Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Childers, Robert Cæsar

CHILDERS, ROBERT CÆSAR (1838–1876), oriental scholar, born in 1838, was a son of the Rev. Charles Childers, English chaplain at Nice. He was appointed a writer in the Ceylon civil service at the end of 1860, and for three years acted as private secretary to the then governor, Sir Charles McCarthy. He then became office assistant to the government agent in Kandy; but shortly afterwards, in March 1864, his health broke down, and he was compelled to return home. While in the service he had taken great pains to understand the modes of thought and feeling of the Sinhalese, and had given up one of his vacations to acquire a more thorough knowledge of the native language and literature than was required by the rules of the service. Those who can realise how precious are the few holidays and leisure hours of a hard-worked official in the East will know how to appreciate such an act. It was in this vacation, spent at the Bentota Resthouse, that he began the study of Pali under the guidance of Yátrámullé Unnénsé, a Buddhist. scholar of great learning, and of peculiar dignity and modesty, for whom his distinguished pupil retained to the last a deep personal regard. After his return home ill-health and other causes prevented him for some time from carrying on his studies in the sacred language of the Buddhists. It was not till November of 1869 that he published his first contribution to the literature of the subject. This was the Pali text of the ‘Khuddaka Pat11a,' with English translations and notes, printed in the ‘Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.’ It. was the first Pali text printed in England, and, with one exception, the only portion of the Buddhist sacred books till then printed in Europe. There was at that time neither dictionary nor grammar of the language in any European tongue. Without these it was impossible that the rich stores of historical and ethical works hidden away in the Pali manuscripts could be made available for comparative history. These wants Childers set himself energetically to work to supply, though the task was one from which any scholar less enterprising and less self-sacrificing would have shrunk. To the preparation of the Pali dictionary he devoted the greater part of his time during the rest of his life; the work gradually rising in aim and scope under his hand. The first volume was published in 1872. In the autumn of that year he was appointed sub-librarian at the India Office, and early in the next year he accepted the appointment of professor of Pali and Buddhist literature at University College, London, the first instance of a professor being appointed specially for this subject. In the same year he contributed a paper on Buddhist metaphysics to Prof. Cowell's edition of Colebrooke's ‘Essays,’ and from time to time he published various papers on Pali and Sinhalese in the ‘Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.’ The most important of these papers was his edition in 1874 of the Pali text of the ‘Mahā-parinibbāna Sutta’ (‘Book of the Great Decease’), being that part of the Buddhist scriptures which gives in detail the events of the last few days of the Buddha's life. Sinhalese had been generally considered to be a Dravidian language. In his two papers on the subject (1873 and 1875) he conclusively showed, for the first time, how thoroughly Aryan were both its grammar and its vocabulary. In 1871 he had discussed, in a paper on the well-known ‘Dhammapada,’ some of its verses which bore more especially on the subject of the Buddhist ideal state, Nirvāna or Arahatship. But during all these years Childers was sedulously engaged in completing the second volume of his Pali dictionary, which, much larger and fuller than the first part, was published only in the autumn of 1875. This great and important work did for Pali what Wilson's dictionary had done for Sanskrit. It was not only the most valuable contribution that had yet been made to the study of the language, but was the indispensable means by which further progress could be made. Like Wilson's it was sure to be superseded; for it made possible that rapid advance in the publication of Pali texts which has been the most marked feature in oriental studies since its appearance. It was the foundation of all that subsequent work by the various editors engaged on the Pali Text Society which has rendered it inadequate. Its great value was immediately recognised throughout Europe; and a few months after its appearance it was awarded by the Institute of France the Volney prize of 1876 for the best philological work of the year. After the completion of the dictionary Childers with unwearied zeal looked forward to renewed activity. He had announced his intention of publishing a complete translation of the Buddhist Játaka book, the most ancient and the most extensive collection of folklore extant, and his name appeared as the promised contributor of translations of various parts of the Buddhist scriptures to the Oxford series of translations from the sacred books of the East. But his continual labours had told upon a constitution already enfeebled and consumptive, a cold contracted in the early part of the year developed into a rapid consumption, and he died on 25 July 1876 at Weybridge at the early age of thirty-eight. To an unusually powerful memory and indomitable energy Childers united an enthusiasm in the cause of research, a passionate patience, rare even in new and promising fields.

[Ceylon Civil Service Guides, 1861–4; University College Calendar, 1874; Journals of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1869–75; personal knowledge.]

T. W. R. D.