Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2731

Discussing traitors past and present

By Janaka Perera

Colombo, 30 March, ( A new school of academics are busy seeking a re-colonization of Sri Lanka by foreign powers.

Social Scientist Dr. Susantha Goonatilake made this observation at the Second Research Conference of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka (RASSL) held at the Mahaweli Centre, Colombo on March 28-29.

Dr. Goonatilake, who is the Convener of the Research Conference Committee, presented a paper on 'Colonial Knowledge Transactions – Early 20th Century and Early 21st Century.' The paper examines and contrasts the colonial intellectual project of some of the original RASSL European writings with the re-colonization writings of the new school.

He said that during the post-independence period - especially in the 1980s - a set of foreign funded groups had emerged to export misinformation on Sri Lanka and distortions of events there. Their project has been to reverse the gains made through East-West dialogue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Dr, Goonatilake.

Noting the dubious activities of NGOs like National Peace Council, Centre for Policy Alternatives and the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, he contrasted them with the growth of interactions between the local Sri Lankan knowledge systems and those of the West at a time when both were changing rapidly. This was in the late 19th and early 20th century when the RASSL was a platform for such discussions as well as for the export of ideas to the West.

"Initially with only members of the European Christian community and the British Governor in the chair, the discussions at the RASSL had seemed a predominantly Oriental exercise. Yet, out of these discussions among the Anglicized elite, later emerged also some of the moves for political reforms eventually leading to the formation of the movement for independence. Leading civil servants were involved. Later in England two such individuals - Rhys David and Leonard Woolf – continued their intellectual interests, the former founding the Pali Text Society and the latter getting involved with the influential left-oriented Bloomsbury group."

But the new group comprising largely of those with brown skins and white minds, had taken advantage of the lack of exposure to broad knowledge in Sri Lankan universities had included their faulty readings into the local university system, Dr. Goonatilake charged.

History Researcher and Novelist C. Gaston Perera revealed an aspect of Sri Lankan history that is seldom discussed partly due to its sensitive nature and also because anti-national elements cannot easily distort it. This is something that puzzles an educated foreigner visiting the island for the first time. On the way to Colombo city from the Katunayake Airport, the visitor sees very few Buddhist temples on the Western coastline but notices many Catholic churches, although the country is known as predominantly Buddhist.

Gaston Perera traced the roots of this puzzle when he presented a paper on 'How the Buddhists Funded their own Conversion to Christianity' – the cause of the disappearance along the Western coastline of most ancient Buddhist temples.

He recalled how Don Juan Dharmapala (the last King of Kotte and the most pathetic Sinhala royal figure in history) willed all Buddhist temple lands to Franciscan missionaries. Dharmapala – a born Buddhist – was baptized as a Christian either on Christmas Day 1557 or New Years Day 1558, according to Perera. The Portuguese puppet king's very next act was to transfer the temple lands by a deed of gift, which is now not available. But it was ratified in 1591 by another notarially arrested deed which has been reproduced both by Queyroz and Trinidade.

Perera examined the catastrophic consequences that flowed from this act and its profound implications. The first was that this gifting deprived the temples and the monks of the means to sustain themselves, forcing them, therefore, to abandon their temples and seek refuge in the Kandyan kingdom. In the Theravada tradition the Buddhist clergy are not expected to work but lead a spiritual life, while the laity attends to their material needs. For this purpose, ancient kings had donated lands where lay people grew crops. Part of the harvest went to the temples for the sustenance of the bhikkus.

When they fled the Portuguese-dominated areas it also led to the breakdown of the temple school system and pirivenas thus depriving the Sinhala youth of a Buddhist education. Without Buddhist temples and a Buddhist upbringing the practice of Buddhism was made impossible and enabled the Franciscans to fill the religious vacuum created. This in turn paved the way for the conversion of Buddhists.

Dharmapala's gift also helped to convert Buddhists far more directly. For his stipulated objective, expressly provided for in his deed, was that the revenues from temple lands should be utilized to establish schools to impart a Christian education to Sinhala youth. This was a long term project the possible results of which lay in the future. Temple revenues were also used for paying salaries to missionaries engaged in converting Buddhists.

Among the other papers presented on the first day of the conference were, 'Genesis of the Small Village Tanks in North-Central Sri Lanka' by C.R. Panabokke. 'Retracing Fa-Hsien's Voyage through Wind and Ocean Currents,' by Nihal Fernando, 'Chandramali: A Sinhalese Nun in the Tibetan Tradition' by Dr. Hema Goonatilake, 'The changing economic role of women in Sinhala society from the 17th to the 19th century' by Dilma Thushari Koggalage and 'Contesting Colonial Culture: Velivitiye Soratha Thera's interpretations of Shakespeare' by Wijitha Yapa Bandara.

Power point presentations were used for illustrating some of the topics discussed. Around 30 peer-reviewed presentations covering fields varying from archaeology and history to social sciences were presented.

Former Archaeological Commissioners Siran Deraniyagala and Roland Silva, W.M.K. Wijetunga and M.U. de Silva respectively chaired the four sessions of the first day.

The 163-year-old RASSL is Sri Lanka's oldest academic body which has concentrated on Sri Lanka's history and society. Its initiatives among others gave rise to the National Museum, Department of Archaeology and National Archives. As part of a series of fresh initiatives taken over the last few years, the RASSL initiated these research sessions.

- Asian Tribune -

Share this