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Between airports

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By Siri Ipalawatte – Canberra

By the time I reached the Katunayaka airport at midnight I had been sleeping in the taxi for about 20 minutes. I woke up startled and bleary-eyed. After paying the driver, I checked to see if I have left anything inside. No, that’s fine, I reassured no one in particular. Families drifting around the hall have come to see off somebody or are passengers themselves. When I reached the Singapore airlines counter at the extreme end of the check-in area, there weren’t many passengers there; probably they had come earlier. I joined a queue of six people, and there was another queue of the same number facing a different check-in counter.  The passengers who stood waiting with suitcases more imposing than themselves had only their smiles and their passports to vouch for who they were.

Nothing wrong with the isle seat, I had decided. So after pushing hard to put my hand luggage and laptop into the overhead locker, I  settled into mine. A hostess came along the isle with a tray in her hand. Arms rose from the seats in front of me towards the wet face towels she handed out. I unzipped my bag, took out my field note pad and started reading. 

A jeep pushes through the dense jungle in Wilpattu. Only the moan of the old motor interrupts the hush of dusk. The land on the right begins to rise sharply, revealing the recent pug marks on the low embankment, covered by thorny bushes. The track bends to the right and the driver switches on the headlights and then suddenly applies the brakes. A leopard had sprung from the embankment and was pounding after a deer. The leopard grabs the deer between its strong jaws and backs into the jungle, dragging the body and emitting growls of warning. 

I’m 36,000 feet up but the safari memories are still vivid. On the long plane flight from Colombo to Singapore and on to Canberra, I’m re-writing my notes and re-living the daily events of that weeks spent in Wilpattu, Kumana, Wasgomuwa and Bundala national parks. 

The emotional transition began in the baggage claims area of the Canberra airport, and continues with my son and granddaughter waiting for me outside the customs area. First and foremost are the joy and relief of being back at home in a leafy suburb and close to my son and his family. Although I was born and grew up in Sri Lanka, I have been living in Australia for more than 35 years. Australians are included among my friends whom I have known for many years and with whom I now share  my life and many of my worldly interests. In Australia, I can expect to have quality food, to enjoy physical comfort, and personal security, effective medicine, easy access to doctors and hospitals. And one has the freedom to be alone, to have privacy, to express oneself, to debate openly, to hold unconventional views, to be more immune to peer pressure, and to not have one’s every action scrutinised and discussed. It means freedom to sit in a café on a crowded street in Canberra and read a newspaper in peace, without being besieged by acquaintances asking for help with their personal problems.

A different emotion hit me when I exited the Canberra airport and drove onto the Tuggernong Parkway. The landscape around me on the highway consists of an asphalt road grid, buildings, and motor vehicles. The sound environment is traffic noise. Reflexively, I turned down the volume knobs of my senses and my emotional states, knowing that they will stay turned down for most of the time during the following six months until my next trip to Sri Lanka’s jungles.

However, returning to urban life in Canberra means returning to time pressures, schedules, and stress. Just the thought of it raises my pulse rate and my blood pressure. In Sri Lanka’s jungles there is no time pressure, and no schedule. If it’s not raining, we walk out of the forest cabin each day before dawn to listen to the first morning bird songs — but if it’s raining, we sit in the cabin, waiting for the rain to stop, who knows when. A man from the nearest village in Kumana may have promised us yesterday that he will visit the cabin with some local fruits; but he didn’t have a wristwatch and couldn’t tell us when he would come, and perhaps he would come on another day instead. In Canberra though, life is heavily scheduled. My little pocket diary tells me what I shall be doing at what hours and on what days, with many entries weeks and months into the future. E-mails and phone calls flood in all day everyday, and have to be constantly re-prioritised into files or numbered lists for responding.

Back in Canberra, I gradually shed the health precautions that I adopted as reflexes in Sri Lanka. I no longer need to buy bottled water; tap water in Canberra is very clean. I no longer have to monitor each scratch on my skin, lest it develop into a tropical ulcer. I no longer have to wonder whether a twinge in my abdomen might mean appendicitis, at a remote location in Sri Lanka from where I couldn’t get to a hospital in time.

Returning to Canberra from Sri Lanka’s jungles carries for me big changes in my social environment with much less constant, direct and intense interactions with people. During my hours spent in Sri Lanka’s jungles I’m almost constantly within a few feet of Sri Lankans and ready to talk with them, whether we were sitting in forest cabins or out on a trail looking for birds or animals. When we talk, we have each other’s full attention: none of us are distracted by texting or checking e-mails on a cell-phone. In contrast, in Canberra, we spend far less time in direct face-to-face conversation with people. It is estimated the average Canberra resident spends eight hours per day in front of a screen – of a computer, TV, or hand held device. And submit himself to constant bombardment by sounds and images that come from minds other than his own, that fill his head with information and trivia, other people’s adventures and excitement and desires.

In Sri Lanka ,when travelling, if you could not find the place you were looking for you would within minutes be surrounded by people, some just curious and others offering you assistance. You could be certain someone would volunteer to show you the way, and having done so, walk back. Offering him money for his trouble would be considered an insult.

While passing a village house you may be invited in. Your acceptance will be considered an honour and give the host happiness. You will be offered a drink, probably king-coconut water or freshly prepared fruit juice, or even a glass of ‘Kitul thelijja’ and they will try to entertain you perhaps by asking one of the young children to sing an old song of greeting. They will nod and shake their heads. Children look up to, respect and love their parents.

In Australia, psychologists sometimes talk about low self-esteem among young people. Such feelings are virtually unheard of among the young people in rural Sri Lanka. Of course they have all the same living problems as in other developing countries, but low self-esteem is not one of them. 

They remain with their innate dignity and compassionate Buddhist culture. But who knows what will happen to future generations, their sons and daughters, as they gradually come in contact with what we older generation ironically call developed world habits. Maybe we live in the West overdeveloped outwardly and underdeveloped inwardly. Perhaps, it is we who, for all our wealth, are living in poverty. 

How many years, living in these sophisticated cities – London, Sydney, Canberra – roasted during the summer, frozen during the winter, have I not walked those green fields, silent forests, and river valleys that were part of me? Innumerable times in dreams I have gone to my favourite childhood haunts in southern Sri Lanka. However, after 35 years commuting between Sri Lanka and Australia, I have worked out my compromises and have found my peace. I spend about six months in Australia and six months in Sri Lanka. I still spend much more of my time and thoughts in Sri Lanka, even when I am physically in Australia. Sri Lanka’s intensity is hard to shake off, even if I wanted to do so, which I don’t. 



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Sat Mag

50 years of legacy of Police Cadeting at Ananda

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By Nilakshan Perera

Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake wanted to forge a cordial relationship with school children and the Police Department, after carefully studying a similar programme in Singapore and Malaysia. With the support of the then Ministry of Education and the Sri Lanka Police, the Sri Lanka Police Cadet Corps began as an attachment to the Sri Lankan Police Reserve. On 03 July 1972, six schools were selected for the pilot programme; namely Kingswood College Kandy, Mahinda College Galle, Hindu College Jaffna, Ananda College Colombo, Zahira College Gampola and Sangabodhi Vidyalaya Nittambuwa. By 1978, this number rose to 32 Boys’ schools and 19 Girls’ schools.

Each of these individual platoons consisted of 33 cadets. The masters who were in charge of these platoons were considered part of the Police Reserve. They were assigned with the rank of an Inspector (IP) or a Sub Inspector (SI).

Cadet Corps held a selection for the camps. They would participate in annual competitions for squad drills, physical training, first-aid, drama, billet inspection, general knowledge and public relations, best commander, sports and IGP’s Challenge Shield. From these selection camps, the first three winners would be called for the final camp, from which the Island winner was then selected.

When Ananda College was selected for Police Cadetting on 03 July 1972, two of the school’s teachers were appointed as the Officers In-charge of the College Cadet Platoon. They were Mr Lionel Gunasekera and Mr Ariyapala. Later on, Mr W Weerasekera took over from Mr Ariyapala. Both Mr Gunasekera and Mr Weerasekera extended their invaluable and unwavering services for the Cadet Platoon’s success story. Both these gentlemen were there to supervise and train cadets. One could not forget Mr Weerasekera’s 9 Sri 7321 orange coloured Bajaj scooter parked next to the College main canteen. Another teacher, who trained cadets for drama competitions, voluntarily, was the late Mr Lionel Ranwala. He was the talented master who helped cadets to secure wins in the drama competition, year after year, at the annual camps.

The evening before attending the camp, a special “Mal Pooja” was organised to bless the platoon. After this, they would meet the principal, at his office, for another special blessing and a tea party, hosted by the principal himself. The then Principal of Ananda College, Colonel GW Rajapakse, gave his fullest blessings to the Police Cadets. These recognised cadets earned more responsibilities and assumed various leadership roles at the College. Prefects, Deputy Head Prefect, Head Prefect, Big Match Tent Secretaries, and Presidents of various societies were given to Cadets uncontestedly.

The Cadets stayed at the hostel, the night before leaving for camp. Our trunks were loaded into the college van and unloaded at Maradana Railway station. The most valuable trunk in the Cadet’s eyes was the PLATOON BOX. This was so since the box often contained items such as butter cakes, bottles ofcordial, sweets, such as marshmallows, chocolate rolls, and biscuits. This precious box was kept under lock and key and the watchful eyes of two Cadet Corporals.

SSP Prof Nandadasa Kodagoda, SSP P V W de Silva and a few other senior officers from Police HQ often attended as judges for different categories in the annual camp competitions, such as first aid, general knowledge, squad drill and physical training. Both these senior officers would discharge their duties to the rule and spirit.

All first-aid requirements were provided by the college St John’s Ambulance Brigade for all college special events, such as big matches and sports meets. This unit was led by 1979 Corporal Devapriya Perera (IT Professional – London) and most of the first-aiders were Police Cadets. They volunteered their services to the General Hospital Accident Ward and the Sri Pada pilgrims. It was pleasing to see Cadets controlling traffic duties in front of the college, at the Maradana – Borella main road, every morning, from 7.00 am to 7.25 am and helping with traffic duties and car park duties during the college sports meet and other functions.

Police Cadets CR Senanayake (Automobile Engineer-Brisbane), Ravi Mahendra (IT professional), and the late Dharmapriya Silva, established a swimming club that held its training at Otters Swimming Club. The School Bus Travelers Society, organized by the Police Cadets, issued bus seasons tickets for students with the help of CTB officials.

Back then when a teacher had not reported to a class, senior Police Cadets would step in and take turns to teach these classes. Deepal Sooriyaarchchi (Former MD of Aviva, Management Consultant) and Sarath Katangoda (Management Consultant – UK) were the most popular student masters in that era with their popular stories and innovative methods of teaching. This increased the popularity of police cadets among the other students. The way cadets conducted themselves had a very high impact on fellow Anandians, and the number of students attending practices rose rapidly.

On several occasions, Anula Vidyalaya Police Cadets called our Cadets to assist with their training in preparation for their Annual Camps. Having borrowed bus season tickets from students coming to College, via Nugegoda, our senior cadets were looking forward to visiting Anula to train them during school hours. This friendly culture blossoms during camps as well as outside the two schools. We still continue our friendships with Kamal Hathamuney (who joined the Army and retired with the rank of Major, residing in Sweden), Nirmala Perera, Malraji Meepegama (married to Maj Gen Sunil Wanniarachchi), Rosy Ranasekera (married to former Ananda Cadet Band leader Maj Gen Dhananjith Karunaratne) Dilani Balasuriya, (former IGP late Mahinda Balasuriya’s sister – married to Dr Priyanga de Zoysa). Interestingly our Cadet Lanka Herath continued this relationship and found his lifetime partner Ganga Thilakaratne from the Anula Vidyalaya Platoon. A famous school from Kelaniya, St Paul’s Balika Vidyalaya, too, started Police Cadeting in 1980. The writer being 1981 Ananda Sgt found his partner from St Paul’s Balika Cadet Sgt of the same year, Rasadari Jayamaha. Former Dean of the faculty of Law, University of Colombo Prof Indira Nanayakkara and Shiromi Perera (Melbourne) were the Corporals of the same platoon.

In 1972, the College platoon, led by Sgt Ranjith Wijesundara, became the Island’s best platoon. On the 23rd of July, 1983, the Sri Lankan Army’s routine patrol was assigned from Madagal to Gurunagar with the call sign of Four Four Bravo, commanded by 2/Lt A.P.N.C de Waas Gunwardane with 15 soldiers attached to Charlie company of SLLI were ambushed at Thirunelveli in Jaffna. 2/Lt Waas Gunawrdane and 12 soldiers made the supreme sacrifice. Adjutant and Intelligence Officer of SLLI Capt Ranjith Wijesundara was assigned the task of identifying the fallen heroes. Lt Wass Gunawardane was a Cadet of the 1977 platoon. Ranjith Wijesundra is now retired with the rank of Colonel.

In 1975 the College platoon, led by Sgt M A K E Manthriratne, also became the country’s best platoon and he was selected by the National Youth Council to represent the Sri Lanka Police Cadet Corps to travel to Canada under the Youth Exchange Programme between Sri Lanka and Canada. Manthriratne later joined the SL Navy and retired with the rank of Commander. Presently, as the President of Past Cadets, together with the ever-reliable 1982 Sgt V S Makolage carrying out various welfare projects under the banner of the Past Police Cadet Wing of Ananda.

Ananda held an unbroken record of winning nine out of 10 Trophies in 1978, under the great leadership of Sergeant Kithsiri Aponso who undoubtedly took Ananda Police Cadets to greater heights, was a leader with great charisma, integrity and leadership qualities. He became the Deputy Head Prefect and joined the STF. He later moved to the Police dept and is presently appointed as the DIG In Charge of the Badulla region.

The highest rank Cadet could achieve is Sgt Major. There were three Sgt Majors who brought honour and recognition to Ananda, namely Piyal Jayatilake in 1977, Jagathpriya Karunaratne in 1978 and ‘79, and Kithsiri Aponso in 1980. Chinthaka Gunaratne, a Cadet of 1981, also became the athletic Captain in 1983 (presently SSP In Charge of Highways) brought great honour and recognition as he became the Director in Charge of the Sri Lanka Police Cadet Corps.

College Athletic Captain of 1977, Ranasinghe Dharmadasa (Snr Manager BOI), 1978 JPPP Silva (Consultant-USA), 1980 Damitha Vitharana, (joined Sri Lanka Navy and retired as Lt. Commander and was the Director at Lankem Ceylon PLC before migrating to the UK), 1981 Jagath Palihakkara, (joined Sri Lanka Police as a SI in 1982 and at presently acting Senior DIG Western Region). DIG S M Y Senviratne another past Cadet joined the Police and is presently DIG in Charge of the Ampara Region. They also brought pride and joy to their alma mater during their time in their respective platoons and in their subsequent endeavours.

Two Sgts who led the Island’s best Platoons in 1983 Priyantha Ratnayake (Planter) and Pasindu Hearath of 2016 (Undergraduate of Kyoto University, Japan) became Head Prefects and Pasindu was awarded the Fritz Kunz Memorial Trophy for the Most Outstanding Student of 2017. The 4th of July 2017 was a great day for Ananda, as well as for the Police Cadets. 1980 Cadet Sgt who led the Island’s Best Platoon became Commander of the Army. It was a great honour for Cadets. Past Cadets organized a felicitation for Gen Mahesh Senanayake to recognise his prestigious appointment.

With profound gratitude, we remember past Cadets Rear Admiral Noel Kalubowila (a highly rated naval officer decorated with the highest gallantry medals especially having led the “Suicide Express” in 1990 evacuating troops from Jaffna Fort, Major General Lakshan Fernando, Major General Ajith Pallewela, Brig Mahinda Jayasinghe, Maj Aruna Vithanage, Maj Sampath Karuanthilake, Major SP Rodrigo, Lt Bandual Withanachchi, Director Prisons TI Uduwera, SSP Deepthi Hettiarchchi of STF (Zonal Commander Jaffna Mannar, Killinochchi and Mullaithivu), SSP Amal Edirimanne (In Charge of Colombo North) were Cadets who joined the forces, Police and Prison departments, respectively.

Chairman of University Grant Commission Senior Prof Sampath Amaratunge, one of the brilliant academics and a past Cadet, always believed and mentioned that “I am where I am because of my alma mater, and shall forever grateful to my journey”. Other note-worthy past Cadets are Harbor Master Capt Nirmal Silva, Prof Rohan Gunaratna (a political analyst specializing in international terrorism) present President of Ananda OBA, Bimal Wijesinghe who excelled in athletics during annual camps.

When this writer contacted one of our Masters-In-Charge, Mr W Weerasekera, he recalled those golden days. “As a pilot school where Police Cadet platoons were formed, Ananda College played its role in achieving the aims of cadetting as envisaged in the curriculum. It gives me great satisfaction to note the leadership and achievements of the Cadets, their success in later life with the highest contribution to the society at large”

Thanks for the untiring efforts of Hiranya Hewanayake (Senior Manager – Singer Sri Lanka) and Wing Commander Pradeep Kannangara Retd (Former Officer Commanding of the Special Air Borne Unit of Sri Lanka Air Force – Director – General Manager Abans Securitas), all past Cadets who reside all over the world are now well connected, via social media.We cherish the remarkable legacy of Ananda Police Cadetting.

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The history of a hostel; the sociology of a school

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By Uditha Devapriya
With input from Uthpala Wijesooriya, Pasinadu Nimsara, and Keshan Themira
Archive images courtesy of the J. R. Jayewardene Centre

On July 7, the Hostel of Royal College, Colombo, will be unveiling its annual Day. Organised after seven long years, the Hostel Day will incorporate a number of aesthetic, cultural, and sports events. Many of them have been held over the last two months and a few are yet to be finalised. In the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, it has been a challenge and a triumph to have held them at all. For the residents of the Hostel, it has also been a baptism of fire, no less than a continuation of a long, unbroken tradition.

The Royal College Hostel has not had an unbroken and continuous history. Unlike most public-school boarding establishments, it has been shut down and re-opened. Over the last few decades, it has also witnessed much change. From a historical-sociological perspective, its story provides a unique insight into certain social transformations.

Established on the recommendation of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, the first avatar of Royal College, the Colombo Academy, did not open a boarding establishment for its first 30 years. Official records tell us that its first boarding establishment was founded somewhere in the mid-1860s by the then Principal, Barcroft Boake. Considered the leading tutor of his day, Dr Boake felt the need to provide a separate residence “for the sons of planters and Ratemahattayas.” Since the latter crowd made up much of the population in the school, it made sense to open a separate lodging for them.

Boake took an active interest in the boarders. He would join them for breakfast and dinner, sitting at the head of the table. Yet despite his efforts, the number of boarders “never exceeded 36.” Under two subsequent heads of the establishment, George Hawkins and Ashley Walker, it reduced to 10. This was despite a prestigious award at the Academy, the Lorenz Prize, stipulating residence at the boarding as one of its conditions.

In 1881 the Colombo Academy became the Royal College. Much earlier it had anchored at San Sebastian Hill, near the Beira Lake. We are told that around 1905, because of an illness brought on by its proximity to the Lake, the boarding was indefinitely shut down. Six years later, the school shifted to Thurstan Road, in Colombo 7. Official records inform us that past pupils lobbied for the construction of a hostel there. Yet the government of the day, led by several highly conservative officials, rejected their requests. Having spent Rs 250,000 for the shift to the new location, they were in no mood to spend more on a hostel.

In 1931, the country held its first State Council election. Signalling the shift to universal franchise, the first and second State Councils appointed a Board of Ministers who chaired a number of Executive Committees, in various areas of specialisation. Appointed as Minister of Education, C. W. W. Kannangara became the voice of reform in his domain. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the Royal College Union advanced Rs 1,000 for a new boarding. For this Kannangara gave his approval and blessings. The official roll of the new Hostel that year lists 26 boarders. When it shifted to Bandarawela, in 1941, the number rose to 48. It would increase to 50, five years later, when the school moved back to Colombo.

These were deeply transformative years. Both Royal College and the Hostel felt their impact. In 1939, Kannangara convened a Special Committee on Education. Four years later, it tabled a Report. Among its recommendations was a free education scheme for all children, from school to university. Though opposed by certain groups, Kannangara’s scheme became the cornerstone of the country’s education system. Most significantly, it led to the entry of non-elite groups to leading and elite institutions, including public schools.

Following the War, both Royal College and the Hostel were compelled to accommodate these developments. In 1951, the Minister of Education, E. A. Nugawela, noted that since Kannangara’s proposals, “the Royal College is no more a school for the rich and privileged classes.” Observing that 317 of 519 parents worked as “peons, labourers, chauffeurs, and so on”, he concluded that the school had opened its gates to “the lower-middle class.” Such a trend could not be averted, much less reversed. It accompanied another, more significant transition: the “indigenisation” of colonial institutions.

In 1946, Royal College appointed its first Ceylonese Principal, J. C. A. Corea, who took over from E. L. Bradby. That year it also appointed Bernard Anghie as the Hostel Warden. The records tell us that Anghie breathed new life to the Hostel. His successor, Cecil Belleth, saw through his changes. By the time Belleth retired, in March, 1966, the Hostel had inaugurated various clubs, including Debating Societies and Literary Associations, and recorded several advances and improvements. Fitting enough, today it is so associated with these individuals that the four Hostel houses – Bradby, Corea, Anghie, Belleth – bear their names.

The result of these developments was a rise in the number of Hostellers. In 1961 there were 93 boarders. In 1967, the Hostel was closed, on the orders of the Education Ministry, to be reopened in 1971. Two years later, the number of boarders had increased to 140. By 1979, it had risen to 250, shooting up to 252 in 1986 and 300 in 1992.

 

The Hostel, as it stands today, consists of about 27 buildings. These include 10 dormitories, with separate quarters for Grade 10 and Grade 11 boarders; a Senior Prefects’ Room; a Library; and a Smart Classroom. Over the last year, a number of these units, including the Music Room and the Bathrooms, have been renovated. Prefects are selected from three batches, numbering 20 in total, of which five are currently in Grade 13. Every student is governed by certain rules and regulations, extending to lunch and sleeping hours. Led by a dedicated staff, including its Warden, Janaka Jayasinghe, they try to keep the place going, adhering to schedules and routines which devolve responsibility on everyone.

As with almost every educational establishment, the Hostel has been forced to keep up with growing demand. As mentioned before, it encountered its biggest spurt between 1977 and 1995. These were years of expansion in the education system, epitomised by the Grade V Scholarship Exam: from 3,629 in 1977, the number of scholarship awards shot up to 22,000 in 1992. Since most, if not all, the Hostellers are Grade V Scholars, the Hostel has effectively become a symbol of mobility, particularly for those whose children obtain the highest scores for the Exam. This is perhaps the most significant development yet.

How does one explain such trends? The shift from colonial to dominion status, and later to republican statehood, in Sri Lanka, was accompanied by a transition in the country’s elite institutions. Yet it remains a paradox – a paradox identified by social scientists – that while power has moved away from the colonial bourgeoisie, the latter’s place has been taken over, not by the poor, but by an intermediate, Sinhala and Tamil speaking class. This has arguably been most evident in elite schools, like Royal College.

Surveying Europe’s education system, the French sociologist Agnès van Zanten has noted the contradiction between the elite background of these schools and the changes they have undergone due to various external pressures. The contradiction here has to do with what she calls the “charters” or “mandates” of these institutions, which have changed with the expectations of dominant groups. As van Zanten correctly notes, these groups have, over the last few decades, radically evolved and transformed.

This is as applicable to Sri Lanka as it is to Europe. Since independence, the country’s elite schools have witnessed a shift from bourgeois and aristocratic ideals to a middle bourgeois ethic, emphasising not family background, but academic merit. Not surprisingly, exams like the Grade V Scholarship have had a say in these developments.

The history of the Royal College Hostel, in that sense, bears testimony to the sociology of Royal College and other secondary schools. From an enclave for “the sons of planters and Ratemahattayas”, it has become a second home for the sons of an upward aspiring, rural middle bourgeoisie. This represents a shift in social, cultural, even political power, not just in the country’s secondary schools, but also in the country itself. Yet for some reason, this is an area that is yet to be examined by social scientists. It should be, especially since it provides a unique and fascinating insight, into the changing face of Sri Lankan society.

(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. Uthpala Wijesooriya [wijesuriyau6@gmail.com], Pasindu Nimsara [pasinim19@gmail.com], and Keshan Themira [themirak35@gmail.com] are members of the Royal College Hostel Prefects’ Council of 2022)

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More than a doctrinal problem:The Buddha and his stepmother

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Ambapalika offering a meal to the Buddha and his disciples, and donating a mango grove (British Library)

By Uditha Devapriya

The Buddha’s response to Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request for permission to enter the Buddha Sasana forms one of the more controversial episodes in the Buddhist pantheon. The story, as told in countless narratives and chronicles, essentially makes his acceptance of a female Buddhist or Bhikkuni order contingent on two things: his stepmother making the request twice, then traversing a distance of 150 miles with her followers in defiance of his response, and Ananda Thera’s pleas, which eventually convince the Buddha to change his mind.Viewed from a certain perspective, the episode stands out prominently in the Buddha’s life, for two reasons. Firstly, it marks the first time he makes an explicit pronouncement on the role of women within the Buddhist clergy. Secondly, it takes his Chief Attendant to resolve a paradox in that pronouncement: the Buddha doesn’t accept his stepmother’s request, yet he isn’t necessarily opposed to the ordination of Buddhist nuns.

Ananda Thera’s question is very clear on this point: he doesn’t mention specific names, but rather asks whether, in general, women are “capable of realising the state of a stream-winner, never-returner, and an arahant, when they have gone forth from home to the homeless state.” Only after receiving a positive response to his question does Ananda bring up the issue of the Buddha’s stepmother: “If then, Lord, [women] are capable of attaining Saintship, since Maha Pajapati Gotami has been of great service to the Exalted One… it were well, Lord, that women should be given permission …”

In other words, the appeal to personal ties follows from a philosophical question: if women are allowed in, then why not accept Gotami’s request? I find this highly fascinating, for two reasons. Firstly, Buddhist stories usually have the Buddha turn an encounter with a specific individual into a homily or a sermon: thus it is only upon engaging with Sunita that he makes a pronouncement on caste. Similarly, it is his encounter with Sigala that makes him expound his most significant sermon for the laity (the bourgeoisie?). The Dhammacakkana Pavattana Sutra, his first discourse, can in that sense be viewed as a response to the need to convince his first five disciples, residing at Sarnath, of his attainment of Enlightenment. The encounter with his stepmother turns this on its head: it is his philosophical position on a doctrinal issue – in this case, the ordination of women – that resolves the personal encounter.

Secondly, unlike the bulk of the Buddha stories in the Pali and Sinhalese Chronicles, here he changes his mind over a dilemma concerning the Sasana. However, he doesn’t really confess or admit that he was wrong over the issue. Instead, Ananda’s questioning compels him to remark that what holds true in general (women entering the Buddhist order) must hold true in the particular (Mahaprajapati Gotami and her followers entering the Buddhist order). Most crucially, the Buddha doesn’t reach this conclusion on his own: it takes Ananda Thera, his Chief Attendant no less, to help him take the proverbial leap.

To be sure, his encounter with Mahaprajapati Gotami episode is hardly the only one where the Buddha revises his positions and opinions. There is at least one other occasion where he does so: when his father, Suddhodhana, requests him to seek parental permission before ordaining children, and he agrees. This too is a response to a personal encounter: he converts his son, Rahula, without notifying his mother. What is unique about his encounter with his stepmother, however, is that it concerns a doctrinal issue: the question of allowing females into an order seen, until then, as an exclusively male preserve.

Having asked a number of ordinary Buddhists what they thought of this episode, I can only conclude that no one has any real answers to the issue as to why the Buddha had to be led into an ideological impasse for him to agree to admit Buddhist nuns, or Bhikkunis. The Buddha is generally acknowledged as farsighted and pragmatic. He is not one to revise his opinions, even on the request of a person so close as his Chief Attendant. Indeed, even after accommodating his stepmother’s request, he frankly tells Ananda that the admission of nuns would reduce the lifetime of the Dhamma from a thousand to five hundred years. This does not, however, belittle the fact that he accommodates them.

How do these ordinary Buddhists I talked with perceive and resolve this problem? One of them admitted that he had been grappling with it all his life, and that since his Daham Pasal days, he had been trying to find a satisfactory answer, to no avail. On the other hand, my mother, hardly the Daham Pasal going type, suggested that it shows that the Buddha, far from embodying an all-knowing ideal, had to rely on another person – his Chief Attendant – to reach a compromise over a difficult doctrinal issue. This is not an opinion shared by too many Buddhists, since it contradicts their view of the Buddha as infallible and beyond question, but it is shared by several ordinary laypeople I talked with.

In response to what many may see as the Buddha’s inborn prejudice against women – sexism, plain and simple – a leading Buddhist monk-writer has this to say.

“In making these comments, which may not generally be very palatable to womankind, the Buddha was not in any way making a wholesale condemnation of women but was only reckoning with the weaknesses of their sex.” (Venerable Narada Thera, “The Buddha and His Teachings”, Fourth Edition, 1988, Chapter 9, Page 156)

Narada Thera, however, is touching on only one aspect to this controversy. This aspect has been covered by a number of scholars, most prominently by Uma Chakravarti, who in an insightful essay (“Buddhism as a Discourse of Dissent: Class and Gender”) remarks that while the Buddha, in his volte-face over the question of female ordination, reveals his recognition, even acceptance, of women’s potential for salvation, by laying down eight rules, and making a rather pessimistic prediction regarding the Dhamma, he reflects the prejudices of his time, where women were expected to serve a subservient role to men.

Although Chakravarti doesn’t discuss it, the Buddha’s encounter with his former consort, Yashodhara Devi, tells us much about the times he hailed from. Bhikkhu Narada’s account tells us that Yashodhara, upon hearing that he had returned to Kapilavaththu, does not visit him herself, hoping that “the noble Lord Himself will come to my presence.”

When this eventually does happen – he enters her chamber and takes a seat – she goes to great lengths to reverence him, ordering her courtiers to wear yellow garments. When Siddhartha Gautama’s father Suddhodana informs his son of the extraordinary lengths to which she has gone to greet him, the Buddha merely replies, “not only in this last birth, O King, but in a previous birth, too, she protected me and was devoted and faithful to me.” He then goes on to relate the Candakinnara Jatakaya, in effect reiterating and re-emphasising values like loyalty and faithfulness that are seen as ‘becoming’ of women.Chakravarti’s argument is frankly disconcerting, but it is the most accurate from those that tackle this issue which I have read so far. While other scholars, like Kumari Jayawardena, trace Buddhism’s hostility to women, and to female activism, to the Buddhist Revival of the 19th century, in which a socially and culturally conservative (petty) bourgeoise took the lead, Chakravarti traces it to the Buddhist Chronicles that relate the Buddha’s life, as it was lived or is supposed to have been lived, themselves. My only critique of Chakravarti’s approach is that she makes no real attempt to relate those Chronicles – many of which, after all, were written after the Tatagatha’s passing away – to the context of their times.

Of course, one can hardly blame or single out the Buddha for these problems. In any case, the India of the Buddha’s time accepted gender and class oppositions. Moreover, it wasn’t just on issues concerning women where he was, to put it mildly, ambivalent. Even on the thorny issue of caste, he didn’t adopt a straightforward position: while he did condemn Brahmin caste structures, he also added that “by deed is one born a Brahmin”, thereby distancing himself from the kind of political critique of caste pioneered by, inter alia, Ambedkar. I suppose one can make the same case for liberation theologists: Christ, after all, did implore to render unto Caesar’s the things that were Caesar’s, a position liberation theologists would hardly adopt today.This aspect, as I mentioned earlier, has been covered. I am more interested in its doctrinal and philosophical dimensions. For the first and probably only time in his life, the Buddha is admitting to a theoretical lapse without really admitting to it. Perhaps to make up for his shortfall, the Buddha justifies his earlier position by attributing the decline of Buddhism – from a millennium to half a millennium – to the very gender he admits to the order. Even if that is not, according Narada Thera, a “wholesale condemnation of women”, we must admit that between the Buddha’s rejection of Gotami’s request, his acceptance after Ananda’s intervention, and his sober prognosis following his acceptance, there was an intellectual leap. I believe this issue needs to be investigated, more deeply.

(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com)

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