W. S. Karunaratne

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Wijesinghe Sugathadasa
W.S.Karunaratna (1928-1986) (WSK with Warren Christopher Crop).jpg
Born (1928-12-24)24 December 1928
Kandy, British Ceylon
Died 1986
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Nationality Sri Lankan
Citizenship Sri Lanka
Education University of London
Alma mater Ananda College, University of Peradeniya, University of London
Occupation Academic, diplomat
Known for Scholarly works of Buddhist philosophy and comparative religion
Notable work Theory of Causality
Title Professor, Ambassador
Spouse(s) Indumathi Gunathilaka
Children Shantarakshita, Kamalaseeli, Chandrakeerthi, Harsha
Parent(s) Don Charles Karunaratne and Donna Charlinton Dissanayake

Wijesinghe Sugathadasa Karunaratne (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. Karunaratne was born in Katugastota, a small village in the Kandy district, Sri Lanka.

Early years[edit]

Coming from a family of nine siblings, Karunaratne grew up in a very poor home. The household moved as his police constable father was transferred around the country during the British colonial rule of Sri Lanka. The Karunaratne family 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 children studied at night with the help of faint kerosene lamps.

Karunaratne initially attended Dharmaraja College, but had to move to different schools as his father was transferred. Karunaratne's father eventually pawned his wedding ring to pay for Karunaratne's first month at a premier boarding school in Colombo. When Karunaratne sat for the university entrance exam while attending Ananda College (the Buddhist school founded by Col. Henry Steel Olcott), he scored the highest grade nationally and won the prestigious Moulana Prize. (The prize was shared by another student who came in a close second, Felix Dias Bandaranaike the son of a wealthy, land-owning family who attended the prestigious Royal College.) This fully paid scholarship allowed Karunaratne to pursue higher education without further burdening his family.


Karunaratne entered the University of Ceylon in 1948. When his father died at a young age, the burden of supporting the family fell on Karunaratne as the second-oldest male child. While pursuing his education, Karunaratne worked part-time and managed to feed the family and keep the children in school. He won numerous scholarships and obtained a Bachelor of Arts with first class honours in 1952. Karunaratne's father had wanted him to join the Ceylon Civil Service, but his professors persuaded him to become an assistant lecturer at the university's Peradeniya Campus (which became the University of Peradeniya in 1978) in the Department of Pali and Buddhist Civilization. In 1954, Karunaratne married one of his students, Indumathi Gunatillake, who eventually became an expert in Tibetan Buddhism and joined the Sri Lanka Encyclopedia of Buddhism as an assistant editor. Soon after their wedding, Karunaratne and his wife moved to London, England where, at age 28, Karunaratne obtained his doctorate from the University of London for his thesis on "The Theory of Causality in Early Buddhism". In the same year, Karunaratne 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. In 1964, Karunaratne was selected as its first professor (over competing candidate Reverend Dr. Walpola Rahula), becoming the youngest professor of the University of Ceylon. He established and developed the new department, and taught at the Peradeniya Campus until 1973. During his last few years at Peradeniya, he also served in the capacity of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

The university went through a transformation in the 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 transitional University of Sri Lanka's Board of Regents.


In 1978, President J. R. Jayewardene invited Karunaratne to be Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United States. Karunaratne took a leave-of-absence from the university to accept the position in Washington, D.C. After a distinguished service as the Ambassador to the United States, as well as to the United Mexican States, he returned to teaching at the Vidyalankara Campus until his death in 1986.


Apart from his academic achievements, 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".[by whom?] He was well known for his intellect and the unique knowledge and memory of the Buddhist Cannon; the Tripitaka. His public-speaking sessions were often two to three hours long. While scholars were pursuing him to dig into his deep philosophical knowledge, politicians were perusing him to make speeches on behalf of them to draw bigger crowds.[citation needed]


After the '1956 revolution',[clarification needed] Karunaratne was drawn to Sri Lanka's national politics. He became a confidant of statesman Philip Gunawardena of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) (English: People's United Front), and travelled throughout the country making speeches on behalf of the MEP. In the March 1960 national elections, Karunaratne contested the Kandy electorate, running against E.L Senanayake of the United National Party (UNP). Karunaratne lost the election by a few hundred votes and returned to the University. In 1970, Karunaratne was persuaded by Dudley Senanayake to run in Senanayake's home electoratre for the UNP, but he again lost by a narrow margin and returned to his academic profession. In 1978, Karunaratne accepted an invitation from J.R. Jayewardene to become the UNP's chief spokesperson. He crossed the country, making political speeches supporting Jayewardene to form the next government. The campaign was a success, and it is widely believed that Karunaratne was the chief architect of the UNP's landslide victory.[citation needed]


Professor Karunaratne was equally fluent in Sinhala, Tamil and English in addition to the 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, lecturing 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 travelled extensively around the world in various official capacities as an expert on comparative religion. He 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 death 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. His widow 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, and Bauddha Adhyayana Shashthreeya Leekhana Sangrahaya.



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