Kumar Sangakkara’s Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture for the MCC this summer was the antithesis of that presented within the same portals in 2006 by Martin Crowe.[i] Where Crowe returned to the medieval archaic within the field of cricket and displayed the sentiments of a caveman, Sangakkara was forward-looking and stepped boldly beyond the confines of cricket to the socio-political dispensation in Sri Lanka.

In doing so Sangakkara broke the code of conduct enjoined on him by his contract with Sri Lanka Cricket. He was therefore intrepid. This was boldness in a good cause, the greater cause of the cricketing order in Sri Lanka (and beyond) on the one hand and, on the other, the vital cause of reconciliation across the fractured political formation in Sri Lanka.

There are missing dimensions and some sweeping comments in his survey of Sri Lanka’s cricketing history in the last twenty years that call for caveats, issues that I will address separately elsewhere. The focus here is directed towards his erudite and passionate venture into the field of Sri Lankan politics and his insistence that the cricketing arena provides one path towards ethnic reconciliation.

He and his wife Yehali had already ventured on this path: first, when they joined Muralitharan and others in the work of tsunami relief across the breadth of the island in early 2005; and, more recently, in April immediately after the World Cup, when both of them visited St. Patrick’s College in Jaffna town and were feted there. The latter event was not widely publicized as far as I know. It was pure fortune that I received a set of photographs illustrating the visit from an old Trinitian, Sangakkara’s alma mater.[ii] This felicitous and symbolic move towards ethnic amity gains in significance from two little facts: (1) the visit was not to Trinity’s ‘natural partner’, the Anglican venture, St. John’s College, but to a Catholic school; and (2) Kumar was accompanied by Yehali (though, for obvious reasons, their twins did not join them at the school).

Peter Roebuck has gone so far as to assert that Sangakkara’s presentation was “the most important speech in cricket history.” Deploying his awareness of the Sangakkara visit to Jaffna, he then went on to state that “only those with empires to protect will resent his words. Only those blighted with the curse of nationalism will deny him his voice. He spoke as a patriot, a higher calling altogether.”[iii]

Thus, Roebuck drew a distinction between the concepts of “nationalism” and “patriotism.” I welcome the direction he is pointing towards, but have grave doubts whether this differentiation will be understood by many readers. It is a difficult distinction to sustain when the two concepts overlap and when ultra-patriots can be much as much a virus as ultra-nationalists. After all, the Sinhala ultras include those who bear the badge of dēsa prēmi (those who love their country, namely “patriots”) boldly on their foreheads.

For this reason I prefer to move in the same direction and laud Sangakkara’s speech as the profound expression of an ecumenical nationalist. What can be more ecumenical than the stirring lines with which he concluded his classic peroration: “Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.”[iv]

In this presentation of self, Sangakkara subsumed his being as a Trinitian, a radala Govigama, a Kandyan and a Sinhalese within the encompassing identity of being a Sri Lankan, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious collective being. This sentiment, this understanding, I call an ecumenical being, the ecumenical Lankan.

Forerunners and Pathfinders

Some 160 years before, at the point when the British colonial dispensation was bustling forward in capitalist growth, a small group of young “Ceylonese” (as they were known then) stepped forward in the same erudite and ecumenical spirit as young Sangakkara. Inspired by the literary currents of European romanticism as well as the political currents of nationalism,[v] these men – and at least one woman, Eleanor Lorenz (nee Nell) – started a journal called Young Ceylon in 1850 and sustained it till September 1852.

These young men were mostly educated at the Colombo Academy, which later transformed into the prestigious Royal College. The key personnel were Charles Ambrose Lorenz, Frederick Nell and Louis Nell, all from the Burgher middle class in the emerging town of Colombo. They were assisted by Charles Ferdinands, John Prins, Dandris de Silva Gooneratne, James de Alwis, T. A. Pierez, Edward Kelaart and others. Their choice of title was obviously drawn from the “Young Italy” movement associated with Mazzini and the Italian Risorgimento as well as the Young England movement associated with the young Benjamin Disraeli.[vi]

Young Ceylon dedicated itself “to the spirit of inquiry which [it regarded] as the distinguishing feature of the present age.” Its editors chose as its motto the lines from the German Romantic Ludwig Tieck’s dedication to a fellow man-of-letters, Schlegel: “Wir für Kunst und Wissenschaft vereignigt lebten, und une in mannigfalten Bestrebungen begegneten” – We live united for Art and Knowledge, and emulate one another in various competitions (emphasis theirs).

As critically, some few years later, some of these personnel mustered the capital to purchase the Examiner, one of the existing bi-weekly English newspapers owned by an Englishman, the lawyer John Selby. They formed a syndicate for the purpose and it is of some consequence that three Sinhalese lawyer friends, James A. Dunuwille, James de Alwis and Harry Dias were among those who invested money in the enterprise.[vii]

It would be wrong to treat this little circle as an elitist cluster with no links with the lower strata of society and the indigenous vernacular. In 1862 they offered guidance to the Sinhalese personnel who launched the Lakminipahana, the first newspaper printed in the Sinhala language.[viii]  CA Lorenz himself was something of a folk-hero in the Colombo locality so that at least one or two working-class families christened their young boys with his name.

Set thus in their context, it is of central implication for the thesis voiced here on ecumenical nationalism that the raison d’etre of the Young Ceylon circle was a sturdy resistance to the colonial airs of superiority displayed by the dominant British ruling class. This was quite clear in the anti-colonial motifs inscribed within a pamphlet penned in 1853 by the pseudonymous “Henry Candidus” (probably Lorenz) under the title A Desultory Conversation between Two Young Aristocratic Ceylonese (Colombo, The Examiner Press).[ix] These leanings were then embodied and disseminated in the subsequent outpourings in the Examiner newspaper from 1859 onwards.[x] In a private letter Lorenz clarified the goals of this early act of Ceylonese nationalism through reportage: “we shall prove that Ceylon after all has arrived at a position when her children can speak for themselves; and that in doing so they can exercise the moderation which even English journalists have failed to observe” (letter to Richard Morgan, 14 March 1859).[xi]

Here, then, were the first Ceylonese nationalists standing tall in questioning aspects of British rule, albeit constrained from calling for the eviction of the British because of the pragmatic limits arising from the circumstances of their time. It was from within this context and from the nomenclature adopted for the island peoples that, in my conjecture, a new adjective was introduced into the Sinhala lexicon as a translation of the adjectival “Ceylonese,” namely, the term “lānkika” – denoting a person of and from Ceylon.[xii]

Charles Ambrose Lorenz and Kumar Sangakkara, therefore, straddle several centuries in standing forth as ecumenical Ceylonese/Lankan nationalists. The term “ecumenical,” of course, has a Christian ring to it and refers to forms of Christian worship that are interfaith and non-denominational. It is a word that has such synonyms as “comprehensive,” “inclusive” and “cosmopolitan.” To broaden its import for those unfamiliar with this Christianized vocabulary, let me bring in an Asian figure who sustains the same image. I refer to the Mauryan Emperor of the third century BCE, Asoka. He may be widely known to Sri Lankans as the cakravarti figure who introduced the Buddha Dhamma to Siri Laka or Heladiv. However, in my understanding, with all the limitations of one who is a not a historian of ancient times, I believe that Asoka’s religious philosophy was a tolerant one that allowed for diversity and embraced all forms of religiosity under one parasol.[xiii] He became the epitome of the Asian ecumene.

Note, however, that he moved to such a position only after the cataclysmic and gory War of Kalinga. It was a perspective born out of suffering. Since Sri Lanka has been through several horrendous wars in recent times, the story of Asoka and his new-found compassion and tolerant encompassing political philosophy is a good moral to link with the ecumenical sentiments in which Kumar Sangakkara was nurtured from his childhood.

I conclude, therefore, with an emphasis on the worth of an ecumenical Asokan nationalism for Sri Lanka as it stands today. This is the approach and the foundation required for the massive tasks of re-building and reconciliation we Sri Lankans face in the immediate future. It is not retribution, “truth” or “justice,” nor the thamil-wolf of retribution posing in the sheep’s clothing of truth & justice that is the need of the hour. It is, to repeat, the spirit and substance of an ecumenical Asokan Lankan that is the paramount requirement NOW.

[i] See http://www.lords.org/latest-news/news-archive/the-2006-cowdrey-lecture-full-text,726,NS.html and Roberts, Incursions & Excursions in and around Sri Lankan Cricket, Colombo, 2011, chap. 4.

[ii] See http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/sangakkaras-visit-st-patricks-college-jaffna/

[iii] Roebuck, “Sangakkara’s challenge to cricket,” ”http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/ 522022.html.

[iv] Extract from Cowdrey Lecture in http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/kumar-sangakkara%e2%80%99s-ecumenical-lankan-nationalism/.

[v] Message: “note this Peter.”

[vi] Fuller details can be found in Michael Roberts, Ismeth Raheem & Percy Colin-Thomé, People Inbetween. The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s, Colombo, Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services, Ratmalana, 1989. ISBN 955-599-013-1. There are several photographs that depict the leading members of this group as well as the facsimile pages of Young Ceylon.

[vii] Roberts, People Inbetween, pp. 158-59.

[viii] Roberts, People Inbetween, pp. 79-80. Lakminipahana was a fortnightly paper and the first edition appeared on 11th September 1862. Gallewas their centre of operations and the key figures were Walanē Sri Siddhārtha Thēra, Gunatilaka Atapattu Mudalitumā, Koggalē Johannes Pandithilaka, Pundit Batuwantudāwe, and Don Andris de Silva.

[ix] Roberts, People Inbetween, pp. 71-74, 79,8, 82, 155-58, 168, 172. This article is reproduced in Michael Roberts, Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited, Vol II, Colombo Marga Publications, 1998, chapter 1.

[x] This newspaper was subsequently renamed the Ceylon Examiner.

[xi] Roberts, People Inbetween, pp. 158-59.

[xii] During my researches on the ideology of the independent state of Sīhalē (the Kandyan Kingdom) in the 17th and 18th centuries I never came across the term lānkika. However, I did not read all the literature and this is an issue for Sinhala specialists of that era. The words I came across were ratun (and its variants), jātiya, dana, danun, jana, senaga and minissu – many used in the sense “people” and requiring an adjectival collective name before it. See Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s to 1815, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004, pp. 104-08.

[xiii] British readers who are unfamiliar with this major historical figure should think back to the BBC documentary produced by Peter Wood. Or they could just google “Asoka Mauraya.”

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    May I suggest that the ( neo-Nehruvian?) postwar synthesis that Sri Lanka needs, is indicated by two, not one, performances or discourses by Sri Lankans before a British audience, in the same week: those of Sangakkara’s Cowdrey lecture AND Rajiva Wijesinha’s Hard Talk appearence? Failure to integrate the latter perspective would leave a renewed Young Ceylon discourse and project open to the same critique and failure as suffered by its predecessor in 20th century Ceylon, namely outflanked by anti-colonial or anti-imperalist nationalism, albiet of a narrow sort.

    • georgethebushpig

      Rajiva Wijesinghe’s appearance on Hard Talk was like watching spit boil over as opposed to Sanga’s speech, which was a breath of fresh air!

  • Suren Raghavan

    Does Sangakkara, his speech and the euphoria that is gathering around, symbolize anything politically significant? I think it summarily projects the middle class urbanite political psychology of the Sinhalas. Their relentless seeking to deal with the abysmal non-directional political culture, a culture that the present regime constructs with utterly rural/ peasant attributions which the combined UNP and JHU (for the new urbanites) forces have betrayed without recovery.

    Sangakkara becomes a symbol and hope in a hopeless barren land of politics? Such is the civil bankruptcy of once dynamic politics of Sri Lanka. This is the apparent display of the heterogeneously collective breakdown of the emotional and normative aspect of the contemporary Sinhala citizenry and their post prapha state.

  • Ravana

    Thank you Dr.Roberts for yet another lesson in history. Whilst the likes of James DeAlwis may not have had the ear of the likes of Puran Appu, they certainly appear to have very much loved the concept of free people of “Ceylon”. It is interesting note that whilst we were brought up to believe in the “unbroken sense of a nation for over 2000 years”, in reality the Sri Lankan identity has been a constantly mutable one. In the example given here one can see evidence of “Ceylonese” beginning to form a National Identity, at the same time as the concept of the Modern Nation was taking shape in Europe. Perhaps their history did give these “Ceylonese” the opportunity to form the sense of Nation when much of the non-European polity had no such sense.
    In this context, it is also interesting to note the words of the former Norwegian FM who said that Sri Lanka is the only country in the World which represents all 4 major World religions prominently.
    Perhaps, this is because the majority of Sri Lankans at a deeper level follow the Asokan edict of cosmopolitan attitude. Buddhist tradition certainly would have helped. So would a few centuries of European colonisation.

    Thus I think it would be a mistake for Dr. Dayan Jayathileke to assert that ,
    “Failure to integrate the latter perspective would leave a renewed Young Ceylon discourse and project open to the same critique and failure as suffered by its predecessor in 20th century Ceylon, namely outflanked by anti-colonial or anti-imperalist nationalism, albiet of a narrow sort”

    I think Sangakkara of the 21st century has a much greater touch with the common Sri Lankan than the 19th century DeAlwis did (this is not to say that DeAlwis did not have a deep and abiding love for Sri Lankan culture and Sinhala in particular- it was Hon DeAlwis who translated the Siddath Sangrava, the Sinhala Grammar which had been formalised in the early part of the last millennium).

    I would assert that Sangakkara represents in a very deep sense the majority of the majority. This is a quite contrast indeed to the venality of Prof. Rajiva Wijesinghe.

    In the Hard Talk programme, Wijesinghe (quite rightly) defends the GoSL, as any diplomat should. It is unfortunate that he spoilt it by resorting to his irrepressible school-boy derision at the serious matter of the physical disruption of a meeting of Tamil politicians.

    I did observe something more interesting and subtle in his interview (available on another GV article) in which he reveals his knowledge of what happened with shelling. He vigorously defends any shelling which occurred prior to May as response against deliberate acts of the LTTE. But he demurs when it came to May.

    It is interesting mainly because of the thesis of Gordon Weiss and his book the Cage, which is beginning to show cracks at the edges.In this Gordon Weiss appears superficially as a just Western official who was shocked at his experience of the conduct of the War by GoSL. Having implied that he knows more than he can tell, he then goes on to put together a bit of history along with description of witnesses to the War. Whilst for the most part he has an accurate grasp of the nature of Sri Lankan struggles as a struggle against the brutal state, inaccuracies in his text reveals more about what he is influenced by or what his agenda is.

    An example is in relation to General Sarath Fonseka. He builds Fonseka’s image as a brute in the 1987-89 period. But he makes a cardinal mistake in indicating that SF was in command of the Gampaha Army camp at the time and that brutality emerged from this camp. It would be very easy to prove the truth or untruth of this assertion (I suspect that the latter- “untruth” is the truth). This assertion is useful mostly in the context of setting the stage for Fonseka as the architect of some brutality and War Crimes at the last stages of the War. It seems that Rajiva Wijesinghe (deliberately or unconsciously) has revealed that Fonsekas actions are defensible, but that somethings that happened in May could point to fault.

    When considering Dr. Robert’s statement “nor the thamil-wolf of retribution posing in the sheep’s clothing of truth & justice that is the need of the hour”, the unnecessary demonising of Sarath Fonseka by both the LTTE-proxies and GoSL surfaces like the proverbial spit in the wind. Both groups have chosen a common enemy to blame. An enemy who has been unequivocal in stating that he did not leave any room for any crimes or wrong doings. The childish attempts of GoSL to convict Fonseka has only served to display the subjugation of the judiciary by the executive, laying the path for International intervention (e.g. Hedging deal). Similarly, the LTTE-proxies will be defeated by their own (traditional) greed of attempting bite off more than they can chew.

    The out come will be an opening for the West (USA) to manipulate those who can be manipulated (those who are the true criminals can easily be manipulated through their venality or by discovery) without any resort to actual judicial action Internationally. LTTE will be left out on the cold again. Well done GoSL for managing to give the bait of Fonseka to the LTTE knowing the obfuscation it would cause and knowing that Fonseka had performed not only on the ground but in terms of treaties of War!

    I suspect though that the Fonseka move is yet to be made and will be devastating when made by those loyal to him.

    In the meantime I feel somewhat more at peace knowing that there are increasing numbers Snagakkarites putting their hands up to be counted. The Sri Lankan diaspora can assist by beginning the process of true reconciliation and healing. Dr. Roberts (I believe) has already played a large part in this.

  • Gehan

    When Sangakkara borrowed from Gandhi’s response to the question ‘Are you a Hindu?’, he was (perhaps unintentionally) speaking of transcending religiosity.

    So why does the author select his terminology so carelessly? He deploys a word used to describe Christian interdenominational unity (as opposed to interfaith pluralism), and then marries it with the name of the historical figure who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka. He then singles out the wolf of retribution as being ‘thamil’. I trust this selection is unintentional, as the sentiments otherwise expressed in the piece do not appear to be racially or religiously motivated. Yet the ‘idea’ of reconciliation must surely be couched in more neutral terms.

  • ordinary lankan


    i think any sign of independence must be celebrated and encouraged; even if it is a drop in the ocean.


    I am not quite sure that Rajiva Wijesinha represents our future as much as Sangakkara. No doubt his apologist ideology will die a hard death. At some point we will have to tell all the war heroes – thank you very much – and good bye.

    • Suren Raghavan

      (extra) Ordinary Lankan
      yes agreed.
      But one must go beyond the mere good will speculations. My question is: how did the Sinhala society become so politically barren that even a distant hope of a drop in the ocean generates such euphoria?

      we will not find answers with the same mind set that creates the questions? hoping cosmetic changes without a structural analysis only good, if birds can fly without wings.

      What we urgently need in my motherland is a mobilization of a bottom-up envisioning of this land and its nations in say 2048 (a century after the Suddas left us).

      Neither the venerable Sangha, present regime nor the pundits who defend it, are unable/unwilling to imagine such trajectories
      Do we have preventive mechanism/answers to the next social-political blood bath that could happen, as we have seen in every 15-20 years in this blessed land?
      Sangha may be a cuckoo that is beginning to sing. I honestly think we need a ferocious lion, hungry for social justice, to wake us from this deep sleep.

  • ordinary lankan

    Exactly Suren

    Once a breach is made others must follow and GO BEYOND.

    There is a tendency to celebrate too soon and rest on our laurels.
    Our mediocrity is made up of a 100 such partial achievements that retreated to the safety of race, religion and caste.

    It is time to stand up on our own two feet

  • sangafan

    sanga you are a true human being