Dr Nalin de Silva: An examined life (1944-2024)

The plethora of thoughts, that made an intellectual stimulation in late 20th century Sri Lanka through extensive writings reflect just one-quarter of his wisdom.

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Prof Nalin De Silva [File Photo]

The demise of Dr. Nalin de Silva marks a conspicuous end of one of the predominant ideological fronts in Sri Lanka. In Julius Cesar, Shakespeare states “Evil that men do is remembered after their deaths, but the good is often buried with them” It is well applicable to the life of Nalin de Silva as his death seems to have created a platform for his ideological critics to lambast his role in the post-colonial Sri Lanka. Some have sarcastically referred to his final destination in the US as an example of his duality and for some Nalin de Silva was nothing more than a stooge to the Rajapaksa family. All those quibbles filled with venom have not been able to fathom the ethos, that Nalin de Silva devoted his whole life to preserve. On the contrary, they just reflect the intellectual vacuum in Sri Lankan society where redundant factors galvanize the wrath of the nonentities. 

Two Significant Contributions

Posthumous admiration of Nalin de Silva should be based on two prime factors regardless of the greyness of his character. First and foremost, Nalin was one of the few Sri Lankans in the post-colonial history of the island to pursue an ontological voyage and his quest for truth was a genuine one until his demise. When his admirers began to call him the only authentic Sri Lankan philosopher, he vehemently denied such an encomium as he believed he would never be able to grasp the epistemology constructed by the West.

Even after completing his DPhil from Sussex University for a thesis he authored on theoretical astrophysics within less than a year, Silva was hesitant in calling himself to be a scientist. Throughout his life, he adhered to his famous aphorism “Greek-Jewish Christian thought” in describing the system of knowledge created by the West and he believed that the system of knowledge emanated from the West is akin to the cultural values of the society. The monism initiated by the Jews in antiquity and the yearnings of the Greeks for individualism carved the whole knowledge apparatus of the West until this day in which a non-Westerner is unlikely to become one of them. As a matter of fact, this is an audacious claim made by Nalin de Silva and he further asked “Has there a been a single scientist produced by Sri Lanka throughout its history?  

Mage Lokaya

From his intellectual contributions, Mage Lokaya remains his magnum opus with its revelation of his own narrative on epistemology. In Mage Lokaya, Nalin de Silva tried to explain dogma prevailed in the West through Aristotle’s two-fold logic, which insisted on the independence of the observer from the observation. On the whole, Nalin de Silva denied the rigidity of the Cartesian Wall upheld by the classical scientists and his explanation unveils how newly emerged sciences in the late 19th century was influenced by the Eastern mysticism. The reception of this book in Sri Lanka was appalling as many critics simply took it for granted and former X group activists like Vangeesa Sumansekera tried to make parallels between Nalin de Silva and Bishop Berkley claiming Nalin had relied on Berkley’s idea of knowledge. 

In the advent of independence, Sir Ivor Jennings made a condescending remark about Sri Lanka as a cultural desert. In Jennings’s view, this country became blessed by the academic and cultural establishments of the British. Indeed, the generation who was baptized from these establishments continued to reign in the highest echelons of powers in post-independent Sri Lanka. Nalin de Silva spent his intellectual efforts stripping off the poverty of this generation. He was among one of the few old boys from Royal College, Colombo who went on to openly criticize the colonial history and the ethos of Royal as nothing more than a simple emulation of the British public school system. Yet in his writings, he had a soft spot for the liberal education he enjoyed there. 

Thoughts on Sinhala Buddhist nationalism

Besides his intellectual pursuits, the second reason that history would remember Nalin de Silva is rooted in his commitment to conceive the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology in the late 20th century. In the turbulent 80 when Sinhalese nationalism was at bay, Nalin de Silva along with Gunadasa Amarasekara, and Sooriya Gunasekera boosted it by generating “ Jathika Chintanaya”, the Chintanaya later became a panacea for many to get into the power, but its theoretical creation was essentially attributed to Dr Nalin de Silva. Although he was not in favour of maintaining a set of acolytes, his inspiration became much stronger in universities like Moratuwa and Colombo in the 90’s. His spirit was eager when he was expelled from the University of Colombo due to reasons which were only known to Prof. G.L Peiris and even after his expulsion from university teaching Nalin continued his flamboyant career as a public intellectual by addressing the issues from LTTE terrorism to the university education in Sri Lanka. The set of nationalists or its imposters would have never succeeded if Nalin de Silva fortified its theoretical structure against and his notion of “Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism” had its antecedents to Anuradhapura civilization as Nalin de Silva always had a nostalgia to it.

When I published an article for a foreign think tank after the presidential election in 2019, I mentioned how Nalin de Silva’s persistent emphasis on Anuradhapura as somewhat similar to Sinhalese Jerusalem may have inspired Gotabaya Rajapaksa to choose Ruwanwelisaya as the place for his inaugural ceremony. Although Nalin was often labelled as a Sinhalese racist, his conception of nationalism remained broader in its outlook. For instance, in his writings, he frequently stated how Nayakar kings adopted the local customs by becoming the patrons of Buddhism, which he described as a gesture of indigenization. 

The plethora of thoughts, that made an intellectual stimulation in late 20th century Sri Lanka through extensive writings reflect just one-quarter of his wisdom. It is not a mere hyperbole to state that he would have been elevated to the status of a much-respected philosopher if Nalin had been born in a foreign land. Yet Nalin de Silva would not like it as his whole intellectual pursuits epitomized his genuine passion for Lanka even though most of its citizens hated him.    

Punsara Amarasinghe

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. His co-edited book “Thirty Years Looking Back: The Rule of Law, Human Rights and State Building in the Post-Soviet Space was published in 2022 .

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