Sir Robert Chalmers - Governor of Ceylon and Pali Scholar



Sir Robert Chalmers was the Governor of Ceylon from 1913-1915. Today, he is remembered as being the Governor during the Sinhalese-Muslim riots in 1915 when the colonial authorities over-reacted and imposed martial law for three months, causing considerable trauma to sections of the Sinhalese population. Chalmers is frequently accused as having been anti-Buddhist. He was, in reality, one of the foremost Pali scholars of the time and this article describes his contributions to the study of Buddhist literature.

Chalmers was born in London in 1858. He attended the City of London school during the headmastership of Dr Edwin Abbott. Chalmers was described later by Abbott as an exact and tasteful scholar who wrote good and vigorous composition in Greek and Latin, has some knowledge in Sanskrit, and made a special study of philology. He went up to Oriel College, Oxford, in 1877 with a classical scholarship where he studied classics till Moderations. At that point he changed to Natural Sciences (Biological subjects) as he considered taking medicine. Following graduation, he dropped the idea of medicine and entered the Treasury, eventually becoming Permanent Secretary in 1911.

Chalmers was attracted to Pali by the enthusiasm of Professor Rhys Davids whose pupil he became. He joined the Pali Text Society in 1894 and published a paper in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society entitled ‘The Madhura Sutta - concerning caste’. The sutta, which is contained in the Majjhima Nikaya, gives the Buddhist view on caste. In the paper, Chalmers discussed the origin of the sutta, gives the Pali text and an English translation. In the next year, 1895, he published another paper in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society on the ‘Nativity of the Buddha’. This contained the Pali text of an unpublished sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya dealing with the ‘marvels and mysteries’ of the Buddha’s nativity (Acchariyabbhuta- suttam). He then took over the task of translating the Jataka tales from Rhys Davids, He joined the company of scholars, under the editorship of Professor Cowell, with the object of translating the complete set of Jataka tales. The first volume was translated by Chalmers in 1895 and dedicated to Rhys Davids. This contained Jataka No.1 (Apannaka Jataka) to No.150 (Sanjiva Jataka).

At the Paris Congess of 1897, Chalmers gave a presentation on the Pali term Tathagata which evoked much interest. A paper on the topic was also published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1898. In this paper he discusses how the first title assumed by the new Buddha was not Samma-sambuddha but Tathagata. The Buddha used the same term in his dying words (Tamhehi kiccam atappam akkhataro Tathagata). In 1898 he published another paper in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society on the King of Siam’s Edition of the Pali Tipitaka. In the paper, he marvelled at the publication of 39 volumes of the Pali Canon. He commended the Pali scholarship of the publication which he said would remain a great landmark on the path of progress and an enduring monument to the Buddhist king who conceived and executed so excellent an undertaking. From 1895 to 1902, under the guidance of Rhys Davids, he published the first edition of the Pali text of the Second Collection (Nikaya) in the first division (Sutta Pitaka): Discourses of the Buddha in the Majjhima Nikaya. He transcribed the text from the original script in Sinhala, Burmese and Siamese. He continued to work on the translation of this text which was published by the Pali Text Society as the ‘Further Discourses of the Buddha’ in 1926-7.

Chalmers arrived in Ceylon as Governor in 1913. His fame as a Pali scholar had preceded his arrival and local scholars, particularly Buddhist monks, were jubilant. One of his first public engagements was to preside over the prize-giving at Vidyodaya Pirivena. As he had studied Pali in Roman script, the monks thought that he would not be able to enunciate Pali

words and arranged for a interpreter to translate his English speech to Sinhalese. But to their utter amazement, he replied to their elaborate Pali address of welcome in an extempore speech in choice Pali, flawlessly enunciating every word. He concluded his half hour address by saying: ‘May this noble Pali language ever flourish in Lanka’. Later he decided to bring out an edition of the Ceylonese Commentaries, which he proposed to call the Aluvihara Edition. As he explained in an address to the School of Oriental Studies at the Vidyodaya Pirivena in February 1915; ‘I shall do myself the pleasure first of paying the printer’s bill for the thousand copies of the two volumes of the Dhammarana edition of the Papanca Sudani and secondly of asking the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society to accept as a gift from me the thousand copies, the sale proceeds of which will form a reproductive fund for the future publication of successive volumes of Pitakas and Atthakathas by Ceylon’s most eminent scholars in our Aluvihara Edition. Mark the name ‘Aluvihara Edition’, to which I attach special value, both as recognising a debt to those Ceylon scholars who laboured at Aluvihara, two thousand years ago, and also as recording our own aspiration in these latter days to follow in their footsteps by giving Ceylon, in printed form, a rescension worthy alike of Ceylon’s traditions and of her scholarship today’. The Society accepted the offer in November 1915 and the proceeds were kept in a special fund called ‘The Chalmers Oriental Text Fund’. Unfortunately, when Chalmers was recalled to England in 1916, all his constructive plans for the Ceylon’s pre-eminence for Pali scholarship had to be abandoned, with only one book the Papanca-sudani, of the Mijjhima, having been published. Fortunately, the work begun under the inspiration of Chalmers was not destined to be left uncontinued, and was progressed with funds left in the will of Simon Hewavitarna.

He was appointed Master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge in 1924. During his Mastership he produced his last work of scholarship - a metrical translation of the Sutta Nipata, the earliest teaching of the Buddha in Pali verse. At the time, his translation was considered: ‘more remarkable for its style than precise literary accuracy. He showed literary skill in his translation, sough out good English equivalents for the technical terms of Buddhism, and cut short the remorseless repetitions’. He was appointed President of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1922. He continued to take an interest in Pali scholarship in Ceylon. In 1931, the Council of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society considered what should follow the Papanca Sudani in the Aluvihara Edition and referred the matter to Lord Chalmers. He agreed with G P Malalasekera that the extended Mahavamsa should be included next. Chalmers donated his fine Pali library to Miss I B Horner, the then Librarian of Newnham College, Cambridge. He passed away in November 1938.

It is remarkable that someone who was not born a Buddhist, did not live in a Buddhist country, nor was employed to do so, would devote nearly forty years of his adult life to translating or editing about two thousand pages of Pali text. Unfortunately, this academic background made him ill-suited for handling communal disorders during the 1915 riots.