By Sarath De Alwis –
The Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka is set to elect its next president on Saturday 28th of March 2015. The Annual Report of the Council of the RASSL for 2014 and 170th year informs the membership of the society that Dr. Hema Goonatilake wife of the Present President Dr. Susantha Goonatilake wishes to succeed her eminent spouse as President of the Society. Dr.Hema Goonatilake is currently a Vice President of the Society and doubles as the Honorary Editor. The contender, challenger and the only alternative is Dr.W.M.K Wijetunge former Associate Professor of History University of Sri Jayawardenapura who had served as a Vice President before .
There is something quaintly charming about a Mom & Pop business undertaking. Before Keels and Cargills drove them in to extinction the ‘Game Kade’ run by the ‘Mudalai’ and ‘Hamine’ was an accepted social, cultural and commercial institution. This has been immortalized by Ajantha Ranasinghe’s lyrics of the song ‘Game Kopi Kade Denna Depaththey” that depicts the delightful languor of our rural land scape. What is delightful may not always be decorous or dignified.
The Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka [RASSL] has arrived at a unique cross road in its 170 year history. The RASSL can and should be rescued and made in to a forum that voices varying strands of intellectual authority. For too long it has been held hostage by intellectual eccentrics. Contrived history and trivialized methods of inquiry have been the hall mark of its activities in its immediate past. The RASSL has through the years been a microcosm of the nation’s intelligentsia. When sensible people do nothing or remain indifferent to achieving something better no progress can be made. The elections for office bearers due on Saturday next is a window of opportunity. The nomination of the wife of the outgoing President is to continue the status quo of dealing with the surface and encouraging the levelers and popularizers of arid personal obsessions.
On the other hand the Challenger is not the dynamic young helmsman that is needed. But he represents the only sane alternative that promises discovery and creativity in its pursuits taking it upwards and forwards.
The Royal Asiatic Society was founded in 1823 by the eminent Sanskrit scholar Sir Henry Thomas Colebrooke (1765-1837)
The Sri Lanka branch of the Society was founded in 1845 as the Asiatic Society of Ceylon. It was affiliated to the RAS of Great Britain and Ireland as the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. In 1972 in keeping with Sri Lankas constitutional evolution it became the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka [RAS SL]
The RASSL describes itself as the oldest ‘modern’ academic organization in Sri Lanka.
The mission statement of the RASSL under the tutelage of Dr. Susantha Goonetilake Engineer by training, Sociologist by academic pursuit and autodidactic historian, archeologist, political scientist, musicologist and anthropologist declares that RASSL promotes “inquiries in to the history, religions, and languages, literature, arts, sciences and social conditions of the present and former peoples of Sri Lanka and connected culture.”
This is in sharp contrast to the pristine RAS of the United Kingdom and Ireland confines itself to the modest purpose of providing a “forum for those who are interested in the history, languages, cultures and religions of Asia to meet and exchange ideas. It offers lectures and seminars and it provides facilities for research and publishing.”
The principal activities of the Society have been the following.
Administration of its treasured Library: The Library contains books and journals on a wide variety of subjects concerning Sri Lanka and Asia. It calls for urgent measures to leverage its resources to provide digital and print information and facilitate the creation of new knowledge. Above all it should create the environment that inspires learning, reflection and collaboration. Today the Library of the RASSL is a practical workshop that trains its members to find books in ‘books stacks’ It has no professional librarian.
Publications: In past times under the directions of eminent scholars such as Paul E Pieris, Profesor G.P. Malalasekera, Karl Gunawardene and Dr. C. E.Godakumbure the society had an active publications program.
The Journal of the Society: The RASSL Journal has been published from its inception and is expected to enjoy an international reputation as an academic encyclical of our island nation. The present day product does not contain any original or in-depth scholarly explorations. Today contributors are selected on the basis of their personal allegiance to the supreme lawgiver of the outfit.
Lectures and Symposia: RASSL is expected to conduct a monthly lecture series aimed at maintaining a high degree of intellectual vibrancy among its members. It is also expected to conduct Symposia at regular intervals in order to mirror the interests of the society and its discerning membership. In recent years hardy an event has generated interest and attendance of more than twenty participants. The Annual Research Symposium has been reduced to a public relations ritual devoid of even the semblance of a scholarly content.
The RASSL has in recent years withdrawn in to a self-imposed exile and cut off its links with other branches of the RAS in Asia.
The fraternal societies with which RASSL could collaborate actively are the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta, The Asiatic Society of Bombay, The Madras Literary Society and Auxiliary of the Royal Asiatic Society, and the Malaysian branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. RASSL has immense potential in promoting regional ties with its fraternal counterparts. Fraternal relations are more than receiving and dispatching routine mail.
Will the discerning membership of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka opt for Marie Antoinette in place of the outgoing Bourbon?