Dr E W Adikaram’s 15th death anniversary falls on Dec. 28, 2000. He can be counted among the few very uncommon public figures of Sri Lanka during the 20th century.
Dr Adikaram began life as an ardent traditional Buddhist. Listening to a talk at the Dhamma (Buddhist religious) school at age 14, his compassion for animals was heightened and he gave up meat-eating. He remained a vegetarian to the very end of his life. In later times he said that he was vegetarian not in order to gain religious merit or avoid its opposite, but simply because meat came from the killing of animals.
As a young man, he entered Colombo University College (then an affiliate of the University of London) and did the first-year examination with science and mathematics, but later switched to the study of Pali and Sanskrit. He proceeded to England on a government scholarship and did graduate studies at the London School of Oriental Studies, securing a master’s degree in 1931 and the Ph.D. in 1933, based on the thesis “Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon” which has been hailed as a model of careful research.
On his return, he obtained a teaching position at Ananda Sastralaya, Kotte, a grant-aided school run by the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS), saying he would not serve under the British government in any capacity. Having read documents on the administration of Ceylon at the British Museum Library, he felt deeply aggrieved and was keen to join forces with others who worked for a nationalist and Buddhist revival and the overthrow of the imperial yoke. A personal friend of Drs N.M. Perera and Colvin R. de Silva, who went to become stalwarts of the Leftist Movement of Sri Lanka, he would have joined them in their LSSP political party, but for the fact that he was totally against the use of violence to achieve any purpose whatsoever. He had already become an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, and joined the Navajeevana movement of Mr. Jayawardhana of Wellampitiya, a Gandhian who changed his name to Jayaramdas and advocated the wearing of home-spun khadi and the consumption of country rice in place of imported foods that were then fashionable among the middle class people of the time.
In 1934, Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe, then General Manager of BTS schools, asked Dr Adikaram to take over the Principalship of Ananda Sastralaya. Dr Adikaram lost no time to create in his school what he envisioned as a true Buddhist atmosphere. He made the diet of the students’ hostel vegetarian and tobacco and alcohol were forbidden within the premises, whatever the function or occasion. In spite of his detractors, whose main complaint was that he was an ‘extremist’, Dr A. became a hugely successful Principal. He championed the cause of Buddhist education and campaigned against Christian missionaries, although he entertained a profound respect for the personality of Jesus Christ. The name Adikaram became a household word among Buddhist workers all over the country and a bye-word for honesty, forthrightness and courage of conviction. His school was a unique institution and those who passed through its portals imbibed the Adikaram spirit at least to a little extent. For many, it was a privilege to be part of the team.
If Dr A. was ‘extremist’ in that he was for going the whole way with his principles, he was no less unconventional when it appeared to him that his ‘principles’ themselves may be suspect.
Someone had given him a booklet which he at first thought was written by Gandhi, but was actually a work by Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti invited his readers to question every belief, every pre-conceived notion and every habit of thought. He had severed connections with the Theosophical movement and was proclaiming a message of inward liberation by understanding the ways of one’s own mind, rejecting the rituals and the paraphernalia of organised religion. He also rejected nationalism as a fatally divisive force in the world. To Dr A. all this seemed to be very much in line with the teachings of the Buddha that one encountered in some of the oldest Buddhist texts, like parts of the Sutta Nipata. He began to turn away from the trappings of organised religion, and in this he felt he was getting nearer to the Buddha rather than turning away from him. He was now ready to question the rightness of what he himself had been advocating thus far in his life.
Sincerity was the hallmark of Adikaram. It was natural therefore, that he was unwilling to continue as Principal of Ananda Sastralaya, knowing full well that he could no longer satisfy the expectations of parents and the management. He had not publicly come out with these sentiments, but in a move that surprised the large circle of his friends and admirers, he resigned from his post in 1945, at age 40 and at the height of his popularity as a dynamic leader and a man of unimpeachable moral stature.
The next 40 years of his life constitutes the story of a vastly changed individual. An in-depth discussion of that would be worth the while but is impossible in a short article. I will only try to highlight in broad strokes a few significant aspects.
Leaving the Sastralaya, Dr A effectively parted company with the social/religious establishment (although of course he sporadically returned to it for short spells). For most of the time thereafter, what he did was essentially to engage in a process of self-examination in tandem with an examination of the psychological implications of the habits and activities of religion and society. In the late nineteen forties or early in 1950, he started contributing a series of articles to the Lankadeepa in which he publicised these explorations. “I wrote these articles primarily for my own benefit. At any time, one’s mind exists in a state of great confusion. It is either attracted to the things we come across, or is repelled by them; or else it is simply indifferent. The problems of life cannot be resolved by such a mind. An effective and clean mind can come about only when one has seen what now makes it ineffective and unclean. Therefore, for some time now, I have been trying to examine ruthlessly the deep-seated ideas and thoughts that pass through my mind. What I am presenting in these articles are the results of that examination.”
Dr A’s articles on religious practices evoked great public interest. What he wrote about the “self-deceptions” inherent in our religious activities such as the rituals of worship was like a deliberate act of stirring a hornets’ nest. Terrific criticisms were levelled against his views, but he was undeterred. He continued writing provocative articles and soon went on to tackle further sensitive subjects like national customs, national language and national culture. National divisions are based on a grand lie, which ignores the essential oneness of the human species. The foundation of the idea of “my nation” is the idea of “me” and this needless division of humankind in terms of us and them is what has created all those acts of mass murder called war.
Dr A continued speaking in this strain in public assemblies, radio discussions, newspaper articles, pamphlets and books and in small private group discussions. The criticisms levelled at him he treated as an opportunity to explore these issues in greater depth and he invariably relished any opportunity to show the weaknesses of the thinking behind these criticisms. In these exchanges, he displayed not only his sharp wit and quick repartee, but also his quintessential human kindness and cheerful sense of humour. To a man who said that smoking was good for the cold weather he replied “Perhaps, if it is the burning end that you stick in your mouth”. His response to a friend who said, “All this is true, but what can one individual do?” reveals his own motivation better than anything else: “But surely, if you see a drowning man, you won’t refuse to help, just because you can’t rescue all the people who are getting drowned in the world?”
Although Dr A. exposed the loopholes in the arguments of his critics with sharpness and clarity, he never resorted to personal attacks. Many of his critics were Buddhist monks and he answered their criticisms by pointing out that their views were inconsistent with the Buddha’s statements found in the Pali canon, from which he was able to quote freely. As time passed, a considerable number of monks agreed with most of what he said and even admired his intellectual honesty. Sadly, few were able to translate agreement into conviction. His personal friendship with members of the Sangha was such that he could easily say what most others dared not to. One of his frequent sayings was, “If only we could convert some of our monks to Buddhism...” – which, though a joke was also a serious statement.
As he criss-crossed the country holding talks and discussions, he sensed the pulse of society and became conscious of the disasters the nation was to face in the years to come. He was deeply anguished and began to urge his audiences to face this issue squarely. Nothing illustrates this sense of urgency than an appeal to parents that he made in a talk given at Sudarshi Hall, Colombo, on January 1, 1976: “I wonder if you are aware that we are caught today in the jaws of an impending disaster? That we are all falling into an abyss where none of us would want to be? Please consider that in another 15 or 20 years, your children may have to face the gun. That is the reality of the world today. If you see that, will you not want to do something to save them from that disaster? Please don’t think that your children will somehow escape . This is an enormous problem which I wish I had the time to discuss with you for days on end. Don’t think that as a parent you can bring up your children separated from others. They will not grow up without being affected by the influence of radio, newspaper, school and all such things. You can’t bring them up inside a closed room. They will inevitably come to associate with other children. So the parents who love their children must consider, must deeply ponder, how shall we bring up not only our children, but also the children of others.”
Based on his talks and discussions with people in various fora, Dr A published 58 booklets that dealt with various issues ranging from the ill effects of smoking and meat-eating to complex religious and philosophical topics. He also established three institutions that he hoped would contribute to a deeper understanding of the causes that make us confused and callous and so lay the foundation for a saner society. The Young Thinkers’ Club, the Vegetarian Society and the Krishnamurti Centre are those institutions. He devoted a great deal of attention to the Krishnamurti Centre because he felt that Krishnamurti’s teachings are a beacon of much needed light to our confused and embattled minds.
Dr Adikaram passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of December 28, 1985.
Institutions founded by Dr. E.W.Adikaram:
Principal Publications of Dr. Adikaram: