From the age of four he studied Sinhala in his village school at the same time, under his father’s instructions; he attended classes at the village temple where he studied Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit and Tamil. It is indicative of the eclectic attitude of that age that these languages were considered to be the absolute minimum requirement for any educated person, let alone a prospectively classics scholar. The early inspiration for continuing his studies in Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit was made by his father taking him to meet Prof G P Malalasekara, the foremost Pali and Buddhist scholar in Ceylon at that time and Anuradha Seneviratna received his academic abhisheka from this distinguished scholar in the form of an exhortation to seriously take up the study of Pali. His father also took him to meet the leading monk-scholar in Ceylon, Ven Parawahera Vajiranana Mahathera who was the first Buddhist monk from Ceylon to be awarded a Ph.D. at Cambridge University in England for his work on the psychology of Buddhist meditation in 1936, published as Buddhist Meditation in 1962.
Other major influences on his academic career were the works of two of the most well known scholars of their time. Max Muller with his work on Vedic and Sanskrit texts was especially important for any serious student of Indian literature and S Radhakrishnan with his pioneering works on Indian philosophy giving proof of the influence of Upanishadic teachings on the Buddha. Prof S Paranavitana, former Archaeological Commissioner and reputed scholar in Sri Lanka was also a great source of support and inspiration during this time.
At the age of eleven he was sent to the Dharmaraja College in Kandy where he studied Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhala and History. This was an English medium college and young Seneviratna now had to study and Master English as part of his basic curriculum. He passed his Senior School Certificate Examinations in the English medium with a first division. At the age of 15 his father fell ill and this left the family lacking the money to support his studies. Later he passed GCE A Levels, University of London in order to be able to teach in a government school and to further his undergraduate studies. His first book was published as a student in 1961 on the Upanisads and their influence on the Buddha and his teachings. This stired up a considerable controversy, as Ven A P Buddhadatta Mahathera and other leading Buddhist scholars criticized some of the assertions of the book, and a flurry of newspaper articles followed in which heated debate was carried on by these scholars. Prof Seneviratna now looks back with amusement on this David and Goliath situation, he was but a young up and coming scholar and he had to point this out to his critics, along with an apology for any unintended errors or inaccurate assertions in his work.
Research on Sinhala folklore
In 1963 he married Irangani Kumarihami Niyarepola, a dance teacher of at a leading Girls college in Kandy and is the father of two sons - Udayana and Charu.
In 1965 he completed his BA degree at the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya) where he majored in Sinhala, with Pali and Archaeology as secondary subjects. Two years later young Seneviratna won a scholarship for a D.Phil from Leipzig and Halle Universities. His thesis consisted of a comparative study of the ancient Sinhala Language and the Old and Middle Indo-Aryan languages. As he works on Oriental languages he also studied and mastered the German languages. He obtained his D.Phil degree with a Cum Laude in 1967. He joined Colombo University and after some period he was a senior lecturer at Peradeniya University. In 1984, he was Associate Professor of Sinhala Peradeniya University and in year 1991 he was appointed to Sinhala department.
He won several academic distinctions during his career including been awarded the Fulbright Research Award for Folklore Studies at Indiana University, USA. Here he carried out research on Sinhala folklore and Fulbright Senior Research Associate scholar at Berkeley, California University. In 1988-89: Awarded Commonwealth Academic Staff Fellowship, Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Oxford.
1998-2000: Visiting Fellow in Sinhala, Pali and Theravada Buddhism at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. During this period Prof Seneviratna, as well as teaching the three subjects that he had been appointed to teach, gave a number of special lectures at the request of the South Asia Department. In November, 1999 he gave a lecture of Sinhala Tamil cultural relations in Sri Lanka South Asia Department. At the invitation of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia Department he taught a course on Sri Lankan Culture and Civilization.
This was entitled ‘The Royal Parasol and the Saffron Robe’ and dealt with the relationship between the Sinhalese monarchy and the Buddhist Sangha in Sri Lanka. Entitled ‘The Lions and the Tigers’. He also acted as examiner on the Tamil language program of the London University.
As a senior he was most supportive of his juniors. If any member of the staff had any sort of problem, be it official or personal, he or she would make a beeline to Prof Seneviratna and be assured of not only a sympathetic ear and advice but also far more specific aid. Print and electronic media personnels also, had close contacts with Prof Seneviratna on background information of Sri Lankan culture and civilization history. This empathy and compassion, no doubt inherent, but honed by his devout Buddhist principles he had acquired in early life. He lived according to these principles and instilled them to all those who came into contact with.
Prof Seneviratna is the author of over 70 books in Sinhala and English, covering topics from Sinhala literature and language, to archaeology and historical studies. He is also the author of more than 200 journal articles covering an equally encyclopedic area. He has travelled widely to conduct lectures and seminars. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to the field of educational and cultural activities, the government conferred on him the National Honours in 1994, and the Malwatu Mahavihara in Kandy, similarly conferred on him an honorary degree Dharma Shastra Visharada Kirti Sri in 1997 in recognition of his contribution to education and Buddhism. Looking back on his career Prof Seneviratne feels grateful to Prof D E Hettiaratchi and Prof S Paranavitana for their valuable help and guidance in assisting him to reach his current position in life.
Prof Anuradha Seneviratne has won the State Literary Award thrice for his books. He was also Sri Lanka Art Council Chairman and a member of the Advisory Board of the Archaeological Survey Department. The Central Provincial Council at a public reception held in Kandy in 2007 honoured him for his services rendered to the country over the last 50 years. Similarly the Kandy Municipal Council unanimously named a road at Katugastota, Kandy after him. These events are very rare occurrences in the life of a living intellectual and a writer of our times.
Prof Anuradha Seneviratne was a man of few words. He would never say anything without weighing his words.
He won the heart of all Sri Lankans for his dedicated services to his country but his greatest achievement is his legacy to the people of Sri Lanka.
- Gamini Sarath Godakanda