III – Venerable Sāsanavaṁsālaṅkāra-Kavidhajavinayācariya Weligama Śri Sumaṅgala Mahā Nāyaka Thera (1825–1905)

1. Meagre Information

Once again, the information we could collect in 1956 on Yen. Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Thera was meagre. The biographical sketch published in “Buddha Jayanti Memorials” barely covered his contribution to the National and Buddhist Revival Movement. It ran as follows:-

This Nāyaka Thero, who was a great educationist and scholar who worked for the promotion of the Sanskrit education in Ceylon, was born at Weligama in the Southern Province. As a child he was sent to the Ven. Peraliye Jinaratana Thero to receive his elementary education. It did not take a long time for his teacher and his parents to notice his extraordinary abilities and they decided to ordain him a monk. When he was 12 years old, Ven. Jinaratana got his own teacher and preceptor, Ven. Wilegoda Puññasāra Nāyake Thero, to ordain the child with the name “Sumaṅgala.”

The novice Sumaṅgala continued for some time to study under the tutorship of the Ven. Jinaratana and then went to the Ven. Bentara Atthadassi Mahā Thero for further studies. Here his colleagues were Potuwila Indajoti, Yātrāmulle Dhammārāma, Ambagahawatte Saranaṅkara (Indāsabhavara Gnāṇasāmy) all of whom, later on, became eminent in various fields. By the time the young Bhikkhu finished his education, his fame as a scholar had spread all over the country.

The Ven. Weligama Sumaṅgala was among those Theros who were invited to Pelmaḍulla for the revision of Tri-Piṭaka. He was entrusted with the task of revising the Vinaya Piṭaka and as [xxxvi] he required a convenient place where he could carry out his work unhampered, residents in Kalutara invited him to Pulinatalārāmaya at Kalutara North, which was then known as Wellaboda Vihāraya.

The members of the Kataluwa Sub-division of the Burmese Sect, who were at Sumanārāmaya, Ambalangoḍa, elected Ven. Doḍanduwe Piyaratanatissa and Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala as joint Mahānāyakas of their division. The Ven. Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala was further honoured by the conferment of the title “Sāsana Vaṁsālaṅkāra”.

When Sir Arnold, the author of “The Light of Asia”, came to Ceylon he went to meet the Nāyake Thero.

Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala was the author of the first Sinhalese translation of Hitopadeśa. He also produced a book entitled “Itihāsaya” which was the outcome of his research into ancient Sanskrit works. But his most important literary work is a commentary to Mugdhabodha, a standard work on Sanskrit grammar. This book, which runs to some 700 pages, was published by the Government of Ceylon. The educational institution, Saugata Vidyālaya at Rankot Vihāraya, Pānadura, was started by him.

While engaged in various religious and social duties the Nāyaka Thero fell ill in February, 1915. He did not recover from this illness and passed away on 13th of March of the same year.

The statement “when Sir Arnold, the author of the ‘Light of Asia’ came to Ceylon, he went to meet the Nāyaka Thera” glossed over a very long and abiding friendship which had developed between these two eminent persons who found a common interest in Sanskrit literature and the fate of Buddhist shrines in India. The correspondence published in this Volume shows how the suggestion that Buddha Gayā might be placed in the hands of a representative committee of Buddhist nations was first mooted by Sir Edwin at Panadure to Ven. Śrī Sumaṅgala, whom the English poet referred to as “my dear and wise friend, Śrī Weligama”. [xxxvii]

These letters also explain why Anagārika Dharmapāla, right through his campaign for the restitution of Buddha Gayā, sought Ven. Sumaṅgala’s guidance and assistance.

Ven. Sumaṅgala played a leading role in the Buddhist Revival Movement. He was closely associated with the Buddhist-Christian Controversies, participated in the revision of Tripiṭaka at Pelmaḍulla, co-operated with Ven. Piyaratana Tissa Mahā Nāyaka Thera in the management of the Kalyāṇivaṁsa sect and supported the work of Colonel Olcott at the early stages. His relations with Olcott, however, deteriorated as time passed while those with Anagārika Dharmapāla and national leaders of the Buddhist Movement became stronger and more intensive. A brief account of the Nayaka Thera has been published in Kurukshetra Vol. I No. I & II (1975) in English by F. B. Jagath Wijayanayaka and in Sinhala by Ven. Mirisse Indaratana Thera.

2. Close Co-operation with Anagārika Dharmapāla

More information on the life and work of Ven. Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Thera are gleanable from 23 letters in Sinhala, which are in the collection of the National Archives Department. Eighteen of them had been written to the Nāyaka Thera between 1886 and 1898.

In the first letter, dated 27 April 1886, written on behalf of the Secretary of the Theosophical Society, Buddhist Branch and signed as H. Don David, the future Anagārika Dharmapāla, requested the Nāyaka Thera for a feature article on Sāriputta and Moggallāna to be published in the special Vesak supplement of Sarasavisandaresa.

In the following month or two, the Nāyaka Thera seems to have got interested in a controversy relating to Monier-Williams, a well-known Sanskritist of the day and author of the standard Sanskrit-English Dictionary. The Anagārika, on 22 June 1886, wrote:

“Although I received the excellent article you wrote on Mr. Monier-Williams, it was not possible to publish it in the paper as it was hoped to contact the opposing party and get an answer. If we do not publish the letters of the opposing party in Sandaresa itself, it is possible that Lakmiṇipahana (i.e. the rival newspaper) [xxxviii] would write against us and mislead the public to the effect that we support Hinduism. Our idea is to publish articles of both sides. In the last issue of Sandaresa, a statement against Monier-Williams was published. He had read a paper on the Buddha and Christ before the Bible Society. As he had extolled the supremacy of Christ excessively, I do not know whether a letter written by your reverence in his favour should be published.”

The letter ends with an invitation to deliver one of the regular Saturday sermons at the Theosophical Society in Colombo. In a post-script, a request is made for donations of books to the Buddhist library. The independence of thought and the spirit of tolerance, which the Nāyaka Thera is known to have displayed, had called for the words of caution from the young Anagārika. The Nāyaka Thera was 61 years old and Don David only 22.

The next two letters, dated 13 July 1886 and 9 March 1887, were requests for articles. The Nāyaka Thera was asked to prepare an article against meat-eating and slaughter of cattle.

“As the number of meat-eaters is daily increasing”, said Don David, “the slaughter of cattle is on the increase. Even those who did not eat meat before are now beginning to eat it. If the compassion to animals disappears from man’s heart, untold cruelties will become prevalent. The world develops on the foundation of compassion. Please write an article which will inspire people.”

For the 1887 Vesak Supplement, the article requested, was on the life of a great disciple of the Buddha, embodying rules of conduct applicable to lay people.

The Nāyaka Thera was perhaps one of the earliest to whom young Don David informed of the decision to change his name. Signing his letter of 3 February 1889 as Dharmapāla Hewāvithāraṇa (Manager), he wrote:

“Many of the names which the Buddhists use today are of the category of Christian names. Although I had the intention to take a Sinhala-Pali name, it was difficult to do so due to a variety of reasons. Now several persons are ready to change their names. As names like Perera, Silva, Pieris, Zoysa are of [xxxix] Portuguese and Dutch origin, it is ridiculous for Aryan Sinhalas to have such names. When I went recently to India, many Brahmans thought that I was a Christian. I have renounced the foreign name, which I used hitherto, and have added to my surname “Dharmapāla”. This letter is written to your reverence so as to obtain a list of Sanskrit and Pali names. Please send a list suitable for both males and females. It is not befitting for Sinhala Buddhists to bear foreign Christian names. Please help us, therefore, to achieve our objective.”

A year later on 14 January 1890, Dharmapāla Hewāvithāraṇa had written on a proposed visit of Sir Edwin Arnold to Sri Lanka. The Nāyaka Thera’s expert opinion was requested on an important religious issue:

“It is a belief of Buddhists in the West that there could still be masters of meditation, capable of performing miracles… I wish to know whether it is wrong if someone believes that {the} world is now bereft of Arahants. I shall be glad to know the word of the Buddha on the non-existence of Arahants.”

Four letters in 1891 refer to the founding of the Mahā Bodhi Society and to its activities, particularly in enlisting the co-operation of Buddhist leaders of Burma, Thailand and Japan. On 6 June, the Nāyaka Thera was requested specifically to inform Sir Edwin Arnold of the formation of the Society. “Your strong support is essential for this work”, Dharmapāla wrote referring to his plan to establish a monastery at Buddha Gayā so as to facilitate pilgrims from Japan, China, Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Burma and Arakan to perform their religious observances at the sacred Bo-tree “to their heart’s content” (citta-vinodanaya). On 21 October, he reported progress on the purchase of a block of land and said further “now is the time to propagate Buddhism in India. If our leading monks make an effort, much can be achieved. The English educated intelligentsia displays a love (premayak) for Buddhism”. The same idea was repeated in the letter of 11 December saying, “If the assistance of good and well-disciplined monks could be obtained, hundreds of thousands of Aryan people, who are learned and righteous, could be made Buddhist devotees”. He also repeated his plea that the Sinhala people should renounce foreign names. In Dharmapāla’s [xl] letter of 14 December, the Nāyaka Thera was complimented on his services to the cause of restituting Buddha Gayā. He said, “It is difficult to measure the extent of your contribution to the work of Buddha Gayā. The benefit of your being a friend of Sir Edwin Arnold is enormous (= literally, endless: anantayi).”

Three letters of 1892 continue to show how much Ven. Sumaṅgala was involved in Dharmapāla’s work in India. When the Journal of the Mahā Bodhi Society was started, the Nāyaka Thera was invited to write an article in Sanskrit for the first issue. On 6 February, Dharmapāla wrote, “Your services are required in the future as well. Perhaps you will have even to come to India and propagate the doctrine. On 16 March, besides reporting progress on Buddha Gayā, Dharmapāla sought the Nāyaka Thera’s co-operation in urging the monks in Sri Lanka to start Buddhist missionary activities in India. He said;

“It is time to propagate Buddhism in India. Educated Bengalis have faith in Buddhism. Leading members of the intelligentsia of Calcutta are keen to study Buddhism. An association has been established for this purpose. But it is difficult to do this work without monks. If you are invited by these learned people, can you come? It is a tragedy that no effort is made to propagate the doctrine. It is sad not to give the gift of the doctrine (dharmadāna) to those anxious to receive it. As we must act before Sir Edwin Arnold comes to Sri Lanka, please discuss with Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Thera (i.e. Yen. Hikkaḍuwe Śrī Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Mahāthera). All members of the Saṅgha must join together in this task. Please consult the monks of Malwatte of Kandy as well as monks of the other sects and, involving monks of the Siamese Sect in these discussions, please take action to propagate Buddhism in India.”

Dharmapāla’s letter of 30 September 1892 is a relatively long letter and contains interesting information on the Nāyaka Thera’s leadership role and his intellectual interests. It says:

“I do not know why the Buddhists of Sri Lanka do not put in a greater effort even though Sir Arnold is exerting himself immensely I request you and the Nāyaka Thera of Śrī Pāda [xli] (i.e. Ven. Hikkaḍuwe Śrī Sumaṅgala) to meet and discuss what needs to be done. I solicit you to talk to Ven. Hikkaḍuwe Nāyaka Thera and to convene a meeting of monks and lay men. It is important to have the King of Thailand as the head… It appears that the Japanese Buddhists are very energetic. Sir Edwin Arnold has stated in Japan that he was prepared to sacrifice his life for this cause... To propagate Buddhism in India, there is a need for monks who know Sanskrit and Pali.”

Apparently, in reply to a query of the Nāyaka Thera, Dharmapāla added:

“It is difficult to write clearly on Tibetan Buddhism. I do not think there are any books in Pali. All the books, so far found, are in Tibetan. It appears that there are virtuous monks, well-versed in discipline, who have at least reached the wisdom which transcends worldliness Gotrabhūñāṇa is a cognitive moment in the process of meditation where the seeker transcends beyond the level of a wordly person and, for the first time gets a glimpse of Nibbāna. For details see Ven. Paravähera Vajirañāṇa: Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice, Colombo 1962 p. 408 ff. and Herbert V. Guenther: Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma, Lucknow, 1957 p. 298. and also monks who can perform mundane miracles. There are about a hundred thousand monks in Tibet and in a single monastery there are ten thousand monks. Monks, well-versed in discipline, have no connection with the administration of the country.”

Having thus answered the Nāyaka Thera’s queries, Dharmapāla commented:

“Our monks (= those of Sri Lanka) do not pay much attention to meditation and the development of psychic powers and, therefore, consider it difficult to attain transcendental knowledge. They do not make an effort because they have much doubt (vicikicchā) on the Noble Path.”

The next letter in our collection is dated 23 March 1895. Dharmapāla seems to have made an effort to get Ven. Sumaṅgala to visit India. In this letter he said, “It is my hope that you will [xlii] visit the sacred shrines of India at least once”. Another letter from Calcutta dated 15 February 1896 or 1897 reiterated the need for propagating Buddhism in India:

“As you are suitable to be the Vice-President of the Mahā Bodhi Society, your name has been included in the panel of office-bearers… It is clear that Buddhism has to be re-established in India. It is difficult to obtain monks for this purpose from any country other than Sri Lanka. Whatever effort you put into developing the Society, it is a contribution to the improvement of Buddhism. It is good if you can send a monk who is able to undergo hardships for the love of the religion. If there are monks who are capable of sacrificing their lives, it is possible to improve Buddhism in India.”

On 17 May 1896, still signing as H. Dharmapāla, he wrote to the Nāyaka Thera to take the initiative of mobilizing the monks and lay Buddhists of Sri Lanka to provide emergency assistance to about “five million famine-stricken people in Majjhima-janapada of India – thousands of whom die without food.”

The first letter to the Nāyaka Thera in which the writer signed as “Anagārika Dharmapāla” was on 2 January 1898. Writing from Colombo he said,

“Next Sunday there will be a general meeting of the Mahā Bodhi Society. It is our intention to work in the future for the promotion of Buddhism in Sri Lanka... It is now time to work for the benefit of lay devotees. Most of them idle away without doing any useful work. It is the intention of the Society to teach them the religion and engage them in its work. It is important to teach monks English, Abhidharma and Indian languages. It has become necessary to engage English teachers from abroad... All this work can be done very well, if you will show us your compassion (i.e. extend to us your cooperation).”

The last letter in our collection addressed to the Nāyaka Thera is on 6 December 1898, inviting him to the Anagārika’s father’s home for a mid-day meal and requesting him to attend a general meeting of the Mahā Bodhi Society. [xliii]

In a letter written apparently to the Nāyaka Thera’s pupil, Ven. Beruwala Sirinivāsa Thera on 11 May 1908 – over three years after the death of the Nāyaka Thera – Anagārika Dharmapāla said,

“Among the monks who exerted themselves in connection with Buddha Gayā, the most prominent are the Nāyaka Thera of Śrī Pada (i.e. Ven. Hikkaḍuwe Śrī Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Mahā Thera) and the late lamented Ven. Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Thera. In both of Sir Edwin Arnold’s recent books: ‘India Revisited’, and ‘East and West’, there are references to Ven. Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala. Further I saw a write-up on the Nāyaka Thera in Open Court’ about two years ago. It is a great loss to us now as there is no one to take the place of Ven. Śrī Sumaṅgala to encourage our religious activities in India.”

3. Mission and Achievements

As a scholar, his main contribution was to the promotion of Sanskrit studies in Sri Lanka. The popularization of the fables of Hitopadeśa was one of his very useful services. He was a specialist in the Buddhist rules of discipline as embodied in the Vinaya Piṭaka – the text which was entrusted to him for revision at Pelmaḍulla.

He had been an accomplished organizer. His co-operation was invaluable in any undertaking where the Saṅgha and the laity had to be mobilized for action. Thus, he was in every activity. No event of importance in literary and religious circles took place in his life-time without his presence and without his taking a leading role. Inspite of the fact that he was a late-comer into the Kalyāṇivaṁsa Nikāya (having broken away in 1864 from Matara Nikāya after 15 years of Upasampadā), he was appointed a co-leader of the Nikāya along with Ven. Doḍanduwe Piyaratana Tissa Nāyaka Thera in 1895. He was recognized as the tutor of many monks, several of whom attained fame and recognition as scholars.

Ven. Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Thera’s foremost achievement undoubtedly was the support he organized in Sri Lanka to translate into action the suggestion of Sir Edwin Arnold about the restitution of Buddha Gayā to the Buddhists.