The Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon (now renamed “of Sri Lanka”, RASSL) established on 7th February, 1845 is the pioneering organ for “oriental” research in Sri Lanka. Its founding interests varied from the religion, history, literature, sociology, geology, botany and zoology of Sri Lanka.
Based initially on templates of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the Asiatic Society of Calcutta it provided a bridge for East-West discourse. Among those who contributed to this rich exchange at the RASSL are founders of the Buddhist Renaissance in Sri Lanka and in the West, of oriental studies especially Buddhist studies. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the RASSL through its discussions, journals and other publications became the main center for academic exchange in the country.
The RASSL undertook translations of key Pali and Sinhala texts. Later it helped establish the Museums, the Meteorology Department, the Archaeological Department, the Registrar Generalâ€™s Department, the Statistics Department, the Archives, the Sinhala Dictionery, Historical Manuscripts Commission and the University.
It pioneered the studies on Study of the Etymology of the Sinhalese Language, the Veddas (the Aborigines of Sri Lanka), an English translation of the Mahavamsa (the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka), Research and Translation of the Dutch Archives, Maldivian Studies, Toponymy of Sri Lanka and Translations of Pali Buddhist Commentaries into Sinhala.
The composition of the early RAS members was the colonial elite such as the Governor as Patron, the Lieutenant Governor or Chief Justice as `Vice Patrons. Office Bearers were members of the Ceylon Civil Service from Colonial Secretary downwards, Judges and Heads of Departments. The Anglican Church, the official church was well represented as well as the British editors of the Ceylon Observer and the Times of Ceylon. The vast majority of members were the colonial British and all were Christians. â€œNatives” were restricted to local Mudaliyars. But as the decades went by, it became a platform also for locals initially for Christian but later for those in the Buddhist and nationalist Renaissance.
Today we are seeing a shift of civilisations, the return of Asia into its rightful place. The RASSL reflecting these global trends has taken new directions in its activities over the last few years. It is increasingly re-entering the key position it held earlier in the country, a result partially of the lack of valid platforms in the country for the humanities and the social sciences.
The Societyâ€™s main academic publication is its Journal. In 1846, it was the Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and later in 1977 re-designated as Journal of the Sri Lanka Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. In 1987/88 it was re-named as the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. The J/RASSL is one of the most sought after publications by researchers in all aspects of Sri Lankan studies.
The Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka has made an unique contribution to the welfare and development of Sri Lanka. It retains its unparallelled position in the social fabric of the country.