Forgotten Bohemian of Sri Lanka : C. Jinarajadasa

The real decorated life of Jinarajadasa began after he reached Europe as an academic of Theosophical Society. 


by Punsara Amarasinghe

( February 8, 2018, Moscow, Sri Lanka Guardian) Ananda College Colombo stands as a bastion of Sinhala Buddhist educational legacy and its roots have descended from a long standing battle in the colonial past of the island. Its products have held the helm from military to the cricket in this nation and it may not be regarded as an exaggeration to state Ananda is known as a brand for preserving Sinhalese Buddhist identity in the country. However it is rather surprising factor to reveal the same school which has been legendary for its intrinsic Sinhalese Buddhist ideology produced a very peculiar character as one of its very first students when the school was established in 1886 and the same student later became one of its Vice Principals. Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa was indeed a man for all seasons. The main reason his name becomes sui generis is the way he went beyond the conventional education that he was brought up and went on to become an internationalist through his works on theosophy. He can be regarded as one of first Ceylonese’s who traveled around the world to become a prominent academic in an era where people of brown skin were disdained. His legacy is still prevalent among the theosophists abroad as an internationalist though his memory is been forgotten in Sri Lanka including his own school where he spent his boyhood.

Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa was born to a Sinhalese family in Panadura in the late 19th century. Buddhist religious revival movement was looming in Ceylon at that time as a result of Panadaura debate which took place just two years before Jinarajadasa’s birth in 1875 and the wave of Panadura debate finally reached the West which brought Henry Steel Olcott , Helena Blavatsky and many more theosophists to the island in search of Wisdom of the East. Though the real motives of Olcott and Blavatsky have been subjected to much criticism today, the pivotal factor which we cannot forget is the hallmark legacy left by them in organizing a local Buddhist education in English medium as a resistance to Colonial education which was in the climax of 19th century Ceylon. Jinarajadas’s association with theosophy was begun at the age of 13 when C W Leadbeater was in Ananda College. Leadbeater was another Orient loving Englishman who came to Ceylon after renouncing his own faith of Anglicanism as a result of his grown interest in occultism and theosophy. In Ceylon he was given the first principal post of Ananda College then known as English Buddhist School in Pettah founded by Buddhist Theosophical Society.

Jinarajadasa was sooner attached to the teachings of theosophy when he was at Ananda as it one of first students during Leadbiters period and after completing few years in Ceylon Leadbeater accompanied Jinarajadasa to England where Leadbeater was given a task to teach a son of an English aristocrat. Tutoring at home was a frequent custom among the English elite class in Victorian England and somehow Leadbeater was witty enough to twixt the arm of his patron to grant a chance for Jonarajadasa to study with his son. The diary of Henry Steal Oclott indicates Leadbeater firmly believed that he would meet the brother of his previous birth in Ceylon and he believed it was Jinarajadasa who happened be his own brother in previous life. This perception led for the good fortune of Jinarajadasa in England. He excelled in his studies in Oriental language at St. Jones’ College, Cambridge and coxed for prestigious Cambridge Rowing crew. He may be one of first few Asians who involved in a sport that was exclusively reserved for British elite in 19th century. As a matter of fact Leadbeater provided every opportunity to him to gain the advantage of occidental education and after completing his Bachelors in Cambridge Jinarajadasa went on to read his postgraduate studies in European literature at Pavia University. In London he met Madam Blavatsky and became a member of International Theosophical Society. In 1901 Jinarajadasa came back to Ceylon to serve as the vice principal of his own school Ananda College,but within a year he went back to Europe.

Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa

The real decorated life of Jinarajadasa began after he reached Europe as an academic of Theosophical Society. Theosophy was widely becoming popular among the radicalized youth in the West in the first decade of 20th Century, which provided a larger space to Jinarajadasa to continue his lectures in the West. Moreover his fluency on various European languages gave more access to him in spreading theosophy. His charisma was notice by Anni Beasent the prmoenant English social activist in British India whose contribution was pivotal to establish Indian National Congress and Bessent urged young Jinrajadasa to join the administrative tasks of Theosophical society. In fact many in Sri Lanka including the alumni of schools established by Theosophical society assume theosophy is directly related to the teaching of Buddha and Olcott, Madam Blavatsky were presumably to be devoted Buddhists. In truth they never embraced Buddhism as the ultimate faith and Buddhist teachings were adhered only as fragments to the practice of Theosophy. Blavatsky’s idea of theosophy was essentially confined to seeking the ultimate truth of every religion. The influence of Theosophy was a predominant factor in Jinarajadasa’s career as a lecturer in theosophy in the West, moreover his liberal attitude acquired from studying at Cambridge and the admonition of his teacher Leadbeater helped him to sustain himself in the Western world. This factor was proven when he was married to an English woman called Dorothy Graham and decided to spend the rest of his life abroad as a full time Theosophy master.


The unsolved mystery about this character is why Jinarajadasa was completely detached from Ceylon and no evidence can be found in his writings written during his stay in India, that felt nostalgic of staying away from the island he was born.


Jinaarajadasa was fascinated with the notion of Mysticism in world religions which he saw as a cardinal factor to understand wisdom. In his travels to South America and United States he frequently emphasized on the universal of love and man as an expression of divinity. It is an ironic incident that though Buddhists vehemently decline the concept of creator God, theosophist did not find it contradictory with their faith. Jinarajadasa’s writings on Universality of every religion did fit the audience in the West though it was a complete misfit in his own county. His predilection on the modernity inspired him to introduce American Baseball in India during his tenure of the President of Theosophical Association in Adiyar India. Being a fan of American Baseball he took a keen interest in spreading it among the Indian youth in Adyar. However Jinarajadasa could not endure the Indian summers, which deteriorated his health day by day and finally he and his wife left for USA without contesting for the second term of Theosophical Society. In the USA Jinarajadasa was supposed to deliver a serious of lectures on theosophy but on the 18th of June he passed away in the American lodge of Theosophy society in Illinois. A memorial service was held in the library, and all of his ashes were scattered on the Fox River by his long standing friend and fellow theosophist Mr. James S. Perkins.

The unsolved mystery about this character is why Jinarajadasa was completely detached from Ceylon and no evidence can be found in his writings written during his stay in India, that felt nostalgic of staying away from the island he was born. In an interview given by him to American Theosophist magazine in 1928, Jinarajadasa admitted only three personalities have profoundly influenced him in shaping his intellect and they were German composer Richard Wagner , Plato, Dante and 19th century great English literary critic John Ruskin. In the recently published Sinhala book by Narada Karunathilake, author has tried to prove how Olcott and Blavatsky wanted to create a separate ideology while pretending as the guardians of Sinhalese Buddhism from colonial oppression. The book has further critiqued the upbringings of Jinarajadasa in his childhood which eventually led to be an internationalist despite having studied in a school formed for the cause of Sinhalese Buddhist identity in the colonial past. Deconstructing the character of Jinarajadasa is a difficult task for modern day historians. Nevertheless his aura as an international scholar went beyond the island he was born and perhaps Jinarajadasa can be regarded as second widely claimed Ceylonese scholar in the West after Ananda Coomaraswamy in the colonial past.

Few years before he passed away he wrote his own epitaph and which was a clear illustration of the mortal life he spent.
He loved children, the sea,
Beethoven, Wagner’s Ring, the
Hallelujah Chorus, and his
Gospel was Ruskin.


( Punsara Amarasinghe is a Doctoral Candidate in International Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia)

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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