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Spread of Buddhist Education in Sri Lanka; the role played by Col Olcott and Theosophists

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The Olcott Oration delivered to the Old Boys Association of Ananda College (November 2020, Perth, Western Australia)

by Dr D Chandraratna

(Continued from Midweek Review

(30. 12.2020)

Buddhist Schools and Col Olcott

With Col Olcott’s initiative and guidance, the theosophists were convinced that the decline of Sinhalese Buddhists was the lack of proper education facilities, and the best solution was to make available educational institutes with a solid Buddhist religious background. Starting from the metropolitan centres, leading Buddhist colleges was established all over the country. A brief look at a few major Schools reveals the salient features. The endeavour united the Buddhists, Philanthropy flourished. A sense of pride galvanized the people and it gave an opportunity to bring the common folk and elites together.

Following a meeting of Buddhists at, Pettah, under the patronage of Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, an English-Buddhist school was inaugurated at 19, Prince Street on 1 November, 1886, by the Buddhist Theosophical Society. Thirty -seven students attended the first session. In 1888, when about 130 boys were attending, it moved to 61 Maliban Street, C. W. Leadbeater was appointed the first Principal of Ananda. In March 1890, the school’s proximity to a Catholic school led to controversy—and a move to 54, Maliban Street, where further growth ensued, and student enrolments rose to 200 in 1892. In 1894 the school was relocated in the suburb of Maradana. On 17 August 1895, the former English Buddhist School was renamed to Ananda College Colombo. By 1961, the college had officially become a government school.

After setting up a branch of the BTS in Galle, Col. Olcott opened up the B. T. S. English school at Pettigalawatta on 15 September 1880. This school had a short existence and later with the arrival of Dr. Bowles Daly (LLD), an Irish clergyman and a theosophist, Mahinda College was opened on 1 March 1892 at Pedlar Street in Galle, Fort. The school was named after Arhant Mahinda Thera, the Buddhist monk who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Frank Lee Woodward, born in England (1871-1952) and trained as a schoolmaster arrived in Sri Lanka and assumed duties as the Principal of Mahinda College, Galle.,

In 1887 Col Olcott visited Kandy and expressed his wish to start an English-medium Buddhist School with the help of Sumangala Thera and the Mudaliyar of Kandy at that time. In June 1888, a new school with one student was opened at a place in Bodhiraja Mawatha near the present Central Bus Stand in Kurunegala, by Semenaries A. Bamunu-Arachchige The school was named Maliyadeva College after Arhat Maliyadeva. In 1946 the girls’ section was separated from the original mixed Maliyadeva College and became a separate institution for girls.

 

Buddhist Girl’s Education

after Olcott

Kumari Jayawardena argues that ‘as a result of neglect, if not gender bias, we know little about either the role of women in the Buddhist revivalist movement or of their efforts to promote Buddhist female education. As part of the Buddhist revival and as counter to the education offered by missionary schools, revivalists spoke mostly of the necessity of giving Buddhist boys a secular education whereas education of girls did not receive the same emphasis’ and early efforts to give girls a modern education had even led to bitter controversies and quarrels in the Buddhist Theosophical Society.

Jayawardena points out that there were few Buddhist women with formal education, and no local women graduates or trained teachers were available to sustain a school, Col Olcott made overtures to foreign Theosophist women to come to Sri Lanka as teachers and principals. Many of them were the early beneficiaries of women’s university education in the West, who had given up Christianity for Theosophy and Buddhism. As qualified ‘white’ principals, they gave immediate ‘status’ to Buddhist schools. They arrived at a time when ‘white women’ were being demonized by nationalists as suddis (‘immoral, promiscuous, and shameless white women’), foreign women. In the fullness of time however Theosophists like Higgins were referred to endearingly as sudu ammas (‘white mothers’) who were giving Buddhist girls an education in English, and rescuing them from the clutches of the missionaries. Up till then Buddhists desiring a modem education in English for their daughters had no choice except the Catholic and Protestant schools such as Good Shepherd Convent, Colombo (started in 1869), the Methodist Girls’ High School, Colombo (1886), the Girls’ High School, Kandy (1879), and many others established subsequently.

The lack of Buddhist schools for girls was noted by Col. Olcott (the founder of the Theosophical Society), who often spoke of the need for schools where girls could be educated in a Sinhala Buddhist atmosphere, based on the view that “the mother is the first teacher,” and “from daughter to wife, from wife to mother” . By the late 19th century, Buddhist middle-class men were looking out for companions who could stand shoulder to shoulder with the educated Sinhalese. Marrying Christians or non-Sinhalese was perceived to be a threat to Sinhala Buddhist identity.

Women theosophists who encouraged the Ceylonese to start girls schools were many.

Sarah A. English, a Theosophist from Massachusetts (who later taught in Sri Lanka); she spoke of the importance of education for women, described the progress of women’s education in the USA and urged Buddhist women to resist Christianity

The Women’s Education Society started four small schools teaching in Sinhala at Wellawatte, Kandy, Gampaha and Panadura, and in 1890 one in Ambalangoda, but its ambitious project was the Sanghamitta School (teaching in English) started at Maradana with 20 pupils. Olcott who recruited Katherine Pickett to lead the project died soon after arrival, was later instrumental in getting Marie Museaus Higgins, (1855-1926), a German widow of an American Theosophist, to become the next principal.

According to Kumari Jayawardena, ‘there were serious differences of opinion over the running of the Sanghamitta School in 1894 and Higgins then left to start another school, Museaus College, on land donated by a Buddhist philanthropist. The fortunes of Sanghamitta School fluctuated. In 1896 its management was transferred to the Buddhist Theosophical Society, and in 1898 to the Mahabodhi Society (founded by Anagarika Dharmapala). The Sanghamitta School, under Dharmapala became more religious and conservative and was linked to a religious order started by one of Dharmapala’s friends. Internal acrimony led to a rival breakaway school, Museaus College, which became the more fashionable one for Sinhala Buddhist women. Having given her own maiden name to the school, Marie Museaus Higgins had a personal stake in its success. There were a few early academic successes; by 1897 Elsie de Silva passed the Junior Cambridge examination and Lucy de Abrew was the first Sinhala woman to enter Medical College in 1902, also winning the Jeejeebhoy Scholarship’.

By 1910 there was the need for a good Buddhist girls’ high schools, on the lines of missionary schools to be established in the important towns of Ceylon. This move may have been influenced by the example of Ramanathan College, which started with much fanfare in 1913 by P. Ramanathan. While most of the leading Buddhists were content merely to deplore the lack of good Buddhist girls’ schools, Selestina Dias stepped in to change the situation. Born in 1858, she was the daughter of Solomon Rodrigo of Panadura, a leading liquor merchant and landowner of his time. She married Jeremias Dias of Panadura who was a member of the powerful Arrack Syndicate and at a time when it was unusual for women to run businesses, she did so very effectively, and was known popularly as ‘Rainda Nona,’ (Lady Arrack Renter). Many referred to Mrs. Dias as Mahopasikava (Great Lady Devotee) and compared her to Visakha, the famous benefactor of Buddha’s time, also the wife and daughter of a leading merchant.

With the Dias money, the Buddhist Girls’ College was begun in 1917 with 47 pupils; Dr. Bernice Thornton Banning, an American Theosophist (with an M.A. and Ph.D.) was the principal for the first year. In the period up to 1933, Visakha Vidyalaya had a succession of eight foreign principals. From 1933 to 1945, the principal was an American, Clara Motwani, nee Heath, married to an Indian Theosophist; she was succeeded by Susan George Pulimood of Kerala who was principal from 1945 to 1967. It was only in 1967 that the first Sinhala Buddhist Woman Hema Jayasingha became the principal.

 

Concluding Comment

The opening up of secular education to those who were deprived of had tremendous consequences for the Sinhalese in particular and the country in general. Col Olcott’s efforts produced in the country all different forms of men and women. Buddhist Colleges produced seers and saints, philosophers and scientists, technocrats and researchers, writers and politicians among the Sinhalese that a pirivena education could never accomplish. Visionaries cannot carry out metaphysics and religion because it is not a rational pursuit and even religious knowledge cannot be furthered in rational conversation without a secular institution. In so far as a future democratic society with a democratic political process cannot be ushered in unless by reason of its general affinity to scientific process, a Buddhist middle class took up the challenge. For women in particular there was much discussion on the need for educated Buddhist wives, presentable in bourgeois and colonial society, become enterprising managers as well as educated mothers who would reproduce and correctly socialize the next generation of Sinhala Buddhists. The theosophists and Buddhists working together bequeathed to the country a secular education, pluralist liberal values, which an imperial power will never impart by example. Ananda College and Vishaka with all the other Buddhist schools in the island furthered a vision for Sri Lanka as evidenced by the products that yielded over the years.

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Opinion

Reminiscences of Colombo University Arts Faculty and Library

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Whilst extending my felicitations to the University of Colombo on the centenary celebrations of the Faculty of Arts and the Library of the University, I would like to record my contribution towards these two units as the Registrar of the University.

It was during Prof. Stanley Wijesundera’s tenure as the Vice-Chancellor (VC) in 1980 that the proposals for the buildings in respect of the Chemistry Department, Physics Department, New Administration, Faculty of Law, Faculty of Arts and the Library were mooted and submitted to the Treasury. At that time it was the National Buildings Consortium that assigned the Consultants and the Contractors for the new buildings to be constructed. Within that year the Treasury allocated sufficient funds for the Chemistry, Physics, Faculty of Law and the New Administration buildings. However, no funds were allocated to the Faculty of Arts and only Rs. 7.5 million was allocated for the Library building.

With the funds allocated the Chemistry, Physics, Law Faculty and the new Administration buildings were able to get off the ground. The construction work in respect of the other two buildings could not commence due to non-allocation of sufficient funds, even though the consultants and the contractors and already been selected.

As the Minister of Finance at that time was from Matara, he was more interested in getting the required buildings for the newly established University of Ruhuna completed, which was in his electorate. This meant that the University of Colombo would not get any funds for new buildings other than those buildings where the construction work had already begun.

The university needed a building for the Faculty of Arts very badly as this Faculty had the largest number of students. The Vice-Chancellor requested me to draft a letter to the Minister of Finance. Accordingly, I drafted a letter and submitted to the VC for his signature. He told it was an excellent letter, and he signed without a single amendment and submitted same to the Minister. The Minister approved the releasing of the funds. Now the consultants to the building project studied the area required for the building and found that a small portion of land was necessary from the land of the Planetarium. My efforts to get the land from the person in charge of the Planetarium, the Senior Assistant Secretary and the Secretary himself were not fruitful. I told the VC of the position and that he would have to speak to the Minister in charge of the Planetarium, Mr. Lionel Jayathilaka. He got the Minister on line and addressing him by his first name and informed the Minister of the problem. The Minister immediately got it attended to. However, when the construction work started, they found that the additional land area was not necessary.

At that time, the payments to the consultants of building projects was 15% of the total value of the cost. So, in designing the building they tried to add various unnecessary items to jack up the cost. When the first phase was completed, the building looked monstrous and it was like a maze, as it was difficult to find your way out once you get in. I requested the architect to add some coloured tiles on the floors and the stairway and a few decorations on the walls. The university had a never ending tussle with the contractor as he was like Shylock asking for more, when everything had been paid. He tried various tactics but did not succeed in getting anything more as I was adamant not to give in.

When the second stage of the building project came up, I told the consultant to drop all the unnecessary items and have a straight forward building. This was done by the new contractor at much less cost to the university.

The Library building was the last of the buildings planned in 1980 that was awaiting construction. When Mr. Richard Pathirana became the Minister of Higher Education, I spoke to the two engineers who were assigned the task of supervising the building projects of the universities, and managed to get the funds passed by the Treasury for the construction of the Library building. When the Minister came on a visit to the university, he told me that the building that should have been done for Rs.7.5 million will cost Rs.253 million. I told him that the Treasury never gave any money after approving the initial funding of Rs.7.5 million. Anyway, I had achieved what I wanted to do and the building was successfully completed. Now the furniture for the Library had to be procured. When quotations were called the suucessful tenderer had brought a sample of the study tables. I rejected this as it was inferior to what I wanted and asked the officer concerned to get the design of the furniture from the library in the University of Peradeniya. This was done and the furniture was installed. The official opening of the new Library was arranged. By that time I had retired from the position of Registrar and was the Director of the Institute of Workers’ Education. Even though I was instrumental in getting the building done, I was not invited for the function. That is gratitude!!

 

H M Nissanka Warakaulle

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Opinion

Ali Sabry bashing

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Justice Minister Ali Sabry has appealed to his critics to spare him from the criticism that he was behind the calling of applications for the appointment of Quazis for Quazi Courts (The Island/23.01.2021). In my view, the allegations levelled against Justice Minister Ali Sabry are unfounded and uneducated. If you are an educated and unbiased citizen of this country, you’ll understand it better. The applications for Quazis for Quazi Courts have been called by the Judicial Service Commission, an independent Commission chaired by the Chief Justice of this country. If you aren’t happy with this decision, you have to take it up with the Chief Justice, not the Justice Minister. He has no control at all over the Judicial Service Commission. In a way, criticising that Justice Minister influenced the Judicial Service Commission, chaired by the Chief Justice, tantamounts to contempt of the Supreme Court. Moreover, Quazi Courts have been in existence for well over 70 years, and it hasn’t affected the Sinhalese or the Tamils nor has it been incompatible with the common law of this country. If there is any serious discrepancy, it can be rectified. But I wonder why the calling of applications for Quazis has now become an issue. I also wonder if the removal of Quazi Courts was promised as a part of the subtle 69 mandate. This is not the first time similar allegations have been made. When Rauf Hakeem was Justice Minister, Member of Parliament Pattali Champika Ranawaka  made serious allegations that more Muslim students were admitted to the Law College and led many protests and ultimately a group of monks stormed the Law College in protest. He had charged that Law College entrance exam papers were leaked and criticised the then Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem for it. He  knew very well that Law College came under the Council of Legal Education chaired by the Chief Justice and  Attorney General and two other Supreme Court judges among others were  members of this Council, yet he had made these allegations with a different motive. Amidst international outcry, Muslim Covid victims have been denied burial. To make the situation worse, some vindictive, venomous elements are now trying to create another bad scenario that Muslims can’t marry either according to their faith, and tarnish the image of this country internationally and drive a wedge between communities. Therefore I earnestly ask the law abiding and peace loving citizens of this country to work against these vindictive, venomous elements.  

 

M. A. Kaleel 

Kalmunai. 

 

 

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Opinion

What do Northern political parties seek?

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Political parties, based in the North, are reported to be getting prepared to attend the UNHRC sessions next month. For several decades, the only thing they did for their constituents is to spread feelings of hate among them, against the government and the people living in the South. Today, we have two important issues where India is involved – re. the Colombo Harbour and the death of four fishermen. There is another perennial issue of Indians fishing in our waters. Have these parties uttered a single word on those matters? What do they expect to gain, or achieve for the Northerners, even if they could prove SL war crimes allegations at the UNHRC? Can they honestly say that they were not a party to the LTTE and other terrorist outfits which looted, tortured and killed hundred or thousands of civilians, both in the North and the South?

Other than shouting about the rights of their people, have they done anything for the wellbeing of the people in those areas? Whatever was given to the people were those given by the Government on a national basis. Excellent example is the conduct of C V Wigneswaran, who held the high position of Chief Minister of the Northern Province for five years – had he done any significant service for the people? Those parties never complain about India for the killings, torturing and raping done by the IPKF, or the damage and loss due to the activities of Indian fishermen.

India too overlooks all that, and to keep Tamil Nadu happy, forces the SL government to grant whatever the Northern Parties demand.

 

K SIRIWEERA

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