Party politics and religion | Sunday Observer

Party politics and religion

5 March, 2023

Sri Lanka with its long recorded history of over 2,500 years was ruled by a large number of kings and a handful of queens prior to becoming a colony of the British Empire in 1815.

All the ancient rulers had the blessings of the Maha Sangha and most kings had done an invaluable service to Buddhism. The marvellous Buddhist temples, stupas, shrines and statues bear ample testimony for the great service they rendered towards Buddhism.

The ancient kings sought the blessings and advice of the Maha Sangha on all important occasions including at the times they ventured into fierce battles against the enemies to save the motherland. Many bhikkhus sacrificed their lives for the country during the long-drawn freedom struggle against the British Empire. Ven. Wariyapola Sri Sumangala, Migettuwatte Gunananda, Kudapola Himi and Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala theras were some of the prominent bhikkhus who were actively engaged in the freedom struggle. Tibetan bhikku Ven. S. Mahinda Thera also supported our countrymen arousing national feelings along with our national leaders.

Independence – 1948

After 133 years of British domination we became an independent nation in 1948 under the able and far sighted leadership of Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake who mustered the support of all community leaders at the time who were active members in the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) which was clamouring for self- autonomy for a long period of time.

Prime Minister Senanayake passed away after falling off a horse in 1951 and his son Dudley became the Prime Minister. Both Premiers gave pride of place to Buddhism while safeguarding the rights of all other religions. But no bhikkhu was involved in party politics other than giving their blessings at religious festivals.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was a Minister broke away from the United National Party (UNP) in 1949 and within a few years he managed to consolidate his new political force with a new political ideology with the support of all progressive forces. Bandaranaike who was an Oxford scholar correctly felt the pulse of the people and as his main political strategy, he marshalled the support of five main segments of society, i.e. Maha Sangha, ayurvedic physicians, teachers, peasants and workers (Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi and Kamkaru).

A large number of bhikkhus from all over the country rallied around Bandaranaike and formed an organisation called the United Bhikkhu Front (UBF or Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna ) headed by Ven. Baddegama Wimalawansa, Thalpawila Seelawansa, Henpitagedara Gnanaseeha, Mapitigama Buddarakkitha, Thalduwe Somarama and Kotahene Pagnakitthi Theras.


Prime Minister Bandaranaike and all members in his Cabinet soon after their swearing-in went straight to the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara to get the blessings of the Triple Gem deviating from the regular practice of visiting the Sri Dalada Maligawa. His bond with members of the UBF was strong. However, even before two years into his premiership, he had a lot of problems with the frontline members of the UBF as most of them expected undue favours.

Prime Minister Bandaranaike heeded some of their requests at the outset but expressed his reservations over certain other controversial matters in which some bhikkhus were involved. Some undue demands were flatly refused by the PM and it led to the end of the strong bond he had with the UBF.

Bandaranaike- Chelvanayagam Pact

When Bandaranaike entered into a peace pact with Tamil leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam as a means of resolving the ethnic issue, the UBF along with other Opposition parties launched a severe protest and created a chaotic situation. Prime Minister Bandaranaike had to cancel the agreement earning the wrath of the Tamil community. Members of the UBF had constant problems with the Prime Minister and he was assassinated by Ven. Thalduwe Somarama Thera who was a frontrunner in the UBF. He was appointed as a lecturer in the Ayurvedic Medical College by Prime Minister Bandaranaike himself conferring the Honorary Title Akshi Vaidya Visesagna.

After a speedy judicial process he was sentenced to death by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Government which re-introduced the capital punishment which had been abolished by her late husband. Ven. Somarama Thera converted to Christianity and changed his name to Peter Singho before going to the gallows.

Following the assassination of Prime Minister Bandaranaike, the bhikkhu community felt uncomfortable in most parts of the country as the yellow robe was belittled by many irrespective of party politics.

The participation of bhikkhus in party politics dwindled to some extent for a few years. But as usual with the passage of time they re-emerged during Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s political campaign in 1970. Ven. Yatideriye Wajirabuddhi Thera was one of the main speakers who later disrobed and became a director at Lake House under the lay name Wajira Pelpita.

1965 election campaign

There were a number of bhikkhus who supported the UNP too, and in 1965, Ven. Devamottawe Amarawansa Thera was a prominent speaker in every election platform of Dudley Senanayake. Surprisingly, after Senanayake won the election and became Prime Minister, Ven. Amarawansa Thera never got involved in party politics or demanded any undue favours from the PM.

President J.R. Jayewardene only maintained a religious relationship with bhikkhus and never entertained them in terms of party politics. On one occasion when the chief prelates tried to advise him on a vital issue, he told them categorically “please look after your affairs in temples and work for the propagation of Buddhism and let me handle the State administration”. There were a number of chief incumbents of Viharas who admired him and appreciated his conduct as a true Buddhist.

With the advent of the Ranasinghe Premadasa’s administration right up to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s short stint, all the leaders sought the support of the Maha Sangha in their political campaigns. These party leaders looked after them very well and some of these bhikkhus established their own political and religious empires. Some prominent bhikkhus were so powerful within the parties and they were involved in appointments, promotions and transfers of high officials of Government departments and institutions. Most of these bhikkhus led luxury lives with the support of the Government. Some of them formed various organisations and linked with NGOs to obtain financial support for their projects.

In this long process some the of bhikkhus got a taste of politics and aligned with the nationalistic political force of Patali Champika Ranawaka and Udaya Gammanpila – the Sihala Urumaya which later changed its name to Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

Due to their religious and nationalistic ideology and attractive oratorical skills the JHU became a formidable political force in the Western Province and other predominantly Sinhala Buddhist areas in the country. They contested the subsequent General Election (GE) and a number of bhikkhus were elected as Parliamentarians. However, it is the general belief that these bhikkhu parliamentarians did not live up to the expectations of the public.

No contribution had been done by them to propagate Buddhism or for national unity. Some of them had allegations over certain corrupt activities. That was the end of the JHU.

The only unbiased bhikkhu

The late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera was the one and only bhikkhu who was not directly or indirectly involved in party politics during the recent past but spearheaded the campaign to bring former President Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate for the 2015 Presidential Election. The agreement for him was to remain non-committal to party politics during his presidency.

But quite contrary to the solemn promise, when President Sirisena accepted the leadership of the SLFP from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ven. Sobitha Thera was utterly disappointed and has told his close associates that Sirisena betrayed the cardinal concept of Sadarana Samajayak Sandaha Jathika Vyaparaya (National Movement for Social Justice) and kept away until he his last breath.

Conduct of student bhikkhus

There are a number of student unions in universities directly connected to various radical and bankrupt political parties in the country who always try to create chaos on issues which are not even relevant to them. Most of these unions are represented by bhikkhus and their public behaviour is extremely uncouth, repulsive and abhorrent. Besides engaging in students’ rights agitations within their walls, they walk out on streets with political party leaders and along with their unruly followers exchange verbal barrages with officers in the Police and Security Forces. We have witnessed in the recent past at the Aragalaya grounds and at subsequent protest campaigns, the negative behaviour and the conduct of these student bhikkhus. It reflects very badly on our long standing Buddhist cultural heritage.

Religious discourse

The ordinary masses that follow Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy are disgusted with this radical bhikkhu behaviour which may finally lead to losing faith in the Maha Sangha.

Therefore, in order to avert such an unfortunate situation, the public opinion is that the Most Ven. Mahanayake Theras of all four Chapters in Sri Lanka should hold a comprehensive religious discourse Sangayanawa forthwith and enforce strict guidelines and a deterrent code of conduct to be followed by the bhikkhus taking part in party politics and other related matters. This will help protect the reputation of the Maha Sangha.