The great debator who saved the Buddha Sasana
The Lakehouse 20th September 2001
The foreign exploiters such as the Portuguese, the Dutch and the
English invaded this blessed land and used devious means to extort
its essence and turn their countries into heavens and keep its people
under bondage. This Buddhist country can be governed not by the use
of arms but by breaking the confidence between the layman and the
Buddhist monk reported the English officers who were in charge of the
administration here, to the British rulers abroad. In order to
achieve this objective missionary education and the Christian
doctrine were propagated while government jobs were limited only to
This crafty project was so successful that the Christian scholar,
James D. Alwis was bold enough to write in his introduction to the
Sidat Sangarava that Buddhism were end by the end of the 19th
century. From this alone the pitiable plight that the Sinhala
Buddhist faced at that time can be guaged. Under these conditions at
the first half of the 19th century in order to establish a Buddhist
revival after awakening the Buddhists who were in a deep slumber it
was essential to have many Bhikkhu-dialecticians with debating skill,
knowledge of the doctrine and philosophy and self-reliance and
fearlessness. But instead of these many Bhikkhus, one monk arose. It
was the great debater Vadibhasimha Gunananda from Mohottivatte
(Migettuwatte)at Balapitiya in South Sri Lanka. He was born imbued
with all the qualities of a great Vadibhasimha and it was as if the
great dialectician Nagasena was reborn.
It is mentioned that at that time rubbing shoulders with the
missionaries who condemned Buddhism even the number of discourses he
made all over the island exceeded four thousand. Besides these he
held great public debates at Waragoda, Udammita, Gampola, Baddegama
and Panadura. The Panadura debate was a very strongly decisive one.
Although engaged in the other debates without the assistance of
anybody, he obtained the assistance of several great pandit monks who
were learned and well versed in the doctrine and discipline. They
were Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala, Panadura Sri Gunaratana, Weligama Sri
Sumangala, Randombe Dhammalankara, and Waskaduve Sri Subhuti. If the
truth of Buddhism was not logically proved that day by holding the
Panadura Great Debate, Buddhism would have certainly been crippled.
The value of this debate lay not merely on the victory of Buddhists
alone. It was the establishment of a Buddhist revival island-wide and
the acceptance of the value and truth of Buddhism worldwide.
It was because of this great debate that Col. Olcott came to Sri
Lanka with Madame Blavatsky on May 17 1880, embraced Buddhism and
began the great campaign to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
This historic great debate opened the road for the birth of Buddhist
schools, establishment of Pirivenas, starting of various societies
for the development of the Sasana, making it possible for learned men
to arise, publication of Buddhist literature, and making it possible
for the protection and fostering of the Sinhala nation and the
The Panadura debate began on 26th August 1872. Vidyodaya Pirivena was
established after four months from this date, viz: December 1872.
Ven. Mohottiwatte thera frequently preached sermons at the site of
the Vidyodaya Pirivena, and helped to collect funds and build up the
Pirivena. This is stated in the column, 'Things to know' published by
Ananda College, Colombo was established 14 years after the Panadura
debate. When they tried to name it Gunananda Vidyalaya, it was Ven.
Mohottiwatte who suggested that it should rather be called Ananda
College. "It is a great honour for Buddhism for the College to be
named after the chief attendant of the Buddha, and my name is also
embodied in it"; said the venerable thera. Thus it was named Ananda
At that time there were 905 schools for about 3 lakhs of Catholics,
whereas there were only 4 schools for about 20 lakhs of Buddhists. As
a result of the Panadura debate about 142 Buddhist schools were
started between 1800 and 1900.
According to these facts it is evident that it was Ven. Mohoittiwatte
Gunananda Maha Thera who started the great battle to obtain the
national and religious rights by a 'lion's roar' which dispelled the
fright which was there in an era when people were afraid ever to call
themselves Buddhists. If he did not pursue that battle dedicating his
life it would certainly have led to the disappearance of Buddhism as
predicted by James D'Alwis.
Therefore it is no small wonder that present day historians mention
that Ven. Mohottiwatte Vadibhasinha was the pioneer in the national
and religious revival of the Colombo era, and that one should not
hesitate to name the Colombo era as the Gunananda era and that it is
the duty of unbiased critics to name the real facts as the truth.
The Editor of 'Ceylon Times' John Cooper wrote a detailed account of
the Panadura debate held on 26th August, 1872. In that report it is
"It had been agreed to commence the debate at 8 a.m. Long before the
appointed time well dressed natives began to pour in streams to the
open ground facing the building where the debaters would meet. At 7
a.m. the whole ground was one mass of heads. Villagers from every
district had come there. The Colombo district was represented by a
few young men attired in silk who seemed to be intelligent. They were
all ready to sacrifice everything they had for the sake of Ven.
Mohottiwatte Thera who was the powerful guardian of Buddhism".
"The building in which the debate was held was a delightful thatched
building. There was a high platform inside it. On this platform which
was divided into two, on one side seated there were Rev. David de
Silva, Clergyman and his colleagues and on the other side Ven.
Mohottiwatte and about 200 monks. The cause for the Panadura
controversy was a sermon preached by Rev. David de Silva on 12th
June, 1872. There the non-soul theory of the Buddha was mentioned. On
the 19th of that month itself, Buddhists denounced that statement
saying it was a falsehood".
During the whole of the period of this debate, among the audience was
Rev. S. Langdon, clergyman. He wrote a letter to the Wesleyan
Methodist Mission Society detailing the points of the debate. There
it is mentioned as follows:
"When Ven. Mohottiwatte arose from his seat to open the sermon I was
reminded of certain speakers of our country. He was fully aware of
his power to sway the people due to his oratorical skill. His voice
tamed the dissentients. The voice which was clear, ebbs and flows in
various ways. His gestures are pleasing and all the more striking due
to his long yellow robe. Because of his power to sway the audience he
seemed to be a born orator".
"This wonderful debate came to an end peacefully. People who stood
far away from the speaker almost not to hear him gave shouts
of 'Sadhu'. Besides this there was no other disturbance or hullabaloo
at the debate. This was the most wonderful thing. I would like to
question whether it is possible to conduct a debate of this nature in
Europe free from riots and disturbances".
The learned critics of later times mentioned that the birth of Ven.
Gunananda Thera was similar to the appearance of Ven. Nagasena Thera
to dispel the misgivings of King Milinda in the past. Pandit
Batuvantudave has mentioned that if he did not appear at that time
the Sinhala nation and Buddhism would have been effaced forever.
Death of a debater
Ven. Seenigama Dheerakkhandha Maha Thera who was the incumbent of the
Dipaduttarama Vihara at Kotahena was Ven. Gunananda's uncle. He who
was ordained at the feet of his uncle did an incomparable service to
the sasana and the nation passed away on September 21, 1890 at the
age of 67 years. With the setting of the Gunananda sun which
dispelled the darkness of the hereties thousands of people flocked
towards Dipaduttaramaya. The body was covered in a yellow silk robe
and was kept in a glass casket and exposed to public veneration for
about a week. Thereafter the funeral procession headed by Ven.
Hikkaduve Siri Sumangala reached Model Farm Road where the Nayaka
Thera was cremated.
Commemoration meetings are held at this time at Abhinavaramaya,
Mohottivatta, Balapitiya, Dipaduttaramaya, Kotahena and at various
places in Panadura. May the Ven. Gunananda realise the bliss of
Buddhahood at the end of his journey in Samsara.