Tradition, modernity and elite formation: How Western theosophists shaped modern Sri Lanka       by Manisha Gunasekera       MARIE MUSAEUS HIGGINS – PETER DE ABREW MEMORIAL ORATION 2016 MUSAEUS COLLEGE PAST PUPILS’ ASSOCIATION MUSAEUS COLLEGE AUDITORIUM 30 JULY 2016, COLOMBO       The [...]

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Tradition, modernity and elite formation



Manisha Gunasekera delivering the Marie Musaeus Higgins–Peter de Abrew Memorial Oration.








Tradition, modernity and elite formation:

How Western theosophists shaped modern Sri Lanka





Manisha Gunasekera












The writer is the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the Republic of Korea, and a past pupil of Musaeus College.


Standing in this college hall today, my memory goes back to a day 20 years ago in 1996, when I was a junior officer in the Foreign Ministry, when I came across a speech by my then Foreign Minister LakshmanKadirgamar, who during one of his visits to Germany that year specially remarked on the contribution of Marie Museaus Higgins, to Sri Lanka–German relations in general, and to women’s education in particular, where he referred to Musaeus College as one of the leading girls’ schools in Sri Lanka today.  I had never felt more proud to have read that sentence written by the great Kadirgamaraboutmy school.  Today, I am proud to observe that past pupils of Musaeus hold senior positions in almost every discipline, including my own.


I am deeply honoured to be invited to deliver the 2016Marie Musaeus Higgins – Peter de Abrew Memorial Oration[1]organised by the Past Pupils’ Association, as we celebrate the 125th anniversary of Musaeus College.  Gathered in these hallowed halls today are the principals,teachers and students,both past and present, of Musaeus.  This is a group with collective memorythat we celebrate today.


I want to however begin with a very personal memory, a memory of my father, the late J.D.A. Gunasekera.  When I was about 16 and having my own battle reading the Odyssey, he advised me to read the Iliad first.  Pointing to a copy ofthe great epic in his own modest but eclectic library (which was never acknowledged to be such), he would say“this is more readable, and should be read before the Odyssey”.  On another occasion when I was much younger, he guided me through my reading of a simplified version of Geiger’s Mahawamsa, again from his own library.My father was a simple man.  The son of a registrar, his family was from Habaraduwa in the deep south.  His family belonged to the local intelligentsia.  My father never went to University as economic pressures meant that he had to start work soon after he left school.  He led a very simple life till the end, and few noticed when “he ceased to be”, if I may borrow a phrase from Wordsworth.  But he was one of the most educated men I had the good fortune to meet.  He was well versed in literature, the classics, politics,and unlike me, was brilliant in mathematics.


This is perhaps a good point at which to pose my question: “How was it possible for my father coming from a rather modest background to acquire such a well-rounded education?”  The answer lies in an examination of the Western theosophists’ modernisation project in the late 19th and early 20th century Sri Lanka.


My father was a product of Mahinda College, Galle, a leading Buddhist theosophical school established in 1892,to impart an English education along the Western liberal tradition and Buddhist ethics to students who would otherwise be denied such an education.  Those who were denied such an education were the majority at that time. My father’s story is not unique.  It is the story of our generation.  I call them the renaissance generation, given their well-rounded education and national consciousness.  This is where we will invoke our collective memory.


Many of us gathered here today have parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren who were or are educated in the leading schools set up in the late 19th century by the Westerntheosophists, theBuddhist Theosophical Society of Ceylon, its clerical and lay supporters;and by the national leaders and educationists that succeeded them in the early 20th century.  Their vision was to provide a quality education in English modelled on the English public school,coupled with an inculcation of Buddhist ethics,vernacular languages and indigenous customs, to a segment of our population that was otherwise denied the privilege.


This story is intrinsically linked to a particular socio-political milieu in 19th century Sri Lanka, which we would need to examine if we were to truly appreciate the legacy of theWesterntheosophists.It goes back to the British colonial era and the Christian missionary project of civilising the “natives”or “the heathens”through proselytising.  The period we examine is roughly from the 1830s to the 1930s, from ColebrooketoDonoughmore Commission reforms, in Sri Lanka.


Subverting the colonial project


The early-19th century growth of the Evangelical movement in England coincided with the expansion of the British empire.As a result, the Christian missionaries established themselves in Sri Lanka.[i]In this backdrop, the colonial Governmentcreated a two-tier education system in the country. It included fee levying English medium schools assisted by the state which were Christian missionary schools catering to Christian students, a few upper class Buddhists,that formed a minority; and non-fee levying vernacular schools teaching in Sinhala or Tamil which did not receive state support and were open to the non-Christian majority in Sri Lanka comprising Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and other communities.The missionary schools largely imparted a Western classical education in English, with the leading Anglican schools such as St. Thomas’ College-Mount Lavinia, Trinity College–Kandy,modelled on English public schools.


These missionary schools catered to the sons of the emerging middle class, and with time, complementary girls’ schools were established.The Missionaries wielded much influence in education,and in conflict of interest, held senior positions in the administration of education in government.[ii]In 1865, a subcommittee on education appointed by the colonial government recommended a policy of basic vernacular education for the masses.  As a result, the Government closed down many of its English schools by 1880 (Meegama 2003).  The above recommendationeffectively handed over the monopoly of imparting an English education to missionary schools, which expanded to meet the demand, thereby creating a small elite group of the indigenous emerging middle class who were harnessed in service of the empire.  The second generation of this emerging middle class, armed with a superior English Western education from missionary schools were to branch off into professions including the law, medicine, the civil service and trade.  The two-tier system in education thus introduced by the British was essentially class based, and religion emerged as a means of social mobility and class distinction.  With state assistance, missionary schools grew apace reaching nearly a 1,000 in 1890 (ibid.).  This asymmetry in modern education along religious lines is evident in the fact that “in 1899, of the 1,963 aided schools, only 120 were Buddhist controlled, while 1,082 were Christian controlled”, and in 1901 literacy among Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu men was under 35 per cent,whereas it was 55.2  per cent among Christian men; and it was 5.5 per cent among Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu women, contrasting with 30 per cent among Christian women” (de Silva 1998).


In this backdrop, in New York, the Theosophical Society was set up in 1875by Helena PetrovnaBlavatsky andHenry SteeleOlcott, two radical liberal intellectuals from Russia and America, as a direct critique of the Christian missionary project.  The theosophists wereopposed to established Christian dogma.  They aimed to form a nucleus of universal brotherhood by “unveiling” the great religious philosophies of the East to the Western world.  Edward Said in his seminal work “Orientalism” (1979) demonstrates that the relationship between Occident and Orient is one of power, of domination, of a complex hegemony.The theosophist view of the Orient was Saidian, in that they perceived the East as the romantic “Other”, the cradle ofcivilisation and repository of the great Eastern philosophies including Buddhism and Hinduism, with which they identified.[iii]But it differed from Saidin their view of the East and West as two equal and complementary halves of a whole, i.e., the West with its science and modernism, and the east with its ancient philosophies of universal truth.[iv]This perceptionof equality subverted traditional power relations between Occident and Orient, and by extension the imperialist project.


While the Christian movement flourished with state sanction from early-19th century, Buddhism was going through its own process of revival with the establishment of two new Buddhist Orders of Amarapura(1799) and Ramannna(1864), with links to Burma, andwith the formation of new Buddhist monastic institutions such asthe ParamaDhammaChetiyaPirivena in Ratmalana(in 1845), the VidyodayaPirivena in Maligakanda(in 1873) and the VidyalankaraPirivena in Peliyagoda(in 1875) (Meegama 2003).  These developments enlivened the contemporary polemical debate within Buddhism. The arrival of Blavatsky and Olcott in Sri Lanka in 1880 which led to the formation of the Buddhist Theosophical Society of Ceylon (which I will hereafter refer to as the BTS),coincided with and was catalysed by thevery public polemical debates between Evangelical Christianity and Buddhism, which culminated in the great Panadura debate of 1873 that catapultedMigettuwatteGunanadaTheroto international fame.[v]Olcott and Blavatsky on their arrival declared themselves to be Buddhists, and becamein Olcott’s own words “the first white champions”[vi] of the Buddhist revivalist movement in Ceylon.  Seven branches of the BTS were formed in Ceylon in 1880.


It is important to remember that although the theosophists significantly catalysed the Buddhist revivalist movement, the tide of Buddhist revival had already commenced within the country. Olcott and the BTS were supported in their endeavour to set up schools by the Buddhist revivalist leaders both clerical and lay, comprisingthe likes of Hikkaduwe Sri SumangalaThero, MigettuwatteGunanandaThero,AnagarikaDharmapala, and D.B. Jayatilaka.It is however in the sphere of modern education that the theosophist legacy is most revered and visible today.  And we are here to celebrate that narrative today.


Olcott and the Westerntheosophists lost no time in addressing the lacunae in education among the majority population in Ceylon.  They established Buddhistschools in the capitals of keyprovinces. The first of these founded by Olcottwas Ananda College, Colombo, formerly English Buddhist School,which started in 1886 as a night school for boys to teach English. The others were Dharmaraja College, Kandy (1887, formerly Kandy Buddhist High School); Maliyadeva College, Kurunegala (1888, formerly Kurunegala Buddhist Institution); Mahinda College, Galle (1892, formerly Galle Buddhist Theosophical Society School); and Musaeus College, Colombo (1893).  These were followed decades later by Sri Sumangala Boys’ School, Panadura (1909); Visakha Buddhist Girls’ School, Colombo (1917); RahulaCollege, Matara (1923);Sri Sumangala Girls’ School, Panadura (1923); Nalanda College, Colombo (1925); Ananda Balika, Colombo (1925); Sujatha Vidyalaya, Matara(1929); andMahamayaVidayala, Kandy (1932).Some 200 schools were established by the theosophists, and their supporters, several of which became leading Buddhist schools in the island.


Liberal intellectual tradition and modernity in education


An area which has direct relevance to the theosophist modernisation project, is the high educational credentials and liberal intellectual milieu of the Western theosophists who undertook Buddhist education in Sri Lanka.  This resulted in their imparting a premium education.The BTS led by Olcott required the Western men and women who came to Ceylon to teach to be not just theosophists but to be academically qualified, and to be familiar with the Oriental philosophies.[vii]They actively sought qualified Western principals for the new theosophisical Buddhist schools, from England, the US and Australia.  As we know,MusaeusHiggins, as destiny would have it, responded to an advertisement placed by de Abrew in the theosophistmagazine “The Path”.Kate Pickett, the first Principal of the first Buddhist girls’ school, Sangamitta, who was to meetwith a tragic end two weeks into her arrival, was the daughter of the Melbourne Theosophical Society President, Elise Pickett.  Elise Picket later took up the post of Principal of Sangamitta for three years.  Higgins herself was a theosophist and the daughter of a High Court Judge in Germany, and having graduated from University, had obtained the title of Frau Professor, was well versed in German, French, English and Greek, and accomplished in music.  F.L. Woodward, British theosophist, a Cambridge graduate and OrientalistPalischolar, was the Principal of Mahinda from 1903 to 1919. He taught English, Latin, Pali, Buddhism and Art.  Before that, Bowles Daly,Irish theosophist and former Christian clergyman, journalist, author of works on history and political economy, was the first Principal of Mahinda.C.W. Leadbeater,[viii]British theosophist scholar friend of Olcottand former Anglican clergyman, was the first Principal of Ananda.  Annie Preston, a British-Australian theosophist, suffragette, and member of the Ceylon Labour Party, headed the Musaeus Nursery from 1922, and was the Principal of Musaeus after Higgins, after which she formed her own school Alethea.[ix]Eminent national leader and educationist D.B. Jayatilake, a graduate of the Universities of Calcutta and Oxford, became the second Principal of Dharmaraja.


These theosophist teachers, who Olcott and his team took considerable trouble to recruit from several continents, were able to impart a high quality education and engender liberal and at times socialist ideas among their students.  Thus, by establishing several English medium schools based on Western liberal curricula, amalgamated with the teaching of Buddhism, local history and language, the theosophists made available a modern education combined with tradition.  The modern education imparted was equivalent in quality to the education provided by the best of missionary schools.  Given the unique formula, these schools succeeded in nurturing a sense of dignity, self-confidence and national consciousness among a colonised people.  This was the generation which was to later play a significant role in the many faceted national movement of Sri Lanka.


Theosophists being averse to Christian religious dogma and seeking a universal truth connecting the great Eastern philosophies, did not in turn encourage the establishment of a Buddhist dogma in the schools they formed.  The theosophists emphasised “a general education”(anon. 2012),by which was meant a modern education along the Western liberal tradition.  Education in these schools was therefore not confined to Buddhist students alone.  Peter de Abrew wrote in the theosophist magazine “Lucifer” soon after the formation of Musaeus,“that the school shall be entirely undenominational, as by adopting that method I shall be enabled to benefit all my countrywomen without distinction of creed…”(ibid.).[x]


It would do well for us to remember today that it is reported that Musaeus College at the time of its inception catered to students of all communities. The staff was also cosmopolitan.  Like the missionary schools, the theosophical schools embraced the protestant work ethic, as demonstrated by Higgins keenly imparting on her young female students “a practical education” including housework, cooking, needlework and a sense of order “so that when they leave school they can do anything they are called to do”(Higgins 1905).[xi]


The theosophists also retooled Buddhism to make it modern.  They de-ritualisedBuddhism from the indigenous folk tradition and presented a lucid version distilled from translations(Obeyesekera1997, Roberts 1997).[xii]Many of the eminent Orientalist scholars who translated Pali Buddhist texts were themselves theosophists, and were connected to Sri Lanka. Prominent among these was British Orientalist theosophist and Buddhist scholar Thomas Rhys Davids who had his training in the philology of Ceylon and was a civil servant who served in Ceylon.  Rhys Davids established the London Pali Text Society (1881) which for the first time translated the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism into English (Deraniyagala, Kannangara& Lenora 1961 in Abeyrathne 2015).  Rhys Davidswas also a member of the Ceylon Reform Society.  Olcott who wrote “The Buddhist Catechism” quotes from Rhys Davids.[xiii]


Other Orientalist scholars whose texts were read by theosophists includeCaroline Foley Rhys Davids from the University of London who was a theosophist, feminist, suffragette, wife of Thomas Rhys Davids and well known for her translation of the Theri Gatha as “Psalms of the Sisters” (1909); and a few decades later, I.B. Horner, graduate of Cambridge, scholar of Pali literature and later President of the Pali Text Society.  Horner translated the VinayaPitaka or “Book of discipline of monks and nuns” (1938) from Pali to English.[xiv]Annie Besant in her Buddhist Popular Lectures (1908) displays a competence of Buddhist dhamma.


It was therefore this distilled version of Buddhism that was imparted in the theosophical schools, which resonated with the needs of the time.  AnagarikaDharmapala[xv], who was to later champion the Buddhist revivalist movement in Sri Lanka, strongly supported the theosophist project of Buddhist education, especially women’s education[xvi].  He was closely associated with and influenced by Blavatsky and Olcott in his formative years.  Dharmapalapopularised a reformed, modern version of Buddhism which was embraced by the elites and the masses alike.  He admired the modernisation and industrial drive of the West and Japan, which he attempted to replicate in the early-1900s in Sri Lanka, by setting up small industries in Kandy (Meegama 2003).  In my work at the Sri Lanka Embassies in Japan and Korea, I encountered first hand, visible evidence of Dharmapala’s diplomatic outreach to build a pan-Asian identitywith leading Buddhist scholars and Buddhist orders in these countries.[xvii]


Thus, the strengths of the Western world of science, industrialisation and modernity and its social and other habits were imparted by the theosophists in the schools they built, coupled with the teaching of Sri Lankan history, Buddhist philosophy, indigenous arts, culture, and even the sciences.  For example, Annie Besant and Higgins were founder members of the Ceylon Reform Society formed in 1905 to promote the regeneration of national culture and the Eastern sciences such as indigenous medicine.As a result, the schools the theosophists established emerged as secular, inclusive and modern centres of learning catering to an emerging middle class who desired to embrace modern values.  Hereinlies the cosmopolitanism of the theosophist project which delicately balanced itself between tradition and modernity.  It is to the credit of the theosophists that Sri Lanka through the tribulations of its nation building process in the 20th and 21st centuries, did not inherit from its pre-independence times a religious conflict.


Women’s education


Women’s education in Sri Lanka in modern times originated first through the demand for English educated modern wives for the boys of the emerging middle class.  Similar imperatives drove the establishment of the missionary girls’ schools, starting with the first Girls’ Boarding School in Uduvil, Jaffna in 1824, and later, the theosophist Buddhist girls’ schools of Sangamitta and Musaeusin Colombo in the 1890s.  The original aim was to impart a finishing school type of education needed to nurturegood wives and mothers, modelled on Victorian womanhood.  This is evident in an advertisement placed by Higgins in Sithumina in 1898 to recruit new students toMusaeuswhich highlights the teaching of “womanly accomplishments” such as cookery, needlework and music, in addition toEnglish and Sinhala (de Silva 2002).


We must remember that many of the eminent theosophist women who worked in South Asia such as Annie Besant, Henrietta Muller, Charlotte Despard, Margaret Cousins, Florence Farr and Annie Preston, were also suffragettes and some were socialist feminists, who had fought for the rights of women in Europe (Jayawardena 1995). Despite their feminism in Europe, many of these theosophist women, like their missionary sisters before them,subscribed to gender stereotypes in acknowledging the special value of educating women in nationbuilding in South Asia. Most notable among these is Annie Besant (who succeededOlcott as President of the Theosophical Society in 1907), who expounded a traditional notion of womanhood in South Asia, perceiving women as mothers, wives, daughters and repositories of culture, while espousing a radical feminism in Europe, which was even noticed byDharmapala (Jayawardena 1995).[xviii]In an address at the Musaeus College prize giving in 1907, Besantdraws a sharp distinction between the education of boys and girls, as well as between that of Eastern and Western women (Besant 1908).[xix]The education which is fitted, perhaps for the English girls is not always fitted in its entirety for the Sinhalese maiden. … she has not to enter into the rough and tumble work of the world in competition with her men relatives”says Besant(1908).


Similarly, Florence Farr, who was Principal of Ramanathan College, Jaffna, a Hindu Girls’ School set up by PonnanbalamRamanathan in 1912, was coerced into projecting a notion of Victorian womanhood of herself.  In reality, Farr in her previous incarnation wasa socialist feminist and a famous actress in England with a colourful past,who had moved in socialist and artistic circles, and was a close friend of Bernard Shaw, W.B Yeats and Ezra Pound (Jayawardena 1995).


Additionally, the Western theosophist women who undertook to educate the “natives” were themselves seen in the traditional role of mothers and devout women, like their missionary sisters before them.  At times their self-image also coincided with this perception.  Thus, Higgins in responding to Peter de Abrew’sadvertisement, declared that she would “undertake to be a mother to the daughters of Lanka” (Higgins 1905).[xx]  The legend of SuduAmma was born even before she stepped foot on the island.[xxi]


Despite theselimitations placed on female education, the liberal intellectual background, latent feminism and sheer dedication of these early women educationists, among whom Marie Musaeus Higgins is prominent,combined with the modern curriculathey introduced, resulted in the girls’ schools emerging as centres of excellence and producing students who were to take up teaching and other important professions in public life, thus subverting traditional gender roles.


Musaeus College is most uniquely positioned in this narrative.  It is the second Buddhist girls’ school in Sri Lanka, and the first Buddhist girls’ school to be established by a Western woman.  The school boasts a rich tapestry of eminent theosophists associated with its founding.


Marie Musaeus Higgins was a pioneer in her field, and one of the earliest European theosophist women to arrive in Sri Lanka.  While her maternal nature and compassion have been venerated, not enough attention has been paid to her ideology, her vision and her feminism, which we will celebrate today.


Before the arrival of Higgins,the Women’s Education Society (WES)formed by middle class Sinhala women in 1889, had already established, albeit not very stably, the first Buddhist girls’ school, Sri Sangamitta in Maradana, with the support of the BTS, as well as several other vernacular schools (Moonesighe 2013).[xxii]  The story of Musaeus College begun with 12 students in “a mud hut”in prime land donated by theosophist philanthropist Peter de Abrew, who is truly the co-founder of the school,is well recorded, by Higgins herself (Higgins 1905).  Australian theosophist Wilton Hack who visited the school in 1893 calls it “a poor little shanty of a place” (Pilapitiya 2012).Annie Besant laid the foundation stone for the Musaeus building on 15 November 1893.  Due to the support of Wilton Hack,[xxiii]the school received its first brick building, completed in 1895. Two years after its foundation, the school received grant-in-aid status, and a Board of Trustees was appointed, including Higgins, de Abrew, Olcott, William Austin, Hack and Besant.  Higgins struggled to win the annual government grant which was conditional on the school having a “proper” brick building, whereas the missionary schools were readily supported by the colonial government with land and financial grants.[xxiv]Both Higgins and de Abrew implored to the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar, South India, and its international branches,and other philanthropists to raise funds for the fledgling school (Higgins 1905 and anon. 2012). According to Higgins, the school “filled up rapidly”, and by 1903 had 90 members including students, teachers and support staff (Higgins 1905).


As recorded by Higgins in 1905, the students were soon passing “their Cambridge Local ‘Examination’ in French and Latin”.[xxv]In a remarkable achievement, in 1902 Lucy de Abrew, one of the first 12 students ofMusaeus,became the first Sinhala woman to enter Ceylon Medical College.Jane de Zoysa, another of the famous first dozen, became founder Principal of theMusaeus Teacher Training College.Musaeus had its first Sri Lankan Principal, Sujatha Nimalasuriya, a product of C.M.S. Ladies College and Ceylon University College, in 1930 (Pilapitiya 2012).


Higgins was not only a qualified educationist, but comes out as a strong and fascinating woman who subverted traditional gender roles.  Her story of founding Musaeus demonstrates that she literally struggled to secure her environment and raise funds to build her school, even at risk to her own life (Higgins 1905).  She resigned from the post of President of WES, and relinquished her post as Principal ofSangamittaafter two years, when she found that she did not have theindependence to translate her vision into action.  Sheis humorously cynical about the patriarchal attitudes of the “husbands and brothers” of the WES members who “intended to govern” her“and the school”(ibid.).[xxvi]Seeing the demand for Buddhist women’s education, she had the determination and courage to set up her own school, mobilise fundsand place it in trust, which led to the sustainability of the school, despite tremendous odds (ibid.).


Higginsalso remained an ardent theosophist engaged in public life outside her role ofSuduAmma, and was the founder Secretary of the Ceylon Reform Societywhere she would have interacted with luminaries such as Ananda Coomarwamy, Abdul Rahman, ThomasRhysDavids, Alfred Russel Wales, in addition to Besant and Olcott.  She built within the Musaeuspremises a meeting hall named “Hope Lodge” which served as an intellectualsalon for theosophical discussions on Buddhism, which was attended by the likes of George Arundale, President of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, G.P. Malalasekera and P. de S. Kularatne(Pilapitiya 2012).Higgins herself attended these discussions with some of her staff.  In 1925 one year before her death, she prepared to participate in the annual Theosophical Conference in Adyar, South India, with Annie Preston, although this was not to be (ibid.).


Higginslived half her life, in Sri Lanka, and made Musaeus and women’s education her cause to the very end (1889 to 1926).She concentrated on learning Ceylon history which she considered imperative in the school curricula, and taught the subject herself.  She was a writer of 10 books on Buddhism, Ceylon history and culture.[xxvii]She introduced Sinhala, Buddhism and oriental arts into her curricula.  Most importantly, as an educationist she demonstrated an institutional vision, trained her own students to become teachers, and established the first ever Teacher Training College for Buddhist Women in Ceylon in 1908 with the approval of the Government, which catalysed the expansion of women’s education.[xxviii]She set up a practicing school for teacher trainees in Sinhala named “Higgins Vidyalaya” which doubled up as a school for less privileged students.  As I indicated at the beginning, her legacy forms an important part of Sri Lanka – German bilateral relations, and is celebrated today.

Passing the baton


The theosophist schools thus established were taken to new heights by Sri Lankan educationists who took over the management of these schools in the 1920s and the 1930s, including personalities such as D.B. Jayatilake. Notable among these is P. de S. Kularatne who made Ananda the leading school it is today.  His teaching staff was multicultural, and so were the students.When T.B. Jayahwho was in his staff was appointed the Principal of ZahiraCollege in 1921, a school for Muslim boys, Kularatne generously seconded many of his staff to support Zahira, and itemerged as one of the leading schools in the country.  Kularatne also established many other leading Buddhist schools including Nalanda, Ananda Balika, MoratuwaVidyalaya, DharmapalaVidyalaya, and was the Principal of Dharmaraja.  It is noteworthy that Kularatne, like Sujatha Nimalasuriya,himself received his education in missionary schools of Richmond and Wesley,thus highlighting the cross-fertilisation that took place in the modernist project of theosophist education.


Incidentally, many of the prominent Western, Indian and local educationists who took over from the theosophists from the 1920s were women.  They include Hilda Westbrook Kularatne, Bertha Rodgers Ratwatte, Doreen Wickremesinghe[xxix], Clara Motwani,Susan George Pulimood, Soma PujitaGoonewardena, and Sujatha Nimalasuriya,among others, who headed schools including Visakha, Mahamaya, Musaeus, Pushpadana, Maliyadeva, Sri Sumangala and Ananda Balika,and focused fully on making them centres of excellence in education.  Due to limitations in my research, I regret not being able to provide an exhaustive list of educationists or schools.


Many of these educationistswho took over from the theosophists, were also associated with the National Reform Society, formed in 1931 as successor to the Ceylon Reform Society, to promote social reform and cultural regeneration.  Members of the Society includedP. de S. Kularatne, C.W.W. Kannangara, G.P. Malalasekera, S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, D.T. Devendra, W.A. de Silva, and S.K. Wickramasinghe, who were to play a significant role in post-colonial nation building in Sri Lanka.


These educationists and national leadersworked tirelessly to recruit children from the emerging middle class to the Buddhist schools they formed, in order to enhance their influence and sustainability.  Even in 1933, Clara Motwani found “Visakha a somewhat demoralized school”… “With the exception of a few brave pioneers,…., Buddhist parents preferred to send their children to the fashionable missionary institutions” (Sadanandan 2007).My mother has a childhood memory of how Lady Sarah de Soysa, the leading spirit in the founding of Mahamaya, walked intoher home in Kandy to persuadeher parentsto admit their two elder daughters of school-going age to Mahamaya.  My mother and all her sisters ended up studying at Mahamaya under the tutelage of the famous Bertha Rodgers Ratwatte.  My maternal grandfather[xxx]served on the Board of Mahamaya, while his sons were educated at Trinity College.The girl children of the de Abrew family, despite their wealth and social standing, were admitted to Musaeus.  Agnes Helen Wijewardena, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and mother of President J.R. Jayawardena was educated at Musaeus.  Lanka SamaSamaja Party (LSSP) firebrand Vivienne Gunawardena, of the left-wing Gunawardena family, was educated at Musaeus, and was inducted into the anti-imperialist Suriya Mal movement while still schooling.The theosophical schools therefore also served an elite. It was mainly the urban middle class and the village intelligentsia with influence that couldaccess these schools.


In Martin Wickramasinghe’s epicGamperaliya which is set in the historical period we are discussing here, we find Tissa, the only son of the village gentry, being packed off (against his will) to an IngresiIskole in the south, while his two elder sisters continue their insular vernacular education.We also find Piyal, from a much lower social class in the village, acquiring a superior English education and migrating to Colombo with his business, marrying into Tissa’s family, and rapidly establishing himself as the new rich middle class.  In our collective memory IngresiIskole, a relic from our past, still emotes a superior Western education and upward social mobility.  This then is the legacy of the great theosophists who chipped away at the stranglehold on power and social status by the colonial government and the Christian missionaries, by providing the people with an alternative means of social mobility through education.


However, even by 1931, the time of the Donoughmore Constitution and the introduction of universal franchise, English education largely remained the privilege of the elite.  By 1931, only about 12 percent of school-going children attended English medium schools, and 86 percent of children attended vernacular or Swabhasha schools with few amenities (Meegama 2003).  At that time, only 50 percent of the children of school-going age attended school (ibid.).  Additionally, until the introduction of free education in 1946, most of these schools were fee levying.[xxxi]


It therefore took the revolutionary reforms of C.W.W. Kannangara, the first Minister of Education in Ceylon’s State Council,to make education truly accessible to the masses.  They were the twin reforms of free education adopted in the legislature in 1946; and the formation in the 1940s of well-equipped, secondary co-educational schools in the English medium in the districts out of Colombo, termed Central Schools, modelled on leading Colombo schools, to provide a premium education to gifted but less privileged students from rural areas.[xxxii]Kannagara, in a sense replicated the theosophist experiment in a much larger scale.


The impact of Kannangara reforms was immediate.[xxxiii]Sri Lanka in the 1960s, with free education, high literacy and free healthcare emerged as a model welfare state with a high Human Development Index (HDI) comparable to developed countries, which is sustained to date.  The country also benefitted from the circular effects of female education and free education, which positively impacted on planning smaller families and educating both boy and girl children without discrimination.


Today we may have come full circle. There is much being said about the deterioration in quality of education in general, following the crisis in education from the 1970s.  There is the sense that the state has failed in delivering public goods in the form of a quality education, and a lack of trust in gaining future benefits and social mobility if one were to go through the state system of education,.  If there is one lesson we can draw from the theosophists’ modernisation drive in education, it is of the need to set the bar high, and to maintain quality in education.


I have in my talkreferred to many of the theosophical schools and not just Musaeus.  To borrow a phrase from Steve Jobs, this is in order to “connectthe dots”.  In the end it all comes together.I wish to end this narrative with a quotefrom that great visionary C.W.W. Kannangara.  In August 1945, Kannangaradefended his brain child of Central Schools in the State Council in the following words,“I have been condemned for offering this ‘false pearl’ of the central schools. I say that it is a pearl of great price. Sell all that you have and buy it for the benefit of the whole community.”  (de Silva 2010)


Indeed, as we pay homage today to Madam Marie Musaeus Higgins, Peter de Abrew, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and all those great theosophists, educationists and teachersthat made our school and our nation, let us remember that education is a pearl we must acquire at great price.  It must be polished to sustain its lustre.  It is not the privilege of a few.


Thank you.


End Notes


[1]I wish to acknowledge with gratitude the valuable comments of Prof.Neloufer de Mel and DevikaGunasekera, and the support of VipuliHettiarachchi, Ambassador RavinathaAryasinha andIndraniMeegamain writing this paper.


[i] The Baptists, the Wesleyans (Methodists) and the Anglicans established themselves in Sri Lanka, while the colonial Government confined the American missionaries to Jaffna (Meegama 2003).  Catholic Convent schools were established in the late-19th century in Colombo and Jaffna.


[ii] For example, the head of the Schools Commission established in 1834 to oversee education was the Archbishop of the Anglican Church (Sumathipala 1968 in Meegama 2003).


[iii]For example, the young AnagarikaDharmapala with his dark locks, dark eyes and white cloth cut an exotic figure at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and was highly commended (Piyadasa 2014).


[iv]The theosophist philosophy is encapsulated in the following quote from Annie Besant from as address in 1907 at a prize giving at Musaeus Girl’s School, where she says, ‘We hope for such intercourse between the East and the West that both may profit by it. That neither may suffer; the East bringing to the West its great spiritual thought and its profound philosophy, and the West bringing to the East the results of its scientific achievements and its practical conduct of life.’  (Besant 1908).


[v] John Peebles, an American scholar published a booklet on the Panadura debate based on the Ceylon Times report in the United States, which catalysed the arrival of Blavatsky and Olcott on the shores of Ceylon in May 1880, having started a correspondence with the Buddhists involved in the debate.


[vi]Olcott’s diary entry states “We were the first white champions of their religion” (Goonetileke 1976).


[vii]Hence Peter de Abrew’s advertisement in “The Path”, which looked for a woman who “should not only be versed in educational matters, but should likewise have some knowledge of Buddhism and other Oriental philosophies; above all, she should be a Theosophist” (anon. 2012).


[viii]Leadbeaterwas later compelled to resign from the Theosophical Society following allegations of “immoral sexual practices and conduct”.


[ix]Preston is credited with having first introduced the Montessori teaching method in Ceylon.  The Musaeus Nursery under Preston was a model kindergarten which was often visited by educationists and teachers who wished to emulate her methods.  Preston wrote a number of books on the teaching of English (Pilapitiya 2012).  She was also a women’s activist and a member of the Ceylon Labour Party, and was associated with Susan de Silva and Doreen Wickremasinghe (Jayawardena 1995).  Preston’s is an interesting story which requires more scholarly research.


[x]It is my intention …that the school shall be entirely undenominational, as by adopting that method I shall be enabled to benefit all my countrywomen without distinction of creed… My object is first of all to put the blessings of a good sound general education within reach of all my countrywomen, and I can best do that by leaving religious instruction to be given by the various denominations in their Sunday schools” (de Abrew in Anon. 2012).


[xi]It is my greatest desire to give my girls a practical education, so that they may be prepared for whatever position in life may await them.  All house work is done by them, we have only two cook women who are assisted every day by one of the girls (in turn) so that the girls when they leave school can do anything they are called upon to do’ (Higgins 1905).


[xii]  This is despite the leanings toward the occult and the supernatural by Blavatsky and some of the theosophists.  Olcott himself had dabbled in the occult in an earlier period.  He also confined the official positions in the Buddhist Theosophical Society to lay persons and used the Buddhist clergy in advisory roles (Roberts 1997).


[xiii]It is said that Olcott read over 10,000 pages of Buddhist scholarly works in English and French, and went over the draft of the “Catechism” with Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala (Pilapitiya 2012).  Olcott in his interpretation, demythologised and de-ritualised Sri Lankan Buddhism.


[xiv]Horner visited Sri Lanka several times and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Ceylon in 1964 in recognition of her contribution to Pali scholarship (Jayawardena 2003).


[xv]AnagarikaDharmapala undertook Buddhist missionary work through his Dhammaduta service and the founding of Maha Bodhi Society in 1891.  Dharmapala later rejected theosophist ideology which he felt was closer to Hinduism than to Buddhism.


[xvi]Dharmapala is associated with the formation of leading girls’ schools such as Mahamaya and Ananda Balika.


[xvii]Dharmapalaeffectively used a combination of Buddhism and theosophy to develop a Pan-Asian identity through links with India, and the larger Asian region including Thailand, Burma, China, Japan and Korea.  At the same time, he solidified links with the Western world of America, England, Germany and France.  He established personal links with the theosophists, intellectuals and important Buddhist Orders and Temples in these countries.  During my tenure as Counsellor at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Tokyo in 2005, I came across a historic yet rather indecipherable facsimile copy of Dharmapala’s correspondence with Japanese Buddhists, which though unverified could well have been with the famous Japanese Zen master theosophist D.T. Suzuki.  On my first day in Seoul as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador, on a visit to the historic Jogyesa Temple of the main Buddhist Order in Korea, I was fascinated to be guided by the Chief Monk to pay homage to the Octogonal ten-storied Stupa which houses the Sacred Relics of the Buddha, brought to Korea in 1913 by none other than AnagarikaDharmapala.


[xviii]Jayawardena (1995) has pointed to this dichotomy in Besant’s feminism.  She says that this duality in her feminism was also remarked upon by Dharmapala who observed that Besant “was preaching gentleness and obedience to Indians, while supporting militant suffragettes in England” (Guruge 1965, in Jayawardena 1995).


[xix]In her “Buddhist Popular Lectures 1907”, in an address delivered to students at Musaeus College, Besant remarks, ”..the education of women is the most important thing of all. For you may play tricks with your boys’ education, and you may still grow into a nation. But you dare not be careless with your girls’ education—the girls who are to be mothers of the Sinhalese people in the days to come.  There lies the very heart of national life. Denationalise your boys, and their mothers may renationalise them; but denationalise your women, and who shall save the children who are born of their wombs? Boys may go far afield, but they will never go quite astray, if their heart binds them to their home, and if they not only love, but reverence mother, wife and daughter. The home holds the heart of men, it will be worth holding, and the safety of the national life lies in the training of women” (Besant 1908).


[xx]Fourteen years ago when I was living in Washington DC, US America, where I had held a position under government for seven years, the great desire to devote myself to the cause of humanity in the especial line of education came to me. Then it was that I saw in a magazine an appeal from the island of Ceylon from a number of Sinhalese Buddhist mothers who had awakened to the great need of education for the girls of Ceylon, imploring some competent unprejudiced woman to come to them and undertake the education of their daughters. The appeal further stated that no one seemed to care for those who loved their own religion and to disregard its precepts. My heart went out to them at once and I felt that this work of education and civilization was my mission for life. Through the study of Buddhism I knew that it would not be against my conscience, not to disturb them in their religion and so I answered at once to the appeal and wrote to the writer of it, an educated Sinhalese gentleman, that I would come to Ceylon and undertake to be a mother to the daughters of Lanka’ (Higgins 1905).


[xxi]Higgins remained acutely conscious of her role as the harbinger of “civilisation” and considered “education and civilisation” her “mission for life” (Higgins 1905).  She says in her memoirs,”The new girls really do not know what “play”’ means. They sit in the distance and look with wondering eyes at the girls running or playing ball, and I always think that when they enjoy their first play and look up with merry faces, their civilisation has commenced” (ibid.).  The early school song of Musaeus portrays the children of “coloured country” of Lanka, as “sleeping children” that will “wake” (with education cum civilisation). “My own coloured country, I shall serve you well / Ring for you my lifetime like a silver bell / where its sleeping children will hear its sound and wake / Ringing love and glory for you own sweet sake.” (Pilapitiya 2012).


[xxii]Higgins however did not demonstrate much confidence in the WES, and subsequently resigned from its Presidency to form her own school (Higgins 1905).


[xxiii]Wilton Hack, a former Baptist Minister, was a member of the Ceylon Theosophical society who devoted a great deal of his time to raise funds for not only Museaus, but other theosophical schools such as Dharmaraja.


[xxiv]The Buddhist Theosophical Society led by A.E. Buultjens, successfully resisted state attempts to hinder the establishment of Buddhist schools such as the 1892 colonial clause, where the colonial government withheld state grants for schools situated a quarter mile of an existing school (Meegama 2003).


[xxv]The school recorded its first success in the Cambridge Junior Examination as early as 1897.


[xxvi]A meeting of the “Women’s Educational Society of Ceylon” was held and I was elected President.  But this brought me most of my difficulties.  The women were so ignorant, that nothing whatever could be done with them.  Their husbands and brothers formed a Committee and they intended to govern me and the school also, for that a ‘woman’ really would and could take matters in hand, never entered their minds” (Higgins 1905).


[xxvii] Higgins wrote ten (10) books between 1910 – 1926, including “Stories From History Of Ceylon I”, “Stories From History Of Ceylon II”, Jathakamala, “Leela’s Dream”, Guththilaya, “Three Brothers”, “King Kashyapa”, Ramayanaya, Viharamaha Devi and Pandukabaya.


[xxviii] Higgins (1905) says in her article on the founding of Musaeus, “Until 1902 I had some European Assistants who gave me their help without receiving any salary, but since 1903 I have conducted the school with my own girls, who were trained as teachers with the addition of two Sinhalese gentlemen who come to the school to teach some branches”.


[xxix]Doreen Wickremesinghe, an Englishwoman from a theosophical background and graduate of the London School of Economics, was a prominent socialist feminist in Sri Lanka.  According to Jayawardena (1995), “It was Doreen Young [Wickremesinghe], however who radicalised Buddhist girls’ education, taking it away from the Buddhist ‘wives and mothers’ synadrome of the other schools.”  Doreen Wickremesinghe was Principal of Sujatha Vidyalaya and Ananda Balika, Colombo.


[xxx]Don Paulus Jayasinghe.


[xxxi]Musaeus continued to be a private school even after the state acquisition of schools in 1960-1961 under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.


[xxxii]The level of excellence some of the Central Schools achieved in education and how these Central school products joined the elites in shaping our modern nation is well recorded.  Kannangara carefully handpicked the principals and teachers for his Central Schools.  Welimada Central set up in the 1950s was the first school to teach science in the Uva Province.


[xxxiii]While, in 1931, children of school-going age not attending school was 53 per cent, by 1947, it had dropped to 37 per cent (Meegama 2003).  The literacy rate among women rose from 21.2 per cent in 1921 to 43.8 per cent in 1946, to 53.6 percent in 1953 (ibid.).



















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