Gunapala Malalasekera – the Illustrious Professor (1899-1973): A True Guide, Philosopher and Leader – By Ven. Wetara Mahinda Thera

Gunapala Malalasekera – the Illustrious Professor (1899-1973): A True Guide, Philosopher and Leader – By Ven. Wetara Mahinda Thera

Gunapala Malalasekera - the Illustrious Professor (1899-1973): A True Guide, Philosopher and Leader

Source : dailynews

Professor Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera’s (GPM) birth anniversary falls today (November 9th) and, here, I am penning down this tribute to this genius, to highlight some aspects of his inexplicably valuable services to the society of Sri Lanka and the Buddhist world in numerous capacities.

Having been born in Malamulla, Panadura, and educated primarily at St John’s School, GPM was compelled by the circumstances to learn during the school days itself the reality of the terrific hardships the people underwent in this country and the necessity for reshaping the national education system. The influence he got in his youth from national revivals and world class international citizens was enormous. The organisations like the YMBA and All Ceylon Buddhist Congress were enormously significant in creating enthusiasm in him for a revival within the Buddhist school system, initially, introduced by Colonel H. S. Olcott, secondarily, developed by F. L. Woodward and P. de S. Kularatne. Ananda College, established on November 1, 1886 became the birth place for GPM making active of his pragmatic ideas associated with Buddhist ideals. This school was fortunate to receive fully the services of the magnificent and dynamic leader with effect from 1921. He, later, served there as Vice-Principal from 1922 and Acting Principal from 1923. He left the island in 1923 for postgraduate studies. He became the first registered principal of newly established Nalanda College in 1926. In addition to serving at these schools, he provided help to establish many other educational institutes in the island. In this way his service to uplift the education in schools in the entire country was manifold and highly praiseworthy.

While serving Nalanda, he was invited to the Ceylon University College as lecturer in Pali, Sinhala and Sanskrit in 1927. Though unwillingly, he bid farewell to Nalanda for accepting the newly offered career in the university. Later, in 1939 he was Professor in the three disciplines mentioned above in the University College. Having been, later on, appointed as Professor in Pali and Buddhist Civilization and the Dean of the Faculty of Oriental Studies of the University College in 1942, he was able to broaden horizons in the higher education sector in an unprecedented manner. GPM carried out his teaching, research and administrative work earlier in Colombo and subsequently in Peradeniya until 1957, when he was appointed as the first Ambassador to the USSR. The diplomatic career covering Canada and the UK ended up with his accepting the newly created Chairmanship of the National Commission of Higher Education, NCHE in Colombo in 1967.

Research and published work

The Dictionary of Pali Proper Names being an extraordinary work compiled by him under Caroline E. F. Rhys Davids’ guidance, speaks volumes for his academic quality, creativity and wisdom. Although he did this gigantic task comprising of about 2,500 pages, he humbly states that he was compelled to complete this work within four years but, he would, otherwise, have been able to produce a still better work if he had had ten years’ time period altogether! In addition, his first comprehensive researched work for the PhD degree called ‘The Pali literature of Ceylon’ published in 1928 was another landmark publication. Other works of GPM included the laboriously edited work called Vamsatthappakasini: chronicle to the Mahavamsa published in 1935 in London. A very interesting work, unrelated to his specialized disciplines, was his publication in 1938 of the compilation of the ‘Folk songs of the Sinhalese’ co-authored with W. A. de Silva. Another book called ‘Padya Manjari’ published by him in 1929 epitomizes the deep sense of the ancient Sinhalese poetical works. His enormously popular creation among the Sinhala readers: ‘Malalasekera English-Sinhalese Dictionary’ has been in use from 1948 to the present day. Among his most significant extra-curricular works, one was to give radio talks on Buddhism in very simple language for the troops based in Ceylon during the Second World War as requested by Lord Lewis Mountbatten.

Nurturing scholars as a Professor and honourary degrees received by him

To his credit, there were a large number of followers, who generally happened to be his students at the University of Ceylon. These students turned out to be eminent scholars, educators, or administrators.

He earned a PhD from London and was conferred Honorary degrees by Moscow, Ceylon and Vidyodaya Universities and also by the British Empire, and institutes in France, Cambodia and Burma. He was one time President of the Indian Philosophical Congress, and represented All Indian Oriental Conference and Pakistan Philosophical Congress, and was Chairman of the Lumbini Restoration Project Committee. The list of the national institutions with which his name was adorably associated is quite long. To cite one such example was his prominent role played for improving the quality of the Sinhala Service of the Radio Ceylon.

Buddhism for the Modern World

One of the most remarkable and pioneering works GPM succeeded in doing was establishing the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) in May 1950 summoning 129 participants from 29 countries to this island. Coupled with enormous confidence of fulfilling his expected task, far-reaching vision about what needs to be done for the future of Buddhist world, he initiated this gigantic task to the amazement of the contemporary scholars and world Buddhist leaders. Singapore based WFB President Ms. Pitt Chin Hui affirms epitomizing his high standards in the following way: ‘To all who associated him, he was a model lay Buddhist follower and aspire to follow because the standard he maintained was so high that it was not quite easy for the average human being to reach. As a personal friend, he was a kalyanamitta, who would never let you down or never lead you astray, he was a true guide, philosopher and leader, all combined as one ideal friend’.

GPM’s far-sighted vision in elevating the traditionally educated Buddhist monks with Oriental Studies Degrees to a still higher degree was amazingly obvious in his novel creation of the three year degree course called ‘Vidya Visarada’ in 1941 attached to the University of Ceylon. GPM’s other important involvements in preparing the capable monks for facing the challenges of modern academic world was to encourage monks such as Ven. Walpola Rahula for gaining a degree from a university amidst criticism of various sections of the country.

Encyclopedia of Buddhism

The employing of the concept in his mind of compiling an encyclopedia for Buddhism unheard in the international community as early as 1956, was to bring him a remarkably triumphant achievement among the world class scholars. Whether living in Moscow or London, Ottawa or New York, Sydney or Colombo, he was promptly attending to, meticulously careful about the needs like formalities and proposing the most suitable persons towards the fulfilment of editing it even in the midst of hectic ambassadorial business or managerial official work. He also became an irreplaceable member of the Pali Dictionary which was being prepared by a group of scholars in the western world.

GPM pioneered in appointing a commission in 1954 to examine the grievances of Buddhists in the island with the intention of implementing the proposals to reveal the injustices and discriminations the Sinhala community and the Buddhists underwent during colonial regime. This, consequently, marked a huge and decisive step forward in contemporary cultural environment and even politics of this country. In decisive terms, this commission became unprecedented in the pre-modern history of Sri Lanka paving the way for another considerable step forward in the Buddhist revival in the country after the giant initiative taken by Cl. Henry Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala after 1880s.

Scholar turned Diplomat

SWRD Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister of Ceylon appointed him as ambassador to the USSR while he was still serving as Dean of the Faculty of Oriental Studies in the University of Peradeniya. The service he did while based in Moscow was exemplary. Afterward he was appointed to Canada as High Commissioner and permanent representative of Ceylon to the UN for the period 1961 to 1963. Thereafter, he was appointed to the United Kingdom as High Commissioner and served in London from 1963 to 1967. The lengthy, comprehensive type-written letters sent by him to the Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike from Moscow mainly with proposed improvements of institutions in the island remain classical examples of a highly competent Sri Lankan diplomat working abroad. He was regarded in high esteem by the officers in the British Government also when serving in the UK particularly because of his accredited scholarship. The presentations he made for the UN assemblies in New York on numerous controversial issues and the contemporary global affairs were considered distinctive and highly praiseworthy. While serving as an ambassador or High Commissioner as a diplomat in the world, he conducted very interesting functions to propagate and promote Ceylon tea, culinary dishes, arts and crafts of Ceylon and various other aspects of the island culture with the aim of elevating them.

Social Activist

GPM was instrumental in introducing service oriented societies for the blind and the deaf in the island. Even in later years of his life, he requested Varuna Karunatillake in 1972, to organize a branch of the Leprosy Society in Wadduwa so that the leprosy could be eradicated from the island. It was his intention to keep an eye on the continuation of the services of the ‘Malalasekera Free Dispensary’ at Panadura considering the services it provided for the people in the neighbourhood. His creation of the generally unusual ‘Relation’s Society’ in Panadura as early as 1946, was novel, interesting and pragmatic. It later consisted of over 300 members addressing to the serious business of helping promising but economically restricted students by depending on their needs. The thought provoking talks he gave voluntarily to the Dhamma schools and various other organizations were countless. His active involvement in the functions with the aim of reducing the crimes in the country was a noteworthy exercise. Ever preparedness to serve those in need despite his heavy work schedule was an inherent quality of his life.

Variety of interests and activities in Government sector

It was he who rallied the well to do people to convince them to find resources to put up the Arts Gallery or the ‘Kala Bhavana’ in Colombo. The ‘Mela’ society at the University of Ceylon, and Sinhala Society of the University of Ceylon, and the Classical Association improved considerably thanks to the fullest possible support provided by him. The list of similar associations he was involved in was too long to include here. He either initiated or promoted or served as an active member of the institutes or associations or societies such as Ceylon Education Commission and Official Languages Commission. Thus, he became an indispensable figure in the contemporary social fabric of the island and he did all this while attending the lectures either at University of Ceylon, Colombo from 1930s to 1952 or at Peradeniya from 1952 to 1957. He was ridiculed by some colleagues by saying that he was everywhere except at the university. Also, he was given the nick name ‘sarvasekaradaris’ meaning: the secretary of all institutes and organisations!

Oratory skills, personal characteristics: Family man, father and husband

He was gracefully invited to numerous societies for giving talks or chairing sessions on special occasions considering his oratory skills among others. For instance, he gave special talks for science exhibition in Tamil college, Paddirippu in 1967 and the price giving ceremony at the Carey College, Colombo in 1970. He was adored by all communities irrespective of the differences in society. He was eloquently competent in Sinhala, English, French, German, Greek, Latin, Pali, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tibetan and was also able to converse in Russian, Japanese and several other languages. It was he who translated on many occasions from German and French to English while the talks given by members of the Federation of World Buddhists held in Colombo.

It would, perhaps, be both worthwhile to consider about his family life and character before coming to a conclusion: ‘During my formative years’, says Anoma, the second daughter of GPM, concerning his eminent personality, ‘I thought that my father was one of the most outstanding persons the country had ever produced’. The youngest son of GPM, says ‘Never did I hear him speak in anger. There were no family quarrels. He adored my mother who looked after our needs…’ Chitra, the first daughter, giving a vivid description of how the children were indirectly taught about the human and humane characteristics, affirms his broad outlook: ‘when I was a child, he would not let me criticize anything. He would say’, ‘But, isn’t she thoughtful’ or ‘doesn’t he help his neighbors?’Thus, he showed that it was a good principle to find out what is praiseworthy in anybody. The following gives testimony to how he behaved in the face of even defeat: ‘…his defeat in the Vice-Chancellor’s (at Peradeniya) election was perhaps the cornerstone of his life. The election was held on the day of my sister Chitra’s wedding. The way he greeted his guests at the Women’s International Club only made us think that he had actually won’. Contrary to the presumption and the prejudgment of the children, GPM was not able to win the Vice-Chancellor contest at Peradeniya, but this incidence is ample proof of his being able to accept the outcome of whatever with equanimity and peace of mind. After the assassination of the Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, GPM was offered the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. At that crucial hour, the entire family was summoned by GPM to a meeting around the dining table in December 1959. The whole family unanimously voted that he should not enter politics, saying that the reputation he had gained nationally and globally would be tarnished. Such anecdotes are ample testimony to who GPM was and how exemplarily he behaved even in his family environment.

In summarizing GPM’s qualities, it must be said that he was the epitome of scholarship, classic example of a world class Buddhist, great leader who wanted to elevate the people belonging to all sorts of categories to a higher level, never being chauvinistic and ever being people friendly. It is appropriate here to mention the remarks made on him by Nalini Jayasuriya: ‘Perhaps, more than most, Dr. Malalasekera understood the empirical, therapeutic, scientific, democratic and transcendently pragmatic qualities of Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist wisdom.’

Because of his seemingly unacceptable but practically utilizable proposals submitted for institutes, generated with a far sighted vision, he was at times subjected to encounter substantial criticism. This is expressed by Anoma, his daughter in the following way: ‘He would look ahead and excel, but because of his high ideals and beliefs, he did have some unfortunate encounters with people. Some of his ideas evoked criticism and some controversy, but then,’ ‘men of genius are always different’. It is such a remarkable citizen of this country that we are commemorating today, on his 123rd birthday. May he be reborn to enable him to serve the world!


(The following sourcebooks, which were mainly useful for writing this, are gratefully acknowledged.)

Mutukumara, Nemsiri [ed.] (1981) Tribute to Malalasekera: A collection of messages, appreciations, and pen portraits in honour of Professor Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera. Colombo: Lake House.

Ranawake, Chitra Malalasekera [ed.] (2000). The Many men that were Malalasekera: A biographical anthology of Dr. Gunapala Malalasekera. Colombo: S. Godage.

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