You have entered a UNIVERSITY - what does this mean?
Addressing a gathering of literati and glitterati on the occasion of
this year’s Cumaratunga Munidasa commemoration day held at Folk Art
Centre Battaramulla, Minister Wimal Weerawansa is reported to have said
“thank God! I did not go to university”. As he claims, had he gone to
university, he would have been a chip of the traditional mould of
academics who he underrated as “a worthless pro-Western unpatriotic
lot”. He asserted that he was so pleased that he did not go to
university. I agree that Weerawansa is cast in a different superman
mould with his infinite knowledge and ground breaking discovery of
Balaya fish curry but I disagree with his derogatory remark concerning
the university community at large. I note that when he made this
statement, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera who is a brilliant product of
Peradeniya University was by his side.
Weerawansa is also on record as saying that he has never been to
Sigiriya, the nation’s proud mirror wall of aesthetic skill. No doubt
Weerawansa can be forgiven for not going to university because all who
aspire to go to the university cannot do so, but he cannot be forgiven
for not going to Sigiriya as anyone who wants to visit Sigiriya can do
so at will. One would wonder why the nationalist and patriot par
excellent chose to boycott the bare breasted damsels who present to the
world our rich heritage and archaeological wonder that caught the eyes
of billions of people from 477BC to this day.
I wrote this preamble not to enter in to an endless confrontation
with Weerawansa. His statement provoked me to write this article for two
reasons. Firstly my aim is to draw the attention of especially the
freshers who are now in a long wait to enter a university and who know
nothing of the university community or the true meaning of University
education and the potential pitfalls that are hidden or not obvious to
them at first. Secondly Weerawansa’s speech could convey quite a wrong
signal to civil society to establish a belief that the country’s
university system produces a good-for-nothing lot with pro-Western
values and ideology.
It is reported that the intake of students for the current year is to
be about 25,000, the largest number ever taken to the National
University System. This augurs well for the country because the country
has to provide more and more opportunities to its youth.
I entered the Peradeniya University, then University of Ceylon on
October 14, 1969. All freshers were asked to congregate at the Arts
Theatre (AT) for the welcome address following registration delivered by
Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914 -1996) who was the Director of
Student welfare at the time. Two of my friends and I made it a point to
take seats closer to the podium for us to have a better view of Prof.
Sarachchcadra who was an iconic figure in my heart since my school days.
Prof. Sarachchandra came on the dot and stood before the freshers. There
was pin drop silence for a moment. That was the first day many of us
happened to listen to Sarachchandra, the man who made Peradeniya proud
and world famous and was responsible for being the forerunner of the
Peradeniya clan better known as Peradeniya gurukulaya.
He looked at the students passionately and asked:
Prof: Where have you come to?
Students: All in one voice said - “university”
Prof: Why have you all come to the university?
Students: (Pat came the reply) “to study”
Prof: “Weren’t you all studying at your schools where you all came
Prof: Then what was the purpose of your coming here?
Students: A number of replies came – “for higher studies”, “get a
degree” and so on...
Prof: Yeah, there you are. We have come to the point.
You say you have come here to obtain a degree, yes, it may be so. But
is it the purpose of your coming to the university? Obtaining a degree
may be one aspect of university education, but it is not the fundamental
objective or the purpose of being here. If you concede that the main
functionality of the university is to confer degrees to people, you are
sadly mistaken. If that is the case, then the university will be a
factory awarding degrees. Is it the case? Definitely it isn’t the case.
We will now see what a university is for and what the purpose of a
(This article is not the verbatim of Prof. Sarachchandra’s speech but
it contains the message he conveyed to us on that day. I have revisited
and developed the contents to suit the current environment in line with
the developments that have taken place during the last four decades.)
What is a University?
The word "university" is derived from the Latin universitas
magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means "community of teachers
and scholars”. This could be very briefly explained. It has a broad
meaning. Students are not there to listen to your lecturer or tutor or
take notes and memorise what they say and prepare for exams as you did
at your school. You are here for the discovery of new knowledge, the
testing of received knowledge and the creative, responsible and
effective application of knowledge. In your school your Master came to
the class, taught you a lesson, you took notes, did your homework and
sat for exams. Here you have come for discovery of new knowledge which
somebody has not taught you or asked you to do. On your own initiative
you are expected to embark on research. You are not obliged to accept
what professors say.
You are supposed to dispute, disagree, amend or reject their opinion.
Accordingly a university is a place of concourse; where students come
from every quarter for every kind of knowledge. It is a place for
pursuit of knowledge.
It is the centre of trade, the supreme court of fashion, the empire
of rival talents, and the standard of things rare and precious. It is
the place for seeing galleries of first-rate pictures, and for hearing
wonderful voices and performers of transcendent skill. It is the place
for great new thinkers, great orators and great pioneers of new
It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries
verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error
exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with
knowledge. It is the place where the professor becomes eloquent, and
smart juniors go pass the senior professors.
It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, an Alma Mater of the
rising generation. Knowledge is something that you gain that cannot be
taken away from you. (sora sathuran gatha nohena) It is also something
that you continue to gain throughout your life until your last moment.
Such is a university in its idea and in its purpose.
What is a University for?
Part of university education is the obvious training for a future
career; various subjects and tests that all lead to the university
degree, which brings career prospects, opportunities and higher pay.
Knowledge of certain subjects and a degree is beneficial to have in
terms of a successful future. Great emphasis is placed on this
perception of what society considers success. If success is having
plenty of money to buy material items, a degree can certainly prepare
one for that.
If success is measured in terms of the amount of knowledge acquired
in certain subjects, a university education can also help one to achieve
success. However, a university education goes beyond that. It is more
than memorizing books and facts. It is more than a framed certificate on
a wall that can be used to impress future employers.
We all have identities away from our careers. If the objective of a
university education is more than gaining the knowledge necessary to
pass tests and get a degree, what is the true purpose of university
University education must prepare people for one important thing. It
must produce refined men or women who could face up to and take over the
future of the country. Look at some of those people who claim to be
intellectual elites who do not know what they are talking about or make
any sense...such persons have no difficulty in contradicting themselves.
A university education will prevent this from happening.
An educated person will know what they are talking about and not go
through life looking like an idiot. With an education that encompasses
all aspects of knowledge, one will be able to be well-informed in any
A university education also enables one to honestly face modern
issues in society. What is important is this, after attending a
university, one will not be merely dazzled by phenomena or be gullible.
You must learn to look at things in their proper perspective. People
will have the knowledge and ability to consider issues in a fair and
A university education does not have to separate the head from the
heart. This is very important. There is a vast treasure of culture and
heritage that our forefathers have handed down to us.
That culture and heritage has to be taken from generation to
generation. Put your head and heart together and ask yourself do I love
my country, my religion and rich culture sufficiently? University
education is intended to prepare students for this and prepare them for
the rest of their lives, not just academically, but in a way that will
enable them to love this country continually whilst engaged in the quest
for new knowledge and not sell yourselves for a few dollars.
We have now come to an important juncture. If you survey the history
of Western universities, you will be told that the world’s first
university is the University of Bologna. This is the popular myth to be
inculcated in our minds. Do you accept this as a fact?
Oldest Universities in the world
Have you heard of the world famous Universities of Taxila
(TakshaShila) and Nalanda. Taxila is the oldest university in the world
and situated in Punjab. More than 2700 years back a huge university
existed in that ancient India where over 10,500 students from all across
the world came for higher studies. Students from all across the world
came to attain specialization in over 64 different fields of study like
vedas, grammar, philosophy, ayurveda, agriculture, surgery, politics,
archery, warfare, astronomy, commerce, futurology, music, dance, etc.
There were even curious subjects like the art of discovering hidden
treasure, decrypting encrypted messages, etc.
Some of the students who graduated from Takshashila university
included the great political master Chanakya (also called
Kautilya/Vishnugupta) who not only authored the world’s finest work till
today on political duties, statecraft, economic policies, state
intelligence systems, administrative skills and military strategy,
called the Artha Shastra which consists of 15 books, but who also guided
Chandragupta Maurya as a mentor who founded the Great Mauryan Empire,
and also served as the Prime Minister of the Mauryan Empire. Books like
Panchatantra and Charakasanhita were written by the scholars who were
products of University of Taxila.
The Nalanda University complex was built with red bricks and its
ruins occupy an area of 14 hectares. At its peak, the university
attracted scholars and students from as far away as Tibet, China, Greece
and Persia. Nalanda was ransacked and destroyed by an army under
Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193. The great library of Nalanda University was so
vast that it is reported to have burned for three months after the
invaders set fire to it, ransacked and destroyed the monasteries, and
drove the Buddhist monks from the site.
Ancient Universities of Lanka
In ancient Sri Lanka there were two well-known Universities in the
kingdom of Anuradapura, although they were not specifically named as
such. Maha-Vihara and Abhayagiri-Vihara were Universities which
maintained their own academic traditions and identities. Maha-Vihara
tradition distinctly differed from the Abhayagiri-Vihara tradition.
The Chinese traveller Monk Fa-Hien (399-414BC) who visited the
“Country of Sinhala” (Fa-Hien referred to the country as such) states in
his-travelogue “Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” (this record was
originally written in Chinese language and later translated in to
English by James Legge) that Maha-Vihara and Abhayagiri-Vihara had 5,000
and 3,000 monks respectively.
It could be reasonable to conclude that these numbers relate to the
residential monks in the two Viharas. The Monk Fa-Hien also provides an
eyewitness account of the cremation of an Arhath of Maha-Vihara with the
patronage of the king of the land. These Universities provided courses
in a variety of disciplines including medicine and surgery, engineering,
architecture and sculpture.
The Aukana Buddha statue provides unmistakable evidence of the feat
of Sinhala engineering that these universities provided to the nation
which no other country can boast about. It is said that the degree of
alignment of the serene Aukana Buddha statue is such that rain drops on
the nose would drop straight down to a small depression carved between
the toes. Avkana Buddha statue is a masterpiece not only in respect of
its skilful and amazing sculpture but also of the delicateness of the
massive creation that reflects the supreme spirituality of the Buddha.
The foregoing examples were cited with a purpose. There has been a
foregone conclusion that university education in this country is of
Western origin. It is not so and was not imported from the West. It was
a thing that we had for two thousand years, but conveniently forgotten
by the Westernized elite through their hypocrisy. Can we believe that
the system of ocean-like great reservoirs in the Rajarata would possibly
have been constructed without engineering know how? Who provided this
know how? It was Maha Vihara and Abhayagiri Vihara that provided the
unique technology. This is a unique feature to our country because such
reservoirs are not found anywhere else in the Indian sub-continent.
Researches have now established that ancient Sri Lanka had an
unparalleled civilization known as Hydraulic Civilization. Westernized
elite who write in the English language in our country and who are
hell-bent in selling us the Judeo -Christian ideology; hypocritically
avoid unveiling the existence of Hydraulic Civilization beginning from
the Anuradapura period.
You are entering the university at a time our country is passing a
difficult period in its history. Our nation, language and religion are
under threat. The enemy is from within as well as from outside. You have
to guard against this threat.
At times it is difficult to make out who the real enemy is. You have
to be careful of the pitfalls at the university. These pitfalls are not
obvious to you at first. They are present in the university as highly
recognized scholarly presentations to students. One such presentation is
the organized vicious campaign against our great chronicles Mahawamsa
and Chulawamsa. This is being done with a definite aim to belittle our
cultural heritage which our ancestors handed down to us at the cost of
Party politics that is imported to the university is the other
scourge that destroys you.
It is waiting to make you a cat's paw to achieve their goals by
getting on to your shoulder. They would make you a slave, suck your
juice and throw the waste, destroy your personality and take you out of
the fundamental purpose for which you entered the university. Never let
that happen. Do not fall prey to that scourge. Be watchful of every step
you take or else it can destroy your personal goal and thereby obstruct
the fulfillment of national aims.
Always remember to make full use of the library and other facilities
that are provided to students.
University as a strategic engine
Many individuals wonder what the ultimate purpose of university
education is. It is a platform for young adults to pursue their passion
and hone their skills, utilize their creativity and drive innovation.
University shouldn't be a platform for political cynicism. If you do not
make your own assessment of these pitfalls, none of your objectives can
be achieved. I believe the university's main functionality is to work as
a strategic engine for advancement of its products i.e. you, and
fulfillment of national aims.
Who are the leaders of a nation?
How would you do this? At the outset I mentioned that many people do
not know what they are talking about. Some people talk but without any
substance at all. Some cannot fruitfully engage in a conversation for
even fifteen minutes without digressing. Similarly many people do not
have the ability to think independently. People simply imitate others.
They haven't got their own views on the subject at hand. They think for
the sake of thinking. You have to be your own master and not be
influenced by what others say or dazzled by phenomena. Who are the
leaders of a society? People who can think independently in their chosen
fields and act accordingly are the leaders of a nation and our
universities are trying to make you such a Leader.