Rev. Matugama Mahanama Thero of Sri Lanka Receives Bhagavad-gita As It Is
By Vasudeva Datta dasa
In Sri Lanka, every full-moon day is considered sacred. It is a public holiday called Poya. According to local calendar this month’s Poya day was one day earlier than our Gaura Purnima, so we used this opportunity to make a double festival.
A devotee family from the district of Matugama, Sri Lanka invited us to hold a public program in their city with our guest His Grace Hare Krishna Prabhu from Italy, a famous and dedicated kirtaniya. The population of Matugama is nowadays exclusively Singhala (Buddhist), therefore local devotees were afraid to perform public nagara-sankirtana because of thirty years of war between the Singhalees and the Tamils but we assured them that Hare Krishna Prabhu will enchant everyone by his sweet kirtan.
We arrived late at night and our devotee hosts were already cooking for the next day’s festival so they asked a local Buddhist monastery to house us overnight. To our surprise, the chief of the monastery, Matugama Mahanama Thero (M. A. in Education in English and Japanese), received us very warmly. He was happy to note that we were waking up before four o’clock in the morning. We asked for permission to perform our mangala-arati the next morning and he agreed. After the mangala-arati he introduced himself more and we got to know that he is quite influential in the Buddhist clergy. He took a vow of celibacy when he was 9 years old and now he is almost 60. He is also the principal of Sri Sumangala Pirivena-Pantiya, the incumbent in the Buddhist Centre of Matugama, the Head In-charge of the Vidyadeepa Higher Education and Politech Institute, the executive director of the Vidyadeepa Foundation and the Justice of Peace in the entire island of Sri Lanka.
He told us that since it was Poya that day many devotees will come to their Buddhist centre. He invited us to come and address their folk after we conclude with our public program in the city. He said that we could sing and play instruments in their shrine, but their devotees cannot because they have taken a vow not to glorify, sing, dance, play instruments or eat after noontime. We wondered what kind of a program will turn out in the company of Lord Buddha’s devotees.
We left the monastery and went to our scheduled public program. At 9 a.m. the harinam through the streets of Matugama was supposed to begin. Around three hundred people already gathered near the hall. For security reasons Police officers were also waiting to accompany us. Hare Krishna Prabhu started the kirtan and at first only twenty or thirty people joined us. As we were chanting along the road for a few minutes, I turned around and to my surprise, I saw a huge crowd of some four hundred people and devotees following us. Local people were staring at us in amazement, some with a slight pinch of skepticism on their faces, after all this was the first time in recent history that any Hindu parade is going through their city. Some might have taken it as a provocation, but as soon as the devotees happily waved at them and offered them prasadam, they immediately smiled back. The harinam attracted even media’s attention. The same day evening there was a report of our procession on Shakti TV News, which is considered the leading TV Channel for all Sri Lanka.
As we returned to the venue of the program, the hall was almost full, one thousand five hundred people. The kirtan continued for a while and Hare Krishna Prabhu delivered a powerful lecture, exposing the futility of the bodily concept of life. At the end we encouraged people to buy Srila Prabhupada’s books which Hare Krishna Prabhu was supposed to be signing for them. But he was stuck with a big box of sweets, and hundreds of children surrounded him like ants. Therefore the rest of us were at the book stall. The visitors took 25 Bhagavad-gitas, 2 Science of Self-realization, 41 small books and 8 Tamil Back to Godhead magazines. Sumptuous prasadam was served to all, but we were so intoxicated at the book stall, talking to the crowd, that we forgot about eating so after visitors left we just went to the next program with the Buddhist devotees.
In the Buddhist monastery, where we spent the previous night we started with bhajans and people were surprised to hear melodious sounds in their temple. Nevertheless, no one could say anything because their chief monk who invited us was standing behind us. Younger monks were all excited and were taking many photos of us. The only trouble was that people were not responding to our singing because of their vow not to sing or dance on Poya day. At one point Hare Krishna Prabhu turned to me and suggested that I speak. It was difficult because we didn’t want to be too harsh to our respectable Buddhist host, but at the same time we felt we had to speak the truth. I prayed to Guru and Gauranga for mercy and empowerment.
I told the crowd, “I have heard that you took a vow not to sing, play instruments or dance in the shrine today but I have to inform you that we are also following the same vow, not only on Poya day, but every day.” The faces in the audience looked surprised, their eyes focused on Hare Krishna Prabhu’s accordion, the mridanga, and the amplifier. Then I explained the principle of “janma karma ca me divyam”—that Lord Krishna’s name and pastimes are not material and gave a few examples. I asked mothers how long a naughty child can stay still in the corner as a punishment. After some time they answered that the child needs a positive engagement. “Similarly,” I paraphrased their answer, “our positive activities in bhakti-yoga are the best spiritual solution and a natural position of the soul.” I listed a few more examples of degradation in Kali-yuga and then quoted the solution from Bhagavatam — kirtanad eva krsnasya – chanting of the holy name. Somehow they all became very happy. Even the chief monk, who was translating our speech into Singhalese, was laughing. I then requested them to chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra with us and they all loudly responded. Hare Krishna Prabhu then took a box of “simply wonderful” sweets and gave out sweet balls to all the people. Although they took a vow not to eat anything after noon, they all gladly accepted prasadam and broke their vow. We were also happy, because we didn’t induce them by some cheating technique. By Lord Caitanyas’s mercy their souls just woke up.
At the end as a gesture of gratitude we gave a copy of the Singhalese Bhagavad-gita As It Is as a gift to the Matugama Mahanama Thero (the chief Buddhist monk) for their temple library. Then we took some time to answer their questions and gave them maha-mantra cards so that they could continue to chant at their homes.
The following night we went back to Trincomalee, Eastern Province and had another Purnima day, this time— the real Gaura Purnima.
We are grateful to all preceding Vaisnava preachers like Hamsaduta Maharaja who were pioneering in Sri Lanka and especially His Grace Mahakarta Prabhu and his wife who survived all the war trials and are still active in Colombo. By their mercy, the seeds of bhakti which they planted are now sprouting out.
Thanks also to all our supporters and well-wishers from all over the world.
Hope our small attempt to spread Krishna Consciousness in Sri Lanka will bring pleasure to our Gurus and Srila Prabhupada. Kindly bless us that we can continue and increase our service.
Thank you very much.
Your servant, Vasudeva Datta Dasa