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Revisiting the sins of Leslie Gunawardana (Part lll)

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KNO Dharmadasa KNO Dharmadasa

Professor KNO Dharmadasa, the present Editor in Chief of the Sinhala Encyclopedia goes down in history as mounting to date, the only direct, authoritative academic challenge to Professor Leslie Gunawardana, an ancient period historian of Sri Lanka who became a darling of certain social anthropological circuits through his “The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography”- (1979) and “Historiography In a Time of Ethnic Conflict, Construction of the Past in Contemporary Sri Lanka”- (1995). This is the third and last instalment of Prof. K.N.O’s conversation with Darshanie Ratnawalli continued from 08 March, 2015.    

DR- So I once tried to find out if Prof. Gunawardana knew Pali

KNO- Why not. Why not!

DR- Every ancient historian has to know it?

KNO- Pali was a compulsory paper for people who did ancient Sri Lankan history.

DR- I ask because of the way Prof. Gunawardana tries to derive the word “aya” in his “Prelude to the State…”, 1982. He says (pp7); “At twenty-eight of the 269 sites of ancient inscriptions are to be found records set up by individuals who may be identified as rulers of minor principalities. In these records they bear the titles Rajha (var. Raja), Gamani (var.Gamini) or Aya. While the first two of these titles have been generally accepted as denoting the status of ruler, Paranavitana and other scholars who followed him have traced the derivation of Aya and its Pāli equivalent Ayya to Sanskrit Ārya. However, the Pāli equivalent of the Sanskrit Ārya is Ariya.”. But that’s not true. If he looked at a Pali dictionary, the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit Ārya is not only Ariya. There are three Pali equivalents. One is Ariya. The others are Ayira and Ayya.

KNO- That’s right.

DR- So do you think he did not have his Pali dictionary when he wrote “Prelude…”?

KNO- So what’s the origin of ayya in Pali? He doesn’t say?

DR-  He says;“…Though it may be correct to assume that the greater majority of vocables in the ancient inscriptions of Sri Lanka have parallels in Sanskrit and the Prakritic languages, it is quite likely that some others may have a Tamil origin. The term marumakanake and its variants…are good examples of words traceable to a Tamil origin…Similarly, it is possible to compare aya and ayya with the Tamil terms ayyā (var. Kannada ayya, Malayalam ayyan, Tulu ayye) and ai. The term ayyā and its variants have been used as modes of addressing superiors. The term ai, which is represented by the ninth letter of the Tamil alphabet, has been used in in certain instances to denote “lord” and “master”, as in the Tirukkural, and in other instances as in the Cudamaninikantu, to denote “ruler. Hence it seems very likely that Aya was a word of Tamil derivation which the same meaning as Rajha and Gamani”

Side effects of political scholarship

Professor Leslie Gunawardana informs us in the preface of that work that he wrote “Prelude to the State: An Early Phase in the Evolution of Political Institutions in Ancient Sri Lanka” for ‘The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities’ of 1982, published in 1985 while at the University of Koyoto as Visiting Research Scholar. It’s not unreasonable to assume that visiting research scholars would research. When Professor Gunawardana declared on page 7 that ‘the Pāli equivalent of the Sanskrit Ārya is Ariya’ , in order to show that Ārya had no connection to ayya or its Prakrit equivalent aya, he had not researched enough. Given below is the relevant Pali Text Society Dictionary entry.

Ariya (adj. -- n.) [Vedic ārya, of uncertain etym. The other Pāli forms are ayira & ayya]- (


 Ayira (& Ayyira) (n. -- adj.) [Vedic ārya, Metathesis for ariya as diaeretic form of ārya, of which the contracted (assimilation) form is ayya.- (


  Ayya (n. -- adj.) [contracted form for the diaeretic ariya (q. v. for etym.). See also ayira] (a) (n.) gentleman, sire, lord, master…(


(ayyā pl. the worthy gentlemen, the worthies), amhākam ayyo our worthy Sir (adj.) worthy, gentlemanly, honourable; The voc. is used as a polite form of address (cp. Ger. "Sie" and E. address "Esq.") like E. Sir, milord or simply "you" with the implication of a pluralis majestatis; ayyā in addressing several; nom. sg. as voc. (for all genders & numbers) ayyo; f. ayyā lady, mistress (= mother of a prince); voc. ayye my lady; ayya putta lit. son of an Ariyan, i. e. an aristocratic (young) man gentleman (cp. in meaning kulaputta); thus (a) son of my master (lit.) said by a servant; lord, master, "governor"(by a servant); by a wife to her husband; prince (see W.Z.K.M. xii., 1898, 75 sq. & Epigraphia Indica iii.137 sq.) J vi.146.


KNO- But again isn’t there the possibility that the Tamil got it from Sanskrit?

DR- Not only the possibility. They call the process ‘the aryanization of the South’

KNO- Aryanization of the South. Exactly.

DR- The basic thing that comes out of this is that Prof. Gunawardana didn’t know that in the Pali Thripitaka, the word ayya is commonly used as an honorific. He also did not know that aya has been used in North Indian Prakrit inscriptions. This is what Paranavitana says about aya (Inscriptions of Ceylon, Vol.1, pp. cvi); “But there is a term of respect applied to Buddhist monks in the North Indian Brahmi inscriptions, (Bharhut Inscriptions (CII, Vol. II, pt. II) by H. Luders, E. Waldschmidt and M.A. Mehendale, p.191 and The Monuments of Sanchi by Sir John Marshal and Alfred Foucher, Vol. I, p. 295; Inscription No.265.) that has been avoided in our documents. This is aya, equivalent to Skt. ārya and P. ayya, meaning ‘Aryan’ or ‘Noble’. This term in our inscriptions, is reserved for princes.”

KNO- This is again politics. I think Leslie wanted to be different from ordinary folk like us who see the natural influence of Sanskrit and our classical heritage. He wanted to show that we had a lot to do with Tamil contacts. It’s for this kind of political view point that he overlooks obvious things.

DR-  I think it was strange that nobody noticed these basic inaccuracies in his writing.

KNO- Because you don’t expect a scholar of that stature to do this kind of thing.

DR- But then these were peer reviewed forums. “Prelude to State…” appeared in The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, a Peradeniya journal.

KNO- Actually this is a very obscure article. I don’t know how you got it. Even I tried to find it and couldn’t trace it. This unavailability was one reason people couldn’t respond. This is a classic example of a scholar getting hold of a view point and trying to get references to suit that ideological stance. In “People of the Lion” he talks about social stratification, that our ancient society was stratified on feudal lines. He adopts terminology used by Western scholars that this was a typical eastern/oriental State. Then I pointed out that in ancient inscriptions all these artisans or people you’d normally call artisans, coppersmiths, silver smiths, ivory smiths are also becoming donors of caves

DR- But they were still elite right, even though they were artisans?

KNO- That’s right. But for Leslie they are not elite. For him they are working class, feudal underdogs.

DR- He tries to argue that it was a feudal society?

KNO- A feudal society with social stratification and these workmen were the down trodden. The classical view of Western scholars about the Oriental society.

DR- But Prof. Gunawardana was brilliant right? In some of his papers he argues well.

KNO- Of course. In “Robe and the Plough” he argues well.

DR- That is admired by many.

KNO- That was his PhD thesis. You read it?

DR- No. But people told me he is a brilliant scholar based on that. And also his challenge to Prof. Paranavitana on Ceylon and Malaysia…

KNO- Well that was not only he. There was also Indrapala. Although he later made a fool of himself, Indrapala was one of the earliest to challenge Paranavitana. Of course then Paranavitana was alive.

DR- So three people challenged Paranavitana right? Sirima Kiribamune, Leslie Gunawardana and Indrapala. And so did W. M Sirisena?

KNO- I don’t know if Paranavitana was alive when Sirisena’s book came out. Anyway Paranavitana’s error was obvious. It was during his last years in Peradeniya as a research Professor. He read this paper about Ceylon and Malaysia in University. And we were all nonplussed. Later when people started thinking about it and tried to see and decipher the things Paranavitana said he could see, nobody could see anything more than what was already there. Only Paranavitana could see them.

DR- See interlinear inscriptions?

KNO- Only then did people realize that Paranavitana was hallucinating.

 DR- So this idea that Prof. Paranavitana was delusional started while he was still alive?

KNO- He was alive. When you read his book “The Story of Sigiri” , it’s a fascinating story. Like the film ‘Ten Commandments’. He was creating a completely delusional world. Ian Gunatilaka was telling us that a Hollywood director would go to town on this kind of script. I don’t think Paranavitana was being dishonest. At a certain stage of his life…

DR- Is it possible that he could actually read these interlinear inscriptions?

KNO- I think he started seeing things.

DR- You mean there’s nothing interlinear written there?

KNO- Nothing. Because nobody else could see. A lot of people went and made estampages and tried to see. Because he was referring to well-known inscriptions where you had these scribbled notes in between. Interlinear.

DR- But even C.E. Godakumbura sort of relied on these interlinear inscriptions.

KNO- But I don’t think C.E. Godakumbura ever admitted that he could read them. He depended on them because he was very close to Paranavitana. I think Indrapala was one of the earliest people who went and copied and tried to read interlinear inscriptions.

DR- They challenged Prof. Paranavtana who was a very senior scholar when they were in their early thirties?

KNO- Yes they were very young scholars. Of course they had their PhDs. They had been his students also in Peradeniya.

DR- But at the time they could challenge a senior scholar like Paranavitana?

KNO- Yes. As you say this was scholarship. Not a personal attack. You should be able to do that

DR- So Prof. Kiribamune should have remembered that?

KNO- With Sirima Kiribamune it was a different story. Leslie was a junior person and her student. I don’t think she wanted to do that.

DR- Dr. Michael Roberts told me that even Prof. Indrapala she does not want to challenge because of the friendship.

KNO- Friendship and again student.

DR- So you don’t criticize your student? Is that a tradition?

KNO- No. It doesn’t matter if somebody is friend, student or whatever. It shouldn’t make a difference. Although maybe in Sri Lankan contexts……

DR- Even in American contexts you stick to your friend. For example Prof. Gananatha Obeysekera was a great champion of Prof. Gunawardana?

KNO- Yes. But I actually don’t know what Gananatha believes about these controversies. Have you talked to him?

DR- No. But when Prof. Gunawardana died, he wrote a eulogizing obituary.

KNO- Actually I was one of the first to write an obituary for Leslie, to Sunday Divaina titled “Going away of a scholar”

DR-You wrote an obituary? You felt comfortable about writing it in view of his possible dishonesty and tampering with sources? You really felt he was a scholar?

KNO- Well I didn’t want to…

DR- Speak ill of the dead?

KNO-  Not that. These personal weaknesses of people shouldn’t be used to put them down

DR- He had a lot of potential?

KNO- He did and he had done good work. Did you see the obituary I wrote for the RAS journal?

DR- But what about his deliberate distortions?

KNO- Those of course you can’t condone.

DR- It’s a pity in a way. He became internationally famous and his views are still held in high regard by people like Charles Hallisey.

KNO- But some of these things that Leslie had distorted doesn’t Hallisey see through them?

DR-   Nobody has noticed

KNO- But when you pointed them out to him, what did he say?

DR- I did not point them out to Charles Hallisey            


Last modified on Friday, 27 March 2015 14:58
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