Remembering Dr. E. W. Adikaram 30 years after his death


By Mahinda Palihawadana

Born at Wellampitiya on March 29, 1905, the early life of Edward Winifred Adikaram was marked by devotion to the practices of Theravada Buddhism and willingness to live strictly by its principles. At age 14 a talk at the Dhamma School aroused his naturally compassionate disposition and caused him to give up meat-eating. He became a vegetarian not in order to acquire religious merit, he later explained. It had one and only one meaning: it is because flesh invariably came from the killing of animals. Kindness to animals assumed legendary proportions in his life. Anecdotes about this, as about other traits of his character, are abundant. Some of these stories border on the incredible and some are actually fictitious; but they all show how non-conformist he could be in acting according to his convictions.

As a young man, he entered Colombo University College and offered science and mathematics at the first examination, but later switched to the study of Pali and Sanskrit. After graduation, he went to England on a government scholarship and entered the London School of Oriental Studies and obtained an M.A. degree in 1931 and in 1933 a Ph.D., based on the thesis "Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon", hailed by the likes of I B Horner and A K Warder as "a model of careful research".

Returning to Lanka, he reverted to his position as assistant teacher at Ananda Sastralaya, Kotte. Though armed with a PhD from London University, he preferred this modest job in a grant-aided school to service under the British government in a more remunerative capacity. Documents at the British Museum Library had convinced him of the grave injustices perpetrated by the colonial administration of Ceylon. He was therefore keen to join forces with others who worked for the overthrow of the imperial yoke. A personal friend of leading leftists like N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Gunawardana, he would have joined them in the LSSP, but for the fact that he could not agree totally on some aspects of its policy. But in the early days of the LSSP, he seems to have been excited about its prospects, as one can judge from articles in Mage Sangarava, a ‘magazine’ he edited for a short time in the 1930s. He did not believe that a peaceful society could be built through the use of force. He preferred a nonviolent approach to political and economic independence, and for a time collaborated with Mr. Jayawardhana (Jayaramdas) of Wellampitiya, who led a Gandhian movement, advocating the use of home-spun cloth and consumption of local foods.

In 1934 the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society, elevated Dr Adikaram to the Principalship of Ananda Sastralaya, one of the oldest schools under its management. Dr A lost no time to create in his school what he regarded as essential features of a Buddhist atmosphere. He made the hostel vegetarian and strictly prohibited tobacco and alcohol in the school premises. Many people complained that he was an ‘extremist’; nevertheless Dr A became a very successful Principal, earning the A Grade College status for his school within a few years, according to the official grading prevailing at the time. He championed the cause of Buddhist education at national level and campaigned against Christian missionary activity, although Jesus Christ was a person he profoundly respected. Within a short time he became widely known as a powerful Buddhist worker. His school was a unique institution brimming with high enthusiasm for the principles he espoused. Those who passed through its portals imbibed at least a little of the Adikaram spirit. Many considered it a privilege to be part of his team.

In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, the British military authorities commandeered the premises of Ananda Sastralaya. Dr A was compelled to operate his school from ‘branches’ at Battaramulla, Udahamulla, Matugama, Ruwanwella and Hathagoda. After the war, Ananda Sastralaya, Matugama, became an independent assisted school and the other four branches became leading government schools in their respective areas. Around this period Dr A also the founded Vidyakara Vidyalaya, Maharagama (1937) and Anula Vidyalaya, Nugegoda (1941). The latter, starting under the distinguished Principalship of Mrs. P.B. Fernando, and soon became the premier Buddhist girls’ school in the Nugegoda area.

Dr Adikaram did all this in pursuit of the principle of "Buddhist education". If he was ‘extremist’ in going all the way with his principles, he was no less uncompromising when he suspected the validity of the very same principles. He began to be uneasy about many of his own assumptions after reading the works of J. Krishnamurti, the famous Indian religious philosopher, who invited people to question every belief, every pre-conceived notion and every habit of thought. At this time Krishnamurti had broken away from the Theosophical Movement (which first nurtured him and hailed him as the future "World Teacher") and was proclaiming a message of inward liberation by observation of the ways of one’s mind, rejecting the rituals and other paraphernalia of organised religion. He also rejected nationalism as a fatally divisive force in the world. To Dr A all this seemed to be very much in tune with the teachings of the Buddha seen in some of the oldest Buddhist texts. He began to lose interest in the trappings of organised religion.

With misgivings about the religious establishment, he naturally began to ask himself if it was proper for him to remain as Principal of a Buddhist school. In 1945, in a move that took friends and admirers by surprise, he took leave from the Principalship of Ananda Sastralaya and proceeded on a "spiritual pilgrimage" to India. The International Theosophical Society hosted him at its sprawling headquarters by the beach at Adyar, then a suburb of the city of Madras (Chennai). He in turn helped the Society by producing a Catalogue of Pali and Sinhala Manuscripts in its library, a well-known centre for Indological research. After this he undertook an extended tour of India, visiting famed religious gurus like Ramana Maharshi and yogis at Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas. Returning to Lanka after these experiences, he resigned from his post at Ananda Sastralaya - at age 41, and at the height of his popularity as a dynamic leader and a man of unimpeachable moral stature.

Leaving Ananda Sastralaya, Dr A effectively parted company with the social/religious establishment. (However, rather uncharacteristically, arguably also inconsistently, he returned to it later for a few short forays.) A decisive event was his first personal meeting with Krishnamurti in 1947, soon after the latter returned to India after the Second World War, having spent the war years in quietude at his adopted home-town of Ojai, California. From then on until 1982 he met Krishnamurti regularly during his annual visits to India. He also organized three Krishnamurti lecture tours to Sri Lanka in 1949, 1957 and 1980.

For most of this time, Dr A was mainly engaged in a process of self-examination - which by its very nature is simultaneously an examination of how prevailing religious and social forces condition the psyche of any human being. From around 1950, he began to hold public discussions about this self-exploration and its significance. He was a skilful communicator whose style of speaking was simple and logical and completely devoid of sentimentality and rhetoric. That he drew audiences shows the attractiveness of the unadorned truth.

The few exceptions to this major pre-occupation must be mentioned. The first was the single-minded support he gave to the Free Education movement of Mr C W W Kannangara. In the company of a few similarly inclined activists. Dr A addressed meeting after meeting in various parts of the country, advocating the adoption of the Kannangara reforms. The public opinion this campaign generated was the driving force that made the then State Council to accept the Kannangara plan for free education in Sri Lanka from the kindergarten to the university.

Again, in 1954, on a disagreement with the Buddhist Theosophical Society over a matter connected with Ananda Sastralaya, Dr A entered the fury of BTS politics and offered himself for the post of General Manager of Schools in that organization. In a keenly contested election, he defeated Mr P de S. Kularatna, the powerful incumbent Manager. Typically, his two-year tenure as GM/ BTS was also marked by controversy. He tried to ban cadetting in BTS schools, saying that military training was incompatible with the tenets of Buddhism. This move provoked furious opposition, and was abandoned by his successors in the BTS who did not share his pacifist ambitions.

Yet again, in 1966, when Mr I M R A Iriyagolla, a close friend, became Minister of Education in the Dudley Senanayaka government, Dr A accepted nomination to the National Council of Higher Education, precursor to the present University Grants Commission. He remained in it as long as Mr Iriyagolle was Minister of Education. Later, in the early 1970s, he also held for three years the largely ceremonial Chancellorship of Sri Jayawardanapura University.

These interventions in educational management remind us of another role that Dr A played. After his early training at Colombo University College, he remained a keen follower of developments in the world of science. He was also an ardent observer of the dynamics of nature in its varied aspects, sometimes spending the better part of a morning watching the blossoming of a flower, or the growth of a tendril on a creeper, or the activities of a family of birds or a colony of insects. All this and his eminent training in languages made him an effective writer on scientific and environmental subjects. He produced a series of textbooks in General Science and edited a news magazine on science for a considerable period of time. In this way he became a pioneer in developing a scientific vocabulary in Sinhala.

(To be continued)

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