Remembering Professor G. P. Malalasekera – outstanding personality


BY Walter Wijenayaka

Professor Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera an erudite scholar of Buddhism as well as a true Buddhist, an Ambassador to several countries, a great teacher, social worker and a writer and an outstanding personality, passed away on April 23, 1973, 38 years ago, at the age of 74 years.

He was born on November 08, 1899, at Malamulla, Panadura, to the family of well-known Ayurvedic Physician, Dr. Malalage Siyadoris Peiris Malalasekera Seneviratne, and Dona Selestina Kuruppu Jayawardena, a devoted Buddhist Upasika.

He was named Geerge Peiris Malalasekera. However later it was changed to Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera.

Gunapala Piyasena had his formal education at St. John’s College, Panadura. After a brilliant school career, he entered the Medical College, where he could not continue his studies due to the death of his father. He then entered the University College as an external student. At the age of 20, he was awarded the B.A. (London) with first class honours.

He started life as an assistant teacher at Ananda College, Colombo and was promoted to the position of Vice-Principal. This was followed by yet another promotion to the position of Acting Principal. He did not function in this capacity for long, as he left for England and joined the University of London pursuing his post-graduate studies. He was successful in obtaining the degrees of Master of Arts (MA) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) concurrently in the year 1925.

He returned to Sri Lanka in 1926 and became the first Principal of Nalanda College. A year later, he was appointed lecturer, in Sinhala Pali and Sanskrit, in the University College, Colombo. By 1938 he obtained the most coveted degree, Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.). He was appointed as Professor of Sanskrit. Pali and Sinhala and the University College and, in 1942, as Professor and head of the Department of Pali in the newly established University College and in 1942, as Professor and Head of the Department of Pali in the newly established University of Ceylon.

In 1956, he commenced the compilation of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism. In 1957, once again Professor Malalasekera’s career took a different turn. He was made the Ambassador to the USSR, concurrently accredited to Poland, Rumania and Czechoslovakia. He functioned in this capacity till 1961 when he was appointed High Commissioner in Canada. During this period he functioned also as the Permanent Representative for Ceylon at the United Nations. There he served as Chairman, Security Council Member, Fact Finding Mission to Saigon and also in the Committee on Information from North Non-self Governing Territories. He functioned as the High Commissioner in U.K. from 1963 to 1967.

He returned to his motherland and became the Chairman of National Council of Higher Education, the prime institution in charge of higher education. Further, he became the secretary of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress and later president. At this juncture, he was embroiled with the idea of bringing the hundreds of millions of Buddhist world over under one banner, and the World Fellowship of Buddhist was formed in the city of Kandy where representatives from 27 countries in Asia, Europe and North America (including Hawai) participated. Nearly every school of Buddhism in the Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana traditions were represented by members of the Sangha as well as laity at this occasion. Professor Malalasekera held its presidency for eight years. Now this vast organization has flourished in 39 countries with 147 regional centres. Sri Lanka is also converted to a mere regional centre.

Further, Professor Malalasekera was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society. He received accolades for his erudition from countries such Britain, France, Cambodia and Myanmar. In 1953, Britain bestowed him the (OBE) – Officer of the British Empire.

His English-Sinhala Dictionary published in several editions, is very much useful and important to those speaking both languages.

He came across concert pianist Margaret Russel while he was a student at the London School of Oriental Studies. They fell in love and Margaret followed him to Sri Lanka and they married at a traditional ceremony at the YMBA Hall in Borella in 1927. The marriage lasted for only about three years leaving a daughter Chitra who also became an excellent pianist. Professor Malalasekera married again. From this marriage with Lyle, they have three sons and two daughters.

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