The Venerable Mahanayaka Thera was born at Weligama in Southern Sri Lanka on 14th October 1913 to a pious and respected Buddhist family. He was the last of 10 children and had his primary education at Siddhartha College. He was ordained on 30th November 1925 having the Most Venerable Devundara Sri Dhammananda Nayaka Thera as the Upajjhaya and Most Venerable Ahangama Wimalasara Mahanayaka Thera as the Acharya.
The Venerable Gnanaratana had his primary monastic training and education first at the feet of his teacher and subsequently a Sri Dhammaraksita Pirivena (monastic college) at Devundara. Having completed the primary education, he entered in 1931 the Vidyodaya Pirivena, one of the two leading monastic educational centres in the country with international recognition.
At this renowned academic centre the young novice had his higher education and completed the final examination, which was highly recognized as the completion of oriental learning, in 1940. During this period, in 1933, the young novice received Upasampada (Higher Ordination) from the Maha Sangha. In 1948 he completed the final examination conducted by Oriental studies society of Sri Lanka and won the ‘Pracina Pantita’ Degree, which is still considered to be the highest qualification one can get for traditional studies in Sri Lanka.
A turning point in the life of the Nayaka Thera is his coming to stay in Vajiraramaya at the invitation of the Most Venerable Pelene Vajiranana, who was the foremost of the modern erudite monks in Sri Lanka. The Vajiraramaya is the single most famous monastery in the country until today and has many renowned monks such as the Venerable Narada, the Venerable Piyadassi, the pupils of Vajiranana Mahanayaka Thera. Our Nayaka Thera was invited to Vajiraramaya owing to his erudition in the Dhamma and the Oriental languages and he taught most of the young monks at Vajiraramaya.
In 1950 the Venerable Gnanaratana, accompanied by the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera, who was later recognized by the Myanmar Government by conferring the title of ‘Agga-Maha-Pandita’, went to India for pilgrimage and study. This tour, which lasted for six months enable the Venerable to get a good idea about the Indian Buddhist heritage.
A memorable event in this tour was to visit Nepal and re-establish the Buddhist Sasana in the country by determining a ‘Sima’ house and performing Upasampada (Higher Ordination) ceremony for the first time centuries.
The Chattha Sangayana (The 6th Council) held in Myanmar in 1955 another memorable occasion in the life of our Nayaka Thera. He participated in this historic meeting along with the Sri Lanka delegation. In the course of this tour the Nayaka Thera had a first hand experience with the Burmese Buddhist tradition. He travelled widely in Myanmar and developed a real admiration for the Buddhist tradition and the heritage preserved in this country.
In 1955 the Most Venerable Pelene Vajiranana Maha Nayaka Thera passed away and his pupil, the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha was appointed the new Maha Nayaka. At the same time, the Venerable Gnanaratana Mahanayaka Thera was appointed the secretary of the Nikaya. In 1956, The Mahanayaka Thera visited again Nepal in order to participate in the World Fellowship of Buddhists conference held in that country.
A major event in the life of the Venerable Mahanayaka Thera is the offering, in 1959, of the Mallikarama monastery at Ratmalana, suburbs of Colombo, by a wealthy and a pious devotee. For the last four decades the monastery has developed with all the necessary aspects such as, Dagoba (Cetiya), Bodhi, Vihara, Sima and Padhana Ghara (meditation hall). Today the monastery is one of the leading religious centres of the country.
The life of the Mahanayaka Thera was one devoted to the Sasana entirely. While having Mallikaramaya as the main centre the Mahanayaka Thera has several other monasteries in various regions of the country under his guidance. One of the last beacons of Dhamma in Sri Lanka maha thero passed away on 18th January 2014. His was a life devoted entirely to the uplift of the Sasana.
A landmark in the religious service of the Mahanayaka Thera is the Mallikarama monastery. It was started as a small place of worship in 1959. With three decades it had become a full-fledged monastery with all the necessary components. It has facilities for about several thousands people to perform their religious activities.
He has preached in all parts of the island for the past seven decades and the number of such sermons could easily exceed ten thousand.
The Venerable Mahanayaka Thera is the foremost among the preachers whose sermons are characterized by having essence and substance. Even at this advanced age he is still a popular preacher.
A long lasting contribution to the Sasana he has made is to raise a large number of pupils, educated and virtuous, capable of carrying the responsibilities of the Buddha Sasana. In addition to the large number of pupils who have studied from him he has about thirty-five monastic pupils who are his own.
Service to Buddhist education
The Mahanayaka Thera has been a teacher of the Dhamma for many young novices. As we saw earlier while he was staying at Vajiraramaya he thought the pupils of the Most Venerable Pelene Vajiranana. Subsequently he was an early teacher at Siri Vajiranana Dharmayatanaya which was started by the Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha in 1961. His service was rendered to this centre for several years. In 1969, the Mahanayaka Thera started a college for the young monks at his own monastery. This college was named ‘Siri Dharmarakshita Pirivena’ and today it is one of the leading educational centres for young novices.
He has passed the Prachina Avasana Examination offering Pali, Sinhala and Sanskrit and Prakrit as subjects. He has produced about hundred big and small books. Among these works several are outstanding. The book on the history of the Bhikkuni Order with Bhikkuni Patimokkha was published in 1952 and is a very valuable contribution to the study of the history and the Constitution of the Bhikkuni Order in the Theravada tradition.
His Sinhala translation of Khuddasikka, a Vinaya treatise written in Medieval Sri Lanka is also a very scholarly treatment of the subject. He edited and translated the Dhammapada into Sinhala and it has been produced as a hand book for the Buddhists. In addition to these works, the Venerable Mahanayaka Thera has written several lengthy books on what is called ‘Gihi Vinaya’ or the discipline for the lay people. Under this category can be included his works on such discourses as Sigalovada Sutta, Vyagghapajja Sutta, Parabhava Sutta and Vasala Sutta. Apart from these fairly large books, he has written a large number of small books on various subjects related to Dhamma.
The Venerable Monk has spent more than seven decades as a member of the Sangha and more than 60 years as an Upasampada Monk. He has travelled in many countries including United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe on Dharma-duta missions.
In recognition of his service to the Sasana he has been honoured by the Amarapura Chapter by conferring on him the honorific title ‘Vinaya Visarada Dharmakirti Sri’.
The Vidyodaya Pirivena, where the Mahanayaka Thera had his higher education, has honoured him by conferring the title ‘Sri Sumanagala Vidyawatansa’. The Southern California Sangha Council has recognised him by conferring a Honorary Doctorate on him.
Most Venerable Weligama Sri Gnanarathana Nayaka thero passed away on 18th January 2014 at the age of 101.
– Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne, Director Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies (University of Kelaniya) Colombo.