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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 Narendreasinha (1706-1739).

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 abode.