304th Birth Anniversary : Ven. Welivita Saranankara - the last Sangharaja
by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe - Daily News Wednesday June 19 2002
Ven. Welivita Saranakara
(1698-1779), the last Sangharaja of Sri Lanka, was born on June 19, 1698,
at Welivita, a small village in Tumpane, about 24 km. from Kandy, during
the 15th regnal year of king Wimaladharmasuriya II (1683 - 1706). He
hailed from the elite family of Kulatungas of Welivita, whose ancestors
were Mudliyars of Wellassa and Tumpane. His father too was a Mudliyar and
was a scion of the influential family.
The child Kulatunga, along with his only
brother Kulatunga Patabendige Mudiyanse, spent their childhood days in the
king's palace, receiving all care and comfort of the royal family. When
the child was 16 years old, he was ordained a 'samanera' (novitiate),
under the erudite scholar, Ven. Suriyagoda Samanera, who was the incumbent
of Sri Narendraramaya at Yatinuwara, built by king Vira Parakrama
During that time, all the Buddhist clergy
were known as 'samaneras', as there was no way of their receiving the 'upasampada',
the highest ordination qualifying a Bhikku, which had become defunct. On
the other hand, education had been grossly neglected among the 'samaneras',
and there was none competent to teach the elements of Pali grammar. Young
boy Kulatunga, who came to be known as Ven. Welivita saranakara, after
ordination, was able to learn the rudiments of Pali grammar from Levuke
Ralahamy, who had studied it from Ven. Watabuluwe thera.
Ven. Saranankara was noted for his deep
piety, purity of thought and attachment to religious life, which was a
rare quality among the youth. Although his parents were against his
entering the monastic order, he persisted on his resolve and, finally, his
parents had to give in for him to become a 'samanera' and lead a homeless
life devoted for the propagation of the Sasana, which was at an ebb.
At that time, the behaviour of the Buddhist
clergy was rotten to the core and did not conform to the 'vinaya' (code of
discipline for the bhikkus). Most of them were given to licentiousness,
had close association with women and some had children by them. In view of
their immoral behaviour, they did not receive either the reverence or the
honour of the laity, who ignominiously called them 'ganai' or 'ganinnanses',
who differed from the laity only by their yellow robe.
The position was so deteriorating that the
whole island could not muster five qualified bhikkus to offer a 'sanghika-dana'
(alms), nor one conversant with the Dhamma to deliver discourses to the
laity. They only read the Jataka-potha (book on the previous lives of the
Buddha), to those assembled to hear 'bana' or the discourses, on Dhamma.
Acquisition of knowledge only tended to
deepen the strong convictions and strengthen the resolutions of Ven.
Saranakara. He felt strong enough to take some definite steps towards the
realisation of the great objective he had in view. It was to receive the 'upasampada',
resuscitate Buddhism and organise the brotherhood of the Sangha.
Accompanying his pupils, Ven. Sitinamaluwe, Ilipengomuwe and Kadiragoda,
he proceeded to the Seven Korales, made the Ridi vihara his resort and
began his work with courage and fortitude.
As the Buddhist clergy had forgotten their
sacred calling, and were living like laymen, except the robe, and getting
their alms to the temple, the young Ven. Saranankara, as a protest against
such manner of living, refused to accept food brought to the temple, and
went around begging for alms and, at the same time, led an exemplary life
of real priesthood. People began to open their eyes and admired Ven.
Saranankara and, in due course, awoke from their deep slumber.
About this time, a fortunate event occurred
which vindicated the position of Ven. Saranankara as the leading scholar
of the day, and won for him the esteem of the king and the royal court. A
Hindu priest from South India came to Sri Lanka, and being a man of some
learning and great pretensions, but ignorant of the very rudiments of
Buddhism, was anxious to know the unique philosophy of the Buddha. None
came forward but Ven. Saranakara did it, to the astonishment of the Hindu
'sanyasi' (ascetic), and became the virtual head of the Buddha Sasana and
incomparable authority on Buddhism.
So far the labours of Ven. Saranankara were
successful beyond expectations. In spite of difficulties that would have
baffled a less ardent nature, and in spite of opposition that would have
broken a less determined spirit, he was able by his unaided efforts in
rebuilding the shattered edifice of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
He revived learning and awakened the people
from their deep slumber to a sense of their duties to the Buddha Sasana
and the country as a whole, which was under alien domination as regards
the maritime settlements were concerned.
King Vijaya Rajasinha was succeeded in
1747, by king Kiriti Sri Rajasinha, a name inseparably associated with the
final consummation of Ven. Saranankara's great work. The king, from the
very commencement of his reign, was greatly interested in the religious
zeal of the people towards Buddhism, and did everything to support Ven.
Saranankara to achieve his objective, i.e., to re-establish the 'upasampada'
on the Buddhist clergy.
For this purpose and with the instigation
of the king, an embassy was sent to Siam (now Thailand) to bring qualified
bhikkus to restore the ordination on the 'samaneras'. It consisted
Vilbagedera, Etiliyadda Muhandiram, Pattipola Rate Rala and Ellepola
Mohottala. The envoy reached Ayodya, the then capital of Siam, and they
were received by the king Dhammika with due honours. The king was informed
of their mission and he gladly consented to send a number of bhikkus under
the Ven. Upali Maha-thera, whose full name was Buddhadhamma Upali.
The bhikkus who arrived in Sri Lanka with
the Maha-thera were Ven. Aryamurti Maha-thera, Maha Indaswarna, Maha
Brahmaswara, Maha Suvanna, Maha Manisara, Maha Dhammajotha, Maha Muni,
Maha Chandasuvanna, Maha Assami, Maha Pannasa, Maha Saracanda, Maha
Punnajatha, Maha Candasara, Maha Indajotha, Maha Brahmajotha, Maha Rattha,
Maha Candajotha. The ministers who came along with them were Prasudanta
Mestri, Luwang Sisneho, Kum Waca Piron, Kun Maha Pone and Kun Ratana Vicin.
They came by the Dutch vessel Oscafel, which set sail from Batavia (now
Djakarta), and reached Trincomalee in 1753.
Ehelepola Maha Adikaram proceeded to
Trincomaleee and accompanied the bhikkus to Kandy, who were provided with
accommodation at the Pushparamaya, later known as Malwatte vihara.
They spent the days in ordaining 'upasakas'
(lay-disciples) as 'samaneras' and 'samaneras' as bhikkus with full
ordination, and established the Malwatte and Asgiriya fraternities to give
new life to the Buddha Sasana.
Ven. Saranankara established a new order of
laymen who were devout Buddhists and called it the 'Silvat Samagama' alias
Welivita Unnansege Samagama', as they did not receive the ordination
either from Malwatta or Asgiriya, which only ordained people belonging to
the 'goigama' caste and into the Siyam Sect. Even today this barrier
remains in force.
King Rajasinha of Sitawaka, to overcome his
patricidal sin in killing his father, king Mayadunne, and to escape from
retributive justice, embraced Hinduism on the advice of Arittakivendu
Perumal, who was an 'Andi' (a non-brahminical Saiva Sect of South India),
and gave the administration of Sri Pada to 'Andis'. King Kirti Sri
Rajasinha, took over the administration from 'Andis'. and made Ven.
Saranankara Sangaraja as the custodian of the sacred mountain.
At the age of 55 years, Ven. Saranankara
received the 'upasampada' and qualified as a bhikku. King Kirti Sri
Rajasinha, surrounded by his ministers, proceeded to Malwatta vihara, and
there in the grand assembly of bhikkus, presented Ven. Saranankara with
the insignia of the office of Sangharaja, the last to hold such a
prestigious honorary title, in the island.
At the age of 81 years, Ven. Saranankara
Sangharaja passed away while observing 'vas' (retreat) at the forest
hermitage near Hantana, a few miles from Kandy. This was his favourite