1956: A year of national and religious awakening
by Senaka Weeraratna on 14 May 2014 4 Comments

Buddhism has been the most powerful single factor in the development of Sri Lanka’s civilization. For more than 2,300 years, Sri Lanka developed and projected a country image that was predominantly Buddhist. Though this pre-disposition was held back during the 450 years of western colonial rule, no sooner an opportunity arose after the grant of independence in 1948, the majority of the people again turned to Buddhism as expressive of their national identity and gave a mandate to a newly elected Government to restore Buddhism to its rightful place and make it an unifying and integrative force in the nation.


The commemoration of the 2600th Sambuddathwa Jayanti in 2011 revived memories of the Buddha Jayanti that was commemorated in 1956, on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the Parinibbana of the Buddha. The event was commemorated by Buddhists all over the world. It was also a year of great national and religious awakening – a turning point in our history.


Buddhist Commission Report


Though the movement of Buddhist revival began in the late 19th century and gathered momentum in the first half of the 20th century, it was in the immediate post-independence period that Buddhist leaders such as Professor Gunapala Malalasekera and LH Mettananda saw an opportunity to remedy the historical injustices done to the Buddhists under three western colonial powers, through the establishment of a Buddhist Commission of Inquiry.


When they proposed a State appointed Buddhist Commission to inquire into the grave injustices caused to the Buddhists, the then Prime Minister DS Senanayake at first agreed to accede to the request and subsequently balked, saying that it would be a violation of the Soulbury Constitution.


With hardly any other choice left they decided to appoint a Commission of Inquiry on their own to probe into the continuing system of education and other areas that denied Buddhists their rightful place. The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) established a Buddhist Committee of Inquiry on April 2, 1954, popularly known as the Buddhist Commission. It held its sittings throughout the length and breadth of the country.


In addition to Prof Malalasekera and LH Mettananda, the Committee comprised the Ven. Abanwelle Siddhartha, Ven. Haliyale Sumanatissa, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, Ven. Polonnaruwe Vimaladhamma, Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha, Ven. Henpitagedera Gnanaseeha, Prof GP Malalasekera, P de S. Kularatne, Dr Tennekoon Wimalananda and DC Wijewardena. The Report was presented to the Maha Sangha and the general public at a meeting at Ananda College on February 4, 1956.


SWRD Bandaranaike, leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, made a public declaration that he would implement the Committee’s proposals if the MEP was elected to power in the forthcoming general election in April 1956. In contrast, Sir John Kotalawala’s UNP government was found dragging its feet over the Committee’s proposals. This stance of Bandaranaike led to the Maha Sangha coming out openly in large numbers to back the MEP. Under the banner of the Eksath Bhikkshu Peramuna, Buddhist monks campaigned from house to house in support of Bandaranaike who also championed the cause of the ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’ (comprising Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru). The MEP swept the polls. UNP was reduced to 8 seats in the House. The electoral result was a watershed in the country’s history.


An abridged English version of the Report was published under the title, ‘The Betrayal of Buddhism’, which set out in detail both the injustices suffered by the Buddhists and the remedies, particularly in the education sphere. The Schools Takeover in the early sixties was an outcome of the recommendations made in the Buddhist Commission Report.


Buddha Jayanti in Sri Lanka


Buddha Jayanti in 1956 was celebrated with great enthusiasm and religious fervor. Energetic individuals and organizations had begun preparations several years before 1956 to mark the occasion with landmark events. Prof Gunapala Malalasekera, President of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, devised plans to mobilize the international Buddhist community. Distinguished invitees from several foreign countries and Sri Lanka attending its inaugural meeting in Colombo in 1950 decided to form themselves into the World Fellowship of Buddhists.


Asoka Weeraratna founded the Lanka Dhammaduta Society on Sept 21 1952 (re-named in 1957 as the German Dharmaduta Society) which had a number of objectives, the principal being to send a Buddhist Mission to Germany in 1956 to coincide with the universal Buddha Jayanti celebrations. Buddhist organizations urged the Government to celebrate Buddha Jayanti as a national event and defer the general elections in 1956. On May 23 1956, Vesak full-moon day, Buddhists in Sri Lanka and other parts of the world celebrated Buddha Jayanti.


The Government undertook numerous activities in commemoration of Buddha Jayanti. These included the appointment of a Committee comprising leading Buddhist monks and laymen to advise the Government on all matters relating to the Buddha Jayanti celebrations, making arrangements to translate the Tripitaka into Sinhala and compile an Encyclopaedia of Buddhism in English and Sinhala, to compile other books dealing with the biography of the Buddha, his teachings and the history of Buddhism, the issue of four commemorative postage stamps to mark the event, the completion of the renovation of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy before Buddha Jayanti, offering assistance for the reconstruction of the Mahiyangana Thupa, among others.


Buddhist Mission to Germany


At a public meeting at Ananda College, Colombo on May 30 1953, the findings of a survey by Asoka Weeraratna on the current state of Buddhist activities in Germany and the prospects for sending a Buddhist Mission to Germany before the Buddha Jayanti celebrations in 1956 were discussed. CWW Kannangara, Minister of Local Government presided. The meeting adopted a resolution urging the Lanka Dhammaduta Society to take immediate steps to send a Buddhist Mission to Germany before 1956 to commemorate Buddha Jayanti and further that the Society should take immediate steps to establish a permanent Buddhist Centre in Germany comprising a Vihara, Preaching Hall, Library, and Settlement for Upasakas.


CWW Kannangara said the Society was going to serve one of the greatest causes of Buddhism launched after the Great Emperor Asoka of India. He urged all Buddhists to back the Society in every way to help it to establish the Buddhasasana firmly in Germany before Buddha Jayanti of 1956.


On August 7, 1956 a few months after becoming Prime Minister, SWRD Bandaranaike inaugurated the new Headquarters and Training Centre of the Lanka Dhammaduta Society (later renamed German Dharmaduta Society) at 417, Bullers Road (later re-named Bauddhaloka Mawatha), Colombo 07. He said Buddhism could be spread only on Buddhistic principles whether in this country or outside. He further said that the Mission to Germany was a very wise one because a number of people in the West were interested in the Buddha’s teachings. The Mission would give them an opportunity to study the religion and spread the Dhamma themselves.


On June 15 1957, the first Sri Lankan Buddhist Mission to Germany sponsored by the German Dharmaduta Society and comprising Ven. Soma, Ven. Kheminda and Ven. Vinita from the Vajiraramaya, left for Germany. They were joined by Asoka Weeraratna, two weeks later, in Berlin. The venerable monks took up residence in Dr. Paul Dahlke’s Das Buddhistiche Haus. In December 1957, Asoka Weeraratna (Trustee) negotiated and purchased from the heirs of Dr. Dahlke, the Das Buddhistische Haus on behalf of the Trustees of the German Dharmaduta Society, which included, Hon. Dudley Senanayake, Henry Amarasuriya, Dr. PB Fernando and Mr. Nelson Soysa. Das Buddhistische Haus was thereafter converted into a Vihara by the GDS through considerable renovation and placement of Dharmaduta monks on a long term footing.


Buddha Jayanti in India


The Buddha Jayanti in 1956 attracted the attention of almost the entire world as several countries such as India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka put into effect elaborate programs to celebrate the event. The Government of India celebrated the event as one of great cultural significance for the country. Though born in Lumbini, Nepal, the Buddha delivered his Dhamma discourses mostly in India.


A high-powered Committee was appointed with Indian Vice-President Dr S Radhakrishnan as Chairman and the chief ministers of several states as members. Public funds were made available for the celebrations, which included public meetings, exhibitions of Buddhist art, visits of foreign Buddhist scholars, publication of forty volumes of the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures) in Pali and Sanskrit, issue of commemorative Buddha Jayanti postage stamps, and the erection of a monument in New Delhi to mark the event.


Sixth Buddhist Council in Rangoon in 1954


The Sixth Buddhist Council (Chattha Sangayana or sixth synod) was opened in Rangoon on May 17 1954. It was sponsored by the Burmese Government under Prime Minister U Nu. A Maha Pasana Guha Cave, a great artificial cave built from the ground up and completed in 1952, served as the gathering place, much like India’s Rajgiri’s Sattaparni Cave that had housed the First Council immediately after the passing away of the Buddha.


Like the preceding councils, its chief objective was to recite, affirm and preserve the genuine wording of the Vinaya, Suttas and Abhidhamma – the ‘pariyatti’ – as related by the Buddha and his principal disciples. This Council was unique in that the 2,500 learned Theravada monks who participated came from eight countries - Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India and Nepal - unlike previous councils which had included monks from the host countries only.


Ven. Nyanatiloka and Ven. Nyanaponika, two German monks then residing in Sri Lanka, figured prominently in the Sixth Buddhist Council. Scholar-monks of Sri Lanka played a significant role and the general editor with overall authority was a Sri Lankan settled in Myanmar. The complete traditional recitation of the Theravada Canon at this Council took two years, from 1954 to 1956. The Council closed on the full moon day of May 1956, exactly two and a half millennia after the Buddha attained Parinibbana. The version of the Tripitaka which the Sixth Buddhist Council produced is recognized as being true to the pristine teachings of Gautama the Buddha and the most authoritative rendering of them to date.




Today, Buddhism has a greater appeal in the West due to an increasing number of people in these countries showing a preference for a philosophy and ethical system that places high emphasis on peace, non-violence and compassion towards all sentient beings. In Asia, it is feasible for countries with pre-dominant Buddhist populations to consider developing closer ties with each other in the spheres of economic, cultural, and trade and investment.


Further, we see at the international level a large number of countries forming alliances on the basis of regional proximity, common cultural heritage or common religion. In this context it is worthwhile to consider the formation of a ‘League of Buddhist Nations’ in the international arena which is not confined purely to celebrate the International Day of Vesak or such similar occasions.  

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