It was a personal, as much as a political, grievance that led to the death of Prime Minister Bandaranaike in 1959. The conspiracy to assassinate him was master-minded by his erstwhile patron, the powerful Buddhist monk, Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera.
Buddharakkita was a king-maker. Chief Priest of the ancient temple of Kelaniya, he immersed himself in politics and affairs of business. He was also embroiled in a long-running court case by which he hoped to acquire direct control over the temple’s financial affairs.
As a novice at Kelaniya, he had found a patron in the person of Don Charles Wijewardene, son of the temple’s wealthy patroness and author of a pamphlet Revolt in the Temple in which he proposed that monks should resume their rightful place as advisers to lay rulers.
Don Charles came from a devout Sinhalese Buddhist family. His mother Helena had helped to restore Kelaniya Temple – once favoured by Sinhalese kings – from the decline into which it had fallen after centuries of colonial rule. He was at once a fervent Sinhalese nationalist and a supporter of the revival of Buddhism – two threads that rapidly became entwined following Ceylon’s Independence from the British in 1948.
It was probably thanks to Don Charles that the youthful Buddharakkita first encountered this new brand of political thought. It also seems likely that Buddharakkita was groomed for his future post as Chief Priest of Kelaniya by the Wijewardene family. How far they influenced his appointment to this post is unclear, but following Helena’s generous donations and bequest to the Temple, they must have felt entitled to some say in its future governance.
What is clear is that it was at Don Charles’s home that Buddharakkita met the woman who was to become his close friend, political ally and – it was rumoured – his mistress.
Vimala Wijewardene had married Don Charles after his first wife – Vimala’s elder sister – had died. She was young, beautiful and fascinated by politics. With Buddharakkita’s sponsorship, she would first become an MP, then a Cabinet Minister during Mr Bandaranaike’s incumbency.
Her loyalty to Buddharakkita would set her at odds with the Prime Minister, not only over matters of policy, but also on a more personal level. She blamed Mr Bandaranaike for failing to suppress anonymous leaflets alleging that she was Buddharakkita’s mistress.
When hundreds of Buddhist monks performed a peaceful protest outside the Prime Minister’s residence in protest against his accord with the Tamils, Vimala played a prominent role, negotiating with the besieged Bandaranaike and triumphantly announcing the abnegation of his pact to the crowd of protesters.
While Buddharakkita’s presence was not recorded, his influence was almost certainly exerted via the monks and Vimala. The highly-organised protest against an accord by which Mr Bandaranaike had sought to grant some degree of local autonomy to the Tamils bore all the hallmarks of Buddharakkita’s campaign strategy.
In 1956, the General Election had swung decisively in favour of Mr Bandaranaike thanks to Buddharakkita’s intervention. Under his direction, thousands of monks were mobilised to canvas for votes in rural areas. The result was a landslide victory.
However, political success came at a high price. Buddharakkita was later to complain that “in order to get this Party into power I have spent over a lakh” (i.e. 100,000 rupees). Financial hardship was almost certainly the motivation for the civil suit through which he attempted to acquire direct control over Helena Wijewardene’s bequest to Kelaniya temple; a source of funds which, by law, could only be accessed by the Temple’s trustees, not by its chief priest.
In short, it appears that Buddharakkita was broke. In a final attempt to recoup his losses, he invested in a shipping company whose success depended on the grant of a government contract to transport rice. His request for the contract was refused and it seems clear that he held the Prime Minister personally responsible.
Faced with financial ruin and the ingratitude of his former protégé, Buddharakkita is reported to have said of the Prime Minister: “He is of no use now; he must be driven out.”
The result was an assassination plot, masterminded by Buddharakkita, which led to the murder of the Prime Minister and the initial implication of Vimala Wijewardene. Although Vimala was eventually discharged, both Somarama Thera, the monk who pulled the trigger, and Buddharakkita were sentenced to death.
While Somarama Thera was hanged, Buddharakkita’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He died in jail in 1967.
Despite his undeniable influence, Buddharakkita barely rates a mention in the history books. One can only guess why. Yet this extraordinary story is a reminder of what can happen when the close bond between religion and politics turns sour.
This is the third of three articles recently published in The Colombo Telegraph.
My first novel The Devil Dancers is set in 1950s Ceylon and took nine years to write and research. Further historical background can be found on the book’s website at: www.thedevildancers.com. Reviews and comments are also posted there, including the latest from Gratiaen Prize judge Professor Walter Perera of Perideniya University, Sri Lanka.