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Situating the woman in the Buddhist Revival

Female Buddhist education in 19th century Sri Lanka

Catherine de Alwis / Archive image

The Buddhist revivalists of the late 19th century placed great emphasis on female education. Colonel Olcott spoke of the need for Buddhist girls’ schools, claiming “the mother” as “the first teacher.” This was echoed by Buddhist men who argued that they wanted “companions who shall stand shoulder to shoulder with ourselves.”

The rise of the Sinhala Buddhist petty bourgeoisie, comprising of traders, merchants, teachers, and professionals, had a considerable say in the clamour for education for Buddhist women. As Kumari Jayawardena has observed, “there was much discussion on the need for educated Buddhist wives, presentable in bourgeois colonial society, as well as educated mothers who would reproduce… the next generation of Sinhala Buddhists.”

The clamour, in other words, was for the daughters of the Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie to stand on equal terms with their Christian and Westernised counterparts, who had been either tutored at home or sent to missionary enclaves.

Before delving into how schools for Buddhist girls came to be, however, it’s important to make a distinction between two kinds of education: monastic and secular. Female monastic education dates to the time of the Buddha, when, after much cajoling by his chief disciple Ananda, he permitted the establishment of a female Buddhist order.

As with every other philosophical-mundane dilemma, the question of women entering the sasanaya, transcending their traditionally defined roles as wives and mothers, was resolved in an ambiguous way: while the Buddha informed Ananda that there was room in the Order for nuns, he earlier rejected his stepmother Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request for female ordination. Nevertheless, with his recognition of a female order, the Buddha foretold that his teachings would last so long as monks and nuns practised mindfulness.

Female monastic education came to Sri Lanka with the arrival of Sanghamitta in the third century BC and the ordination of Devanampiya Tissa’s queen, Anula. The Bhikkuni order lasted for 15 centuries, until the Chola invasions in the Anuradhapura period. Until that point, several strides would be made in the sisterhood, including the writing of the Theri Gatha (“Psalms of the Sisters”), a compendium of 522 gathas by 73 nuns dating to the sixth century BCE. At one level, these gathas contain strong feminist undercurrents.

Unfortunately, the bhikkuni order inaugurated by the Buddha fell with the collapse of Anuradhapura. Not until the 19th century were attempts made to revive it. This was largely due to the work of one woman, the first dasasil matha (“Ten Precept Nun”) of Sri Lanka, Sister Sudharmācārī (née Catherine de Alwis), and of a group of Bhikkus and dasasil mathas, who, in 1998, went on to initiate a Bhikkuni Order despite protests from the more conservative sections of the clergy. Regarding the latter, the efforts of Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thera of the Rangiri Dambulla Chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, who filed a case at the Human Rights Council arguing that the State should recognise Bhikkunis and their monasteries, must be noted.

Secular education for Buddhist girls preceded the ordination of the dasasil mathas. As far as monastic schools went, no clear-cut distinction prevailed between religious and secular instruction, since monks were at the forefront of education. A clear gender bias, however, persisted: as Ananda Coomaraswamy has observed, monks oversaw education only for boys. Education for females thus remained a neglected affair.

As the very first British commentators on the country noted, “the greater part of men can read or write” (Cordimer), and education was confined chiefly to “the male part of the population” (Davy). Given that works like the Kavyasekara and the Selalihini Sandeshaya idealised women who stayed at home and played a subordinate role to their fathers and husbands, we can take the lack of interest in their education to have been culturally and religiously sanctioned, especially in the post-Kotte period. This contrasts with revisionist accounts, such as Rupa Saparamadu’s Sinhala Geheniya, which contended that in the pre-colonial phase Sinhala women had been elevated, if not honoured, by their male brethren.

The “debut of the bourgeois woman” (as Kumari Jayawardena has termed it) was a phenomenon unique to 19th century colonial society. Sri Lanka was no exception. While most elite schools cropped up after the government abandoned English education as per the recommendations of the Morgan Committee Report of 1870, female education had more or less picked up decades earlier in Jaffna, with the establishment of the American Ceylon Mission in 1816 and Uduvil Girls’ School in 1824.

The latter establishment, which began with 22 students, became Asia’s first boarding school for girls. Set up as a counterpart to the Batticotta Seminary in Vadukoddai, its first principal happened to be a missionary from Connecticut, Harriet Winslow.

As with Sinhala society, however, Tamil society remained averse to the idea of female education. In that sense the success of the school (followed by establishments in Varany in 1834 and Nallur in 1841) owed much to how it reinforced traditional patterns (most girls hailed from the Vellala caste) while breaching them (the school allowed common dining between castes, upsetting not a few powerful families in the region).

This paradox — of reinforcing traditionalism while breaching it — was seen in girls’ schools in other parts of the country as well. Moreover, while doing away with traditional practices, most of these schools kept intact the colonial gender structures, grooming women to be devoted mothers, daughters, and wives. Female education hence followed two paths: “ladylike” courses, like music, and academic courses in fields like medicine.

In 1881, for the first time, a girl sat for the Senior Cambridge Examination, while five girls sat for the Junior Cambridge Examination. The number would rise to 15 and 77 respectively at the turn of the new century. This was around the time when the women’s movement had begun picking up in England: the suffragette campaign officially commenced in the 1870s. This was also around the time when another movement picked up at home: the Buddhist revival. The contradiction embedded in colonial female education, between conservatism and emancipation for women, thus spilt over to Buddhist schools.

Modern Sinhala Buddhist secular education, for women, began with the establishment of the Sanghamitta Girls’ School in 1891. According to Kumari Jayawardena, there were serious differences of opinion over the running of the school. When tensions between the two managers, Alfred Buultjens and Peter de Abrew, peaked, the principal, Marie Musaeus Higgins, left. Supported by de Abrew, she started her own school.

Meanwhile, Sanghamitta was relocated to Foster Lane (at a cost of more than Rs. 30 million today, according to Vinod Moonesinghe), and administered after 1898 by the Maha Bodhi Society, under Anagarika Dharmapala and the principalship of Miranda de Souza Canavarro. The school, run on Catholic lines (with a Buddhist sisterhood that conformed to Convent practices), was soon superseded by Musaeus College; the friendship between Dharmapala and Canavarro having deteriorated, it continued without the sisterhood. Notwithstanding these rifts and ruptures, its impact on Buddhist education was considerable.

Gananath Obeyesekere’s and Richard Gombrich’s classification of Protestant Buddhism is not without its critics — read, in particular, Irving Johnson’s comprehensive critique, “The Buddha and the Puritan: Weberian Reflections on ‘Protestant Buddhism’” — but it explains, in part at least, the clamour for a larger role for the laity, the emphasis on hard work, and the “urbanisation” of Buddhism after the late 19th century.

This was felt in education as well, even in the domain of female education. An article in a Buddhist magazine in 1914 rejected traditional perceptions of women: “Our Sinhala men are still trying to confine us to the kitchen.” At the same time, the petty bourgeoisie, without whom the revival would not have happened, vehemently opposed the idea of a wider role for females: Piyadasa Sirisena’s diatribes against mixed marriages (“mishra vivaha”) and female activism lay bare this contradiction very clearly.

Upward aspiring and conservative as they may have been, however, the revivalists couldn’t oppose the trend towards female education for long. Simply put, they wanted to educate their daughters. In that sense the founding of Visakha Vidyalaya, in 1917, marked a zenith in the history of female education, and not just Buddhist, in the country.

In her account of Selestina Dias, the founder of Visakha Vidyalaya, Manel Tampoe details the development of the school. By the time of her death, Dias had contributed Rs. 450,000 (nearly Rs. 500 million today). To celebrate its opening, “a sumptuous garden party” was held “to which those in high society flocked in gay attire.” Jayawardena has described it as “an important, though overdue, day for the Buddhist bourgeoisie.”

The first principal of Visakha Vidyalaya, Bernice T. Banning, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, and a graduate of Wisconsin University, served for a year before leaving for Madras “for the purpose of study and recreation, on behalf of the Theosophical Society.” Banning would be succeeded by several other foreign non-Buddhist women, including the great Clara Motwani. As Kumari Jayawardena has noted, it would take another 50 years for the school to employ its first Sinhala Buddhist principal, Hema Jayasinghe.

Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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