long drawn out agitation for freedom from British Colonial rule
was conducted on many fronts - Religious, Cultural, Political
and Social. In the thick of this struggle were men from
different fields of Ceylonese life.
It is a significant aspect of our
history that all of them were partners in this country’s final
emancipation as an independent nation.
During the last two decades of the
19th century the Resistance to the British in the Kandyan
Provinces had come to an end. It was the fall of the last
bastion on bringing the entirety of the island under British
On the other hand there emerged a
reawakening of nationalism in the Maritime Provinces and the
beginnings of resistance which first featured the Buddhist
opposition to the activities of the Christian Missionaries. The
British had in all its colonies utilised Christian missionaries
to strengthen their hold on the latter. It was part of an
overall imperial design.
Admittedly the British brought with
them enterprise and industry and a system of governance, that
had its merits. Their educational system had helped in the
establishment of some excellent schools in different parts of
the country. Infrastructure too profited from their presence.
But they had also in the process of colonising this country
damaged an ancient culture and alienated the Buddhists. Through
the work of Christian missionaries religious conversion was
The scorched earth policy of the
British in the early 19th century especially in the highlands
had seriously affected agriculture and the peasantry.
These acts of commission and omission
paved the way for the build up of resistance. Men driven, by a
sense of patriotism formed the backbone of this movement.
Piyadasa Sirisena (1875 - 1946)
pioneer novelist, journalist, poet and philosopher was one such
individual whose life and work in a climate pregnant with
overwhelming power of those who ruled was reflective of his love
for his motherland, its culture and religion.
N. E. Weerasooriya Q.C. in his
monumental work on the history of Sri Lanka observes that
Sirisena was an instrument of the silent revolution that swept
the country and prepared its soil for political emancipation.
Migettuwatte Gunananda was the first
of the few low-country patriots to rise against the missionaries
and the efforts to convert the people. There is evidence that
unsuspecting people were hired into converting themselves to the
Christian faith at the behest of the missionaries. Also
preferential treatment for those converted had been extensively
practices as regards government employment.
Migettuwatte Gunananda’s oratorical
skills enabled him to effectively combat the missionaries in the
historic Panadura debate in 1873. That event was a watershed in
the Buddhist revival.
National pride was also restored by
the work of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, who was inspired by a
report of the Panadura debate which reached him in the United
States. He was the founder of the Theosophical Society.
Colonel Olcott arrived in the country
in 1890. In due course he established a number of Buddhist
Schools. The first in Galle and later in Colombo and Kandy. They
fostered Buddhist thought and supported the revivalist movement.
The torch of resurgence of Buddhism
lit by Migettuwatte Gunanda and Henry Steel Olcott passed down
to the next generation of nationalists. The foremost of them was
Anagarika Dharmapala. He was fortunate that the idealism and
commitment he displayed was followed by other ardent
nationalists like Piyadasa Sirisena, Walisnha Harischandra and
John de Silva.
Piyadasa Sirisena first began his
services towards culture and religion by editing a Buddhist
In 1903 Sirisena founded the "Sinhala
Jathiya" with the expressed objective of influencing national
feelings. He constantly took the reader back to the country’s
long culture and civilisation that had once nurtured a stable
and prosperous society.
Sirisena’s literary activities took
another form, the novel. Through this medium he was able to
project to the reader the basic tenets of Buddhism, the harmful
impact of imitating blindly certain aspects of the Englishmen’s
life and ways.
In yet another form of literary
activity poetry he once again had a pervasive influence on the
reader. He was one of the leading poets of that era known as the
Colombo period of poets. Historians note that poetry had played
an important part in the rekindling of national sentiments.
Perhaps, one of the most vital
contributions Sirisena made towards national development in the
early 20th century was the inculcation of the reading habit
among literate Sinhalese.
In all his extensive work involving
renaissance of Buddhism Sirisena was sincere and unpretentious.
He was first and last a true lover of this country.
European history of the past, reflects
the role of literary men whose talent and ability contributed to
the attainment of national goals.
Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy and Victor
Hugo exemplified the spirit of nationalism in their respective
countries. Gorky was the spearhead of the intellectual forces
which created a psychological climate that culminated in the
In the same way Rabindranath Tagore
eulogised Indian culture and rejuvenated a dormant spirit.
Around 1920 the Indian freedom
struggle took a new turn. Its leading proponents like Mahatma
Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru began a campaign for Suwaraj or self
This development had a positive impact
on the Ceylonese National Leadership engaged in the Freedom
Piyadasa Sirisena used his newspaper
to bind these two facts - national Freedom and Self-government.
The British who mistrusted the
cultural aspirations of activists like Sirisena felt that it
would merge with the political struggle that was being conducted
on another platform.
Sirisena’s emergence as a social and
moral reformer of eminence soon brought him into close contact
with the indigenous political leadership who were pursuing the
goal of independence from Colombo rule.
The British liquor policy and its
damaging influence on the mass of the Ceylonese led to formation
of the temperance movement.
Those prominent in this field were F.
R. and D. S. Senanayake, the Hewavitharana Brothers. Sir Baron
Jayathilaka and .... Wijewardenas.
Piyadasa Sirisena too became a staunch
supporter of the temperance lobby.
The anti-liquor campaign brought
together a curious mix of Ceylonese the Buddhists the Methodists
and the Baptists. The temperance struggle also received the
blessings of another great Ceylonese of that time - Sir
A feature of Asian and African freedom
struggles was that when repression was used it further steeled
the resolve of those who fought for freedom.
Thus the Jallan Wallah Bagh massacre,
the infamous episode of British India increased the tempo of
Indian resistance. Gandhi and Nehru in particular re-educated
themselves to fight for freedom with renewed vigour.
At the height of Sri Lankan struggle
for independence and the rights of Buddhists, the British jailed
National Leaders like D.S. and F. R. Senanayake, Dr. C. A.
Hewavitharana, Piyadasa Sirisena and many others. This followed
the riots of 1915.
Thought Sirisena was a nationalist he
was never petty minded in his attitude towards other religions
or communities. His role was mainly that of a conscience -
raiser for his nation’s age old culture and religion.
When Ceylon entered the fourth decade
of the last century the long and multifaceted liberation
movement was nearing it’s cherished objectives and
constitutional reforms precedent to the granting of freedom
close at hand.
Piyadasa Sirisena died two years
before Ceylon gained independence. He was a rare breed of social
and Religious Reformer whose contribution to National
Independence will remain solidly embedded in our history.