Revering Ananda... Matha:
Celebrating the sacred space of wisdom and humanism:

by Sudharshan Seneviratne (2011/12/20)

(Complete text of the Speech delivered on December 8th 2011 celebrating 125 years of Ananda College)

It is my privilege to address the Ananda College fraternity at this special occasion celebrating her 125th birthday. It is also with humility that I stand before you - an august gathering of eminent sons and daughters of our Alma Mater. You have "gloried in the name of Ananda" and inscribed her illustrious name beyond borders.

The rising

Her beginnings were humble, with no privileges ushered upon her by the Colonial regime. She came to this world in 1886 responding to pleas made by the socially, religiously and politically under-privileged. In her formative years, she was banished from her original home, pushed from pillar to post until she ultimately found refuge in a small oasis at Maradana. She resolutely fought for the survival of her children against all odds imposed on her by the Colonial regime and by missionaries. In 1907 as opposed to 1332 Christian Denomination schools there were only 183 Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) schools.

It was largely the metropolitan Brown sahibs from the Tamil and Sinhala elite, who threw derogatory remarks at her children. Those who took refuge in her shade were in the main children from the village. They were branded as ‘uncouth and backward fellows’ or godaya, who did not speak the right language and lacked good manners! Located beyond the horizon of the sophisticated elite habitat was Mardana, the backwaters, the unknown and inhabited by the marginalized other. The westernized elite sensed a disturbing challenge to their jealously guarded purview of social hegemony and exclusivity by the godayas of Maradana.

But soon, it was her period of efflorescence. She rose - and rose like the phoenix. The fame of her name swept across the island and beyond. She embraced with an equal show of love and affection, children from different regions of Ceylon, different countries, ethnicities, different religious faiths and social and economic back grounds. She nurtured them and gifted to the world accomplished professionals and human beings with a sober perception to life tempered with Ananda or "Serene Joy". She was at the vanguard of the National movement that ultimately ejected the Colonial regime. Her children directly challenged the Colonial mind and Colonial clones in every sphere and they formed the future leadership of this country. They are her legacy and a legacy that cannot be expunged. She yet stands in the back ground blessing and gently reminding us of the wisdom, knowledge, education and humanism imparted to us with love and care. We, as Anandians, pledge to honor that ideal now and in the future. Not only as Sri Lankans but as global citizens! We are here today to celebrate and honor a mother - a mother who selflessly mentored us and who is a beacon in our lives even after we flew out to the larger world.

Dialectics of colonialism

Ananda is a product of history and not a historical accident. Unlike privileged missionary schools and the Colonial government sponsored elite schools Ananda was not imposed from above. It was an organic development from below. Its inception was a reaction challenging the Colonial policy of disfranchisement of a larger section of the population to education and worship. What had to be challenged was Colonial hegemony. Antonio Gramsci ( who languished in the prison of Mussolini under fascism), defined hegemony as the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations (Prison Note Books). This was percolated to the conquered through the colonial culture. Edward Said notes, "The cumulative effects of decades of so sovereign a Western handling turned the Orient from alien to Colonial space" (Orientalism). The negative impact of colonial culture on national culture is best told in the words of Franz Fanon. "Colonialism systemically destroys national culture. Colonial domination, very soon manages to disrupt in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people. This cultural obliteration is made possible by the negation of national reality, by new legal relations introduced by the occupying power, by the banishment of the natives and their customs to outlying districts by colonial society, by expropriation, and by the systematic enslaving of men and women." (Wretched of the Earth).

Challenging Colonialism: Olcott and
the liberal arts

Colonal Olcott, the founder father of our school and who arrived from the USA with a mission, established an alternative school system. It was a catalyst that challenged the Colonial culture, colonial mind and evangelical zeal and the monopoly over education by the church. Ananda is unique because it is a blend of tradition and modernity. While its roots run to the traditional wisdom of the Pirivena education, its expressive form of tutoring was based on liberal arts or the arts & sciences, which is one of the most enlightened modern systems of knowledge dissemination introduced by the USA. The introduction of the liberal arts by Olcott and his immediate successors firmly situated the school within an egalitarian, humanistic, liberal and inclusive academic prism. The process of decolonization of the Colonial mind was introduced at the level of education by a well-tuned synthesis of South Asian and Western classical culture along with the sciences. Students were inducted into humanistic traditions devoid of parochial thinking. This was the best of the liberal arts tradition Olcott introduced from his country believing that East and West met in perfect harmony through common humane aspirations. In India, Ram Mohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore ventured along the same ideal of blending the best of east and west.

Pluralism at Ananda

It is a fact that these schools were created to cater to the Buddhist public less privileged under colonialism. However, religious pluralism and humanistic values of the Theosophical Society were strongly ingrained in its personality. Reading through lists of past teachers, pupils, principals and those who funded Ananda, it is evident that they were not restricted to Sinhala-speaking Buddhists. They came from elite and non-elite groups alike, from different regions in Sri Lanka, and from different countries, ethnic, language and religious groups. There were the Tamil-speaking Hindus (mainly from Jaffna), Malays, Sri Lankan Muslims, Dutch-Burghers, Americans, British, Burmese, Indian, Chinese and Germans. At one point of time the Burmese cabinet of ministers and the central committee of the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) had more past pupils of Ananda than the numbers found in the Ceylon Cabinet. Professional doctors, scientist, lawyers, academics and members of the corporate sector present here today are indebted to the wonderful Sinhala speaking and Tamil speaking teachers at Ananda who educated them in the true spirit of knowledge unhindered by any parochial images that haunt our minds today.

The spirit of Ananda

The true sprit of Ananda and its unique tradition was sustained by its students and their teacher-mentors. The personality of a true Anandian noted Deva Rodrigo in the Editorial of the 1967 Spark (magazine of the Ananda College English Literary Union).
"An Anandian has a distinctive attitude to life. His life is filled with compassion. His entertainment is not hedonic or savage. An Anandian considers simplicity as the keen of beauty. We as Anandians have been given an education which instills in us a higher value for qualities such as consideration for others and a deep concern for the national welfare. Our old boys have carried the message of peace to the United Nations. Our old boys filled the state legislature and the Cabinet. The old boys of Ananda have done much to shape the values and attitudes of the intelligentsia of Ceylon".

These sentiments were echoed in 1984 by our respected teacher, the late Mr. V. Thanabalasingham in a booklet titled Ananda College, Colombo

"…..not many of our students belong to the class of the very rich and are indeed part and parcel of the common people of our country. They have a keen sense of the realities of life. Every Anandian as he comes to school and as he steps out of the school gates on his way home is brought into direct contact with the man in the street. This has the wholesome effect of giving him a sound sense of proportion and preventing him from being at any time too full of himself. He also states that "the spirit of tolerance, and the sense of spiritual freedom which usually goes with it, would seem to be in the very air we breathe. A large allowance is made not only for differences of belief and opinion but for the infirmities, the frailties and the eccentricities of mankind". This indeed is the refined ethos of a cultural and intellectual tradition.

Visionary educationists & managerial principals

Before Colonialism ended in Ceylon, a galaxy of dedicated visionary educationists and managerial principals gradually transformed Ananda in to the foremost educational center of excellence in the island. They ensured her material growth from cadjan sheds to its present monumental structures housing all amenities required for academic, residential and recreational activities. We remember with gratitude the names of principals, Leadbeter, Buultjens, Sir DB Jayatilleke, Davis, Moore, Fritz Kunz, Kularatne, Malalasekare, Mettananda, Wijetilleke, Karunanada, Perusinghe and Rajapaksa as part and parcel of our Great Tradition. The establishment of these monumental buildings was translated in to reality due to the sweat and meager earnings of poor people and generous contributions from a few philanthropists. The people of this country, especially the poorer sections, are the rightful owners of every grain of sand, every brick and every square foot at Ananda.

Kularatne: the cosmopolitan rebuilder

Ananda came off age under the stewardship of P. De. S Kularatne. Following an interview he was called the ‘Re builder of Ananda’, by the late Mervyn de Silva a senior journalist, himself a Roman Catholic and Josaphian. Kularatne overhauled the curriculum, encouraged extra curricular activities and set the tone for the development of the total personality of the student. He also undertook a massive building program and introduced for the first time school carnivals for fund raising. Kularatne was ably supported by a brilliant staff that had individuals such as A.H. Sundara Raman, a botanist from Calcutta University, VTS Sivagurunathan (an old boy of Jaffna Hindu college and was later Headmaster at Ananda for 25 years, ending in 1940), CV Ranavaka, TB Jayah, Gregory Weeramantry, C Sundaralingam, GG Ponnambalam and the poet nationalist from Tibet Ven. S Mahinda, to mention a few.

It was a period when the cosmopolitan character of the student body at Ananda became pronounced. In 1922 the college student census indicated that there were 1,084 Buddhists, 83 Hindus, 47 Muslims, 27 Protestant Christians and 16 Roman Catholics among the pupils. Supreme Court judges P. Sri Skandaraja and V Sivasubramaniam, as well as Dr. Kumaran Rutnam were students in the Kularatne era. There were even Tamil girls in the school’s lower classes. In addition, there were Muslim boys such as S.M.H Mashoor and Mohideen Jalaldeen who were the joint secretaries of the Old Boys Association for many years.

anda College also had a continuous flow of Burmese students. Around 1922, about 25 to 40 boys from Burma joined Ananda as boarders. At one time the entire soccer team at Ananda consisted of Burmese. U Chan Htoon, a past pupil of Ananda, later Chief Justice of Burma, sent his son to Ananda in the 1940s. There were a few Indian and Chinese students as well. Kularatne provided religious training for most of them. Muslim and Hindu boys were taught Hinduism and Islam. He found one Christian boy in the hostel and arranged for him to attend church on Sundays. He also established the Tamil Society and the Tamil Literary Association. Ananda also started teaching Tamil to the Sinhalese boys and Sinhala to the Tamil boys. Spoken Sinhala and Spoken Tamil were favorite subjects among students and even teachers. Most unfortunately this good tradition did not continue after Kularatne, and if continued it may have resolved the suspicion and alienation between the two communities.

In the early 20th century Ananda was not only a centre for renaissance culture and learning, but was a place where anti-colonial nationalist sentiments converged. Most leaders of the early 20th century national movement and later those of the radical centre and Marxist movements in Sri Lanka were either educated or were associated with this school. Phillip Gunawardena, NM Perera, Bernard Soyza and SA Wickramasinghe were among them. No school can boast of one of its students (Phillip Gunawardena in this case) fighting against the fascist forces of Franco in Spain. It is also during the Kularatne Era several Indian National Stars descended on Ananda. Amongst them were Ravindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Rajaji.

Walking through corridors of knowledge

Recalling from my own experience, we had scholar teachers who moulded our character and opened our minds to finer aspects of culture and learning. It is with fond memories that I recall in the Primary School how we were inducted to the theatre with Malkumari on the lines of Professor Srachchandra’s Maname.

We tiptoed to the Middle school staff room in the Leadbeter building to hear words of a strange language uttered by Mr. Wijayatilleke – that was the Latin class. Principal SA Wijayatilleke, a past pupil of Ananda, epitomized the liberal arts tradition imparted at Ananda. His gentle voice pronounced with equal eloquence stories from Christian, Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. He was comfortable with western classics (often quoting in Latin) and Asian classics while speaking about the new vistas achieved by modern science. Mr. Samarawickrama our Sinhala master would gently recite vannam and nadagam gi while Mr. G.W Rajapaksa brilliantly took us along the Shakespeare trail.

As senior students we came head on with more argumentative teaching. We were treated to a full blast of anti Colonial Nationalist sentiments by young graduate teachers, themselves old Anandians and graduates of Peradeniya. Two of my teachers in particular made us look at the world and society differently and logically. Ven. Kotagama Vachissara redefined Buddhism to us and broke our dogmatic shackles and instructed us to seek the truth by seeing things in their true perspective. This had to be achieved by avoiding the four extremes (or satara agati) i.e. bias (lobha), prejudice (dosha), fear (bhaya) and illusion (moha). This formula helped me in my research and later in my social activist role. It is Rev. Vachissara’s alternative way of looking at Buddhism as a social ideology that prompted me to select my doctoral topic as, Social base of early Buddhism in South India and Sri Lanka.

Mr Thanabalasingham, the brother of V. Karalasingham of the LSSP, had a sobering effect on us. His English literature class was an education. It is through him that I stepped in to the wider arena of the global political ideology that had a profound impact on my life as a humanist. It was Mr. Thanabalasingham who instructed me on the Stalin – Trotsky debate and other details of world politics. A few years later when I read Issac Deutcher’s trilogy on Trotsky, what became apparent was not so much Trotsky’s brilliance but the penetrative insightfulness of Mr. Thanabalasingham. The cultivation of our youthful minds was further enhanced by the discourses we had with our close friends. We spoke and debated on world literature, Religion, philosophy and current political events. Most of these views came to be inscribed in the Spark Magazine of 1967. I was greatly humbled by my teachers and friends who educated me.

My point here is the liberal, informative and interactive knowledge system we had. What school could boast of such a well rounded education? Most unfortunately in the 1950’s and ‘60’s we only had the residue of the liberal arts tradition from those mentors who were in the staff before the school take over.

Ananda, national aspirations & futuristic role

Ananda was born out of a national need and its very existence was and is twinned with the fate of the nation and national aspirations. It not only provided the personnel to serve the country, Ananda consistently responded to national needs. This posed a contradiction especially during the post Colonial period. The terminal period of ‘liberal education’ at Ananda in general coincided with the emergence of ultra nationalist Sinhala as well as Tamil movements in the decade of 1960 and the schools takeover by the state in the same decade. The long-term consequence of this situation on the nation was, the outbreak of several youth uprisings, a tragic war of attrition and a culturally lumpanized society.

The post war scenario has placed Sri Lanka at a cross roads. That is, whether we venture along the old destructive, parochial and confrontational path or alternatively move along a path of trust, understanding and accommodation so vitally needed to the long term sustenance of the social fabric of this country. We cannot afford the carnage of another war dragging this island society through untold misery and pain. There are no more threats of Colonial domination or social fascist forces. Ananda must now intervene at the national level and provide its leadership towards national reconstruction and reconciliation.

For this change, a paradigm shift is an imperative. That is the need to democratize education and its management moving away from the present system of education that subverts knowledge. One of the priority areas is to de-link the state from the process of politicizing education management and parochial text book writing. Reggie Siriwardena highlighted this tragedy in the following words. "In the history of communal violence in Sri Lanka….education has been one of the principal battlegrounds", as text books became the New Testament of parochialism. State controlled education has outrun its functional use in the new pan national and global context. As much as state financial support is essential, it must step back from controlling the curriculum and teachers. Ananda could provide a road map towards this end.

The futuristic role Ananda is destined to play is the reproduction of the world citizen who does not fear globalization. She must be re-embedded in the original liberal arts tradition as a vehicle of change preparing her children for global citizenship. They are to be nurtured as critical minded independent thinkers with an uninhibited spirit of inquiry. Their desire for social justice must be tutored within a problem-oriented and issue-related curriculum. In 2001Amitav Ghosh spoke of the Archipelago of Hope. Ananda must reassert her status as an ‘archipelago of hope’. As Ghosh surmises, "creating those sanctuaries that remain stubbornly open to the flow of opinions, stubbornly hospitable to imagined enemies, stubbornly resistant to the floodwaters that seek to grind all forms of life into uniform grains of sand". It is my dream to see Ananda rediscover her personality of the pre 1970’s decades. My sentiments are best translated in Amartya Sen’s word where he idealizes "intellectual pluralism underlying its religious diversity…the pluralist, interactive and dynamic heritage" (Argumentative India). This indeed is the inclusiveness of the intellect applicable in a global context. Ananda is destined to play this role and be a change agent and reassert her leadership by reviving its liberal arts tradition of knowledge and humanism for the next generation.


Some 1500 years back, a cultured individual inscribed his aesthetic inspiration on the Mirror Wall at Sigiriya. The dialectics of this short verse is perhaps, one of the best found in south Asian poetic expressions. It reads:

Budal mi siyowa aami

Belu belu boho janaa

Gi liyoluyen


I am Budal, and I arrived here alone

Wherever I looked, songs were inscribed by many

Hence, I did not to write

But Budal did write and inscribe a classical expression at that. In the same manner, we have gathered here today to revere the name of our Alma Mater, Ananda. Each of you hold close to your hearts fond memories celebrating her name and personality and have inscribed them on your own mirror wall of gratitude. Hence, I too place on record my homage to Ananda Matha and what she means to me, to Sri Lanka and to the world. These are shared and precious sentiments that bind us all to an ethos that conclusively altered the history of Sri Lanka.

(The writer wishes to thank Sanjiva Senanayake - Editor Ananda 1886-2011 - for the information on the history of Ananda).

Source - Sunday Island - Friday 11th December 2011

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