W. S. Karunaratne

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W. S. Karunaratna
ඩබ්ලිව්.එස්.කරුණාරත්න
W.S.Karunaratna (1928-1986) (WSK with Warren Christopher Crop).jpg
Born (1928-12-24)24 December 1928
Katugastota, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Died 1986
Nationality Sri Lanka Sri Lankan
Ethnicity Sinhalese
Alma mater Dharmaraja College, Ananda College, University of Peradeniya, University of London
Occupation Academic, Diplomat
Known for Buddhist Philosophy
Religion Theravada Buddhism
Spouse(s) Indumathi Gunathilaka

Wijesinghe Sugathadasa Karunaratne (Sinhala:ඩබ්ලිව්.එස්.කරුණාරත්න) (24 December 1928 - 1986) was a well known Buddhist scholar and a fiercely independent thinker. He was affectionately known by the Sri Lankan masses as "W.S." and as "The Don" by the academia. W.S. was born on December 24, 1928 in Katugastota, a small village in the Kandy district, Sri Lanka. Many of those who came in contact with W.S. for the first time felt immediately that they were in the presence of a great mind. He seemed to radiate energy and to awaken heightened feelings. Many have stated that hearing W.S. speak, they "fell in love with him." Even critics attested to the power of his presence. Academicians unanimously agree that he was a brilliant lecturer, with a spellbinding effect on his audiences regardless of the subject. Some have expressed their experience of meeting him face to face for the first time that there was far more than words passing between them and noting that W.S. appeared to fit with Max Weber’s classical image of the charismatic figure.

Early years[edit]

Coming from a family of nine siblings, he grew up in a very poor home following his police constable father from one police station to another during the British colonial rule of Sri Lanka as the father was transferred around the country. The Karunaratne family always lived a meager life in dilapidated police barracks which usually consisted of one room and kitchen unit without any other living space, running water or electricity. The kids studied at night with the help of faint kerosene lamps. Even with all the frequent moving from town to town and new schools, young Karunaratne showed signs of academic brilliance overcoming great odds.

He initially attended Dharmaraja College, but had to move to different schools as his father was transferred. Recognizing the importance of attending a better school, later the father managed to move the son from a rural school in Badulla to a premier school in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka where W.S. aced the admission test. However, the father didn’t have enough money to pay the boarding school. He ended up pawning his wedding ring to pay for the first month. The big break came when he sat for the university entrance exam while attending Ananda College, the great Buddhist school founded by Col. Henry Steel Olcott. That year, W.S. achieved the highest grades in the entire island to claim the prestigious Moulana Prize. The prize was shared by another student who came in a close second, Felix Dias Bandaranaike from the prestigious Royal College. The interesting contrast was that Felix came from a wealthy land owning, high society were as W.S. came from the opposite end of the social spectrum. The fully paid scholarship allowed young Karunaratne to pursue higher education without having to burden the poor father any longer. He entered the University of Ceylon in 1948.

The break[edit]

When his father died at a young age, as the second elder male child in the family, the burden of supporting the big family fell upon W.S. He was not deterred by the hardships. W.S. was even more determined to complete his studies and come out of the poverty that plagued the family. While working part-time, he managed to fill the void left behind by his father by being the father figure to his younger siblings. He managed to feed the entire family and keep all in school while winning accolades from his teachers for his brilliant analytical mind and academic work. Along the way, he won numerous scholarships and obtained the Bachelor of Arts first class honors degree in 1952. His father wanted W.S. to join the Ceylon Civil Service which would have brought prestige and honor to the family. However, his professors persuaded him to join the faculty at the University of Peradeniya as an assistant lecturer in the Department of Pali and Buddhist Civilization. In 1954, W.S. married his own student Indumathi Gunatillake who eventually became an expert in Tibetan Buddhism and joined the Sri Lanka Encyclopedia of Buddhism as an assistant editor where Dr.G.P. Malalasekera, the Chief Editor was her mentor. Soon after their wedding, W.S. and Indumathi left to London, England where W.S. obtained his doctorate from the University of London for his thesis on "The Theory of Causality in Early Buddhism" at the comparatively young age of twenty-eight. In the same year, W.S. was chosen as the F. L. Woodward prizeman of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Buddhist studies[edit]

Twelve years later, the Department of Pali and Buddhist Civilization was contemplating the establishment of a separate department of Buddhist Philosophy. Two extremely qualified candidates competed for the position; world renowned Buddhist scholar, Reverend Dr. Walpola Rahula and Dr. W.S. Karunaratne. In 1964, W.S. got selected as the Professor of Buddhist Philosophy by becoming the youngest ever professor in the University of Ceylon in its history. He established and developed the new department of Buddhist Philosophy and taught at Peradeniya until 1973. During his last few years at Peradeniya, he also served in the capacity of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts while continuing to teach at the same time.

The University of Sri Lanka went through a transformation in the early 1970s and the Arts faculty was moved to the Vidyalankara Campus in Kelaniya. From 1973 to 1978, Professor Karunaratne continued to be the Dean, Faculty of Arts at Vidyalankara as well as the Buddhist Philosophy Chair. In addition, he also served as a member of the University of Sri Lanka's Board of Regents.

Diplomacy[edit]

In 1978, President J. R. Jayewardene invited Dr. W.S. Karunaratne to be the Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United States of America. Dr. Karunaratne took leave of absence from the University to accept the position in Washington. After a distinguished service as the Ambassador to the United States of America as well as to the United Mexican States, he returned to his beloved profession of teaching at the Vidyalankara Campus until his untimely death in 1986.

Oratory[edit]

Apart from his academic achievements, Professor Karunaratne was well known throughout Sri Lanka for his remarkable ability to make public speeches on almost any given subject. He is referred to by some as the "Silver Tongue of Asia". He was well known for his intellect and the unique knowledge and memory of the Buddhist Cannon; the Tripitaka. Some thought of him as a ‘walking encyclopedia’. His audiences were varied. He was equally popular and respected among the scholars, religious leaders, politicians as well as the common folk for his ability to convey philosophical points in simple yet colorful language. His mesmerizing oratorical skills were admired by all who listened to him. His public speaking sessions were often 2 to 3 hours long. While scholars were pursuing him to dig into his deep philosophical knowledge, the politicians were perusing him to make speeches on behalf of them to draw bigger crowds. He would keep audiences spellbound whether it was a political, social or cultural subject. Even in his everyday life, there was always a ready-made audience surrounding him just to listen to him talk.

Sri Lanka Flag

Politics[edit]

After the ‘1956 revolution’, W.S. was drawn to Sri Lanka's national politics. He became a confidant of late statesman Philip Gunawardena of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (Peoples United Front) and travelled throughout the country making speeches on behalf of the MEP. In March 1960 national elections he ended up contesting the Kandy electorate running against the popular minister and later, the Speaker of the parliament E.L Senanayake of the United National Party (UNP). However, while being immensely popular, he lost the election by a mere few hundred votes and returned to the University. In 1970 W.S. was again drawn to politics. This time it was an invitaiton by the late Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, the son of the first Prime Minister of independent Sri Lanka D.S. Senanayake also known as the "Father of the nation". Dudley Senanayake recognizing the popularity of W.S. persuaded him to try and win his own home electoratre for him for the UNP which always went to the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) since his father's death. There was a great chance of W.S. winning the elections for the UNP which he lost by 1000 votes. However, the national election was a landslide victory for the SLFP and he went back to his academic profession. Again in 1978, J.R. Jayewardene pursued W.S. to support the UNP by becooming its chief spokesperson. W.S. accepted the invitation and criscrossed the country making political speeches supporting J.R. to form the next government. It was a huge success. It is widely believed that W.S. Karunaratne was the ‘Chief Architect’ of the landslide victory of the UNP which established the executive presidency of J.R. Jayewardene.

Contributions[edit]

Professor Karunaratne was fluent in Sinhala, Tamil and English equally besides his fluency in classical languages of Pali, Sanskrit and Latin. He read in Hindi, French, German and Burmese. He was a visiting professor in the United States in 1963 teaching at numerous universities as a Fulbright Scholar. Prior to that, he had taught at the University of Rangoon in Burma and at other higher education institutions in Thailand. Professor Karunaratne had traveled extensively around the world in various official capacities as an expert on comparative religion. There were many in his life who urged him to write books and to record his speeches. But he was never inclined to make money off of such ventures. However, he has contributed greatly to newspapers, magazines and scholarly publications on various topics. As an avid collector of rare books on Buddhism in various languages, he had compiled an extensive library. After his demise in 1986, his book collection, including extremely rare and ancient Burmese and pali manuscripts, some written on ola leaves was donated by his family to the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka and other higher education institutions. In addition, his widow Indumathi had compiled some of his writings and published five books in Sinhala and in English; Buddhism, its Religion and Philosophy, The Theory of Causality in Early Buddhism, The Way of the Lotus, Bauddha Dharshanaya saha Charanaya, Bauddha Adhyayana Shashthreeya Leekhana Sangrahaya.

Appreciation[edit]

Dr. N.A. Jayawickrama, Professor Emeritus, University of Sri Lanka:

"I have known Sugathadasa Karunaratne from the day he first presented himself for interview with my teacher and his, Professor Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera at "Shanthi", Reid Avenue in 1948. He impressed upon us as a brilliant student who indicated keenness to specialize in Pali studies. He had been my esteemed colleague right through his academic career both at Peradeniya and Kelaniya campuses. In 1964, he was selected to the specially endowed chair of Buddhist Philosophy established by the Government of Sri Lanka at Peradeniya.

Professor Karunaratne not only had a discerning and penetrative mind but also was he fully conversant with the basic facts he was dealing with at any given moment. With a through knowledge of the primary sources in Sanskrit and Pali, and the facility to consult works written in a number of languages both classical and modern, he had a vast resource to draw upon in all his researches. His erudition, the intellect, the sophistication was such that by memory, he could quote chapter and verse and also repeat whole chunks of text at random at learned discussions.

His interests were not restricted to his specialized field of study in Buddhist Philosophy, as one could see from the cross section of published contributions to various journals he made from time to time. He always made a positive at learned discussions he participated in both the University and outside. His role as lecturer was not restricted to the classroom but extended to multifarious forums of all levels. He was a speaker and an orator of exceptional talent who could hold his audiences especially in the political arena with little personal advantage to himself but with overwhelming results to the party he supported. It is no exaggeration to say that he was the ‘Chief Architect" of the astounding success the party he supported achieved in 1977 when the electorate gave it a five-sixth majority. Crowds flocked to listen to him wherever he went to speak in support of his candidates.

The keynote of Professor Karunaratne's academic career was the willingness and ability to shoulder responsibility. His future ability and greatness were foreshadowed even while he was an undergraduate, particularly at meetings outside the classroom where he amply demonstrated how he could convincingly established his point of view in public debate. His ability in this direction was such that he threw into utter disarray meetings convened with malicious intent to discredit particular social, religious or political groups. Most of all, he stood for what was just and fair. As a student he avidly took in everything his teachers could give him but evidence of his genius was best seen at seminars and tutorials which gave full scope for open discussion.

A remarkable and noteworthy feature of his character was the tremendous interest he too in the welfare of his students. He knew their problems and they in turn freely discussed with him, and more often than not, he solved them for them. He also stood up for the under-privileged and gave them the support and assistance they needed.

At a time when he was settling down to make even more substantial contributions to knowledge in the form of separate monographs on a number of topics of particular interests to him in his field of study, we have become poorer by our esteemed colleague Professor W.S. Karunaratne".

Dr. Y Karunadasa, Professor, Department of Pali & Buddhist Studies, University of Sri Lanka:

"It is with great sense of gratitude that I recall my association with Professor W.S. Karunaratne as one of his pupils at the University of Ceylon. Versatility being the hallmark of his life, his achievements is not confined to the groves of the academia. As religious and social leader, public orator, political agitator and diplomat, he distinguished himself in a number of other fields in a manner few can equal in brilliance, besides being a scholar of great repute and an acknowledged authority on Buddhist Philosophy. The doctoral thesis submitted to the University of London in 1956 by Professor Karunaratne introduces the reader to the very heart of Buddhism, for as recorded in the discourses of the Buddha, an insight into the dependent co-origination is said to constitute an insight into the very essence of Dhamma. Moreover, it brings into focus Buddhism's position in relation to the contemporary intellectual scene".

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