II – Venerable Waskaḍuwe Pavara Neruttikācariya Mahāvibhāvi Śrī Rājaguru Subhūti Nāyaka Mahā Thera (1835–1917)

1. What Little We Knew

In the brochure on “Buddha Jayanti Memorials”, mentioned above, the following was written on Venerable Subhūti:-

“The Ven. Waskaḍuwe Śrī Subhūti entered the Order of Priest-hood with the Ven. Saranapala Seelakkhandha Thero of Sumanārāmaya, Kalamulla as his teacher and preceptor. The novice Subhūti took a keen interest in the study of the Dhamma as well as Pali. As books were difficult to come by at that time scholars were reluctant to lend the few ola leaf books they had. Subhūti was not the person to get discouraged by [xxi] such set-backs. He undertook the task of copying hundreds of literary and religious works all by himself and with undaunted courage and perseverance achieved his object.

Having received his higher ordination at the Udakukkhepa Seemāwa, Balapitiya, he went over to Abhinawārāma Temple at Waskaḍuwa. His education here was entrusted to the Ven. Śrī Sumaṅgala, Incumbent of Śrī Pāda Sabaragamuwa Division and the Pelmaḍulla Buddhist Temple where he lived. On completion of his studies he left Pelmaḍulla with his teacher for the Abhinavārāmaya Temple at Waskaḍuwa.

The Ven. Śrī Subhūti, who was a Pali scholar of great distinction compiled the Pali Nigaṇḍuwa with English and Sinhalese equivalents. It was printed at the Government Printing Press in 1864. The “Nāmamālā”, a work of considerable size, was also written by this priest. It was published in 1876. The book was dedicated and presented to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) when he arrived in Ceylon that year.

Later a Pirivena to teach Pali was established at Abhinavārāmaya which was occupied by him. At this time the scholarship of Ven. Śrī Subhūti was known all over the world and scholars like Professor Fausböll, Max Müller, and Childers held him in very high esteem. He also took a prominent part in the revision of Tripiṭaka at Pelmaḍulla.

As a Siamese Prince, who was living at Deepaduttārāmaya, Koṭahena, entered the Order with the Ven. Śrī Subhūti as teacher and preceptor, the title of “Rāja Guru” was conferred on him.

The Ven. Rāja Guru Śrī Subhūti Mahā Thero departed this life Thursday, 19th April, 1917 at the age of 80.”

His international reputation as a scholar was simply passed over with the brief statement that he was “known all over the world” and “scholars like Professor Fausböll, Max Müller and Childers held him in very high esteem”. Little could we assess, with the information then in our hands, that quite a number of pioneering [xxii] Western Orientalists could have scarcely accomplished their widely recognized scholarly achievements without the untiring efforts of Ven. Subhūti.

2. An Acknowledged Friend of the Pioneering Orientalists

From the letters we publish in this Volume, the indispensability of Ven. Subhūti’s assistance to Childers in the preparation of his Pali Dictionary, Referring to pioneering efforts of some European scholars, Heinz Bechert says “The difficulties which scholars had to face in Europe without the help of the learned priests and pandits in the Buddhist countries to whom the father of modern Pali Lexicography, Robert Caesar Childers, was so much indebted are clearly seen”. Anjali: O. H. de A. Wijesekara Commemoration Volume, Columbo, 1970 p. 3. to Fausböll in the edition of the Jātakas, to Oldenberg and Geiger in their early studies on Sri Lankan Chronicles and to Warren in his studies on the Visuddhimagga is most vividly established. Equally poignantly portrayed is Rost’s dependence on Ven. Subhūti in servicing the vast array of European scholars who sought the assistance of the India Office Library for their studies. But none of their published works brings out this indebtedness with the clarity and emphasis that the services of the Nāyaka Thera deserved. For instance, Childers in his article on the Khuddaka Pāṭha in 1869 quotes by name such contemporary scholars as Gogerley, Koeppen, Fausböll, Hardy, Burnauf, James d‘Alwis, Clough and Kühn; but he quotes at least four times the Abhidhānappadīpikā without mentioning Ven. Subhūti and his only acknowledgement to the Nāyaka Thera is nameless:

“The text which I have adopted is that of a Manuscript written and collated for me by a Singhalese priest of great learning.” JRAS IV (1870) Article VII - Khuddaka Pāṭha, A. Pali Text with Translation and notes by R. C. Childers, late of the C.C.S. p. 309

Again, in his article entitled “Notes on Dhammapada with special Reference to the Question of Nirvāṇa”, Childers quotes the Abhidhānappadīpikā without referring to Ven. Subhūti and as regards two Pali quotations he mentions Ven. Dhammārāma and Ven. Subhūti: [xxiii]

“The learned Sthavira Dhammārāma has favoured me with a long extract from Culla Saddanīti”.

“The Sthavira Subhūti informs me that the true version of the comment is...” JRAS V (1871) Article XII. Notes on Dhammapada with Special Reference to the Question of Nirvāna by R. C. Childers, late of the C.C.S. p. 222 and p. 224.

As discussed in Part I of Book One, (Paragraph 210) Fausböll’s earlier acknowledgements of Ven. Subhūti’s help were perfunctory. It took several years before due credit was given to the Nāyaka Thera.

The general attitude of these early Western scholars as regards the public acknowledgement of the help they received from Sri Lankan scholars may be further gauged from Childers’ Preface to his Dictionary:-

“It now only remains for me to express my thanks to the friends who have lent me their help and encouragement in my studies, and first of all to Dr. Rost, to whom I have dedicated this work, and but for whom I should never have written a line. I am proud to be able to call myself the pupil and friend of that eminent Palist Mr. V. Fausböll. Towards another Dane, Mr. V. Trenckner, a ripe and graceful Pali scholar, I shall ever entertain feelings of gratitude and respect; from the perusal of no single work do I remember to have derived greater advantage at an early period of my studies than from his masterly edition of the first chapter of Milinda Pañhā, the manuscript of which (still I regret to say unpublished) was in my hands for several months. I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend Mr. N. Trübner for his enterprise in undertaking the publication of my Dictionary at a time when its success was, to say the least, uncertain; and to my friend Mr. Stephen Austin for the ready zeal with which he has all along seconded my efforts to carry the work quickly and satisfactorily through the press. From three Sinhalese Buddhists I have received valuable contributions in the shape of letters replying to questions on points of scholarship and interpretation. They are, first the priest Dhammarama of Yātrāmulle, whose premature [xxiv] death in January, 1872, deprived the Buddhist Church of one of its brightest ornaments; next the priest Subhūti of Vaskaḍuwe, well known to European Palists as the able editor of Abhidhānappadīpikā; and lastly the Mudliar L. Corneille Vijesimha, a scholar of much learning and originality. During the progress of this work I have received from almost all communities in Ceylon proofs of sympathy and appreciation, but from none more than the Buddhist clergy, a generous and enlightened body of men, towards whom I am under many and deep obligations” (italics mine).

Childers himself felt that he had not done sufficient justice to Ven. Subhūti and offered to make amends by referring to his assistance more often in the second part of the Dictionary (Paragraph 44).

In contrast to the lack of warmth in published acknowledgements the personal letters written to Ven. Subhūti by several Western scholars make candid admissions of their indebtedness. A very touching display of gratitude is recorded in a letter of Childers: in it he offered to transcribe with his own hand a voluminous Sanskrit text that Ven. Subhūti was searching. Perhaps in response to these, the Nāyaka Thera had been extremely generous in acknowledging the assistance he received from Western scholars. For example, on the title page itself, of his “Nāmamālā or a Work on Pali Grammar”, Colombo 1876, Ven. Subhūti had the note “Prepared at the suggestion of Professor R.C. Childers”. Further in the Introduction, he paid tribute to Childers, Max Müller, Fausböll, Kühn, Minayeff and “other European scholars of high reputation”. In the Preface to the Second Edition of Abhidhānappadīpikā, Colombo 1883, he mentioned Rost as “a patron of Oriental learning” and Childers as “a highly esteemed Oriental Scholar who had encouraged him in prosecuting his literary studies.

Inspite of this apparent imbalance in reciprocity, the fact that Ven. Subhūti did establish his reputation as a great scholar internationally is amply proved by the material in our hands. [xxv]

3. Charming Vignettes of a Scholar-Monk’s Life

These letters also reveal other aspects of a charming personality. The reputed scholar had a childlike curiosity in gadgets and things exotic. He had been among the earliest in Sri Lanka to possess and use a wristwatch, an electric bell, a torch and a phonograph - all sent by his foreign correspondents. The instructions which accompanied these gifts make amusing reading today. But the technological gap between the Western world and Sri Lanka at that time could have justified the anxieties expressed by the donors. Ven. Subhūti was equally interested in exotic plants. He requested Fausböll to send him seeds of flowering plants of Denmark. The Nāyaka Thera, himself, was a generous giver of gifts. Some of his recipients were truly embarrassed.

Ven. Subhūti’s contacts were of all classes. He carried on a scholarly dialogue with Western scholars with as much ease and interest as he corresponded with the royalty of Thailand or Japan. In almost all instances where correspondence deepened into friendship, the initiative was taken by the Nāyaka Thera.

While he maintained his Western contacts through collaboration in their intellectual pursuits, his interests as regards Asian correspondents were usually religious. He appealed to the Emperor of Japan to encourage intellectual and religious exchanges between Japan and Sri Lanka.

He carried on a long and persistent effort to get a share of the relics discovered in the Stupas of India. He was equally keen to get a cutting of the Bo-tree at Buddha Gayā for his temple. He strove for closer collaboration with the Buddhist Saṅgha of Thailand. He sought help in money and kind from foreign Buddhists for his religious and educational activities.

In Sri Lanka, he was a keen supporter of the Buddhist teams in the religious controversies, placing at their disposal his extensive knowledge of the Dharma. He did not keep aloof from the agitation which followed the Koṭahena riots. He was thus an ideal Buddhist monk who achieved a perfect combination of his roles as a scholar and a religious teacher. [xxvi]

4. Contribution as Author, Teacher and Researcher

A fair assessment of Ven. Subhūti’s contribution to Buddhist learning could not be made from only his publications, even though they were many and varied. His Abhidhānappadīpikā, Abhidhānappadīpīkā or Dictionary of the Pali Language by Moggallāna Thera with English and Sinhalese Interpretations, Notes and Appendices by Waskaduwe Śrī Subhūti, Colombo 1865 which was published by the Government Press in 1865 on the orders of Governor Sir Charles Justin McCarthy, had amply compensated for the absence of a Pali dictionary. Early students of Pali in Europe had found it invaluable and their praise for his work was sumptuous. Even after his other works had appeared, Western scholars persisted in introducing him as the reputed editor of Abhidhānappadīpikā as this treatise had made a lasting impression on them.

Page from Ven Subhūti’s edition of Abhidhānappadīpikā… Geiger remarked in 1895 that the Nayaka Thera had adopted Western research techniques.


Another page from Ven Subhūti’s edition of Abhidhānappadīpikā: Childers began to develop his Pali Dictionary by arranging in alphabetic order the words in this lexicon.


His Nāmamālā or Nāmavaranägilla Nāmamālā hevat Nāmavaranägilla – A Work on Pali Grammar (prepared at the suggestion of Professor R. C. Childers) by Waskaduwe Śrī Subhūti, Colombo 1876. was similarly expected to fill the gap caused by the lack of a suitable Pali grammar. It too was published by the Government Press with the sanction of Governor Sir William Gregory. In 1893, the Government Press published his Index on Abhidhānappadīpikā. Abhidhānappadīpīkā Suchi by Waskaduwe Subhūti Mahā Thera PNM Colombo 1893.

Page from Ven Subhūti’s Index to Abhidhānappadīpikā: this index and the two editions of Abhidhānappadīpikā are the only lexicographical aids that Pali students had for quite some time.


All these had been acknowledged as indispensable for the study of Pali. His other publication called the Cūlarājaparitta Mahārājaparitta was a joint effort with his princely pupil, Ven. Jinavaraṁsa. The Siam Standard Paritta, Cūlarājaparitta, Mahārājaparitta etc. assisted by his royal pupil P. C. Jinavaraṁsa, Colombo 1897. Although this work is mentioned in some letters, there are no comments by any on its value or usefulness.

It also appears that the Nāyaka Thera was engaged in a study of the Mahāvaṁsa. Childers had been attempting to get Sir William Gregory’s help to publish a work by the Nāyaka Thera. Whether this was an edition of the Mahāvaṁsa-Ṭīkā or of the extended Mahāvaṁsa is not clear. On Geiger’s insistence, Ven. Subhūti, along with Ven. Jinavaraṁsa, had made an in-depth study of the [xxx] extended Mahāvaṁsa, which was in Cambodian script. Harischandra de Silva, in his article on Ven. Subhūti in සංස්කෘති {Saṁskti} refers to the fate of a manuscript called the Uttaravihāra Mahāvaṁsa, which was referred by the Governor to H.C.P. Bell for a report. Nothing is known of this work as it was apparently not published.

The groundwork done for these publications as well as the multifarious literary activities in which the Nāyaka Thera was involved comes out very clearly from the letters presented in this Volume. Around him had developed a multi-faceted intellectual undertaking. First of all, he was a teacher conducting a regular Pirivena to which students flocked from various parts of the Island. Foreign students from Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and China came in as casual students. Officers of the Ceylon Civil Service such as Childers, L. F. Lee, A. S. Fagden as well as national administrators like Mudaliars A. M. Gunasekera and E. R. Goonaratne sought his help in their studies of Sinhala, Pali and Sri Lankan culture. Besides, visiting scholars from various parts of the world came to him for advice and guidance. The Abhinavārāmaya in Waskaḍuwe was a “must” in their itineraries and some specified that they wished to reside close to it.

Amidst these eyeball-to-eyeball interactions, Ven. Subhūti had to cope with a sizeable international mail. The requests that were directed to him were many: he was asked for information on manuscripts; he had to engage copyists to make paper transcripts of various palm-leaf manuscripts for scholars engaged in editing them for publication in the West; in several cases, his aid was sought in collating manuscripts and for this purpose he had to read and compare Sinhala, Burmese, Thai and Cambodian scripts. Little is known of the system he adopted to keep himself informed of the mass of palm-leaf manuscripts scattered in different temple libraries. But it is fairly clear that he had a good knowledge of where one should go for a particular document. Other scholars relied on his deep knowledge of the Buddhist literature. They asked searching questions. Some needed references and quotations. Others wished to have their hypotheses tested.

Perhaps, no single scholar had made such an extensive use of the Nāyaka Thera’s scholarship as Childers himself. He had the Nāyaka Thera researching for answers to hundreds of questions, which ranged from those on Pali grammatical forms and constructions to very intricate ones of Buddhist philosophy, cosmology and history. It would be interesting to know how he handled this massive volume of correspondence. Who were his helpers? Who drafted his English letters? Who were his research assistants? His scholarly output far exceeds the capacity of an individual – however hard-working he might have been. So his ingenuity in mobilizing support must have, indeed, been very great.

To Ven. Subhūti, as well as to several other learned monks of the day, Pali was a vibrant living language. When Childers posed questions in Sinhala, the Nāyaka Thera replied in Pali. His annotations were in a style reminiscent of the exegetical notes of Pali commentators. Encouraged by him, his Western correspondent used Pali wholly or partly in their letters. It is very interesting to note that Geiger wrote a sort of user’s manual in Pali for a recording machine, which he presented to Ven. Subhūti. With monks in Burma and Thailand, Pali was the standard medium of communication.

5. Social and Human Relations

Ven. Subhūti’s international reputation involved him in a vigorous social life. He was in high demand in various governmental and voluntary organizations. He was received by royal visitors such as the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and many princes from the Court of Thailand. He corresponded regularly with kings and princes and lasting friendships developed between him and Princes Bhānurangsi and Prisadong. The British Governors of Sri Lanka maintained close contact with him and some visited him at his temple in Waskaḍuwe. He counted among his friends and pupils several well-known Mudliars of the Southern Province. His friends and supporters were frequently called upon to receive visiting dignitaries. That he possessed a magnificent organizing capacity is evident from accounts of such occasions. There is no [xxxii] doubt that his contemporaries in Waskaḍuwa enjoyed and appreciated the limelight in which their little village basked on account of Ven. Subhūti.

Ven. Subhūti was conscious of his obligations as a friend. He was genuinely interested in the welfare of the people with whom he had contacts. Not only the scholars themselves, but also their families, mattered to him. He was quick to offer his sympathies and solace in times of bereavements and sickness. On happy occasions, his congratulations were couched in expressions of joy so full of the imagery of classical Sanskrit and Sinhala poetry. For example, he offered his felicitations on the occasion of King Edward VII’s coronation in eighteen Pali stanzas, which were translated as follows:–

“Inexpressible is my joy – even as the joy of a being at the prospect of heavenly-bliss – at the news of the Great Event coming off on the 26th June this year, the grand, auspicious Coronation Ceremonial of Your Most Gracious Imperial Majesty, King Edward, great in Power and Conquest as well as in Virtue.

Feelings of loyalty, gratitude and joy at this your Majesty’s Coronation are throbbing in my heart. But I, a Buddhist monk, have none of those costly pearls fit to be offered as present to such a High Royal Personage on such a memorable occasion. Therefore do I send as my tribute of praise and greetings of joy the accompanying lines composed by me.

It was the custom in India and Ceylon, when mighty monarchs of old were crowned to get the Brahmin Ministerial Priests to chant such lines.

May I venture to express my hope that on this proud occasion, Your Gracious Majesty may, in the same manner, be pleased to cause these lines to be read in Your Majesty’s presence by some person of knowledge and understanding.

If any priest had the great happiness of being presented by Your Majesty’s own hands, with a nicely bound gilt copy of a Pali Dictionary by Childers wherein the autograph signature of the August Donor and the name of the Recipient were inscribed, [xxxiii] in the presence of an assemblage of High Officials at the exquisitely decorated Queen’s House in Colombo on the occasion of Your Majesty’s visit to this Island of Ceylon, I, that priest Subhūti, the Head of the Burmese and Amarapura Sect, honoured by his brotherhood by conferring on him the name “Pawara Neruttika Ācariya Mahāvibhāvi Rājaguru” and well established in grateful feelings, send these lines of benediction on this Your Majesty’s great and auspicious occasion, for a long, happy and prosperous reign.

The all-powerful and all-merciful Prince Siddhārtha, Lion of the race of Sakya, scattered the rightful hosts of Māra; including the elephant Girimekhalā; By virtue of the merit thereof may the puissant King, Edward VII, enjoy a life devoid of trouble, pain and care.

The Holy Buddha resisted, with success, the siren-like allurements of Taṇhā, Arati and Ragā, the three lustful daughters of Māra; By virtue of merit thereof may the puissant King, Edward VII, enjoy a life devoid of trouble, pain and care.

The Lord of the earth, the omniscient one, by diverse miracles confounded the ascetics Uruvelā Kāśyapa, Nadī Kāśyapa and Gayā Kāśyapa; By virtue of the merit thereof may the puissant King, Edward VII, enjoy a life devoid of trouble, pain and care.

The all-wise Buddha performed a series of miracles in the midst of Devas, Brahmas and men and vanquished the vain-glorious mendicant leaders of the alien faiths; By virtue of the merit thereof may the puissant King, Edward VII, enjoy a life devoid of trouble, pain and care.

The dauntless, supreme Buddha, the very mention of whose name caused dismay to even kings, frustrated the machination of Aṅgulimāla, the thief, who sought his life; By virtue of the merit thereof may the puissant King, Edward VII, enjoy a life devoid of trouble, pain and care.

The Lord of Lords crushed the powerful demon Ālavaka, who durst defy him; By virtue of the merit thereof may the puissant King Edward VII, enjoy a life devoid of trouble, pain and care. [xxxiv]

The Noble Buddha, possessed the strength of ten elephants of the formidable elephant, Nālāgiri; By virtue of the merit thereof may the puissant King, Edward VII, enjoy a life devoid of trouble, pain and care.

The ever benevolent Buddha set in motion of doctrine which neither Sramana Brahmins, Devas or Brahmas could aspire to rival and reclaimed from error and directed to the right path the five classes of Bhikshus and other heavenly beings; By virtue of the merit thereof may the puissant King, Edward VII, enjoy a life devoid of trouble, pain and care.

If any deity there be who watches over and promotes the welfare of the world, may such deity protect and preserve from trouble, pain and care the puissant Edward VII, his royal consort and their family.”

Though generally friendly and patient, Ven. Subhūti could assert himself strongly when a situation so demanded. He resisted every effort made by foreign scholars to take valuable old manuscripts out of the country. When a visiting monk’s conduct did not please him, he wrote in strong terms to his superior and did not mind courting the latter’s disfavour. But he was not swayed by criticisms even his closest friends made of some of his correspondents; despite the denunciations which Childers and Rost levelled against their contemporaries Minayeff, Max Müller, Cunningham and Rhys Davids, Ven. Subhūti maintained friendly relations with them. When the Nāyaka Thera himself was the subject of criticism, his attitude was one of humble reconciliation as illustrated by two incidents: one when Rost disapproved of the Nāyaka Thera’s concerns with the aftermath of the Koṭahena riots and the other when Ven. Ñāṇavarorasa Thera of Thailand took objection to the criticism of the conduct of a visiting Thai monk.

His friendships were always profound and lasting. He displayed a sort of child-like possessiveness as regards his friends, sometimes expecting them, almost as a matter of right, to extend to him a special consideration; e.g. when he expected the King of Thailand to have consulted him before appointing a Thai Consul to Sri Lanka. [xxxv]

The letters confirm what is generally remembered in both Waskaḍuwe and Wellawatte as main traits of his genial personality. Towering in height above the average Sri Lankan, he impressed the people through his piety and wisdom, dedication and erudition and they affectionately called him “our Buddha” – an epithet which says everything.