Wednesday 15, July 1998

Rhys Davids: His contribution to Pali and Buddhist studies

By Dr. Lorna S. Dewaraja

Having had to face several challenges due to intense Christian missionary activity and the withdrawal of state patronage, the indigenous religions in Sri Lanka suffered a severe set back by the mid-nineteenth century. Buddhism in particular had lost its pristine vitality, its cohesiveness and its self-respect, but not to the point of becoming moribund.

Hence there arose a strong Buddhist response to the missionary challenge. The revivalist movement manifested itself in many ways, one of which was a spectacular reawakening in Buddhist and Pali studies spearheaded by the Sri Lankan scholar monks.

This intellectual upheaval was contemporaneous with a similar interest in Pali and Buddhist studies in Europe and the two movements fuelled and inspired one another.

At this juncture three British Civil Servants who were posted to Sri Lanka, George Turnour, R. D. Childers (1838-1876) and T. W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922) took an abiding interest in the language, religion and culture of the island and by their indefatigable efforts introduced to the English speaking world the wealth of Buddhist scholarship hitherto unknown to the West. This monograph will deal with the activities of T.W. Rhys Davids who spent his entire life labouring for this cause.

It was an administrative requirement that all Civil Servants should be familiar with the language, literature and culture of the land in which they were posted. Thus in order to acquire this knowledge within a short time and pass their efficiency bar examinations both Childers and Rhys Davids sought the guidance of eminent scholar monks such as Yatramulle Dhammarama, Hikkaduwve Sri Sumangala and Waskaduve Sri Subhuti.

Under their tutelage the young British officers not only grasped the intricacies of Sinhala, Pali and Buddhism but it became with them not an administrative requirement but a life long obsession which resulted in significant developments in oriental scholarship both here and in Europe.

It has to be mentioned that British Christian clergymen such as Rev. D. J. Gogerly (1792-1862) had made an intensive study of Sinhala, Pali and Buddhism and wrote extensively on their areas of study. However, their missionary zeal prevailed and the sole objective of their studies was to further their evangelical purpose. Rhys Davids on the other hand was essentially a scholar and the aim of his intellectual exercise was to make the Western world aware of Buddhism and its civilising influence.

Caroline Rhys Davids named her husband the "Max Muller of Buddhism," but though Muller is well known, his friend and contemporary Rhys Davids is less famous even among scholars. The explanation to this lies in the fact that India was the jewel in the British Crown and hence Sanskrit and Hinduism were the star attractions; while Buddhism confined to the periphery of the Raj - to Sri Lanka and Burma received less attention.

Hence as the exponent of Buddhism Rhys Davids was little known even in England, the country of his birth. In Sri Lanka he is known specially by Westernised Buddhists whose knowledge of Buddhism was derived from English writings on the subject.

Since of late, however, one of his works, Buddhist India 'has been translated in to Sinhala as Bauddha Bharataya and the Rhys Davids Memorial Volume (1965)' was brought out in Sinhala with a few articles in English. As a result, he is known to a certain extent among Sinhala educated Buddhists of Sri Lanka specially the Buddhist clergy.

Like R. C. Childers, T. W. Rhys Davids was the son of a clergyman. He was born in Colchester in Essex in 1843 as the eldest son of Reverend Thomas William David, a Welshman who had settled in Colchester. He was a popular minister who had a flair for preaching. In addition he was a scholar of ecclesiastical history and Rhys Davids inherited from his father, his eloquence, indefatigable energy and patience.

His mother Louisa Winter a devout Christian was the daughter of a London solicitor. A Sunday School attached to her husband's church was so efficiently managed by her that it was regarded as a model school. So competent was she in her task that the treatise she wrote on the management of Sunday schools was published and ran into several editions. She died in 1854 when Rhys Davids was barely ten years old. This was the first of a series of tragedies that he had to face throughout his life.

Rhys David's early education was at the Brighton School which was situated close to his home and run by his uncle Robert Winter. At the age of seventeen he went to London and attended the school now called New College in Finchley Road. Here he studied Latin under the famous scholar, Sir William Smith. Rhys Davids undoubtedly inherited the academic inclinations of his parents, yet motherless at a tender age and lacking in family fortunes he realised that he had to rely on his own sweat and toil. While at New College he decided to join the Indian civil Service.

With his devoutly Christian background and sound knowledge of Latin what attracted him to the Indian Civil Service is difficult to say. In the heyday of the British Raj the Indian Civil Service must have been an exotic dream for the educated young Englishman with no financial resources, or was it a Karmic call which led him to aspire for a career in India.

Rhys Davids realised that to achieve his ambition he had to have an University education which his father could not afford. Therefore he left for Germany where he could earn his expenses by giving tuition in English. He soon realised that there were many English students who paid for their education in this way.

He selected Breslau where there were not many English students. He became a very popular English teacher and earned sufficient money to pay his university fees. He moved easily with all strata of German society and made friends very easily. In Breslau he had the opportunity of studying Sanskrit under A.F. Stenzler, a distinguished scholar and Professor of Sanskrit at Breslau from 1833 till 1868. The philological training that Rhys Davids received under Stenzler could be regarded as a landmark on the road to Pali scholarship.

He returned to England in 1863 and appeared for the examination of the Civil Service Commissioners offering Sanskrit, German, French and English. Although his ambition was a posting in India he was appointed to Ceylon and this became the turning point of his life. He was attached to the Colonial Secretary's Office in Colombo and was expected to learn the local languages.

"With his philological training he was able to learn Sinhala and Tamil very quickly and a certain incident directed his interest to Pali and Buddhism. As Magistrate of Galle a case was brought before Rhys Davids involving questions of ecclesiastical law.

A document written in a language that no one could read was tabled in court. Inquiries revealed that the language was Pali in which the sacred books of Buddhism was written. Accomplished linguist that he was, he immediately resolved to make himself acquainted with it.

He was put in touch with Yatramulle Unnanse under whose tutelage he made rapid progress. Later in life Rhys Davids paid a striking tribute to his teacher. "When he first came to me the hand of death was already upon him. He was sinking into the grave from the effects of a painful and incurable malady. I had heard of his learning as a Pali scholar, and of his illness, and was grateful to him for leaving his home under such tragic circumstances, to teach a stranger. There was a strange light in his sunken eyes, and he was constantly turning away from questions of Pali to questions of Buddhism."

Having worked for short periods in Colombo, Kandy, Avissawella and Matale, Rhys Davids was transferred to Galle as Police Magistrate. In 1871 he was posted as Assistant Government Agent of Nuwarakalaviya of which Anuradhapura was the administrative centre.

The Governor Sir Hercules Robinson aware of the young civil servant's special talents wanted to make use of him in archaeological work for which Anuradhapura presented innumerable opportunities. The Governor's aspirations were realised for Rhys Davids loved Anuradhapura and its ruins and spent much of his time among them.

Unlike his predecessor, who was overcome by melancholia and depression by the dead city and its silent stones, Rhys Davids found them eloquent monuments which sang the saga of the once glorious city and inspired him to unravel the religion and culture which these stones mysteriously represented. He loved to move with the peasants of Nuwarakalaviya, learnt their language and did away with interpreters. In the field of archaeology his superiors gave him encouragement and freedom of action. His stay in Ceylon coincided with the setting up of an Archaeological Commission in 1868 by the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson.

This was only a modest beginning and the work was confined to clearing and taking photographs. Further progress was hampered by the lack of funds and a permanent labour force. To the young Rhys Davids this kind of work was a labour of love unlike the routine duties of administration. A number of notable sites were cleared namely, Ruwanvelisaya, Jetavana, Abhayagiri and Isurumuniya. These excavations provided him with the material to write his future research papers to the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.

In the course of his travel Rhys Davids had discovered a number of inscriptions in places such as Galle, Matara, Dambulla, Matale, Tamankaduwa, Anuradhapura and Padawiya. He realised that Ceylon was exceedingly rich in inscriptions and these if deciphered would unveil the drama of the island's past. For the successful deciphering of the inscriptions as many should be collected. In an article to the Ceylon Branch of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society:

He appealed to all readers for copies of inscriptions, even eye copies and suggested methods of sending facsimiles of inscriptions. He wrote a series of articles for the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Journal from 1870-72, relating to several inscriptions found in Sri Lanka. These prove how well he was acquainted with the traditional literature of the island as well as with the philological works of the Ceylonese contemporaries like James de Alwis and Louis de Zoysa.

The Governor, who had taken a keen interest in oriental research was very impressed. The Governor had decided to collect books and ancient manuscripts lying in temple libraries with a view to establishing an oriental library in Colombo. Rhys Davids wished to enhance the scope of the work by adding them to his collection the island's epigraphical resources.

He had seen how valuable epigraphs were destroyed by the ravages of man and nature. He noticed that inscriptions were destroyed by chena cultivation, while at Dondra, writings were going under water due to sea erosion.

Meanwhile Sir Hercules Robinson had been succeeded as governor by Sir William Gregory who like his predecessor was an admirer of the island's ancient heritage. Soon after his appointment Gregory made and extensive tour of the Anuradhapura district in the company of Rhys Davids.

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Copyright 1996 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited

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