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Piyadasa Sirisena wielded pen in the cause of freedom

The second half of the 19th century marked the period in which British rule in this country was consolidated. Systematic use of the nation’s resources and introduction of a decentralized administration commenced during this period. But the commercial exploitation of this land was designed to ultimately benefit the colonizer. Concurrently the British also initiated a subtle campaign of religious indoctrination and an equally and deliberate erosion of this nation’s culture and heritage, again for the long-term benefit of their rule.

Undercurrents of resistance

Piyadasa Sirisena

During the late 19th century, religious conversions and the work of the British Missionaries led to the emergence of an undercurrent of unrest especially in the deep South. A modicum of opposition to the activities of the Missionaries, was taking root among the Buddhist monks in particular. But open resistance was not yet strong and widespread.

The Panadura debate

The first strike against religious invasion of the people and in a broad sense a major blow on behalf of Buddhist and national resurgence was struck with the Panadura debate in 1873, between Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and the Christian clergy. The Panadura debate remains a watershed in the Buddhist revival and indeed a turning point in history.

Proselytization India too

The Colonial rulers adopted a similar thrust through religious agents in some of their other colonies, principally India.

But in India too as in Sri Lanka, there emerged a new leadership which was inspired by patriotism and a deep sense of nationalism. Thus, Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Pateletal and others plunged headlong into a protracted campaign designed to restore national pride and gain freedom for India.

The main components of the struggle for political emancipation was indeed nationalism and patriotism in both India and Sri Lanka. And both these approaches finally achieved the desired results. So contrary to equating nationalism to chauvinism that some modern day critics talk of, it could be of singular benefit to a nation under the boot of colonialism.

Buddhist and national revival

The Buddhist revival, in which Colonel Henry Steele Olcott was to play a major role led to the establishment of a number of Buddhist schools. In the three principal cities, Colombo, Kandy and Galle educational institutions which received the support of wealthy Buddhist families, fostered Buddhist and national sentiment.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Following Olcott, Anagarika Dharmapala, the great Buddhist leader of the early 20th century was the principal figure in the reawakening of national pride and resistance to foreign rule.

Anagarika Dharmapala was an inspiring personality who shed a life of wealth and comfort to lead the religious struggle against the British. He became a cult figure whose work had a dominant impact on the life and time of that dark era of foreign domination.

Piyadasa Sirisena - emergence of a dedicated nationalist

It was in this backdrop of a gradually emergent resistance movement that our hero, Piyadasa Sirisena made his mark. He was destined to be a prominent and determined Buddhist leader.

Piyadasa Sirisena was first and last, a dedicated nationalist and patriot. His central mission in life was to lead the people away from blindly following the British, restoring a sense of pride in our culture and arousing Buddhist sentiment among the populace.

In pursuit of this, he fearlessly used his pen. He was also an orator and temperance leader. Though he shunned politics he undoubtedly played a key role that led to the formation of the Sinhala Maha Sabha. Accordingly Prof Wiswa Warnapala former Cabinet Minister eminent University don, Piyadasa Sirisena together with Anagarika Dharmapala created the framework and the beginnings of political formation.

Piyadasa Sirisena was born on August 31, 1875 at Athuruwella in Induruwa, a verdant and picturesque village. During the time of Sirisena’s birth its hinterland had agriculture as its main source of living for the people.

His was a typical rural middle-class background. Piyadasa Sirisena’s early career is too well-known to be retold.

But his chance meeting with the Anagarika at age nine needs repetition. It did not merely change his original name Pedrick Silva, but also paved the way for a new life.

It was indeed a most fortunate meeting - even from a national perspective - for Sirisena’s career and his work positively impacted on that period of our country.

Literary pursuits

Sirisena’s literary career began with contributions to Sithumina and later Sarasavi Sandarasa, among the earliest Sinhala instruments of Buddhist revival in print.

Sirisena is also popularly regarded as the father of the Sinhala novel. His first novel was published in a serialized form in Sarasavi Sandarasa in 1904. There is of course a continuous controversy as to who published the first Sinhala novel.

Sirisena’s novels of his own admission were aimed at reforming society. In the course of this, their quality was affected to a point. Also his long drawn-out discourses on Buddhism though may have inspired the reader, interfered with the flow of a story.

But he had perhaps rare ability in plot-creation and in generating a sense of expectation in the reader. According to the renowned critic, Prof. Wimal Dissanayake one of the greatest contributions Sirisena made in the early part of this century was the popularization of the habit of reading among the literate Sinhalese.

Sirisena published 22 novels and short stories. His Rosalin and Jayatissa sold more than 25,000 copies within the first two editions. This is a record unmatched even today by any Sinhala novelist.

Also Sirisena’s novels and short stories sold more than 100,000 copies in all which again is a record. The fact they are even sold today adds to his lasting popularity as a novelist. Some of his novels like ‘Dingiri Menika’ and ‘Wimalatissa Hamaduruwange Mudal Pettiya’ have gone into the 10th reprint. Recently they were reprinted in volumes of five novels in each volume.

Sinhala Jatiya

From the novel to the publication of a weekly newspaper was another significant step in his career. Though ‘Sinhala Jathiya’ achieved a degree of popularity as a newspaper the economics of publishing a newspaper were at times difficult to cope with. Yet Sinhala Jathiya was amongst the influential organs of national renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s.

Temperance Movement

The British policy on liquor was a cause of growing discontent amongst the Buddhists of the era.

An anti-liquor lobby gradually took shape. Within a short time it had the support of the leading Buddhists. They soon formed a Temperance Movement campaigning openly in different parts of the country. In the frontline of this campaign were national leaders of the calibre of F. R. and D.S. Senanayake, the Hewawitharane brothers, Dr. W. A. De Silva, Arthur V. Dias and other prominent men.

Piyadasa Sirisena too became an active agitator against liquor and a flag bearer of the Temperance Movement. He used ‘Sinhala Jathiya’ in exhorting people against the habit of liquor. He also brought to bear on the Temperance Movement his oratorical skills wherever the anti-liquor meetings were held islandwide.

The 1915 riots

An event that led to serious erosion in the faith on the much-vaunted British justice and fairplay were the riots of 1915 which originated in Kandy, but later spread to other parts of the country.

During nationwide turmoil and rioting the British resorted to Marshal Law and there were clashes with the rising nationalist forces of this country. It was put down ruthlessly and in the process the British jailed many leading figures. Thus the Senanayakes, Hewawitharanas, Sir D B Jayatilake, Dr. W A de Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena and a host of others numbering 60 were jailed.

The manner in which the British reacted or rather over-reacted to the riots drew searing criticism from a spectrum of leading men, including some Britishers themselves.

During his jail term lasting some 60 days, Sirisena produced a novel which again centred on nationalist ideals.

Piyadasa Sirisena’s multi-facted career reflected the diverse struggles waged by leading Buddhists of the British era.

The enduring nature of his great contribution to national life of this country remains inviolate and is a legacy of courage, dedication and genuine love for this ancient land of ours.

Piyadasa Sirisena was completely above petty divisions based on caste, creed and community.

He openly worked against these destructive elements. His life was exemplary and worthy of emulation.


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