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Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera

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Venerable Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera (1823-1890).jpg

Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera or Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera (February 9, 1823, Balapitiya – 21 September 1890, Colombo) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist orator. He is known for leading the Buddhist side in debates that occurred between the Buddhists and the Christians in Baddegama, Udanwita, Waragoda, Liyanagemulla, Gampola, and in the most famous of the debates in Panadura. As a result of the debates Buddhism in Sri Lanka saw a revival. After reading a pamphlet on the debates published in United States, Henry Steel Olcott arrived in Sri Lanka in 1880.

Early life

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He was born 1823 in a village called Migettuwatta or Mohottiwatta near Balapitiya to a rich Buddhist Salagama caste family. He was taught first by his parents and exhibited oratory skills from a young age. He had close contact with a Roman Catholic priest who resided in a nearby church, and gained the knowledge of the Bible and Christian doctrine.

He had an intention of becoming a Christian priest but changed his mind after coming into contact with Buddhist monks of the nearby temples. He was ordained while in his twenties in Dodanduwa Gala Uda vihara by Venerable Thelikada Sonutthara Thera, the chief incumbent of the temple. His eloquent first sermon was given in the night that he ordained; the people gathered in the temple exclaimed that the young Thera would cause Buddhism to prosper in the country and pledged their support of his religious work. Subsequently, he gained proficiency in Buddhism and oriental languages while he was in the temple.

One day while he was reading a magazine Bauddha Sahodaraya (Sinhalese Buddhist Brotherhood) he learned that Buddhists in Colombo were subject to religious discrimination by the Christians. Disturbed by the news Gunanada Thera decided to moved to Colombo, and reside in Deepaduttaaramaya in Kotahena,the first Buddhist temple in Colombo with a history of 300 years. From there the Thera begin his speeches defending Buddhism against the arguments of the Christian missionaries.

Great debates

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The Christian missionaries were propagating the religion through the pamphlets and the books. Rev. D.J. Gogerly of the Wesleyan mission published Christian Pragnapthi in 1849. Gunananda thera replied with Durlabdi Vinodini in 1862 for Buddhists. Hikkaduwe Sumangala thera wrote Christiani Vada Mardanaya and Samyak Darshanaya in 1862-63. Soon after, publications were replaced by public debates.

The Baddegama debate originated from an argument arising between a young monk named Sumangala and a Christian priest in the temple of Baddegama.

Gunananda Thera and many other monks including Bulatgama Dhammalankara, Sri Sumanatissa, Kahawe Nanananda, Hikkaduwe Sumangala, Weligama Sri Sumangala, Pothuwila Gunaratana participated in the debate.

The debate was not held face-to-face. This is because if the manner of the behavior of the Christian debaters had led to conflicts, the Buddhists, as the majority, would naturally be blamed.

Considering the situation the two parties agreed to carry out the debate in writing. Originally the text were composed in Baddegama, though later writings were carried out in Galle. The Waragoda debate was also held in 1865.

A third debate was conducted in Udanwita in Hathara korele present day Kegalle District.

The Creator, the redeemer and the Eternal heaven were the debating topics.

The debate was carried out in 1 February 1866. John Edwards Hunupola (Hunupola nilame)represented the Christian side; he was a former Buddhist monk and Christian convert.

As agreed before the debate Gunananda Thera published the summary of the debate. In response Hunupola Nilame also published his own version of a summary. Gunananda Thera issued more publications to counter the Hunupola nilame's summary. There are no records of the Liyanagemulla debate, the only known fact being that it was held in 1866.

As the intensity of the debate rose in Buddhist side and Christian side, both parties agreed to debate in Gampola on June 9 and 10 of 1871. Gunananda Thera displayed his oratory skills in this debate and in appreciation the crowd cried in joy and thereafter paraded Gunananda Thera around the Gampola town.

After the Thera delivered several sermons at various places in Gampola, people arranged a procession, taking the Thera to the Peradeniya railway station and sending him back to Colombo. There people collected the sum of £75.00 to print the sermons the thera had delivered.

Panadura Debate

All these debates culminated in the most notable of all debates, the Panadura debate, two years after the Gampola debate in 1873.

The cause for debate arose when Rev. David de Silva delivered a sermon on the Soul at the Wesleyan Chapel, Panadura in 12 June 1873.

Gunananda thera delivered a sermon a week later criticising the points raised by Rev. David de Silva.

The two parties signed an agreement on 24 July 1873 to hold another debate at Panadura, although this was not the only cause of the debate as debating on religious issues had commenced more than 10 years previously.

The Christians may have thought that the Buddhists were not educated and hence could be easily defeated in debate.

But this could be described as a miscalculation on the part of Christians.

The Buddhist monks were familiar with Pali and Sanskrit texts like Nyaya Bindu written by Dignāga and Tarka sastra by Dharmakirti, which were written on art of debating, and were not hesitant in accepting the challenge of debating in public.

The debate was held in 24th and 26 August in 1873 at the site where the Rankot Vihara stands today.

The ablest debaters were summoned on the side of the Christians.

Gunananda Thera was the debater on the side of the Buddhists while Rev. David de Silva and Catechist S.F. Sirimanna represented the Christian side.

The debate revolved around topics ranged from the nature of God, the Soul and resurrection, to the concept of Karma, Rebirth, Nirvana and the principle of Pratītyasamutpāda or dependent origination. Dr. K.D.G. Wimalaratna, Director of National Archives wrote;

Rev. David de Silva, a fluent speaker in Pali and Sanskrit addressed the audience of around 6000-7000 - but only a very few ::understood him.

In complete contrast was Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera who used plain language to counter the arguments of ::his opponents.

Dr. [[Vijaya Samaraweera[[ in his article "The Government and Religion: Problems and Policies c1832 to c1910", stated;

The Rev. Migettuwatte Gunananda proved himself to be a debater of very high order, mettlesome, witty and eloquent, if not ::especially erudite.

The emotions generated by this debate and the impact of Migettuwatte Gunananda's personality had lasting ::effects on the next generation of Buddhist activities.

Migettuwatte Gunananda's triumph at Panadura set the seal on a decade ::of quiet recovery of Buddhist confidence.

In retrospect the establishment of the 'Society for the Propagation of Buddhism' ::at Kotahena, and the Lankaprakara Press at Galle would seem to mark the first positive phase in this recovery.

At the end of the second day of the debate the jubilant crowd uttered "sadhu, sadhu".

The Christians were not pleased the noise the Buddhists audience were making.

When atmosphere became heated Migettuwatte Gunananda thera raised his voice and ordered "everybody should be silent".

After that remark the crowd were dispersed without making any further scenarios.

Impact of the debate

The impact of the debate was phenomenal, both locally and internationally. Locally it was the principal factor behind reviving the identity and pride of Sinhala Buddhists.

Internationally, it was instrumental in raising awareness of Buddhism in the west. The editor of Ceylon Times newspaper, John Cooper, arranged for Edward Perera to write a summary of the debate, thousands of copies of which were published.

This translation was also published as a book, Buddhism and Christianity Face to Face by J.M. Peebles in United States with an introduction in 1878.

After reading a copy of the book Henry Steel Olcott, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society came to Sri Lanka in 17 May 1880. With arrival of Colonel Olcott) the activities of the revival movement accelerated. Olcott had described Gunananda thera as;

“ the most brilliant Polemic Orator of the Island, the terror of the missionaries, with a very intellectual ::::::::head, most brilliant and powerful champion of the Sinhalese Buddhism. ”

Rev. S. Langden, who was present when the Thera spoke in the Panadura debate remarked;

“ There is that in his manner as he rises to speak which puts one in mind of some orators at home. He showed a ::::consciousness of power with the people. His voice is of great compass and he has a clear ring above it. His action is good ::::and the long yellow robe thrown over one shoulder helps to make it impressive. His power of persuasion, shows him to be a ::::born orator. ”

Gunananda Thera continued work to revive the Buddhism in the country and had published many Buddhist periodicals which included Riviresa, Lakmini Kirana and Sathya Margaya. The thera was also served in the committee that designed the Buddhist flag in 1885.

Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera died in 1890 September 21 at about 11.00 am at the age of 67.


Wikipedia:Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera