Professor Guruge is Dean of Academic Affairs, Director of the International Academy of Buddhism, and Editor of Hsi Lai Journal of Humanistic Buddhism of the University of the West (formerly Hsi Lai University), Los Angeles County, California. Professor Guruge was also former ambassador to USA (in Wahsington DC), France and UNESCO. Professor Guruge was a senior civil servant as well, who help positions as secretary to 2 prime ministers and secretary to ministries. Thushara Diyabalanage interviews this distinguished Alumni for DAANA.
How did you join DRCK?
Quite ironically, it was an Italian Jesuit priest who advised me to study humanities and thus directed me to select DRCK, a Buddhist school. I had my primary and secondary education at a Catholic missionary school in Ampitiya. I had planned to study math to become an engineer despite my greater passion for Pali and Sanskrit. However, this scholarly priest had other ideas about my future, probably after carefully assessing my strengths. He said that the Asians need to know how to appreciate their culture and insisted that people like me need to play a major role to make it happen by being able to interpret the culture of our part of the world to the rest of the world. The best place to acquire this knowledge as well as the attitudes of appreciation of the national heritage, according to my parents, was Dharmaraja College. I am glad that this decision was wisely made. Now, after more than 65 years, as I look back, I feel that I have achieved my objective.
How was your school life.
I enjoyed it enormously. I was from a modest family and we lived near Kandy rail way station. Every day I used to walk 3 miles distance to my school in Ampitiya. The bus fare at that time was six cents, but I relished that 6 miles journey with my friends, enjoying the panoramic beauty of Kandy Lake. I was a student at DRCK from 1945 to 1946 and the daily walk was reduced by two miles. I first did the London University Intermediate in Arts which enables me to be employed as a teacher for seven months before entering the University of Ceylon in July 1947. I had a wonderful set of teachers and an equally inspiring batch of classmates.
How did DRCK contributed to your life as a writer?
Undoubtedly the enchanting natural beauty of the environment around Dharmaraja hill inspired my creativity and imagination immensely. Those days we had a lot of free periods. We used to climb to the top of the hill and spend a lot of time there, reading, writing and discussing scholarly topics. In fact, some of my first books were written at the summit of this hill. Sinhala Sahitya Praveshaya was written in 1946 when I was in Grade XI. Mr. S. A. Wijetilake wrote a preface for it.
My autobiography “Ma wani Bilinda has a lot of detailed accounts about such excursions at DRCK.
During this free time I learned a lot from my fellow students too. Most of them became leading figures in public service much later.
Is it true that you scored highest marks in Sri Lanka at the university entrance examination in Arts stream? How did you excel in your studies at the University?
That is true. I won the national University scholarship for this achievement and entered into the arts faculty of the University of Ceylon in Colombo (the only University then) in 1947. In 1950, I graduated with first class honors in Sanskrit special degree with History as the subsidiary. I was a very fast writer and one of my final exam answers had 51 pages. Those days, final degree exams were evaluated by a Professor of a Foreign University. The professors of London University who went through my answers could not believe this. They have informed Sir Ivor Jennings, the Vice Chancellor that they suspect whether I knew the questions well in advance, to write such long and explicit answers. My Professor, Dr. O. H. de A. Wijesekera had reported favorably about my skills. I also won the Government Scholarship tenable in England. As a result London University decided to admit me to a PhD and waive the requirement to do a Masters. Then Jennings too extended the same offer to do a PhD without doing a MA. I accepted that very gladly because I was also keen to compete for entry to the Ceylon Civil Service.
What was the title of your PhD thesis?
It was tilted Social Conditions of ancient India as reflected in the the Valmiki Ramayana by Valmiki. This was published as a book later both in Sri Lankan and India and is regarded in very high esteem by the scholars even today.
How did you get into the Civil service? You seem to have excelled in several entirely different roles as a civil servant?
I took the civil service exam at the age of 23 and joined the civil service. My first appointment was to Jaffna Kachcheri. I had the dexterity and versatility to fit into several different roles as a civil servant. There was a time that I was in charge of Dehiwala Zoo as well from Colombo Kachcheri. Eventually I was transferred to the treasury and from there to the Prime Minister’s office. I served both Mr. Dudley Senanyake and Sir John Kotelawala until I was entrusted with the government program to celebrate 2500 Buddha jayanti. I was the youngest to act as a permanent secretary to a large ministry. I never had problems with politicians and had very good relationships with all parties. As a result I was never transferred out of Colombo.
How did you become the secretary for the Prime minister?
I was not only the sole person who had PhD in Civil service that time, but also the only person who could write elegantly both in Sinhala and English, besides handling Tamil. Therefore, I was chosen for this job as Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake wanted someone with my linguistic skills. Eventually, I worked for Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawala as well. I must emphasize that even though the latter is known as a tough person, he was a great patriot with sheer humane qualities. My successor was none other than Mr Bradman Weerakoon.
How did you leave Sri Lanka?
While in Sri Lanka I was working as a Professor of Sanskrit at Vidyodaya University. However, I realized that there was a growing passion deep inside me to devote more towards academia. When I could not resist it anymore, in 1967 I accepted an offer from University of Buffalo as the Professor of Asian Studies.
How did you join UNESCO and become a diplomat?
During this time, UNESCO was looking for specialists from Third World countries to fill some key positions. It was Mr Iriyagolla who proposed my name. I was there for next 18 years. In 1985 Mr J. R Jaywardane and R. Premadasa asked me to function as Sri Lankan Ambassador to both UNESCO and France. Subsequently in 1992 I was appointed as the ambassador to USA. In 1994 I retired and came to California to spend my retirement.
You have been spending a lot time on writing. What’s your most recent work?
So far I have written 53 books, mainly on Asian history, Buddhism and education. I have also published over 175 research articles on these subjects. I was awarded by Italy the prize for the best work on Indology of the 1990s for my work of emperor Asoka I have just completed my newest contribution, a trilogy on Sri Lanka. They are Free at last in Paradise, Serendipity of Andrew George and Peace at last in Paradise.
Is there any message that you want to convey to young Rajans and DAANA members?
DRCK was formed with the objectives of providing leadership to Sinhala Bhuddhists, groom patriots and appreciate the culture of the country. They should strive to uphold those objectives.
If you have a good objective, if you are prepared work really hard towards reaching it, there is nothing in the world that a Sri Lankan cannot achieve.