Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera. The name says it all. All over the island, there was only one name on everyone’s lips this week. There was not a soul who did not shed a tear at the thought that Most Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera is no more in our midst.
As I joined the thousands who came from all walks of life – and from all parts of the island – to pay last respects to the Ven. Sobitha Thera on Wednesday night at the Naga Viharaya in Kotte, I realised just how much this erudite Bhikkhu has touched our hearts. In the queue, we were all one – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim; Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. In fact, every single temple, church, mosque and kovil in the country displayed a yellow flag, signifying his message of unity. Almost all houses and business establishments had a yellow flag, regardless of ethnicity and religion. As in life, he had brought the country together in his death. Everyone was whispering the name of Ven. Sobitha in utter reverence, for no other Buddhist monk had done so much for the Sasana and the country in recent memory.
It would not be incorrect to say that Ven. Sobitha Thera was the main catalyst of the massive socio-political transformation witnessed in the country this year. By spearheading the National Movement for a Just Society, he galvanized all right thinking social and political forces under one theme, one banner to effectively change the course of history.
One might even say that recent history was ‘his story’. He brought all Sri Lankans together in this noble mission. He appealed to everyone from young and old, educated and uneducated and rich and poor. His was a noble voice that everyone – from those in the echelons of power to the ordinary man on the street - listened to with utmost reverence.
Unity was the core of his message. On this point, he trod exactly on the path chosen by the Buddha whose timeless words echoed that very message of unity and brotherhood. He not only stood for unity among those from different religions and ethnicities, but also called for unity among various groups in society such as political parties, trade unions, professional bodies and artistes. This, he said, was the only way to oppose and defeat the forces of communalism and extremism.
Undeterred and fearless
Even the Buddha had enemies and detractors. Ven. Sobitha Thera was no exception to this norm. There were certain elements which strove to disrupt his campaign for social justice, who began way back when he was in the university. However, Ven. Sobitha Thera was undeterred by these formidable challenges and fearlessly continued his struggle along with a few like-minded Bhikkhus and lay persons until most, if not all, of the expectations of the masses could be achieved. Right up to the time he fell ill, he continued to raise his voice at certain shortcomings and injustices, which he felt could undermine the people’s victory gained earlier this year. He never belonged to or worked for any political party, but he was far more influential in that sphere than most politicians themselves.
There is so much focus on his work in the social justice and political arena, that it is all too easy to overlook the yeoman service he rendered to the Buddha Sasana itself. Having been ordained at the tender age of 11, he went around the country espousing the Buddha’s words for more than 60 years. He was one of the best Dhamma preachers in the country, having a remarkable ability to explain even the deepest tenets and concepts of Buddhism in very simple Sinhala that everyone could understand. People flocked to Naga Viharaya (of which he was Chief incumbent) and wherever he held Dhamma sermons, because one could learn a lot about the Buddhist way of life in just 60 minutes by listening to his sermons. In fact, many non-Buddhists regularly listened to his bana as they were applicable to all.
His sermons and other speeches often contained a strong message against alcoholism and drug abuse. Right up to his untimely death, this is one campaign, one struggle that he did not give up. He exerted pressure on the governments of the day to take action against alcoholism and drug abuse and he was instrumental in bringing some of the laws regarding the same. He used the radio and TV to show the dangers of these twin evils.
Tireless campaign against corruption
He waged a lone – and long – battle against another cancer that tainted our society – corruption. During the recent parliamentary elections campaign, he urged the people not to cast their vote for individuals associated with corruption. He earned the wrath of certain politicians in this process, but he did not give up his tireless campaign against fraud and corruption.
In his long years of social advocacy, there were many attempts by interested parties to win him over by various means, but all these attempts came to naught because the Ven. Thera was the epitome of self-righteousness. He could not be influenced in any way to change his cherished beliefs and opinions.
A unique leader
One of those ideals cherished by the Ven. Thera was democracy itself. He spoke against the dictatorial tendencies of all governments and insisted on working to ensure that democracy flourished. Individuals did not matter to him, but democracy did matter to him. He defended democracy and pluralism at every forum he attended and actively worked to create such democratic societies. Even his bitterest critics often conceded that the Ven. Thera’s commitment to democracy was unwavering and unflappable. He always envisaged a just society for the country, in which democracy plays a major part.
Ven. Sobitha Thera was a leader of a unique calibre. Here was someone you could completely trust, calling for change in the way we are governed. His was a voice of reason that one could not argue with.
His sagacity and tenacity were beyond comparison. His commitment to the cause of Mother Lanka could never be questioned or doubted. He did not accept any riches or compliments that came his way and whatever good he did, the thought of getting something back never even occurred to him. He was altruistic to a fault in that sense. Unfortunately, he cared little for his own health as he was always busy thinking of what more he could do for the country.
It is also somewhat unfortunate that he did not have time to put his thoughts on paper in a formal way to write a memoir or similar book, but thanks to television and print media we have an extensive treasure trove of his ideas for a unified, prosperous and democratic Sri Lanka.
These must be saved for posterity – generations hence must come to know and revere this great Bhikku who revitalized our whole nation.
The greatest tribute that all Sri Lankans can pay this incomparable Bhikkhu is to strive to achieve the very Just Society, unity and prosperity he envisaged and advocated. We should follow in his footsteps in accordance with the Buddha Dhamma to make our lives more pious and righteous.
May the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana.