The Sinhala (Mahavamsa) Buddhism Revisited

The Mahavamsa mindset: Re-Visiting political Buddhism in Sri Lanka
Hello Friends

Compliments of the season to you all.

Several readers have been posting comments on this blog about various themes like the antiquity of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the Mahavamsa, Lord Buddhas visits to Sri Lanka. This in turn has generated a heated and healthy discussion in this forum

None of these comments were in any way directly related to the topics of the articles under which they were posted. It was a parallel debate of sorts without any reference to the subject matter of the article. I allowed readers to engage in this parallel discourse because I did not want to curb their enthusiasm.

Upon reflection I did find that these discussions touched and to some effect dissected several crucial issues impacting on the present state of politics in Sri Lanka. History or wrong interpretations of history along with strongly believed mythology has played and continues to play a very significant role in contemporary politics.

I thought therefore that an article on this sensitive subject by a reader/writer could stimulate an interesting and informed discussion in this forum.

With this intention in mind I present here an article by JL Devananda on what he terms as Political Buddhism in Sri Lanka. I have little doubt that the article would evoke a passionate debate.

I would very much like those who were posting comments under other articles about unrelated issues to refrain from doing so and instead focus on the topics pertaining to this article.

I hope the discussion would shed more light than heat. I also would like the exchange of views to maintain decorum and decency.

So here is the article Friends – D.B.S. Jeyaraj

THE MAHAVAMSA MINDSET:RE-VISITING POLITICAL BUDDHISM IN SRI LANKA

By J.L. Devananda

The Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, better known as Sinhala-Buddhism (or Mahavamsa-Buddhism) is different from the Theravada Buddhism practiced in other countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and so on. The Buddhists in these countries follow only the Buddhist scriptures Tripitaka (Viniya, Sutta, Abhidhamma), whereas in Sri Lanka the ‘Mahavamsa,’ which was written by one of the Mahavihara monks (Ven. Mahanama) more than 1000 years after the passing away of Lord Buddha is also considered as a part of the Buddhist scriptures, although it deals mostly with mythical or supernatural Buddhist history, some episodes of which are copied from the ‘Mahabaratha’ and ‘Ramayana.’ Since the Buddhist scriptures (Tripitaka) and the mythical Buddhist history (Mahavamsa) were both written in the Pali language, a Buddhist layperson who does not understand Pali cannot understand the difference between the two and, therefore, he/she believes everything that the Buddhist monks preach, to be the true words of Buddha.

Due to ignorance, even the present day Sinhala-Buddhists still believe that they are blood relatives of Buddha because, according to the Mahavamsa, their forefather Pandu-Vasudeva belongs to the Sakya clan, and is a relative of the Buddha where as the historians believe that the term ‘Pandu’ in Pali means Pandyans.

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.

Protecting Buddhism

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. The events that took place in India against Buddhism must have prompted the Mahavihara monks in Sri Lanka to come up with a plan/strategy to protect Buddhism. Due to their strong devotion to Buddhism and desire to consolidate and protect this religion in Sri Lanka they have decided to write the Pali chronicles Deepavamsa/Mahavamsa making Sri Lanka a Dammadeepa/Sinhaladvipa (chosen land of Buddha where Buddhism will prevail for 5000 years) and creating the Sinhala race by integrating all the Buddhists from different tribes/ethnic groups into one race and making them the sustainers of Buddhism (Gautama Buddha’s chosen people) to protect Buddhism in Sri Lanka for 5000 years until the next Maithriya Buddha arrive.

With the patronage of the Buddhist Kings, it is the Mahavihara monks who assimilated all the Buddhists from many different tribes together and called them Sihala (followers of Mythical Vijaya). There may have been instances where the convicted criminals from India (Bengal/Gujarat) who were exiled would have sleeked asylum in the island and would have been allowed to settle and got assimilated with the local population, but 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 mysterycal ‘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.

Sinhala and Damela

There are enough of ancient archaeological evidence in Sri Lanka such as Brahmi stone inscriptions, cave writings, Pali chronicles, etc where the terms ‘Dameda’, ‘Damela’, ‘Damila’, ‘Demel’ are mentioned as a group of people living in the island. Even in the Jataka stories such as Akitti Jataka, there is a reference to Tamil country (Damila-rattha), where as there is NO evidence what so ever about the terms ‘Hela’, ‘Sihala’, ‘Sinhala’ before and even a few centuries after the Pali chronicles were written. Even the Mahavamsa says, the missionary monk Mahinda Maha Thero preached Buddhism to the people of the island in Deepa basa (language of the island) but it does not say that the deepa basa was ‘Elu’ or ‘Helu’ or ‘Sihala’.

Some Sinhala scholars have a weak argument for the above. They argue that the ethnic name of the dominant group does not occur in these records for the very good reason that there is no need to distinguish any person by referring to him/her as such when the people as a whole are entitled to that name (Sihala). The million dollar question is why it is not the case now because today they are actually the dominant ethnic group? (How they became a majority is another subject but I will briefly mention below). Today, leave aside the major things like medicine, etc, even the smallest stuff like roof tiles are labelled after ‘Sinhala’.

The above argument could have been accepted if the terms ‘Hela’, ‘Sihala’, ‘Sinhala’ was found at least somewhere outside Sri Lanka such as in any of the ancient literary works and/or the stone inscriptions/rock edicts of neighbouring India (either South or North) that was always associated with the island’s history, but unfortunately nothing has been found until now.

The kingdoms of Anuradapura and Polonnaruwa were NEVER known as Sinhala kingdoms and the Naga and Tamil kings who ruled these kingdoms never called themselves ‘Hela’, ‘Sihala’, or ‘Sinhala’. There is no evidence to prove that the Nagas were Sinhalese or they became Sinhalese. Subsequent to the Cola domination of Sri Lanka in the 10th century A.D, people who identified themselves as Buddhists and Sinhalese shifted their seats of rule from the ancient kingdoms of Anuradapura and Polanaruwa towards South and Central Sri Lanka while the people who identified themselves as Hindus (Saiva) and Tamils moved their ruling structures from these same regions to the North and East of the island. It was only after the 13th century AD that the kingdoms of Kotte and Kandy were known as ‘Sinhale’ even though some parts of the Tamil areas in North and East also came under the Kandyan rule but Kandy was mostly ruled by the Kalingas of South-East India and the Nayakkars of South India with whom the Tamils did not have any problems. Also, the term ‘Sinhale’, appeared only in the 13th Century AD Chulavamsa and NOT in Deepavamsa/Mahavamsa.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese and in the 18th century, the Dutch who occupied the island brought in tens of thousands of people from South India (presently Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andara) and settled them in the Southern parts of the island as menial labourers (for growing/peeling cinnamon, fishing/pearl diving, coconut planting/plucking, toddy tapping, and for many other jobs). Within a few centuries, the Sinhala population increased exponentially when these people assimilated with the local Sinhala population by adopting the Sinhala language and the Buddhist religion. Today their decedents (6th generation) are not only claiming the ancient Sri Lankan civilization as their own ‘Sinhala’ heritage but have also become the patriots and champions of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism.

It was the British who re-discovered the Mahavamsa in the early 20th century and their so called European ‘Pali Scholars’ misinterpreted it, thereby creating another myth known as Arya-Sinhala. Since the Sinhala (Elu) language (mixture of Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil/Malayalam) was more of Indo-Aryan in nature, the British declared that the Sinhalese were Aryans from North India and the Tamils were Dravidians from South India. Influenced by the colonial historiography, the Sinhalese declared that they were indigenous to the island, and that the Tamils were invaders from South India.

Mahavamsa Mythology

It is said in MAHAVAMSA CHAPTER VII – THE CONSECRATING OF VIJAYA,
**But the king Sihabahu, since he had slain the lion (was called) Sihala and, by reason of the ties between him and them, all those (followers of VIJAYA) were also (called) Sihala.**

If Sihabahu whose father had slain the lion was called Sihala and his eldest son Vijaya and his followers were also called Sihala, then what about Vijaya’s twin brother Sumitta and his followers in Sinhapura, India? Why they were not called Sihala? That itself proves that Vijaya and the Sinhala race was a creation of Ven. Mahanama and the Mahavihara monks.

Another good example of the myths, fantasies, superstitions and fables from the Mahavamsa is the Elara/Dutugemunu episode. Just around ten lines/verses in the Pali chronicle Deepavamsa about the Elara/Dutugemunu was blown up into 11 chapters in the Mahavamsa just to glorify Buddhism and the Buddhist kings against the Hindus which gave birth to “superior race”, “Bhoomiputhra (sons of the soil)”, “Sinhaladivpa” “unitary state” and “Dhammadivpa” theories. The Mahavamsa author being a Buddhist monk and justifying the killing of around sixty thousand Tamils/Hindus (aka invaders) by Dutugemunu is one reason why others (non-Buddhists) think that Sinhala-Buddhism is somewhat of a violent barbaric form of Buddhism where killing Tamils is justified. The killing of Tamils in Sri Lanka by the Sinhala-Buddhists even today is due to this uncivilized and barbaric ehhno-religion known as Sinhala-Buddhism (or Mahavamsa-Buddhism).

There is a clear record of all the main events of Buddha, the places he visited, with whom he was, where and what he preached and to whom he preached, in the Buddhist scriptures Tripitika, but nowhere it is mentioned that the Buddha visited or even spoke about the island of Lanka. In order to protect Buddhism in Sri Lanka from those powerful South Indian Hindu kingdoms, Ven. Mahanama wrote the Mahavamsa, by added his own imaginations and myths. He has introduced many events concerning Buddha which never took place, things that Buddha has never said or done, events which are not mentioned in any of the Buddhist scriptures (both Theravada and Mahayana).

For example, according to the Mahavamsa, Buddha made three magical trips to Sri Lanka, each time colonizing another area of the island, in preparation for the formal introduction of Buddhism two centuries after his death. One of these trips was to settle a dispute between the Yakkhas and Nagas at Naga Divipa (Ninathivu) where the Buddha tamed the Yakkhas, the non-human inhabitants of the island.

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 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.

According to the Mahavamsa, 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’.

It should be noted 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.

Jathika Chintanaya (Mahavamsa mindset) and its consequences

Ven. Mahanama has created an imaginary link between the three elements, Country-Race-Religion and made it into one unit similar to the Holy Trinity, whereby Sri Lanka (Dhamma Deepa), Buddha’s chosen people (Sinhalese), and Buddhism (Buddha Sasana) should be protected for 5000 years. This is known as the Jathika chintanaya or the Mahavamsa mindset and its outcome is the ‘Sinhala-Budda Deepa’ and ‘unitary state’. Therefore, for the next 2500 years, a Sinhala Buddhist will never allow a federal state or any autonomy for others (non-Sinhala-Buddhists) in Sri Lanka.

What we witness today is a kind of political Buddhism trying to promote the interests of the Sinhala-Buddhist people, rather than religion (Buddhism) as a path for personal salvation, and it is the main impediment to peace in the Island of Sri Lanka because it is based on the doctrine of primacy and superiority of the Sinhala race and the Buddhist religion.

From a very young age, the innocent Sinhala Buddhist children who attend the Daham Paasela (Sunday school) in the Buddhist temples are brainwashed by engraving the Mahavamsa Buddhism and Sinhala Buddhist racism into their sub-conscious minds. They are taught to believe that the non-Sinhala Buddhists (Tamils) are invaders who do not belong to Sri Lanka. All the Tamils should be chased away to Tamil Nadu just the way their ancient Kings Dutugemunu did. The country (Sri Lanka), Sinhala race and Buddhism should be protected from the Tamils. Now, from recently, they have also included the Christians in those needing to be thrown out. Due to the above conditioning, the Sinhala-Buddhist majority believes that the entire Sri Lanka belongs to them and the minorities are aliens.

One good example is the former Army Chief Lt.-Gen. Sarath Fonseka who once said that he strongly believes that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese, the minorities can live in the country with them (Sinhalese) but they must not try to demand undue things. This is the common understanding/belief not only among the Sinhalese masses (both educated and uneducated) and the Buddhist clergy but also among the Sinhalese political leaders right from the top as we see from the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, the Sinhala-Only (sri) vehicle license-plates policy in 1958 (have we learned anything from its aftermath that has ruined the country for many decades?) and the recent proposal to scrap the Tamil version of the national anthem and have a Sinhala-Only National Anthem, but unlike the former army chief, these politicians are extra careful when uttering in public due to diplomacy.

Coming out of ignorance

In Sri Lanka, the history is already twisted many centuries ago and sealed. What we have is not history but his-story (Ven. Mahanama’s story). Today the myth has become the truth and if anybody tries to undo the twist (after enormous amount of new discoveries) he/she will be considered an unpatriotic traitor or even a ‘terrorist supporter’. Some of the new archaeological discoveries (artefacts) which are not in favour of the Mahavamsa mythology are either hidden (not allowed to reveal the facts) or they are made to disappear by none other than the governing authorities in order to keep the majority community happy.

For example, the archaeologist Prof. Senerath Paranawithana being a non-Buddhist had to come up with magical evidence from his research to prove the accuracy of the stories in the Mahavamsa (misinterpret as true history). Once when he deviated (by saying the truth that Buddha never visited the island) he was forced to deny.

During that turbulent period (when Buddhism was under threat), the Mahavamsa author Ven. Mahanama and the Mahavihara monks had a genuine reason for the above mythology but unfortunately today due to ignorance and lack of rational thinking, the Sinhala Buddhists still believe the Mahavamsa as the gospel truth.

As long as the Sinhalese remain ignorant, as long as they cling on to the 2500 years old mysteries of the past as their guide, as long as they remain engrossed to the Mahavamsa mindset, whatever solution the that the government tries/pretends to bring in, the Sinhala-Buddhists are not going to accept. Scholars and analysts have identified that the ‘Sinhala (Mahavamsa) Buddhist mindset,’ (about the Sinhala Buddhist claim to the whole island of Lanka), as the reason why most of the Sinhalese cannot be rational and liberal.

The so called Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) should have understood by now that the first lesson and most probably the only important lesson that the Sinhala majority has to learn in order to come out from their ignorance is to differentiate/distinguish between Sinhala and Sri Lanka. Only when the Sinhalese clearly understand that Sinhala-ness and Sri Lankan-ness are not the same but two different things, we will be able to see some light at the end of the tunnel (peace will prevail) and the Sri Lankan Tamils will be able to give up their demands and unite as one Sri Lankan nation.

(http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1886)

 


345 Comments

  1. Very good idea to have posted this article on your blog Mr.Jeyaraj

    As a Buddhist I know this will go against the erroneous beliefs held by most Sinhala Buddhists as a result of systematic indoctrination

    At the same time I also realise that Tamil extremists will be delighted with this article

    Nevertheless I think you have done well to post it here. Like you I hope it will stimulate healthy discussion on this site

    1. is site

    2. Dear Mr.Jeyaraj

      I was disappointed to find you had not written this week and look forward to the continuation of your article on the national anthem

      As for this article I think you were correct in identifying its merits and posting it on your blog

      But I doubt very much whether some of our “Sinhala Buddhist” readers long nurtured on fisction and myth would appreciate thefiner points and home truths

      I recall the furore caused by the book”Buddhism Betrayed”.Its author the respected Anthropology dean at Harvard Prof. SJ Thambaiyah was vilified like a pickpocket for it

    3. Fascinating article with lots of facts

      Thank you dear DBS for posting it here

      I am sure this will evoke a lot of controversy but like you I hope the debate will shed more light than heat.

      Meanwhile I would advise you not to reveal any details about the author in his own interests particularly if he is in Sri Lanka

    4. An excellent educating topic based on research and pure facts. If it is included in the text books and taught in all schools, it would be instrumental for creating a civilized society in srilanka, which in turn would pave way for peace and prosperity . This type of inspiring article should be appreciated by all. My sincere thanks to the author.

    5. Even though we heard most of the facts written in this article before, it is always interesting to see a Sinhala scholar to write an article in this subject based on facts and analytical thinking.

    6. I think that the following quote from this article tell it all:
      “During that turbulent period (when Buddhism was under threat), the Mahavamsa author Ven. Mahanama and the Mahavihara monks had a genuine reason for the above mythology but unfortunately today due to ignorance and lack of rational thinking, the Sinhala Buddhists still believe the Mahavamsa as the gospel truth.”

      This is a very good article about the general Sinhala attitude about Tamils in Sri Lanka and how it was established. This also represent the general thinking of Tamils regarding Sinhalese.

      Being a ‘Sinhalese’ I do not agree with this general value from Mahavamsa. What I understand is that everything is impermanent as one of the core Buddhist teachings. So why try to hold on to an eternal Sinhala race? There are many people from Sinhala side who thinks that. We sincererly think that Sinhala and Tamil communities should live together without discrimination.

      Also, being an academic I think that we need further research about these issues, that communities (not necessarily the academics or politicians) could understand how they were cheated by politicians who were (and still are) looking for short term gains – both Sinhala and Tamil sides.

      This is a healthy discussion if we can establish honest and genuine dialogue, which should be free to hatred. I am involved in this discussion with colleagues and friends from Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and many other divisions of the Sri Lankan society. But we needs further evidance to make this a mainstream discussion.

      I am very happy to see this article and wish the author all the best.

    7. Very informative indeed and quite different perspective of “History” as we have known. I cannot confirm or deny any hypothesis the writer puts forward as I personally do not have the knowledge. I hope some scholars will respond for or against them with accuracy and verifyable extracts from published literature as opposed to people just writing away about what they think is correct. All in all one of the most interesting articles i have read the whole year. Thank you.

      However, I Would like to know more about the writer though. Is he a historian, researcher, journalist, academic? Where does he currently reside & work? As this would help us put this article into correct perspective the same way we have just put Mahawamsa into perspective.

      Also in my openion, a very rational and informative (almost academic) article is tarnished by some almost petty statements.

      1. Today their decedents (6th generation) are not only claiming the ancient Sri Lankan civilization as their own ‘Sinhala’ heritage but have also become the patriots and champions of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism.
      – I feel after six generations, almost ANY community can call the culture they live in to be theirs. Nothing wrong in hailing it. If this should not be the case, then even a country like America cannot survive.

      2. the Sinhala-Only (sri) vehicle license-plates policy in 1958
      – Useless petty remark. Now using English letters which is alien to both races, has that brought-out any positive results?

      Need more evidence / substantiation.

      1. archaeologist Prof. Senerath Paranawithana being a non-Buddhist had to come up with magical evidence from his research to prove the accuracy of the stories in the Mahavamsa
      – This is a major allegation. Infact a direct challenge to Prof. paranawithana’s work. Would like to know more about this and any substantiation of this claim. maybe other readers also can shed some light?

      2. Some of the new archaeological discoveries (artefacts) which are not in favour of the Mahavamsa mythology are either hidden (not allowed to reveal the facts) or they are made to disappear by none other than the governing authorities in order to keep the majority community happy
      – Can we have more info on this please? Any instances/ evidence that can be substantiated? Without this, it is mere heresay isnt it? If true, these are things with HUGE impact on current SL context.

      As an extension of this article would like to also read about political Hinduism, political Christianity & Political Islam in Sri Lanka. from past to the present.

      Since the writer agrees there was a need for Mahawamsa fabrications at that time, perhaps now it is time for a new set of fabrications???

    8. Our friends Diyasena and Company will take up arms against this Mr. J. L. Devananda who interpretes Lankan history as it occured – provided D & Co are not in the ICU already. When Prof. S. Paranavitharana’s findings came out I understand he was under various threats and intimidation. Mr. Devananda might as well take all that necessary precaution to save his body and soul on his own – becasue the Police will not be with him when the hordes are set loose on him There may be accusations I am behind this. DBSJ might as well get ready for the missives coming his way. He needs to be congratulated for intellectual honesty and courage.

      I look forward to readers’ comments in this very forthright and enlightening article.

    Read more comments …………….http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1886


     

    The Tamil Buddhists of the Past and the Future

    Sri Lanka Guardian

    Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolized by the Sinhalese and they call it Sinhala-Buddhism which is Theravada Buddhism (Tripitaka) mixed up with the Mahavamsa. Will the Sinhala-Buddhist Maha Sangha accept any Tamil Buddhist monks? Will the Tamils accept Mahavamsa as a part of Buddhism or Buddhist history knowing very well that it is a Sinhala-Buddhist mythology?

    by J.L. Devananda

    (October 05, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In his keynote address at the 2554th Vesak (Vaishakha Purnim) celebrations at the Mahabodhi Society in Chennai, Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne, University of Sri Jayawardenapura said, “As we are nearing 2600 Buddha Jayanthi, as a Sinhala Buddhist, this is my humble dream for the future: Tamil Buddhist temples should come up in Sri Lanka; Tamil children should embrace Buddhist monkhood; Buddhism must be taught in Tamil; preaching and worshipping Buddhism in Tamil; Tamil Bikkus should have Sinhala followers and Tamil Bhikkus must visit Sinhala homes. That togetherness should be there.”

    This sounds somewhat similar to the famous speech “I have a Dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march for freedom at Washington. The only difference is Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne’s dream of Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the future had already existed in the past.

    Ancient Buddhist links between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

    Today, the Palk Strait which lies between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan land masses, is seen as a divider, separating two different distinct ethnicities, religions, cultures and political entities but there was a phase in history when Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka enjoyed very close ties, thanks to a shared interest in Buddhism. During the early period, the Palk Strait was not seen as a divider but it was a unifier. At that time Buddhism was a bridge between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. The fascinating story of the historical links – Golden threads between Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka was narrated by Dr. Shu Hikosake, Director and Professor of Buddhism, Institute of Asian Studies in Madras in his book 1989 Buddhism in Tamil Nadu: a New Perspective. Dr. Hikosaka’s study is based on his doctoral dissertation.

    The earliest inscriptions in Tamil Nadu written in the Brahmi character of the time, on the walls of the natural caves in the Tamil districts of Madura, Ramnad and Tirnnelveli belongs to the third century BC. They are of considerable interest to students of South Indian Buddhism. It is learnt from these Brahmi inscriptions, that Buddhism had come into Tamil Nadu even then. However, the epigraphical evidence seems to confirm that, it was to King Asoka and the missionary monk Mahinda (believed to be his son) that the introduction of Buddhism into Tamil Nadu may be attributed. In his Rock-Edict No. III, King Asoka says that his Dharma Vijaya prevailed in the kingdoms of the Colas, Pandyans and at Tambapanni (Sri Lanka). Particularly the edict number XIII found near Peshawar, there is reference to the Buddhist missions of Asoka. Among the countries referred to are Cola, Pandya, and Tambapanni. This inscription was written in 258 B.C. and is direct evidence of the Buddhist missions of Asoka to the Tamil country and Sri Lanka even though it does not mention about his son Mahinda.

    As Buddhist missions to Sri Lanka had to come by way of South India, the spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and South India in the 2nd century AD should be considered contemporary events, but it was King Asoka’s son Mahinda who was responsible for the introduction of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Mahinda is said to have erected seven viharas at Kaveripattinum, the capital of Cola while he was on his way to Sri Lanka. According to Dr. Hikosaka, contrary to the general impression, Buddhism might have gone to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu by sea-route, a route by which one can reach Sri Lanka easily. Since there existed very close cultural affinities between Sri Lanka and the Tamil country from time immemorial, the Buddhist activities in India could have easily influenced in some way or other the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, says Dr. Hikosaka.

    Even though it is believed that Buddha had visited this region, South India (Andhra) and Sri Lanka, according to historians, Buddhism began to make a strong impact on Tamil Nadu only in the 3rd century AD. During that period Buddhism had spread widely in Tamil Nadu and won the patronage of the rulers. The remains of a Buddhist monastery excavated at Kaveripattinum which could be assigned to the fourth century are believed to be the earliest archaeological relics of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu. The major urban centers of Kanchipuram, Kaveripattinam, Uragapura (Uraiyur), and Madurai were not only centers of Buddhism, but these were also important centers of Pali learning. The other minor towns of Tamil country where Buddhism was active were Buddhamangalam, Sanghamangalam, Kumbakonam, Mayurapattanam, Alamkudipatti, Kuvam, Sanghamangai, Tiruppadirippuliyur, and so on.

    Tamil Buddhists contribute to Buddhist scriptures

    It was at this time that Tamil Nadu gave some of its greatest scholars (both Theravada and Mahayana) to the Buddhist world. Tamil Nadu boasted of outstanding Buddhist monks, who had made remarkable contributions to Buddhist thought and learning. Three of the greatest Pali scholars of this period were Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala and all three of them were associated with Buddhist establishments in the Tamil kingdoms.

    Buddhadatta or Thera Buddhaatta as he is called lived during the time of Accyutarikkanta, the Kalabra ruler of the Cola-Nadu; was a senior contemporary of Buddhaghosa. He was born in the Cola kingdom and lived in the 5th Century AD. Under the patronage of this ruler, Buddhadatta wrote many books. Among his best known Pali writings are the Vinaya-Vinicchaya, the Uttara-Vinicchaya and the Jinalankara-Kavya. Among the commentaries written by him are the Madhurattha-Vilasini and the Abhidhammavatara. In the Abhidhammaratara he gives a glowing account at Kaveripattinum, Uragapuram, Bhutamangalam and Kanchipuram and the Mahavihara at Anuradapura, (Sri Lanka). While he was at Sri Lanka, he composed many Buddhist works such as Uttara-viniccaya Ruparupa Vibhaga Jinalankara etc. Buddhaghosha, contemporary of Buddhadatta also composed many Buddhist commentaries.

    Buddhaghosha is a Tamil monk, who made a remarkable contribution to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He stayed and studied Buddhist precepts at Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. The Visuddhimagga was the first work of Buddhaghosha which was written while he was in Sri Lanka.

    After Buddhaghosha, the important Theravada monk from the Tamil country was Dhammapala. Dhammapala lived in the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. He composed paramathadipani which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha’s work on Khuddaka Nikaya and Paramathamanjusa, which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha’s Visuddhimagga. A close study of the three Buddhist monks viz Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosha and Dhammapala shows that Tamil Buddhists were closely associated with the Sri Lankan Buddhists around the 5th century AD.

    The author of Nettipakarana is another Dhammapala who was a resident of a monastery in Nagapattinam, another important Buddhist centre from ancient times. One more example is the Cola monk Kassapa, in his Pali work, Vimatti-Vinodani, this Tamil monk provides interesting information about the rise of heretical views in the Cola Sangha and the consequent purification that took place. There are so many other Tamil monks who are attributed to the Pali works some of them were resident at Mayura-rupa-pattana (Mylapore, Madras) along with Buddhagosha.

    The Tamil Buddhist monks used Pali languages in preference to Tamil in their writings. This is because the Buddha spoke in Magadi Prakrit (Pali). Sanskrit is the sacred language of the Hindus, and similarly Pali is considered as the sacred language of the Buddhists. The well known Tamil Buddhist epics found were Manimekalai, Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi, and Jivaka Cintamani. Manimekalai, a purely Buddhist work of the 3rd Sangam period in Tamil literature is the most supreme and famous among the Buddhist work done in Tamil Nadu. It is a work expounding the doctrines and propagating the values of Buddhism.

    The interaction between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan monks finds mention in Manimekalai, which is set in the Tamil towns of Kaveipumpattinam, Kanchi, and Vanchi. There is mention about the presence of wondering monks of Sri Lanka in Vanchi, which was the capital of the Chera Kings of Tamil Nadu. The Chinese traveller, Tsuan Tsang, wrote that there were around 300 Sri Lankan monks in the monastery at the Southern sector of Kanchipuram. Ancient Kanchipuram, the capital of Tondaimandalam, ruled by the Tamil Pallava dynasty, an offshoot of Chola rulers was the major seat of Tamil learning and is also known as the city of thousand temples. Even Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil couplets/aphorisms celebrated by Tamils is based on Buddhist principals. Although Buddhism has become almost extinct from Tamil Nadu, it has contributed a great deal to the enrichment of Tamil culture and has exerted a significant influence, both directly and indirectly, on the Tamil religious and spiritual consciousness, present as well as past.

    Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka

    As Buddhism was one of the dominant religions in both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, naturally there were very close relations between the two regions. The monks from Sri Lanka, too, went across to the Tamil kingdom and stayed in the monasteries. As Dr. Leslie Gunawardana says, `The co-operation between the Buddhist Sangha of South India and Sri Lanka produced important results which are evident in the Pali works of this period`. He also says that the Tamil Buddhist monks were more orthodox than their counterparts in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the relations between the Tamil and Sinhala Buddhist monks were so close that the latter sought the assistance of the former in political turmoil.

    In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism shared the common places of worship with the Sinhalese, but there were also Tamil Buddhists who were following the Mahayana Buddhism and they had their own Mahayana temples. There are still some Tamil Mahayana Buddhist establishments (Palli) in the east and possibly in the Jaffna peninsula. The best known was Velgam Vehera (see details below), which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli after the Cola emperor. Another was the Vikkirama-calamekan-perumpalli.

    Some ten miles northwest of Trincomalee off the Trincomalee – Horowupothana road is an ancient Buddhist shrine with origins dating back to the years before the second century. It is a historical fact that among the many ancient Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka Velgam Vehera which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli, also called Natanar Kovil by the present day Tamils stands out as the only known example of a `Tamil Vihare or Buddhist Palli` or as the late Dr. Senerath Paranavithana described it in his book `Glimpses of Ceylon`s Past` as an `Ancient Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people`. Some of the Tamil inscriptions found at the site record donations to this shrine and are dated in the reigns of the Chola Kings, Rajaraja and Rajendradeva. It was his view that the date of the original foundation of the vihare was no doubt considerably earlier than the reign of King Bhatika Tissa II.

    The situation in Tamil Nadu, however, began to change towards the beginning of the 7th Century AD when the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism posed a serious challenge to Buddhism and Jainism. There was a significant increase in Hindu/Brahmanical influence and soon the worship of Siva and Visnu began to gain prominence. The Buddhist and Jaina institutions in Tamil Nadu came under attack when they began to lose popular support and the patronage from the rulers. One result of this was the migration of Buddhist and Jaina monks and devoted lay members to kingdoms where they could find refuge. While the Jainas and Buddhists (mostly Mahayana) were able to go to Kannada and Andhra/Telugu regions, a large part of the Buddhists (Theravada) turned to Sri Lanka and assimilated with the local Buddhist population.

    Mahavihara monks of Anuradapura and the Pali chronicles

    Although Buddhism flourished in South India in ancient times, the 5th century AD Pali chronicles such as the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa written by the Mahavihara monks of Anuradapura (Sri Lanka) remained silent about the introduction of Buddhism to South India. This is because, when Hindu/Brahmanism started reappearing in India and posed a threat to Buddhism, the Mahavihara monks of Anuradapura (Sri Lanka) due to their strong devotion to Buddhism and desire to consolidate and protect this religion in Sri Lanka wrote the Pali chronicles Deepavamsa/Mahavamsa just to glorify Buddhism and the Buddhist kings of Sri Lanka and not to record objectively what happened. The `Lion Ancestry` and the myths about the origin of the Sinhala race as pre-destined, true custodians of the island of Sri Lanka and guardians of Buddhism is a myth of the creative authors to protect Buddhism and is not the common true history.

    The ancient Sri Lankan Kingdom (Anuradapura) was ruled by both Buddhist and Hindu kings. There is no evidence what so ever to prove that they were Sinhala. An analysis of the Pali chronicles (Deepavamsa/Mahavamsa) makes it very clear that the Mahavihara monks who authored them in the 5th century AD have created the ethnic identity Sinhala, yoked it with Buddhism and created a new ethno-religious identity in Sri Lanka known as Sinhala-Buddhist to sustain the religion in the country for 5000 years.

    The ancient Brahmi inscriptions (before 7th century AD) in Tamil Nadu are in old Tamil where the Tamil names did not end with an ‘N’ or an ‘M’, but were very similar to those Sanskrit/Pali names. It was only after the 7th century AD, that the Tamil language adopted some changes to its Grammar, script, etc. and evolved into the present form. This might have happened after the Tamils developing what is commonly called as the pulli (dot) system which is peculiar to Tamils in particular among the Indian languages and due to this dot system the words/names ending with ‘A’ ends up with ‘N’ and ‘M’. This is the reason why, in the Pali chronicles and in the Brahmi stone inscriptions the names of the Tamil Kings of Anuradhapura were referred to as Sena, Guttika, Elara, Pulahatha, Bahiya, Panayamara, Parinda, Dathiya, etc and not as Senan, Guttikan, Ellalan, etc. Similarly in Tamil Nadu, the names of the ancient kings were referred to as Kulothunga Chola, Vikrma Chola, Aditya Chola, Kulasekara Pandya, Vira Wickrama Pandya, Parakrama Pandya, Sundara Pandya, etc.

    It is believed that most of the Tamil Buddhist literary work has been destroyed during religious controversies. The loss of Tamil Buddhist literature was a death blow to Tamil Buddhism. Apart from the Brahmi inscriptions and other archeological evidence found in Tamil Nadu and the available Tamil literary works, the Rock-Edicts of King Asoka also sheds much light on this subject. Even though the Pali chronicles did not mention the ethnic background of the ancient Sri Lankan Buddhists and the Buddhist kings right from Devanampiya Tissa, the Mahavamsa referred to the Non-Buddhist kings as Tamils (invaders). The above facts and the non-existence of Tamil Buddhists during the colonial period (due to the 10th century Chola invasion) led the 19th century European Pali scholars who translated the Pali chronicles to assume and subsequently the present day Sri Lankans to believe that the ancient Buddhists and the Buddhists Kings of Sri Lanka were Sinhalese.

    Unfortunately, today there are no Tamil Buddhists in Sri Lanka but the majority of the early Tamils of Sri Lanka (before the 10th century Chola invasion) were Buddhists. The ancient Buddhist remains in the North and East of Sri Lanka are the remnants left by the Tamil Buddhists and not anybody else. They are part of the heritage of Sri Lankan Tamils. Only the Buddhist temples, statues and structures build in the recent past and present in the North and East remain as Sinhala-Buddhist.

    Important Questions

    The questions still remain, why are the Sri Lankans ignorant of their past or rather, why is the Sri Lanka’s past hidden from its own people? Why does the Sri Lankans believe that the Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka belong only to the Sinhalese (Sinhala heritage) and not to the Tamils? Why are the Sri Lankans ignorant about the early Tamil Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu? Why do the Sri Lankans think, in Sri Lanka a Buddhist should be a Sinhalese and a Hindu should be a Tamil while the Sinhalese worship most of the Hindu/Brahmanical Gods?

    Not only the Indians but even the Sri Lankan Tamils gave up Buddhism and accepted Hinduism. For them to go back to Buddhism, has 2500 years of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (the so called Dhammadveepa) influenced any major changes in the Sinhala society (the so called guardians of Buddhism chosen by none other than the Buddha) in terms of attitude, character, behavior, morality and so on or has it failed miserably? Are the Buddhist monks practicing Ahimsa (non-violence), Karuna (compassion), Metta (affection), and Maithriya (loving-kindness) towards fellow humans (irrespective of race/religion) or are they in the name of Buddhism promoting ethno-religious chauvinism and hatred?

    Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolized by the Sinhalese and they call it Sinhala-Buddhism which is Theravada Buddhism (Tripitaka) mixed up with the Mahavamsa. Will the Sinhala-Buddhist Maha Sangha accept any Tamil Buddhist monks? Will the Tamils accept Mahavamsa as a part of Buddhism or Buddhist history knowing very well that it is a Sinhala-Buddhist mythology?

    Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne’s dream of future Tamil Buddhists is very genuine and apt during this period. As he says, it may recreate the togetherness, the common bond that once existed between the Sinhalese and Tamils. It will not be a surprise if Nanda Malini sings about the Damila Buddhayo of the past and the future but can his dream materialize? Of course, miracles do happen; Martin Luther King Junior’s dream came true so let us have some hope. 


     

     

About editor 2670 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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