• Home »
  • Articles »
  • Spread of Buddhist Education in Sri Lanka; the role played by Col Olcott and Theosophists

Spread of Buddhist Education in Sri Lanka; the role played by Col Olcott and Theosophists

The Olcott Oration delivered to the Old Boys Association of Ananda College (November 2020, Perth, Western Australia)

By Dr D Chandraratna

(Continued from Midweek Review (30. 12.2020) 

Buddhist Schools and Col Olcott

With Col Olcott’s initiative and guidance, the theosophists were convinced that the decline of Sinhalese Buddhists was the lack of proper education facilities, and the best solution was to make available educational institutes with a solid Buddhist religious background. Starting from the metropolitan centres, leading Buddhist colleges was established all over the country. A brief look at a few major Schools reveals the salient features. The endeavour united the Buddhists, Philanthropy flourished. A sense of pride galvanized the people and it gave an opportunity to bring the common folk and elites together.

Following a meeting of Buddhists at, Pettah, under the patronage of Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, an English-Buddhist school was inaugurated at 19, Prince Street on 1 November, 1886, by the Buddhist Theosophical Society. Thirty -seven students attended the first session. In 1888, when about 130 boys were attending, it moved to 61 Maliban Street, C. W. Leadbeater was appointed the first Principal of Ananda. In March 1890, the school’s proximity to a Catholic school led to controversy—and a move to 54, Maliban Street, where further growth ensued, and student enrolments rose to 200 in 1892. In 1894 the school was relocated in the suburb of Maradana. On 17 August 1895, the former English Buddhist School was renamed to Ananda College Colombo. By 1961, the college had officially become a government school.

After setting up a branch of the BTS in Galle, Col. Olcott opened up the B. T. S. English school at Pettigalawatta on 15 September 1880. This school had a short existence and later with the arrival of Dr. Bowles Daly (LLD), an Irish clergyman and a theosophist, Mahinda College was opened on 1 March 1892 at Pedlar Street in Galle, Fort. The school was named after Arhant Mahinda Thera, the Buddhist monk who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Frank Lee Woodward, born in England (1871-1952) and trained as a schoolmaster arrived in Sri Lanka and assumed duties as the Principal of Mahinda College, Galle.,

In 1887 Col Olcott visited Kandy and expressed his wish to start an English-medium Buddhist School with the help of Sumangala Thera and the Mudaliyar of Kandy at that time. In June 1888, a new school with one student was opened at a place in Bodhiraja Mawatha near the present Central Bus Stand in Kurunegala, by Semenaries A. Bamunu-Arachchige The school was named Maliyadeva College after Arhat Maliyadeva. In 1946 the girls’ section was separated from the original mixed Maliyadeva College and became a separate institution for girls.

Buddhist Girl’s Education after Olcott

Kumari Jayawardena argues that ‘as a result of neglect, if not gender bias, we know little about either the role of women in the Buddhist revivalist movement or of their efforts to promote Buddhist female education. As part of the Buddhist revival and as counter to the education offered by missionary schools, revivalists spoke mostly of the necessity of giving Buddhist boys a secular education whereas education of girls did not receive the same emphasis’ and early efforts to give girls a modern education had even led to bitter controversies and quarrels in the Buddhist Theosophical Society.

Jayawardena points out that there were few Buddhist women with formal education, and no local women graduates or trained teachers were available to sustain a school, Col Olcott made overtures to foreign Theosophist women to come to Sri Lanka as teachers and principals. Many of them were the early beneficiaries of women’s university education in the West, who had given up Christianity for Theosophy and Buddhism. As qualified ‘white’ principals, they gave immediate ‘status’ to Buddhist schools. They arrived at a time when ‘white women’ were being demonized by nationalists as suddis (‘immoral, promiscuous, and shameless white women’), foreign women. In the fullness of time however Theosophists like Higgins were referred to endearingly as sudu ammas (‘white mothers’) who were giving Buddhist girls an education in English, and rescuing them from the clutches of the missionaries. Up till then Buddhists desiring a modem education in English for their daughters had no choice except the Catholic and Protestant schools such as Good Shepherd Convent, Colombo (started in 1869), the Methodist Girls’ High School, Colombo (1886), the Girls’ High School, Kandy (1879), and many others established subsequently.

The lack of Buddhist schools for girls was noted by Col. Olcott (the founder of the Theosophical Society), who often spoke of the need for schools where girls could be educated in a Sinhala Buddhist atmosphere, based on the view that “the mother is the first teacher,” and “from daughter to wife, from wife to mother” . By the late 19th century, Buddhist middle-class men were looking out for companions who could stand shoulder to shoulder with the educated Sinhalese. Marrying Christians or non-Sinhalese was perceived to be a threat to Sinhala Buddhist identity.

Women theosophists who encouraged the Ceylonese to start girls schools were many.

Sarah A. English, a Theosophist from Massachusetts (who later taught in Sri Lanka); she spoke of the importance of education for women, described the progress of women’s education in the USA and urged Buddhist women to resist Christianity

The Women’s Education Society started four small schools teaching in Sinhala at Wellawatte, Kandy, Gampaha and Panadura, and in 1890 one in Ambalangoda, but its ambitious project was the Sanghamitta School (teaching in English) started at Maradana with 20 pupils. Olcott who recruited Katherine Pickett to lead the project died soon after arrival, was later instrumental in getting Marie Museaus Higgins, (1855-1926), a German widow of an American Theosophist, to become the next principal.

According to Kumari Jayawardena, ‘there were serious differences of opinion over the running of the Sanghamitta School in 1894 and Higgins then left to start another school, Museaus College, on land donated by a Buddhist philanthropist. The fortunes of Sanghamitta School fluctuated. In 1896 its management was transferred to the Buddhist Theosophical Society, and in 1898 to the Mahabodhi Society (founded by Anagarika Dharmapala). The Sanghamitta School, under Dharmapala became more religious and conservative and was linked to a religious order started by one of Dharmapala’s friends. Internal acrimony led to a rival breakaway school, Museaus College, which became the more fashionable one for Sinhala Buddhist women. Having given her own maiden name to the school, Marie Museaus Higgins had a personal stake in its success. There were a few early academic successes; by 1897 Elsie de Silva passed the Junior Cambridge examination and Lucy de Abrew was the first Sinhala woman to enter Medical College in 1902, also winning the Jeejeebhoy Scholarship’.

By 1910 there was the need for a good Buddhist girls’ high schools, on the lines of missionary schools to be established in the important towns of Ceylon. This move may have been influenced by the example of Ramanathan College, which started with much fanfare in 1913 by P. Ramanathan. While most of the leading Buddhists were content merely to deplore the lack of good Buddhist girls’ schools, Selestina Dias stepped in to change the situation. Born in 1858, she was the daughter of Solomon Rodrigo of Panadura, a leading liquor merchant and landowner of his time. She married Jeremias Dias of Panadura who was a member of the powerful Arrack Syndicate and at a time when it was unusual for women to run businesses, she did so very effectively, and was known popularly as ‘Rainda Nona,’ (Lady Arrack Renter). Many referred to Mrs. Dias as Mahopasikava (Great Lady Devotee) and compared her to Visakha, the famous benefactor of Buddha’s time, also the wife and daughter of a leading merchant.

With the Dias money, the Buddhist Girls’ College was begun in 1917 with 47 pupils; Dr. Bernice Thornton Banning, an American Theosophist (with an M.A. and Ph.D.) was the principal for the first year. In the period up to 1933, Visakha Vidyalaya had a succession of eight foreign principals. From 1933 to 1945, the principal was an American, Clara Motwani, nee Heath, married to an Indian Theosophist; she was succeeded by Susan George Pulimood of Kerala who was principal from 1945 to 1967. It was only in 1967 that the first Sinhala Buddhist Woman Hema Jayasingha became the principal.

Concluding Comment

The opening up of secular education to those who were deprived of had tremendous consequences for the Sinhalese in particular and the country in general. Col Olcott’s efforts produced in the country all different forms of men and women. Buddhist Colleges produced seers and saints, philosophers and scientists, technocrats and researchers, writers and politicians among the Sinhalese that a pirivena education could never accomplish. Visionaries cannot carry out metaphysics and religion because it is not a rational pursuit and even religious knowledge cannot be furthered in rational conversation without a secular institution. In so far as a future democratic society with a democratic political process cannot be ushered in unless by reason of its general affinity to scientific process, a Buddhist middle class took up the challenge. For women in particular there was much discussion on the need for educated Buddhist wives, presentable in bourgeois and colonial society, become enterprising managers as well as educated mothers who would reproduce and correctly socialize the next generation of Sinhala Buddhists. The theosophists and Buddhists working together bequeathed to the country a secular education, pluralist liberal values, which an imperial power will never impart by example. Ananda College and Vishaka with all the other Buddhist schools in the island furthered a vision for Sri Lanka as evidenced by the products that yielded over the years.



2 Viewers