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Panadura Vadaya: A Socio-historical Sketch



by Dr D. Chandraratna

The important historical fact about the Colonial narrative of Buddhism in Sri Lanka was the ability of Buddhist ideals to survive even when the external political circumstances were highly unfavourable. The Panadura Vadaya signifies in many ways that dogged determination on the part of the educated sangha fraternity to persevere with the struggle, and more importantly in that struggle to delve deeper into scriptures to challenge Christianity at a scholastic level.

When Christianity had state backing it was not surprising for the colonialists to harbour an apocalyptic vision of the eventual triumph of Christianity. Therefore it was not unusual for the Colonial secretary Tennent to assert that the dissociation of the State from Buddhism will only expedite its inevitable decay as Spence Hardy, the Wesleyen missionary, had predicted in his book, The British Government and the Idolatry of Ceylon in 1839.

The educated sangha, on the other hand were acutely aware of the protection that Buddhism needed State patronage to arrest its decline but their pleas to honour the promises made in the Kandyan Convention of 1815 fell on deaf ears. By the middle of the 19th century British authors were cautiously optimistic that ‘Buddhism, shorn of its splendour, unaided by authority, will fall into disuse before Christianity is able to step into its place’ (Forbes, 1839).

The elite Sinhalese Christians like James Alwis while appreciating the colonial powers for propagating Christianity nonetheless lamented that Buddhist decline will erode the language and literature of the Sinhalese which he said is the heritage of Ceylon, maintained mostly by the sangha under whose tutelage even J Alwis acquired his punditry. He wrote that the ‘names of Batuantudawe, Hikkaduwe, Lankagoda, Dodanpahala, Valane, Bentota, Kahave and Weligama amongst a host of others have produced compositions by no means inferior to to those of a Buddhaghosa or a Parakkrama‘. Contrary to the missionary statements and the colonialist assumptions, erudition in Buddhist scriptures and knowledge of Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhalese was no less lacking among the sangha who were many, not the exception.

Monastic (Pirivena) and Missionary education

It was no secret that without state patronage monastic education, which was the mainstay of local knowledge and intelligence, waned drastically. Colebrooke’s insistence on English education with its declared outcomes such as the civilizing potential, secular advantage through state employment, and the pathway to redemption through the Christianizing intent was a blow to vernaculars. It discouraged many to receive the monastic pirivena which was the provider of indigenous language and religious knowledge. Major Davy was correct in his observation in 1815, that in the Kandyan provinces reading and writing is far from the uncommon acquirements and is as general as in England’ (Forbes 1839). But Colebrooke dismissed monastic learning curtly in one sentence. He said, ‘monastic education scarcely merits any notice’. A sub committee of the Legislative Council reported in 1867 that ‘whatever taught is intertwined with error and superstition and if left in the hands of Buddhist and Hindu priests will defeat the aims and objects of all of primary education’.

There was another reason for the neglect and virtual abandonment of Pirivena education in the Kandyan provinces. The Temple Lands Ordinance of 1856 contributed in no small measure to the use of monastic wealth, which earlier was used for pirivena schools, diverted for personal advantage of the incumbent monks. In most places usufruct of the lands became assets to individual monks and not to the institutions that they were in charge. It was noted in the Report of the Commission on the Administration of Buddhist Temporalities that, ‘The Kandyan priesthood lead a life of the careless and sensual…, and the offerings and produce of the lands are devoted for personal enjoyment. C. B Dunuvile, the Diyawadana Nilame and grandson of the Disave of Walapane who signed the Kandyan Convention complained that monks have abandoned their priestly duties and are engaged in temporal pursuits and all but a few are even ignorant of Pali. This statement was given before the Commission by Rambukwelle Sonuttara Thera of the Malwatta Chapter.

The British continued with state assistance to missionary education, as much as the Dutch, right from the beginning with Governor North taking the initiative. A few years into his tenure he wrote to the Colonial Secretary for missionary assistance to education. The Baptists arrived in 1812 and the Wesleyans (1814) and Church of England (1818) and the Americans followed by the London Missionary Society thereafter. In addition the government employed its own colonial chaplains, preachers and catechists in the State Ecclesiastical establishment.

Education no doubt was tied up with diffusion of Christianity and the Schools Commission, the important instrumentality was in the control of the Anglicans. The missionary effort extended beyond mere education for their evangelical zeal was not limited to, ‘making the natives learned men’ but in fact leading them to the Redeemer, i.e., conversion to Christianity. Their greater aim was directed to the larger multitude of ‘heathens’ outside the school, to whom they had to go by taking on the role of the itinerant preacher. John Murdoch set the example by resigning his position as Headmaster of the Government Central School in Kandy. His personal journal reads, ‘I shall require to travel on foot and shelter at night wherever I can; I shall be following the example of the Apostles, yea, of the Saviour Himself’.

Preachers: Christian and Buddhist Styles

The Christians had to face stiff competition from the Buddhists who were skilled preachers from yore. The latter had enduring contacts with the villagers and the missionaries even with state patronage, were handicapped from the start. Their English competency was of no use here. Proficiency in Sinhalese was an absolute necessity. It was an impediment to the foreigner competing with the Buddhist monk who was clearly in a class of his own. The missionary was at times offensive in the use of language and idiom, made worse by the novelty of the Buddhist scriptural content, which he only mastered after arrival in the island.

The complex system of word usage in Sinhala proved virtually an insurmountable hurdle to the foreign missionary. The use of pronouns conjoined with status differentials baffled them no end and often ended up offending the audience. An English author wrote in the preface to the English-Sinhalese dictionary that one Sinhalese singular person equivalent of the term you had fourteen different terms, each in the measure of the status of the person. The missionaries were so confused and virtually gave up by sticking to just one or two, which were less than polite. The word you in addressing a gathering became tho and umbala and the aristocrats in the audience were offended to be addressed as umba or tho in the presence of their subordinates seated alongside. Tho, thopi (you), Varella (come), palayalla (go), karapalla (do) did not please many in the audience. The Buddhist monks consciously avoided all status differentials by the use of the endearing term pinvathni flattering everyone.

To make matters worse the Sinhala translation of the Bible sponsored by the Church missionaries arbitrarily used one simplified term in translating the Sinhala equivalent of you as tho and thopi (meaning thou) was highly offensive to all and sundry. It was on the premise that it followed the simplicity that God had intended. On the use of the pronoun tho, wrote the chief translator Lambrick, ‘to apply tho to a man of respectable class is an actionable offence… a native professor of the Christian community admitted that he shudders whenever he reads that passage where the Devil using the derogatory term tho to our blessed Saviour’. They still retained it in the hope with time it will be weakened and diminished by the ‘mighty power of simplicity and truth’ of the Bible. But after much controversy and ill feeling the church missionaries back tracked and gave into Sinhalese Christians like James Alwis and John Pereira, and a new acceptable version of the Bible appeared in the 1860’s.

The Missionary preachers faced an uphill battle from the outset. Their countenance was problematic. Their unfriendly attitude of superiority, appearance and even personal aloofness were very much unfamiliar to the villager. Most Buddhist villagers therefore refused to attend. The preachers felt it and they complained to the Missions that that they are often taunted, cajoled and met with contempt, opprobrium and laughter. The villagers at times ridiculed the missionaries in demanding payment for attendance or arrack to sit till the end, in the knowledge that Europeans levied heavy taxes on arrack and had a penchant for liquor.

The arrival of the Print word

Religious controversy, proselytization debate and preaching received a boost with the introduction of the printing press. The Dutch firstly established a printing press in 1736 and the Wesleyans under a trained printer Mr. Harvard revived the printing press. They were followed by the Christian Church Mission and Baptists few years later. The Sinhalese Tract Society was organized under John Murdoch in 1849. The missionaries used the press to instruct the Christian believer and furthermore to convert the nominal believer into a devout disciple and in so doing, ‘save the deluded heathen from idolatrous superstition’ of the local faith, seen by the Europeans as ‘a massive evil structure’.

Gogerly, the manager of the Wesleyan Press was convinced that ‘it is by the press that our principal attacks must be made upon this wretched system’. The missionary tracts and pamphlets had an extensive circulation, helped by the fascination of Buddhists to read the printed word. This same development was to assist the Buddhists to counter the Christian effort and retaliate, but with the added benefit of scholarly dialogue and debate for which they were superior to the foreigner. Ultimately it played a major role in the revival of Buddhism and nationalism in the country.

The activities of the missionaries were not taken as a serious matter by the many. The Buddhists in the low country were interested in halting the decline of their religion than competing with the missionaries. Tennent wrote that ‘Active hostility was scarcely visible’ except the enthusiasm to propagate their own religion by erecting ‘banamaduwa’s and holding pinkam’. In fact the low country Sinhalese were quite comfortable with both Buddhism and Christianity having lived through the foreigner and their different faiths for centuries. It was not uncommon for the Sinhala Christians to be tutored by Buddhist monks for whom they showed the greatest respect. In fact many Sinhalese were willing to get their children baptised, with ‘no regard to their worthiness’ as Christians for legalities and secular advancement and also in the hope they become closet Buddhists. The clergy also did not mind fake baptisms in order to bolster the statistics to enhance the incomes to their missions.

(To be continued)

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Dominances, hegemonies and diversities



by Nicola Perera

What spaces exist for students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities, within the university? Do students and staff in these groups have the liberty and security to openly identify themselves, claim their identities, be visible? Do either university structures and policies or the culture and attitudes within the university community, ensure a lack of discrimination, with the same rights, privileges and opportunities, for such persons to live, work, and study in an environment of acceptance, without hostility or marginalisation? I speak of the ethos of majoritarianism, located in a university of the south, which is predominantly the normative of education in the country.

If I were to ask students, staff, or administrators how persons of ethnic and religious minorities are treated in the university, I suspect they would immediately point to the existence of cultural groups that have long been established in university culture. Most universities and faculties will have a Tamil Society, a Hindu Students’ Society, a Muslim Majlis, various Christian groupings, and so on. Each will organise various cultural festivals, such as carols for Christmas, Ifthar, etc. At first glance, there appears to be representation and accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities, and this is institutionalised within the university.

But this accommodation is superficial and tokenistic. Against the existence of these various groups, consider the Student Union itself, which formally represents the entire student body. Who do they actually represent? The Student Union in the Faculty of Arts organises Buddhist festivals, pinkamas, and all-night piriths at the beginning of the year, as well as inviting Buddhist monks for Poyas, like Vesak and Poson. The major event of the year for the Student Union is the Sahithya Ulela, for which the Union goes all out: portraits of the greats of Sinhala literature adorn the pillars of the Faculty, together with quotations from their works. The drama festival is a huge part of the Sahithya Ulela, during which hugely popular Sinhala plays are performed.

This is the way things have always been in the university’s framework of majority default and minority tolerance. There are religious and cultural student societies to represent and take care of non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala students, representing deviations from the norm, while the Student Union itself, regardless of its political/ideological tendency, firmly represents and centres Sinhala-Buddhist religious and cultural concerns instead of the diverse student body as a whole. The majority culture is dominant to the point where it is the ubiquitous default, and all minority positions are tokenised into tolerated representations. It is a system and space that privileges my ethnic background, where my presence goes unquestioned, unremarked upon and unmarked.

On the other hand, what discriminations, aggressions, and microaggressions do students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities face in and outside class? What could they tell us, if we could only assure them of the security to openly talk about such things without fear of retaliation? What is our role as academic staff, regardless of discipline, to initiate difficult conversations about inclusion, acceptance, to challenge the biases, prejudices, absences? What microaggressions, hostilities, subtle or overt othering do we as staff and administrators perpetrate? What is the culture that we create in university?

What of the class of Muslim students who were told that they can keep their cultural identity but should wear colourful abayas and hijabs, instead of the dark colours they preferred? What of the Muslim staff member who was requested to come and speak to these students, to present herself as a role model who chose to wear colourful shalwars while covering her head? Is it in any way relevant that these requests were made by a staff member clad in Kandyan sari? Of course, it is: the representation of Sinhala Buddhist culture as the university’s default makes its aesthetics and preferences the standard, which apparently Sinhala individual staff members feel empowered to enforce.

What of the Muslim women students who were stopped at the entrance of the university after the Easter bombings? The security guards told them to wear their hijabs in such a way as to show their ears. Is the university capable of recognising this harassment as harassment? Was this an officially-sanctioned policy that required the security guards to act this way? Or were they merely empowered to perform this harassment in that moment by the long-established practice of treating Sinhala culture, dress, and presentation as normal and default, with all marked minority cultures as suspicious deviations? Would the existence of the Muslim Majlis be sufficient to let these students agree with the common perspective that the university – by policy or practice – does not discriminate on the basis of religious/ethnic grounds? Could these students have gotten away with showing impatience, even a touch of hauteur (as I did when I produced my ID card for inspection) at the guards’ power to remark on their ethnicity, police their attire – in myriad small ways to let them know that their presence in the university space was under surveillance, at the majority’s sufferance?

It is not enough for the university to complacently point at tokenistic student groups as evidence of non-discrimination. Even the simple representation of diversity, at which the university is already failing, would still not be enough: including Tamil-language plays at the Sahithya Ulela and making sure to include the portraits of Tamil and Muslim writers as well is necessary, but far from sufficient. What we need is active anti-discrimination, in both word and deed, to identify these situations and contexts in which staff and students of religious and ethnic minorities in our universities are harassed, othered, and discriminated against every day, and to figure out ways to end those practices and prevent them from recurring, through policy, through education, and through our own efforts as the people who uphold and perpetuate university culture.

Nicola Perera is attached to the Department of English Language Teaching, University of Colombo.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prevent growth of extremism through stronger institutions



Priyantha Kumara, who was lynched in Pakistan

By Jehan Perera

The killing of a Sri Lankan, in Pakistan, by a frenzied mob, who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy, serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature, lurking within human beings.  “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has been accused of defending Pakistan’s blasphemy law and promoting Islamic fundamentalism to come to power and now to shore up support for his government that is failing to solve the problems of the people.  A clause of the constitution mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Holy Prophet.  Presently Pakistan faces economic sanctions by the EU, as does Sri Lanka, due to its adherence to this law and other human rights issues.   The EU has raised issues related to the protection of journalists, religious extremism, misuse of blasphemy laws, and forced conversion in some parts of the country. A compromised political environment in which there is impunity leads people to take the law into their own hands according to their notions of what is right and wrong.

Mobilising the emotions of people, whether by religion or ethnic nationalism, to gain and retain power, is like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of the Sri Lankan government have expressed their strong condemnation of the heinous crime against its citizens and demanded justice.  Prime Minister Khan has pledged justice and referred to the “day of shame” for Pakistan.  More than a hundred alleged participants in the crime have been arrested. There have also been images of Pakistani civil society groups saying sorry for what has happened.  Likewise, Sri Lankan civil society will also recall the support that Pakistan gave to Sri Lanka during the years of war and, diplomatically, on the issues of human rights violations raised by sections of the international community.


It is also necessary for Sri Lankans to be mindful about what has happened within Sri Lanka itself during the JVP insurrection, the 1983 riots, and, more recently, in Aluthgama, Digana and Kurunegala.  In all of these instances, there was a measure of state complicity, or inaction, which is worse than the savage deeds of a mob as the state represents the civilization of the country.  This state failure has been on account of the over-politicisation of the state machinery to the point where senior officers of the state, most of whom have joined the state for idealistic reasons, cannot and do not perform their duties due to political interference.  In a manner similar to Prime Minister Khan, President Rajapaksa, and the current government, won elections by catering to the nationalism and fears of the ethnic majority, with some of its allies spewing hatred towards the ethnic and religious minorities.

There are disturbing signs that the situation of state failure is growing more serious in Sri Lanka.  The release of former Governor Azath Salley after he had been in remand jail for eight months on charges that the court said were not sustainable. All charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit.  The injustice done to him and his family, the loss of eight months of his life and his reputation, require reparations which may be forthcoming as he is a person of stature.  There will be countless others who are less able to fight their cases, like the former Governor did.  In addition, there have been several killings in police custody of prisoners who are alleged to have tried to escape when taken to find their store of weapons or in cross fire or by suicide.  Making matters worse is that in some of these cases the families and lawyers of the imprisoned persons have given advance warning that those held in custody are scheduled to be killed, but nothing is done and the deaths take place.

The same inability or unwillingness to ensure accountability can be seen at multiple levels, be it in relation to the manner in which the three-decade long war ended, or the Easter Sunday bombings, or the Central Bank bond scandal, or the sugar tax scandal, the Yugadanavi Power Plant issue and, most recently, the explosion of large numbers of cooking gas cylinders which have led to deaths and burning down of people’s homes.  In none of these cases has investigations led to the masterminds being found and meted out justice. With time, the cases might be forgotten and the wrongdoers get away with their crimes. Perhaps it is in apprehension of the potential crisis situation in the country that the Supreme Court has written a strong judgement in a case that is representative of the people’s sense of compassion and care for all living beings as directed by the sacred religious texts.   This was with regard to whether elephants captured from the wild and taken to homes and temples as objects of social prestige should be returned to their supposed owners or released to the wild or sent to protected sanctuaries.


In a decision that can have far reaching ramifications for the rule of law, and for the system of checks and balances, and wisely in a case that is less politically controversial, the Court cited a famous judgement by Lord Denning in the English Courts where he said, “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest.  Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment.  He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.”  The Court said that “these observations aptly apply to the role of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka.”  Notably the respondents in this case were the Prime Minister and Minister of Wildlife.

If positions, such as the Attorney General, are to be filled with persons who will make decisions in line with the Court judgement above, it is necessary that they should be persons with integrity and competence.  They also need the space to be able to do their work without political interference.  It was to achieve this objective that two different governments, headed by two different political leaders from two different political parties took steps to ensure the passage of the 17th and 19th amendments in 2001 and 2015 respectively.  These two amendments had the common feature of reducing the President’s powers and seeking to increase the independence of state institutions from political interference.  A police force that is independent of political influencers, who act behind the scenes, is more likely to act with integrity in dealing with the impunity that is growing in the country.

The government’s pledge of a new draft constitution, before the end of the year, provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it that breeds impunity and resentment which is the fuel for extremism of all sorts. The political space should be kept secular, unlike in the case of Pakistan with its religious law, and kept free from religious or ethnic nationalist biases. The reintroduction of the scheme of appointment of higher officials of state, through a multi-partisan constitutional council consisting of members of government, Opposition and civil society, would lead to better appointments than the President alone making the appointments.  The members of the constitutional council would together select the most appropriate persons to high offices of state and to insulate them from politically-motivated interference.  This is particularly important in the case of the higher judiciary, the last bastion of freedom in a democracy that is going wrong.  The present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision-making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong system of government, based on checks and balances–real good governance.

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Action…in the coming weeks



At the Irish Pub tomorrow night

The lead up to Christmas, and the New Year, certainly doesn’t look ‘blue,’ in any way.

Initially, I was thinking of Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ – what with the pandemic, and the new variant, creating chaos…everywhere.

But…yes, the showbiz scene here seems to have changed, for the better.

On December 8th (that’s tomorrow), ‘The Legends of Ceylon’ is the title of a musical evening, that will take place, from 7.00 pm onwards, at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, featuring Geoffrey Fernando, Mignonne, Noeline, Sohan, Dalrene, and Manilal, backed by the group Mirage.

Sohan & The X-Periments, a name associated with sing-along events, will be involved in two sing-alongs this month – on December 12th at The Grand Kandyan Hotel, and on December 17th at the BMICH Banquet Hall.

The Christmas Sing-Along, in Kandy, commencing at 7.00 pm, will have, in the vocal spotlight, Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, along with The X-Periments.

The 17th event, at the BMICH, from 7.30 pm onwards, will also feature Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, with guest stars Falan Andrea and Radika.

Sohan indicated to us that the festive scene seems to be brightening up, a bit, and that he and his band do have work coming their way,

“We are going to be pretty busy for the next few weeks.”

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