Vidyalankara Pirivena, the forerunner of the Vidyalankara University of Ceylon (now the University of Kelaniya) which was founded in 1875 near the Torana Junction, Kelaniya, marks a juncture in Sri Lankan history. Sri Lanka which came under, western domination (Portuguese Dutch and British – in that order) from 1505-1948 of the Current Era, was getting gradually pushed back to the background from her proud cultural heritage. The supremacy of religion, the uniqueness of culture and the national identity – all these faced the threat of destruction. In such an atmosphere it is but natural that the social structure would inevitably fall into a state of utter confusion and turmoil.
It was a great fortune of the country the several individuals, who were embodiments of valour and courage were born who could dare face such threats that came up during the period of the Kandyan kingdom. Ever since the advent of Venerable.Arahant Mahinda Thero, it was the Buddhist clergy that always came to the forefront to safeguard the national identity and the cultural integrity of the island. Since it is the Buddhist monks who, unstintly fulfilled this onerous and honorable duty, they came to be designated as the guardian deities of the nation. That being the case shouldn't we remain grateful to Venerable Welivitiye Sri Saranankara Sangharaja Thero who was born during the period of Kandyan Kingdom for the nation's fortune, who stepped forward to fulfil, the said onerous task with full dedication and commitment, should it be even at the coast of his life. Are we really aware of the great efforts he has made to revive and rehabilitate our time cherished classical educational system that was facing the threat of extinction? Can we of modern times believe that he wrote on ola leaf, by night cyclopaedic treaties on the Dhamma such as the Sarartha Sangraha with the only torch light made by burning Pila (Tephrosia purpurea) shrubs collected and dried in the sun during day time? Nevertheless, it remains a truth. If not for his indefatigable effort and daring we wouldn't have been able to see a Vidyodaya or Vidyalankara Pirivena in the present day!
This torch of knowledge that was lit by Venerable Saranankara Thero was kept alight by his pupillary tradition generation after generation to the best of their ability.
Making every effort expand and spread that education so that it could reach the different corners of the country. With this noble aim in view Ven. Walane Sri Siddhartha Nayaka Thero who belonged to the pupillary tradition of Ven. Welivita Sri Saranankara Sangaraja, established the Parama Dhamma Cetiya Pirivena in Rathmalana. Ven. Rathmalana Sri Drarmaloka Thero who was the Founder of Vidyalankara Pirivena was a pupil Ven.Sri Siddhartha Thero of the Parama Dharma Cetiya Pirivena. Vidyalankara Pirivena which was established in the midst of grave difficulties and severe hardships, and , which was then known as the Sastra Sala , academe, gradually developed into a full-fledged academic institution that radiated the light of knowledge both locally and abroad, thanks to the noble aspirations and relentless efforts of its, founder members.
It must be mentioned here, that the kind and liberal dissemination of learning. The discipline begotten by learning, the moral conduct resulting from discipline, the example set by that kind of right living-all these contributed to the spread of the fame of this Pirivena far and wide.The Pirivena which had a considerable number of students was maintained purely by the liberal support of its lay donors. Many are the instances where some lay donors who initially accepted to offer alms only for a single day, eventually got it changed either to an annual or monthly one, because so much serene joy was generated in the pleasing demeanour of both the teachers and the pupils.
It is but a debt of gratitude to mention here the names of the Venerable monks who held the post of Principal of this Pirivena shouldering the grave responsibilities of its administration and development since its inception;
1. Venerable Ratmalane Sri Dharmaloka Thero;
2. Venerable Rathmalane Sri Dharmarama Thero;
3. Venerable Lunupokune Sri Dharmananda Thero;
4. Venerable Kiriwattuduve Sri Pranjnasara Thero;
5. Venereble Yakkaduve Sri Prajnarama Thero;
6. Venerable Nattandiye Sri Prajnakara Thero;
At present post of principal of the Pirivena is held by, Venerable Welamitiyawe Kusaladhamma Thero,who is also the chancellor of the University of Keleniya.
Among these, Ven.Rathmalane Sri Dharmaloka Thero, the founder of the Pirivena had devoted the major part of his time for the fulfilment of Sasanika (religious) duties and for other activities pertinent to the future perpetuation of this institution. Among these what drew his foremost attention was the bringing up of a generation of pupils who would commit themselves to the future development of this institution. It is this far-singhtedness that enabled him to produce such sterling scholars like Rev.Rathmalane Dharmarama Thero who were luminaries in the filed of oriental scholarship.
Just like the right seed sown in a fertile field suksetresuptabijamiva Ven. Dharmarama Thero, who succeeded his teacher as the second Principal of the Pirivena fulfilled his duties and responsibilities to an extent even exceeding the aspirations of his teacher. The English government that ruled Sri Lanka (Ceylon) at the time, which was highly impressed by the great academic and education service rendered by the Pirivena, expressed its desire to give an annual grant for the maintenance of the Pirivena. Ven. Dharmarama Thero, the principal of the Pirivena at the time who valued the independence of the Pirivena over a 'gracious' financial gain politely turned down that offer. A greater part of the life of Ven. Dharmarama Thero was devoted to academic work and teaching. He made several break-throughs in the field of oriental studies, especially with reference to Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit. His most important contribution in the field of Sinhala language studies was his discovery of the orthographic rules regarding the distinctive usage of the graphic symbol (n) (retroflex nasal) vs. (n) (dental nasal) and (l) dental lateral) vs. (l) (retroflex leteral),
and his discovery of the authorship of the classical Sinhala grammar 'Sidat Sangarava' which (i.e. the authors' name) lay hidden up to the time, in a verse construed under a specific diagrammatical composition called the 'sadaracakrabandha' . It was both the erudition and ingeniousness of Ven. Dharmarama Thero that enabled him to unravel this almost untractable diagrammatical composition and to disclose its deeper structure that contained the name of the author as well as that of the text. His most memorable academic contribution was in the field of Sanskrit language and literature, especially his reconstruction of the great, Sanskrit epic janakiharana ascribed to the poet-king Kumaradasa of Sri Lanka (circa be. A.D)
The Venerable thero had no other source material other than the Sinhala commentary of the original text based on which he reconstructed the first fifteen cantos of the text. Later however, manuscript of the original text being discovered in India, and that being compared with Ven. Dhamaramas' reconstructed version of janakiharana, it was found that two texts were almost identical expect for a couple of very minor discrepancies. This, which was an unrivalled academic feat spread the fame of Ven. Dharmarama Thero, and that of Pirivena, in India and also in the west. Robert Chalmers, the then English governor of Sri Lanka, himself and eminent scholar in Pali, who realized and highly valued the research and creative talents of Ven. Dharmarama Thero paid a great tribute to his profound scholarship by inviting him to make critical editions of the monumental Pali works,
Papancasudani, the commentary on the Majjhima Nikaya, and Manorathapurani, the commentary on Anguttara Nikaya. Ven. Dharmarama thero who can be rightly called the most illustrious oriental scholar of resent times, passed away in 1918, and he was succeeded by his pupil Ven. Lunupokune Dharmananda Thero as third Principal of the Pirivena. He was a Pali Scholar of international repute and was very much endeared as a saintly figure who coupled virtue with wisdom. The full credit for the revival of Moggallana tradition of Pali grammar goes to him. Among his most outstanding contributions in this field are the following critical edition:
Moggallana Virita Sannaya ;
Moggallana Pancika with Sutta Vutti ;
His era is marked by a significant development in academic and education sphere of the Pirivena.
In that he took constructive steps to re-orient the Pirivena curriculum by introducing several new field of study such as psychology archaeology, anthropology, history, geography, modern philosophy etc.
so as to give an all-around academic traning to the Pirivena students whose main concentration was oriental studies. in these endeavours, he got the able assistance of Sir.D. B. Jayatilaka, president of Vidyalankara sabha. himself a pupil of Ven. Dharmarama
Thero, and a highly reputed oriental scholar. Sir.D.B. Jayatilaka was the author of Sinhala-Sinhala/English Dictionary undertaken by the government and among his many notable works is the critical edition of Dhampiya Atuva Gaetapadaya, which is the earliest extend Sinhala prose work. Realizing that a knowledge of English as an international language was essential for Pirivena students to broaden their education, he, in collaboration with Ven. Dharmananda Thero, established the Sri Dharmaloka English School in Pirivena ground in 1939. Later, its location was shifted and currently it is the Sri Dharmaloka Maha Vidyalaya of Kelaniya.
As the Principle of the Vidyalankara Pirivena, Ven. Dharmananda Thero, took a very keen interest in the propagation of Buddha-Dhamma particularly in India and also in other foreign countries. His profound knowledge of the Dhamma attracted a great number of Asian and Western scholars who to him to study Pali, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist culture etc. under his guidance. Most notable among his pupils were internationally famed scholars like Dr. Rahula Sanskrtyayana, Professor Ananda Kausalyayana, Ven.jagadis Kasyapp and Professor Shanty Bhikshu Sastri.
After the demise of Ven. Dharmananda Thero in 1945 ,Ven. Kiribattuduve Prajnasara
Thero assumed duties as Principle of the Pirivena. He was a renowned scholar in oriental studies, and was very much appreciated by all as a person endowed with the great human qualities of compassion and love. He made critical edition of a number of Sanskrit, Pali and classical Sinhala texts and did pioneer service for the popularization of Prakrit studies (a much neglected subject) in Sri Lanka. The international reputation of the Pirivena was very much enhanced during his time; and as a higher seat of learning it attracted both local and foreign scholars. Ven.Prajnasara Thero had the good fortune of having a number of highly erudite pandit monks on this teaching staff.
Among them were such eminent scholars like Ven. Kotahene Pannakitti Thero, Ven. Madovita Gnanananda Thero, Ven.Bambarende Siri Seevali Thero and Ven. Yakkaduve Prajnarama Thero who have left an indelible mark in the oriental academic tradition of Sri Lnka.
Ven. Prajnasara Thero's era is marked by two historic events; one of these is the holding of the Tripitaka Sangayana (Council) which lasted for over three years and which was attended by representative from all the Theravada Buddhist countries; the other is elevation of the Pirivena to University status in 1959 Ven. Prajnasara
Thero was appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor of the new University. The post of Principle at the Pirivena which fell vacant as a result was filled by appointing Ven.Yakkaduwe Prajnarama Thero on the recommendation of the Pirivena Council, thus making him the fifth Principle in succession.
Ven.Prajnarama Thero was an illustrious scholar in oriental languages who made numerous contributions in these fields. His sharp intelligence, ingenuity and research talents are best revealed in the samannesana, the critical introduction he wrote to the first fifty sutras (Mulapannasaka) of the Majjhima Nikaya. One of his major contributions there is his clear, identification of old Sinhala words that occurred amidst Pali and providing scientifically acceptable reading and interpretations for them. sangibana, which is his Sinhala rendering of the Mula Pannasaka of the Majjhima Nikaya provides an excellent model for translation. Equally noteworthly is the revolutionary step he took to narrow down the wide gap between spoken and written Sinhala presenting his translation of the Sanskrit Panchatantra in a series entitled Vanakata which he wrote in a kind of intermediate style, thus elevating the spoken idiom to literary status. His Guttilavicara is a very thought-provoking work that clearly points out how a literary critic could go completely astray were he to ignore or overtook the pragmatic and paradigmatic dimensions of text under study. He gave new direction for the development of Pirivena education in general and contributed immensely to the upgrading of academic and education levels of the institution.
Ven. Prajnarama Thero passed away in1986, and he was succeeded by Ven. Nattandiye Prajnakara Thero, as the sixth Principle of the Pirivena. However, his during was rather short as he passed away in 1990. The position which thus felt vacant was filled by appointing Welamitiyawe Kusaladhamma Thero as the Seventh Principle in the Pirivena history. Him self a scholar in Tripitaka Studies, Ven. Kusaladhamma Thero is endowed with all the noble qualities that his present position demands.