Thomas William Rhys Davids
Thomas William Rhys Davids was born in Britain, at Colchester in Essex, the eldest son of a Congregational clergyman from Wales, who was affectionately referred to as the Bishop of Essex. His mother, who died at the age of 37 following childbirth, had run the Sunday school at his father's church.
Deciding on a Civil Service career, Rhys Davids studied Sanskrit under A.F. Stenzler, a distinguished scholar at the University of Breslau. He earned money in Breslau by teaching English. In 1863 Rhys Davids returned to Britain, and on passing his civil service exams was posted to Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). When he was Magistrate of Galle and a case was brought before him involving questions of ecclesiastical law, he first learned of the Pali language when a document in that language was brought in as evidence.
In 1871 he was posted as Assistant Government Agent of Nuwarakalaviya, where Anuradhapura was the administrative centre. The governor was Sir Hercules Robinson, who had founded the Archaeological Commission in 1868.
Rhys Davids became involved with the excavation of the ancient Sinhalese city of Anuradhapura, which had been abandoned after an invasion in 993 CE. He began to collect inscriptions and manuscripts, and from 1870-1872 wrote a series of articles for the Ceylon branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Journal about them. He learned the local language and spent time with the people.
Rhys Davids' civil service career and his residence in Sri Lanka came to an abrupt end. Personal differences with his superior, C. W. Twynham, caused a formal investigation, resulting a tribunal and Rhys Davids' dismissal for misconduct. A number of minor offences had been discovered, as well as grievances concerning fines improperly exacted both from Rhys Davids' subjects and his employees.
He then studied for the bar and briefly practised law, though he continued to publish articles about Sri Lankan inscriptions and translations, notably in Max Müller's monumental Sacred Books of the East.
From 1882 to 1904 Rhys Davids was Professor of Pali at the University of London, a post which carried no fixed salary other than lecture fees.
In 1905 he took up the Chair of Comparative Religion at the University of Manchester.
Rhys Davids attempted to promote Theravada Buddhism and Pāli scholarship in Britain. He actively lobbied the government (in co-operation with the Asiatic Society of Great Britain) to expand funding for the study of Indian languages and literature, using numerous arguments over how this might strengthen the British hold on India. He gave "Historical Lectures" and wrote papers advancing a racial theory of a common "Aryan" ethnicity amongst the peoples of Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Buddha's own clan in ancient times. These were comparable to the racial theories of Max Müller, but were used to a different purpose. Rhys Davids claimed that Britons had a natural, "racial" affinity with Buddhist doctrine. This part of Rhys Davids' career is controversial.
In 1894 Rhys Davids married Caroline Augusta Foley, a noted Pāli scholar. Unlike his wife, however, Rhys Davids was a critic and opponent of Theosophy. They had three children. The eldest, Vivien, was involved in the Girl Guide movement and was a friend of Robert Baden-Powell. Their only son, Arthur Rhys Davids, was a Royal Flying Corps 25-victory fighter ace who was killed in World War I.
Rhys Davids died on 27th December 1922 in Chipstead, Surrey.
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- "Buddhist or not Buddhist, I have examined every one of the great religious systems of the world, and in none of them have I found anything to surpass, in beauty and comprehensiveness, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. I am content to shape my life according to that path."
- Buddhist India. Full text online at ibiblio.org (In HTML form, complete, chapter-by-chapter, with all illustrations, footnotes and index)
- Buddhist India
- The Sects of the Buddhists By T. W. Rhys Davids. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. (1891) pp. 409-422
- Asoka and the Buddha-relics By T. W. Rhys Davids. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. (1901) pp. 397-410
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- Lorna S. Dewaraja. Rhys Davids: His contribution to Pali and Buddhist studies 
- Buddhist Birth Stories (Jataka Tales), T. W. Rhys Davids, London 1880