May his legacy live on

Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera’s second death anniversary.

Fish continue to swim under the soft coral growth. The coral growths house a pond divided by a bridge which leads to the monastery. The monastery sheltered a spiritual leader of this country. As you enter the Kotte Sri Naga Vihara premises, the life-size statue of its previous Chief Incumbent greets you with a fatherly smile.

Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera needs hardly any introduction owing to his involvement in bringing the incumbent government into power. But his missionary journey began a long time before. For those who knew him up close and personal, the life-size statue will bring back the larger-than-life legacy left behind by the legendary Sangha figure.

The Sinhalese community has maintained an irrevocable connection with the Sangha Order since times immemorial. Even the numerous invasions could not sever that connection. The colonial masters tried their best to dissociate the cord between the Sangha and community. Their attempts to relieve this land of the Sacred Tooth Relic are a classic example.

Like the fish continuing to swim under the soft coral growth, the relationship between the Sangha and the Sinhalese communities flourished. The Sangha community, with an orchestra-like division of sects, exerted a large influence over the general public. Thanks to this influence, many other communities found solace in this land. Sri Lanka is the ideal melting pot for any ethnic community because of the Buddhist influence.

That the royalty consulted the Sangha both at times of trouble and otherwise has been the norm. The Sangha community, for that matter, intervened when they deemed it necessary. Unruly their behaviour may seem to the run of the mill. But such kind of intervention may be necessary at times.

Excellent orator, influential figure

Venerable Sobitha Thera’s public presence turned out to be an offshoot of such circumstances. Which is why his public presence could not be termed as an overnight feat. He shot down his first salvo during the tenure of President J R Jayewardene (from 1977 to 1988).

The Venerable Thera dealt with many aspects such as centralising power within the presidency, the threats against freedom of expression, civil rights and the rule of law. He was a vociferous speaker against the Indian intervention campaign in the 1980s.

What was quite charming about the Venerable Thera?

Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera had a deep, resonant, voice. That made him not only an excellent orator but an influential figure, much sought after in the Sri Lankan majority community.

Although he was the kingmaker, he did not live in the lap of luxury. He had his own lifestyle strictly focused on principles and precepts. That charisma in him sent shockwaves through the society when he publicly announced that he would contest for the presidency.

As a saint perched on the mountain, he saw every head of state, appointed to office following his blessings, only solidarising their positions within the presidency. He observed all that silently and took revolutionary steps when necessary. While playing a national role, the Thera also shouldered other tasks such as educating the youth on the dangers of drugs and alcohol abuse.

Venerable Sobitha Thera had no special affinity to any political leader in particular. He treated every politician like any elder would treat a child. He was not hesitant to point out whenever they erred. That rare personality in this Sangha figure stood tall wherever he trod. That is the emblem of this social reformer called Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera.

As the Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Naga Vihara, Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera was an avant-garde socialist and social reformer. Born on May 29, a Vesak Full Moon Poya Day in 1942, in Maduluwawa, Padukka, Homagama, he obtained the primary education at Maduluwawa Maha Vidyalaya. Pathirage Don Rathnasekara (as he was known in the lay life) took up robes at 11 on May 9, 1955.

Legacy awaiting excavation

Ven Sobitha Thera was an amiable elder to any devotee he sights at the temple. He did not care very much about his popularity (or civil power, rather) when he opens up a conversation with a devotee. Even though he is too busy for a small talk, he would certainly greet you with his warm smile.

The Thera’s real personality rests alive at the Naga Vihara. Although smaller in size as compared to most mainstream Buddhist temples, Naga Vihara is home to verdant greenery. The bridge, the pond underneath and schools of fish swimming leisurely are a signatory sight of the entrance to his little abode.

And you were always welcome to enter this little green kingdom. A devotee or two would often ask the Thera for a plant or two. Ven Sobitha Thera would not think twice in such instances. He would generously offer a plant. In his own territory, Ven Thera lived with much ease. No politician could shake him with luxury. He won the hearts of devotees. They were the patrons who looked after him well even during the tough times when he had fallen from the grace of certain politicians.

Venerable Sobitha Thera is no more. But he has left behind a legacy awaiting excavation. 

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