Breaching the Presidential Portals of a Venerable Learned Society: Hema Goonatilake in the RAS

Darshanie Ratnawalli, in Daily Mirror,  August 2018, with the title “Royal Asiatic Society (SL) needs women and diversity” … with highlighting being the work of The Editor, Thuppahi

If having a female at the helm is a sign of modernity in an organization, the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka (RASSL) was dragged into modernity in 2015. So late? I can hear you exclaiming incredulously — after all by 2015 the RASSL was 170 years old.

Yet it is true. The society fell into line with its more modern peer societies only when Dr. Hema Goonatilake made her successful bid for the presidency in 2015, amidst an unedifying display of kicking and screaming by a section of its membership.

“There is something quaintly charming about a Mom & Pop business undertaking,” one notable commentator wrote to an online news site with reference to her presidential bid, marking the fact that the outgoing president was her own husband. In his final slam, using an analogy which was unintentionally revealing, this commentator asked, “Will the discerning membership of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka opt for Marie Antoinette in place of the outgoing Bourbon?”

The analogy becomes revealing by presenting Hema Goonatilake, a woman with academic, scholarly and activist credentials separate and independent of her husband, as analogous to Marie Antoinette, who did not have an autonomous entitlement to lead except what was derived from her husband.

Hema G seems to have anticipated and planned ahead when storming this regressive bastion of male intellectual dominance. She and Malini [Dr. Malini Dias, fellow council member and former Director (Epigraphy and Numismatics) in the Department of Archaeological Survey of Sri Lanka] put their heads together and drew up a plan for the siege.

“Actually, I wanted Malini Dias to become the president. She didn’t want to. But very thoughtfully she said, she would propose me for vice president. She said, ‘it’s easy then for you’. She then made me vice president, immediately after my four years as editor. My husband had nothing to do with it. It was totally my hard work. I set an example to RAS. How? By editing two journals a year. From the inception of RAS, they had only done one journal a year. I was determined to do two a year. Several said, you will find it very difficult to get the articles and all that. I said, don’t worry, I will do it and I did it.

“I consider the position of president easy …. it’s harder to get there but the work involved is not that difficult. But being the editor is very difficult, if you want to do a good job.”

RASSL is a funny organization, or so I thought. The photographs of the 1985 ceremonial opening of its permanent headquarters in the Mahaweli Centre, reproduced in a JRAS article by a joint honorary secretary shows only one woman. Clad in a below the knee frock of some printed material, she stands out among the Sri Lankan men in national and European dress. Since this happened to be Margret Thatcher, she wouldn’t have been surprised to find herself the only woman in an all male setting. But the lack of women in those photographs surprised me.

Surely in 1985 Sri Lanka had enough female academics and intellectuals to throng happily around Thatcher as RASSL council members, shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues at their headquarters opening? Contrast this with the situation in the universities. It wouldn’t have been possible for Thatcher to attend a ceremonial event at any of the SL universities in 1985 and be the only woman in the core group.

In the year of the headquarters opening, two female members graced the RASSL council; Dr. Lorna Dewaraja and Ms. Deloraine Brohier. According to Professor K. D. Paranavithana, a former president and long-term secretary of the RASSL, who was ousted as a result of a power play [as they claim on the scholarly grapevine] by Hema’s husband, Dr. Susantha Goonatilake, there was no systematic discrimination or conspiracy by the RASSL to exclude women from its highest office. “There were no candidates. Dr. Mrs. Lorna Dewaraja was there and she could have become the president. She didn’t contest. She was the most qualified lady at that time. Dr. Mrs. Kiribamune could have been another person but she didn’t come [down to the meeting] from Peradeniya.”

Deloraine Brohier   Lorna Dewaraja

Recalling the RASSL Mahaweli Centre headquarters opening ceremony, which he attended in the capacity of secretary, Professor Paranavithana reveals that despite not appearing in the photographs Lorna Dewaraja was indeed present, though Deloraine Brohier did not attend for some reason.

“They were not interested,” K.D. Paranavithana responds each time I mention women who might have contested for RASSL president. This way, we bring altogether four women under the ‘credentialed but not interested’ classification, including Professor Paranavithana’s own wife Rohini Paranavithana, Emeritus Professor, Department of Sinhala, University of Colombo, who wasn’t interested enough even to get into the council. Apparently, it’s not everyone who will seek the post of president or any other office at the RASSL. “Even Professor J.B. Disanayaka was not interested in the presidency,” K.D. Paranavithana informs me, when I ask if Professor Kusuma Karunaratne — Emeritus Professor and wife of J.B. Disanayaka couldn’t have become president.

“There is a certain kind of person, who is capable of doing that [contesting for office at RASSL]. Most people have a lot of other involvements. I didn’t have many involvements. I became the secretary and right throughout I was the secretary for about 10 years. Even when I went to Australia for four years to do my PhD, they reserved the place for me until I came back because no one was interested in writing minutes.”

However, the lack of interest displayed hitherto by countless women in a particular position doesn’t diminish the significance of a woman finally attaining that position. Lack of interest could well be the result of the insidious pressure exerted by the zeitgeist and the status quo whispering subliminally; “It hasn’t been done. It’s not done.” Perhaps it takes a certain kind of woman to override these under the radar directives and Hema Goonatilake was that kind.

She certainly overrode the status quo in when she became instrumental in reinstating the Bhikkuni ordination in Sri Lanka. This topic comes up when I meet her at headquarters to discuss the RASSL. “I am acting in other organizations.” Hema Goonatilake says to me in a sibilant whisper in the middle of our RAS talk. “Like?” I ask intrigued. “All Ceylon Buddhist Women’s Congress. I organize various things. When it comes to action, I fight for rights, all kinds of rights.” “Such as the Bhikkhuni ordination?” I want to know.

“I am the villain,” Hema G admits pleasurably.” “All the things Buddhist monks have written about me. If you only knew!” Yet when a prominent Thera, who used to be a leading critic of her was on his deathbed, Hema tells me, he sent her a message through another Thera, “Tell Hema, to send a Bikkuni to my last rites,”

Very edifying, redeeming and heart-warming, but what about discipline, I want to know. “After the Bikkuni ordination lapsed in Sri Lanka, all those centuries ago, is it according to Theravada Vinaya, to re-establish it from China?” Hema pounces on the word “Vinaya”.

“That’s it! Vinaya. There’s no difference in Vinaya between Theravada and Mahayana. Dewasala went to China [all those centuries ago] and gave our ordination to Chinese nuns. And we got it back from the Chinese,” she remarks, triumphantly establishing legitimate provenance and lineage. “I was the first to write about it. Of course, Western women do not quote me. Western women only quote Western women,” says Hema Goonatilake product of SOAS, University of London for her PhD in Buddhist Studies and part of her first degree.

“Do you know Pali?” I ask her interrogatively, interested in finding out why Western women don’t quote her. “I have a Pali Honours degree, Sanskrit, Sinhala Honours, German, French and Cambodian,” Hema comes back smartly and reduces me to an “Oh”. She continues, “I went to Cambodia as the Country Director for Cambodia from the UN. I was in New York and asked for Cambodia. So, I mastered the Cambodian language.”

According to Professor K.D. Paranavithana however, Hema Goonatilake is a superfluous scholar and lacked a sufficiently independent intellectual footprint to prevent her from being an extension of her husband’s intensely political, non-collegiate and confrontational persona. Professor Paranavithana and I spend some time reminiscing about Susantha Goonatilake’s love of confrontation.

“They [Mr and Mrs Goonatilake] were not interested in making the [RASSL] journal academic. Their political interests were put into the journal. Most of the writers were chosen from their inner circle,” Professor Paranavithana tells me.

I ask him about his forced exit from the RASSL allegedly over his treacherous willingness to commemorate Portuguese imperialism in SL in the early 16th century. “They argued that the Portuguese have done wrong things, so they shouldn’t be commemorated. Meanwhile, I got the permission from the council and went to Paris to speak in that conference [to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of Portuguese advent in Sri Lanka]. It was organized by the Gulbenkian Foundation. While I was away, Susantha started writing that I am a traitor, I am participating in these people’s conferences, etc. He circulated letters.”

The Portuguese in the sixteenth century and their interactions were grounded in a different zeitgeist and every Sri Lankan ruler wanted to take part in the power equation they embodied. What’s the use of judging them from the distorting vantage point of our current zeitgeist? Professor Paranavithana agrees, “That was the spirit of the age. We can’t keep away from our research and intellectual pursuits because we don’t now approve.”

Back at the RASSL Hema Goonatilake tells me that the ousting of K.D. Paranavithana was not a coup as I claim. It was a transparent process called a no confidence motion. I suppose the RASSL wanted to make an institutional protest about the atrocities of the Portuguese era and felt its confidence betrayed when a council member went for a conference organized by the enemy.

What an interesting organization, I think to myself. May it acquire more diversity and more women presidents.


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