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Piyadasa Sirisena:

Farsighted social and religious reformer

The 132nd birth anniversary of Piyadasa Sirisena fell on August 31. This article is a tribute by J.C. Savanadasa, Secretary of the Piyadasa Sirisena Commemoration Society.

FREEDOM STRUGGLE: The long drawn out agitation for freedom from British Colonial Rule was conducted on many fronts - religious, cultural, political and social. In the midst of this struggle were men from different fields of Ceylonese life.

It is a significant aspect of our history that all of them were partners in this county’s final emancipation as an independent nation.

During the last two decades of the 19th century the Resistance to the British in the Kandyan Provinces had come to an end. It was the fall of the last bastion bringing the entirety of the island under British suzerainty.

On the other hand there emerged a reawakening of nationalism in the Maritime Provinces and the beginnings of resistance which first featured the Buddhist opposition to the activities of the Christian Missionaries. The British had in all its colonies utilized Christian Missionaries to strengthen their hold on the latter. It was part of an overall imperial design.

Admittedly the British brought with them enterprise and industry and a system of governance, that had its merits. Their educational system had helped in the establishment of some excellent schools in different parts of the country.

Infrastructure too profited from their presence. But they had also in the process of colonizing this country damaged an ancient culture and alienated the Buddhists. Through the wok of Christian Missionaries religious conversion was practiced.

The scorched earth policy of the British in the early 19th century especially in the highlands had seriously affected agriculture and the peasantry.

These acts of commission and omission paved the way for the build up of resistance. Men driven by a sense of patriotism formed the backbone of this movement.

Piyadasa Sirisena (1875 - 1946) pioneer novelist, journalist, poet and philosopher was one such individual whose life and work in a climate pregnant with overwhelming power of those who ruled was reflective of his love for his motherland, its culture and religion.

N. E. Weerasooriya Q.C. in his monumental work on the history of Sri Lanka observes that Sirisena was an instrument of the silent revolution that swept the country and prepared its soil for political emancipation.

Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera was the first of the few low-country patriots to rise against the Missionaries and the efforts to convert the people.

There is evidence that unsuspecting people were lured into converting themselves to the Christian faith at the behest of the Missionaries.

Also preferential treatment for those converted had been extensively practiced as regards government employment. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera’s oratorical skills enabled him to effectively combat the Missionaries in the historic Panadura debate in 1873.

That event was a watershed in the Buddhist revival.

National pride was also restored by the work of Colonel Henry Steele (Olcott, who was inspired by a report of the Panadura debate which reached him in the United States. He was the founder of the Theosophical Society.

Colonel Olcott arrived in the country in 1890. In due course he established a number of Buddhist Schools. The first in Galle and later in Colombo and Kandy. They fostered Buddhist thought and supported the revivalist movement.

The torch of resurgence of Buddhism lit by Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and Henry Steele Olcott passed down to the next generation of nationalists. The foremost of them was Anagarika Dharmapala.

He was fortunate that the idealism and commitment he displayed was followed by other ardent nationalists like Piyadasa Sirisena, Walisinha Harischandra and John de Silva.

Piyadasa Sirisena first began his services towards culture and religion by editing a Buddhist weekly.

In 1903 Sirisena founded the ‘Sinhala Jathiya’ with the expressed objective of influencing national feelings. He constantly took the reader back to the country’s long culture and civilization that had once nurtured a stable and prosperous society.

Sirisena’s literary activities took another form, the novel.

Through this medium he was able to project to the reader the basic tenets of Buddhism, the harmful impact of imitating blindly certain aspects of the Englishmen’s life and ways.

In yet another form of literary activity poetry he once again had a pervasive influence on the reader. He was one of the leading poets of that era known as the Colombo period of poets. Historians note that poetry had played an important part in the rekindling of national sentiments.

Perhaps, one of the most vital contributions Sirisena made towards national development in the early 20th century was the inculcation of the reading habit among literate Sinhalese.

In all his extensive work involving renaissance of Buddhism Sirisena was sincere and unpretentious. He was first and last true lover of this country.

European history of the past, reflects the role of literary men whose talent and ability contributed to the attainment of national goals.

Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo exemplified the spirit of nationalism in their respective countries. Gorky was the spearhead of the intellectual forces which created a psychological climate that culminated in the Russian revolution.

In the same way Rabindranath Tagore eulogized Indian culture and rejuvenated a dormant spirit.

Around 1920 the Indian freedom struggle took a new turn. Its leading proponents like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru began a campaign for Suwaraj or self rule.

This development had a positive impact on the Ceylonese National Leadership engaged in the Freedom struggle. Piyadasa Sirisena used his newspaper to bind these two facets - National Freedom and Self-government.

The British who mistrusted the cultural aspirations of activists like Sirisena felt that it would merge with the political struggle that was being conducted on another platform.

Sirisena’s emergence as a social and moral reformer of eminence soon brought him into close contact with the indigenous political leadership who were pursuing the goal of independence from Colonial rule.

The British liquor policy and its damaging influence on the mass of the Ceylonese led to formation of the temperance movement.

Those prominent in this field were F R and D S Senanayake, the Hewavitharana Brothers, Sir Baron Jayathilaka and the Wijewardenes.

Piyadasa Sirisena too became a staunch supporter of the temperance lobby.

The anti-liquor campaign brought together a curious mix of Ceylonese the Buddhists, the Methodists and the Baptists. The temperance struggle also received the blessings of another great Ceylonese of that time - Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam.

A feature of Asian and African freedom struggles was that when repression was used it further steeled the resolve of those who fought for freedom.

Thus the Jallan Wallah Bagh massacre, the infamous episode of British India increased the tempo of Indian resistance. Gandhi and Nehru in particular rededicated themselves to fight for freedom with renewed vigour.

At the height of Sri Lankan struggle for independence and the rights of Buddhists, the British jailed National Leaders like D. S. and F. R. Senanayake, Dr C. A. Hewavitharana, Piyadasa Sirisena and many others. This followed the riots of 1915.

Though Sirisena was a nationalist he was never petty minded in his attitude towards other religions or communities. His role was mainly that of a conscience - raiser for his nation’s age old culture and religion.

When Ceylon entered the fourth decade of the last century the long and multi-faceted liberation movement was nearing its cherished objectives and constitutional reforms precedent to the granting of freedom close at hand.

Piyadasa Sirisena died two years before Ceylon gained independence.

He was a rare breed of Social and Religious Reformer whose contribution to National Independence will remain solidly embedded in our history.

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