The 59th death anniversary of Munidasa Cumaratunga fell on 2nd March
Munidasa Cumaratunga

A character worth studying and emulating

Co-Honorary Secretary of the Hela Havula,

Head - Human Resources and Administration

Merchant Bank of Sri Lanka Ltd. (MBSL)

Since the death of Munidasa Cumaratunga on 2nd March 1944, all those who appreciated and valued the yeoman service he rendered to the community in particular and to the broader aspect of national integration he strived to achieve, had been commemorating him annually with unbroken regularity. 2nd March 2003, marked yet another commemorative day and the Hela Havula, (a movement he initiated specifically for the purpose of uplifting the Sinhala language and literature and the related facets of its culture) held a commemorative meeting at Ananda College on this day.


While I was engrossed in deep thought reminiscing the more outstanding and conspicuous characteristics of our national leaders in the country’s recent history, it kindled in my heart that only those who qualified under the terms expressed in the following saying could truly be called ‘superleaders’.

‘Give a man fish, and he will be fed for a day;

teach a man to fish, he will be fed for a lifetime.’

If we are to paraphrase this saying, it would express thus: ‘Be a strong, even a charismatic leader and followers will know where to go as long as you light their way. Teach them to lead themselves, and their path will be lighted always. If I were to make an addition I would say that ‘in return they will illuminate new paths of opportunity that you might have never seen.’ All these sentiments boil down to the basic fact that a super leader is one who helps others to lead themselves. (Leading others to lead themselves) This is in short what we express in modern management jargon as ‘empowerment’. After delving into the works of Cumaratunga Munidasa for a considerable period of time I am now confident of perceiving him more as a holistic, full-fledged personality, and not merely as a linguist; grammarian; poet; teacher; critic etc.

Strong and indelible contribution

It appears that the late scholar’s strong and indelible contribution to the Sinhala language and literature has made many a person to confine/limit his exemplary service mainly to these aspects. But little have they realised that language provides the base/basis for a community to express thoughts/ideas and also to preserve them for future generations. To achieve these noble objectives and more specifically to express them with the desired clarity (unambiguous) — effectiveness — force and colourfulness, the language should possess an accepted compendium of grammatical rules; a rich diction and the methodology to absorb new words and expressions conforming to the character/characteristics of the language. Any word (either a verb or a noun) crept into the language without conforming to these aspects would be like a foreign body in one’s eye. Any noun accessing to me Sinhala vocabulary should be declinable. If it is a verb it should be able to be conjugated. This was Cumaratunga’s basic task. It is communication that binds a community together and it is language that acts as the vehicle of communication. It therefore needs no argument that Cumaratunga started his mission by refining the Sinhala language through restoration of the correct idiom and grammar.

Challenging the fundamental assumptions

It is also the characteristic of a superleader to challenge the fundamental assumptions that have marred originality, independent thinking and creativity. He also foresaw that in whatever manner we would gain independence, unless we have a free mindset to see/analyse issues objectively, the country would not be able to progress as a truly independent nation. In the Virith Vekiya he expressed that one should not be concerned about the status of the erudite/writer. Not even an utterance of a god should be accepted unless it is supported by facts. He also said that the garrulous fools would say that we should bring freedom to our country, without first freeing our mind and thoughts.

Creativity — innovativeness

It has now been commonly accepted that the country could not survive until and unless we do not create new things. For such a lot what is destined is to lie flat on the ground, once they have failed in their begging. Only now we have realised the truth of this saying, and it is seen that frantic efforts are being made to create new products, as well as to add value to the existing ones.

Praising those worthy of praise

Modern management gurus have also identified a further characteristic of a superleader i.e.., a superleader is one who leads others to lead themselves. Cumaratunga not only led others to be leaders but also was gleeful in seeing that the students surpassed their teachers. In the preface to the Guttila Saraya, he expresses this concept when he says that ‘if a student (golaya) surpasses the knowledge of the teacher it shows that the teacher had excelled in the teaching profession. If this quality was found in Guttila, Musila’s fate would have been quite a different one. A conspicuous instance where Cumaratunga has genuinely praised a literary work of a subordinate is when he provided a review to poet R. Tennekoon’s ‘Vavuluva’. He state that there’s a prestigious prize called the Nobel Prize which is presented annually to the person who makes the best literary contribution during a particular year, and if the Vavuluva had been composed either in English or in any other European language, the Nobel Prize would definitely come searching for the poet.

Unhesitant expression of conviction

Cumaratunga was never hesitant and afraid of expressing what he conceived as correct. He firmly believed that irrespective of the nature of the literary work, the composition should be couched in perfect and flawless language. Cumaratunga’s perception was that the elegance and perfection that the language possessed should be restored, firstly to bridge the gap and to establish a continuity between the classical language and the current linguistic usage and secondly to ensure a ‘Standard Sinhala’ that would become the basis for current and future writings. In this context it would seem how similar the thinking of Jespersen has been when he preached that ‘tine grammar of a language must be deduced from a study of how good writers of it in fact write’. C. L. Wren in his book titled the ‘English Language’ describes ‘Good English’ as the English of the educated classes used without self-consciousness. For educated people would have the good traditions of the language well assimilated, would have enough development of their personality to use the resources of the language fully, and would have enough discipline to avoid vagueness and jargon or cliches’. Confucius commenting on ‘good language’ had preached that ‘ if language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone’. The similarities of these thoughts clearly reveal an important mission of our leader. He foresaw that an unorganised language would be extremely harmful/inimical to the community that uses it, as the purpose of communication (whether in oral or written form) would be nullified sans clarity of thinking — clarity of expression and ultimately clarity of understanding.

The Hela Havula and Lakminipahana

The true best of super leadership is what happens when the leader is no longer around. Cumaratunga envisioned that the nation would need the continuity of the tasks he accomplished during his short span of life. He, therefore formed the Hela Havula to ensure that his mission is continued with and given more meaning to what he envisioned. Towards the realisation of this objective he provided the necessary knowledge-base to his associates and followers through expositions, criticisms, comments, reviews, creative writings, researches, discussions, debates etc. To further strengthen his noble objective Cumaratunga, while contributing writings to journals, also edited the ‘Lakminipahana’. It became extremely popular among the literati of the time.

The attempt — only to provide a window

Herein the writer’s objective is to provide a window to see the vision - mission and objectives of this superleader. The topic selected for this essay, for certain, would demand a lengthy series if at least a near- perfect picture of him is to be produced. Hence, the article may be considered only as an attempt to induce those who would be desirous of delving more deeply to realise the character of this superleader.

Nations would stand to gain immensely by studying closely their superleaders and emulating them.