By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan –
I just learnt of the demise of Paul Caspersz of Satyodaya, Kandy. Below, what I wrote several years ago on the publication of his Festschrift. The review is included in Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2.
He was a good and great man. (Of course, this raises the question: Can someone be truly great without being good? But that would be a digression here.)
Paul Caspersz, S. J. “A New Culture For A New Society: Selected Writings 1945 – 2005.”
Father Paul Caspersz went to school in Colombo, entered the Society of Jesus in 1942, and was ordained a priest ten years later. He read Politics and Economics at Oxford and, returning to the Island, was a teacher till 1971. A year later, he co-founded the Satyodaya Centre for Social Research and Encounter, Kandy. New Culture, marking Paul Caspersz becoming an octogenarian, testifies to a remarkable man, and a remarkable life of quiet, sustained, service to the poor and the disadvantaged, animated by the spirit of Decree 1V of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus: “the reconciliation of men and women among themselves, which their reconciliation with God demands, must be based on justice.”
Caspersz has a special sympathy for the Upcountry (or Plantation) Tamil because they are among the most wretched of “the wretched of the earth” (Frantz Fanon), suffering from both the vertical and horizontal lines of ethnicity and class: “not only was the estate isolated from the village but, through a series of vicious and restrictive laws, regulations and customs, each estate was carefully sealed off from every other” (p. 32). The surrounding Sinhalese villages deeply resented both the expropriation of their land and the importation of foreigners, but unfortunately their anger found expression not against the real villains – British imperialism, the tea companies and their managers – but against the hapless victims. Callously exploited by estate management (motivated by profit and heedless of the human cost); resented by the Sinhalese; betrayed by some of their leaders, theirs has been a most unfortunate fate. New Culture traces the sorry story, independence (1948) bringing the deprivation of citizenship, disenfranchisement and, in the case of thousands, expatriation (not repatriation) to India. Caspersz argues that, given the long passage of time, these folk should no longer be seen as “Indian Tamil”. The “ethnic origins of the overwhelming majority of [all] the people now living in the island are Indian, and it is highly probable that the origins of the great majority are South Indian” (p. 1. Emphasis added). Unafraid, wishing to provoke thought, Caspersz argues that if the plantation folk are “Indian Tamil,” then the Sinhalese are “Indian Sinhalese” (p. 18). On Easter Sunday, 5 April 1942, Japanese dive-bombers attacked Colombo. There was general panic, shops and hotels were closed, and the (British) government of Ceylon, fearing the reaction of the plantation workers, sent Mr M. Rajanayagam, Deputy Controller of Labour, to reassure them. The plantation folk were puzzled at being asking whether they intended to leave the Island: Our forefathers lie buried under the tea bushes. We will not leave the plantations (Sithamperam Nadesan, A History of the Up-Country Tamil People in Sri Lanka. 1993 : 140). It was home – the only home they had ever known.
Caspersz acknowledges that he had welcomed the Land Reform law of 1972, not anticipating that nationalisation would lead to Tamil plantation workers being ordered out of the estates, often without notice, “hungry, homeless and helpless” (p. viii).
The Sinhalese are by nature one of the friendliest people in the world but [they] can be easily but diabolically misled by Sinhalese racialists, who stop at nothing and are stopped by nothing, not even by compassion, the kindness and the non-violence of Buddhism, in order to whip up hatred against the Tamils to a frenzy. “The estates are now ours,” they shrieked. “Get out!” And the Tamil workers on many estates close to the Sinhalese villagers left the estates where some of them had lived for generations defenceless, friendless, their hearts in the dust like a tea bush uprooted, to roam the streets of the cities and live off garbage bins (p. 35)
Not surprisingly, there is collective amnesia: for example, someone I knew, a Kandyan, retired planter, disclaims any knowledge of this. Caspersz is aware of the suffering of Sinhalese villagers, but cautions against a “dangerously divisive” competition of misery: “Both estate workers and poor peasants suffer oppression […] To ask where the oppression is greater is much less important than to end it, both on the estate and in the village” (p. 36).
Ethnicity is “the dominant problem in Sri Lanka” (p. 78), and Caspersz pleads for a united nation that permits and encourages diversity (p. 74). Unity does not mean uniformity; integration is not assimilation; pluralism should be welcomed and celebrated. The ethnic conflict is totally unnecessary, and a tragic waste. After all, Sinhalese caste groups such as the karavas, the salagamas and the duravas were “originally South Indian immigrants who over a period of centuries assimilated so successfully with the local population as to make everyone, even themselves, oblivious of their origins” (p 80). The irony is that “the vast majority of the Tamils would not want separation if there was genuine redress of their grievances” (p. 83). To support this argument, Caspersz quotes from the 1970 election manifesto of the Federal Party:
“It is our firm conviction that division of the country in any form would be beneficial neither to the country nor to the Tamil-speaking people. Hence we appeal to the Tamil-speaking people not to lend their support to any political movement that advocates the bifurcation of our country” (p. 83).
The Sinhalese who exclude the option of secession are, for that very reason, all the more obliged to work for genuine pluralistic acceptance and equality (p. 86). The nature and shape of politics is formed by people and parties: “Whenever one of the two main Sinhala parties tries to redress the legitimate grievances of the Tamils, the other accuses it of betrayal or surrender. The tragedy is that there is no question of principle but of sheer dishonest political gain” (p. 28).
As I have written elsewhere, unfortunately religious teaching does not determine the nature of society; rather, it’s the people who determine the nature of religion. The same religion – whether Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism or Islam – at different times and places finds different expression: compassionate or cruel, gentle or harsh, tolerant or assertive. Christianity, born in the Middle East, was adopted by the West, and later exported to the non-Western world. It accompanied Western imperialism – and the exploitation and humiliation that imperialism visited upon the conquered. Secondly, it came dressed in the “clothes” of Western culture and, rather than adapting Christianity to Sri Lankan culture, converts adapted Western ways. It is not surprising that many Sri Lankan Buddhists look upon Christianity with resentment. (Recently, the situation has been worsened by the methods and motives of certain USA-based evangelical groups.) Caspersz does not deny the complicit role the church played in the past. For instance, the church stressed law and order, but did not question the moral rightness of that externally imposed (British imperial) “order”. A good Christian was held to be one who went to church, was concerned with the sacrament and the holy spirit – not with “inter-human justice” (p. 142). But since we are social beings, to be a good Christian is not only to do “social service” but also to be active in endeavouring to bring about social change. Rather than being kind within an unkind system, one must work towards changing the unjust order of things. What is desired, and longed for, is not charity but justice. A good Christian life means a good social life – not only prayer, however pious and emotional. Rather than being spiritual preparation and prelude, prayer has become an easy substitute for action. Christ’s famous Sermon on the Mount must be given a literal (not a conveniently figurative) interpretation. The beatitudes are the beatitudes of the poor and the oppressed (p. 100). As Marx pointed out, for profit, we are willing to disregard human laws, and if “turbulence and strife” will result in material gain, so be it (see, p. 192). Marx did not claim that “the economic element is the only determining one” (p. 194). Indeed, it is this mechanically reductionist attitude that made Marx exclaim towards the end of his life, “Thank God that I am not a Marxist!” (ibid). Caspersz clarifies his position:
“The God I believe in is the God of Justice, the God of Justice-Love. The God I believe in is the God who in Jesus became human, a colonized and anti-imperialist human, a worker, immensely concerned about the loss of human freedom and the oppression of the poor” (p. 195).
And so it is that a Christian priest quotes Communist Che Guevara: “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love” (p. 102); a Jesuit cites Che Guevara citing Jesus in his last letter to his children:
“Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone anywhere in the world. That is the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary. Jesus of Nazareth was guided above all by just such ardent love” (p. 103)
As for the role of Christians in the ethnic conflict, while almost all Buddhists are Sinhalese, and all Hindus are Tamil, the Christian congregation consists of Sinhalese and Tamil. Therefore, Christians have a better opportunity and, following from that, a greater duty, to work for inter-ethnic understanding and harmony.
“Development” is a frequently encountered word, and countries like Sri Lanka are sometimes (hopefully) described as “developing” nations. But what does development mean in practice? “Often and deliberately, the World Bank-IMF complex hides its real intentions behind difficult phrases” (p. 256). When international organisations think, plan and carry out “development” projects, the poor are peripheral (p. 241); the centre is occupied by “economic growth which means the making of more and more money” (pp. 241-2). It is assumed that the more material possessions and comforts a person or a nation has, “the more fulfilment is there of the capacity of that person or nation to be” (p. 279).
A distinction must be made between needs and wants. As Gandhi pointed out, there is enough in the world for everyone’s needs, but not enough for everyone’s greed (p. 250). Those active in “development” should remember the Mahatma’s words: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him” (p.
240). Marx wrote that religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress, and the protest against real distress. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless world” (p. 299). Development, while having to do with the economy, the material, must also have the spiritual dimension of devotion to humanity, to truth, goodness, beauty, equity and justice (p. 247). In that sense, one can be spiritual without being religious. Caspersz concludes that the opposite of religion is not atheism but idolatry, the idolatry of material possession, status, snobbery, false values and power. Oscar Wilde observed that we know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. Marcus Aurelius asked himself (Meditations) how one could estimate the value of a person, and answered that a possible way was by the things to which that person gave value. It does not mean that one should not take (using contemporary parallels) an interest in fashion or cricket – there is a difference between value, the things that are really important to a person, and her or his interests.
As Caspersz observes, some books do not pulsate, do not bleed (p. 19) but, moved by love, sympathy and indignation, he himself writes with power and passion about “this once happy, but now so tragic, land (p. 19). Yeats (‘The Second Coming’) says that the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, but Caspersz, being among the best, is full of a passionate and selfless intensity. He is one of those to whom the miseries of the world are misery, and will not let them rest (Keats, ‘Fall of Hyperion’). New Culture is an attempt to help in the creation of a new culture (a new way of life) and so, a new society, a “paradise isle” (tourist slogan) in far more important terms than landscape and scenery. A man who has rendered long and dedicated service performs yet another in making this collection available to the public.
“For good is the life ending faithfully” (Wyatt, 1503-1542).
Dushyanthi Hoole / April 30, 2017
Thank you Prof. Sarvan. I am, like many, indebted to Fr. Caspersz. Trained in the sciences, I was going to do a survey on primary education resource allocation for Save the Children/UK. It was thought out as an exercise in rights-based statistical research with advanced software. Satyodaya was where I trained my 24 just out of college-enumerators.
The previous day I had a conversation with Fr. Caspersz over tenderly roasted Kandyan tea. It all then clicked for me. Our research was so humanized by his input that transcending the rights-based concept, everyone saw it as his/her duty towards humanity to do their part sincerely in the survey. It was not just his words but his feeling that all of God’s creatures was kin. This reveals a mystical elevation of his spirit into perfect love which touched us all too.
May God grant dear Fr. Caspersz eternal rest.
Spring Koha / April 30, 2017
A man who gave all of his talents to the poor and suffering, the marginalised and the dispossessed.
May he Rest in Peace.
Thank You Prof. Sarvan for this tribute.
Bensen Berner / April 30, 2017
A very good tribute to this great person. May his soul rest in peace. Bensen
R. Varathan / April 30, 2017
Beautiful and moving tribute to a kind and humane man of the cloth. I had the privilege of meeting him in Colombo where he was in the company of 3 “estate” youth – having brought them at his expense for a book launch concerning Plantation workers. He dedicated much of his life to this “wretched of the earth” producing the wealth of the nation through their toil. Although Pieter Keuneman is the more prominent Burgher to take interest in the good of the poor workers in Sri Lanka Fr. Caspersz deserves a much higher place in the country’s history.
old codger / April 30, 2017
Fr. Caspersz was a great human being. He worked according to his conscience with no fanfare, helping the most wretched Sri Lankans. His quote about “Indian Sinhalese” is telling.May he rest in peace.
I don’t suppose there is any chance of him getting a state funeral, unlike some whose talents lay in being different things to different people.
Adrian / April 30, 2017
It is a matter of sadness that no Buddhist priest, not one, can equal Fr. Casperz’s solicitude and compassion for the most wretched segment of Sri Lankan society. Do these parasites really deserve the lavish perks of luxury cars, official residences, and after they depart, state funerals at taxpayer expense? Is this fostering real Buddhism or pandering to undereducated village racists swathed in saffron robes?
jimsofty / May 1, 2017
Caspersz has a special sympathy for the Upcountry (or Plantation) Tamil because they are among the most wretched of “the wretched of the earth” (
What he did ?
did he build houses for them or just converted to the Catholicism and built Catholic schols for them ?
LAC3 (rtd) Buddhadasa / May 1, 2017
Buddhism is about saving yourself. Christianity is about saving others. Get it?
If there were Buddhist priests in estates, they would ask the poor workers to feed them and buy cars for them.
Sinhala_Man / May 1, 2017
Please find out before you comment. Fr Paul wasn’t a “converting priest”. He had great respect for other faiths, and did not push Catholicism on to anyone.
I’m not an authority on the subject, and I’m NOT a Catholic; I think that these were some of the Catholic priests (the murdered Fr. Michael Rodrigo was another), who sometimes had acute disagreements with the Catholic Establishment.
I have already referred to the SATYODAYA part of the establishment in Kandy:
Certainly, those wh ran it were committed Roman Catholics, but they had no aim to “convert” people to their faith.
Eusense / May 1, 2017
Get rid of your Buddhism the greatest attitude. Religions kill more people than any other entity because of people like you. What have our Buddhist clergy done for anybody??
AJ / May 1, 2017
Thanks EU, he is just making others hate Buddhism more and more. I say things to retaliate him and he accused me of being Muslim, then a Hindu and now a Christian. He got to understand more he claims one religion is better over the other , more I will retaliate by saying how that religion is inferior. Only an idiot will argue one philosophy is superior to others.
jimsofty / May 2, 2017
buddhism has never killed any one in the name of buddhism. I did not talk about buddhism I talked something that Catholics/christians do always.
This guy issed off in another article because I wrote about Tamils taken all over the world.
this man comes and write about his religon and Tamils. He does not like me saying anything negative about his writings.
I don’t think as you want to say, that they were saints. their intention was conversion. they did as doing charity work and by building schools.
Eusense / May 2, 2017
Your show the stupidity here. Where did I say Buddhists go kill people. People like you writing against other religions will instigate violence. You calling SL as a Sinhalese Buddhist country bring resentment from other groups which led to our 30 years of violence. Keep religion private. You practice Buddhas teachings that is all I want from you.
aj / May 2, 2017
EU, now Jim is going to start calling you a Muslim or a christian. I am not joking. That is exactly what he accuses me of now. what an irrational idiot he is, bringing shame to other Buddhists.
Eusense / May 2, 2017
I think he knows who I am. As a Buddhist I can tell him anything I feel wrong with Buddhism and with Buddhist fanatics like him.
I know lot of writers here consider me as a Sinhalese racist. I think I have had arguments about Tamil issues with you too. But I am not a racist or against Tamils. Only thing I resent is violence to achieve goals which killed so many innocent civilians. I know negotiations are tough but persistence can and will pay off. What I feel is once the Jim Softy generation is gone the young Sinhalese would be more tolerant and accepting.
Sinhala_Man / May 1, 2017
Thanks Prof. Sarvan for writing this tribute to a man who richly deserves to be venerated for the wonderful life he lived. When racial violence broke out at Peradeniya University and we, undergrads, didn’t know whom to turn to for advice, we were told about Fr Paul Caspersz and the organisations known as MIRJE (Movement for Interracial Justice and Equality) and Satyodaya. It was half-way up the Anniewatte Mountain.
We went there many times over the next two years or more. There were regular publications, and a library with many valuable books that we were able to look through, guided by Fr Paul. More than all else we met a group of people who were friendly, and had not lost faith in the possibility of good triumphing over the evil that appeared able to destroy so many of the values that we had held sacred.
He was liberal and friendly, but also serious in his commitments as Jesuit Catholic priest. After the trouble had subsided somewhat a few of us continued to visit him occasionally. As others have already pointed out, Fr Paul had received a wonderful education and could have had no difficulty in embarking on a high profile career; instead he chose to serve – the poorest of the poor.
Such men are rare indeed. May his soul ascend to heaven!
Govinda / May 1, 2017
A Tribute To Fr. Paul Caspersz
Is he the same father who was at St. Aloysius College, Galle during late 1960’s.
If so, why has Prof. C Sarvan forget to mention it.
Uthungan / May 1, 2017
Thank you for your tribute to Fr. Paul Casperz .
With reference to your quote by a Christian priest on Che Guevara, let me take the opportunity to put on record what happened when I attend a trade union meeting at the YMBA hall many many decades ago.
I was just out of school undecided about hunting for a job or pursue further education.
The Late Bala Thampoe was the keynote speaker at the meeting and the topic was ”Impressions of his visit to the US’.
He first began his speech about the incessant wails of police sirens whenever he went out from his hotel and then about the activities about the Movement for Civil Rights and about Malcolm X’s influence etc.etc. which lasted for about two hours and ending up with his replies to questions.
At a certain point of his speech he had the whole audience spell bound when he said something more profound than your quote about the Christian priest’s on Communist Che Guevara.
Bala Thampoe said that Jesus Christ was really a ‘revolutionary’ imbued with a love to end suffering and helping the poor out from poverty and ignorence and that was killed as he was considered too dangerous for having raided the tables set up by the money changers at a place of worship.
That nexus between money power and state power still persists and so does the competition between the evil and the good.
Hope you wouldn’t mind the usage of your true name by which Ihad known you in school..
jimsofty / May 2, 2017
Else where “I read he was a JEsuit preist and was a socialist. JEsuits are notorious for conversion. IF you people do not know google and see what jesuits are saying on the day they become priests.
Eusense / May 2, 2017
If conversion happens who is at fault? It is none other than than our own Buddhist establishment. It is the human nature to seek better lives. If this Priest preach to convert Buddhists that shows how fragile our Buddhist faith is. Where are our clergy? How many video clips have you seen them foul mouthing minorities, ride luxury cars, celebrating lavish Birthday parties etc. etc.? Buddhism does not offer social support to its congregation. Buddhism has to change according to the times. Saying, SADU, SADU, SADUU and erecting Buddha statues at every junction will never impress anyone. You need to live according to the teachings of lord Buddha. Which I don’t see in you!
jimsofty / May 2, 2017
As I read, Thuppahi world Press.com blog. This oreists is not a daint as this guy says. HE had come to support the Catholics/christians dominated UNP some where during the times when there was an Army coup. SO, he was sent here without calculated tasks.
It is a long article.
that article also says that LSSP was an anti estalishment oppostion at that time and the LSSP does that even now.
romani / May 2, 2017
“This oreists is not a daint as this guy says. HE had come to support the Catholics/christians dominated UNP some where during the times when there was an Army coup.”
Since when has it been a crime to support the UNP? If he actually did it, that is?
NIM / May 3, 2017
I learnt something valuable from this article. Marx at the end of his life said “Thank God I am not a Marxist” His values regarding material possessions we teach others to chase after were no longer useful. He found refuge in the capitalist capital London, governed by christian principles with a monarch, archbishop and parliament. Self conversion touched by the divine, no longer insecure, fearful and racist.