Prof. Merlin Peiris: The last of the Mohicans leaves the stage

The greatest quality that would aggrandize Merlin’s name above the current mediocre scholars in Sri Lanka is his intellectual tolerance towards dissent.

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File photo of Prof Merlin Peiris at his residence [Photo: Chithranga Edirisooriya]

The demise of Prof Merlin Peiris embodies the end of an epoch representing the humanities academia in Sri Lanka as he was obviously the last of those great doyens who lived when the country’s humanities education was prospering in those halcyon days at the edge of the British rule. Prof. Merlin was one of the first students of the maiden batch of Peradeniya University when it was shifted from Colombo in 1950 and began his flair for classics even before he entered the university under the wings of Noel Phoebus at St. Peter’s College in Bambalapitya. As the old adage goes “our beginnings never know our ends”, Merlin’s childhood fancy for Greeks and Romans made his fate sealed in the realm of classics till the moment he departed from the mundane world. Indeed, he was destined to be Sri Lanka’s foremost classist in its post-colonial context with lots of challenges that loomed before him. First, a subject like classics was purely an elite one in those bygone days which was essentially confined to a particular class with Oxbridge pedigree. In particular, those who excelled in Greek and Latin in colonial Ceylon mainly used the classics as a bridge to peruse either law or join the elite Ceylon civil service. There was no gusto among the young Ceylonese graduates to read for a doctorate in classics and in one instance famous Vice Chancellor of Peradeniya Sir Ivor Jennings University scorned the idea by saying “classics PhD is impossible for a Sri Lankan as it is toughly ploughed field”. Young Merlin made famous English colonialist’s remark a fallacy by obtaining his PhD in Classics within one and half years from London University and many Sri Lankans followed his steps later.

The second challenge that Prof Merlin confronted was the uncertain winds of politics that the whole country faced by the nationalist rhetoric of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956. The influx of Swabasa to the university level simply vanquished the elite status held by classics in the humanities faculty in Peradeniya which resulted in the exodus of many finest scholars from Sri Lanka to foreign countries. Merlin took up the department of Western Classics in Peradeniya when the subject was at stake and audaciously spared it from a total eclipse. His biggest contribution to classical scholarship was the writings he left on Greek motifs in Jataka stories which remained to be an untouched zone till he unveiled it in one of his writings. In addition to that Prof Merlin was a zealous learner in Mahawamsa studies and compared Sri Lanka’s prime great chronicle with the other historical events in Greco-Roman antiquity. Comparative study of the Mahavamsa and classical Greece was a neglected field among the local historians as such an astute study requires a keen knowledge of both Sri Lankan history and Western Classics. During the colonial era, those who mastered classics showed less alacrity in examining the country’s historical relations with the Western civilization and those who gained their training in Sri Lankan history at the University of Ceylon possessed no sufficient knowledge of Greco-Roman studies. Under these circumstances, Merlin’s interest in connecting western classics to Sri Lanka’s ancient history was sui genris. The dozens of articles that he authored in the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka unfold how this island was known to Greeks and Romans in the days of yore. Indeed, it was Prof. Merlin who inspired later-generation classists like D.P.M Weerakoody to inquire further into Sri Lanka’s historical connection with Greece and Rome. Yet his biggest forte was rooted in Greek philosophy, which was the field he mastered for his PhD at London University. The long conversation that I used to have with Prof. Merlin at his villa in Dangolla were often filled with lengthy arguments on the Grecian notion of rebirth. 

The greatest quality that would aggrandize Merlin’s name above the current mediocre scholars in Sri Lanka is his intellectual tolerance towards dissent. As a humane scholar, he was always patient in listening to the other person’s opinion. I recall how I approached him during my student days at Royal College as the only Sinhala medium student who sat for Greek and Roman Civilization for GCE Advanced Level and he walked the extra mile by providing me with study materials written in Sinhala. Even though I shifted away from studying classics at the university, my association with Prof Merlin remained unchanged till his demise. 

Vale Magnum Magister!

Punsara Amarasinghe

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe is a post-doctorial researcher attached to Institute of Law, Politics and Development in Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa. He held visiting fellowships at Sciences PO, Wisconsin Madison and HSE, Moscow. 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 September

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