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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

Abuse of use of title Professor

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I read with much interest the letter by Mr. Nissanka Warakaulle, regarding the above matter, in the issue of the Sunday Island of 18th April 2021. I agree fully with the contents of his letter. He should be very familiar with the regulations as he is a former Registrar of the University of Colombo. I wish to highlight another instance where it is abused. In the 1970s, the title of Associate Professor was created. Until then there were only three categories of Professors. Firstly the holder of the Chair, secondly a co-Professor and thirdly, an Emeritus Professor. There were also, Lecturers, Senior Lecturers and Readers. The title of Reader was replaced with the title Associate Professor, which is meant to be a designation, to be used after the name. However, this category of academics started using it as a pre-fix, dropping the word Associate!

Profesor Sanath P. Lamabadusuriya MBE
Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics,
University of Colombo

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Vacant seat in Parliament

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by Harim Peiris

One of the more interesting features about the current Parliament of Sri Lanka, is that it has the highest number of parties with representation in that august Assembly, mostly through a plethora of small parties, which have been elected with one or two members to Parliament. Most of these parties are regional in scope and represent specific communities, often ethnic or religious minorities from the Northern and Eastern provinces. Generally colourful almost quixotic political characters have been elected from these single ticket parties, with a couple of them, including the EPDP and the ACTC securing two seats each. They certainly add colour and a vibrant diversity to the composition of the legislature.

Also falling into this same category of a single seat party, from among the minor parties, is the former governing United National Party (UNP), which rather fortuitously through its vote tally in all districts, managed to qualify for a single National List seat in Parliament. The UNP is a small party with a big party mentality and blessed with close links to major national newspapers, its unelected office-bearers and defeated candidates, manage to make the news daily, if rather irrelevantly.

The UNP has rather unusually been unwilling to fill its single seat, making the current Parliament a full house at 224 members, rather than its complete complement of 225. However, political circles are abuzz with talk that finally its longest serving and possibly leader for life, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, will have himself nominated to the UNP’s solitary seat in Parliament. It has to be a record in any country with a proportional representation electoral system, for a party to fall from a governing party with 106 seats, to a solitary parliamentary seat in the ensuing election. Leaving that grand old party with a nice head office, a proud history, and some political personalities who made a serious error in political judgement, when they denied its longtime deputy leader and presidential candidate, the party leadership, resulting in the formation of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party.

Just over a year since nominations for the parliamentary elections closed on 20th March 2020 and the UNP thinks about finally getting its act together, to nominate Mr. Wickremesinghe to its solitary seat, and the SJB celebrated the first year anniversary of its formation; it is worth examining the implications to politics and national governance, created by the Rajapaksa political vehicle of the SLPP supplanting the SLFP, and on the Opposition side of the House, the even newer Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, taking over the constituency, the younger generation leaders and the political leadership of the non SLPP/Rajapaksa socio-political forces in the country. The SLPP created its own history in the August 2020 parliamentary elections becoming the most electorally successful political party under the 1978 constitution, securing 145 seats in Parliament, bettering its predecessor UPFA’s result of 144 seats won in the euphoria of the war’s ending in 2010. The SJB also performed approximately comparative to its parent UNP’s 2010 post war performance, securing 54 seats in 2020.

However, the SJB has also made its own mark on the political landscape of the country in its relatively short history. Firstly, by comprehensively wiping its predecessor UNP off the electoral map, and firmly capturing the Opposition political space. It has faced the juggernaut of an SLPP Administration with a super majority in Parliament. In response, the SJB and the Opposition Leader’s approach has been measured, thoughtful and calibrated. Occupying the moral high ground, by claiming that the Opposition should oppose but not obstruct, it has permitted some leeway to the Rajapaksas to implement their mandate; but has been a moral conscience, as well as a check and balance on the government. As a new party it has focused on building up its grassroots capability, and the indefatigable Opposition Leader has been mirroring the President’s own dialogue with the village, by having numerous grassroots level consultations and discussions, albeit without an attendant media circus.

Politically as well, the focus of the SJB has been to bring to sharp focus the shortcomings of the Administration, and accordingly it has been the inspiration for the “sir fail” political concept; a rather direct assault on the performance or alleged lack thereof by the Government and the President, elected as he was among other things as a technocrat who would get things done. Astutely Sajith Premadasa has been careful to refrain from an overly negative assault on his successful rival in the presidential election, focusing instead on the issues and avoiding the personal mudslinging which has been the sorry hallmark of Sri Lankan politics in more recent times. The SJB and the Opposition Leader have sought to adopt a more principled and issue-based politics, rather than on pure personalities and one that is non-sectarian, both distinctions of which are an unusual departure from the norm in mainstream Sri Lankan politics. As the politics of the UNHRC process in Geneva and the cremation issue of the Covid deceased for the Muslim community dominated the political debate in the past few months, the SJB demonstrated remarkable political maturity in taking a principled position opposed to forced cremation based on the WHO guidelines, and then rolling out a newly minted and credible reconciliation policy on the cusp of the Geneva vote, which differentiated it clearly from the Government, arguing that national unity was the best guarantor and contributor to national security.

As a slew of highly charged political issues ranging from exonerating various accused persons from ongoing court cases through a presidential commission, to the controversial proposals for the autonomous Port City Commission come to dominate the political debate in the near future, the SJB will be tested. But Sajith Premadasa took on the Rajapaksas in their home turf of Hambantota for years, and did not flinch from a tough political ask in a local constituency setting. The current challenges are bigger and the setting is the national political stage. One year on, in a game with a five-year cycle, the SJB can take solace and some credit that while the beginning of the end may not have begun for the current Administration, the end of the honeymoon period with the public for the Administration, has clearly already occurred.

 

 

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Opinion

How to degrade, dismantle and destroy a country

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The current social political and economic decision making and the ‘mysterious’, illogical behaviour of Sri Lanka’s leadership, are classic examples of ‘how to degrade, dismantle and destroy a country’.

What are the essential conditions for a country to be a united, successful, sovereign and independent?

1. The rule of law.

2. A responsible Parliament.

3. An executive totally dedicated to the protection and well being of the country.

4. A vibrant economy that lifts the poor out of poverty.

5. Social fraternity and friendship in a tolerant and peaceful environment.

6. Awareness of and the love and protection of the country’s ecology.

The rule of law, as ordinarily understood, is a code of conduct that a people and a state accept as their guiding and protective set of regulations for the common good. There are two sides to it; rights and duties. Human rights and civil rights on the one hand, and paying taxes, obeying social rules of human interaction, such as observing traffic regulations, etc., on the other hand are the two sides.

The institution that oversees the whole complexity of the rule of law is the judiciary. The judiciary must be like Caesar’s wife––totally above suspicion. That is what the blindfolded lady with a sword and scales of justice signify. What we see happening now is something worrisome. I am not going to list all the unsavoury happenings in the recent past. But the Presidential Commission on political victimisation has removed the blindfold of the lady, thrown away the scales, and she is wielding the sword against those few who sincerely and competently did their duty.

How can an independent judiciary stop ongoing trials and release the suspects just because the executive or a commission says so?

In other words, they are degrading the judiciary, destroying its independence.

A responsible Parliament is the very soul of a democratic country. A Parliament that behaves with decorum, efficiency and a keen sense of responsibility to the people that elected it is essential for the country’s progress.

People’s representatives are stealing public funds. They get tax free vehicles and sell them for millions! This is stealing the money due to the Treasury. They sell permits for everything, from petroleum to pharmaceuticals, from sand to stone, collecting millions. This is a brazen demand for bribes. When the President concludes his term, he gets a mansion for free in Colombo. This does not happen even in a banana republic. They have no shame to lose the elections and creep back into the Parliament through the back door, called the National List. They get huge commissions for development projects.

Listen to the current parliamentary debates. What are the crucial problems facing the country today? The gigantic external debt is number one. Number two is China, India and the USA nibbling away at the country’s sovereignty. Number three is the worsening situation of poverty. These are the three main problems among many others. Are they discussing and making laws and policies to solve the debt crisis? Are they making statesmanlike policies and diplomatic overtures to keep the three ogres at bay? Are they discussing ways and means of improving agriculture and industry and making our economy vibrant and people friendly? Listen to the gibberish they are mouthing, or rather screaming, at one another. They accuse, scold and insult one another using un-parliamentary words. They call one another thieves. They may belong to various political parties and may be in the government or in the Opposition, but are united “thick as thieves” and protect one another.

An executive totally dedicated to the protection and wellbeing of the country is yet to be found. If such an executive had been there, would there have been an Easter massacre? If such an executive is there, will it tell us only what we already know, after years and millions spent on a Presidential Inquiry into the Easter barbarity? They have shown us only the tip of the iceberg, which is there to be seen even without an inquiry. We want to know what is hidden under. Why is the executive so coy about showing it to us? We can only say with Marcellus in Act I, scene iv of the Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet” – “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (Sri Lanka)”. We have neither trust nor hope in the executive. It too has gone the way of the Parliament.

A vibrant economy that lifts the poor out of poverty. Isn’t that the main task of any governing body of a country?

But it is not so in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka they only talk about getting loans, more loans and bigger loans. And when they get a loan they crow about it as if it is a great achievement. Any decent gentleman would keep his loans secret, for he would be ashamed of the public getting to know it. We do not have gentlemen. Ours are scoundrels who are happy to get loans so that they can get their cut. They are not worried because they do not repay the loans. It is we the people who have to settle their debts.

If not for the women sweating away in FTZ factories, if not for the women plucking tea buds by the ton in the plantations, if not for the women sold to slavery in West Asia, where will this country be? What have the governing ingrates done for them? Nothing. It is the private small industries and entrepreneurs that are some consolation to the local labour force.

What have they done for the farmers? They do not get water in time, the fertilizer in time and now, as if Sena is not enough, they have the pachyderms! Their habitats are sold to multinationals and they have nowhere to go. They are being massacred more than one a day. This is a national crime against innocent elephants that cry to heaven for retribution. The country is cursed for it, but for our scoundrels it is water on the duck’s back. The farmers suffer, they are protesting in sit-ins all over the country. The politician monkeys see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing, and of course do nothing. We are going downhill, getting poorer and will soon end up in bankruptcy.

Social fraternity and friendship in a tolerant and peaceful ambient, is necessary for people to live happily in a country. It was so sad to watch a popular tuition master, teaching ecology on YouTube, advise the students to leave this country for their own good, adding that he himself is contemplating such action. Can anyone blame him? We who have passed the three score and ten probably will remain and prefer to sink with the ship. But the younger generations certainly have a right to enjoy this short but incredibly beautiful life, instead of getting bogged down in the lawless, fearsome chaos this country will become.

Not too long ago, we lived side by side, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, without any suspicion or antagonism, enjoying one another. We were together in school, in the playground, in the market place and in the neighbourhood. Now we realize how wonderful that was. Then came the petty political rascals. Just to get power and amass filthy lucre, they would sell anything, sacrifice anything. For them there is nothing sacred or invaluable. Even foolish religious leaders were made use of for their benefit. The Sinhala were pitted against the Tamil, then against the Muslim. They pit religion against religion with fantastic canards like bound fallopian tubes, kotthu with impotence pills, female underwear laced with infertility drugs, etc. The media slaves of the petty political scoundrels, and even some political religious, went to town with the incredible stories without checking on their veracity. The gullible public swallowed them hook line and sinker. How much blood have we shed for the last 50 years?

What a waste of life!

When will the people ever learn that they are governed by a coterie of scoundrels––Ali Baba and the 225 thieves? Will we ever have social fraternity and friendship in a tolerant and peaceful environment? The answer is blowing in the wind, my friend; it is blowing in the wind.

The awareness of and the love and protection of the country’s ecology is the duty of every true patriotic citizen.

Ali Baba and the 225 thieves are hell bent on destroying just that, the ecology. The cunning scoundrels and their bootlicking officialdom are good at shooting the messenger. A young girl declares that Sinharaja is destroyed. And the officers instead of investigating those felling trees ask the girl if she knows where the forest boundaries are. A civil activist exposes the fraud of the Sahana Malla. Instead of verifying the accusation by checking the items in the Malla, he is arrested. You point the moon to them and they cut off your index finger. In the cancer causing coconut oil case, they have shown that they are more interested in protecting the crooked businesses, rather than the vulnerable citizens of the country. They are destroying the forests in Wilpattu, in the Sinharaja and all over. They are destroying our country, they are destroying us.

I’m sure the governing ignoramuses have never heard of Chief Seattle’s almost ‘sacred’ ecological declaration, where he tells the aggressive white invaders that his people and the environment are not two things but one. I’m sure they have never heard of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” on the love and protection of Mother/Sister Earth. They know only their insatiable greed; they see nothing beyond their own navels. They have no love or kinship to the soil and the rocks, the rivers and the seas, the flora and the fauna of Sri Lanka. They certainly have no love for Sri Lankans whom they deceive every five years. They are not the legitimate children of Mother Lanka. Their only goal in life is to exploit this country and its people to the maximum possible and get away, the dual-citizen traitors. There is no hope for our beautiful elephants, our environment and us.

Ali Baba and the 225 thieves know quite well how to degrade, dismantle and destroy our country. They not only know it, they are deliberately committing the heinous crime. Who can stop them? Only the PEOPLE can stop them. That’s why I have been calling for a Grand Alliance of Good People. But I feel I am only a voice crying in the wilderness.

Cannot our people see the cunning deceitful trickery they are perpetrating on us? When the A20 was mooted, before genuine opposition could come up, their lackeys, political, religious and lay, vociferously stood against it. The genuine Opposition was silenced. At the last moment, the bootlicking slaves supported the Bill in the Parliament. The same trick was repeated at giving away of the West Container Terminal of the Colombo harbour to the Adani Group of India. The trick is being repeated for the third time with the Port City. The same bootlicking pack of lackeys is vehemently attacking the draft of the Port City Management. The genuine Opposition has no time even to get organised. The draft is deliberately made worse than what the Chinese imperialists demand. Eventually, they will remove the unnecessary excess and the lackeys will say a compromise is won by them.

If our people still cannot see this traitorous tragic betrayal performed before their eyes, they do not deserve a unitary, sovereign, independent, self-respecting state called Sri Lanka.

 

 

Fr J.C. PIERIS

Galle

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