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Tributes to Godwin

Godwin Samararatne
and the study of rebirth cases in Sri Lanka

(by Ian Stevenson, from "Trends In Rebirth Research" ed. Nimal Senanayake)

I cannot now remember when I first met Godwin Samararatne. This admission says more about him than about me, because Godwin was one of the most self-effacing persons I have ever known. Godwin was not the first interpreter who helped me in Sri Lanka. That was the late E. C. Raddalgoda who assisted me from 1961 until near his death in 1973. E. C. Raddalgoda had built two houses on the compound behind his own house in Kotte, which in those days was outside Colombo. He made one of these houses available to the late Francis Story, who was an English scholar and teacher of Buddhism. In the years after World War II Francis Story's wife had died and he decided to live in Asia. He lived for some years in Burma (now Myanmar) and then moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He adopted the life of an anagarika (homeless one) and became the leader of a small coterie of Ceylonese persons interested in studying and practicing Buddhism.

Although he lived near Colombo, Francis Story was an active collaborator of the Buddhist Publication Society, which was established in Kandy. In the 1960s Godwin was an assistant librarian in the Kandy Public Library, and I think he would have met Francis Story through the Buddhist Publication Society. Francis Story had a keen interest in cases suggestive of rebirth, and he had published a booklet on the subject in 1959 (Story, 1959). Subsequently, he accompanied me on all my investigations in Sri Lanka from 1961 until his death in 1972. Godwin joined us in the mid-I960s. I think at first, partly because E. C. Raddalgoda was so good at interpreting and partly because Godwin was somewhat shy; he joined us as an observer more than an assistant.

He soon assumed a more important role. We acknowledged his assistance in the report of the case of Warnasiri Adikari that we published in 1967 (Story and Stevenson, 1967). We thanked him again when we published another case report in 1970 (Stevenson and Story, 1970). Thereafter, Godwin became increasingly active and important as an interpreter. Following the death of E. C. Raddalgoda, Godwin became my principal assistant amid interpreter. He helped me until I ceased regular investigations in Sri Lanka in 1988. By that year I had investigated 180 cases in Sri Lanka, and Godwin had assisted in the study of nearly all of them. In the late I980s Erlendur Haraldsson became active in studying cases in Sri Lanka, and Godwin worked just as assiduously with him as he had with me.

Godwin had unusual gifts as an interpreter. He fully accepted my wish to record as fully as possible whatever informants told us. He quickly learned to slow or halt their frequent loquacity while I made a detailed record of what they were saying. In our later work he sometimes interviewed informants himself and then sent me a report indicating questions asked and answers given. He became a skilled interviewer, being especially good with the child subjects of the cases.

In the 1960s, and even later, Sri Lanka was not a country in which one could always travel easily and lodge comfortably. No impediments and inconveniences ever daunted Godwin. He always had a good humour and a sense of humour. Once he asked an informant why he had not observed what had seemed like an extremely important recognition a subject had made at the house where he claimed to have lived. The informant explained that he had been too busy entertaining the visitors thronging to see the subject to pay attention to what the subject said or did. I found this excuse annoying; for Godwin it was highly amusing.

During my years of investigating cases suggestive of rebirth in Asia and Africa, I enjoyed the good fortune of working with about a dozen skilled interpreters. They were all diligent and all interested in the cases. Only two of them, however, showed an interest in the place of studies of paranormal phenomena in Western science. Godwin was one of these two. He regularly asked me to send him not just copies of my publications, but articles and books by other authors whose works had some bearing on our investigations. He was thus well prepared to read and comment upon the drafts of the case reports in my book on cases in Sri Lanka (Stevenson, 1977).

Godwin's interest in paranormal phenomena extended beyond the cases suggestive of rebirth. For example, he sent me several reports about experiences of persons in Sri Lanka who had come close to death and survived; he accompanied me for an interview with one of these persons. Godwin's friends recognize that he was the prime mover in the founding of the Sri Lanka Society for Psychical Research. We also owe thanks to Godwin for the conference from which this book derives.

Godwin's contribution to the investigation of the cases so far exceeded his tasks as an interpreter that it became appropriate for him to become a co-author of published papers. He was not an honorary author, but fully deserved recognition of his contribution by being named a co-author (Cook, Pasricha, Samararatne, et al., 1983a and 1983b; Stevenson, Pasricha, and Samararatne, 1988; Stevenson and Samararatne, 1988a and 1988b). Erlendur Haraldsson similarly identified Godwin as a co-author of their paper on three children of Sri Lanka who spoke about a previous life as a Buddhist monk (Haraldsson and Samararatne, 1999).

Godwin had no wish for recognition as a co-author. Indeed, he seems to have had no wish for any personal compensation. I had to urge him to send me accounts of his expenses. He accepted no money for himself until after he had resigned his position at the Kandy Library, when he became increasingly active in teaching meditation.

Godwin was also unusual in the personal and often enduring interest that he took in some of the subjects of the cases we studied. They liked him and he obviously liked them. I know that with at least three of them he remained friends for many years. One of these was Warnasiri Adikari, the subject of the first case to the study of which Godwin made a substantial contribution. Warnasiri, who was born in 1957, as a young child spoke in detail about a previous life as a young man of another village who had died suddenly about a year before Warnasiri's birth. Francis Story and I (with Godwin's help) studied this case in the early I960s. Warnasiri also said that he remembered three other previous lives, but he gave few details of these and we could not definitely verify what he said about them (Stevenson, 1977). From Warnasiri's perspective, however, the memories of four previous lives convinced him both that rebirth was a fact and that the Buddha was right in teaching that the only way to end the suffering of life is through attaining nibbana (to use the Pali word), which in turn requires the monastic life that permits adequate meditation. He resolved therefore, when still a young child, to become a monk, and this he did. He was ordained as a samanera (novice) in 1973, when he was not quite 16 years old. Persons who decide to become Buddhist monks do so for varied reasons. No doubt most of them think of the liberation from rebirth as an ultimate, but doubtfully attainable goal. Warnasiri was unusual in acknowledging that his wish to become a monk derived from actual experience with remembering previous lives. The reasons for his seeking ordination became fairly widely known, at least in the area where he lived. A considerable throng attended the ceremony of his ordination. Godwin was a member of the audience.

I wish to mention one other feature of Godwin's work with me. Francis Story had become a convert to Buddhism when he was a youth of 16. He had an openly expressed ardour for Buddhism. At times his enthusiasm for Buddhism reminded me of the excessive zeal sometimes attributed to converts. He never tired of expounding the truths of Buddhism to me. Godwin was different. We spent many days together; collectively they must have amounted to several months spread over the years of my work in Sri Lanka. Godwin never once sought to influence my beliefs. He taught Buddhism by the example of his own life, filled with good thoughts and deeds for other persons.