VI – “The Glories of the Ceylon Civil Service”

1. The Tradition of Scholarship

The late Father S. G. Perera, the well-known authority on the modern period of Sri Lankan history, concluded his account of the evolution of the Ceylon Civil Service from 1833 to 1931 with the following statement:

“We cannot leave this subject of the civil service without mentioning some of its members who attained distinction in the field of scholarship. William Tolfrey translated the Bible into Sinhalese and the Pali grammar, Bālāvatāra into English, Samuel Tolfrey translated the Sidat Sangarāva into English. John D‘Oyly has left us A sketch of the Constitution of the Kandyan Kingdom. George Turnour mastered Sinhalese and Pali and, on discovering the Tikā or commentary on the Mahāvaṁsa, prepared an epitome of Sinhalese history; later he brought out a critical edition of the Mahāvaṁsa. John Whitchurch Bennet wrote Ceylon and its Capabilities and a beautifully illustrated book on the fishes of Ceylon. To Sir Emerson Tennent we are indebted for several very authoritative and informative books: Ceylon in two volumes, Christianity in Ceylon, Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon, The Wild Elephant. Simon Casie Chitty wrote the only Gazetteer ever published on the whole of Ceylon. R. C. Childers compiled a Pali Dictionary which is still in great demand. T. W. Rhys Davids wrote Buddhist India, A Manual of Buddhism and collaborated in the compilation of the Pali Dictionary published by the Pali Text Society. He also translated a number of Pali books. H. C. P. Bell was the first archaeological commissioner and his reports stand as an immortal monument to his name. H. W. Codrington wrote the first critical history of Ceylon. These are only some of the glories of the Ceylon Civil Service”(Italics mine). Father S. G. Perera: A History of Ceylon: The British Period and After 1796 – 1956 (Revised by Father V. Perniola) Seventh Edition pp. 133 -134. [lxxvi]

Two of the civil servants, mentioned above, figure prominently in this Volume: namely, Robert C. Childers and T. W. Rhys Davids.

It had been the policy of the British administration from its earliest times to encourage – and, on occasions, even compel – the civil servants to acquire a knowledge of the languages, the history and the culture of the country. Within years of the establishment of the Ceylon Civil Service in 1798, incidentally the oldest in the East, Sir Thomas Maitland introduced several reforms; the most important among them was the stipulation that every civil servant was obliged to study the local language and to acquire a first hand knowledge of the people by undertaking regular circuits. The implementation of the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission brought about a temporary deterioration of the service, and the appointment of officers at that time without a knowledge of the language and the customs of the people is considered to be partly responsible for the discontentment which led to the disturbance of 1848. Governor Stewart Mackenzie ordered in 1839 that “nobody should be directly appointed to any post of importance who was ignorant of the laws and customs and of the language of the people.” Father S. G. Perera: Ibid p. 130.

Even these measures were considered inadequate. Dedicating to Governor Sir George William Anderson the Translation of Sidat Sangarāva, James de Alwis on 18 June, 1851 complained,

“The constitution of the native society in this Island, the habits and feelings of the Singhalese, their wants and grievances, their domestic and social relations, their traditions and customs and their all-concentrating religion, are very imperfectly known; and these, which constitute their national character, can be understood but little, without a competent knowledge of the medium through which they are perpetuated – the Singhalese or Elu language. This I conceive is the reason which has rendered an acquaintance with the native languages a sine qua non in the requisite qualifications of those who enter the public service of this Island. [lxxvii]

However stringent the rule referred to, I may perhaps be permitted to state, the practice has nevertheless been very lax. Such a state of things, it is presumed, can neither be advantageous to those who govern, nor at all beneficial to the governed.”

He urged further,

“To encourage therefore the study of Singhalese, amongst at least the European portion of the inhabitants of Ceylon, will not only be, it is confidently hoped, one of Your Excellency’s first endeavours; but it is respectfully submitted, becomes a duty which cannot perhaps be too strongly impressed upon your attention.” James de Alwis: The Sidath Sangarāva, Colombo 1852: pp. V - VI (Litho-graph edition of July 1966 in the Ceylon National Museums Translation Series under the title: A Survey of Sinhala Literature.)

The action, taken promptly by the Governor, is reflected in a minute he issued embodying a programme of examinations. The administration continued not only to raise the level of proficiency required but also provide facilities for young civil servants to pursue their studies. In 1863 Governor Sir Charles MacCarthy ordered monthly language examinations and, besides, reducing the working hours of civil service cadets, gave an allowance to engage the services of a teacher – an allowance which continued until the abolition of the Ceylon Civil Service in 1963 and was called the “Pandit Allowance.”

Both Childers and Rhys Davids joined the civil service at the time the rules laid down by MacCarthy were in force. The study of Sinhala for the monthly examinations was a very serious business. The syllabus demanded a very good command of the language, including an in-depth knowledge of grammar. Prescribed texts on which the cadets (or writers, as they were first called) were tested, consisted of well-known Sinhala classics like Ummaggajātaka, Saddharmālaṅkāraya, Kusajātaka. Such a course of studies, which had to be completed in 18-21 months called for the guidance of high calibre scholars and that explains why scholar-monks like Ven. Yātrāmulle Dhammārāma, Ven. Hikkaḍuwe Śrī [lxxviii] Sumaṅgala and Waskaḍuwe Śrī Subhūti were in high demand. It is not at all surprising that under such conditions of service and the guidance of such erudite monks, men like Childers, Rhys David (as well as Dickson, Lee, Fagden, etc.) turned out to be so well grounded in Sinhala language, literature and culture.

2. Beginnings of Western Interest in Pali and Buddhist Studies in Sri Lanka.

Although the earliest known scholarly notice of Pali in the West In Sri Lanka itself, B. Clough’s “Compendious Pali Grammar with a copious Vocabulary in the same Language” was published two years earlier (Colombo 1824). is to be found in “Essai sur le Pali”, published in Paris in 1826 by Eugene Burnouf in collaboration with Christian Lassen and Burnouf’s subsequent publication, “Observations Grammaticales sur quelques Passages de l‘Essai sur le Pali de Burnouf et Lassen”, Paris 1827, the publication of the Mahāvaṁsa in Roman script by George Turnour of the Ceylon Civil Service in Colombo in 1837 is widely considered to be the most significant landmark in the discovery of the Pali Literature of Sri Lanka by the world outside. Speaking to an American audience in New York in 1894, T. W. Rhys Davids said,

“The story of the discovery of Pali is not without its interest. When in the thirties (1830s) that most gifted and original of Indian archaeologists, James Prinsep – clarumet venerabile nomen – was wearing himself out in his enthusiastic efforts to decipher the coins and inscriptions of India, whilst the very alphabets and dialects were as yet uncertain, he received constant help from George Turnour, of the Ceylon Civil Service. For in Ceylon there was a history, indeed several books of history, whereas in Calcutta the Indian records were devoid of any reliable data to help in the identification of the new names Prinsep thought he could make out. It is not too much to say that without the help of the Ceylon books the striking identification of the King Piyadassi of the inscriptions with the King Asoka of history would never have been made. Once made it rendered [lxxix] subsequent steps comparatively easy, and it gave to Prinsep and his co-adjutors just that encouragement, and the element of certainty, which were needed to keep their enthusiasm alive.

Turnour was of course much pleased. He was a very busy man, at the head of the Ceylon Civil Service. But he had most intelligent and learned Ceylonese assistants at his command. And by their help he published in the Bengal Asiatic Society’s journal a short series of articles on the Pali books, and finally brought out in 1837 a complete edition of the text of the Maha Vaṁsa (or “Great Chronicle” of Ceylon) with a translation into English and a most interesting introductory essay.

The value of the editio princeps was at once and widely acknowledged. But on the death of Turnour, no one was found to carry on his work. There was no dictionary of Pali, and no grammar worthy of the name. European scholars could not go out to Ceylon, and there enjoy the benefit of the help which had made Turnour’s labours possible. His book remained, like a solitary landmark in an unexplored country, chiefly useful as a continual inducement to some scholar with ability and leisure to explore beyond. Only a few insignificant essays, nibbling inefficiently at the outskirts of the subject, appeared in Europe, till at last in 1855 Vincent Fausböll come forward with an editio princeps of another Pali text.” T. W. Rhys Davids: The History and Literature of Buddhism (First Edition 1896) Fifth Edition, Calcutta, 1962 pp. 31-32. See also Winternitz ; A History of Indian Literature Vol. II p. 228: “Shortly afterwards, the Pali Literature of Ceylon, too, was opened by George Turnour.

Between the publication of Turnour’s Mahāvaṁsa and Fausböll’s Dhammapada, two British Christian clergymen of Sri Lanka had begun to bring the wealth of literary material in Pali to the English-speaking world.

The Rev. D. J. Gogerly (1792 - 1862) not only wrote extensively on Buddhism in the first volume of the Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JCBRAS, I No. 1, 1845; No.2 1846; No. 3 1847-48) but also translated Sigālovāda Sutta [lxxx] (I No. 2, 1846), Subha Sutta (I, No. 2, 1846), Raṭṭhapāla Sutta (I, No. 3, 1847-48), Cariyāpiṭaka (II, No. 6, 1853) and, much later, Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana Sutta (IV, No. 13, 1865-66). He has also touched upon the rules of discipline of the Buddhist Saṅgha (II, No. 6,1853 to III, No. 11, 1858 - 59) and some aspects of Buddhist ethics (II, No. 4, 1848-49). We have also the text of a comprehensive lecture he had delivered in Colombo in 1867, (IV, No. 14, 1867-70). Rev. Gogerly was dismayed that the educated Sinhalas were not giving enough attention to this literature. James de Alwis quotes from a speech Rev. Gogerly had made at a public meeting. He had said, “It was a fact also, that educated Singhalese, in giving attention to English learning and literature, had entirely overlooked their own.”

The Revd. R. Spence Hardy, too, figured in the first Volume of JCBRAS with a brief account of Sinhala language and literature (No. 2, 1846-47) and a list of books in Pali and Sinhala languages (I, No. 3, 1847– 48). His “Eastern Monachism” (1850), “A Manual of Buddhism in its Modern Development” (First Edition 1853 and Second Edition 1880) and “Legends and Theories of the Buddhist compared with History and Science” (1886) were among the earliest works on Buddhism in Sri Lanka to be widely read in the West. The first two works were, for a long time, considered to be standard authoritative works on the subject and figure in many of the older recommended reading lists; e.g E. J. Thomas: The History of Buddhist Thought, London, 1933 p 298; Tachibana: Ethics of Buddhism, Oxford, 1926 (Third Edition, Colombo 1961, p. 202); they are also quoted from and alluded to by such scholars as Fausböll, Rhys Davids, Winternitz, Oldenberg and Rādhākrishnan.

Neither Revd. Gogerly nor Revd. Hardy could be rated as unbiased students of Buddhism as they were zealous missionaries whose objective in studying the languages, the customs and the religions of the people was to facilitate the achievement of their evangelical purposes. In the words of J. Barthelemy Sainte-Hilaire, who in 1858 wrote appreciatively of the work of Revd. Hardy, [lxxxi]

“Revd. Spence Hardy resided twenty years in Ceylon as a Wesleyan missionary (1825–1845). In the exercise of his sacred ministry, he was thrown into constant intercourse with the natives, whom he strove to instruct and console. Full of zeal for his calling, he fulfilled his duties with a fervour that is testified by the two works he has published on Buddhism. As soon as he reached Ceylon he began the study of the language in order to acquaint himself thoroughly with a religion which it was his ambition to supplant by a better one, and he never ceased the pursuing of the studies he had so energetically begun. He wished more particularly to be of use to the missionaries who should succeed him, and it was with this practical object in view that he wrote his two books, Eastern Monachism and The Manual of Buddhism.

The English missionaries must decide if Spence Hardy succeeded in carrying out his purpose, and if these two works have really assisted them in their struggle against the deplorable superstitions which they are striving to replace by the Christian faith. But it would perhaps have been preferable had Spence Hardy confined his labours to the present condition of Buddhism in Ceylon, and not undertaken such a very extensive work. J. Barthelemy Sainte-Hilaire: The Buddha and His Religion (Translated by Laura Ensor) London, 1858 pp. 322 – 323.

Yet, as the sentiments expressed in the last sentence hint at, Revd. Hardy – and certainly, Revd. Gogerly also – exceeded the narrow purpose and became serious scholars with a relatively higher degree of objectivity than one would see in some of the writings of local Christian clergymen and new converts. The works of both of them are replete with statements which speak of Buddhist ethics and philosophy, Pali and Sinhala literature and the general character and behaviour of Sri Lankan Buddhists (specially their tolerance) in very complimentary terms. They undertook laborious scholarly tasks and according to a report published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in London, Revd. Gogerly left in manuscript a Dictionary of the Pali Language going up to 15,000 words – an effort of twenty-five years. JRAS (GB) I May 1864 p. IX. [lxxxii]

Just as the study of Pali and Buddhism languished in Europe for a whole generation after Fausböll’s publication in 1855 of Dhammapada with a Latin translation and copious extracts from the commentary, in Sri Lanka, too, there was a considerable lull. For some time James de Aiwis was almost a lone worker as far as the English-educated section of the population was concerned. A new generation to take the place of Tolfrey and Turnour was slow in appearing. It was possibly a period of reappraisal – a deliberate evaluation of the new field of study after the initial enthusiasm.

During this period, something very significant was happening in another quarter. In 1858, Barthelemy Saint-Hilaire concluded his assessment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka with the following statement;

“We are far from saying that Sinhalese Buddhism is bound to destruction or even to decay; but it is certain that Christianity, particularly under the Catholic form, has already made great progress. The Buddhist clergy does not seem to prepare itself for the struggle by renewed zeal; at the most the fanaticism of certain priests endeavour at times to rouse the population to rebellion, thereby only betraying their weakness. It is only by serious study and a return to the purity of the primitive faith that the Buddhist clergy would have some chance of saving their religion. But we doubt that their vitality would be equal to the effort; nor indeed is it desired, for although it cannot be denied that the law of the Buddha has rendered great services to these races, yet it could not be regretted if, in the natural course of things, and through a pacific and beneficient propaganda, it should be replaced by Christianity” Sainte-Hilaire: Loc. Cit pp. 368-369 (Italics mine).

Notwithstanding the doubts and the hopes of those like Saint-Hilaire, the Saṅgha proved to be equal to the task. Whether in response to what the missionaries were doing to replace Buddhism with Christianity or through the motivation given by the favourable acceptance of initial expositions on Pali and Buddhism in the West, the Buddhist Saṅgha, supported by some English-educated lay Buddhists, ushered in, at this precise moment, an organized effort to promote Oriental Studies, in general, and Pali and Buddhist [lxxxiii] studies, in particular. They recognized that the task of interpreting Buddhism to the world was their task rather than that of Christian missionaries. They were preparing themselves for the task not only by setting up institutions to promote the requisite scholarly backstopping but also by forging the essential links with the administrative hierarchy of the country. Fortunately, the rules pertaining to language studies of civil servants came to their assistance and several monks like the ones whose correspondence we have dealt with in this Volume established long-lasting friendships with British Administrators. A new generation of both European and national civil servants – the latter being primarily from the Mudliar Service – appeared on the scene. The foremost in this new generation were Robert C. Childers and his successor as the Governor’s Private Secretary, T. W. Rhys Davids.