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Nothing but Kumar

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By Uditha Devapriya

“Non, je ne regrette rien.”
— Edith Piaf

Most stories never get written. Some do, but they involve, and include, other stories. Kumar de Silva has written his story many times over; to write once more is to commit plagiarism. Yet how much of it is personal, and how much of it involves his forays outside television? This, to me, is a question as irrelevant as it is invalid. What Kumar did outside television is as pertinent as what Johnny Carson did, or Jimmy Kimmel does, outside television. Yet the life of a TV host presents rather interesting subject matter for a biography, even a biographical sketch. But then who’ll take the time? Who indeed!

The first TV sets arrived in Sri Lanka somewhere in 1978, with the first transmission in April 1979. ITN came soon after: it broadcast foreign programmes for a while before, much to the government’s embarrassment, it fell under the threat of bankruptcy. Three years later, in 1982, with a powerful transmitter covering a much wider area than did ITN, the government launched another channel: Rupavahini. As the cost of TV licenses fell dramatically (USD 150 for colour, USD 30 for black and white), the number of TV sets rose even more dramatically (from 2,810 in 1979 to 360,370 seven years later). Foreign programming continued – BBC documentaries especially – as did local programming, including “teledramas.”

In 1982 my mother and father were sitting for their A Levels, or at least studying for them. Sri Lankans brought no fewer than 74,000 TV sets that year, a more than 57% increase from the previous year. With Rupavahini coming into the picture around this time, ITN dedicated most of its slots to imported, if not English language, programmes. The late D. B. Nihalsinghe meanwhile pioneered the 24-episode miniseries, with the country’s first serial, Dimuthu Muthu, taking in record-breaking audiences for Rupavahini. “Within 10 years of its advent,” Nihalsinghe later wrote, “television had grown rapidly in quantity, reach, and capability… to a predominantly Sinhalese, though multiethnic, nation.”

If in 1982 my parents were about to write their final exams at school, Kumar de Silva had finished school and embarked on his higher education. At the University of Kelaniya, Kumar selected English, Economics, French, and German. While in Wesley College he had offered a more unusual if not unprecedented subject combination, also including French. His parents had not dissented, and neither had the then Principal, the great Shelton Wirasinha. With an unmistakable bent for language, young Kumar had vague notions about his career. He didn’t crave the accountant’s path, much less the doctor’s, engineer’s, or lawyer’s. But what could a suburban middle-class 19-year-old aspire for in those days with French for his A Levels? He couldn’t aim for the sky, since the sky wasn’t the limit. He could, however, target journalism. Armed with an Honours Degree in English Literature three years later, in 1985, he thus made his way to Lake House, where, as cub reporter, he checked copy.

It was boring stuff, sedentary and duller than ditchwater. But a 19-year-old student who had done French could afford to dream; a 25-year-old graduate who had done English Literature could not. The only alternative Kumar could think of, then, was television. Yet there too the sky wasn’t the limit. Not many made it to a TV channel, and not many came out. Kumar had two strengths, however: a wide knowledge of French, and a passion for speaking.

Kumar’s Principal and in many ways guiding light at Wesley, Shelton Wirasinha, passed away in November 1985. Things moved rather quickly that year. Nine months earlier, in February, a Frenchman and Frenchwoman had conferred with two Sri Lankans, also man and woman, about an idea for a series about France, specifically about everything related to France. Few would have thought such a programme feasible in the Sri Lanka of 1985 – neither the British nor the Americans thought of a comparable series, even though locals obviously knew more about Britain and America than they did about France – yet Josiane Thureau and Bernard Prunieres, from the French Embassy, did. As for the two Sri Lankans, both Thevis Guruge and Nanda Jayamanne from ITN liked the idea. That’s how Bonsoir began. It started its journey in July, going on to adorn TV screens for a quarter of a century.

Bonsoir lasted for six months under its first host, Aruni Devaraja. Devaraja left in December. The directors wanted a new host. Just who could it be? Kumar has not divulged how exactly, but “fortune had it” (his words, not mine) that he was considered as Aruni’s successor, host for the programme in 1986. Now the issue was that while Kumar had two strengths, he had one major flaw. “This was terrible,” he chortles. “No one knew I stammered.”

The first screen test “was pure torture.” Thevis and Nanda gave up on him. “Putha,” Thevis advised him kindly, “why don’t you concentrate on production?” This Kumar could not and would not take. Growing up on a steady stream of literature and drama, he simply could not see himself in the producer’s seat. Nanda Jayamanne agreed, and let him do one more test. “That too, I flunked.” But then Jayamanne was as adamant as he. She gave him “as many screen tests as it took for me to break through my stammer.” The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh tests went off as disastrously as, if only slightly less so than, the first two. Then came the eighth, the decisive one: “I scraped through.” He was in.

The first recordings were memorable for more reasons than one. Limited as it was to the four corners of a dingy studio at ITN, Bonsoir quickly proved to be Kumar’s baptism of fire, though that’s putting it mildly. The programme had two faces at the beginning: Kumar’s and Yasmin Rajapakse’s. Through the latter’s intervention, the Bonsoir studio was moved to the French Embassy. Yet even the less cloistered quarters of an Embassy lacked the amenities of a proper studio: “just two basic curtains, and the most primitive of setups.” The programme was waiting to go out. It soon did, first to the immediate surroundings (Rosmead Place) and then, slowly but steadily, to virtually every corner of the country.

Meanwhile, demographics were changing. Arguably more so than radio, television is linked to shifts in the population. Expensive as it may be, it nevertheless is receptive to growing demand, especially demand fuelled by electrification. In the Sri Lanka of the ‘80s, however, electricity came slowly: stage by stage, region by region. By 1986 when Kumar started out in Bonsoir, no more than 10.9% of all households had been connected to the grid; seven years later, no fewer than a third were. Taking the medium into the Sinhala heartland, both ITN and Rupavahini hence modified their programming to suit the palate of a rural lower middle class. These changes did not spare Bonsoir: in 1994, the year a Francophone came to power as the country’s president, a Sinhala Bonsoir sprang up.

By now Kumar, with Yasmin, had covered every corner, interviewed every personality, and done everything possible to take France to Sri Lankan homes. People soon began to talk of “pranshaya balanawa” (“seeing France”) on the idiot box. Whether it was shooting Romeo wooing Juliet at night at Anne Ranasinghe’s residence, staging a chilly Strasbourg Christmas evening somewhere in Borella near the Royal Golf Club, “chugging down the Kelani Valley Line” and ending up creating a mess of a traffic jam, or breathing in the airs of Montmartre at the Kala Pola along Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, Bonsoir created nothing less and nothing more than history on television here. If it was unprecedented, it was so because no other foreign mission – certainly not the British, definitely not the American – came up with a pitch for a similar programme. And at the centre of it all stood Kumar.

Bonsoir had found its footing in Kumar. Kumar, conversely, had found his footing in Bonsoir. Yet he did not remain there. Even as he presented one episode after another, interviewing personalities and going places, he perched atop other programmes; top among these was “Fan Club”. Needless to say the stammer left him, though it cropped up from time to time. Didn’t matter: in 1994 he won the Golden Clef Award for Television Presenter of the Year. When, owing to circumstances he no doubt found painful and cathartic, he had to leave the programme that had nurtured him, “passing the mantle to a new generation”, he thus made an easy transition to other channels, other stations, other platforms.

ITN remained his home for quite some time thereafter. As news reader and talk show and Poya Day Dhamma discussion host, Kumar revelled in other endeavours. Soon he left ITN as well; first at TNL (where he hosted a business talk show, and co-hosted “Celluloid Lokaya” with celebrities of Sri Lanka’s silver screen), then at Prime TV (where he became the face of “CelebChat”, interrogating hundreds of “celebs” from directors to writers to musicians to bon vivants), and later at Rupavahini (Poya discussions), he witnessed the transformation in the industry from analog to digital. Entering Pulse (“Anything But with Kumar de Silva”, “The Lockdown Diaries”, and “Apperitifs with Kumar”), he oversaw the next big transformation: from digital to social media. That’s where he’s been ever since.

Kumar de Silva came to television via Bonsoir somewhere in 1986. He remembers the exact date: January 5. January 5, 2021 thus marks 35 years since the man entered the industry, transformed his life, and in a big way transformed ours too. I wasn’t lucky enough to see him on Bonsoir though; when he left the show in 2001, I was about to enter Grade Three, only just beginning to understand the intricacies of real-time television. My connection to Kumar, however, went well beyond Bonsoir: my Grade Three class teacher happened to be his mother, Manel. Bonsoir came to me through Ms Manel, or to be more specific, a pouch of hers that sported its famous tricolour elephant. Intrigued, I returned home and asked my mother what exactly it was. That was when I heard about, and saw, the show that made the man, transformed television in the country, and, as Kumar himself has put it, took France to the homes of Sri Lankans in the pre-internet era, in a way that has never, to my mind, been paralleled by any other foreign programme telecast over here since.

Athula Samarakoon’s Sinhala translation of “The Bonsoir Diaries”, the original of which was published in 2013, will hit bookshelves later this year.

 

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Sat Mag

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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The Man P. Rajanayagam was – Remembered by Nirmala Rajasingam

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With the passing of Periyathamby Rajanayagam, another stalwart of the vintage days of left activism in Sri Lanka, is now gone. Rajanayagam was a trade unionist, human rights lawyer, journalist, writer and most importantly a life-long left political activist, to whom social justice, democracy and, with increasing authoritarianism, the right to dissent were consuming passions that he lived out daily until his health failed him in his 86th year. Born in Chunnakam, as the second child in a family of five, Raja’s political activism began at a young age, while he was studying at Skandavarodaya College, in Jaffna. In his teens, Raja joined the Youth League of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), often distributing LSSP publications, with his older brother, to their supporters. His teachers, N.S. Kandiah, and ‘Orator’ Subramaniam of the Jaffna Youth Congress fame were great mentors, who inculcated the spirit of egalitarianism in the young Rajanayagam. Raja entered the Ceylon clerical service when he finished school to support the family, financially. He threw himself into union activism, as a member of the GCSU, the most powerful union backed by the LSSP at that time. Raja soon became the editor of the union magazine The Red Tape, and its Tamil magazine Nava Uthayam.

From this time onwards Raja’s personal life was marked by the twists and turns of the history of the left movement. Raja graduated with a BSc degree from the University of London, as an external candidate, while still an active union representative. Soon after, he became a central committee member of the LSSP and published The Federal Party and the Tamil Speaking Peoples, an important document of the LSSP, for its campaign for the 1960 general election.Raja’s political career experienced a dramatic shift when the LSSP joined the SLFP, in a coalition government in 1964. In his 20s, Raja joined Bala Tampoe, Edmund Samarakody and many others, and helped found the LSSP- Revolutionary Party. The LSSP–R was now in control of the formidable Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) and Raja became a central committee member of the LSSP–R. At this time, he passed his law exams with a first class, qualified as an attorney-at-law, and brought out the textbook titled Criminal Procedure in Sri Lanka, encouraged by his law lecturer, as there was a dearth of such textbooks.

Shunning lucrative practice in other areas, Raja naturally became a trade union lawyer. He was to be found in the Sri Lankan labour tribunals almost daily, defending workers, and published The Labour Tribunal Digest, summarising leading tribunal precedent cases that established important labour law principles.
When the 1971 JVP uprising was crushed by the coalition government, Raja also became a human rights advocate, representing newly incarcerated JVP leaders. He visited prisons in Jaffna, Bogambara and Welikade to meet Rohana Wijeweera, Gamanayake, Lionel Bopage, and others. He represented 13 of the top JVP leaders in the courts that were specially set up with no due process to deal with these ‘terrorist’ cases. His representation of JVP leaders came under scrutiny. His erstwhile left comrades were now in power with the coalition government and were prosecuting the JVP youth vigorously. In 1972, the Republican constitution was enacted, giving Buddhism a foremost place, and the members of the LSSP, and CP fully participated in this exercise. Raja, disillusioned by the developments within the mainstream left, and the corresponding rise in majoritarianism and the shrinking democratic space for alternative left forces, decided to take a break from politics and left for London in 1973.

Raja began work as a solicitor for the Bexley Heath local authority in Britain. Soon, Raja and other kindred souls set up the Ceylon Solidarity Movement. Raja wrote and published a pamphlet, The Island of Terror, based on his experiences of representing JVP detainees. From that time onwards Raja’s home became a welcoming place for many left activists who visited London from Sri Lanka, stayed with him, spoke at meetings, met parliamentarians and always paid the obligatory visit to Marx’s grave, all of which Raja organised. Rohana Wijeweera, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and even Mahinda Rajapakse has stayed in the home of Raja. When Mahinda Rajapakse went to Geneva to complain to the UNHRC about Sri Lanka’s human rights violations he was assisted by Raja.
When under the Jayewardene government the militarisation of the north and violent attacks against Tamils increased, Raja became drawn into yet another phase of his activist career, and was one of the leading figures in forming the Standing Conference of Tamils (SCOT) and its human rights arm in London. A smaller group within SCOT became the nucleus for the Tamil Times, an English language monthly magazine that was launched in 1981. The editorial responsibilities fell mainly on Raja’s shoulders. In the next 25 years or so, the Tamil Times emerged as the foremost voice of Sri Lankan Tamils living in the diaspora in the English language with N.S. Kandiah as its managing director. Its initial aims were to make a stand in support of the beleaguered Tamil community in Sri Lanka, and to keep the Sri Lankan diaspora communities around the globe abreast of developments.

In a few years, developments in Sri Lanka created a divergence of perspectives within the editorial group, where some supported militant Tamil nationalism unequivocally. Raja and others were perturbed by the intolerant nationalism, militarism, Tamil-on-Tamil violence and the crushing of dissent within the Tamil polity. Raja found the LTTE’s claim to be the sole representative of the Tamils abhorrent. By around 1987, the disagreement was settled in Raja’s favour, and he continued as the editor until January 2006. As Raja’s editorials became increasingly critical of armed violent actors, he was subjected to threats and intimidations. For a period, the Tamil Times was the only one of its kind, offering critical support to the Tamils in their quest for justice and democratic rights. It was read with interest for Raja’s editorials but not just by Tamils but also by various representatives of governments, members of the human rights fraternity, journalists and academics. The magazine was supported by subscriptions entirely and from across the globe.

Raja was also a pioneer and consistent advocate for Sri Lankan human rights in the UNHRC, spanning over two decades. He began this work as the representative of the human rights arm of SCOT to highlight the plight of the Tamils. He produced two publications, Law and Practice of Arbitrary Detention in Sri Lanka and Arbitrary Killings in Sri Lanka, which were based on various submissions he had made to the Human Rights Council. As his perspective gradually changed, he began to openly express his misgivings over the direction of the Tamil struggle, and raised questions about Tamil-on-Tamil violence at the UNHRC sessions. Between the prevarications of the Sri Lankan state on its human rights record and the deeply partisan and selective human rights accounts from Tamil nationalists, Raja often cut a lone figure in his commitment to truth-telling. Raja viewed the LTTE’s ascendancy, and its implications for the Tamil people with great trepidation. He was much affected by the many political killings of dissenters by the LTTE. Some were his friends.

I had the great fortune to be a fellow steering group member of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, (SLDF) with Raja from 2002 to 2009, during the peace process. It was a tightly knit group that campaigned for peace, democracy and justice. During these years Raja was a frequent visitor to my home. He would be up for robust political discussions that would begin at 6pm and end around 5am the next day. His involvement with SLDF was the last stint of activism in a long line of campaigns he had set up. Raja’s eloquence as a writer and public speaker, often trenchantly critical of armed actors, and the senseless violence of the civil war, endeared him to many within the dissenting Tamil community in London. He remained a towering figure of inspiration to many of us.
The Raja we all knew was a man of much warmth, compassion, humour, and political integrity. He loved engaging with people, especially activists, of all ages and backgrounds. This is what he found most pleasurable. When Raja’s wife of 25 years, Regina, died he had to start life again, but he sustained himself through writing, campaigning, befriending people and speaking truth.
(Nirmala Rajasingam is a Sri Lankan British national resident in London. A political activist and artiste, she was a close ally of P. Rajanayagam)

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Situating the woman in Buddhist Revival Female Buddhist education and the Buddhist Revival

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By Uditha Devapriya

The Buddhist revivalists of the late 19th century placed great emphasis on female education. Colonel Olcott spoke of the need for Buddhist girls’ schools, claiming that “the mother” as “the first teacher.” This was echoed by Buddhist men who argued they wanted “companions who shall stand shoulder to shoulder with ourselves.”

The rise of a Sinhala Buddhist petty bourgeoisie, comprising of traders, merchants, teachers, and professionals, had a considerable say in the clamour for education for Buddhist women. As Kumari Jayawardena has observed, “there was much discussion on the need for educated Buddhist wives, presentable in bourgeois colonial society, as well as educated mothers who would reproduce… the next generation of Sinhala Buddhists.”

The clamour, in other words, was for the daughters of the Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie to stand on equal terms with their Christian and Westernised counterparts, the latter of whom had been either tutored at home or sent to missionary enclaves.Before delving into how schools for Buddhist girls came to be, though, it’s important to make a distinction between two kinds of education: monastic and secular. Female monastic education dates to the time of the Buddha, when, after much cajoling by his chief disciple Ananda, he permitted the establishment of a female Buddhist order.

As with every other philosophical-mundane dilemma, the question of women entering the sasanaya, transcending their traditionally defined roles as wives and mothers, was resolved in an ambiguous way: while the Buddha informed Ananda that there was room in the Order for nuns, he had earlier rejected his stepmother Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request for female ordination. Nevertheless, with his recognition of a female order, the Buddha foretold that his teachings would last so long as monks and nuns practised mindfulness.

Female monastic education came to Sri Lanka with the arrival of Sanghamitta in the third century BC and the ordination of Devanampiya Tissa’s queen, Anula. The Bhikkuni order lasted for 15 centuries, until the Chola invasions in the Anuradhapura period. Until that point, several strides would be made in the sisterhood, including the writing of the Theri Gatha (“Psalms of the Sisters”), a compendium of 522 gathas by 73 nuns dating to the sixth century BCE. At one level, these gathas contain strong feminist undercurrents.

Unfortunately, no attempt was made to revive the order after the fall of Anuradhapura. Not until the 19th century were such attempts made. This was largely due to the work of one woman, the first dasasil matha (“Ten Precept Nun”) of Sri Lanka, Sister Sudharmācārī (née Catherine de Alwis), and of a group of Bhikkus and dasasil mathas, who, in 1998, went on to initiate a Bhikkuni Order despite protests from the more conservative sections of the clergy. Regarding the latter, the efforts of Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thera of the Rangiri Dambulla Chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, who filed a case at the Human Rights Council arguing that the State should recognise Bhikkunis and their monasteries, must be noted.Secular education for Buddhist girls preceded the ordination of the dasasil mathas. As far as monastic schools went, no clear-cut distinction prevailed between religious and secular instruction, since monks were at the forefront of education. Here, however, a clear gender bias persisted: as Ananda Coomaraswamy has observed, monks oversaw education only for boys. Education for females thus remained a neglected affair.

As the very first British commentators on the country noted, “the greater part of men can read or write” (Cordimer), and education was confined chiefly to “the male part of the population” (Davy). Given that works like the Kavyasekara and the Selalihini Sandeshaya idealised women who stayed at home and played a subordinate role to their fathers and husbands, we can take the lack of interest in their education to have been culturally and religiously sanctioned, especially in the post-Kotte period. This contrasts with revisionist accounts, such as Sinhala Geheniya, which contended that in the pre-colonial phase Sinhala women had been elevated, if not honoured, by their male brethren.

The “debut of the bourgeois woman” (as Kumari Jayawardena has termed it) was a phenomenon unique to 19th century colonial society. Sri Lanka was no exception. While most elite schools cropped up after the government abandoned English education as per the recommendations of the Morgan Committee Report of 1870, female education had more or less picked up decades earlier in Jaffna, with the establishment of the American Ceylon Mission in 1816 and Uduvil Girls’ School in 1824.The latter establishment, which began with 22 students, became Asia’s first boarding school for girls. Set up as a counterpart to the Batticotta Seminary in Vadukoddai, its first principal happened to be a missionary from Connecticut, Harriet Winslow.

As with Sinhala society, however, Tamil society remained averse to the idea of female education. In that sense the success of the school (followed by establishments in Varany in 1834 and Nallur in 1841) owed much to how it reinforced traditional patterns (most girls hailed from the Vellala caste) while breaching them (the school allowed common dining between castes, upsetting not a few powerful families in the region).This paradox – of reinforcing traditionalism while breaching it – was seen in girls’ schools in other parts of the country as well. Moreover, while doing away with traditional practices, most of these schools kept intact the gender-class structures of colonial society, grooming women to be devoted mothers, daughters, and wives. Female education in the 19th century hence followed either of two paths: courses for ladylike pursuits, like music and needlework, and academic courses and professions, like medicine.

In 1881, for the first time, a girl sat for the Senior Cambridge Examination, while five girls sat for the Junior Cambridge Examination. The number would rise to 15 and 77 respectively at the turn of the new century. This was around the time when the women’s movement had begun picking up in England: the suffragette campaign officially commenced in the 1870s. This was also around the time when another movement picked up at home: the Buddhist revival. The contradiction embedded in colonial female education, between conservatism and emancipation for women, thus spilt over to Buddhist schools.Modern Sinhala Buddhist secular education, for women, began with the establishment of the Sanghamitta Girls’ School in 1891. According to Kumari Jayawardena, there were serious differences of opinion over the running of the school. When tensions between the two managers, Alfred Buultjens and Peter de Abrew, peaked, the principal, Marie Musaeus Higgins, left. Supported by de Abrew, she started her own school.

Meanwhile, Sanghamitta was relocated to Foster Lane (at a cost of more than Rs. 30 million today, according to Vinod Moonesinghe), and administered after 1898 by the Maha Bodhi Society, under Anagarika Dharmapala and the principalship of Miranda de Souza Canavarro. The school, run on Catholic lines (with a Buddhist sisterhood that conformed to Convent practices), was soon superseded by Musaeus College; the friendship between Dharmapala and Canavarro having deteriorated, it continued without the sisterhood. Notwithstanding these rifts and ruptures, its impact on Buddhist education was considerable.Gananath Obeyesekere’s and Richard Gombrich’s classification of Protestant Buddhism is not without its critics – read, in particular, Irving Johnson’s comprehensive critique, “The Buddha and the Puritan: Weberian Reflections on ‘Protestant Buddhism’” – but it explains, in part at least, the clamour for a larger role for the laity, the emphasis on hard work, and the “urbanisation” of Buddhism after the late 19th century.

This was felt in education as well, even in the domain of female education. An article in a Buddhist magazine in 1914 rejected traditional perceptions of women: “Our Sinhala men are still trying to confine us to the kitchen.” At the same time, the petty bourgeoisie, without whom the revival would not have happened, vehemently opposed the idea of a wider role for females: Piyadasa Sirisena’s diatribes against mixed marriages (“mishra vivaha”) and female activism lay bare this contradiction very clearly.Upward aspiring and conservative as they may have been, however, the revivalists couldn’t oppose the trend towards female education for long. Simply put, they wanted to educate their daughters. In that sense the founding of Visakha Vidyalaya, in 1917, marked a zenith in the history of female education, and not just Buddhist, in the country.

In her account of Selestina Dias, the founder of Visakha Vidyalaya, Manel Tampoe details the development of the school. By the time of her death, Dias had contributed Rs. 450,000 (nearly Rs. 500 million today). To celebrate its opening, “a sumptuous garden party” was held “to which those in high society flocked in gay attire.” Jayawardena has described it as “an important, though overdue, day for the Buddhist bourgeoisie.”

The first principal of Visakha Vidyalaya, Bernice T. Banning, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, and a graduate of Wisconsin University, served for a year before leaving for Madras “for the purpose of study and recreation, on behalf of the Theosophical Society.” Banning would be succeeded by several other foreign, non-Buddhist, women, including the great Clara Motwani. As Kumari Jayawardena has noted, it would take another 50 years for the school to employ its first Sinhala Buddhist principal, Hema Jayasinghe.

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

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