Malalasekera, G. P.

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MALALASEKERA, G. P. (18991973), Buddhist scholar, founder of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, and a dominant figure in the cultural life of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Born in Panadura, the son of a prosperous family, Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera grew up in a scholarly atmosphere. As a schoolboy he was tutored in the Sinhala, Sanskrit, and Pali classics by his father, an Ayurvedic physician. During his formative years, Malalasekera was also deeply influenced by learned monks whom he came to know through his father, and he was inspired by men like Anagārika Dharmapāla (18641933), a leader in the Buddhist revivalist movement that had arisen in the age of British colonial repression of nationalistic aims and aspirations.

Preparing to follow in his father's footsteps, Malalasekera entered the Medical College in Colombo in 1917, but he had to abandon his medical studies the following year, upon his father's untimely death. Via external registration at the University of London, he then turned to the study of Western classics, graduating with first-class honors in 1919. In 1921 he joined the premier Buddhist school in Colombo, Ānanda College, as a teacher, and in ensuing years he became first its vice-principal and then its acting principal.

Upon the return of Ānanda's principal, Patrick de Silva Kularatne (18931976), Malalasekera was profoundly influenced by him in matters both educational and nationalistic. He went abroad for postgraduate studies at the University of London and obtained both the M.A. and the Ph.D. degrees in 1925. On his return home in 1926 he was appointed principal of Nālandā Vidyālaya, the new sister school of Ānanda, and within a year developed it to some stature. He was then appointed lecturer in Sinhala, Sanskrit, and Pali at University College, Colombo, and for most of the next three decades he pursued a brilliant academic career. He held the chair of Pali and Buddhist studies from the establishment of the University of Ceylon in 1942 until his resignation in 1959. As professor and dean for the greater part of this period, which saw the rapid expansion of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, he was a highly respected member of the academic community.

In 1957 Malalasekera was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union, and he represented Ceylon at the ambassadorial level in Canada, the United Nations, and the United Kingdom until 1967, when he was called home to chair the National Council of Higher Education, a post in which he served with distinction for five years. Despite the demands of diplomatic assignments and administrative responsibilities, his scholarly activities were undiminished.

Malalasekera's major works include The Pali Literature of Ceylon (London, 1928); Vasatthappakāsinī (London, 1935), a critical edition of the exegesis on the Mahāvasa (Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka); the Extended Mahāvasa (Colombo, 1937); The Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (London, 1937); and An English-Sinhalese Dictionary (Colombo, 1948). He wrote a large number of other scholarly books and articles, and he contributed extensively to popular journals both in Ceylon and abroad. His highest intellectual achievement, however, was the work he did on the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, whose completion he, as editor in chief, did not live to see. This undertaking, sponsored by the government of Ceylon in commemoration of twenty-five hundred years of Buddhism, was commenced in 1956 and is still in progress. As a contribution to Buddhist learning, it will stand as a monument to Malalasekera's love of scholarship and great perseverance as a student of the divers aspects of Buddhist thought, culture, and civilization.

Throughout his life, Malalasekera participated in various spheres of interest in Ceylon, religious and social, cultural and intellectual. At government level his advice was sought in many fields and was acceptable to people of all shades of political opinion, for he discreetly steered clear of party politics. He stood for equity and social justice, always taking up the cause of the underprivileged. As a social worker, he traveled the country at his own expense and addressed gatherings large and small. He was frequently heard over Radio Ceylon. His was a receptive mind, and he was noted for his ability to expound with precision and clarity on topics from fine arts and humanities to social sciences and current affairs. As a religious leader, for twenty-five years Malalasekera was president of the All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC), an important platform for shaping public opinion, and he was principally responsible for the founding, in May 1950, of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, modeled largely after the ACBC.

Until that time, the voice of the Buddhist population, which forms more than a fifth of the human race, had not been heard, nor its views adequately expressed, nor its aspirations respected in world assemblies. Communication among Buddhists of various lands had been limited, and Buddhists the world over had had no forum to air their grievances or to redress injustices. The differences between the Mahāyāna and Theravāda schools had led to disunity. It was Malalasekera's indefatigable efforts that brought them together. As a sequel to a resolution passed at the twenty-eighth session of the ACBC in 1947, a resolution was passed at a conference of world Buddhist leaders held in 1950 in the historic Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy, to establish the World Fellowship of Buddhists. Malalasekera was founder-president from 1950 to 1958. During his lifetime it grew into a dynamic organization, expressing Buddhist opinion and unifying Buddhists under the six-hued flag bearing the emblem of the dharmacakra, the Wheel of the Law, as a symbol of peace.


Dharmabandhu, T. S. Sihala vīrayō. Colombo, 1949. In Sinhala.

Guruge, Ananda, ed. Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala. Colombo, 1965.

Hewage, L. G., et al., eds. All Ceylon Buddhist Congress: Malalasēkara anusmaraa sagrahaya. Colombo, 1973. In Sinhala.

Wijesekera, O. H. de A., ed. Malalasekera Commemoration Volume. Colombo, 1976.

Wijewardena, Don Charles. The Revolt in the Temple. Colombo, 1953.

New Sources

Freiberger, Oliver. "The Meeting of Traditions: Inter-Buddhist and Inter-Religious Relations in the West." Journal of Global Buddhism 2 (2001).

N. A. Jayawickrama (1987)

Revised Bibliography