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Outstanding educationist – Soma Kumari Seneviratna Samarasinha

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Leelananda de Silva wrote in the Sunday Island of November 15 on Eminent headmasters – an extinct species. In it is this paragraph following the naming of several principals of large boys’ colleges of Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Pannipitiya: “All these principals made an enormous contribution towards the building of the schools …(I am not too conversant with the girls’ schools and schools in Jaffna but undoubtedly they had distinguished principals.)” Yes, they did, starting from the late 1940s and early 1950s when missionary schools and even Buddhist Visakha Vidyalaya, Colombo, and Mahamaya College, Kandy, had foreign principals who left, making way for local educationists to take over. They were all successful.

I speak of one such woman principal who was an outstanding educationist; modest, dignified, very traditional yet receptive to modernity; exemplary example.

Early life

Soma Kumari was the first born (April 23, 1900) of six siblings to Ehelepola Madduma Bandara Seneviratne, a teacher at Dharmarajah College, Kandy, then known as Buddhist Boys’ School. She writes in her memoirs maintained through the years in exercise books, of her father: “A wonderful parent… working knowledge of Tamil, French, Hindi and a Sanskrit and Pali scholar.” Her mother: “A typical Kandyan lady … understanding with generosity and kindliness of heart.”

From early on the children were encouraged to pursue their studies, even the eldest daughter which was not the custom then. Two brothers became veterinary and medical doctors, while breaking tradition, her father took the bold step of sending her to Women’s Christian College (WCC), Madras, after her Senior Cambridge Exam. She studied in Girls’ High School, Badulla, and then the sister school run by Methodist missionaries in Kandy. She left for India in 1918. Two years later, on her own request, she was baptized to Christianity in the Methodist Church, Peradeniya. In 1922 she passed her first degree receiving also a Gold Medal.

She was the first Kandyan woman to travel overseas for her first degree and then went further overseas in 1924 to Girton College, Cambridge University. She successfully obtained a Tripos in English and then in Oriental Languages offering Pali and Sanskrit. In June 1927, she returned to Ceylon, to “take on my share of helping my family” her father having died in March that year.

While in Madras as English lecturer at the Women’s Christian College, she met in 1929 Theological student John Wilson Samarasinha from Akuressa who was passing through Madras. The foundation of their compatibility lay in both being devoutly Christian and were also Pali and Sanskrit scholars. In fact a secret divulged to me by her daughter, Latika, was that their love letters were in Sinhala using nagari – a form of Pali script.

Career

Soma Kumari returned to Ceylon in 1932 and was appointed visiting lecturer in English and Sanskrit in University College, Colombo, and first warden of the women’s hostel. She returned to WCC in 1935, seemingly having very strong ties to the college. Now married, she went to Matara, and joined the staff of St Thomas Girls’ School; appointed Principal in 1945.

In her very private diary, she notes that a Jaffna friend who was in Madras with her, suggested she apply to Hillwood College, Kandy, as the Principal, Miss Foss, was due to retire. She further adds in her diary: “Independence for Ceylon was in the offing and nationals were increasingly taken on as leaders in positions of responsibility. As I was a Kandyan though not an old girl of Hillwood, .. I thought of the opportunity of serving among my own people in Kandy. I had, for a Kandyan woman of my generation, higher education, travel, experience … I applied for the post and was appointed acting Principal from January 1946. I took charge of the helm when Hillwood was a well organized boarding school with 250 children. I built up on the priceless traditions of Christian sacrificial service, hard work and the dignity and nobility of womanhood. There were also traditions of homeliness, simplicity and love of what was inherited from our national culture and heritage. Much that was good in western traditions of education and manners were also firmly introduced.” She was a very gracious and efficient Principal of the school from mid–1946 up until she retired in 1963.

Soma Kumari was married to Rev J W Samarasinha in 1931 in the Christian College Chapel, Madras, given away by the British principal of the school. Another admirable and unconventional act of Mrs Sam (as she was popularly known) was that when Latika wed Rev James Ratnanayagam, it was she who escorted the bride up the aisle, the father not approving of the mixed marriage. She also was in complete agreement when her son wished to marry Visakha Kotagama, Head Girl etc of Hillwood, who Rajeeva would have ‘studied’ living as he did in the Principal’s bungalow above the school buildings as he went to and from Trinity College. His father disapproved his marriage to a Buddhist.

After retirement from Hillwood, Mrs Sam acceded to her husband’s liking and resided in Akuressa. She spent holidays in Colombo watching her grandchildren grow up, as Latika and Rajeeva were both in Colombo. Many of us visited her then.

Comments

For three years I was a teacher at Hillwood under Mrs Samarasinghe; my first stint at pedagogy. We respected her to the point of reverence, justifiably, but our being scared of her was unnecessary. She was completely dignified and kept her distance but her leadership was of understanding girls and young teachers and coping (we surmised) with very old hands on the tutorial staff! Three days after I started work, I was summoned to the principal’s office. Admittedly I had the brashness of the novice but shivered slightly. I was connected distantly to her, but she addressed me as Miss….. the traditional formality of those days. She advised me (which really was an order) that I should do my hair up. I was in sari but had so far sported my shoulder length hair in a pony tail – be-ribboned to boot. “You will earn the respect of your pupils if you are groomed well.” I wished to say I was respected but fortunately kept mum. Daily morning struggles ensued to get my hair to stay up, until months later I learned the art of tying a kondé that stayed put. Whenever it was admired, I affectionately remembered Mrs Sam.

In her collection of papers, including her exercise books diary, which Visakha her daughter-in-law allowed me to read, was a letter from Professor E J Robson, distinguished alumni of Cambridge, which Mrs Sam had noted as: “a letter which has since been one of my proudest personal possessions.” In it he says “If you could only have had another year, you would have undoubtedly gained a First Class. It has been a great pleasure to teach such an eager and intelligent pupil…”

Other comments among loads:

“She was met with daunting challenges – first Ceylonese principal of a large school – Hillwood. She met and overcame all. She wrought a balance between the best of East and West. She was innovative and introduced Sri Lankan culture to her students.”

“She was the best authoritarian in English literature. Her commitment to duty was phenomenal.”

“A great role model with high principles. She inculcated in us correct values. Her conservatism was linked to practicality. She knew every child in the school and all parents too. “

The love and tradition of education lives on long after Mrs Sam is no more. Her daughter Latika was for long a teacher at Methodist College, refusing the positions of principal, while her daughter-in-law, Visakha, was Vice Principal of Badulla High School after graduation. Rajeeva’s and her daughter, Deepika Dassanayake, is Vice Principal of Ladies’ College, Colombo.

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Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Uttareethara Maha Nayaka Thera turns 88

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It was in the year 1803 that there was a renaissance within the Maha Sangha (the Great Community of Buddhist Monks) in Sri Lanka thereby adding a fresh chapter to the history of the Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka. This was when the Most Venerable Welitara Sri Gnanawimala Thera, the Great Prelate received the Upasampada or the Higher Ordination in Burma, returned to Sri Lanka and established the Sri Lanka Amarapura Nikaya. (The name of this monk is embellished with traditional appellations such as Bodhisattva Gunopetha or being imbued with the qualities of a Bodhisattva or Buddha-Aspirant, and Preacher to King and Emperor.)

Thus the Amarapura Nikaya, which began with this Most Venerable Thera, later spread itself very rapidly down five generations of the Sangha spanning the entire Island. These generations of the Sangha organized themselves into 22 Nikayas. This was with the blessings of each of the Mahanayakas. They also preserved the identity of each such Nikaya.

In Sri Lanka, Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha was formed in 1952 with the concurrence of 15 of these subsidiary Nikayas. Presidents of the Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha have been;

1. the Most Venerable Prelate Beruwela Siri Nivasa Thera

2. the Most Venerable Mapalane Pannalankara Maha Nayaka,

3. the Most Venerable Uddammita Dhammarakhita Maha Nayaka,

4. the Most Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maithri Maha Nayaka

5. the Most Venerable Madihe Pannaseeha Maha Nayaka.

In the year 1962 all 22 Sub-Nikayas came together to form a more organized and properly constituted Sri Lanka Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha. It was the Most Venerable Agga Maha Panditha Balangoda Ananda Maithri Thera who was installed as President and has been succeeded by;

1. the Most Venerable Dhammavansha Thera,

2. the Most Venerable Madihe Pannaseeha,

3. the Most Venerable Ahungalla Wimalanandi,

4. the Most Venerable Kandegedara Sumanavansha,

5. the Most Venerable Boyagama Wimalasiri,

6. the Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa and

7. the Most Venerable Dodampahala Chandrasiri.

The Most Venerable Chief Prelate Ganthune Assaji Thera is the current chair.

In terms of the Constitution approved in 1992, an Office of Supreme Prelate (Uttareethara Mahanayaka) was created, and the first to hold this office was the Most Venerable Madihe Pannaseeha Mahanayaka Thera who was succeeded by Most Venerable Davuldena Gnaneesara Thera. After his demise the Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Thera, who turns eighty-eight today assumed and continues to be the Uttareethara Mahanayaka.

He was born on 26th January 1933 and ordained as a monk with the permission of his parents, on 17th August 1948. He received his Higher Ordination on 10th July 1954 at the Udakkukhepa Seemamalakaya set up on the River named the Kalu Ganga in Kalutara.

He had his training and primary instruction in the Buddha Dhamma from his Venerable Preceptors, later entered the Paramadhamma Chetiya Pirivena for his education. It was at the Maha Pirivena in Maligakanda where he received his Higher Education in three languages, under the shadow and tutelage of the Most Venerable Pandita Baddegama Piyaratana Thera.

With the demise of his preceptor, Dhammavasa Thera became the Prelate of the Dharmapala-arama Viharaya in Mount Lavinia. By this time he had already become very popular by broadcasting and delivering sermons in temples and in private homes, contributing to articles disseminating the Dhamma, and articles on topical subjects through the full-moon day publication entitled “Budusarana”, then to daily newspapers, and to the Vesak Annuals published by M D Gunasena & Co., Dinamina etc.

The Thera was also engaged in social welfare activities of the area by setting up Children’s and Young Persons’ Societies within the Vihara.

With the passage of time and the demise of remarkably eloquent monks such as the Most Venerable Narada Thera, Prelate of the Vajira-aramaya, Heenatiyana Dhammaloka, Kotikawatte Saddhatissa, Pitakotte Somananda, Kalukondayawe Pannasekera and other such classic preachers, Kotugoda Dhammavasa Thera stands out as a prime orator among those who came to the limelight after the days of the erudite monks of yesteryear.

Owing to the ceaseless invitations to deliver sermons extended to our Venerable Thera he travelled to various regions of the Island, yet fulfilling all his duties pertaining to his own Nikaya and to the work of the Sangha Sabha neglecting nothing whatever. With all this he continued to participate in the discharge of the infinite services expected of all erstwhile office bearers of the Sangha Sabha.

Our respected Thera was gradually chosen to hold various posts within the Amarapura Nikaya. Some such are his appointment in 1970 as an ordained member of the Working Committee and to the Post of Honorary Prelate (Maha Nayaka); in 1981 as the Chief Ecclesiastical Sangha Nayaka; and in 1990 as the Deputy Chief (Anunayaka) of the Amarapura Nikaya. At the same time it is because of his quality of being industrious that he was elected the Secretary (Lekhakadhikari).

The Venerable Anunayaka Thera who served the Maha Sangha Sabha of the Sri Lanka Amarapura Nikaya with great dedication, in order to ensure its unity and advancement, was in 1980 appointed its Co-Secretary (Sama Lekhakadhikari) and in 1992 as its Chief Secretary (Maha Lekhakadhikari) It is only appropriate to place on record that during this period of about fifteen years he performed a very special quality of service to the Sasana by updating the Amarapura Sangha Sabha; by setting up a Kathikavata (Ecclesiastical Edict) for the Amarapura Nikaya (whereby ‘rules governing the discipline and conduct of Buddhist monks including matters related to the settlement of disputes’ together with a Sanghadhikarana Panatha (i.e. an Ecclesiastical Act) were drafted and approved; and finally by drafting a strong, formal Constitution and obtaining approval for same.

It was on 17th December 2016 that the Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Anunayaka Thera became the Mahanayaka of the Amarapura Nikaya, and that on a proposal made by none other than the Most Venerable Agga-maha-panditha Ambalangoda Sumangala Maha Nayaka Thera who, at the time, was himself the incumbent.

On 3rd October 2008 the Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Maha Nayaka Thera was appointed to the post of Chairman, and it was on 26th May 2017 that he was elected Uttareethara Maha Nayaka or Supreme Maha Nayaka, which is the highest position within the Sri Lanka Amarapura Nikaya.

He has visited many countries in Asia and Europe disseminating the Dhamma and participating in Conferences thereby earning great international fame. Meanwhile he also serves as the incumbent monk of the Sri Lanka-aramaya in Myanmar and of the Charumathie Viharaya in Nepal.

In the matters of national and religious issues in the country he expresses his views in such a calm and collected manner that he has earned the respect of the Supreme Maha Nayaka Theras of other Nikayas and politicians both in power and in the Opposition and of intellectuals.

He has been honored with the title of “Agga Maha Panditha” by the Government of Myanmar. Although other honorary awards were conferred upon him by foreign countries and foreign institutions he does not use them, entirely because of his humble disposition.

At the end of and exposition of the Dhamma (a Dharma Desana) at Temple Trees His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa (who was then the incumbent President of the country) made an offering to him of about 14 perches of land in Wellawatte. Upon this land stands today, the “Office of the Sangha Sabha of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya”, a three-storied building replete with all conceivable facilities. It is a matter of great joy to us that in honour of the Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Maha Nayaka Thera it was possible for us to make an offering of this building to the Buddha Sasana, on the 15th of August 2020.

We offer merit to His Excellency the President and the Honourable Prime Minister who are today attending to each and every need of our Supreme Maha Nayaka Thera in a spirit of extending infinite regard and respect to him, in appreciation of the national and religious service the Maha Thera has rendered.

Let us also gratefully place on record that the Honourable Sajit Premadasa, Leader of the Opposition, has provided an elevator as an offering to facilitate the caring for our Mahanayaka Thera.

I also wish to thank the Doctors, the Staff of the Nawaloka Hospital, Members of the Nikaya-abhivrudhi Dayaka Sabha (Organization for the Advancement of the Nikaya) and the Dayaka Sabha of the Mahanayaka’s Vihara and who are all providing medical care.

Arrangements were made by the Dayaka Sabha and the student monks to offer alms to the Sangha to mark the birthday of our Thera when he reached the age of 88, on 26th January 2021.

On 21st January 2021 at 7.00 p.m. a Bodhi Pooja was organized by the Amarapura Nikaya-abhivruddi Dayaka Sabha at the historic Kalutara Bodhi to invoke blessings upon our Supreme Maha Thera.

May the Supreme Maha Nayaka Agga Maha Panditha Kotugoda Dhammavasa Maha Nahimi live a life free from sickness and sorrow.

 

Deshamanya Ajita de Zoysa

Chairman

Sri Lanka Nikaya-abhivruddi Dayaka Sabha

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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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