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Arthur Coke Burnell

Birth: 1840


Arthur Coke Burnell (1840-1882), a very eminent Sanskrit scholar, and a high authority on the language and literature of Southern India, was born at St. Briavels, Gloucestershire, in 1840, and was the eldest son of Arthur Burnell, of the East India Company's marine service, and grand-nephew of Sir W. Coke, chief justice of Ceylon.

He was sent successively to Bedford and King's Colleges, At the last he met Professor Fausboll of Copenhagen, who seems to have turned towards Indian studies a mind that had early evinced a keen enjoyment of linguistic science. This taste was also stimulated by intercourse with George Borrow. In 1857 he passed the Indian civil service examination, and after a course of Sanskrit (under Goldstucker) and Telugu, in which he passed with credit at the final examination, he went to Madras in 1860.

In the Malabar, Tanjore, Chingleput, Cuddapa, and Nellore districts, where he successively filled the usual subordinate offices of the civil administration, he lost no opportunity of acquiring or copying Sanskrit manuscripts, and thus formed a splendid collection. In 1868 he was compelled to return on sick leave, and travelled through Arabia, Egypt, and Nubia. While in England he published (1869)'Catalogue of a Collection of Sanskrit MSS. by A. C. Burnell, part i. Vedic MSS.,' and then presented the whole (350 in number) to the India Library. Returning to India, he served successively at Mangalore and at Tanjore as judge.

His greatest work is the 'Classified Index to the Sanskrit MSS. in the Palace at Tanjore,' printed for the Madras government in 1880. It represents an enormous amount of labour and learning, and affords a kind of prospectus of the Sanskrit literature of Southern India. 'The mere arranging and classifying,' says Dr. Rust,'of such a vast number of manuscripts-most of them written on palm-leaf and in the various sets of characters used for writing Sanskrit in South India-must have been a work of untold labour, which no other Sanskrit scholar could so successfully have accomplished.'

Burnell also did for South Indian writing what Prinsep had attempted forty years before for the palaeography of the north, and his'Handbook of South Indian Palaeography,' 1874, of which a second edition appeared in 1878, is a standard work, and deservedly won for him the honorary doctor's degree of the university of Strasburg. It opens, as Prof. Max Muller has said,'an avenue through one of the thickest and darkest jungles of Indian archaeology, and is so full of documentary evidence, that it will long remain indispensable to every student of Indian literature'

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Among his other works (most of which were printed at Mangalore) were (1) a translation of the section on inheritance from Madhava's 'Commentary on the Parasarasmriti,' 1868; (2)'The Law of Partition and Succession, from the manuscript Sanskrit text of Varadaraja's Vyavaharanirnaya.' 'The spirited' preface to this work,' says Dr. Rost,'shows how deeply he had grasped the very essence of Hindu law, how well versed he was in its extensive literature;' (3) The text and translation of a brief summary of Hindu law of inheritance and partition, 1875, in the preface to which he animadverted severely upon the character of the then current English manuals on Hindu law.

Between 1873 and 1878 he brought out a series of five Samaveda-Brahma?as, without translations, but with the commentary of Saya?a, indices, and elaborate introductory essays of the greatest value, especially that to the Vamabrahma?a, which gives a full account of Saya?a's literary life. These were followed, in 1879, by one of the Samaveda-Pratisakhyas, also with an essay. In 1878 he published an extract, with translation, of the 'Talavakara,' one of the Brahmanas, as a specimen of its legend lore. He also issued, in a succession of small pamphlets (1873-5),'Specimens of South Indian Dialects;' and an edition, prepared from the author's own manuscript, of Beschi's celebrated work on High Tamil and on Tamil poet and rhetoric, which bears the title 'Clavis Iilhmaniorum Litterarum Sublimioris Tamulici Idiomatis' (1876). Another work,'The Aindra School of Sanskrit Grammarians' (1875)' propounded a new theory on the development of grammatical science in India, which, if it has not met with general acceptance, has at all events set scholars thinking and working in a new direction' (Max Mdruzx). Many minor communications were also addressed to the'Indian Antiquary.'

Burnell's health had from childhood never been strong, and his excessive exertions, extended over many years, in trying to combine heavy official work with studious labour in the most exhausting of Indian climates, broke him down. He had gone through a severe attack of cholera, followed at a later date by partial paralysis, before his last return to Europe in 1880, and he suffered besides from other constitutional disease; yet he had so far recovered that his friends began to hope that, though severe labour and return to India were alike out of the question, he might still complete some of the work that he had begun. His lost two winters were spent at San Remo. He returned from Italy in the early summer of 1882, and while staying at his brother's house at West Stratton, Hampshire, was struck with a chill, which brought on inflammation of the lungs. He died there on 12 Oct., and was buried in Micheldever churchyard.

Of Works left by Burnell unfinished two have since been published; 1.'A Translation of the Ordinances of Manu.' Of this nearly the whole of the introduction and one half of the translation were done. The work has since been completed by an American scholar, Dr. E. W. Hopkins, and published by Trubner & Co. (Oriental Series, 1885). 2. A reprint of the old English version of Linschoten's 'East Indies,' with interesting notes. Of this one half was done and in type. It was completed by Mr. P. A. Tiele of Utrecht, and issued by the Hakluyt Society (2 vols. 8vo, 1885). Another work, undertaken jointly with Colonel Yule, had been the occasional occupation of both for many years, and Burnell's part in it had been retty well completed. It has just appeared)(18S6) as' Hobson Jobson, being a glossary of Anglo-Indian colloquial words and phrases.'

A portrait of Burnell is at p. xiii, During the last years of his life Burnell took great interest in the history and literature of Portuguese India, and he had collected many valuable books on the subject, which would probably (had life been granted) have formed the foundation of interesting work. Preliminary labors of love in this connection were a'Tentative List of Books and some MSS. relating to the History of the Portuguese in India Proper' (Mangalore, 1880); and a reprint (like the last, for a few friends only) in a very handsome form, with preface and notes, of an excessively rare and curious Italian version of King Emanuel of Portugal's letter to Ferdinand of Spain, giving an account of the voyages and conquests in the East Indies between 1500 and 1505, originally printed at Rome in the latter year.

Burnell, in addition to his profound knowledge of Sanskrit and wide acquaintance with the vernaculars of Southern India, had some knowled of Tibetan (which he had studied with 5; late Mr. Jaschke when a fellow-passenger from India in 1868), of Arabic (the oriental language in which he passed in the competitive examination for the civil service), of Kawi, Javanese, and Coptic. Pali had been an eager object of study before he went to India, and perhaps for some time there also. But he soon left it. His collectanea on Pali are all of early date. His latest love in study was given to the Italian writers of the Renaissance, and especially to Cardinal P. Bembe, his intense admiration of whom did not meet with much appreciation among his correspondents either in England or in Italy. He was a lover of books of every kind, reading largely, collecting largely, spending largely upon them, and lending them liberally.

The circle of his intimates was not large, but where he gave his friendship it was given very heartily and generously. Nothing could exceed his helpfulness and liberality to other students. Numerous as were the applications made to him for manuscripts, or or information of many kinds, he always tried to satisfy them to the best of his ability, and without regard to expense. He woul make a long journey to enable him to answer a question of geographical identification; he would send home manuscripts to scholars in need of them, and accept no payment; books and series of photographs were often sent in the same fashion. After the presentation of his own manuscripts to the India Library in 1870, he recommenced collecting on his return to India, and had gathered about 350 more. These were purchased from his heirs by the secretary of state in council for the same library.

[Dr. Rost in the Athenaeum, No. 2870; Prof. Max Muller in the Academy, No. 546; Col. Yule in the Times, 20 Oct. 1882.]


Stanley Lane-Poole, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 07. pgs. 384-386.

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