Sixty sixth death anniversary:
Piyadasa Sirisena’s role as a communicator
The 66th death anniversary of Piyadasa Sirisena fell on May 22, 2012.
Born in 1875, he was one of the most important figures in the non formal
struggle for independence from British rule. But concurrently and before
the final thrust for independence, Piyadasa Sirisena was also an opinion
builder and communicator who was dedicated to the revival of
nationalism. In fact he played a vital role in this regard from the turn
of the 19th century until this country was on the threshold of gaining
freedom from Colonial rule.
This presentation is made on behalf of the Piyadasa Sirisena
Commemoration Society, to highlight especially the above ability of his
as well as of some other key personalities in the Buddhist revival since
the mid 19th century. In other words in this account we will endeavour
to portray how this particular attribute of the individuals mentioned
influenced the thoughts and the collective mindset of the people. On the
other hand in several other countries too such personalities have had a
decisive impact in combating Colonialism and tyranny.
One could think of no better leaders in this regard than Mahathma
Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru - their communication and debating, skills
in that long drawn out battle against British imperialism. Such
endeavour finally enabled Gandhi and Nehru to outwit the British and
influence the masses, causing the eventual fall of an Empire.
Yet again, Rabindranath Tagore the Nobel laureate utilized another
medium of communication, poetry to raise the consciousness of the
Indians towards reaching the cherished goal of freedom.
When Czarist Russia was subject to brutal excesses it was novelists
like Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky and Gogol who roused the people to fight
More recently the purges of the Stalinist regime were portrayed with
telling effect by Alexander Solsetyen the Russian author in 'Gulag
Archipelago' the monumental novel.
In respect of this island and the emergence of principal
communication and opinion builders we intend firstly to give a backdrop
to the British era beginning the mid 19th century. This will hopefully
place the period in question in its proper perspective for the sake of
During this period the British government strengthened their control
of the Maritime provinces.
In a sphere that has a particular bearing on this study the
government introduced English publications the first of which was the
government gazette in early 1800 and later a publication named 'Colombo
Journal' (1831). But the latter was critical of the government.
Subsequent to these early efforts a stronger form of resistance to
missionaries and other anti-Buddhist work appeared.
It was the Buddhist clergy some of whom knew the English language who
began counteracting them.
Three leading priests of the time, Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera,
Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera and the Chief Priest of the Ambagahawatte
Temple set about the task of counteracting the campaigns of the
They use an effective visual medium indeed a potent one used even
now, posters for this purpose.
The counter campaign gathered ground. But the missions backed by the
state intensified their anti-Buddhist work.
It was at the height of this tussle that Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda
Thera issued an open challenge to the Christian Priests for a debate on
the merits and demerits of each other's religion which was accepted by
This led to the historic verbal battle held in Panadura in 1873 which
lasted two days and attracted islandwide attention despite the primitive
facilities that were available at the time for communication.
It aroused unprecedented interest and marked the beginning of the
revival of Buddhism. It was clearly the turning point and a watershed in
the history of Ceylon.
The restoration of Buddhism began to proceed apace with the support
forthcoming from an increasing number of people who were until then
disappointed about the decline of their religion.
Impressed by newspaper reports of the debate which even reached the
United States, a theosophist named Henry Steele Olcott exchanged
communications with Ven. Gunananda Thera.
He then made a momentous decision to come to Sri Lanka.
Much of Colonel Olcott's pioneering work to establish Buddhist
educational institutions is too well embedded in the minds of the
Buddhist and needs no repetition.
Nationalist and opinion builder
Ceylon was fortunate that the revivalist torch lit by Ven. Gunananda
Thera and Colonel Olcott was kept burning brightly as a result of the
emergence of perhaps the greatest revivalist of all, the Anagarika
Few national leaders could match the communication skills and the
persuasive power he possessed to convince people as much as the
Anagarika. His contribution in this regard is widely known and it is
redundant to touch upon it in detail.
He also paved the way for the entry of yet another communicator one
of those whose impact was indelible in the cause of Buddhism and
There is no evidence, whether Piyadasa Sirisena possessed
genealogical strains which played a role in shaping his eventual career
as a writer. But there is clear evidence that even as a nine-year old he
possessed literary skills and was able to recite a poem of his own
creation at a meeting addressed by Anagarika Dharmapala in Bentota.
It was the turning point of his life. After a brief stint as a Sub
Editor of a Sinhala tabloid which enabled him cut his teeth in
journalism became the editor of yet another similar Buddhist
As he progressed in his chosen field, Sirisena's innate nationalistic
instincts made him enter into the maelstrom of the Buddhist Revivalist
Piyadasa Sirisena was bold and enterprising enough to begin
publishing a Sinhala newspaper - Sinhala Jathiya in 1905. He was also at
one time Editor of the Sinhala Baudhaya published by the Mahabodhi
In most of his literary and journalistic work the central theme was
nationalism, revival of Buddhism, besides of course attacks against the
Piyadasa Sirisena authored 20 novels of which the first 'Rosalyn and
Jayatissa' was the most successful having sold more than 25,000 copies
just in two editions. No Sinhala novel of that era or later had been as
successful as 'Rosalyn and Jayatissa'. Piyadasa Sirisena also was the
first novelist in this country to produce detective stories. He authored
five of these and one of them 'Dingiri Menika' was made into a highly
successful film in the mid 1950s.
Besides novels he was also a poet of exceptional merit. Once again
the numerous poems he created were on Buddhist, Nationalist and
Historical themes that evoked in the literate local populous a love for
this nation. In a fourth category of literary work Sirisena authored
books which encompassed philosophical views.
Spectrum of skills
The spectrum of Piyadasa Sirisena's skills made him without doubt the
most prolific writer and opinion builder during the early years of the
20th century. His impact on the revival of national sentiment through
his writings remains unmatched in the modern history of this country.
We should also appreciate the astounding work capacity of Piyadasa
Sirisena. It is said that at most times he slept four hours a day,
educated a family of nine children and was the head of a printing
establishment with 40 employees. This was in addition to the nationwide
drives that he participated in work connect to the Temperance movement.
The Piyadasa Sirisena Commemoration Society salutes the memory of
this great Ceylonese of his time.