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Remembering Dr. G. P. Malalasekera - an outstanding Lankan

by Stanley E. Abeynayake

The 30th death anniversary of Dr. G. P. Malalasekera, scholar, professor, Buddhist leader and diplomat, fell on April 23. His excellent store-house of knowledge regarding Pali, Buddhism, Buddhist Civilisation, not to mention English, Latin, Greek and french languages, was unique.

Dr. G. P. Malalasekera

Born on November 8, 1899 at Malamulla, Panadura, his father was a well-known Ayurvedic physician, Ayur. Dr. M. S. Pieris Malalasekera.

As a school boy, young George Pieris Malalasekera as he was known then, was sent to St. John's College, Panadura, for his English education. It was a leading college in the English medium under the principalship of Cyril Jansz, an educationist of repute during the colonial era.

At present it is named after him as a mark of respect - Cyril Jansz Vidyalaya. After receiving his education in that school from 1907-17, he joined the Medical College, Colombo to qualify as a doctor with the then diploma - L.M.S. (Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery, equivalent to the present degree of M.B.B.S).

The death of his father cut short his medical studies. Circumstances compelled him to give up his hopes of becoming a medical doctor. By following a correspondence course from England, he passed the B.A. (London) examination, 1919 externally in the first division. His subjects were English, Latin, Greek and French. He was the youngest candidate to obtain the Bachelor of Arts degree in the British empire in that year with a first class.

Coming under the influence of Buddhist renaissance of Srimath Angarika Dharmapala, he changed his foreign names of George and Pieris to those of Gunapala Piyasena and henceforth came to be known as G. P. (Gunapala Piyasena) Malalasekera. He took to teaching at Ananda College, Colombo, with his B.A. (London) under the principalship of P. de S. Kularatne. Both of them were the architects of the Sinhala national costume.

In quick succession Malalasekera rose up to be the Vice Principal and acting Principal of Ananda. In 1923, he proceeded to join the University of London and obtained the two post-graduate degrees of M.A. and Ph.D simultaneously in 1925, in oriental languages majoring in Pali.

His thesis was 'Pali Literature in Sri Lanka'. On his return to the motherland in 1926, he was appointed Principal of Nalanda Vidyalaya, Colombo.

Shortly afterwards, he succeeded Ven. Suriyagoda as lecturer in the then University College, Colombo to lecture in English on Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit for the London degree examinations. When the University of Ceylon was founded in 1942, he became the Professor of Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit and Buddhist Civilisation. In course of time he was the Dean, Faculty of Oriental Studies and Editor-in-Chief of the Buddhist Encylopaedia. His research on Buddhism and Buddhist Civilisation is a class by itself - excellent - locally and abroad.

His contribution by way of research papers and publications to the Pali Text Society of London under the distinguished patronage of scholars like Rhys David and Miss I. B. Harner are stupendous, voluminous and highly knowledgable. From 1927 twice he was elected the Joint Secretary of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. Thrice he was the Vice-President and functioned as its President from 1939-1957.

During his tenure of office, he saw to it that this congress got constructed a magnificent-storeyed building for its headquarters at Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo-7. He took a delight in the activities of the Viharamahadevi Girls' Home, Biyagama and was responsible for the establishment of boys' homes at Panadura and Ja-Ela. During his presidency of the Buddhist Congress for 25 years, he was fortunate to address 20 of its annual sessions. His 'magnum opus' or great work is the famous 'Gunapala Sinhala-English Dictionary'. Of equal importance is the Pali dictionary - Sinhala-English. An ardent member of the Ceylon Asiatic Society, he was conferred honorary degrees from the reputed universities in the UK, France, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma). He represented our country at several parleys abroad notably, Conference on Living Religions (1924 - London), Conference on World Religious (1936 - London), Association of Occidental (Western) and Oriental Philosophers (Hawaii - 1949), Association of Indian Philosophers - India, meeting of the Pakistani Philosophers (1953 - Karachi), and the Seminar on Religions for Peace, (San Francisco, USA, 1965). So numerous were the essays, write-ups, literary contributions he made and radio talks delivered over Buddhist, religious and cultural matters and Social service assignments. He was the founder president of the World Fellowship of Buddhists inaugurated within the hallowed precincts of the 'Sri Dalada Maligawa' (Temple of The Tooth Relic) Kandy in 1950 at the suggestion of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress.

From 1950-58, he held that exalted position in that internationally famous institution. Dr. Malalasekera was appointed the first High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to the USSR (Soviet Russia) in 1958 by Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike when he opened up ambassadorial or diplomatic connections with socialist countries such as Russia, China, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia etc.

Subsequently, he functioned as the High Commissioner in Canada and was our UN Representative in New York. Finally, he was the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in the UK.

In 1967, he returned to the motherland to accept the highest post in the field of higher education as the chairman of the National Higher Education Commission which responsible post he held till 1971.

A virtuous, erudite, unostentatious, religious-minded, pious, mild-mannered gentleman with an impeccable character, he breathed his last on April 23, 1973, - 30 years ago. Of his brilliant three children - two daughters and one son, one daughter excelled in Western music (piano) and the other daughter became a science graduate whilst the only son Vijaya studied law at the University of Cambridge and was called to the English Bar as Barrister-at-Law. He hold a very high position in the sphere of personnel management in a reputed mercantile establishment.

May Dr. G. P. Malalasekera attain the Supreme Bliss of Nirvana.


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