That controversial clash

By D. C. Ranatunga

"At Panadura the great historic controversy between the Christian missionaries and the Buddhist yellow-robed monks took place, and in the arena the Christian party was ignominiously defeated. That was the first moral conquest, which the Buddhists had gained against the Christians since the latter came to Ceylon. First as plundering pirates and buccaneering brigands and later on as conquistadors, who destroyed the ancient aesthetic Aryan civilization which had existed for so many centuries." Thus wrote Anagarika Dharmapala in the Mahabodhi Society Journal (MBJ) Vol. 41.

He was referring to the famous Panadura Vaadaya - Panadura debate - between the Buddhist clergy and the Christian missionaries held 130 years ago (August 26 to 28, 1873), which became a landmark event in the Buddhist revivalist movement. The proceedings of the debate, translated into English by E. F. Perera and John Capper, were published in The Times of Ceylon. The Times report was picked up by J. M. Peebles who published it in book form in the United States. Colonel Henry Steele Olcott who by that time was corresponding with Ven. Dodanduwe Piyaratana Tissa Thera and who had been invited to Ceylon, advanced his trip when he read the book on the Panadura debate.

Having taken control of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815, the British started consolidating their position, particularly after crushing the 1818 Rebellion. "Since 1818 CMS (Church Missionary Society) missionaries have been working in Ceylon with the object of destroying Buddhism," said Anagarika Dharmapala. "Thousands of Sinhalese after learning English had become Christians in order to gain their livelihood. A Sinhalese villager could be trained to attack Buddhism within a year, and in those days a salary of Rupees twenty a month was enough to make him offer his services as a Catechist to preach in the villages against the venerable religion of the Sinhalese people."

The Christian missionaries began spreading the religion through pamphlets and books. When Rev. D. J. Gogerly of the Wesleyan mission published 'Christian Pragnapthi' in 1849, Ven. Mottiwatte Gunananda replied with 'Durlabdi Vinodini' in 1862 and Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera wrote 'Christiani Vada Mardanaya' and 'Samyak Darshanaya' (1862/63). Soon the writings were replaced by public debates.

At least five debates are recorded beginning with the Baddegama and Waragoda debates held in 1865. The third was at Udanvita in the Hatara Korale (February 1866) between Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda and John Edwards Hunupola, a former Buddhist monk who gave up robes and converted to Christianity. June 1867 saw Gunananda Thera meeting a Catechist by the name of Sirimanne, Hunupola Nilame and Samuel Perera at a debate in Gampola.

The Panadura debate was the most notable of all debates and stemmed from two lectures given on the subject of the 'Soul' at the Wesleyan Chapel, Panadura. Dr. Wimalaratna states that the first was delivered by Rev. David de Silva on June 12, 1873 to which Ven. Gunananda replied a week later. He lists out the participants at the Panadura debate, which was held at the site where the Rankot Vihara stands today. On one side were Rev. David de Silva, S. Coles, R. Tebb, S. Lagden, C. Jayasinghe, P. Rodrigo, Joe Fernando, J. H. Abhayasekera, Nathanielsz, G. J. Gunasekera, Juan de Silva, Dr. Staples, Proctors Jayasinghe, Daniel and Alwis, Mudaliyar de Soysa, F. S. Sirimanne and Hunupola Nilame. On the other side of the stage were Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti, Ven. Potuvila Indrajoti, Ven. Koggala Sanghatissa, Ven. Talhene Amaramuli, Ven. Mulleriyawe Guneratana and Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Theras.

"Rev. David de Silva, a fluent speaker in Pali and Sanskrit addressed the audience of around 6000-7000 and only a very few understood him. In complete contrast was Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera who used plain language to counter the arguments of the opponents," he says.

University don, Dr. Vijaya Samaraweera in his article 'The Government and Religion: Problems and Policies c1832 to c1910', states: "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."

He goes on to discuss the Buddhist revivalist movement that followed. "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."

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