Gangodawila Soma Thera: The “People’s Monk”

The outspoken Sri Lankan Buddhist monk died of a heart attack on Dec. 12 while visiting Russia. His sudden death has heightened tensions between the Buddhists and Christians of Sri Lanka.

The Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera was one of Sri Lanka’s best-known and most controversial monks. The author of several books and the country’s first televangelist, he spoke in simple language that became his hallmark. His practical approach in emphasizing the relevance of Buddhist theory to everyday issues influenced many people to change their lifestyles.

He spoke out against corruption, violence, and social and economic injustice, formed a political party, and planned to run for the presidency. He campaigned against the dilution of Sinhala-Buddhism by Hindu practices and against “unethical” conversions to Christianity by “foreign-funded fundamentalist sects” alleged to be offering economic incentives to poor Sri Lankans to convert.

While a large part of the Buddhist community followed the monk devoutly, some Sri Lankans saw him as a fundamentalist and nationalist who denigrated the country’s minority religions. The Sri Lankan constitution gives prominence to Buddhism. Seventy percent of the population is Buddhist, 15 percent Hindu, 8 percent Christian, and 7 percent Muslim. Civil war erupted in the mid-1980s between the Buddhist-Sinhala-dominated government and Tamil separatists.

In the wake of the campaign against unethical conversions, at least 30 Christian churches have been attacked by mobs since November. Soma Thera’s unexpected death at the age of 55 triggered an onslaught of accusations against Christian evangelists, even after several autopsies concluded that the monk had died of a heart attack.  Thousands flocked to his elaborate state funeral ceremony on Dec. 24 in Colombo, where some monks declared “holy war” against fundamentalist Christians.

According to Soma Thera’s supporters, four days after the monk left for Russia to receive an honorary doctorate, an unnamed Christian group sent a letter to the secretary of Soma Thera’s Buddhist movement, allegedly including a hit list naming Soma Thera. The letter, however, was revealed to the authorities only after the monk’s death.

“A religious war [over] conversions was something that…Soma Thera had warned of,” wrote Champika Liyanaarachchi in Colombo’s Daily Mirror. “What is unfortunate is that some extremist groups are using [his] controversial passing as an excuse to initiate a new wave of violence against churches.”