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German Foreign Minister on a goodwill visit : 

Lanka's history rediscovered through Geiger

Joschka Fisher, the Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany is in Sri Lanka on a goodwill visit. Germany and Sri Lanka established diplomatic relations fifty years ago.

But Buddhism, literature and culture of Sri Lanka attracted German scholars since the nineteenth century. Foremost amongst them was Wilhelm Geiger on whom the literary, cultural and religious history of Sri Lanka made a deep impression which drew him to visit Sri Lanka in 1895.

This led him to translate, most importantly the Mahavamsa - the story of the Sinhalese - which was considered as the first "critical" and scholarly translation by the literary world, both here and abroad. Even today, Geiger is held in high esteem by the Sri Lankans for bringing the Mahavamsa - the backbone of the island's history, closer home.

- Geiger and the Mahavamsa

by Rajitha Weerakoon

Wilhelm Geiger was one of the first German scholars to stir the interest of the west in the cultural spectrum of Sri Lanka. Geiger was fascinated by the ancient historical chronicles of Sri Lanka as well as Buddhism. Buddhist literature and the eastern languages - Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhalese.

A biography written by Heinz Bechert in 1976 on "Wilhelm Geiger, His Life and Works" traces this cultural fascination of Western scholars and the place Geiger occupied in the growth of western knowledge on Buddhism and the island's languages, history and culture.

Pali, Bechert says was the highpoint of Geiger's teacher Fredrich von Spiegel while Ernst Kuhn laid the foundation for Geiger to pursue linguistic history of Pali and Sinhalese which led him to declare that Sinhalese is a direct continuation of Pali and a pure Aryan dialect as is proved by its linguistic history.

The true beginning of scientific work

In Sri Lanka although Geiger immersed himself in translating and writing commentaries in German on numerous ancient Pali and Sinhalese texts, his greatest and the most significant contribution was his translations of the two ancient chronicles. The Dipavamsa (of the 4th century CE) and The Mahavamsa (of the 5th century CE) which historian G. C. Mendis in his 1946 survey of the research into chronicles of Ceylon defined as the true beginning of scientific work in the field.

Bechert says, "it is well-known that on the subcontinent before the invasion of the Islamic conquerors, virtually no historic literature had developed.

The dating of Indian rulers and the dating of Indian literature therefore are, liable to present considerable difficulties. Much of the knowledge of early Indian history is derived from non-Indian sources and from the evaluation of the inscriptions left by Indian rulers. But not from Indian literary works.

Sanskrit writings which were regarded as source material for the history of ancient India in the early days of European-Indian studies such as Mahabharatha and the Puranas have proved in the light of modern research entirely legendary in which little trust can be placed.

"But, Ceylon" writes Bechert, "tells quite a different story. In the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa and in various other ancient Sinhala and Pali texts we are given an account of the political and cultural history of the island from earliest times until the present time.

"And," he says "one of the greatest contributions of the Sinhalese people to the cultural development of South and South-East Asia and to the world literature is the creation of a historic literature."

An English translation

Inspired to do scientific research due to these factors, the Western world got activated as early as 1826 when the British bookseller Edward Upham edited in London an English translation of The Mahavamsa, The Rajaratnakaraya and the Rajavaliya based on a Dutch paraphrase. But it was in many respects, unreliable.

A closer knowledge of The Mahavamsa was provided by the translated text of George Turnour in 1837 which comprised only the older part of the Mahavamsa - from chapters 1-38. The continuation - The Chulavamsa was edited by Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera and Don Andris de Silva Batuwantudawe in 1877 and translated into English by L. C. Wijesinghe. Geiger however found that the earlier editors had not presented a "critical" edition.

A German national - Hermann Oldenberg in 1879 had already translated the older chronicle - the Dipavamsa into English which was considered a reliable and scholarly edition and produced according to scientific philological research methods. But evaluating the worth of the chronicle as historical source material had not been done. And no comparative study had been done either from which could be acquired a picture of the development of historical traditions of the island. Nor had there been at the time, an examination of the sources of the chronicles under discussion to assess the credibility of the texts.

Directing along these lines, Geiger first wrote "the Dipavamsa and The Mahavamsa, the two Chronicles of Ceylon" in 1901. He started with Oldenberg's introduction to his edition of The Dipavamsa, accepted his basic thesis, established it on a sounder footing and enriched it with vital discoveries.

Geiger started on the premise that the two chronicles are essentially two versions of the same material, derived from the same source now lost to us. He established that the composition of the Dipavamsa indicated clearly that it was passed down by world of mouth and the Mahavamsa utilised not only the already mentioned source material but also other sources of popular national traditions. Geiger besides, for the first time elaborated upon the concept of the Duttagamani epic related in The Mahavamsa, which takes the form of an individual popular epic of 861 verses.

This can be considered as a preliminary study for Geiger's first major contribution to the knowledge of the chronicles written in 1905 in German and translated into English as "The Dipavamsa and The Mahavamsa and their Historical Development in Ceylon" by Ethel M. Coomaraswamy in 1908.

From Geiger's earlier edition of 1901 evolved a detailed critical study of the Dipavamsa and the older portion of the Mahavamsa. In the foreword of this edition he wrote thus:

"There is hardly a corner of the Indian continent of whose history we know so much as we do that of the island of Ceylon. The main source are the two chronicles The Dipavamsa and The Mahavamsa.

"Whoever who writes the history of Ceylon will have to separate the real kernel of fact from the traditional material. But as historians, we cannot but rejoice over the form in which the record of events is embodied. And from the standpoint of history of literature, the Ceylonese chronicles deserve notice not only amongst orientalist but in wider circles.

The Mahavamsa the epic

"We are able to follow the development of an epic in its literary evolution. We are able to picture the contents and forms which forms the basis of the epic song and of the various elements with which it is composed. We could note in it the signs and characters of the original oral-tradition lying far back in time and the mixture of prose and verse.

The Dipavamsa represents the first unaided struggle to create an epic out of already existing material. It is a document that fixes our attention because of the incompleteness of its composition and its want of style. We stand on the very threshold of the epic like the way the archaeologists found the severed form of Apollo of Tenea more interesting than many more celebrated works of fully evolved Grecian sculpture.

"The Mahavamsa is an epic and is the recognised work of a poet. We are able to watch this poet in a certain measure at his work in his workshop. But he had not been alone in the composition of this masterpiece. The Mahavamsa had been continued by other writers as well who have carried on the history to their own day. Even the original work had been revised. It had so happened that the writers without making any alterations in the original had inserted episodes that seemed worthy of notice to them thus nearly doubling the bulk of the matter."

The Dipavamsa

Geiger's comparisons of the chronicles and his thesis on the historical value of the traditions handed down by the chronicles led to a scientific controversy as it was argued by other scholars that Geiger's contention that "Sihalatthakatha Mahavamsa" from which the existing chronicles drew material, never existed and that The Dipavamsa was created with verses and parts of verses from Pali canonical literature, in particular.

The Buddhavamsa, the Chariyapitaka and the jatakas. Geiger refuted these criticisms in 1909 in an article titled "Once more The Dipavamsa and The Mahavamsa." Research today has established that Geiger was correct.

Geiger took 3 years to complete his scientific editing of the Mahavamsa drawing also from the tika (ancient commentary on the text). In the course of this he collated fully 2 manuscript versions of the text, 6 in Sinhala, 2 in Burmese and 2 in Cambodian script.

Geiger's Mahavamsa appeared in London as a publication of the Pali Text Society. Geiger also translated Oldenberg's edition of The Mahavamsa which was later translated into English by the Pali scholar Mabel Bode. Geiger's translation of the Mahavamsa in 1912 won universal acclaim and was reprinted many times.

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