Soma Thero and Christmas

December 24, 2003

By Vinod Moonesinghe, Colombo

The demise of the Venerable Gangodawila Soma, the chief Buddhist monk of Victoria, Australia and a well known (if controversial) figure in Sri Lanka’s public life, has seen an unprecedented (in the case of a clergyman) public display of emotion. Not even the passing away three months ago of the widely respected Ven. Madihe Pannasiha, the head of Sri Lanka’s Amarapura Sect of the Buddhist clergy and the Ven. Soma’s former guru, occasioned such an outburst of grief.
Ven. Soma Thero
The Ven. Soma was a ‘Television Cleric’, much in the mould of the TV preachers in the USA. He was a champion of the Sinhala-Buddhist (as opposed to the pristine Buddhist) cause. He was acting, perhaps consciously, in the tradition of the architect of the Buddhist Sinhalese Renaissance, Anagarika Dharmapala, whose rallying call was ‘Sinhalese Unite’.
His nationalist rhetoric found disfavour with President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and his programme was removed from state TV. He found an alternative in the TNL TV station of the brother of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, before the latter’s sharp volte face on the ethnic issue. However, TNL has never been able to attract more than 9-10% of audiences, so his impact was correspondingly reduced.

Colombo: Orange Christmas

Originally, much of his preaching was directed against the Muslims, whom he accused of being engaged in a programme of converting the country through marriage to Buddhists and through rapid procreation. Later, however, his attitude towards Islam softened as he began to quote it as a disciplining influence on the members of that faith, and as an example to be followed by Buddhists.

Most recently, he was seen to be leading a crusade against the activities of Christian fundamentalist missionaries. He was even accused of leading mobs in attacks on churches and chapels. Certainly, he spoke out strongly against so-called ‘unethical conversions’ by the Evangelical churches, whereby proselytising is done with gifts of money and goods. South Korea was pointed to as an example of a Buddhist country which had been subverted, first through ‘cargo’ and then by discrimination.

When he passed away, the Ven. Soma was in Russia to obtain a PhD, which had been arranged by a Christian Evangelical organisation. The rumour spread that he had been poisoned by Christian fundamentalists. Pressure was brought on the authorities to investigate.

The country was festooned with orange flags, the symbols of a monk’s funeral, and banners proclaiming grief at the Ven. Soma’s demise. Orange pandals were erected and his photograph was prominently displayed everywhere. Loudspeakers on street corners blared forth the late prelate’s sermons. Music in shops was unofficially banned. An appeal was made to make the 24th December, the day of his funeral, a day of national mourning.

More dangerously, there were reported to have been attacks on some churches. The call for a day of mourning is seen in some quarters as an attempt to disrupt the Christmas festivities. Christmas decorations were torn down, particularly those put up in rich neighbourhoods by the upmarket Odell department store. Also torn down were some structures advertising beer.

What was the reason for this sudden exhibition? Ven. Madihe Pannasiha was a far more senior prelate, having been associated with Anagarika Dharmapala in his youth, and was head of the most influential sect in Sri Lanka. His funeral, however, had been very much that of a traditional chief monk. Buddhists paid reverence to him silently, without too much ostentation. The funeral of the Ven. Soma, on the other hand, had greater affinities to that of a film star or a politician (which latter he, in a sense, was).

Some of the banners and pandals gave clues. While most of the banners wished that he attain nirvana, some wished him to be reborn in Sri Lanka to protect the Sinhalese Buddhists – a wish more suited to a messiah rather than to a Buddhist monk! Others asked whether his demise marked the end of the Sinhalese. One pandal seized the opportunity for advertising (if somewhat inappropriately), declaring ‘may the Buddha Sasana (the Buddhist church) shine forth’.

The outpouring of emotion at this stage is very much a symptom of the insecurity felt by the Sinhalese Buddhists, particularly after the United National Party (UNP) took office.

The UNP is widely considered to be non-national in its outlook, its leadership being keener to be looked upon favourably by Washington than by its own voter base. It projects a Western, rather than Oriental, image: its ministers dress in black suits rather than the more traditional National Dress or its more modern development, the semi-Nehru. A number of them are known to be citizens of the US or of European countries and their loyalties are hence considered suspect – the Prime Ministers speech welcoming the US invasion of Iraq did not go down at all well. This distrust is deepened by the UNP’s penchant for speeches in English rather than Sinhalese.

The UNP leadership is also considered to be Christian or pro-Christian. This feeling was made all the greater by the new Government lighting up the Greater Colombo area for its first Christmas in office, shortly after there had been severe power cuts throughout the country.

Many Sinhalese also feel betrayed by what they see as the surrender by the Government to the demands of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Unfortunately, the UNP never spelt out clearly where it intended to go with its talks with the LTTE. At every opportunity it gave its reasons to be those of economic growth through the ‘Peace Dividend’. However, such arguments tended to fail when ordinary Sinhalese did not receive any benefits. Their suspicion was also aroused when big business, particularly those firms considered to be Christian-owned, was the greatest backer of the peace process.

The UNP is, of course considered to be the Party of Big Business. The present Government is thought to be even more so than previous ones, insofar as most of its measures are seen to favour the rich and the English speakers. Its backing for the ostentatious display of Christmas decorations probably had more to do with considerations of economics than of religion, but the two have become inextricably linked in the popular mind. Odel, which has been at the forefront of ostentatious Christmas displays, stood out as prime representatives of the new order.

This makes a bleak picture indeed, with each religious group backed into its own corner. However, there are some rays of hope, through shared perceptions. Interestingly, Muslims have been at the forefront of the displays of grief for the Ven. Soma. Even the more conservative Christians have shown some regard for him – the Roman Catholic church is also bitterly opposed to the missionary activities of the Evangelicals, as it is their parishioners, more than Buddhists who have been ‘poached’ by the preachers.

It is vitally necessary for there to be a National-level exercise in religious conciliation. The Government seems to be acting totally obliviously to the whole situation. On the other hand, President Chandrika Kumaratunga has acted decisively to try and dispel the fears of Christians – interestingly enough, for someone who had been opposed to the Ven. Soma’s ideology during his lifetime, she is one of the few leaders who retains the confidence of his supporters. Her Governor of the Western Province, Alavi Moulana (a leading Muslim) also acted positively. In the long run, however, some action must be taken to win back the confidence of those sections of the population who feel alienated and who feel close to despair.

Related Links:

Biography of Ven. Gangodawilla Soma Thera, Buddhist Vihara, Victoria, Australia

Demise of Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera a great loss: President, Daily News, Colombo, December 15, 2003
In a message of condolence on the demise of Ven. Gangodawila Thera, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga says that the Thera's demise is a great loss to the nation and the country.

Eminent bhikkhu who helped create more rational society - M.H. Mohamed, Daily News, Colombo, December 20, 2003
Minister of Western Region Development, M.H. Mohamed expressed the deepest sympathies of the Sri Lanka Islamic Centre on the untimely passing away of Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera.

JMO says heart failure caused death, Daily Mirror, Colombo, December 20, 2003
In a bid to defuse tension and end speculation, police headquarters issued a communique yesterday announcing that Sri Lanka's top Judicial Medical Officers had found that the death of Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera was due to a heart attack.

The monk as totemic figure, Sunday Observer, Colombo, December 21, 2003
the Ven. Soma has been something of a totemic figure of the Sinhala Buddhist movement, a popular preacher and even an agitator in the context of the rise of the Tamil insurgency and the perception in the eyes of the international community of the majority Sinhala Buddhists as a majoritarian hegemonic force.

CBK won't allow religious conflict, Daily Mirror, Colombo, December 23, 2003
Amidst growing concern over religious tension, President Chandrika Kumaratunga yesteday put the Police and the armed forces on full alert and ordered them to crack down on anyone trying to create trouble among religious groups.

Ven. Soma Thera's approach would have paved way for just, free and peaceful society, Daily News, Colombo, December 24, 2003
The Sri Lanka Muslim Federation stated that Ven. Soma Thera's approach would have paved way for just, free and peaceful society.

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