24 August 2012

Vito Perniola: priest, historian, linguist

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Rev. Vito Perniola

A few days ago a friend asked me to check with a priest about allegations of harassment (of 'evangelical' groups).  My friend said, 'He might try to convert you!'  It reminded me of an interview from more than 10 years ago.  It was fascinating talking with Rev. Vito Perniola.  He did try to impress upon me his faith; with no success I might add.  My friend's comment made me look for the article based on that interview. I discovered that Rev. Perniola turned 99 in April.  I am sharing this by way of wishing him many more years of fruitful intellectual pursuits.

I am not a big fan of the clergy, whatever the denomination. Perhaps this is a remnant from an early fascination with Marxism where we were taught that religion is the opiate of the masses. Perhaps it is something else. In general I have found "religious" leaders more interesting than their priests or the self-styled defenders of doctrine. I concur with Marxists that organised religion can be a curse. Having anarchist leanings naturally breeds antipathy to institutions, I suppose.

At the same time, it is also true that whether we like it or not, we belong to one or more social institutions, and over time I have come to realise that "liberation" does not necessitate a breaking down of or departing from structures. In other words, abhinishkramanaya, to use the Buddhist term, does not necessarily refer to the literal meaning of "gihi geyin nikma yema" or leaving the household. It follows that there are as many enlightened or superior human beings within institutions as they are outside of them. Vito Perniola, Jesuit, scholar, linguist and other things besides, is one such individual.
Perniola was one of nine children born to a landowning family close to Bari, Italy. He was born in 1913. He had to go to another town for his secondary education. At the tender age of eleven and a half years, young Vito had been inspired to become a priest after attending a feast for Francis Xavier, the saint who is widely celebrated in South Asia. I asked Rev. Perniola how his family reacted to this decision. "My mother minded alright! But then what can you do? There are those who becomes priests but remain at home, but I chose to come here. Still, family ties are family ties."
Vito had first attended a Jesuit college in Lecce, in southern Italy. Later, in 1928, he formally joined the Society of Jesus and went to Naples to start his religious training. In 1932 he came to India to learn English properly, to get used to the climate, and to continue his philosophical studies. Three years later he completed his Masters in Philosophy, writing a paper on Buddhist logic. In fact he had started reading on Buddhism even before he left Italy. They had mostly been Mahayana texts, but this exercise reveals how serious the man was about his mission in this part of the world.
He had arrived in Ceylon in 1936 and had sat for his matriculation examination. Although he had not been admitted to the University College, Perniola had taken his London exams, reading Pali and Sanskrit for his BA (Hons.). He had decided to study these languages in part because no Catholic priest had ever done Pali and Sanskrit before. "There were only two grammars, Pali and Prakirt, and both were in German. So I had to first teach myself German!"
Perniola saw the war years through studying theology at the Ampitiya Seminary. In 1943, at the age of 30, he was ordained as a priest at the Cathedral of Galle. In 1947 Rev. Perniola had gone back to India to complete his theological studies. "I was in Ranchi, Chotanagpur, in North India, and was there when at midnight on August 15th, 1947, the British flag was brought down and the Indian flag hoisted, signalling India’s independence."
After he returned, he taught at St. Aloysius College, Galle. He had started by teaching Pali because there was no one to teach the subject. Since there was no good Pali grammar book for those who did not know Sinhala, Rev. Perniola had taught himself the finer aspect of the language. "There was a Sanskrit grammar, and I was already conversant in Latin, Greek, French, English and Italian, and therefore was able to learn the language quickly. I went to one Mr. Handy, who was the Pali teacher at Mahinda College, but he was more interested in discussing Buddhist philosophy than anything else." When the history teacher left, Rev. Perniola had taken up that subject as well. His general work ethic dictated that he delve deep into whatever he was engaged in, and so he ended by revising according to the modern syllabus the History of Ceylon for schools by Fr. S. G. Perera between 1950 and 1954.
I asked him about his command of Sinhala. "I wanted to write a Sinhala grammar. I know the method. One can’t write it without knowledge of Pali, Sanskrit and a little Tamil. Tamil, because it comes in some construction. I have read the Guttila Kavya (in my mind the most melodious poetic composition), the Amavatura (which contains the most melodious prose), the Sidath Sangarava, the Budu Guna Alankaraya, Siyabaslakara, and have gone through the entire Epigraphica Ceylanica. I organised the entire Epigraphica Ceylanica in chronological order. I lent it to someone, and it was never returned. I don’t remember who took it even. Ordering it in this way allows us to study the development of the language over time." We can only hope that someday someone will take on this very necessary exercise in historiography.
Rev. Perniola was awarded honorary citizenship in this country in 1949. After leaving St. Aloysius in 1954, he began lecturing at Aquinas University College, preparing students in Pali for their BA and BA (hons.) degrees. "As far as I can remember, none of my students failed any examination." He also taught Catholic Theology at Aquinas for nuns from 1962 to 1972 and again from 1976 to 1979.
During this time he registered for a PhD in Philology at the University of Pune. He shuttled between Aquinas and Pune as and when he had time and completed his doctorate in 1963, working on compound words in Pali and engaging with the Sadda Niti. His scholarship with respect to linguistics is demonstrated in the books on Pali grammar that he has written. In 1997 the Pali Text Society of Oxford published his "Pali Grammar". Every sentence of the book contains a reference, such being the meticulous nature of the scholar.
Perhaps Rev. Perniola will be best remembered for his extensive work on the history of the Catholic Church in this country. His interest in this subject started when he was helping Fr. Simon Gregory Perera collect information about the Catholic Church during the Dutch period, during which time the church was going through troubled times on account of Dutch persecution.
This exercise sparked in him a keen interest in exploring further the Portuguese period, and led him to compile what is the most exhaustive work about the Catholic Church in Ceylon. Between 1989 and 1995 he came out with three volumes of the Portuguese period, three of the Dutch period and three of the British. The fourth volume of the British period is already with the printer while the last two are almost ready for the press. He has collected documents from the archives of Lisbon, Goa, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, Brussels, Colombo and Kandy, translating into English from Latin, Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch.
"In these investigations, you must have come across the good, the bad and the ugly. How did you deal with this?" I asked. "I am not a parrot, so of course there is commentary. I do this in the introduction and in the editing." He showed me all the volumes already published. The editorial notes/commentaries were extensive, clearly making for a rich history and historiography.
For all this, it is sad that the academic community has been very reluctant to fully acknowledge the scholarship of the man. "My Jesuit training included three years of Philosophy, and four years of theology. This would be equivalent or more than two PhDs," he said. This absence of recognition does not seem to have left any scars on this genial and wise old man. He has, as he readily acknowledges, always been a student. He continues to study, learn, analyse, and synthesise, fuelled by a long-honed rigor and faith in scientific method.
Soft spoken and endowed with an amazing memory, Rev. Perniola is not someone without a sense of humour. There was a faint smile playing on his lips throughout. I asked him for a photograph. "That might be difficult. I once went to Plate Ltd to get my picture taken. The problem is that if I lift my head I look like a giraffe, if I look down, you can’t see my eyes. So finally they took it from an angle," he laughed.
Towards the end of our discussion, Rev. Perniola launched on a discourse on faith, its expression in Buddhism, questions of ethics and the "need" for a higher authoritative force to distinguish good from evil. I postponed the theological discussion for another day. I told my father (who was the one who suggested that I interview Rev. Perniola) about this conversation and he said "So Putha, that is his vocation." Exactly. He does it so exquisitely that even if one were to be totally opposed to both the doctrine and the method, one has to respect him for his conviction, rigor and sensitivity.
Serious academics, anyone interested in the history of the Catholic Church in this country and linguists would not need an introduction to this remarkable man. Meticulous research, hard work, an honest commitment to learning even at the age of 88 and undying faith in the doctrine of his church, ought to have made him a living legend. Unfortunately we live in an age of quick-fixes; we are a generation of non-readers (as my father often complains), easily gratified by mediocrity and the scratching of surfaces. Vito Perniola has seen the processes that produced this situation and us. But like any dedicated academic he has stuck to his guns, so to speak. Hopefully civilisational cycles will someday result in a more wholesome appreciation of this man. And of course other men and women of the same exceptional breed.