The Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero or Sumangala Unnanse was a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk or bhikkhu, who was a distinguished scholar and Buddhist High Priest of Ceylon. He pioneered in the Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist movement in the 19th century, and worked closely with Col. Olcott to establish Buddhist schools. He served as Vice President of the Theosophical Society from 1881 to 1888. "Venerable," "Sri," "thero," and "Unnanse" are honorific terms.
Early years and education
Sumanagala was born January 20, 1827 in the village of Hikkaduwa in the Galle district of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). His name at birth was Don Niculus Gunawardhana. Don Johannes de Silva Abeyeware Gunawardana was his father. The boy was educated in Sinhala and Pāli at the village school, later learning Samskṛṭ under a Brahman from India. As a five-year-old he was already dedicated to the monastery. At the age of 13 he entered an order of Buddhist monks at the Thotagamuwa Raja Maha Vihara at Hikkaduwa, and at 21 he was accorded a higher ordination. "It is said that he astonished his examiner by the profundity of his scholarship, the wide range of his reading, and the ease with which he handled both Samskṛṭ and Pāli.
Work as a priest
Sumangala was a priest for the rest of his life.
After his ordination he returned to his native village of Hikkaduwa, where he was at once appointed as tutor to the monks. There he spent twelve years, at the end of which he was transferred to a higher appointment at Galle, where he passed the next six years as priest in charge of the temple, but always continuing his work as tutor. He seems to have had a special genius for languages, and furthermore to have had the faculty of teaching himself from books with remarkably little external assistance. In this was he learned Elu, the classical language of Ceylon; in this way also he acquired a working knowledge of English and French which enabled him to read them without difficulty, though his conversation in them was never fluent.
After he had been six years at Galle, he was elected High Priest of the Srīpaḍa - the temple of the Holy Foot-Print on the mountain of Adam's Peak. A few years later he was also made High Priest of the District of Galle, and was at the same time appointed as Examiner -in-Chief of the candidates for ordination in Ceylon.
Work in education
In 1873, Sumangala founded the Vidyodaya Pirivena, a monastic college at Maligakanda, that was granted the university status late in 1959 by the Government of Sri Lanka as Vidyodaya University (now known as the University of Sri Jayewardenepura). He was Principle during the rest of his life. The college name was also spelled Widydaya. After he met Colonel Olcott, they worked together to establish dozens of Buddhist schools all over Sri Lanka. Sumangala's pupil Nanissera succeeded him as Principal in 1911.
In 1873, Sumangala and another of the Buddhist bhikkhus, Mohotiwatta Gunananda, participated in a series of debates with Christian missionaries about the merits of their belief systems. Known as the Panadurawadaya, the three days of debates took place at Panadura. Anagarika Dharmapala described the event:
I was fortunate in knowing well the Venerable H. Sri Sumangala... Another Buddhist monk whom, as a friend of my family, I saw nearly every day, was Mohotiwatta Gunanda. He was a golden-tongued orator, winning in personality, and when he spoke, he drew crowds. He defeated the Christians in many debates. When I was ten years old, I attended a great debate in a temple pavilion sixteen miles from Ceylon, where the Christians on one side and Gunananda on the other argued out the truths of their respective religions. In clumsy two-wheeled bullock-carts covered with woven coconut leaves, in the lighter hackeries, in occidental spring carriages and afoot, thousands came from the most distant parts of the island to hear this famous debate. Mohotiwatta Gunanda supplied the oratory; and the Venerable Sumangala furnished him with the scholarly material and references. The debate lasted three entire days.
Dr. J. M. Peebles, an American Spiritualist, who was visiting Colombo at the time, obtained an English report of the controversy between the Buddhists and Christians and, upon his return to the United States showed it to Colonel Henry S. Olcott and Madame H. P. Blavatsky, who had organized the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. Deeply impressed, they wrote to Gunananda and Sumangala that, in the interest of universal brotherhood, they had just founded a society inspired by oriental philosophies and that they would come to Ceylon to help the Buddhists. The letters from Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky were translated into Sinhalese and widely distributed.
Association with Theosophical Society
Colonel Olcott and Sumangala were friends from their first meeting in 1880. "On his first arrival in Ceylon, Col. Olcott received a warm welcome from the leading representatives of Southern Buddhism and much active support during his lecturing tour. Among these the veteran Sumangala figures prominently, the Colonel referring to him as 'the representative and embodiment of Pali scholarship'." The High Priest was admitted to membership of the Theosophical Society on June 16, 1880.
C. W Leadbeater wrote:
It was the High Priest who speeded the Colonel on his way on his great mission to Japan in 1889, and he was the first to welcome him on his return. It was at that time that the Colonel obtained the assent of the leaders, both of the Southern and the Northern Church of Buddhism, to the platform of fourteen great principles which he drew up as containing the fundamentals of the Buḍḍhist religion; and in this way he brought together the followers of the Greater and the Lesser Vehicles... It was the High Priest Sumangala who received me into the Buḍḍhist communion in the year 1884, and I always found him wise, friendly and helpful during the years when I was working for Buḍḍhism in Ceylon.
The High Priest assisted in the compilation of the Buddhist Catechism; certified the orthodoxy of Olcott's interpretation of Buddhism; and ordered 100 copies of the Sinhalese language version for use in his college. He took the trouble to thank Dominique Albert Courmes for translating the work into French.
Leadbeater regarded Sumangala as highly distinguished.
The High Priest was never a Theosophist in the sense of reading Theosophical books, of delivering Theosophical lecturers or of studying the mechanism of rings and rounds and planetary chains; yet he was for many years one of the Honorary Vice-Presidents of our Society, and Chairman of the Buḍḍhist Monks' Theosophical Association... Yet no one could be more Theosophical in life than was this religious Potentate of the East - a man at once shrewd and simple, saintly yet statesmanlike, and never failing in gentleness and kindness.
Sumangala was a voluminous writer. He corresponded with scholars, and became a close associate of Sir Edwin Arnold the author of The Light of Asia. He developed close friendships with Professor Max Müller, Professor Rhys Davids, Professor Lanman of Harvard, Sir Monier Williams. and the governors of Ceylon.
Leadbeater wrote of the High Priest's final days.
When last I saw the High Priest, some six years ago [about 1905], he was already showing the signs of advancing age [then 78], but was quite active, and as keen in mind as ever. Indeed, there seems no reason why he might not have become a centenarian, but for an unfortunate accident. Rising one morning in the dark (as he always did) he somehow missed a step while coming down a short staircase and fell, fracturing his hip-bone. Doctors were immediately summoned, and all that was possible was done for him, but the shock was too much for the aged body, and he passed away from it nine days afterwards, on April 30th in the present year .
The ceremony of his cremation seems to have been a remarkable one, the crowds which appeared to do him honor being said to be the largest ever seen in the streets of Colombo. The leaders of all three sects of Buḍḍhist monks were present on the occasion, and all spoke in high praise of the deceased prelate, agreeing that Buḍḍhism had suffered no such loss as his department for many centuries. The ceremony was enormously prolongued, for almost everyone in that mighty crowd had some little offering to throw upon the funeral pyre - bundles of joss-sticks, pieces of sandal-wood, cubes of camphor or little bottles of perfumery and essential oils. Showers of coins were also cast upon the pyre, and even the poorest of his people were anxious to do something to testify their respect and love for the great leader who had passed away.
- C. W. L. [Charles Webster Leadbeater], "Theosophical Worthies: The High Priest Sumangala," The Theosophist 32.10 (July, 1911), 565.
- Anagarika Dharmapala, "On the Eightfold Path: Memories of an Interpreter of Buddhism to the Present-Day World," Asia (September, 1927), 723.
- "Colonel Olcott and Sumangala" The Theosophist 38.7 (April, 1917), 100-101.
- Theosophical Society General Membership Register, 1875-1942 at http://tsmembers.org/. See book 1, entry 441 (website file: 1A/21).
- C. W. L., 566.
- C. W. L., 564.
- Oxford University, Trübner's American and Oriental Literary Record, Oxford University, 1879.
- C. W. L., 565-566.
- C. W. L., 568.