This appeared in a Festschrift for Prof G P V Somaratne, A Cultured Faith, published by CTS Publishing, 2011
A Portrait of a Scholar Mentor
I have known Professor G. P. V. Somaratna (“Prof”) as a friend and colleague since he joined Colombo Theological Seminary in 1997. I did not, however, know enough details about him as a teacher to write this chapter. So I thought I will pry out some information from Prof and his wife Devapriya without giving away the secret about this festschrift. I told them I wanted to write an article about him. They were adamant in their insistence that no such article should be written. I tried to use every method of persuasion possible, including the argument that it would be hypocritical of him to write biographies of others without letting someone write a biography about him. He was unbending, arguing that that others were worthy of such attention, but not himself.
So I decided to talk to several of his students. I was surprised to find that there was remarkable consistency in the assessment of the students about Prof’s strengths and weaknesses. I realised that this article could help people by placing before them the character of one who had the strengths and weaknesses of a severely focussed academic and researcher, and how such a person could have a huge positive impact upon others. The study of church history, Prof’s field of expertise, demonstrates that the Church was taken forward by people with great strengths and obvious weaknesses which demonstrated the power of grace in using very human agents to do very divine tasks. Prof is an outstanding example of this dynamic.
Gintota Parana Vidanage Somaratna was born on April 6th 1941 to a Buddhist home in Dewundara at the southern tip of Sri Lanka. His initial education was at the local Methodist Mixed School. He pursued undergraduate studies at the University of Peradeniya where he met his wife Devapriya. During his youth he surrendered to the claims of Jesus Christ. He pursued postgraduate studies in South Asian History at the University of London. There he wrote the authoritative doctoral thesis on The Political History of the Kingdom of Kotte (c. 1400-1521), and was awarded his Ph.D in 1969. After this, he joined the University of Colombo, where he served for thirty-eight years. He rose to be Head of the Department of History and Political Science, Professor of Modern History and Chief Student Counsellor. During sabbaticals and after leaving the university, he pursued theological studies at Trinity Theological College in Singapore (Diploma in Theology), at Lee University in Cleveland, Ohio (MA in Theology) and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California (MA in Intercultural Studies). He has also spent time at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he was a Visiting Professor at the Truman Institute. He has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Demography from the University of Colombo. His enormous literary output is evidenced in the Bibliography found in this volume.
Prof often speaks of the influence upon his life of the British Methodist missionary W. J. T. Small, who was Principal of Richmond College in the southern Sri Lankan town of Galle. We hope that someday Prof will write a biography of this scholar saint. After a full life in the university, he joined Colombo Theological Seminary (CTS). CTS gave him the designation Research Professor, so that he could optimise the unique contribution he was making to the Church in Sri Lanka through his writings. I believe that his career reached its zenith at CTS. The affirming and deeply appreciative community there helped him to focus on the things he loved to do, and provided the context for his amazing, almost super-human, productivity in recent years. He blended in happily with and thrived in the seminary community. I have been impressed by the respect and esteem with which he speaks of its Principal, Ivor Poobalan, who is young enough to be his son.
Prof is the happy father of a son Dasharatha, who is a US military chaplain, and a daughter Devi. He is the doting grandfather of eight grandchildren.
The immediate impression one gets when one sees the prolific literary contribution of Professor Somaratna is that here is an example of a diligent, hardworking scholar. Many of us prayed earnestly that he would be able to complete his ambitious magnum opus, the seven-volume Sinhala Bible Encyclopaedia (2001-2010). Those who observed him closely felt that he was driven by a sense that he did not have enough time to complete the work before his days were over. We are truly grateful that he not only finished well in time, but has soon begun work on several new projects!
It is well known that Prof uses every spare moment to work on his research projects. He usually has an early dinner and is in bed by 8 p.m. He is usually up by 3.00 a.m. and gets to work. If by some chance he is woken up in the middle of the night and is unable to get back to sleep, he would go back to his desk and work until he felt sleepy again. A former student at the University, Saumya Wickremasekera, who had been his tenant in the annexe attached to his home, felt that one reason for his not owning a vehicle was that he did not want to spend time repairing and washing the vehicle! He chose instead to travel in three-wheel taxis. Once he even went as far as Galle, about 115 kilometres away, in a three-wheeler.
Prof is always on time for meetings and is very conscious of the fact that he is missing precious study time as a result of having to sit through them. This makes him impatient with the common practice of meetings starting at “Sri Lankan time.” He usually does not fail to express his displeasure over this tardiness. This sense of focus makes him reluctant to go for gatherings like wedding receptions, which he sees as a waste of precious time, keeping him from his work.
Of course, he has other interests also. For example, he enjoys spending time working on his garden at home, tending, planting and replanting trees. I was surprised when one computer-savvy student called him a “techie,” saying that, unlike many other academics of his generation, Prof is unusually advanced in his knowledge and use of computer software resources. Another skill that I have personally benefited from is his well-known habit of making a good cup of tea. Here, as in many other areas, he is a true Sri Lankan patriot!
Prof is a quiet person who does not like to be in the public view, but his student friends know him as a man with a bright sense of humour. Of course, even here he is a teacher. One student spoke of his intellectual teasing which always taught them some lesson.
Passion for the Church in Sri Lanka
One of the immediate factors driving Prof’s writing and teaching is the desire to be a servant of the Church in Sri Lanka. This is primarily achieved through the many books he writes, especially in the Sinhala language. Among the things that cause him great concern, even anger, is the lack of emphasis on Christ-like character among the younger churches and the apathy among their leaders in equipping believers with the solid knowledge of the Scriptures. He has resolved to influence the Church in those areas through his teaching and writing.
He is very sensitive to irreverent and disrespectful styles of worship, and of popular forms of addressing God or Jesus. His students report that he himself speaks about Jesus with deep respect and affection and that he constantly urges them to emulate Jesus’ life in all they do. This is in keeping with another concern: the lack of emphasis on holiness and godly living to balance the heavy emphasis on charismatic empowerment in the Church in Sri Lanka. He often speaks of the need for the contemporary Christians to be schooled in the Ten Commandments and has urged me to publish a book on the Ten Commandments in Sinhala—something I hope to do shortly. Seeing great dangers in the irresponsible behaviour, teachings and practices of certain Christian leaders, he often urges me to point out, in my teaching and preaching, the danger of these practices and present biblically sound alternatives.
He bemoans the shortage of intellectually engaged Christian pastors and workers in Sri Lanka, who need to be equally well-acquainted with both the Scriptures and the world they live in. He constantly urges students to achieve heights of excellence in all they do. This makes him somewhat impatient with students who do not seem to show an interest in high quality academic work, and he is not reluctant to express his displeasure!
Another concern is the lack of an indigenous flavour in the practice of Christianity in Sri Lanka. In addition to the reference works on biblical and theological subjects that he has produced he also wrote monographs on conversion and worship, and several biographical and history books and articles, which have given Christians a sense of their Sri Lankan Christian heritage. His concern that Christians use the right terminology has resulted in an English-Sinhala glossary of theological terms. The dire consequences of submitting papers to Prof written in incorrect Sinhala are well known. Though some are initially taken aback by the lash of his reprimands, they soon realise that these words come out of a passion for the intellectual development of the students and the welfare of the Church in Sri Lanka. He really wants them to be worthy and respected ministers of the gospel. This concern for high quality Sinhala Christian literature found good expression in his active involvement in the production of the New Sinhala Bible published by the Ceylon Bible Society.
Prof’s commitment to the Church in the provinces is evidenced by the fact that he regularly makes the long and uncomfortable journey to teach at the distant CTS extensions in Hambantota, Matara and Anuradhapura and also, closer to home, in Kal-Eliya. Having done some of this myself, I know how tiring it is to teach six hours a day for five days at a stretch. But this is typical of Prof. By his encyclopaedia and other Sinhala resources, and his teaching in the provinces, he has demonstrated that in this market-driven world, to which Christian scholars are by no means immune, this scholar devotes himself to the welfare of a small under-resourced community of people who needed his help, rather than the more lucrative teaching and writing opportunities for English speaking audiences in Sri Lanka and abroad.
His love for the Sinhala language and his desire to see the Church being authentically Sinhala and thriving among the Sinhala people has made some to even think that he may have some ethnic prejudices. When students exhibited poor Sinhala language skills, his critiques sometimes sound almost racially biased. I put this down to his highly focussed attitude which is so intense in one area that it can neglect being sensitive in other areas. At a time when Sinhala Christians are often viewed as people who had betrayed their ethnic heritage, it is refreshing to see a Christian leader who loves his language and culture so passionately.
Exacting scholar, not an arrogant intellectual
The difference between an exacting scholar and an arrogant intellectual is humility. Thankfully, humility has been a quality that Prof. Somaratna’s students and colleagues soon recognise in him. When the seminary organised a function for the release of the final volume of his encyclopaedia series, he did not realise that the programme was primarily going to felicitate him. This seems to have dismayed him and he has since expressed how embarrassed he was about it. At this event, he spoke after all the speeches that were made praising him. He stated that he did not deserve such adulation. He pointed out that, just that day, he had caused a student to cry by scolding her. Once I came late for a meeting of which I was chairman, and Prof did not hesitate to politely reprimand me in private. A few days later he was profuse in his apology, and I had to work hard to assure him that I appreciated his words and was not in the least offended.
Evidence of his humility also is the deferential manner with which he talks to pastors. Though he is often critical of the way in which churches dishonoured God by low quality, irresponsible and unbiblical practices, he has always treated the pastors of the Church with utmost respect.
Sanath Athukorala, an adjunct lecturer at CTS, describes how when he was a student he went with Prof to see an old church building which was of some archaeological significance. The students were a little annoyed by the way in which the custodian of the building set about evangelizing them! It was somewhat disrespectful and very much of a monologue. Not once did Prof show that he was a learned Christian scholar. He let this person continue his monologue for almost fifteen minutes, and politely listened to him. Students exposed to his critical comments over their low quality responses soon learned that the one who was rebuking them for poor scholarship was a humble scholar with no intention to show off his own erudition.
Athukorala mentioned another trip with students to a Southern Sri Lankan beach. A fishing boat was coming ashore and the fishermen called out to the people on the shore to help drag the boat ashore. Immediately Prof joined in, helping the tired fishermen. He also forbade the students from telling the fishermen who he was.
Many professionals in Sri Lanka like to possess some of the trappings of success such as an expensive car. Prof has no such desires and his simple lifestyle has been a challenge to his students. Even when he taught in the university, students were surprised at the old motorcycle that he would ride to work with his wife on the pillion. One former student stated that it was Prof’s life, even more than his teaching, that impacted him. As evidence he pointed to how surprised he was that a person who was so academically accomplished would live so simply. He also said that because of his simplicity, he could approach Prof without fear to talk about personal issues.
Like many scholars, Prof. Somaratna has not worried too much about improving his style of communication, especially in his earlier years in the seminary. One former student mentioned that this shortcoming may have been habituated in the local university setting. He seemed to think that Prof’s approach was that the students who wanted to learn would learn, without him having to take pains to simplify his material. Students sometimes complain that he is hard to understand and that he is not very charitable if a student asks what he considers to be an unimportant or foolish question.
A 23 year-old Youth for Christ worker Namal Sisira, who came to Christ after his school days and had not completed his secondary education, was sent by his ministry supervisor to two of Prof’s courses at CTS, to get a taste for theological education. Early in the course, Namal attempted to answer one of Prof’s questions. The colloquial imprecision of his unschooled reply evoked a severe rebuke from Prof. Soon he felt that the content of the classes were hopelessly above his comprehension and he dropped out of both courses, and gave up the idea of studying theology. Fourteen years later, he sought to re-enrol at the seminary, and his academic transcripts were reviewed by the interview committee. When the two incomplete courses were discovered and queried, the prospective student recalled how he had given up in despair because Prof’s standard of teaching was lost on him. Prof, who was on the interview panel, was deeply moved and assured the young man, “You can come to my classes now, I do not teach like that anymore.” Namal has found this to be true.
In fact, some students feel that after leaving the university setting and being in the seminary for many years, his communication style improved markedly. Whereas once he ignored the needs of those who could not keep pace with him, he became sensitive to their needs and simplified his communication style without compromising on the content of his material.
Yet some students from his early years say how they were inspired by his classes and came to love the subjects he taught, especially history. They realised how important the knowledge of history is for Christians to understand and affirm their identity and heritage.
The one feature mentioned with remarkable consistency by all the students I interviewed was the personal concern that Prof showed them. Though he seemed to be an impatient man and always busy, students commented on how he always made time for them when they came to him with a question or a problem. Jagath Subasinghe, a CTS alumnus and pastor in a church some distance from Colombo, mentioned how Prof had willingly visited to his church to preach on a Sunday even though it was very inconvenient for him to do so. This is something he has done with other students too. A godly scholar patiently interrupts his own pursuits to encourage students and alumni in their ministry.
Prof desires to encourage academically-oriented students to do research and spends time with them sharing his books and other resources in order to direct their pursuits. One former student, Ravin Caldera, who went on to do higher studies in theology and is now on the faculty of CTS, talked of the way Prof encouraged him to pursue his studies, research and writing. This was expressed in Prof gifting him his first Bible software programme. He confided that the main motivations for writing his first published research paper were to express gratitude to Prof and receive his mentor’s affirming commendation. Another student mentioned how Prof introduced him to a visiting foreign dignitary in the hope that this introduction would result in him getting the opportunities and resources to publish some of his writings.
One student mentioned how, when they went into his room, he would not only talk to them but also share with them some of the food that he had brought from home for himself. Another said that it is very easy to get close to him and that soon he began to view him as a friend. Two former students said that, his father-like concern helped them through difficult stages of their spiritual formation. One said that that Prof had been an invaluable elder-counsellor to him and his wife during the early years of their marriage. Prof had gained such a venerable place in their lives that when the time came for their daughter to receive her first instruction in the alphabet, in keeping with the Sinhala custom, Prof was their natural choice of first teacher. This student gratefully acknowledged that even now, many years after leaving the seminary, Prof still calls him once in two or three months to inquire after their wellbeing.
Prof’s concern was not limited to the subjects he taught. He took an interest in the total life of a student. One former student mentioned how he would ask him about his family and advise him about family life. Another, Suranga Athukorala, who became very adept in computers and served for a time as the IT officer at CTS, said that it was Prof who pushed him to follow computer classes and that he even gave him the initial funds needed for those studies. Once, while on sabbatical in Singapore, Prof had written asking him how his computer classes were going.
The two students, who said that Prof became a father-figure to them, also said that they eagerly desired opportunities to do things for Prof, as they would their own father. A life of kindness bears the fruit of kindness reciprocated.
It would be impossible to write about Prof. Somaratna without saying something about his wife, Devapriya, or “Aunty Devapriya,” as the seminary community calls her. Someone described this couple as inseparable. He never takes a long journey to the provinces without her and she is always at his side at functions he attends. She devoutly believes in his calling and does everything she can to help further it. A keen mind in her own right, Devapriya assists in his research, proof-reading his drafts and making a home eminently conducive for a contented scholar and family man. The one exception to this, of course, is preparing tea. Students say that she matches her husband in showing genuine and practical concern for their welfare, sparing no straightforward correction when necessary. She too, like Prof, shuns the limelight, so that they could be fully focussed on the work they have been called to do. It is plain how Devapriya’s partnership has convinced Prof of the high value of time spent with spouse and children, a strong conviction he often shares with students and faculty whom he fears spend too much time at work.
It is a great joy for us at CTS to present him with this Festschrift. As a Festschrift would be incomplete without a biographical chapter, I hope that the Somaratnas will forgive me for going against their wishes and writing about them. It is a small but joyful token of appreciation from a brother and colleague who has come to deeply admire them and who thanks God for their extraordinary service to the Sri Lankan Church.