Vale: Remembering Ananda Wickremeratne, A Versatile Scholar

Gerald Peiris, in The Island, 23 September 2021, where the title reads “Ananda Wickremaratne:  Homage to Scholarly Excellence”

Professor Ananda Wickremeratne ranked among our most brilliant scholars whose careers commenced in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ceylon in the 1950s and the early ‘60s. From about the late 1960s, as our political turbulences and economic hardships intensified, many among them were induced to emigrate to countries where their qualifications and skills could be put into more rewarding use. When Ananda joined that exodus in 1979, belatedly and somewhat reluctantly, the prospects in the ‘West’ (especially the United States) for our graduates in Arts and Humanities were far more restricted than in earlier times.

The information on Ananda’s death following several years of deteriorating health reached us about a week ago. Death is such a non-event here that even the passing away of extraordinarily erudite scholars and professionals tends to remain ignored. That does not matter. But what does matter is that their legacies also remain forgotten or unknown. It is in this latter context that I am impelled to offer this homage to my friend Ananda in the form of a brief sketch of his academic achievements.

In what could be considered as the first phase of Ananda’s teaching career he remained in the university system of Sri Lanka – briefly at Jayawărdhanapura, and over a longer spell at Peradeniya – where, apart from being an extraordinarily popular teacher, he, with his colleagues like Kingsley de Silva, Michael Roberts, Gananath Obeyesekera and Ian Goonetileke, made an indelible contribution to a flourishing tide collaborative research in the Faculty of Arts. A greater part of his remaining university career was spent in the United States.

Ananda obtained the baccalaureate degree in History with honours in 1961. Soon thereafter he was recruited to the teaching staff of the Faculty of Arts. Having been awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship for postgraduate study in Britain, he proceeded to Oxford and undertook a programme of research at the successful completion of which he was awarded the doctoral degree. The in-depth inquiry into education and religious affairs during what could be considered the most vicissitudinous  phase during the ‘Victorian Era’ of British dominance over the island – 1865 to 1885 –  one finds in his thesis a much greater focus on the impact of the related social changes on the indigenous inhabitants of the island than in other detailed studies of spatial and temporal overlap (except Ralph Pieris’ ‘Society in a Time of Troubles’ – a series published in the University of Ceylon Review).

It was probably the quality of Ananda’s doctoral dissertation in terms of depth of content and refinement of presentation that earned him a ‘Commonwealth Academic Staff Fellowship’, enabling him in the mid-1970s to enrich his earlier research at the archival sources in London, expanding the scope of his interests on the impact of the fluctuating fortunes of that 20-year period –  social destabilisation caused by the process of dispossession of  vast extents of land from Buddhist temples and shrines (vihāragam and dēvālagam) in the enforcement of the ‘Temple Lands Ordinance of 1856’, the accelerated  growth of coffee plantations in the highlands followed by the spectacular collapse of the coffee enterprise from about the late 1870s, the advent of rail transport and intensification of the road network, the discriminatory educational reforms, and the changes in the modalities of taxation of the those engaged in paddy production.

Several of his publications during this period such as ‘Religion, Nationalism and Social Change in Ceylon’, ‘Rulers and the Ruled in British Ceylon’, and ‘Famine Conditions in Late-19th Century Ceylon’, considered collectively, convey the impression that they were a prelude to what turned out to become one of his major research concerns – viz. Buddhist revivalism and nationalism in Sri Lanka. It was while working on that subject with the thoroughness typical of his efforts that he contributed to the aforesaid collaborative research in the Faculty of Arts, the most significant outcome of which was the long delayed ‘University of Ceylon History of Ceylon, Volume III’ (1973) for which Ananda contributed four chapters and co-authored another with Michael Roberts. Yet another product of collective faculty effort of much wider scope – Sri Lanka: A Survey (1975) – also included a study by Ananda on ‘Peasant Agriculture’, in addition to those by Ediriweera Sarachchandra on the performing arts, and K. N. O. Dharmadasa on literature.

From the information given to me by Ananda himself, it was Professor S. J. Tambiah, the world-renowned Anthropologist at Harvard University, which made it possible for him to proceed to that university on fellowships granted by its Department of Anthropology and the Centre for the Study of World Religions. The Harvard offer represented the severance of Ananda’s formal links with the university at Peradeniya, but enhanced his opportunities to focus on the Buddha Sāsana and the State in British Ceylon.

Following the completion of his assignments at Harvard, Ananda shifted to Chicago, with a Fellowship awarded by the Kern Foundation, a major contributor to the Theosophical Society of the United States. He also gained an Associate Professorship in the Department of Theology at the Loyola University.

From copies of Ananda’s publications which I have received as gifts I am aware that he has authored at least three major monographs since making Chicago his place of residence and the base of his academic pursuits – The Roots of Nationalism in Sri Lanka (several publishers including the Cambridge University Press); The Genesis of an Orientalist: Thomas William Rhys Davids and Buddhism in Sri Lanka (1985); and Buddhism and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka (1995).  There is a common methodological feature that could be discerned in all these works which Professor Paul J. Griffiths has portrayed in his ‘Preface’ to the first monograph referred to above as follows:

“The writing of history, like so many intellectual endeavours during the past several decades, is in danger of being crushed under the weight of debates about theory and method. The virtues of historiography based upon close study of documentary sources from the period being written about, and with the unpretentious goal of offering a narrative account of what happened and why, are now rarely visible. This is both sad and unnecessary; sad because such historiography still has much to teach, and unnecessary whatever the value of purely theoretical debates, there is no reason at all why they should make every other kind of historical writing suspect. It is therefore a pleasure for me to write a Preface to Ananda Wickremeratne’s new book, for it is an instance, and a good instance, of the endangered species I have mentioned”.

Ananda being selected by the US State Department as chaperone for a well-planned tour of that country offered in 1986 (?) to the Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha Thero was an interesting episode that had an inspirational impact on Ananda. The tour, covering as it did many places of interest, received considerable media coverage. During their sojourn in Washington DC, I had an opportunity of meeting the Thero, and to observe the intellectual rapport that had developed between them.  Why such an offer was made to that politically prominent chief incumbent of Nāga Vihāra remained a mystery in my mind.

Living in the 32nd floor of an apartment complex located on the ‘South Lake Shore Drive’ in overlooking Lake Michigan could have created in Ananda’s mind a yearning for a return to his ancestral home overlooking Bogambara Lake and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth-Relic in Kandy. This was the impression I got during my three-day visit to their home in 2003 when, as usual, Ananda, Swarna and their daughter Ranmini made my stay one of the most pleasant I ever had. Yet, returning to Sri Lanka was not an attainable option for Ananda – certainly not, because he could not abandon his wife and children to fulfil his own desire. Nor, with failing health, could he survive without Swarna’s care – a consideration which became starkly evident when he attempted a few years ago, with the consent of his wife and children, to live alone at his home in Kandy, helped by a hired caretaker and his brother’s family, supplemented with an occasional visit by friends.

Ananda’s a long-standing academic objective was that of producing a seminal work on Anagārika Dharmapala. He has shown me one or two of his draft chapters. Working on that effort was excessively tedious, especially because he, quite strangely, had a mental block on computer-use even for simple needs like e-mail communication and word processing. So, even to get a single paragraph designed to his satisfaction, he had to go on chopping and changing handwritten drafts. Finally, when ill-health overtook him, he could not proceed with his efforts, especially when his school-mate and university batch-mate, Dr. Sarath Amunugama overtook him in that effort to resurrect the Anagarika legacy. Incidentally, Ananda’s mother was a descendant of the Don Carolis Hewavitharana clan, and recalls her childhood contact with ‘David’ before he assumed the anagarika status – i.e. a celibate, full-time Buddhist missionary status.



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2 responses to “Vale: Remembering Ananda Wickremeratne, A Versatile Scholar

  1. Chandra R. de Silva

    I am happy to endorse the positive assessment of Ananda Wickremaratne’s career and achievements ably summarized by Gerald Peiris. I would like to add that Ananda was generous in sharing his views and data with other scholars and was a pleasure to associate with.
    C. R. de Silva

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