Richard Gombrich

Richard Gombrich

Richard Francis Gombrich (born 17 July 1937) is a British Indologist and scholar of Sanskrit, Pāli, and Buddhist Studies. He acted as the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford from 1976 to 2004. He is currently Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, and a Governor of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He is a past President of the Pali Text Society (1994-2002) and General Editor Emeritus of the Clay Sanskrit Library,.

Birth and early education

Gombrich was born on 17 July 1937, the only child of concert pianist Ilse Gombrich and the renowned Austrian-British art historian, Sir Ernst Gombrich. He studied at St. Paul's School in London from 1950-1955 before attending Magdalen College, Oxford in 1957. He received his B.A. from Oxford in 1961 and his PhD from the same university in 1970. He received his M.A. from Harvard University in 1963.

Early Work

Richard Gombrich made himself known in the field of Buddhist Studies with a ground-breaking anthropological study of contemporary Sinhalese Buddhism entitled "Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon" (1971). This important study emphasized the disparity between the normative Buddhism advocated in canonical texts and the contemporary religious practices of Sinhalese Buddhists. Contemporary Sinhalese religious practices often include such elements as sorcery and the worship of yakshas and Hindu gods; previous scholars of Buddhist Studies had interpreted these practices as contradictory to or corruptions upon the orthodox Buddhism of the Pali Canon. Gombrich argues in "Precepts and Practice" that, rather than being the mark of later corruptions of Theravada Buddhism, these practices can be traced to early periods in Buddhist history. Furthermore, since the worship of deities and rituals involving sorcery are never explicitly forbidden of lay people in the Pali Canon, Gombrich argues against viewing such practices as contradictory to orthodox Buddhism. It is also in "Precept and Practice" that Gombrich lays out his notable distinction between Buddhism at the cognitive level and Buddhism at the affective level. At the cognitive level, Sinhalese Buddhists will attest to believing in such normative doctrines as anatta, while, at the same time, their actions indicate a supposed affective acceptance of, for example, a transmigrating soul. Gombrich's notion of a cognitive/affective divide in Sinhalese Buddhism has since come under criticism, perhaps most famously by Stanley Tambiah, who considered it simplistic and insupportable. [ See Jacob N. Kinnard's discussion of Tambiah's criticism of Gombrich, "Imaging Wisdom:Seeing and Knowing in the Art of Indian Buddhism" (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass: 2001), p. 27-28.]

Major Contributions and Concepts

Since then, Gombrich has gone on to become one of the 20th century's most important scholars of Theravāda Buddhism. His most recent research has since focused more on Buddhist origins.

In his work, Gombrich stresses the importance of relating Buddhist texts and practices to early Hindu and Vedic thought. That is, rather than study Buddhism and Hinduism separately, Gombrich advocates a comparative method that has shed a great deal of light on both Buddhist thought and Buddhist early history. He has been an active contributor to an ongoing discussion concerning the date of the Buddha's death, and has advocated for a greater appreciation of the historical value of early Buddhist texts and genealogies.

A stout opponent of such contemporary intellectual developments as the "hermeneutics of suspicion," Gombrich practices a hermeneutics that begins with the acceptance of the text "as it is," interpreting it "merely on its own terms." For Gombrich, Karl Popper (a friend of his father's) represents the apogee of human intellectual achievement. While this approach is attractive to some, others find Gombrich's approach naive and dated.

Personality and influence

Gombrich's long and active career has has resulted in a very wide circle of friends and admirers. As a result, his influence on his university and his field of studies has been larger even than his scholarly achievements would warrant. Scholars from East Asia, even members of the Buddhist monastic order (Sangha), routinely attend his lectures and courses to learn about their own religion (see pizza effect). His personality and influence have contributed to keeping Oxford in the forefront of Indological and Buddhist studies.

Some describe Gombrich as a man of notable humility, as willing to help a colleague (even when he disagrees with their position) as to ask for advice from a student, and as amazingly dynamic. Others emphasise, to the contrary, that Gombrich can be pompous, arrogant, and (as even some of his closest and oldest friends will attest) extremely thin-skinned.

In retirement, Gombrich has assumed the leadership of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He was general editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library from its founding until February 2008.


The Asiatic Society of Calcutta awarded Gombrich the SC Chakraborty medal in 1993. The following year, he received the Sri Lanka Ranjana decoration from the President of Sri Lanka.


*"Precept and Practice" (1971)
*"The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara" (with Margaret Cone,1977)
*"On Being Sanskritic" (1978)
*"Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula" (ed. inter alios, 1980)
*"The World of Buddhism" (co-editor with Heinz Bechert, 1984)
*"Buddhist Studies in Honour of Hammalava Saddhatissa" (ed. inter alios, 1984)
*"Theravada Buddhism" (1988, 2nd edn 2006)
*"Buddhism Transformed" (with Gananath Obeyesekere, 1988)
*"Indian Ritual and its Exegesis" (ed., 1988)
*"Buddhist Precept and Practice" (revised edn of "Precept and Practice", 1991)
*"How Buddhism Began" (1996)

Academic appointments

*Harkness Fellow of the Commonwealth Fund (1961-1963)
*Lecturer, University of Oxford (1965-76)
*Boden Professor of Sanskrit, University of Oxford (1976-2004)
*Visiting Professor, University of Bristol (1981-82)
*Visiting Professor, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (1982)
*Visiting Fellow, Princeton University (1986-87)
*F. D. Maurice Lecturer, King’s College London (1994)
*Jordan Lecturer, SOAS (1994)
*Gonda Lecturer, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (1997)
*Edmund Perry lecturer, Northwestern University (1998)


* [ Profile of Richard Gombrich, Oxford website]

External links

*Clay Sanskrit Library homepage []

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