“Mahavamsa Mentality”: Can the charge of “Racism” leveled against the chronicle be sustained?
The article by JL Devananda titled “The Mahavamsa Mentality: Re-visiting Sinhala Buddhism in Sri Lanka” was posted on my blog last month. As expected the controversial viewpoint expressed continues to elicit diverse and very often passionate responses.
I was pleasantly surprised to receive an article written in response to Devananda’s article from Former Sri Lankan Foreign service officer Bandu de Silva a few days ago. The former diplomat whose writings appear frequently in Colombo newspapers has an illuminating essay.
I very much appreciate the fact that Mr de Silva has taken the trouble to write this article at a time when he himself is recovering from recent eye surgery. His article was an informative read and I hope our readers would also find it so
So here is Bandu de Silva’s article – DBS Jeyaraj
“Mahavamsa Mentality”: Can the charge of “Racism” leveled against the chronicle be sustained?
By Bandu de Silva
“There was NO Buddhism in Sri Lanka until Emperor Asoka’s missionary monks led by Mahinda converted the Hindu (Siva worshipping) Naga King Tissa into a Buddhist in the 2nd century BC. Similarly, there was NO Sinhala race/tribe in Sri Lanka until the Mahavihara monks created it in the 5th century AD. When Hindu/Brahmanical influence posed a serious challenge to Buddhism and when Buddhism started to lose popular support and the patronage from the rulers, the Buddhist institutions in India came under attack. The Mahavihara monks of Anuradapura including Ven. Mahanama, the author of the Pali chronicle Mahavamsa and a close relative of the Buddhist Naga king Dhatusena witnessed the decline and disorientation of Buddhism in India.
“According to Buddhism, a person ordained as a Bikkhu should practice Ahimsa (non-violence), Karuna (compassion), Metta (affection), and Maithriya (loving-kindness) towards fellow humans, (irrespective of race or religion), not only by words but also in his thoughts and action. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, due to the influence of the Mahavamsa, a Buddhist Bikkhu is at liberty to engage in racist politics and promote Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism and hatred, as we see today.”
The above passages are quotes from J.L. Devananda’s article posted in www.dbsjeyaraj.com. Devananda explains that the Sinhala numerical majority is the result of absorption of a number of Tamil groups into the Sinhalese society. There is nothing new in the arguments he has introduced. One has been subjected to that by some of the Tamil Eelamist scholars like S.K. Sittramparam, A. Velupillai, P. Ragupathy, P. Pushparatnam and S. Krishnarajah and other Mahavamsa bashers all along. One can even recognize not only the arguments but even phraseology of these other writers in the present piece.
It is not my intention to enter into polemics. Nor can I claim to contribute anything new to what a galaxy of reputed historians and scholars have done in the past to Mahavamsa studies as against the present polemics; but as one who reads the Mahavamsa with facility in original Pali, I feel that it is appropriate to surface what the polemists have written in view of the prominence now given to such polemics in websites though serious academic journals have not participated in them.
There are several lines of arguments used in his article the essence of which is to present a picture of an an imagined Tamil presence in the country in the past comparable to the weight of preponderant evidence of the existence of Sinhala element. to this day. He explains that the Sinhala numerical majority [today] is the result of absorption of a number of Tamil groups into the Sinhalese society. While there is evidence of such absorption into the Sinhala fold what underlies that argument is the fact that of Sinhala preponderance in the society in the past and now; that this has happened despite the changes resulting from Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial enterprise of trying to alter the demographic map in certain areas of the country, e.g. the population of Mannar peninsula by the Portuguese and of Jaffna peninsula by the Dutch through the infusion of Vellala migration for the purpose of tobacco cultivation and of indentured labour into the central hills and other parts by the British colonial and plantation interests. These are important landmarks which altered the demographic map of the country. If not for these induced migrations the position of the majority Sinhalese would have been stronger.
As against this aspect which has been left un-discusssed in the said article, only a onesided argument is presented as to how the Sinhalese majority was formed. The argument used is the reversal of what I have stated above. That is that a large section of South Indians brought by the Portuguese and the Dutch have been absorbed into the Sinhalese fold. There is no discussion of what happened under the British, the influx of them into the plantation districts and to agricultural areas in the Vanni and what is now the Eastern province over which there is even far more documented evidence. I could add even pre-colonial infusion of South Indian mercenaries for which there is living evidence in the society even now. This is the case of the Agampodi mercenaries introduced in the Dambdeniya period whose identity today remains concealed in a Sinhalese caste group in the South West and South retaining only their original professional name ‘Agampodi‘ while their descendants in the Jaffna peninsula, the ‘Agampodiyars’ remain a Tamil speaking group.
There is no denying that the Sinhalese element was reinforced by the absorption of certain occupational groups like the Peshakars, but they also reinforced the Tamil population in the North and the East. For example, in the East, Peshakars appear now as Vellalas whereas in Sinhalese areas of the South West/ South they have become part of a caste confined to the seaboard. Besides, as British administrators have observed many Sinhalese in the Vanni have been Tamilised. So is the situation in the East. As such, the argument over the formation of the Sinhala majority is a one-sided one. Both the Sinhalese, more of the low country and the Sri Lankan Tamils are heavily mixed people even more than the British whom Daniel Defoe described in his famous poem.
Mahavamsa and present ethnic debate
In order to establish the thesis of ‘racism’, Mahavamsa and present day Sinhala Buddhists have been lumped together in inseparable fusion. Their role is no better than that of the ‘accursed’ Jews of old times. These polemists confuse the two issues, namely, one, engaging in criticism of Mahavamsa as a useful source for reconstructing the island’s history as many scholars have done after rejecting the fabulous and marvelous; and the present day majoritarism- minoritarism debate. The idea of combining the two issues seems to arise from trying to find historical roots for the present debate. These two aspects have to be differentiated, especially if we have to understand the phenomenon of ‘racism,’ if any, how it may have developed and how it is now.
Significance of Mahavamsa
Dr.Rajasingham Narendran points out, “we Lankans would not have our bearings in the ocean of history…… We have to be grateful for his [Mahanama’s] endeavours and respectful of his efforts in times considered ‘ancient’ by modern historians…..” (www.dbsjeyaraj.com). That is what the learned South Indian historian, Nilakantha Sastri stated when he wrote:
“….Lastly, Mahavamsa has conserved the story of Ceylonese affairs, in such detail and as the chronicle is obviously worked up from more ancient records, and some of its details find confirmation in the rock-cut Brahmi inscriptions above mentioned, we come to know a little more of Ceylon in the period than of the mainland of South India.”
But Dayananda denigrates even the sources used by Mahavamsa saying “Only the Mahavamsa Tika that was composed very much later to interpret the Mahavamsa, mentions that it was adopted from the mysterical ‘Vamsa texts’ known as ‘Sihala Atthakatha’ (collection of Sinhala verbal stories). Very strangely, most of the mythical/supernatural stories from the so called ‘Sihala Atthakatha Vamsa texts’ are very similar to those found in the Indian Epics and Puranas such as the Mahabaratha/Ramayana. Ultimately, the Mahavamsa has transformed the Buddha into a special patron of Sinhala-Buddhism, an ethnic religion created in Sri Lanka”. One can see the depth of his argument when one realizes that he is expressing an opinion on “Vamsa Atthakatas” he himself claims are “mystical.” Neither does he explain what these similar accounts found in Indian Epics and Puranas are.
‘Racism’ charge against Mahavamsa
Devananda says that “due to the influence of the Mahavamsa, a Buddhist Bhikkhu is at liberty to engage in racist politics and promote Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism and hatred, as we see today.” in the first place, here is a serious charge against the ancient chronicle of the Sinhalese the original part of which was composed in the 5th or the 6th century A.C. it is a different matter if the writer asserts that present day Bhikkus/ Buddhists engage in racist policies are at liberty. That is a point that can be discussed separately. But to bring in Mahavamsa into that discussion without substantiating it is not only to denigrate the ancient text but to assert that racial hatred is something inherent in the Sinhalese psyche.
At the bottom of the equation are the Sinhalese and Tamil relations but the analysis examines only the Sinhalese side of the equation including the ancient chronicle of the Sinhalese, leaving out whatever that remains of Sri Lankan Tamil history in the form of literature, archaeology and monumentst. The problem is that there is no sustained history of Tamil presence in the island which could be gleaned from any of these sources until very late in the history of the country. That is when the Vellala ascendancy took place in the Jaffna peninsula in the 17th/18th centuries folloing their induction in large scale to the peninsula for tobacco cultivation.
Even these manifestations were not in such proportions as that of the Sinhalese on an islandwide scale. That includes the long Cola occupation peiod of 44 years in the 10th /11 th centuries. The Tamil chronicle of Jaffna, Yalpana Vaipava Malai which was composed by Mylvagana Pulavar whom Mudliyar Rasanayagam called a well meaning villager, which has come down to us is a 18th century product sponsored by a Dutch official named Mascara. It displays ample racial/ethnic prejudice against the Sinhalese and Mukkuwa residents in the Jaffna peninsula. That was what the Dutch were trying to create- a Tamil identity in the North and the East (Batticaloa) to meet the Kandyan claim to those territories.
There are no inscriptions in the Jaffna peninsula until after the 44 year Cola occupation in the 10th/11th centuries. Even these inscriptions belong to the 12th century. The few Cola inscriptions are found not in Jaffna peninsula but in other places like Polonnaruwa.
So are the monuments. There is some evidence of a trace of a Hindu shrine at Anuradhapura period at this ancient Capital. Others of late date are found in Polonnaruwa. There are however, myths and legends about some Hindu shrines which are shrouded in fabulous and marvelous like some of the Buddhist shrines (many of the Buddhist cave temples trace their origin to King Vattagamani who hid in the Dambulla area) and have to be rejected for not having any historical significance.
Devananda rejects the three visits of Buddha to the island saying “there is no evidence whatsoever to support this claim (Buddha’s 3 visits), other than the three chaithiyas (Buddhist structures) built in the recent past by the Sinhalese Buddhists at here different locations to say, ‘This is where Buddha came.’ Even the footprint of Buddha at Sri Pada (Adam’s peak) is nothing but an obvious myth. This despite the construction of these three ‘chaityas’ and their periodic renovation/ embellishment recorded in the chronicles and numerous lithic records.
Koneswaram ~ pic by: Drs. Sarajevo
This point is not argued here by me but suffice it to say that the same observation could apply to all Hindu shrines like Tiruketiswaram, (built by Chettiyars in the 19th century), Koneswaram the construction of which commenced in 1956 on the site of three Buddhist shrines (pagodas) which were destroyed by the Portuguese (Queyroz), and Nakuleswaram in Jaffna peninsula and others. The myths and legends about their antiquity have even lesser credibility and have to be rejected based on same logic used by Devananda. The famous Nallur Kovil in Jaffna whose construction is ascribed to Sapumal Kumaraya, who was King Parakramabahu’s representative who ruled over Jaffna peninsula is now contested.
A mythical origin dating back to Cola times is suggested on the basis of a fragmentary Cola period inscription (Rajendra Cola’s time 1018-1022) found in Jaffna but which has no reference at all to the kovil. (See Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Reby ThevaRajan )
The same argument should apply to this kovil for which a Cola origin is now claimed.
A few coins code- named Sangam coins have been found at Kantarodai and two coins found more recently at Tissamaharama have been tentatively described as inscribed with “Tamil Brahmi (Bopearachchi)”. Sangam period has been stretched loosely to suit arguments but it stretched to around the 7th century A.C. These can only suggest their circulation as valid tender in commercial transaction rather than evidence of a Tamil physical presence. So are the Sinhalese Lakshmi coins found in South Indian locations. (Bopearachchi).
Establihing a theoretical foundation on ‘racism’
When discussing ‘racism’ it is important that criteria should be defined and established before loose usage of terminology is made as Devananda has done in this case. In respect of the charge of ‘racism’ to which the ancient chronicle has been subjected, I would like to draw from “sociological theories on racism and colonialism” put together by a UNESCO (1980) team for an analysis of the subject. Guy Rozart and Roger Batra writing for the volume observed that ‘scientific’ racism as a form of discrimination as it is understood [today] is not found in any texts written before the eighteenth century. It is not proposed to go into detailed reasoning adduced by these two social scientists in support of this claim. Suffice it to say that they examined the claim of anti-Semitism as a classical example of discrimination (no racism) and expressed the view that even the Catholic Church which is considered by many as “one of the first institutions” that promoted ‘racism’ or at least, laid the ideological foundation for anti-Semetic racism, quoted the historian Madeleine Reberioux (Racisme et Societe, Paris, 1969) who reviewing detailed evidence that establishes the responsibility of the Church in this regard, observed that the separation of Christian community from its old Judaic roots left traces of ‘racist’ tendency in the choice of words but still concluded that at the close of the 5th century, ‘a collective racist attitude had not had time to develop before the ancient world came to an end.’ (Rebeiroux, p.110).
Going further, she observed that “There is even less reason to speak of racism during the Dark Ages than under the Roman Empire,’ and that it is clear from a thorough analysis of he findings of historical research in the most varied fields, that throughout the West (except Spain) relations between Jews and Christians were by and large harmonious. Everywhere in Europe, they were intermingled before the Crusades. As under the Empire, there was nothing to set in motion a process of differentiation: neither language, no personal names, nor occupations, nor places of residence…..’
Even in respect of Greek city states, Rebeiroux observed that “……To be sure, the Greeks were certain of their superiority over non-Greeks, and a superiority of civilization and language could easily have come to be regarded as a superiority of “race”…..That threshold was not crossed. …..” On the whole, then the ancient world, during the pagan period, knew no racism [in the sense it is known today].
Applying the criteria used by these scholars who are more bent on Marxist analysis, one could go to examine if the ancient chronicle of the Sinhalese displays any ‘racist’ tendencies as claimed by Devananda. Before I proceed further, I might point out that S.J.Tambiah expressed the view that there was no exclusion of Tamils (he avoided the term ‘racism’) manifest in the early part of the chronicle. However, he ascribed such a tendency to the literature of the Sinhalese after the 13th century. He attributed this to the traumatic experience of going under Cola rule in the 10th /11th centuries and the subsequent invasion of Magha of Kalinga who employed Kerala (Malala), Kalinga, and Damila mercenaries to destroy the land, cause havoc in the social order and destroy temples and text books. Tambiah’s contention can be contested on grounds of over emphasis on ‘choice of words’ found in the second part of Mahavamsa (Culavamsa Part II according to Geiger) on the same analogy that Rebeiroux applied to the study of the position of the Catholic Church quoted above.
Mahavamsa’s attitude toward the ‘foreigner’
In contrast, an examination of Mahavamsa will point out that the compiler of the chronicle bore no ill-will towards foreign usurpers of the Anuradhapura throne as can be seen from the following quotes to such rule by usurpers:
1. Sena-Guttika: Mahavamsa says “….and the two of them reigned ten years justly” ( Dhammena rajjam karayi).
2. Elara: “A Damila named Elara of upright nature ( Uju jatiko) …….reigned for forty years, being impartial to friend and enemies during law suits…….”
The chapter on Elara is summed up with the following didactic vese:
“Even though not liberated from false views by merely being free from blemish of resorting to injustice, he attained this sort of miraculous power. How therefore, may not a wise man here, who is established in pure views, abandon the blemish of resorting to injustice?”
3. Pancha Dravida: Mahavamsa makes no summing up about their rule except to refer to the Damilas as “dipaghatake” (translated as “ravagers of the island” which translation I am not pleased with).
4. Sad – Dravidas: (Mahavamsa Part II) : (the Culavamsa (Part I) Chapter 38th titled Ten Kings which includes the seven Damilas starting with Pandu ending with Damila Pithiya who was annihilated by Dhatusena, says: “These ten excellent kings also with their treasures have fallen into the jaws of death, robbed of their treasures. ….Can a wise man when he sees the fleeting nature of the rich and of wealth crave for earthly joy?”
Mahavams’s nature and objective
Anyone conversant with textual criticism cannot fail to realize that Mahavamsa is not only a poetical work but also has no reference whatsoever even to usupers introducing any ‘racist’ element. On the contrary, one finds Elara’s up bringing has been extolled by the use of the terminology “Uju-jatiko” which Geiger has translated as “upright nature”.
As for the poetic character of the work, as the chronicle progresses into second and third parts which not only point to several different layers (based on the use of language) but also greater influence of Sanskrit Kavya , one sees how poetic embellishment has crept in. This is especially to be noted in the Culavamsa composed around the 12th century and later. The ornate poetic influence of Sanskrit poetical work, especially the use of allegory is very much noticeable. This is found in the reference to Damilas “plundering the country like devils” (Mahavamsa. Chapter 54); the reference to Damilas (Colas) plundering the relic chambers like ‘blood sucking yakkhas ( MV. Chap. 55); and the reference to Kalinga Magha in the Third part of Mahavamsa: (Culavamsa Part II): Chapter 80:
59. “Magho nama mohamoghikatavicarano Kalingakulasamhavoeko raja adhammiko ……”
60. “Magharajamahagimho” ……
70. “Evam Damilayodha te Marayodhanukarino…”
(“Magha an unjust king sprung from the Kalinga line in whom reflection was fooled by his great delusion…”
“King Magha commanded his countless flames of fire- his warriors – his warriors. – to harass the great forest of – the kingdom of Sri Lanka” and
…..”Thus the Damila warriors in imitation of the warriors of Mara, destroyed in the evil of their nature, the laity and the Order”.
I do not know if anyone reading the text in translation discerns the same sense of poetic allegory that I discern reading the Pali original. Contrary to what Devananda says about ‘racism’ in the Mahavamsa what one finds even in these passages on Magha quoted by Tambiah to support his thesis that exclusion of Damilas started with the 13th century literature, is the emphasis on religious objectives and not a reference to ‘race’ of the invader but to their ‘evil’ nature (adharma). For example, the final didactic verse of the text concerning Magha runs as follows:
“Ittham lankaya so so naradhipati mahata vatthulobhena tam tam
Hantava hantava narindam sayam api amunakammuna’nayukova
Hutva patva pi rajjam ciratam anubhavitum nasakkhi;
Tasma panno panatipata viramatu visamam vatthulobhena jahatu”
“Thus in Lanka this and that ruler out of great lust for power, have slain this or that lord of men, but have themselves in consequence of these deeds attained to no good old age, and when they had achieved the kingly dignity, they could not alas! enjoy it for long. Hence the wise men should refrain from the destruction of living beings and renounce wanton destruction for power.” (Geiger/Rickmers)
There is no condemnation of Magha because of his lineage or descent from Kalinga origin, which was really a cause for celebration among Sinhalese dynastic rulers. On the contrary, it was the aspect of ‘adharma’ (absence of righteousness) that was emphasised. Nor were such use of terminology/allegory confined to foreign invaders. They were equally used in respect of description of wars among Sinhalese kings.
A recent commentator, Guruge, observed, they are subjects like Anicca (impermanence), appamada (diligence), Punna (merit), attitudes towards the rich and powerful, (Guruge, pp.67-73) emphasized in the concluding gathas at the end of many chapters. Guruge pointed out:
‘Mahavamsa was conceived to fulfill a didactic function’ but the author ‘handles this aspect with admirable restraint, restricting surmonising to the concluding verses and avoiding any tendency to become a moralist during his historical narration’.
These aspects including greediness (attachments) for possessions which was not commended and the upholding of Dasaraja dharma (Righteous rule), a virtue expected of rulers which was emphasized are also included in the didactic verses. That emphasis has been found irrespective of who the rulers were. Mahavamsa’s message, therefore, was on a higher plane far transcending parochial considerations like ‘racism’. That point is well worth keeping in mind remembering Buddha’s own declaration on birth contained in the Dhammapada verse on Brahamin. There is no evidence that Mahavamsa has deviated fr om that tenet or any other to downgrade any section of the society including usurpers of the throne/invaders.
One instance where an exception is noted is one dealing with Duttha gamani’s ‘vitakka’ (confusion?) where a the Arahants from Piyangu- dipa are introduced as saying only ‘one and a half persons’ died. This is not a Buddhist view. Gananath Obeysekera has explained it as a position influenced by Bhagavad Gita. As a frequent reader of the Gita I had myself made that observation. The reference to Piyangu –dipa, an island identified with present day Pungutu-tivu near Jaffna is significant.
The fabulous and miraculous elements
Devananda asserts that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim of Buddha’s 3 visits to the island other than the three chaithiyas (Buddhist structures) built in the recent past by the Sinhalese Buddhists at 3 different locations to say, “This is where Buddha came…… Even the footprint of Buddha at Sri Pada (Adam’s peak) is nothing but an obvious myth”, he says.
This seems to be intended to emphasise that the chronicler’s objective was to make the country an exclusive preserve of the Buddhists. Buddha’s prophesy noted below is to show the prophecy linking the Sihalas exclusively with the island.
Buddha’s visits to the island is a subject that historians have gone into. Dr.G.C.Mendis who examined the historicity of Mahavamsa taught us that there is no reference in Canonical literature to Buddha having left his usual routine in the Gangetic kingdoms. Guruge left a discussion of this subject out of the Prolegomena he wrote to Mahavamsa by merely saying that scholars have questioned the veracity of these accounts by referring to canonical literature not making any reference to these visits. He quotes George Turnour inquiring from the prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya establishments and saying they were not paying any importance to their absence from the [canonical] texts.
Now, what is historically not corroborated in the Mahavamsa story of connection with the island in the connection with the Buddha, are not only his three claimed visits to the island but also the references to places sanctified by the presence of previous Buddhas of this Aeon. As observed above, historians have questioned these especially on ground that Gautama Buddha’s routine as described in the scriptures not pointing to his having been absent from the Gangetic circuit at any time. The idea could then remain in the realm of belief alone. There are such claims of Buddha’s visit to Myanmar, and Central Asia.
One is also told that in the Indian Yoga practice (Hata Yoga) a person could mysteriously be seen present in two places at the same time. I am quoting from the story of Swamy Vivekananda. I am not trying to attach any historical significance to that reference to Buddha’s visits. Let that remain in the realm of belief just like the many stories in the Testament or Hindu mythological belief. That it could be an attempt by the chronicler to connect the island’s story of Buddhism with the highest personage of Buddhism need no contest but rather than invent the story, he probably followed a belief that had gained current at his time that Buddha could miraculously appear in different places.
Burning incense at Naga Dvipa ~ pic by :Manori R
If one believes as Devananda does, that Buddha made three magical ‘trips’ to Sri Lanka, each time colonizing another area of the island,- one of these ‘trips’ was to settle a dispute between the Yakkhas and Nagas at Naga Dvipa (Ninathivu) where the Buddha tamed the Yakkhas, the non-human inhabitants of the island – and according to Mahavamsa, [it was] in preparation for the formal introduction of Buddhism two centuries after his death, it is acceptable. It could point to an effort by the chronicler to provide a sequence connecting the story of Buddhism in the island with the highest personage of Buddhism. That needs no contest but historians looking for sources could keep that in mind.
Devananda also refers to Mahavamsa recording that “just before passing away, Buddha has called the Sakka (King of Gods) and told him,
‘My doctrine, O Sakka, will eventually be established in the Island of Lanka, and on this day, Vijay the eldest son of Singha Bahu king of Sinhapura in the Lata country lands there with 700 followers and will assume sovereignty there. Do thou, therefore guard well the prince and his train and the Island of Lanka. On receiving the blessed one’s command, Sakka summoned God Vishnu and said, ‘Do thou. O lotus-hued one, protect with zeal prince Vijay and his followers and the doctrine that is to endure in Lanka for a full five thousand years’.
This prophesy is again part of the attempt by the compiler to connect the Buddhism of the island with India, i.e. Buddha himself. What is curious about the rejection of the claimed Buddha’s visits is that while rejecting it the attempt made to rationalize the rest of the story connected with the visits like the presence of Naga kingdoms and Naga rulers and a people called Yakkhas whom Buddha is claimed to have encountered with as historical truths.
Other link with Buddha’s clan
So is the attempt in the chronicle to connect the Sri Lankan royal dynasty to the Buddha’s family through the story of Bhaddakaccana, a princess from the Sakya household. There is historical evidence that a branch of the Sakyas moved south of the Ganges after the annihilation of the Sakyas (The name Sakyas is still familiar in Nepal though now confined mostly to artisan families) and they developed links with other dynasties. What one could suggest is the presence of a historical core behind the Mahavamsa story, in the form of an old memory.
One could also see more than one origin story having been present at the time of compilation of Mahavamsa, or even the century older Dipavamsa and the compiler having tried to synthesise these different traditions by presenting both Vijaya legend and the Panduvasudeva/Baddhakacchana legend and forging a link. It is important to remember that the connection with Pandu kingdom of bringing brides is not found in the older chronicle Dipavamsa. Obviously, it is a later introduction to the origin story (Vijaya legend) introduced at a time when Pandya had risen from tribal state (See Asoka’s inscriptions and Kharavela’s Hathigumpa inscription where the southern people are referred to as ‘border people’ and not kingdoms). These are questions of textual criticism one has to apply in empirical tradition before the contents of the text are taken for their face value in the absence of corroboration.
Devananda points out that in Buddhist scriptures, Buddha has never mentioned about any Hindu/Brahmanical Gods, he only talks about Devas and Bramahas from different worlds who have no connection with any Hindu/Brahmanical Gods, but he does not carry the point to its logical conclusion. Perhaps, what he wants to say is that the worship of Hindu gods, especially, Vishnu, was already known in the island when Buddhism was introduced or when Mahavamsa was compiled. There should be no problem about such a surmise though historical evidence is lacking.
The origin Myths
Devananda says: “There is no historical evidence what so ever to prove Vijaya’s arrival with 700 men or to say there were Sinhalese during the Early Historic period….. The term ‘Sihala’ itself first appeared ONLY in the 5th Century AD Pali chronicles Deepavamsa/Mahavamsa and that also ONLY twice in the beginning chapters. To date, no archaeological evidence has been found to prove ‘Hela’ or ‘Sihala’ or ‘Sinhala’ existed before that or anything about Vijaya’s arrival…… Only the Mahavamsa Tika that was composed very much later to interpret the Mahavamsa, mentions that it was adopted from the mysterical ‘Vamsa texts’ known as ‘Sihala Atthakatha’ (collection of Sinhala verbal stories). Very strangely, most of the mythical/supernatural stories from the so called ‘Sihala Atthakatha Vamsa texts’ are very similar to those found in the Indian Epics and Puranas such as the Mahabaratha/Ramayana…… Ultimately, the Mahavamsa has transformed the Buddha into a special patron of Sinhala-Buddhism, an ethnic religion created in Sri Lanka”.
Many nations have their own origin stories which may have little or no historical base but like some of these myths and legends, the essence of the origin story of the Sinhalese is the migration of sea faring people from some parts of India a few centuries before the historical phase of the island began in the 3rd century B.C. This migration story could have been relegated to the arena of fantasy if it is now not confirmed by archaeological finds of introduction of an iron and horse using people to the island centuries before the date ascribed to Vijaya and his followers; and Anuradhapura, the first Capital displaying characteristics of a metropolis which was imposed from outside. (Deraniyagala). What gives further credence to the migration is the linguistic evidence found in over a thousand cave inscriptions indited in Brahmi Prakrit which show close resemblance to scripts used in North East and North West of India, but also bearing a few similarities with those Brahmi Prakrits used in a few inscriptions around Madura in the Pandya county.
What is important in textual criticism one learnt from its first application to Biblical texts is the warning not to become a slave to what is present in the text. That is the need to avoid what is said as Gospel truth. However, as Geiger pointed out, and Dr. Narendran now repeats, there had been no attempt by the Sri Lankan chronicler to conceal the truth. There is ample evidence that the compiler was concentrating on presenting an account which was not subject to contradiction. There is no racial element whatsoever present in the original Mahavamsa. Nor is there any deliberate attempt at exclusion of any ethnic group as one understand that term today. (The term ‘vamsa’ used here and there in the second part of the chronicle. For example, in “Dhatusena yujjhitva vamso pacchiji Damilo..” (The English translation “The race of Damilas was annihilated by in battle with Dhatusena might not convey the correct meaning leading to a ‘racial’ connotation. Here the emphasis is on the ‘dynasty’); and the other reference Magha as ‘Kalingakulasambhavo’ (Kalinga descent) make that clear ).
There was no attempt to hide any evidence of non-Sinhalese connection. This is clear from the origin story linked to Vijaya. The brides for Vijaya and his men come from the Pandu country which could be none other than the Pandya country of the South. That element confirms not what really happened in the pre-Christian centuries in which the Vijaya legend is situate but a Pandya link had existed at least when Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka around the 3rd century B.C. and by the time Mahavamsa was compiled in the 5th /6th centuries A.C .probably, shortly after the Pancha Dravida invasion which was ended by Dhatusena which was an important landmark in the history of the country.
This is also clear from reference to usurpers Sena –Guttika and Elara, the ‘Pancha Dravida’ and ‘Sad Dravida’ invasions and others.
Coinciding with the strong Buddhist activity that followed the introduction of Buddhism in the island, as vouched by over one thousand cave [donor] inscriptions, a similar wave of Buddhist activity had been present in Pandya, especially around Madura though the activity has not been as intensive as in Sri Lanka. This gave thought to the surmise that it could be the result of a reverse wave from Sri Lanka where Buddhism was firmly established. Besides, the Sri Lankan –Pandya royal family links had been quite strong from the time of Sad Dravida invasion (Paranavitana has identified one of the donors of caves as one of the seven Pandyas who ruled over Anuradhapura) to even the last days of the Sinhalese kingdom (Kotte). This is despite the emphasis in the medieval inscriptions to Kalinga links. That is harking back to the original origin story in the chronicles which connects the Sinhala dynasty to Kalinga. The Colas were not within the accepted matrimonial pale of relationship. Only a single important matrimonial link had existed with the Cola country. So the Pandyas were acceptable but not the Colas. However, links between Sinhalese and Cola bhikkus was quite strong.
By the time Dravidian population developed as organized kingdoms or states in South India, in the north of India powerful imperial kingdoms had come into being like the imperial Mauryas (and Kalingas with a strong army whom Pliny describes and its ruler Kharavela of Hathigumpa inscription) which used a well developed Brahmi script and Prakrit language to disseminate royal messages as Asoka’s many Rock and other edicts demonstrate. One does not recognize such a strong impact of this influence as in Sri Lanka in the southern regions where Dravidian elements were present. The first evidence comes from the donor inscriptions indited on caves in Brahmi and Prakrit. In contrast, the presence of such inscriptions in Sri Lanka in very large numbers not only point to the northern influence but also that a Brahmi and Prakrit using people inhabited the island and were well established by this time. There is no indication of evidence of them having followed the Hindu religion or animism before that but that possibility can be gleaned from the evidence in the chronicles.
There was no clash between the new religion and what existed earlier. All the evidence in the chronicle is that with royal patronage, Buddhism had gained a supremacist position. That is to be expected from the chronicles whose objective was to extol Buddhism and not any other religion. In the over thousand Brahmi/Prakrit inscriptions, one finds also non-Sinhalese making donations to the Sangha like the Kambujas (Persians from Kambuja), and a few Damedas and Milakas (Mlechchas), the majority using this script and language being not identified by any particular name which led Paranavitana to assert that there was no need for them to refer to their identity as they were the dominant people. Only those considered ‘foreigners’ used their identity appellation to distinguish them.
A Dravidian/ Hindu challenge?
Let us go back to the point raised by Devananda that Mahavamsa was compiled at a time when Hindu/Brahmanical influence posed a serious challenge to Buddhism and when Buddhism started to lose popular support and the patronage from the rulers, the Buddhist institutions in India having came under attack; and that it was then “the Mahavihara monks of Anuradhapura including Ven. Mahanama, the author of the Pali chronicle Mahavamsa and a close relative of the Buddhist Naga king Dhatusena witnessed the decline and disorientation of Buddhism in India” and compiled the chronicle.
This is an unsubstantiated statement and remains pure speculation as far as Sri Lanka was concerened. It also does not explain how and why the earlier chronicle Dipavamsa compiled in the 4th century A.C. came about. It is correct that there was a Hindu revival during the time of the Guptas in India but the historical evidence is that its challenge to Buddhism, and other religions became more pronounced around the 7th century with the spread of the Bhakti movement. The subject remains inadequately discussed. The internal evidence of both Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa is that Mahavihara faced a serious challenge not from Hinduism/Brahmanism but Mahayana (Vaitulya vada, as it is called in the chronicles). This is the reason why both chronicles end with the reign of Mahasena when Mahavihara was “ploughed down to the ground” and Bhikkus fled when sustenance was denied.
Guruge, following k.N.O.Dharmadsa, has argued differently when he says: “The Sinhalas more than any of their contemporaries in the Indian subcontinent –had felt the urge to assert their cultural identity. …to find why the Sinhalese found a historical sense and utilized history for nationalistic ideological purposes, we should first solve a major historical riddle, viz. what accounts for the dominance of the Indo-Aryan element in Sri Lanka up to date, in spite of the geographical proximity and numerical preponderance in South India of Dravidian languages and culture.”
“Separating Sri Lanka from north India is a vast Dravidian block, which in itself is sizable both in terms of area covered and population of Sri Lanka, despite the narrow strait that separate it from the mainland, is geologically an geographically part of South India but linguistically and culturally, the Dravidian element in Sri Lankan population had remained sporadic, intermittent, and secondary. On the whole, the material evidence of its presence and impact dates from a much later date period than the arrival of Indo-Aryan Sinhala population in the entire island. Archaeological and epigraphical evidence as well as the place names of proven antiquity confirm the distribution of Sinhala in all parts of the island without exception.”
The South Indian historian Nilakantha Sastri, commenting on the scarcity of evidence as far as the Dravidian culture not only in [Sri Lanka but] in South India, wrote:
“Most direct clues are furnished by the reference to the south kingdoms in Megasthenes, in the edicts of Asoka and in south Indian Brahmi inscriptions in natural caverns with rock-cut beds scattered all over south India and found in some large numbers in Madura and Tinnevely and much more in the island of Ceylon. the oldest strata of extant Tamil literature cannot lay claim o equal antiquity ……Lastly, the Mahavamsa has conserved the story of Ceylonese affairs, in such detail and as the chronicle is obviously worked up from more ancient records, and some of its details find confirmation in the rock-cut Brahmi inscriptions above mentioned, we come to know a little more of Ceylon in the period than of the mainland of South India.”
That is the opinion of the erudite south Indian scholar. The question then is why so little is known of South India and the Damilas and their culture in the early phase while so much is revealed on the Sinhalese language, culture and monuments in the same period.
The 19th century British historian, Emerson Tennent who was Colonial Secretary, who won the esteem of Ponnambalam Ramanathan as a most eminent historian, left all reservations behind when he remarked in respect of the first millennium of the island’s history:
“Notwithstanding their numbers and their power, it is remarkable that the Malabars (the term use by early British officials to denote Tamils) were never identified with any plan for promoting the prosperity and embellishment of Ceylon, or with any undertaking for the permanent improvement of the island. Unlike the Gangetic race, who were the earlier colonists, and with whom originated every project for enriching and adorning the country, the Malabars aspired not to beautify or enrich, but to impoverish and deface –and nothing can more strikingly bespeak of the inferiority of he southern race than the single fact that everything tending to exalt and civilize, in the early conditions of Ceylon, was introduced by the northern conquerors, while all that contributed to ruin and debase it is distinctly traceabl to the presence and influence of Malabars” (Tennent, Vol I, p.340).
Tennent’s observation may sound racist but its substance is something that one may find it difficult to disagree. The South Indians who came to the island with adventurers seeking a fortune were marauding mercenaries and pirates out for plunder, spoil and rape. They came with foreign horse- shippers like Sena-Guttika and usurpers like Elara and with the Pancha Dravida and Sad Dravida invasions. One of the Pancha Dravidas ran away carrying the queen and the alms bowl of the Buddha. The question has been asked if even later times, when the Aryacakravartis ruled over the Jaffna peninsula, what contribution many of them made for the improvement of llfe and enhance the culture of the people of the peninsula until the last of the, Sankili, the usurper, came on the scene. The major Hindu shrine is claimed to have been built by the Sinhalese King Parakramabahu’s representative, Sapumal Kumaraya who ruled over the peninsula for 18 years. Ibn Batuta describes Ariyacakravarti as a vicious sea pirate who lived by plundering ships on the high seas up to Oman.
Sri Lanka’s foremost contemporary historian, K.M.de Silva, writing on the early history of the island, commenting on Dravidian settlements, quotes the [Tamil] historian, K Indrapala, who wrote in his [supervised] PhD thesis, as follows:
“Until about the thirteenth century AD, the history of [Sri Lanka] was the history of the Sinhalese people. From about the middle of the thirteenth century, it has been the history of the Sinhalese and Tamil people ……..From that time for over three centuries, the majority of Tamils were concentrated in a kingdom of their own in the northern part of the island. In 1620, the last of the Tamil rulers was executed by the Portuguese conquerors who brought the Tamil areas under their rule. “
Indrapala writing again in 1965, (published in 2000) pointed out that from the meagre evidence available ‘commercial interests, political adventure, and the prospect of military employment had led the Tamils to come to Sri Lanka in the early centuries of the island’s history’. He asked if this led to the rise of permanent and wide settlements in the island. His own answer which K.m. de Silva quoted was:
“Considering the number of Tamil invasions and the number of occasions when Tamil mercenaries were enlisted, it appears that more Tamils came to Sri Lanka as invaders and hired soldiers than as traders. Since most of the invasions succeeded in ousting the Sinhalese rulers and in paving the way for rule by Tamils for short periods, the invading troops must have remained in the island on such occasions till the Sinhalese princes regained the throne. Either these armies stayed behind after they were defeated is something regarding which there is no evidence.”
Indrapala has had no reasons to alter the above pronouncements though he came under heavy ethnic pressure to rewrite history as the facts had not changed. Therefore, he drew more attention to Megalithic finds around Pomaripuu in the North West and Kathiravely in the Eastern prvince which sparce evidence too he had earlier dismissed in the following terms:
“Looking back on the whole body of evidence that is available,we have to conclude that there was no widespread Tamil settlement before the tenth century. The settlements at Pomparippu and the possible settlements at Kathiravelu have to be treated as isolated earlier settlements.”
He was more of the view that urn and cist buriyals were those of people who came for the pearl fisheries.
The question of early Tamil settlements cannot be answered by resort to polemics. The reason seems to lie in the fact that Indian states such as Kalinga which has been rich in armies and seafaring people from very ancient times and its later dynasties like Satavahanas, Ikshuvakus who professed Buddhism were probably responsible for early migrations to the island as they did in respect of other South East Asian lands. Obviously, there had been sense of greater security for the endurance of the state within the better defensible confines of the island and the kingdom had succeeded in maintaining it through a delicate combination of state power with the interest of the Buddha Sasana as well as an intricate inter-state diplomatic relationship with neighbouring kingdoms depending on who mattered at a time. The Sangha contributed not only to maintain the Buddhist hold on the country but also to forge alliances with neighbours, of which there is evidence.
A significant point is that while all Indian dynasties from prosperous Nandas, imperial Mauryas, Guptas, Satavahans, Ikshuvakus, Salayankayanas, Brihatpalayanas, Pallavas, Chalukyas, Colas and Pandyas, and others, both powerful and smaller dynasties disappeared in India under pressure from other powers, the island nation succeeded in sustaining its first kingdom, Anuradhapura, for nearly one and half millennia. While there could be a number of reasons for that one cannot ignore the strong supporting link between the polity and the Sangha combined to bring about that situation. What it resulted in was keeping the external pressures at bay.
It is also a point to remember that the southern kingdoms like Colas and Pandyas were not fully organized polities when the island kingdom was well established from around the 3rd century B.C. to provide leadership in forming migratory colonies abroad but were inhabited more by marauding tribes, seafaring people and mercantile people. It was their services that adventurers like Sena-Guttika, Elara, Magha and Chandrabhanu sought. These incursions were sporadic as noted above and did not disturb the sustainability of the kingdom. All the political influences that came from the south of the subcontinent were “sporadic, intermittent, and secondary”. That influence was not felt in a way to destabilize the island’s major religious/cultural standing for over one and half millennia during the days of the Anuradhapura kingdom. Nor did that succeed in creating a sub-population or a parallel culture during that period. Nor did the 44 year Cola rule in the 11th century leave a permanent mark as to overshadow the Sinhalese polity in the future or create cultural upheavals to upset the hold of Buddhism.
On the contrary, Buddhism revived under the Polonnaruva rulers until Magha’s invasion caused a serious upset. Magha is not referred to as a Hindu. There was no bias against the Hindus, many of the kings having looked after all religions. Magha was denounced for anti-Buddhist work carried out by his Kerala, Kalinga and Damila soldiers like spoiling the stupas and destroying Buddhist books. Magha is but referred to as as one who hailed from the [celebrated] Kalinga lineage [like Nissanka Malla] and could have been even a Mahayana adherent rather than a Hindu.
The analogy of ‘chosen people’ that Devananda has used to reconstruct his thesis in respect of the Sinhalese does not find a supporting historical link in the Mahavamsa except in imagination. Nor does the chronicle support the theses that there is a historical foundation in the Mahavamsa to support that ‘racism’ existed as a practice among the Sinhalese.
The attempt smacks of what Andrew J.Bacevich, Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University who wrote in the Chapter entitled “Onward” in his recent book “The New American Militarism.” He stated:
“Well before 1776, Americans claimed for themselves a pivotal role in the panoramic drama of salvation achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. ….Indeed the American story begins with the forging of a special covenant…… God singled out Americans to be His New Chosen People…… He [God] charged them with the task of carving out of wilderness a New Jerusalem. He assigned to them unique responsibilities to serve as agents of His saving grace. America was to become, in John Winthrop’s enduring formulation of 1630, “as a city upon a hill,” its light illuminating the world. Present- day Americans beyond counting hold firm to these convictions…… Even among citizens oblivious to or rejecting its Christological antecedents, widespread, almost autonomous support for this doctrine of American Exceptionalism persists.”
“As these and mainstream denominations vacated the public square that they once dominated, others have vied to take their place. In recent decades, none have done so with great energy and effort than he churches constituting modern protestant evangelism.”
He wrote further that the churches and related institutions consisting [of] the contemporary evangelical movement are of particular interest to the account he was describing. Because “the way that their aspirations touched on matters relating to military institutions and the use of American power”………No group in American society felt more keenly the comprehensive nature of this crisis than did Protestant evangelicals. It was here, among committed Christians dismayed by the direction that the country appeared to be taking, that the reaction to Vietnam as a foreign policy failure and to Vietnam as a manifestation of cultural upheaval converged with great effect. ……Certain of their understanding of right and wrong, growing numbers, affluence and sophistication, and determined to reverse the nation’s perceived decline, conservative evangelicals after the 1960s assumed the role of church militant…..”they articulated highly permissive interpretations of the ‘just war’ tradition, the cornerstone of Christian thinking about warfare. And they developed considerable appetite for wielding armed might on behalf of righteousness, more often than not indistinguishable from America’s own interests.”
Does one see in the present attempt to link Mahavamsa with the present day scenario in Sri Lanka an attempt like what Prof.Becevich ascribed to the new American evangelists? Are we trying to say that Buddha, like God charging the Americans, charged the Sinhalese (Vijaya) with the task of carving out of Sri Lankan wilderness a forbidden island (New Jerusalem) forbidden for others. He, like God assigning to the Americans unique responsibilities to serve as agents of His saving grace, assigned such responsibilities to Sinhalese Buddhists in respect of Sri Lanka? The answer must be a definite “No”:
On the whole, what all sources of evidence and their learned interpretations point to is that Tamil settlements from the days of the Megalithic times through the historical period till about the 13th century had been “sporadic, intermittent and secondary.” Even in respect of the long Cola occupation of the 11th century, there is no evidence to show that the Tamil mercenaries remained in the island after the expulsion of the administrators. What R.L.Brohier observed about the settlement of Tannimuruppu (Kurundi) that by the 13th century both the settlers and invaders had gone to a man was no doubt true of the rest of Rajarata too. The vagaries of climate, the harshness of the terrain, and the collapse of the once life-giving water resources, was true of all people alike. Those who remained for early British administrators to recognize were a few hapless Sinhalese villagers in the Vanni jungles and in KaddukulamPattu still tending to their small village tanks and eking out a life under conditions of hunger and privation.
With some bitterness I might add that some of the scholarly studies have been undertaken on the discriminatory attitudes trying to find
historical roots for present day issues but a survey of the entire spectrum of Sinhalese -Tamil (read South Indian) relations throughout
history have been by and large harmonious both at peoples’ level and even at the official level.
In every sphere they have been closely intermingled. To start with, Damilas joined others in making offerings to the Sangha in the early phase of introduction of Buddhism. They helped the rulers as commanders of army and generals to maintain order and in administration; their role during the last phase of history of Gampola and Kotte period has been especially recognised as the honourable mention made of Alakeswara in Gampola period of Buddhist literature illustrates.
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