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Sixty sixth death anniversary:

Piyadasa Sirisena’s role as a communicator


Piyadasa Sirisena

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 tyranny.

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 this study.

English publications

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 missionaries.

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 the latter.

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 Dharmapala.

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 national regeneration.

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 publication.

As he progressed in his chosen field, Sirisena's innate nationalistic instincts made him enter into the maelstrom of the Buddhist Revivalist movement.

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 Society.

In most of his literary and journalistic work the central theme was nationalism, revival of Buddhism, besides of course attacks against the British government.

Novels

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.

 

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