder was travelling by train from Colombo to Kandy in a first
class compartment during the British Colonial period in Sri Lanka. Two
Englishmen who were the owners of tea estates happen to travel in the
same compartment. They became angry as they saw this elderly monk who
was chewing betel and began to talk in English by themselves.
First class compartment
One of them suggested to kick the old man out of the train saying
that he got into the first class compartment by mistake. The opinion of
the other fellow was to hand over the old man to the railway authorities
because he was travelling in the first class compartment with a third
class ticket. They thought that the monk did not understand English.
He was seated solemnly while reading a book and chewing betel. They
decided to hand him over to the railway authorities when the train
stopped at Polgahawela. Meanwhile the train reached the Polgahawela
Station. At the same time a train going from Kandy to Colombo too
reached this station.
The first class compartment of the Colombo train stopped parallel to
the first class compartment of other train. Sir Arthur Hamilton, then
Governor of Sri Lanka, was returning to Colombo in a special compartment
of this train.
The Governor came to the first class compartment of the Kandy bound
train as soon as he saw Ven. Sumangala and began to converse in English.
After this friendly conversation which lasted for nearly ten minutes the
Governor went his special compartment and the trains departed. The white
men became ashamed of themselves and apologized to the prelate.
Ven. Sumangala was considered to be accomplished with the qualities
of Bodhisatva by Sri Lankan Buddhist. The aim of Bodhisatva is to
develop perfections while living in the society with a view to attaining
the enlightenment. In considering the great service rendered by Ven.
Sumangala to propagate Buddhism and to uplift the Pirivena education he
was appointed as the Nayaka Thera of Sri Pada.
He extended his service irrespective of caste, religion or social
status of the people. While keeping Vidyodaya as the centre for
excellence on oriental learning he helped the community of monks
irrespective of different sects to establish Pirivenas in different
parts of the island.
The pupils of Ven. Sumangala who were brought under his guidance and
strict supervision continue to serve Sri Lanka, its people, education
and Buddhism. Thus this great and pious prelate rendered a tremendous
service until his demise that took place in 1911.
In conclusion I would like to consider the ceremonial activities
organized by the members of the Vidyodaya community for the 98th
anniversary of the late Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera as the acts
of gratitude, kindness and veneration.
Further I hope that the past pupils of this great institution and the
Sri Lankan Buddhists may try to find out the possibilities of
reintroducing the Pirivena education system as established by Sri
Sumangala and other eminent Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka. This endeavour
will help to preserve the high quality of the Pirivena education in this