Reproducing historic article by Dr E W Adikaram

At a time when few practise what they preach, Lankan scholar, writer and social activist Dr E W (Edward Winifred) Adikaram (1905-1985) was an illustrious exception.

As a public intellectual, he had the courage of his convictions to speak out on matters of public interest — even when such views challenged widely held dogmas or went against populist trends. As a sceptical inquirer as well as a spiritualist, he always ‘walked his talk’. He never hesitated to take the often lonely (and sometimes bumpy) high road.

Adikaram’s worldview was shaped by both science and the humanities. He initially offered science and mathematics at Colombo University College but later switched to Pali and Sanskrit. Having won a government scholarship, he went to England where he obtained his MA and Ph D from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His 1933 PhD thesis titled “Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon” (published in 1946) is still considered an extraordinary body of historical research.

Young Adikaram was a contemporary — and personal friend — of leading Ceylonese leftists like Dr N M Perera, Dr Colvin R de Silva and Leslie Gunawardana. While he shared their broad ideals of self rule and equality among humans, he did not join socialist movements as he disapproved of using any kind of force — even for the greater good. Instead, he preferred the (Gandhian) non-violent approach to political and economic independence, and chose a career in education upon return to Ceylon.

He became a teacher — and soon, the principal – at Ananda Shastralaya, Kotte, managed at the time by the non-governmental organisation Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS). Within a short period, he founded several schools including Anula Vidyalaya, Nugegoda; Ananda Sastralaya, Matugama; and Vidyakara Vidyalaya, Maharagama. He also emerged as a prominent champion of non violence, promoter of vegetarianism and a campaigner against alcohol and tobacco.

In the mid 1940s, a chance reading of a book by Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti transformed Adikaram’s life. Krishnamurti was proclaiming a message of inward liberation by understanding the ways of one’s own mind. He rejected the rituals and paraphernalia of organised religion, and saw nationalism as a ‘fatally divisive force’.


As Adikaram’s close associate Prof. Mahinda Palihawadana has written, “To Dr Adikaram, all this seemed to be very much in line with the teachings of the Buddha that one encountered in some of the oldest Buddhist texts, like parts of the Sutta Nipata. He began to turn away from the trappings of organised religion, and in this, he felt he was getting nearer to the Buddha rather than turning away from him.”

Palihawadana adds: “Adikaram resigned from his post in 1945, at age 40 and at the height of his popularity as a dynamic leader and a man of unimpeachable moral stature. The next 40 years of his life constitutes the story of a vastly changed individual.”

Adikaram embarked on a long ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ of India where he developed a lasting friendship with Krishnamurti, whom he first met in 1947. In the years that followed, he founded the Krishnamurti Centre of Sri Lanka, Taruna Sitivili Samajaya or Young Thinkers’ Forum and the Sri Lanka Vegetarian Society – all part of his mission to make Sri Lanka a more thinking and caring society.

A versatile communicator in Sinhala and English, Adikaram conducted regular radio programmes, delivered thousands of talks across the island, and wrote dozens of pamphlets and booklets on practical as well as spiritual topics – all delivered in simple and lucid language. As a pioneering science writer in Sinhala, he edited and published popular science magazines. In all this, his hallmark was the spirit of inquiry and courteous engagement.

Among his most memorable pieces was an essay titled “Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?” Its original Sinhala version was published in the Sunday newspaper Silumina in 1958. As he recalled many years later, “It was a strange coincidence that this article first appeared in print just a couple of days before the outbreak of the sad conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in 1958.”

The article was re-printed many times and distributed widely. Adikaram translated it into English some years later. In a version dated 15 December 1983 (barely six months after the anti-Tamil pogrom of Black July), he noted: “The article has had a mixed reception. Some received it with much appreciation and understanding, while some others showed deep resentment. I am glad to note that the article is now receiving increasingly better attention and appreciation.”

The 1983 English version is reproduced below without any revision, to make it more easily accessible online and, hopefully, to inspire deeper reflection on issues of nationalism, ethnicity and cultural identity. [A scan of the original leaflet has been shared online by Ravi Palihawadana and can be accessed here.]

Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?

By Dr E W Adikaram

Are you a Sinhalese? If you are a Sinhalese, how do you know that? I have asked this question from many who call themselves Sinhalese. I have so far never received a satisfactory reply from any of them.

I have also asked those who say that they are Tamils, Telegus, etc., as to how they know that they are Tamils, Telegus and so on. From them too, I have never received a satisfactory reply.

When this question is asked, some get annoyed. Some ask back why I should ask this question when the reply is so obvious, some consider that the question is asked merely for fun. Still others reply that they have never given thought to this question. Anyway a satisfactory, a logical and an acceptable reply does not come forth from any of them.

“I am a Sinhalese because my parents are Sinhalese.” This is the argument of many. This surely is not a reply but only shifting the question a little further, as the next immediate question would then be “How do you know that your parents are Sinhalese?” This shifting can go on further and further, but the question will not thereby be solved.

“A person is Sinhalese because he speaks the Sinhalese language.” This is another argument that is usually adduced. But there are people of other nationalities who speak only Sinhalese because they happen to be brought up from early childhood in homes where only Sinhalese is spoken. Simply because they speak the Sinhalese language they do not thereby become Sinhalese. And also there are Sinhalese people who speak a language other than Sinhalese because they were brought up in non-Sinhalese homes. They are not considered non-Sinhalese simply because they cannot speak Sinhalese. It is therefore clear that one is not a Sinhalese just because he speaks Sinhalese. Similarly a person does not become an Englishman simply because he speaks English.

If so, how can one conclusively know that a person is Sinhalese, Tamil, English, German or Japanese? There is no reply that could be given to this question. A right reply can be given only to a right question. A right reply cannot be given to this question because the question is wrong. When in truth there is no such thing as a nationality, how is it possible to give a right reply when one is asked to which nationality a person belongs?

If you have an infant child, please examine its entire body as carefully as possible. Is there any special part of its body or mark which differentiates it as a Sinhalese child? However much you may search you will never find such a distinguishing characteristic. There are people different in colour of skin such as black, brown, white, yellow etc. That is due to the fact that their ancestors lived for thousands of years in places differing from each other in climatic and geographical conditions. But that colour does not give an indication as to what nationality a person belongs. As that child who is common to the entire human race grows up he will be given a name and will be deemed to belong to a particular race or nationality. That child who at the time is incapable of logical thinking, who cannot discern fact from non-fact and who hasn’t the ability to compare and contrast, accepts unthinkingly and unknowingly the nationality that has been thrust upon him. Having accepted it he gradually comes to believe that he belongs to that particular nationality. Please think over the fact that you become a Sinhalese not because you had some thing naturally Sinhalese but because of the belief created and imposed on you by the environment and society including your parents.

Species of birds differ by birth from one another. Between the eagle and the dove, between the quail and the peacock there is a natural difference. Is there such a difference between the Sinhalese and the Tamil, between the Englishman and the German?

So are the other animals. They have species differing from one another. There are natural characteristics that differentiate the tiger from the bear and the horse from the bull. Is there such a difference between the Japanese and the Jew or between the Chinaman and the Eskimo?

Unlike birds and animals, all human beings in the world belong to one species only, the human species. In truth there is only one human race: what goes as Sinhalese, Tamil, English and a thousand other nationalities are only designations born out of belief and having no intrinsic significance whatsoever.

If one sees things that do not exist and believes that they do exist, such a person we call a mental patient. On one occasion when I went to the mental hospital at Angoda to visit a friend who was a patient there, a person calling himself His Majesty Diyasena the King of the Sinhalese spoke to me and got into conversation with me. Not only did he firmly believe that he was King Diyasena but in his behaviour he even showed an affected regal demeanour. If any one told him that he was not Diyasena, he would naturally consider that person a lunatic.

If we consider as insane a person who calls himself a non-existent King Diyasena, how can we consider as sane those people who call themselves Sinhalese, Tamils, English when in truth there is no such thing as a Sinhalese nation, a Tamil nation or an English nation.

There is only one human race. We are human beings and not Sinhalese, Tamil or English. Biologically this is so. But those who are fettered with the belief that there is racial difference are incapable of seeing this fact.

As the idea of nation has come into being by assuming as existent something which does not exist, nationalism has to be necessary considered a form of insanity. Not only here but in the whole world the vast majority of people are tethered with that belief, with that delusion.

The main cause for all the wars that took place in the world in the past was this psychological aliment, namely nationalism.

Even in the modern world which, due to advancement in Science, has all the opportunities for comfortable living, man has to suffer because of this disease of nationalism and its inevitable political tentacles.

In big countries those who suffer from this madness contrive to bring about murder on a big scale with nuclear weapons etc. In small countries like Sri Lanka they kill human beings on a smaller scale and they hurt people’s feelings with various ridiculous mad activities such as the defacing of name boards written in languages other than their own.

Mankind today is living in a most critical stage. Many do not understand how dangerous the present situation is. We should understand that the forces that work in the world today are different from those that existed in the past. Even a slight mistake can make the entire human species disappear from the face of the earth. We can avoid that catastrophe and survive this critical period only if we act sanely with the feeling that this is our world and not by murdering each other saying that this is our nation and our country.

Shouldn’t we therefore be free of this insanity of nationalism and thereby cease to be enemies of mankind?

Nationalism is not the road to peace.

Truth alone will bring us peace and freedom.