Dr. Ananda Guruge's Convocation Address at University of Ruhuna

Victor Gunasekara

This is a comment on the Convocation Address at the Ruhuna University on 25 October 2004 made by Dr Ananda Guruge (given below) which was circulated recently on the BNC list.

What strikes me in Dr Guruge's address is the total absence of any reference to the grave crisis now facing the Sinhalas. There is a great deal said about the achievements of the classical Sinhalas but nothing at all why the helas of today are surrendering to racist separatist terrorists and large numbers of Buddhists are abandoning their Buddhist heritage for Christianity for venal considerations. The failure of Dr Guruge to address these issues is symptomatic of the position taken by most current Sinhala intellectuals who have thriven on the fat of the nation and have now fallen silent at a time when their guidance is most needed. Dr Guruge while extolling his own achievements seems to be still in the business of accumulating honors of dubious value, praising the Ruhuna University as an "illustrious" Institution! Its recent history has shown it to be a hotbed of JVP terrorists.

Dr Guruge panders to his audience by calling the people of Ruhuna a "bastion of national freedom". Very wisely he does not name a single Ruhuna patriot who rose against the Portuguese, Dutch or British. There probably is none. By contrast I can name some notorious Matara traitors who served the Portuguese just as well as Don Juan Dharmapala and Konappu Bandara did. Some of the literary figures he mentions do not fit this role of patriotic poets. Gajaman Nona is notorious for having curried the favour of British administrators. Even the venerable Mihripenne monk penned the following verse, in his celebrated double rhyme (elivæ.ta ), in praise of Chief Justice Johnston, an Englishman:

pirisidu næna diipaa lokayen pat samiipaa
sirasanda ura maapaa ye nives kitti sepaa
pata sindu parataapaa jonstan nammataapaa
nirindu.ta amataapaa sitenut ven.ta epaa

For the most part these poets ignored political commentary. I am not in a position to evaluate their contribution to Sinhala literature, but obviously little of it has survived in this age of teledramas and songstresses.

Why the Sinhala intellectuals have failed is that while they may be experts in their narrow fields they lack a grand vision of what has happened to the Sinhala people (and indeed all Sri Lankans) since the advent of colonial rule. The crucial development here is the rise of what I have called the neo-Sinhala mentality, which in recent times have come to be called the Hela ideology. The position of Dr Guruge and other Sinhala intellectuals on this question is difficult to assess mainly because of their silence on the issues of the moment. He refers to the major ethnic group in SL as 'Sinhala', not as 'Sinhela' as helas usually do. It is however clear that along with other Sinhala intellectuals he may have succumbed to the "helanising" trend. Thus Dr Guruge recalls his introduction to the Hela Havula and the Subasa (Swabhasha?) movement of Kumaranatunga. This movement sought to replace sanskritic words with their allegedly hela versions. Fortunately this movement has not made any headway, otherwise the language would not have been able to accommodate the many technical terms that have now become commonplace.

The Convocation address lapses into the common habit of recounting past glories which stands in stark contrast to the present-day misery. In the process there is a tendency to exaggerate the past achievements. Thus we are told of the navigational skill of the Sinhalas "five centuries before Christ" which took them far to the West of Lanka. However there is no record of this in local chronicles and only the evidence of foreign sources have been quoted. Given the ignorance about SL that even now exists it is uncertain whom foreign writers would have meant by terms like Lanka, Sihala etc. in their reports. Instead of gloating on a possibly non-existent naval tradition it is worthwhile to enquire why no naval capability existed in an island nation at the time when the sea-lanes around SL was used exclusively by Muslim traders or European invaders. Had a naval tradition existed much of this calamity may have been averted. It is always good to impress on young graduates at a Convocation on what were the shortcomings in Lanka that led to its subjugation rather than on ancient glories. That way they may be enthused to find remedies for national shortcomings.

At one point Dr Guruge says "I am deeply perturbed by several sad situations in which we find ourselves today." One may think that he is referring to the impending partition of the country, or the evangelization of Sinhala Buddhists, or the economic malaise which is fast pushing Sri Lanka to the bottom of the countries in our region. But what he means is that "we have become a nation without any knowledge, understanding and appreciation of our twenty-six centuries of history and culture. Sinhala literature is hardly studied in depth and an enormous classical literature going back in extant works to at least the ninth century is threatened with virtual disappearance." To remedy this Dr Guruge calls for the establishment of what he calls "Sri Lankan Studies". If these studies are confined to what took place 15 to 26 centuries in the past then it will be a regressive step. There are many aspects in the political, economic, technological and scientific areas in modern Sri Lanka that needs study. Indeed such study is necessary if SL is to be brought abreast of what is happening in the world. But concentrating on the glories of the distant past, based largely on reports of foreign writers, is not what is urgently needed. Perhaps these studies can be taken up once the urgent political, economic and developmental problems are tackled. But the immediate danger is not contemplating the speed records set by Lankan navigators on the Indus according to foreign reports! It is preventing Sri Lanka from becoming a minor appendage of a pan-Tamil empire.

There seems to be an implication that our technology should be based on the alleged technological prowess, iron-and-steel culture, and the industrial base of ancient Lanka. Unfortunately there is little or no evidence of any of this in archaeological or epigraphical sources. Whatever evidence of technological advance we have relate to agriculture and irrigation which is an essential part of agriculture. As an iron-age civilization there was of course some metallurgical knowledge relating to the fabrication of weapons and implements. But this is not different to what was taking place at that time in other areas of the Indo-European culture.

On Buddhist studies, in which Dr Guruge is an authority, he says: "Our tradition of in-depth study of Pali and Sanskrit has suffered in equal measure." But what is more alarming is the distortion of Gotama's teaching, the importation of Hindu taboos, the puja cult relating to both the Buddha rupa and the Bodhi tree, the worship of deities, transference of merit and so on. It would have been illuminating if Dr Guruge would have given his opinion on these popular Boduhela practices which pass for Buddhism.

If historical studies are important what is needed is the stagnation and decline of SL in the last six centuries, indeed ever since the decline of the Polonnaruwa period. Has this anything to do with the Sinhalas burrowing the wrong ideas from our colonial masters especially their bias towards racism and religionism? And has the rise of the Hela movement anything to do with it? These are questions which are worthy of study.

In Sri Lanka today there are many professors, professors emeritus, PhDs, and other intellectuals, both working and retired. Yet we rarely hear from them on the burning problems of the day. This in my view is one of the greatest puzzles. If my comments lead to a discussion which will shed some light on this question they would not have been uttered in vain.

Victor Gunasekara



University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka
October 25, 2004
by Dr Ananda Guruge

Let me at the very outset express my most grateful thanks to the authorities, the academic and administrative staff and the students of the University of Ruhuna for the cherished honour they have conferred on me today. I am especially beholden to the distinguished Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ranjith Senaratne, whose vision and dedication have made this institution gain fame and prominence as a premier seat of excellence in higher learning

To be a recipient of an honorary degree from your illustrious University is a matter of immense joy to me. I am particularly touched that I am recognized as a Son of Ruhuna. Even more gratifying to me is that I am being rewarded for my humble contribution to higher education and research especially in the field of Buddhist Studies.

Ruhuna in the history of Sri Lanka had been the bastion of national freedom. Whenever our nation had foreign domination to grapple with, the rescuers of independence came from Ruhuna. As important as the role of Ruhuna in our history is the part it played in the renaissance of Sinhala literature and culture during the last two and a half centuries.

Last year, we celebrated the 250th anniversary of the restoration of Higher Ordination and the founding of the Syamopali Mahanikaya. Its primary mover, Venerable Weliwita Pindapatika Saranankara Sangharaja Thera, also spearheaded a veritable revival of Sinhala literature and culture. Scholars from the Central Hills saw in Matara the potential to be a centre of literary creativity. Thus we are fortunate that the Matara Period of Sinhala Poetry--recalling notable names like Kirama Dhammananda, Pattayame Lekam, Saliele Maniratana, Gajaman Nona, and Mihiripenne--paved the way for what continues to this day as a new phase in our literary history. The literati of Matara have added an enormous treasure to the sum-total of our national literature and their work, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous and serious to humorous, regenerated an interest in creativity and literary appreciation. The Sinhala language re-discovered its genius for expressing the most subtle sentiments with an economy of words and depth of sensitivity.

It was the "Savsatdamvadaya" which arose in Matara that drew an incredibly large body of scholars and writers to explore the nuances of Sinhala grammar and prosody. No other literary movement has subscribed so much to the fashioning of our language. Sinhala became a flexible language with a capacity to express ideas in many different fields. In the fashioning of the Sinhala language for modern use, that was not the final phase. Every village in the Southern Province, such as Welipatanwila, Kahandamodara, Babarenda, Paravahera, Talpawila, Hikkaduwa, Weliwitiya, Weligama, Mohottiwatta, has been made famous by a galaxy of learned Buddhist monks who made a lasting contribution to Sinhala literature of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.

Munidasa Kumaranatunga, the most influential literary figure of the last century, hailing from the vicinity of Matara, led his campaign to revitalize the Sinhala language with a penetrating study of Sinhala classics. Another literary figure of Matara, Justin Wijayawardene, brought to the Sinhala readership the literary gems of Rabindranath Tagore. Many are the names that I would like to recall but let me conclude by mentioning my friend Gunapala Senadeera, who introduced me to Subasa and Hela Havula. If I proceed to add the whole of Ruhuna to my review of its contribution to history, literature and culture, my speech today would run into several hours.

It is against the backdrop of the magnificent contribution of sons and daughters of Ruhuna to the literary, religious and cultural development of Sri Lanka that I wish to use this invaluable opportunity to appeal to continuing -- nay greater and progressively increasing -- attention to a discipline of Sri Lankan Studies at University level. Our island home has a heritage which belies its modest size. Its glorious written and unbroken history of 26 centuries is not confined to lists of kings and wars. It is the history of a long-standing nation with enormous vitality and creativity. It is the history of what a heroic, enlightened and resourceful section of humanity has recorded to inspire generations yet unborn. Its ramifications are many and astounding and cover such important pursuits of humanity as science and technology, religion and philosophy, scholarly and creative literature and a splendid outlook of service to the world at large. It is because of the varied richness of the content that I urge that every student in every institution of higher learning be required to pass before graduation a course in Sri Lankan Studies.

As a Professor in the US System of higher education over the last ten years, it is my experience that the required courses within the framework of General Education prepare students for life and future achievements in the most appropriate manner. Nearly forty per cent of the graduation requirements of a B.A. or B.Sc. in American Universities cover a wide range of subjects supplementary and complementary to the areas of specialization. No student graduates without an extensive, if not always intensive, exposure to written and spoken communication skills, critical thinking and mathematics, science and humanities, besides at least one foreign language. Within the area of humanities, History and Government of USA is a compulsory field of study. The result of this educational emphasis on the study of one's homeland, is that a subject, appropriately called American Studies, has come into existence. What this discipline contributes to the formation of an informed generation of Americans is enormous, even though the history of USA as a nation covers hardly two hundred and twenty-eight years.

Compared to what American Studies cover, a course in Sri Lankan Studies certainly has the potential to bring in a vast amount of information to achieve crucial educational objectives in both cognitive and affective domains. Ours is an island where human settlements appeared to have existed for many millennia and our pre-historical explorations are yet in a state of infancy. Thousands of monuments, displaying incredible achievements in the application of science and technology, dot every district and archaeologists, active for over a hundred and fifty years, have unearthed an impressive heritage in architecture and structural engineering. Yet many more sites remain for intensive study.

Our epigraphists have similarly traced a treasure-house of inscriptions which corroborate our chronicles and historical traditions and enable us to trace the growth of the Sinhala language and the evolution of the alphabet over at least twenty-two centuries.

The scientific and technological maturity in developing and managing water resources is in itself a marvel. Bisokotuwa to control the pressure of water led out to extensive canal systems and the stone spills to save the earthen bunds through flood protection are typical inventions of our ancestors. Their knowledge and understanding of contours and water levels still baffle us. Can we imagine the technological background, which prompted Parakamabahu the Great to declare that not a single drop of rain that falls on our island should be allowed to flow to the ocean without first serving man? Even a still functionable bronze lamp of Dedigama, displaying the application of the principle of air displacement to control the flow of liquid, is an example of science in practical use as far back as 800 years. Equally astounding would be the science of medicine for both humans and animals. The discovery of the medicinal properties of local plants and herbs and the resulting pharmacopoeia also deserve our appreciation.

Ours is a land, which once exported the finest of iron and perhaps steel. The workshops of commercial dimensions hitherto excavated are an indication of our extensive industrial base. We have been in human history one of the earliest nations to provide technical assistance to foreign lands. Sri Lankan experts in hydrology were forcibly taken twenty centuries ago to work on the head-waters of Kaveri River in South India. When Sri Nagar basin in Kashmir needed to be drained for the capital to be built, King Jayapida sent for and utilized Sri Lankan technicians for the purpose in the seventh century, says the Kashmiri Chronicle, Rajatarangini of Kalhana.

Sri Lankan merchant ships are known to have plied to ports of both Indus and Ganges estuaries in the west and east of the Indian subcontinent as far back as the fourth century before Christ. Lichai has recorded that Sri Lankan ships were the largest to come to ports in China. The vast collection of ceramics, coins and artifacts unearthed in Mantai, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and many other sites confirm the Greek theologian-cum-navigator Cosmos Indicapleustus' statement that Sri Lanka was the active "Emporium mediatrix" in the China-Europe sea-route. Parakramabahu's expedition to Myanmar and South India presupposes Sri Lanka as a naval power in the twelfth century.

Much more remains to be studied and understood in our scientific and technical heritage. I begin with this brief exposé on the scientific and echnological content of Sri Lankan Studies purposely to show that my plea is not to popularize the narrow field of ancient history or simply to harp of threadbare issues of invasions and wars, treachery and rebellion or promote futile escapes to chauvinism.

History as I conceive is a means of understanding the past objectively to use its lessons to solve problems here and now. No one advances forward by having his or her eyes riveted to the past. But turning back from time to time how one has climbed a steep hill gives confidence and inner strength to conquer new heights. Every generation needs this support from history. Sri Lanka today is at the crossroads of uncertainty and even despair. We need to generate, especially in our youth, a new spirit of confidence and commitment to face the challenges of the future.

With this caveat on the academic study and practical use of history, I wish to urge that our history in the context of Sri Lankan Studies be looked at from an entirely new angle. The foremost lesson I have drawn from history is that our nation has always been an active participant in world affairs. We as a nation has reached out to the world and made to human development significant contributions far beyond our size and resources. The admirals of Alexander the Great -- Nearchus and Onesicritus -- could record the size and speed of Sri Lankan ships in the Indus region twenty-four centuries ago. Our own chronicle notes that around the same time the western suburb of the then new capital Anuradhapura was reserved for Greeks. In Mauryan times, a sea-route connected the Indian port of Tamralipti (present Tamluk) with Jambukola (present Chulipuram on the northern coast of Jaffna Peninsula). Eight centuries later, Fa-Hian the Chinese pilgrim spoke of the luxurious mansions of Middle Eastern merchants, and of a Chinese merchant with a silk fan in hand in the same city.

Around the first century of the Christian era, the Greek geographer Ptolemy drew a map of Taprobane making it not only about ten times its actual size but also including with incredible accuracy many of its topographical features and settlements. Around the same time, that prolific chronicler of Rome, Pliny the Elder interviews the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the court of Caesar Claudius and goes on to compare the Sri Lankan political, judicial and economic conditions with those of contemporary Rome. Loud and clear is his implied question to fellow Romans, "Why don't we do that here?" Pliny also records that the Sri Lankan Ambassador's father had been the Island's Ambassador to China. Enough information is available in literary sources of Greece and Rome in the West and China in the East to show that Sri Lanka's international relations had been extensive and vital right through history.

An area in which Sri Lanka's contribution to the world has been the most effective relates to the preservation and propagation of Buddhism. If Asoka the Righteous had not sent missionaries to Sri Lanka to establish Buddhism here, if our ancestors had not reduced the Buddhist Canon and commentaries to writing and our religious educational system had not been as meticulously designed and supported, Buddhism would have completely disappeared in South and Southeast Asia after the twelfth century. If not for the continuous revival and revitalization of the Sangha and through it the Buddhist faith, institutions and related intellectual activities in our little island home, the present position of Buddhism in the world would have been different. There is no gainsaying that Sri Lanka's pivotal role has been largely responsible for the worldwide awareness and appreciation of Buddhism today.

In a course in Sri Lankan Studies, the role of Buddhism needs to be elaborated as a promoter of intellectual and cultural development, on the one hand, and as a force in the inculcation of such noble qualities as tolerance and understanding, peace and nonviolence and fair play, on the other. How in Sri Lanka Islam survived Portuguese persecution and Roman Catholicism was saved from extinction from the onslaught of the Dutch Reformed Church need to be studied not merely to appreciate but more importantly to perpetuate these lofty examples of Buddhism in practice.

I am deeply perturbed by several sad situations in which we find ourselves today. Our schools have been compelled to shift emphasis from humanities to science and technology and this is as it should be. We have to make great strides in modern knowledge and skills to maintain our living standards and promote future development. But in the process, we have become a nation without any knowledge, understanding and appreciation of our twenty-six centuries of history and culture. Sinhala literature is hardly studied in depth and an enormous classical literature going back in extant works to at least the ninth century is threatened with virtual disappearance. Our tradition of in-depth study of Pali and Sanskrit has suffered in equal measure. Can we afford to be a nation without a cultural identity of our own? I raise this question because my experience with expatriate Sri Lankan communities in the West is that the second and third generation youth, irrespective of language or ethnicity, have begun to show an increasing interest in their cultural heritage and identity. Hardly a week passes without some young person seeking my guidance in their activities to learn about Sri Lanka or more so to inform their colleagues and classmates. I am often dismayed when I do not find the same enthusiasm in the youth I meet here.

One of our major problems, to my mind, is that we fail to recognize that resources for the study of Sri Lanka in all its dimensions are dismally inadequate, if not totally unavailable. It is true that a large number of institutions have mushroomed in recent times to offer courses and award degrees in many of the fields I have dealt with in my presentation. I also meet many M.A.'s and Ph. D's from such institutions and am often surprised to discover the inadequacy of their knowledge base and research skills. I concede that "Degree Factories" do exist all over the world to satisfy the ego needs of some people. But in Sri Lanka, there is one important difference. Here such institutions seem to come up and thrive because the formal system has left a big gap and they try to fill it to the best of their capacity. Quality and credibility are sacrifices in the process. These are further reasons that prompt me to urge that a program of Sri Lankan Studies with appropriately designed courses be introduced as an obligatory element of our University system. I am motivated to make this appeal on this occasion to this august assembly of scholars and educators as I am deeply impressed with the magnificent academic leadership of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ranjith Senaratne, and the dedicated effort of the academic faculty to break new ground, to open new frontiers and to experiment with educational innovation. University of Ruhuna has grown to be a pre-eminent seat of higher learning and I am proud to be the recipient of its prestigious honour as "Ruhuna Pradeepa," awarded on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee celebrations last year and the Doctorate of Literature (D. Litt) conferred on me today. These honours make me a part and parcel of your academic community. I am further very pleased to accept the kind invitation to be an Adjunct Professor in Pali and Buddhist Studies and Educational Management. I offer you all my sincerest grateful thanks.

May I conclude with a special word to the students and graduates. Born in a family hailing from the border of Agaliya and Akuretiya in rural Baddegama, I was blessed with an education which I received from my parents, my teachers in my schools and University and supplemented diligently with my lifelong devotion to learning. I am proud to say, "I am entirely made in Sri Lanka." In a career of over half a century, I have achieved much in several fields of activity. I have done so because of my deep-seated confidence that there is nothing that a fervent, hard-working and deeply committed Sri Lankan boy or girl cannot achieve in this world. I share my little mantra with you. Face the world with faith and confidence, telling yourself, "I am a Sri Lankan and the whole world is open for me." Let me conclude with a verse from the introduction to my book, Maavæni Bilindaa :

Maa väni bilindaa
Däätin rägena väla~ndaa
Dunna Lakmava vandimi sämadaa



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