I wish to write this message with profound grief and deep sympathies on account of the passing away of a great teacher, academic and a scholar in Pali, who contributed much towards many areas of Pali education. For me it is a great loss of a great teacher under whose guidance I have been continuously privileged to learn from since I first met her as a student.
Lily Vithanage, the eldest in a family of seven children, born on July16, 1928 at Narahenpita, close to Colombo, was brought up by her parents in the best of Sinhala Buddhist tradition, probably a mixture of the spirit of both Southern and Up-country Sinhala Buddhist culture.
Her father hailed from Matara, a town in the ancient Rohana Principality, home of many an ancient Sinhala national hero, while her mother was a native of Keppitipola, which recalls to mind, the great Sinhala national hero of the same name, who gave his head in an attempts to gain freedom from the British rule.
This mixture of Southern and Up-country Sinhala Buddhist culture, imbibed by her from childhood, may have laid the foundation for Lily Vithanage’s love and devotion for Buddhism and her great desire to master Buddha Dharma, and also her Sinhala patriotism.
We are reminded here that she, in the recent past, served as a member of the so-called Sinhala Commission, set up by a group of voluntary organisations to look into the grievances of the Sinhala people.
The first phase of Lily Vithanage’s education started at the age of five at the Sri Lankadhara Buddhist girl’s school at Wellawatta. Probably in the pre-World War II period her parents had not realised the importance of the English education for their children.
Or maybe, they were still under the influence of the spirit of the Sinhala Buddhist resurgent movement under such leaders as Anagarika Dharmapala.
They allowed their eldest to continue her education at the same school, in the Sinhala medium, for eleven years until she got through her Senior School Certificate examination in 1944. At this examination Lily came first in the whole Island and won the Musaeus Higgins Prize. This first taste of success at a public examination must have opened her eyes to vistas of higher education and kindled her desire for far greater success in the academic field.
Probably her parents too who saw the capabilities of their eldest child, had by now realised the importance of an English education for their children if they were to go for higher education. There was no opportunity at the time for Swabhasha trained students to go beyond the Senior School Certificate level. All examinations in higher studies were during that period conducted by the British Universities and certainly in the English medium.
Lily’s parents now started to look for an English medium school for their bright child. But none except one was ready to admit her, as this was the middle of the academic year. Lily, however, was so eager to start her English medium education, that she did not want to waste half an year at home. She immediately took the only available option and got herself admitted to St. John’s Girls’ School, Nugegoda (Present Samudradevi Balika Vidyalaya).
Showing her sisterly love at this early stage she took her younger sister along with her to the same school. There, Lily studied for four extra years preparing to re-sit the S.S.C. examination in the English medium. But the very far reaching decision she along with her sister had taken at their new school demonstrates her strength of determination that may have altered her course of life.
The two sisters resolved that they would speak only in English to each other so that they could master not only the reading and writing skills but also the conversational skills in English. This was not for any lack of patriotic feeling for their mother tongue. They were successful in their effort. No one who met her at Peradeniya in later life would have ever guessed that Prof. Lily de Silva had started to study in the English medium so late in life.
At St. John’s Girls’ school, after four years of study in the English medium, she successfully re-sat the Senior School Certificate Examination offering English and Latin as two of her subjects.
But neither Pali nor Buddhism, which were to become her favourite subjects later, still had a place in her curriculum of study. In 1948 she once again changed her school, turning her attention to higher studies, and prepared to sit the London Intermediate in Arts. At this new school, Harvard College at Kollupitiya, she also turned her attention to Pali as a subject which she offered at the examination. But to master the new subject she had to turn to a private tutor. The task fell on one Mr. Berugoda who coached her in both Pali and Sanskrit. She recalls with great love and devotion the service of this “Berugoda Sir” as she calls him. In fact, he wrote the Pali grammar named “Pali-subodhini” to teach her the language, and later based on this, she has written a book as Pali Primer for the use of students who wish to learn Pali. This was published by the Vipassana Research Institute, at Dhammagiri, Igatpuri in India. The same Institute has also published the Key to the Pali Primer written by her.
Yet, the inspiration to study the Pali language and studying it for entering the University of Ceylon came from another source. It was the voice and the ideas of the late Professor G. P. Malalasekara, later who was to become her teacher at the University, through his talks for the Radio Brain trust, (Buddhi Mandala) on Radio Ceylon, which inspired her to learn Pali.
She was successful and was admitted to the University of Ceylon, Colombo, in July 1951.
However, the very next year, she, along with all the Arts Faculty students, was transferred to the new campus at Peradeniya, thus becoming one of the first batches of Arts students at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya.
After completing her first year at the University with the three Oriental languages, Sanskrit, Pali and Sinhala, she opted for a Special Degree course in Pali, which she completed obtaining First Class Honours in 1955.
Almost immediately afterwards Lily Vithanage was appointed a temporary Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Pali and Buddhist Civilization, which post she held until 1956.
During this period Lily Vithanage decided to change her civil status. For, in September 1955, she entered into happy wedlock with Mr. P.H. Dayananda de Silva, himself a pious Buddhist and a perfect gentleman, her own chosen partner for life.
From 1957 to 1958 Lily was temporarily out of the University when she worked as an assistant teacher at St. Anthony’s Convent, Mutwal.
However, once again in February 1959, she was appointed to the permanent academic staff of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, as a probationary Assistant Lecturer, in the Department of Pali and Buddhist Civilization.
With the promotions she held this post until she reached retirement age as Senior Professor in 1993. She got her Master’s Degree in 1961 and the PhD in 1967, both from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya.
Apart from her academic activities in the University, one interesting event in her life was the surprising decision she took to get onto the political stage of the United National Party at the 1977 General Election.
This was occasioned by the afore-mentioned wrong move of the then government to abolish the faculty of Oriental Studies in the University of Peradeniya and remove Pali and Buddhist Civilization from the curriculum of the University.
She was greatly incensed by this act of the government. Having exhausted all avenues to make the government leaders to realise this faulty move, Lily de Silva, along with her colleagues in the Department met the Leader of the Opposition who invited them to join him to rectify matters. Accepting this invitation she decided to get on to the election platform to explain her grievances to the public. This was the first and the last time she took part in direct political activity.
The step she took at this election showed nothing but her determination of righting a wrong done to her beloved studies and she was successful in her efforts. The new government allowed the formation of a new Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies in the University of Peradeniya and restoring the teaching of the two subjects so lovingly nurtured by such great scholars as Professor Malalasekara. Accordingly, the highest credit and appreciation should go to Prof. Lily de Silva for the re-establishment of the present Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies in the University of Peradeniya. Prof. de Silva is not only a scholar and researcher into many facets of the Buddha Dhamma and Buddhist Culture but also a practising Buddhist. Dr. Lily de Silva was a teacher par excellence. With her remarkable achievements as a great academic she was able to produce thousands of local and international scholars and Buddhist monks with international repute.
She was a great mother of two sons and two daughters, who are following the footsteps of her mother.
I have no doubt that it will take a long time to fill the void left by a great woman scholar in the calibre of Dr. Lily de Silva.
I express my deepest sympathies at this moment of grief on the occasion of her funeral which takes place on Saturday the November 7, 2015.