Ananda's role in Buddhist education
In the aftermath of the Great Debate of Panadura (1873), Buddhist
leaders, both lay and monastic, focused their attention on the necessity
for a system of education that suited the needs and aspirations of the
Buddhists of this country.
Thus began the search for 'Buddhist education' and the establishment
of institutions to impart it. Two important leaders of this movement
were the Theosophists, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavetsky,
who arrived in this island in 1890.
As Prof. Heinz Bechert, the famous German Indologist rightly points
out, "The fact that two prominent Westerners came to Sri Lanka out of
sympathy and admiration for Buddhism restored the self-confidence of the
Buddhists in a period when Christian powers seemed to dominate the whole
world." ('The World of Buddhism', edited by Heinz Bechert and Richard
Gombrich, p. 274).
The Theosophists were instrumental in founding the Buddhist
Theosophical Society in Sri Lanka, which had as its main aims, the
preservation of the heritage of Buddhism, and the promotion of Buddhist
education. The first educational institution to be established was
Ananda College in 1886.
Today, Ananda has become the premier Buddhist educational institution
in the land. What was the vision of the founders of Ananda, and what was
precisely meant by 'Buddhist education'?
Buddhist education, in the view of the founding fathers, was
two-fold: the teaching of Buddhism in a scientific and rational way, and
the imparting of the system of Buddhist values. The Theosophists held
Buddhism in great esteem, and for them, it was not merely a religion but
a philosophy with a rational appeal.
Western scholars were beginning to study Buddhism in its original
form, as preserved in the Pali scriptures. As H. G. Wells, the English
historian says, in his 'Outline of History': "The fundamental teaching
of Gautama, as it is now being made plain to us by the study of original
sources, is clear and simple and in the closest harmony with modern
ideas. It is beyond all dispute the achievement of one of the most
penetrating intelligences the world has ever known." The Buddhist
leaders who were inspired by the Theosophists to re-examine the
philosophical value of Buddhism in the light of contemporary modes of
thought, wanted this body of philosophy to be taught in the schools so
that the new generation of Buddhist youth would be able to defend
themselves against inroads from external powers.
The second goal of Buddhist education was to impart the system of
values fostered by Buddhism. The founding fathers of Buddhist education
thought that it was necessary for Buddhist children not only to be aware
of this system of Buddhist values, in an academic sense, but also to
grow up in an environment in which these values were put into practice.
Tolerance, for instance, acquires real meaning only when it is
practised in everyday living, in school and outside.
Thus new educational institutions such as Ananda had a special role
to play in promoting Buddhist education in this country - a role
different from that of those public schools moulded by the colonial
masters to suit their needs and aspirations. A typical public school
product of the time owed his loyalty mainly to the British. The
Anandian, on the other hand, had the interests of the people at heart.
While principals such as Sir, D. B. Jayatilaka, P. de S. Kularatna.
Prof. Gunapala Malalasekera and L. H. Mettananda inspired the students
to champion the cause of nationalism, young men such as N. M. Perera, S.
A. Wickramasingha, Philip Gunawardhana and Bernard Soysa, who were later
to lead the masses to political freedom, had their education at Ananda.
A typical public school product had his education in English, while
his counterpart in the so-called 'vernacular school' had his education
in the language of his people. For the former, the glory of English knew
no bounds. He could quote Shakespeare or Wordsworth as any Englishman
could, but he was an alien in his own language and culture.
The Anandian, on the other hand, appreciated the value of English,
but certainly not at the expense of his own language - be it Sinhala or
Tamil. Of course, the public school product ridiculed the Anandian for
his inability to keep the 'o's and 'aw's apart in his English
pronunciation, but that did not deter him from the study of English.
What the Anandian objected to was not the English language or
literature but the sheer social snobbery that accompanied it. Principals
such as S. A. Wijetilake made us enjoy the passages of the English Bible
as well as versus from the Dhammapada and the Bhagavat gita.
The mood of the day was that the languages of the populace - the
swabhashas - were inefficient media of science and technical education.
The brown sahibs maintained that subjects such as science and
mathematics were beyond the reach of the native languages. This
challenge was taken up by Ananda, while principals such as Kularatna,
and veteran teachers such as Karunananda, published a series of text
books on mathematics and science in Sinhala. Principal Mettananda
championed their cause in public.
All this paved the way for the resurgence of the swabashas in the
wake of the nationalist revival of the early fifties.
The Anandian grew up in an environment in which other ethnic groups,
languages and creeds were held in high esteem. Tolerance was a value
that he learnt by example. Among some of my best friends and teachers at
Ananda were Tamils and Hindus. In fact, I had my first lessons in Tamil
under the guidance of a Tamil teacher who had earned much respect among
C. Suntharalingam, who later become the Professor of Mathematics at
the University College, V. T. S. Sivagurunathan, the author of the
popular series of textbooks "Raja's Picture Lesson in English", and T.
Thanabalasingham were among some of the best Tamil teachers of Ananda.
Many were the principals, teachers and students who built the new
tradition of Buddhist education at Ananda during its span. Its role,
however, has not come to an end, for the need for Buddhist education
seems to be greater today than ever before. May Ananda succeed in
fulfilling this role with vigour so that the people of this country can
live together in peace, harmony and dignity.