A debate can have a profound impact on the fate of a person or even a nation. One may recall the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, which cost Lincoln the senate but opened his road to the White House. Therefore, these debates made a critical impact on the history of that nation.
Fifteen years after Lincoln and Douglas had their duel in far away Illinois, the small town of Panadura was to become the site of a landmark debate of British Ceylon. This was to have a profound impact on Ceylon, and then sections of the intelligentsia in United States and elsewhere and then once again in Ceylon. It marked the turning point in the revival of Buddhism in British Ceylon. The name “Panadura Wadaya” was to become known even in the Western world.
Panadura Wadaya (The Panadura Debate) was the culmination of a series of debates. However, some earlier debates were done in writing and very little details are available about some of the debates. Panadura Wadaya, being the first verbal battle of this magnitude, was bound to make a crucial impact if one side could claim victory.
The standard bearer of the Buddhist side in this debate was Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero. Born in a village near Balapitiya to a Buddhist family, he was close to a Roman Catholic priest in his young days and it is said that he even had the intention of becoming a Christian priest. Later he was associated with some Buddhist monks and ultimately became a Buddhist monk. His initial association with Christianity and later ‘conversion’ to Buddhism meant that he had extensive knowledge of both religions. He was strong in character as seen by his decision to move to Colombo after hearing the plight of the Buddhists in the city. As a debater, he was witty and eloquent and would not be intimidated easily.
|Ven. Migettuwatte Gunanada Thero (1823-1890)|
Panadura Wadaya was held on August 26 and 28, at the site where the Rankoth Vehera is located today in Panadura. Rev. David de Silva and Catechist S.F. Sirimanna represented the Christian side and Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero represented the Buddhist side. He was ably assisted by several other Buddhist monks and scholars. The debate revolved around topics ranged from the nature of God, the Soul and resurrection, and to the concepts of Karma, Rebirth, Nirvana and the principle of Paticcasamuppadaya (Principle of cause and effect).
The Panadura Wadaya had a phenomenal impact locally and internationally. It was a turning point in reviving the identity of the Sinhalese Buddhists. Also it came at a time when the Western world was soul searching. With the industrial revolution, science was taking big strides in the 19th century. Those who were disillusioned with the teachings of the church were searching alternative ideas. In Ceylon, ‘Ceylon Times’ editor John Cooper arranged for Edward Perera to write a summary of the debate. Thousands of copies of which were published. This translation was also published as a book, “Buddhism and Christianity Face to Face” by J.M. Peebles in United States with an introduction in 1878. It was after reading a copy of the book that Colonel Henry Steel Olcott decided to visit Ceylon. After his arrival, the Buddhist revivalist movement accelerated.