Wilhelm Ludwig Geiger in Sri Lanka
Wilhelm Ludwig Geiger and Sri Lanka
Wilhelm Ludwig Geiger [1856-1943], a German Orientalist in the fields of Indian and Iranian languages, specialist in Pali and Sinhala languages, the professor of philology [1891-1920] at the University of Erlangen, Germany and the third translator of “The Mahavamsa” [the first translation was by illustrious George Turnour, a British Colonial civil servant in Ceylon, in 1837–Mahavamsa Part 1 ; the second translation was by Mudliyar L. C. Wijesinha in 1889- Mahavamsa Part 2] or “The Great Chronicle of Ceylon” in 1912, loved Buddhism, Aryan Sinhalese Race and Sinhala language. His first travel narration on Sri Lanka titled “Ceylon: Tagebuchblätter und Reiseerinnerungen” testifies to his love.
“The time I spent in Sri Lanka brought me manifold joys. I was firmly in the embrace of the people, its ancient glory and the natural splendor of Sri Lanka. In reciprocity, I too felt as if I have become an integral part of its life and times under the tropical sky. I hope, my memoirs of my times in Sri Lanka that I narrate with a certain spiritual joy may bring as much a joy to the dear readers too.”
Wilhelm Geiger and Buddhism
Geiger (1856-1943) too was attracted to the merits and virtues of Buddhism that attract all, no matter the roots of him is in the east or the west; more he read on Buddhism, more he got attracted. Wilhelm Geiger’s thoughts on Buddhism were heartfelt and passionate. The Buddhist concept of “the man being his own master of his destiny” made him contemplate deeply. He wrote:
“The strong points and weak points of the Buddhist doctrine are clear cut. The strong point of Buddhism is the liberation of each one is in his own hands. It isn’t subject to the judgment of a higher being.”
It seems our Geiger [Is he not ours: he visited Sri Lanka three times; studied Sinhala; translated Mahavamsa to German from Pali; and we on our part commemorated him on a postal stamp in Sri Lanka in 1989 and still do pay homage to him as I, bunpeiris do now] had already been nourished by the ideas of his countryman Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche [1844 –1900]. Nietzsche refused to affirm the belief in a transcendent God and the man being subject to this higher being.
I hope that my condemnation of Christianity has not involved me in any injustice to a related religion with an even larger number of adherents: Buddhism. Both belong together as nihilistic religions—they are religions of decadence—but they differ most remarkably. For being in a position now to compare them, the critic of Christianity is profoundly grateful to the students of India. Buddhism is a hundred times more realistic than Christianity: posing problems objectively and coolly is part of its inheritance, for Buddhism comes after a philosophic movement which spanned centuries. The concept of “God” had long been disposed of when it arrived. Buddhism is the only genuinely positivistic religion in history. This applies even to its theory of knowledge (a strict phenomenalism): it no longer says “struggle against sin” but, duly respectful of reality, “struggle against suffering.” Buddhism is profoundly distinguished from Christianity by the fact that the self-deception of the moral concepts lies far behind it. In my terms, it stands beyond good and evil.
Wilhelm Geiger in front of Ruwanweliseya stupa [Ruwanveli Seya Stupa] at Anuradhpuara
During his sojourn in scholarly and hardworking Sri Lanka Holidays, our Geiger must have been having the ideas of Nietzsche simmering in his mind. How he felt about Buddhism is best be quoted in his own words:
“I have come to realize that the loveliest flower even born in the human heart is Buddhism”
At Anuradhapura, having stood in front of the Ruwanweliseya stupa [Ruwanveli Seya Stupa], his heart must have bubbled with serene thoughts:
“In spite of the stupendous dimensions of the Ruwanweliseya Stupa (Ruwanveli Seya Stupa), the great edifice contains a soothing being of lightness. The great stupa is a serene treasure that stands with majesty amidst the free environment. It rises in the skyline resplendent as if cloaked in a flame emanating rays of gold. Ruwanweliseya stupa’s [Ruwanveli Seya Stupa] stupendous yet serene presence seems to infuse, upon the onlooker, the very four sublime states of virtue outlined in Buddhism.”
Metta or caring, loving kindness displayed to all you meet;
Karuna: compassion or mercy, the special kindness shown to those who suffer;
Mudita or sympathetic joy, being happy for others, without a trace of envy;
Uppekha or equanimity or levelness, the ability to accept others as they are.
The lure of ancient ruins
Ancient ruins are bound to afford opportunities for intellectual enlightenment. The lure of the ruins are all-encompassing to those with an artistic or a literary bent, and to those with a sense of history as well as to the archeologists and the historians. It is said, of the artists, among the most enraptured by the grandeur of Roman Ruins was the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi [1720 – 1778] famous for his “Etchings of Rome”. In Rome from 1740-1743 and from 1745 until his death in 1778, his commitment in depicting resplendent antiquity was noted by a no less connoisseur than Horace Walpole or Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (1717 –1797), an English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and British politician:
The sublime dreams of Piranesi who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what is boasted even in the meridian of its splendor.”
Indeed, Walpole, overcome with rapacious consumerism, had portfolios crammed with prints of his favorite Roman ruins. He fervently wrote: “I would buy the Colosseum if I could.” Wilhelm Ludwig Geiger’s countryman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [1749-1832], who wandered awestruck among the Roman ruins of Rome, Naples and Sicily by the moonlight, too, was overcome with admiration for Piranesi’s views of ancient Roman ruins. In conversations with German poet and author Johann Peter Eckermann [1792 –1854], Goethe effusively recounted how moved he was by Piranesi’s prints.
Nevertheless acclaimed writers have often confessed of their inability to express the strong emotions invoked by the grandeur of ruins of glorious civilizations. In his autobiography , Edward Gibbon [1737 – 1794], the English historian and member of parliament and the author of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, a masterpiece of a critical analysis of Roman history published between 1776 and 1788 in six great volumes, reminisced and revealed on his encounter with Roman Ruins:
“At the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod with a lofty step, the ruins of the forum”
In the 1896, Geiger too found his words wouldn’t do justice to the grandeur of ruins and living monuments at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka:
“It would best be left to you to imagine how those historical sites, until then mere unknown destinations and mere fleeting moments of thoughts, came alive and stood vibrant.”
Geiger narrated in the same vein that a historian, upon being enlightened by the rich archeological and historical attractions of Greece was moved, he too was enlightened and moved at the summit of Mihintale which brought into view the monuments at pura in the land of Buddha’s heritage. Geiger’s narration reveals that it his very first visit to Sri Lanka itself secured the foundation and induction to all his scholarly works in time to unfold.
Wilhelm Geiger and Sinhala Language
Wilhelm Geiger had already studied Sinhala language prior to his first visit to Sri Lanka. His overwhelming enthusiasm in studying Sinhala language was revealed in an article titled “Singhalesiches” written by him in the year 1895 to the memorial issue “Gurupujakaumadee” dedicated to the Sanskrit scholar, Indologist and historian lbrecht Friedrich Weber (1825 –1901). Answering to a question posed by a reporter from Ceylon Independent of Sri Lanka, Geiger said that he was conversant in Sinhala language to a certain extent. Geiger was profiecent in Sanskrit. Buddhist monk Gunaratna of Mihintale who had been conversing with Geiger in Sanskrit language was taken by surprise to learn of Geiger’s knowledge in Sinhala language.
Geiger’s conclusions on the origin of Sinhala Language
Geiger was the one of the first scholars who concluded that according to etymology, Sinhala language is an Indo-Aryan language belonging to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. In the year 1937 writing a forward to the work titled “The grammar of Sinhalese Languages”, Geiger once again found an opportunity to declare his earlier conclusion that Sinhala was an Indo-Aryan language.
Wilhelm Geiger and Sinhalese Chronicles
Even at the early times of year 1895, i.e. during his very first visit to Sri Lanka, Geiger’s in depth knowledge of the Sinhala Vamsa kata [Sinhala: Sinhalese chronicles, i.e. Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, Chulaamsa, Thupavamsa, Sinhala Bodhivamsa] was of exceptional virtue. Geiger’s narration on the trustworthiness of the Sinhalese chronicles is especially noteworthy:
“If we pause first at internal evidence then the Ceylonese Chronicles will assuredly at once win approval in that they at least wished to write the truth. Certainly the writers could not go beyond the ideas determined by their age and their social position, and beheld the events of a past time in mirror of a one-sided tradition. But they certainly did not intend to deceive hearer or readers. This is clear from the remarkably objective standpoint from which they judge even the mortal foes of the Aryan race. That certainly deserves to be emphasized. It is true not only of dominating personalities 9such as, to all appearance, Elara was) but also of the two usurpers Sena and Guttika it is said, Dipavamsa 18.47 and Mahavamsa. 21.11; rajjam dhammena karayum. Besides, the obvious endeavor to make out a systematic chronology is such as to inspire confidence at the outset. Indeed, whole sections of Dipavamsa consist entirely of synchronistic connections of the ecclesiastical tradition with profane history and of the history of India with that of Ceylon.”
Mahavamsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon was translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger, Ph.D. in the year 1912. ISBN 955-8540-83-8 [2003 reprint] Some of the conclusions on the history of Sri Lanka were a gradual systematic evolution of his knowledge. For example while Wilhelm Geiger during his first visit wasn’t convinced of the historic significance of Mihintale in terms of spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. However in the year 1926, this doubt too being cleared, Geiger in his work titled “Concise History of Ceylon” said that he believed Sri Lanka Holidays Mihintale located 17km north east of pura, was the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Wilhelm Geiger and the natural splendor of the tropical island of Sri Lanka
Geiger was at once a lover of joys, little and big and a lover of nature: his book titled Ceylon. Tagebuchblätter und Reiseerinnerungen is splattered with the narrations of admiration of the natural splendor of the tropical island of Sri Lanka:
Up on a hill in Kandy, Geiger sees the River Mahaweli Ganga that loops around the hills of the medieval natural fortress, as if a strand of silver laid over the Dumbara plains.
Enjoying a view from the iron bridge at Kalutara, Geiger sees River Kalurtara ganga as if a wide road cut through the tropical jungle. Wherever Geiger visited, he narrated of the sceneries all round at all times.
He narrated loftily of the weather, climate, evergreen vegetation, wildlife and birdlife of Sri Lanka:
The tropical downpour reigned for two hours sans pauses. No clouds are seen anymore in the vicinity: all seems to have vanished off the horizon. The silver moon peeping though tall topical trees brought in a spectacle of resplendence: zillions of drops of rain water that drenched the coconut palm canopy made the tall trunks look like as if sunk in a bubbling river of silver. Seated in the verandah and recollecting thoughts on my home, I watched the dawn of the New Year.
Geiger narrated the loveliest of sceneries were seen in his boat ride over the River Kalu Ganga from the Sri Lanka Holidays attraction of Ratnapura [Sinhala: city of Gems] to Kalutara. He compared those tropical sceneries of Sri Lanka to the loveliest sceneries of the fairy tales that he heard during his childhood. Wilhelm Geiger and Sinhalese Buddhist scholars in Sri Lanka During his first visit to Sri Lanka Wilhelm Geiger made acquaintances with prominent scholars of the island: Buddhist Monk Sri Sumangala of Hikkaduwa, Buddhist monk Sri Subutu of Waskaduwa, Mudliyar Abraham Mendis Gunasekera and Mudliyar Simon De Silva. Geiger was called into an examination on Pali language at Colombo Vidyodaya pirivena [ Sinhala: Vidyodaya Buddhist Academy of Buddhist studies] by Buddhist Monk Sri Sumangala of Hikkaduwa. Following the success at the examination, Wilhelm Geiger was allowed make use of Buddhist books and manuscripts at the Colombo Vidyodaya Buddhist Academy at Peliyagoda, Colombo.
In his memoirs Geiger stressed that the close friendship that developed between him and Buddhist monk Sri Subutu of Waskaduwa wouldn’t be harmed by the geographical distances between their motherlands. True to his words, since his return to Gemany, the correspondence between them was profuse. Sri Subutu of Waskaduwa was also Geiger’s contact in Sri Lanka to secure books by post in Germany from Sri Lanka. Geiger found Sri Subutu of Waskaduwa was closer to western system in his research; he also found the Buddhist monk was closer to western ways in his general conduct.
Geiger was full of praise of Mudliyar Abraham Mendis Gunasekera, a leading literary light of Sri Lanka for his invaluable assistance in scholarly matters and research:
“Mudliyar Abraham Mendis Gunasekera was tall and slender. His lively eyes revealed his mental alertness and vibrancy in physical activity. In the time to come his name will be duly honored in all works of history, Buddhism, Sinhala languages and Aryan Sinhalese Buddhist civilization of Sri Lanka.”
Mudliyar Simon de Silva, a renowned scholar of Sinhala language and literature was instrumental in further development in Geiger’s knowledge of Sinhala language. The extensive and profound knowledge of Mudliyar Simon de Slva was a major factor in Geiger concluding eastern scholars were superior to western scholars in terms of innate wisdom. Geiger contemplated of combining eastern innate wisdom with western critical analysis.
Wilhelm Geiger and Sinhalese Buddhist renaissance of Sri Lanka
During Geiger’s first visit to Sri Lanka in the year 1895, Sri Lanka then called Ceylon was in social and political transition. The Sinhalese Buddhists of Sri Lanka, who had been battered for centuries by the colonial powers [Portuguese:1505-1658; Dutch:1656-1796; English:1815- 1948], were slowly raising their heads. Geiger was steadfast in his condemnation of the colonial powers in Ceylon:
“I should remind all that the atrocities committed by the Western Christen missionaries and so called civilized people of the western countries in Ceylon can be read only with utter disgust.”
Fortunately, during those days, the Sinhalese Buddhist Renaissance had begun with scholars of the caliber of Buddhist monk Mohottiawatte Gunananda and the great religious debate between the Buddhist and the Christian scholars called Panaduara Vadaya [Sinhala: The great debate of Panadura]. Theosophical Society, Colombo of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott [a well known American civil war veteran, much respected American lawyer and Buddhist revivalist in Ceylon] [1832 –1907] established several Buddhist schools in Ceylon, most notably Ananda College in Colombo, Dharmaraja College in Kandy, Mahinda College in Galle [home to Sri Lanka Holidays VOC Galle Dutch Fort, today a UNESCO World heritage Site], and Maliyadeva College in Kurunegala close to Sri Lanka Holidays Yapahuwa.
Wilhelm Geiger’s second visit to Sri Lanka
Following the end of the First World War, the government of British Ceylon invited Wilhelm Geiger to assist edit the second part of Mahvamsa called “Chulvamsa [Sinhala: The Lesser genealogy] Geiger having published more than 110 works on Sri Lanka, Sinhala Language, Pali language, Pali chronicles, Sinhalese vamsa chronicles had already earned a great reputation as a scholar of Indology. Geiger arrived from Liverpool to Colombo, Sri Lanka by the passenger vessel “Lancashire” together with his wife Magdalene, a scholar on 21st November 1925. Geiger narrated his wife Magdaleine was seduced by the ruins at pura, the greatest monastic city of the ancient world.
However, there were matters of great consternation to Geiger: some of the renovations to the ancient Buddhist temples weren’t to his liking. He was particularly disturbed that the medieval wooden veranda of Golden Dambulla Rock Cave temple was replaced by a white washed verandah built of brick. Furthermore, Geiger was disappointed to see Sinhalese Buddhists gradually becoming westernized. Geiger narrated:
“Sinhalese Buddhist have begun to betray their great social traditions, conventions, Sinhala language as if none of those of any value at all, I sincerely hope that Sinhalese would realize the value of Sri Lanka, value of its culture, value of Sinhala language, value of its civilization soon enough. Still it’s not too late.”
During his second stay in Sri Lanka, Wilhelm Ludwig Geiger received an invitation from Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali polymath, the noble laureate for literature , the author of Gitanjali, the greatest poem ever, to visit India.
However, Geiger wasn’t able to make the visit. Having visited Borobudur Buddhist temple in Java, Geiger returned to Germany. I (bunpeiris), for one, mourn that Geiger wasn’t able to accept the invitation of Sage like Tagor and visit India, the heart of the ancient oriental fountains of humanity. Together those two stalwarts of humanity, Wilhelm Geiger and Rabindranath Tagor [1861-1941] would have made a still more [Tagor having already done and his name already written in golden letters in Indian annals] significant contributions in scholarly works on ancient glory of India.
Wilhelm Geiger’s third visit to Sri Lanka
Wilhelm Ludwig Geiger’s third visit to Sri Lanka was on 18th December 1931. That was to assist Ceylonese statesman, educationist and diplomat Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka [1868 - 1944] to compile Dictionary of Sinhala. Subsequently Sir D. B. Jayatillake was assisted by the Ceylonese scholar, Julius de Lanerolle too. Being stung by a poisonous insect, Geiger suffered for about three months. However, such was the love of Geiger towards Sri Lanka, Sinhalese, Buddhism, language of Pali and language of Sinhala, he refused being treated at a hospital in view of the time that would be lost to his work on the Sinhala dictionary.
We Sri Lankans owe this German Scholar a great debt of gratitude to his immense contributions to our heritage.
Geiger ends his Sri Lanka Holidays travel narrative titled Ceylon: Tagebuchblätter und Reiseerinnerungen saying
“I have eaten root bulbs of lotus. I have enjoyed the scintillating beauty of the Lotus flower.”
Above article is inspired by “Asiritimath Lanka” [Sinhala: Splendorous Lanka] [ISBN: 978-955-656-164-7], the Sinhalese translation of Ceylon: Tagebuchblätter und Reiseerinnerungen written in German language by Wilhelm Geiger. Translation of the Geiger’s memoirs in Sri Lanka was done by Mahinda Patirana of Division of Languages of Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka in the year 2003. Mahinda Pathirana acknowledges the assistance of Dr. Anuradha Seneviratna, Professor of Sinhala Language division of University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.
The German language memoirs of Geiger’s time in Sri Lanka titled “Ceylon: Tagebuchblätter und Reiseerinnerungen” was found in a wayside bookstall in Germany by Dr. Anuradha Seneviratna, a distinguished scholar on the Sinhalese Buddhist civilization of Sri Lanka. Among the numerous books written by him are “Ancient Anuradhapura, The Monastic City [ISBN 978-955-573-791-3], Springs of Sinhala Civilization [ISBN 955-20-5319-6], Kandy Esala Perahera, Golden Rock Temple of Dambulla: caves of infinite Buddhas, Dalada Maligawa: the Sacred Temple of Tooth Relic in Kandy Sri Lanka.
German language edition of Ceylon: Tagebuchblätter und Reiseerinnerungen can be bought from amazon.com while Sinhala translation [Suriya Prakashakayo, Colombo 10] can be bought in Sri Lanka.