Freethought Activism

With Rationalists In Sri Lanka

Retracing the footsteps of the role model

Prof. Narendra Nayak (right) with Dr. A T Koovoor (second from right), Mangalore, 25th November 1976

Prof. Narendra Nayak (right) with Dr. A T Koovoor (second from right), Mangalore, 25th November 1976

I joined the rationalist movement in 1976 inspired by Dr.A.T.Kovoor, an eminent rationalist of Sri Lanka who was conducting what were called as the- Divine Miracle Exposure campaigns. He was running a series of them, he would come from Sri Lanka to Chennai and go on a tour of India traveling to various places in connection with this campaign. Though he was a Malayali from Kerala he had settled in Colombo and had started the Sri Lanka Rationalist Association which was quite active in the field. When we contacted the Indian rationalist Association who were the organisers of the program for one in Mangalore, we were told that individuals or groups of individuals could not host one. It was necessary to have an organisation and hence the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association was born with yours truly as its first secretary and has been ensconced in the chair ever since! Of course the journey from there to working for the movement full time has been a long one. But, right from the day I met Kovoor I had the ambition or rather the dream of working for the movement full time after earning enough for a living from one’s career after retirement. I had not imagined that one day I would resign my job to devote all my time for the movement.

Widening outreach in the Indian subcontinent

Anyway, it was a chance meeting with Hemantha at Oslo that brought up the topic of the movement in Sri Lanka and he wanted me to come over there and help them to bring more people into it. That was the reason for fixing up the programs at Sri Lanka. For a movement to grow we need the involvement of the younger generation and for that we need an attractive program with which they can identify and our program on scientific explanations of the so called miracles was one of such. These had not taken place in Sri Lanka so far and hence it was felt that it could be tried out. There had been some demonstrations before about things like fire walking but nothing on the lines of the program which we call as the scientific analysis of so called miracles which has been quite popular in India and is being now tried in Nepal.

At home with the activists

Meeting at Dr. N M Perera Centre, Colombo

Meeting at Dr. N M Perera Centre, Colombo

A long time associate of Kovoor, Dharmapala who was a lawyer by profession was the President and Tharaka Warapitiya the Secretary. Why the past tense for Sri Dharmapala is that he is no more. Between the invitation for me to come over to Sri Lanka and my actual going there he passed away at the age of 67 years in December,2011. But the programs were not affected as his role was mainly advisory. It is Tharaka who is running the activities. They had made plans to have interactions meetings, demonstrations and also attempts to revive the movement. The first program with the Colombo branch was fixed to start as soon as I landed there. So, from the airport we directly went to Dr.N.M.Perera center where the first meeting was scheduled at 3 pm. However, since the timing is not very different between India and them, the program commenced half and hour later. After the initial glitches with the projector and other systems were set right, the proceedings went on smoothly and we had to wind up at 6.30 pm as most of the participants were from nearby villages and had to go back to their homes. It was agreed that some who wanted a little bit of training would arrive earlier on the next day. That night the stay was arranged with Tharaka and up to the last day, I was staying only in the homes of the activists.

A lost humanist legacy

On the next day we had an early start and by the time the other members arrived, we had some discussions with a core group of interested members. This was followed by the same type of interactions that we have with other groups- lectures, demos and videos. During our discussions I came to know that though Sri Lanka though on paper is a Buddhist nation and Buddha is the earliest among humanists and rationalists, the ground realities were different. There were all types of superstitions which would give tough competition to those in India. there were the witch doctors called as Kattadiyas in Sinhala who would do all sorts of ‘miracles’ to convince their gullible clients about their supernatural powers, the clergy were a law unto themselves even having seats reserved for them in buses, airports and probably in heaven too! Soon after the interactions were over we had to start for Anuradhapura our next place.

Though we had tried to start early from Colombo, it was not to be. We reached our destination at around 1 am where our host was waiting for us. The next morning since here was some free time, arrangements were made for the two of us to visit the famous ruins of Anuradhapura and we found that the stupas and the priests around them were no different from those of Hindus! The only difference was that, the idols of the Hindu pantheon were replaced by those of Buddha. In the afternoon it was time for their program which was held in the community hall of the place. Since it was a working day and also during working hours, the hall was not very crowded. But, the arrangements were excellent with a good projector and sound system. In the evening we had a meeting with their members of whom one was a school teacher, two farmers etc. Terence Gamini is an activist in many movements and they are all progressive ones.

On campus and in the countryside

The next day we had to start early in he morning to reach Kandy another Buddhist place of pilgrimage. Here we were met by Dr.Sena D’Silva who is a dentist by profession. He had arranged two programs – one with the activists of the movement at a hall attached to an old age home and at the University of Peradeniya. This university is the second oldest one in Sri Lanka, situated on a very beautiful campus with a number of faculties including those of medicine and engineering. The students there were on protest against the opening of private universities! The non-teaching staff were on strike for some other reason, but we were assured that since we had been invited by the students union, things would be normal as far as our program was concerned. After the first interaction in the afternoon with the members and some other young people we proceeded to the university. Our program was to be at the auditorium of the university which had been locked up, but arrangements were made at an open air one near their canteen. However, that too was quite spacious. The crowd at the commencement was so less that we were wondering on the wisdom of having such a program when there were strikes going on all over. However, within a few minutes the area was full and it was standing room only! The students were a lively lot many of them actively involving themselves as volunteers for demonstrations. But, when it came to the interactive sessions- they were very reluctant to ask questions. I was told the classroom atmosphere there is quite similar to that in India- questioning is never encouraged and in fact actively discouraged. The students evinced great interest in taking this miracle exposure programs to the people to educate them about superstitions and we had plans to have training programs on their campus in the near future.

From Kandy we proceeded to Kurunegala district after being interviewed for nearly two hours by a freelance journalist who had arrived punctually at 7 am. Our program for that district was at a village with a jaw breaker of a name- Wanduressa Ma Eliya! Gunapala Patiraja was the local leader who had arranged for a lecture demonstration at the local school. He had invited activists from all over the district who had come with families. The gathering there was that of the villagers and these members and had the largest number of women of all our such interactions in Sri Lanka. They were more than half of the audience. They had also made plans for us to have a social gathering that evening but we had to leave as there were programs lined up early in the next morning.

“Ravana was here”

Programme at Galle

Programme at Galle

On the next day we had a meeting organised by a Sri S.Shivgurunathan, member of the Sri Lanka Rationalist Association with a group of young Tamil people at a place called as Dehivala. This group is a social study circle which meets every week to discuss relevent topics. There were discussions on many topics including the one about the Ravana tourism. There are a number of tourist spots in Sri Lanka proposed as ‘evidences’ for the epic of Ramayana. The meeting had to be concluded early as we had the next program at Galle an important port and has a fort too! Our meeting was arranged by the Galle branch of the Sri Lanka rationalist association at the Town Hall, its president Dr.Shirley D’Silva and the secretary Gamini Wilson were our hosts. The program started with a small crowd which included two Buddhist monks! But, as we went on the crowd swelled and it was soon standing room only. In the nearby hall there was a music program scheduled for 6 pm but the sound was disturbing us and we had to terminate ours early! But, the crowd was quite enthsusiastic with their questions and I could not decipher much and they were in Sinhala and so were the answers by the local organisers.

Revitalizing the rationalist-humanist movement

The last day of the stay at Sri Lanka was with Dr.Kavan who is an astronomer by profession and a science activist by conviction. He had given up a job in the US to come back to Sri Lanka and devote his time to create scientific awareness in his community. At his residence I was interviewed by a reporter of a weekly newspaper called Sunday times who asked very pointed questions about our movement and ideology. In the evening I met Ranjan Fernando who had been active in the movement for the past several decades and had participated in peace marches with famous rationalists like Bertrand Russell. We had a long discussion about how to build up the movement in Sri Lanka.

The tour of Sri Lanka was a success as far as the first contacts go. They had never seen something like our miracle exposure campaign in our present form though the originator of the program was the founder of Sri Lanka Rationalist Association, Dr.A.T.Kovoor. His passing away had resulted in people gradually losing interest and the movement had gone dormant. The attempts of Tharaka and the late Dharmapala to revive it had resulted in people taking interest in the past few years. They have now decided to get their activists trained to conduct these interactions to attract newcomers to the rationalist-humanist movement. They want to conduct training programs for their members so that they go to the people with an attractive program and we have agreed to provide them support for that. Plans are now afoot to have one such training program within the next two months at a central location. We are planning for a joint program with IHEU for building up a rationalist-humanist movement in Srilanka and Babu Gogineni the executive director of IHEU has made some tentative plans about that. Will our plans to build up a strong rationalist movement in Sri Lanka work? Only time and our efforts will tell.

For me it was great experience to go to the country where the person who inspired me to join the movement lived for the major part of his life and tried to build up a movement and a privilege to conduct programs for the organisation that he had started and run successfully for several decades.

About the author

Narendra Nayak

5 Comments

  • We are glad you came to SriLanka and believe your visit has given a boost for revival of rationalist thought in this land. While thanking you for the demonstrations and lectures we are looking forward for more cooperation with you in the future.

  • Thanks for visiting to Sri Lanka,my home which is infested with thousands of bogus miracle healers,astrologers,con men & millions of superstitious persons still live in dark ages.

  • I heard from Babu Gogineni that there is going to be a conference in Sri Lanka soon. I would like to attend the conference and visit Sri Lanka. Please advise me the exact date of the conference so that I can make travel plans.

    Regards

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