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Establishing Pali Text Society for Buddhist literature

Nemsiri Mutukumara

In the nineteenth century when Lanka was administered by the British after the leaders of the Central Province handed over the Kingdom under a Treaty called the Udarata Givisuma in 1815. The British Governor agreed solemnly and sincerely and pledged to protect the Buddha and this religion and all its Viharas, devalas and other monuments.

The news grandeur of the latest British administration is spread far and wide in England and in several European countries, notably in Germany and France.

Many a historian, archaeologist, scholars particularly the orientalists and Indologists entertained an irresistible desire to visit the "Pearl of the East" and "Drink from its fountain of oriental philosophy".

Many scholars both Pali and Sanskrit came to Lanka to serve the British in its "Ceylon Civil Service".

Professor Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843 to 1922) came here with his wife Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids (1857 to 1942). But the Davids never knew either Pali or Sinhala.

Rhys Davids served in many parts of Lanka in different fields. He was the Private Secretary to the Governor and District Judge of Galla. He first worked for the acting Governor Major General Terrence O'Brien and Governor Sir Herculus Robinson who later became Lord Rosemead.

"His last few years in Sri Lanka were spent in the archaeological service; the excavations of a number of sites in Anuradhapura and the discovery of Sigiriya are among his achievements -" (Ananda W. P. Guruge "From the Living Fountains of Buddhism "Introduction P cxxiii). Commenting on Rhys Davids learning of Pali and Sinhala, Dr. Ananda Guruge states:

"According to records, Rhys Davids came to know of Pali when he was confronted with texts of Buddhist Vinaya in the course of a trial he conducted as District Judge of Galla. When none in the Court could translate the relevant text, he decided to study Pali, and, again, it was to Ven. Yatramulle Sri Dhammarama that he went for instruction. As he proceeded with his studies, he came in contact with the two best known scholar monks of the time, Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera and Ven. Waskaduve Sri Subhuti Nayaka Thera (Ditto cxxii).

Earlier, he learnt Sinhala for his examinations from the Venerable Sri Dhammarama. A noteworthy feature in his life was that when he came on his Lanka assignment he was barely twenty-one (21) years.

On his return home in 1872, Rhys Davids continued his studies of Lanka vigorously on Buddhism and Buddhist texts.

With the assistance of Venerable Naranvita (he was referred to as Naranvita Unnanse) he obtained a copy of the Mahavamsa with a manuscript in the India office library in London.

He continued his law studies and was called to the Bar in 1877. With all these new ventures, Rhys Davids primary objective in following the Buddhist way of life and showing this wholesome path to the Western world kept on growing amazingly.

He wrote a Treatise on "the Life and Teachings of the Buddha to the London Society for the Promotion of Christian knowledge. Rhys Davids a son of an English Clergyman, published the book titled "Buddhism".

"Through its quality and popularity, assured for Rhys Davids, a secure place in the pioneering orientalist of the day. Next he translated into English the first volume of Jatakas edited by Fousball in 1880 under the title "Buddhist Birth Stories" and proceeded to translate selected Sittas of the Sutta Pitaka which formed Vol. II of the Sacred Books of the East Series (1881).

The popularity of this work ("Buddhism") can be gauged from the fact that, by 1914, it has been reprinted in 23 editions. It was this book which attracted Mrs. Rhys Davids to Buddhist and Pali Studies." (Ditto cxxiv).

By this time, Rhys Davids has translated many a Pali book into English. He became a well-known protagonist of the Teachings of the Buddha in the Western world.

For his translation of the Eastern Wisdom in Western language like English made him a sought after personality. In 1881 he was invited to deliver the prestigious Hibbert Lectures. His subject was "The origin and Growth of Religion as illustrated by some points in the History of Indian Buddhism".

In the course of this lectures, Rhys Davids announced his intention to establish the Pali Text Society for the exclusive purpose of translating and publishing Buddhist literature. Rhys Davids said:

"The sacred books of the early Buddhists have preserved to us the sole record of the only religious movement in the world's history which bears any close resemblance to Christianity; and it is not too much to say that the publication of this unique literature will be no less important for the study of history and specially religious history than the publication of the Vedas has already been". With his wife Caroline, the Rhys Davids established the Pali Text Society (P.T.S.) of London. The Most Venerable Professor, Dr. Hammalava Saddatissa Mahanayaka Thera of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, while describing Rhys Davids as the "greatest translator of Pali Texts and founder of Pali Text Society (1881) which has edited and translated virtually the whole of the Canon". (the Tripitaka).

All the Tripitaka works and their commentaries became novelties to the people. Since, for the first time, the Pali and Sinhala are to be used in Roman character effective and genuine endeavour was made to write Pali and Sinhala in Roman script. Teaming up together with Buddhist scholars, formulated new alphabet for once and for all times for use in the London Pali Text Society Publications.

Accordingly, with the lead given by the London Pali Text Society, the rest of the world accepted its authoritative alphabet for all future publications of Buddhist Texts in Roman character. The following is the Alphabet: Eight vowels; thirty-three consonants, seventeen (17) vowels in combinations, and seventy-five (75) conjunct consonants.

All these features are found in the Pali Buddhist Texts and have to be written precisely in the manner of pronunciation.

Though, the Pali Text Society is set up in London, the Society never attempted to Anglicise the Buddhist teaching to suit the whims and fancies of some people as it is done particularly in Sri Lanka deliberately and otherwise.

For example, the Buddha's exhortation, "Caratha bhikkhave carikam" is not written with the Anglicised style or "Charatha bhikkhave Charikam" which is totally and absolutely wrong. The CH is used to write a different consonant. Now that the last decade or a little ago, with the dawn of the Internet age, Sri Lanka has become the cynosure of the whole world to obtain the correct and authentic style of presenting Buddha Dhamma to an ever growing audience of readership through the latest media techniques of web sites and home pages. At last, thanks to the "Daily News" the desecration of the wheel symbol - the Dhammacakka by street nameboard painters masquerading as 'artists' were playing pandu with the wheel symbol depicting a cog-wheel.

The "Daily News" Vesak Supplement for Buddhist era 2547 (May 2003) portrayed to the entire world the authentic wheel symbol with authoritative photograph of the symbol form the Bangkok Headquarters of the World Fellowship of Buddhists - the WFB.

The WFB was inaugurated and established in Sri Lanka in 1950 at the Sri Dalada Mandiraya.

The inaugural conference unanimously agreed and accepted the six-colour (The Shadvarna) Buddhist flag presented over a hundred years ago to the Buddhist world, as the international flag of the Buddhists. The same conference accepted that the wheel with eight spokes shall be the symbol of the Buddhists with no single spoke jutting out of the wheel.

Both these sacred objects were printed in the first page of the supplement.

Regrettably, most of the present day products of Sri Lanka Universities, without an exception - write all kinds of nonsense nowadays in the name of Buddha dhamma.

The simple message, such writers give the learned reader is that, he or she has never touched a single Buddhist Text written in English. They read only Sinhala texts and contribute to national dailies hoping to demonstrate their prowess, without realizing that they will cut a sorry figure and ultimately becoming the laughing stock of a world community.

For them, the one and the only way to make a substantial and valuable contribution to Buddhist literature is to be armed with a fine knowledge of the subject is to read all about the subject in English publications of the Archaeological department, the Central Cultural Fund, the Department of the Buddhist Encyclopedia and authors like the Venerable Narada Maha Thera, the Venerable Dr. Hammaluva Saddhatissa Mahanayake Thera, the Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula Thera, the Venerable Piyadassi Maha Thera, Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge, Dr. Roland Silva.

Today, Sri Lanka's Ministries of Education, Cultural Affairs, Buddha Sasana, Tertiary Education, Local Government, the Ministry in charge of Provincial Councils have a bounden historical duty to perform in formulating one single way of presenting Buddha Dhamma not only to the outside world but first to the Sri Lankan people in Sri Lanka.

The ceasefire situation has brought the communities together culturally and spiritually. They embrace each other in pursuance of peace and harmony. They stand on the premise of religion.

So far the Sinhala people does not seem to know the absence of the "W" sound in Sinhala. The Sinhala has only the "VA" sound. So it is in Pali language too. While the Sinhala people have forgotten, it or are ignorant of it, their Tamil brethern have without effortless ease maintained their village names in style. All village names beyond Anuradhapura are written with "VA" sound. For instance, Vavuniya, Velanai, Vasavilan, Valikamam, Vannarponnai, Vaddukoddai, Varani are some of the village names. Despicably indeed, when Northern villager retains Valikamam as their village name, the Southerner still has the survile tendency to ape the West and flaunt Weligama for their village.

This situation calls for a standardisation by the authorities without delay sooner it is done the better. Back to Rhys Davids and the Pali Text Society, the credit must be showered to the husband-wife duo whose pioneering efforts to learn Sinhala and Pali and Buddhist realizing the efficacy of the Buddha word they made an earnest endeavour to propagate the sublime teaching throughout the globe.

Rhys and Caroline Davids gave the lead for others to follow.

The Dhammapada which was first translated by German scholar Max Muller, has today become the companion of those who turn to the Buddha to follow his Dhamma for freedom and emancipation.

The turning point began with the following utterance by Rhys Davids:

"... Buddhist or not Buddhist, I have examined every one of the great religious systems of the world, and in none of them have I found anything to surpass in beauty and comprehensiveness, the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. I am content to shape my life according to that Path".

"... I consider it no exaggeration to say that the Buddha's greatness still shines today like the sun that blots out the glory of lesser lights, and his Ancient Path, still beckons the very pilgrim to the heaven of Nirvana's Security and Peace. And as the old saying goes 'Some run swiftly; some walk; some creep painfully; but all who keep on will reach the goal.'..."


The Daily News (Sri Lanka), https://www.dailynews.lk, Saturday, 18 October 2003

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last updated: 11-07-2004