The Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka is 175 years old

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By Dr. Hema Goonatilake

The Sunday Times, 22-9-2019


Next year marks the completion of 175 years of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka (RASSL). And it is time to see this important Society in historical perspective.

Dr. Hema Goonatilake at the RASSL library. Pic courtesy RASSL

The Royal Asiatic Societies (some having dropped the “Royal” after independence from the British) began in the late 18th century in then British India’s Calcutta as British rulers tried to understand their colonies. Branches of the Calcutta original were established in London in 1823 and ours in 1845 — initially as a branch of the London Society. I personally had my first exposure to the Society in London when, as then a PhD student in London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), I was one of the organisers of the 150th anniversary of the British Society. Signifying its importantance, our Chief guest was our patron, the British Queen. Let me recall.

Sir William Jones, a scholar and linguist, who in Calcutta in September 1783, took up his appointment as a Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court in Bengal, called a meeting on January 15, 1784, of 30 of the leading European “gentlemen” of Calcutta. At this meeting, Jones delivered a discourse on the ‘Institution of a Society for enquiring into the History, Civil and Natural, the Antiquities, Arts, Sciences and Literature of Asia’. The name for the Society adopted at this inaugural meeting was ‘Asiatic Society’.

The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland was founded in London by a retired president of the above Calcutta Asiatic Society. Although the appellation ‘Royal’ was added later, the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, is the original society. The Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka (RASSL) was founded in 1845. The intellectual shadow of the Royal Society founded in 1660 associated with figures like Newton which brought in the Scientific Revolution hung over these Asiatic Societies.

In fact, some of the founders were those inspired by the influence of the European Enlightenment which came into force after the advances of science removed some of the cobwebs of the thousand-year-old blind obedience to the church’s misconceptions. On a global scale these Asiatic societies provided an intellectual link between Asian and Western civilisations. All the Asiatic Societies in their early decades performed a dual function in trying to understand mostly the colonial subjects of the British namely further knowledge as well as to use that knowledge in their colonial governance.  This understanding extended also to the Asiatic Societies in non-colonies which were modelled after the Calcutta and UK originals. They included the Asiatic Societies of Korea and Japan.

British governance

The composition of members in the original Sri Lanka branch reflected British governance. And thus included the early colonial elite such as the Governor as Patron, Vice Patrons the Lieutenant Governor or Chief Justice. Office bearers were members of the Ceylon Civil Service from Colonial Secretary downwards, Judges, 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 majority of members were foreigners, and all were Christians. “Natives” were initially restricted to local Mudaliyars who were intermediaries in British governance — between the colonials and the locals. The emergence of the Ceylon Asiatic Society was parallel to the emergence 10 years earlier of the Colombo Academy (later renamed as Royal College) modelled after Eton to train the local elite on a British template. There were initially membership links between the two as part of the arrangements for British rule. And reflecting male primacy in then British Victorian culture, women were largely unrepresented. (In fact, although there were very suitable women academics earlier, it was only with me that there was a woman president and woman editor.)

In the 19th and early 20th Century, the RASSL was the main centre for academic exchange in the country. It did translations of key Pali and Sinhala texts. Over the decades, however, the RASSL changed its initial colonial thrust. For the first time, major Buddhist texts were translated into Western languages. Together with some of the 19th century monks associated with the Buddhist revival, the RASSL became a clearinghouse for knowledge from both East and West. It helped establish museums, the Meteorology Department, the Archaeological Department, the Registrar General’s Department, the Statistics Department, the Archives, the Sinhala Dictionary, and the university.

Mahavamsa translation

In 1837, even before the formation of the RASSL, George Turner, who later became very active in the RASSL, had translated the Mahavamsa into English. This gave the lie as the recent British author Charles Allen describes to the assertion by Macaulay in 1835 that India (implying the whole of South Asia) had no reliable history. Macaulay’s perspective was that the region had only fairy tales implying in the latter category, Hindu tales like the Mahabharatha and Ramayana. The Mahavamsa translation was read by those associated with the Calcutta Asiatic Society who were then discovering the inscriptions of Asoka but could not make sense of them. They suddenly found that the Mahavamsa was an important key to early Indian history.

Guruge and others have documented the close links between RASSL members, and the scholar monks associated with the Buddhist revival. So consequently, there began major translations of Pali and Sinhala texts. In recent decades there were translations of Pali Atthakatha – the Pali commentaries on Buddhist teachings done mostly in Anuradhapura.

Thus Clarke Warren (1854-1899) edited and translated the Visuddhimagga the 5th century compendium on meditation, Childers did a Pali dictionary, Hermann Oldenberg wrote the first authoritative German text on Buddhism, Rhys Davids founded the Pali Text Society PTS in 1881 with the financial and academic help of Sinhalese monks, Rhys Davids and Wickremasinghe established Pali and Sanskrit studies at Oxford and London Universities, Max Muller the leading German Pali and Sanskrit scholar did major translations,  Edwin Arnold wrote the important biographical poem on the Buddha, the “Light of Asia” and Paul Carus, as editor of the very influential journals The Open Court and The Monist, provided Western platforms for East-West dialogue.

Among the many Buddhist monks working directly or indirectly with the RASSL were Waskaduwe Subhuti Thera, Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera who founded the Vidyodaya Pirivena in 1873, and Ratmalane Dharmaraloka Thera who founded the Vidyalankara Pirivena in 1875. Other later members in the 20th century included Leonard Woolf, D.B. Jayatilleke, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, S. Paranavithana and H.C.P. Bell.

The journal has been the main academic outlet of the Society and in its early years, the journal included also discussions after an oral presentation. Today the presentations are made in public lectures in the Annual Research Sessions. This trend was begun over 10 years ago. This was expressly to overcome the lack of exposure of local academics to an international platform, resulting in their lack of citations for their own academic work.

Plans are underway to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the organisation in 2020. More than the formal celebrations what is required is to take stock.

Asia rising again

The RASSL during its formation initiated an East-West dialogue initially for the benefit of the rulers. Today the tables are turning, and it is the era of the rise of Asia again. Asiatic Societies such as ours could look at the world from the opposite direction of what the original Calcutta Society did. This was the position taken by a recent RASSL President in a meeting of Asiatic societies in New Delhi, namely that we should prepare for Asia’s dominance. Unfortunately, this hope of a civilisational shift in perspective which has been the reason given for the recent rapid rise of China is lacking. China has been a continuous civilisation with three strands –Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism – for nearly 2000 years. Sri Lanka has also been a continuous civilisation with its major strand of Buddhism (which allowed for other belief systems) for around the same length of time.

The contribution of RASSL has been mostly on translating Buddhist texts and interpreting them. This unfortunately has been misinterpreted by a strand of colonial anthropologists which downplays the Buddhist revival against colonial inroads as adopting these inroads and calling it “Protestant Buddhism.”

To contribute to the contemporary shift to Asia is to understand both the Western tradition as well as our own traditions. Unfortunately, this is not happening adequately partly because of ignorance by some of our local scholars who work only in Sinhala and are not aware of what is being written on Sri Lanka. The opposite of this tendency is foreign scholars without understanding our local dynamics writing disparagingly on the country much more disparagingly than did the RASSL scholars of yesteryears. The RASSL leadership recently tried to correct this by asking the relevant authorities to send our scholars overseas for their post-graduate training so that they would be able to counteract fictional material on Sri Lanka. But to no avail. To really celebrate 175 years is to master our reality and that of the world as once did the British for their own ends.

(The writer is a former RASSL president.)