Friday 17, July 1998

Rhys Davids

His contributions to Pali and Buddhist studies

by Dr. Lorna S. Dewaraja (Continued from last Wednesday)

Rhys Davids' interest was not confined only to antiquities. As Assistant Government Agent of Anuradhapura he tried to improve the economic conditions of the people by fostering paddy cultivation, improving irrigation, introducing new crops like tobacco and cotton and also introducing cattle rearing.

Rhys Davids' diaries which are in the Sri Lanka National Archives give an idea of the various administrative functions which the Assistant Government Agent had to perform. However, everything did not go smoothly for the young civil servant for he was constantly pulled-up by his superior, the Government Agent, C. W. Twynham who kept a watchful eye on his subordinates.

The machinations of Twynham and a series of unfortunate events resulted in arousing the displeasure of the Governor and Rhys Davids stay in Ceylon and his career in the Civil Service was brought to an abrupt end. The details of the circumstances that led to his dismissal which does not fall within the scope of this paper are given in Ananda Wickremaratne's work, The Genesis of an Orientalist.

Rhys Davids returned to England frustrated and humiliated. The Civil Service at the time was prestigious with considerable pecuniary advantages. This was lost to him for no fault of his own and apart from the sense of embitterment that he must certainly have felt he had no family resources to fall back on. He then studied law and was called to the bar in 1877. But his heart was elsewhere.

Legal career

A legal career, though lucrative did not interest him. His interests centred round Buddhism and the vast field of Pali canonical literature. His wife Caroline Rhys Davids left on record that during this phase of his life, "Rhys Davids was haunted and pursued by the spiritual legacy bequeathed to him from Ceylon". He embarked on his career of oriental scholarship, knowing fully well, its poor prospects and lack of proper remuneration.

The papers in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (GB & I) in 1875 on "Inscriptions of Parakramabahu", "Sigiri, the lion rock", and "Two old Sinhalese Inscriptions" ushered the well equipped scholar to the field of research. These articles which were written for the Ceylon branch of the JRAS were printed in London. In 1877 he published in the International Numismata Orientala, an essay on "The Ancient Coins and Measures of Ceylon".

His first book on Buddhism which he wrote for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, in its series on non Christian religions, was a noteworthy one. It gives in compact form, the life of the Buddha, the essence of his teaching and the formation of the order of monks. Rhys Davids' works should be viewed against the background of the prevailing English books on Buddhism written by missionaries like Spence Hardy and officials like Emerson Tennent which were based on comparatively recent Sinhala manuscripts and not on the Pali Cannon and were also given to theological prejudices. Rhys Davids was the first to interpret and present to the Western world the Buddhism of the Pali Canon.

At the beginning of the twentieth century when Western Europe dominated the world, it was thought that supremacy would last for ever. Therefore only that which contributed to the rise of the Western Europe was considered as history and not the totality of human experience. The other great cultures of the world which pre-dated Europe such as India, China and Central America were not even supporting actors in the spectacular European drama. It was at such a time that Rhys Davids wrote Buddhist India with an insignificant corner of north eastern India as his focus. He visited the ancient Buddhist shrines of India and felt that a survey of the social and political conditions in which Buddhism arose was greatly needed as a setting for the Buddha's activities and the labours of his disciples.

Pali Text Society

Of all his innovative acts Rhys Davids is best known for the founding of the Pali Text Society in 1882 on the model of the English Text Society. He had the support of many distinguished scholars from England, France, Holland, Germany and the US who were interested in Oriental Studies. There were large collections of Buddhist manuscripts scattered in many libraries in Europe and plentiful in Sri Lanka.

It was proposed to publish them in the Roman script with English translations. In a report of the PTS, Rhys Davids' comments on the value of these manuscripts are given: "They are our best authorities for the early history of that interesting system of religion so nearly allied to some of the latest speculations among ourselves, and which has influenced so powerfully, and for so long a time, so great a proportion of the human race - the system of religion which we now call Buddhism".

Despite their value Pali literature was not a popular field of study for reasons which Rhys Davids was painfully aware. It was not financially rewarding. Rhys Davids undertook the work of editing and publishing the Pali texts as a labour of love and in this he had the unstinted support of the scholar monks of Sri Lanka. In the PTS report of 1882 he wrote as follows: "In the spring of 1882 there came the welcome intelligence that more than seventy of the most important of the members of the Buddhist Order in Ceylon had shown their appreciation of the work, and their trust in its promoters, by subscribing in advance to the cost of the printing.

It is no slight thing that an established clergy should have come forward so readily to support the publication of the sacred books of their religion in an alien alphabet by scholars of an alien faith. We need not perhaps be surprised that so liberal minded a body as the Buddhist Bhikkhus should have acted so". Unlike many other Englishmen of his day Rhys Davids had great regard for the Buddhist Sangha, won their confidence and they in turn gave them every form of support and guidance.

Under Rhys Davids and his equally eminent wife and helpmate, Caroline, the PTS grew in strength; its finances were stabilised and its output was prolific. At the time of his death the Society had issued 64 separate texts in ninety four volumes extending over 26,000 pages besides many important articles and notes by European and Oriental scholars.

The service rendered by the PTS to the cause of Buddhism in the West is inestimable and the Buddhist World owes a deep debt of gratitude to Rhys Davids for his untiring efforts towards preserving the Pali Canon for posterity.

While engaged in the work of the PTS he was active in the Royal Asiatic Society as well. He was first an office bearer and in 1887 was unanimously elected by the Royal Asiatic Society Council to be the Secretary. As such he had many responsibilities to shoulder.

In addition to printing and publishing the journal, he had to manage the Society's finances, keep accounts and also function as Librarian for which he was paid pounds 200 and residential facilities.

During this period (1882-1904) he was Professor of Pali in the University of London, a post which carried no fixed salary, other than lecture fees. Rhys Davids was appalled at the dismal state of Oriental learning in England due to the fact that higher education was often funded by private benefactors according to whose wishes the funds had to be administered.

Therefore the traditional disciplines like theology, classics and mathematics were heavily endowed while new studies had to struggle on under great financial stress. In his introduction to Buddhist India he complains, "There is no chair of Assyriology, for instance, in England and whereas in Paris, Berlin, in St. Petersberg, in Vienna, there are great seminaries of Oriental learning, we see in London the amazing absurdity of unpaid professors obliged to devote to earning otherwise of their living, the time they ought to give to teaching or research.

And throughout England, for instance, the state of things is as bad. In all England for instance, there are two chairs of Sanskrit. In Germany the government provides for more than twenty - just as if Germany's interest in India were more than ten times as ours.

"The keen interest in Oriental learning that prevailed in the continent was not evident in Great Britain. Perhaps the British were more keen on exploiting the wealth of the colonies, rather than their culture. Pali and Buddhist Studies is not a marketable commodity even in Sri Lanka today and the situation was not very different in Britain in Rhys Davids' time.

Oriental School in London

The realisation prompted the Royal Asiatic Society and Rhys Davids to take up the cause of Oriental learning and urge the government to establish an Oriental School in the London University. It was pointed out that a knowledge of Eastern language, literature and history would be helpful for the better administration of the Raj.

There was already a widening gap in India between the rulers and the ruled and it was indicated that a familiarity with Eastern cultures would help officials to view certain issues with sympathy. As a result of the vigorous agitation of the Royal Asiatic Society and Rhys Davids, the government accepted the proposal for an independent oriental school in 1908.

Considering the dozens of Sri Lankan scholars who have entered the portals of the London School of Oriental (and later) African studies during the last 100 years and benefited from its concentration of academic resources, it is clear that Rhys Davids' labour has paid rich dividends in Sri Lanka. His contribution to this cause is now forgotten but even today there is a Senior Fellowship in Pali, Sinhalese and Theravada Buddhism reserved for a Sri Lankan in the School of Oriental and African studies.

While being the energetic secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, the President of the PTS, Professor of Pali in the University of London, Rhys Davids continued with his translations and research work. His intuitive knowledge of Pali and Buddhism is reflected in his remarkable translations in which each Sutta is preceded by an introduction containing material of sociological, literary and philological interest.

In 1905 he resigned from the Royal Asiatic Society to accept the Chair of Comparative Religion in the University of Manchester of which he was the first distinguished incumbent. Besides his new position provided him with a reasonable income.

Rhys Davids had expressed bitterness over the fact that scholars are shabbily treated by society; they are poor and on that account despised. Manchester however gave Rhys Davids academic status and monetary rewards but it was the opinion of many that the University gained more by Rhys Davids' presence than vice versa. In 1905 when Rhys Davids left London to reside near Manchester the President of the Royal Asiatic Society made a presentation on behalf of a large number of members.

His reply shows Rhys Davids' scholarly humility and his concern regarding the continuation of the work he had initiated. "Whatever work I have been able to accomplish on the history of thought in India, or towards the publication and elucidation of the historically important literature of the early Buddhists, will I hope soon be superseded by better work, done partly on the basis of those labours. And the greater my success in inducing other scholars to devote their attention to those matters, the sooner will that desirable end be reached."

Continuing his speech Rhys Davids made a strong case for the study of humanities specially, Oriental studies which is of relevance to this day, when even in the universities of Sri Lanka, Pali and Sanskrit have become endangered disciplines. "The study of nature looms so much more largely in the public eye than the study of man, that our own pursuits and specially the history of philosophy, literature and religion, of economic and social institutions in the East seem to be left out in the cold.

We have no quarrel with science - quite the contrary. But we have a reasonable hope that the contempt in which Orientalism is now regarded is but a passing phase and that our work is really helpful in a modest way, to that increase of knowledge, broadening of ideas, which is the very basis of the welfare and progress of mankind."

At Manchester, while teaching the history of religions Rhys Davids found the time to put out a book, Early Buddhism (1908) and a chapter for The Cambridge History of India on the Early History of Buddhism. In the meantime he was concentrating on the preparation of the Pali Dictionary for which the PTS had provided so much of fresh material. There were many European scholars who were interested in the same project and it was hoped at the Oriental Congress at Copenhagen, in 1908 that a scheme of international cooperation could be organised.

Certain letters were entrusted to fellow workers. The work did not progress according to schedule and finally with the outbreak of the war all academic links with Germany were severed and the execution of the plan devolved on the shoulders of Rhys Davids alone. His greatest achievement was the Pali English Dictionary on which he laboured for 40 years with the collaboration of other renowned scholars. Unfortunately he died before he could finish his work but the task was completed by his pupil W.State.

In 1915 at the age of 72 Rhys Davids left Manchester. Many years before the University of Edinburgh conferred on him a LLD and Manchester made him a Doctor of Letters. Copenhagen and Sheffield enrolled him as a Doctor of Science. In 1902 he had been one of the original founders of the British Academy.

The service that Rhys Davids rendered to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka cannot be over estimated. The late nineteenth century was the time that Sri Lanka was facing the full onslaught of Christian missionary activity. The Buddhists did not have the organisational strength or the political and economic clout to face this challenge, though they deeply resented the attacks which missionary organisations made on Buddhism in their publications and on public platforms.

Intellectual strength

In this situation western scholars of the calibre of Rhys Davids was a great source of intellectual strength to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka and also infused them with a sense of dignity and self respect at a time when whey were weighed down by their own inferiority. He completely lacked racial prejudice and in his Hibbert lectures given in the USA, he refers to his teacher Yatramulle, "Go and talk to the yellow robed and tonsured recluse - not of course through an interpreter, or out of a book of phrases: you must know not only his language but something of Buddhist ideas; and you must speak to him as man to man, not as the wise to the barbarian. You will certainly be courteous; for whatever else a Buddhist Bhikkhu may be, he will be sure to give proof of courtesy and a dignified demeanour. And it will be strange if you do not find a new world of thought and of feeling opening out before you."

Modest and humane

In spite of his academic distinctions Rhys Davids was a modest and humane person. He shared the fruits of his research very generously with his colleagues; he was particularly generous to young scholars and pupils and was forgiving in the face of misunderstandings. Rhys Davids was convinced of the Buddhist truth of Dukkha or Sorrow, having experienced the early demise of his mother, the unexpected and humiliating dismissal at the beginning of his career, frequent bouts of ill health, the result of contacting malaria in Ceylon and the final devastating blow when his brilliant and only son left Eton to join the Air Service and was killed in a crash. He refers to the concept of Anicca Impermanence frequently, and even the rise and fall of nations seemed to him a manifestation of that idea.

It is said that Rhys Davids was only excelled by his wife Caroline, an eminent Orientalist in her own right, who gradually shared more and more of his responsibilities ever since she married him in 1894 and after his death in 1922 became the Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at the University of London and also President of the P. T. S. Her vast contribution to Pali Studies which is the crowning golry of her husband's work deserve a separate study.


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Copyright 1996 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited

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