The Sinhala (Mahavamsa) Buddhism Revisited

”   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.”

by J.L. Devananda

(December 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) 

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 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. 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 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.

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 Anuradhapura 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 Anuradhapura 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

**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 ethno-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.

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.

As responsible leaders, not only the government and the opposition but the moderate Sinhala media personnel, educated and intelligent Sinhalese people and moderate religious leaders/Buddhist clergy should educate the Sinhala nation to think rationally and distinguish/differentiate Sinhala from Sri Lanka, Buddhism from Sinhala-Buddhism, and Myths from Facts, explaining the reason why the Pali chronicles were written during that period of extreme danger to Buddhism, which is not the case today.


The Mahavamsa proves that Tamils were an integral part of Sri Lanka’s history, whether as an indigenous people, invaders, mercenaries, Kings, Queens, brides, artisans, merchants, ministers, benefactors and priests. It also proves that Lanka was inhabited when Vijaya and his followers arrived.

by Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

(December 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Wilhem Geiger in the introduction to his translation of the original Mahavamsa from Pali to English said, “We must not forget that the Mahavamsa is not a dry chronicle in the modern sense of the word, but a poem. In a poem embellishments and sometimes exaggerations may occur. But within these limits, I have the strong impression and whoever reads the Mahavamsa without prejudice will have the same- that the author at least wished to tell the truth. He is perhaps sometimes misled by his education and by his conviction, on account of his priestly mode of viewing things, but he never tells a falsehood intentionally”. Having read Geiger’s translation several times, I tend to concur.

Mahanama Thero, was apparently a great scholar and an ardent -probably a little too

Ardent- Buddhist monk. The times he lived in may have influenced his strident beliefs. He lived probably in a period of intense Hindu-Buddhist competition to win adherents and retain those who had converted. Mahavamsa, stripped of its poetic exaggerations and the beliefs that were probably commonplace at that time, is a masterpiece of Lankan history. If not for the Mahavamsa and the earlier Dipavamsa, we Lankans would not have our bearings in the ocean of history. We have to be grateful for his endeavours and respectful of his efforts in times considered ‘ancient’ by modern historians. However, Ruwan Rajapakse in his ‘Concise Mahavamsa’ has done injustice to this chronicle by calling it the’ History of Buddhism in Sri Lanka”. Mahavamsa is not the history of Buddhism, but the history of Lanka, of which Buddhism was an important strand.

The Mahavamsa proves that Tamils were an integral part of Sri Lanka’s history, whether as an indigenous people, invaders, mercenaries, Kings, Queens, brides, artisans, merchants, ministers, benefactors and priests. It also proves that Lanka was inhabited when Vijaya and his followers arrived. Kuveni and her tribe were conversant in music and dancing and were biologically compatible for mating with Vijaya and his followers. If not, Kuveni could not have had two children with Vijaya. Kuveni and her tribe are however described as Yakkshayo conversant in magic in the Mahavamsa. The general interpretation today is that the Yakshayo were non-humans or some type of devils. According to the Ramayana, Ravana (Lankeswara) and his people were ‘Rakshsas’ ( Irrachasar in Tamil), who were also conversant with magic. Kuveni and her tribe may have been the descendants of the Rakshasas. Hela Urumaya now claims that the Sinhalese are the descendants of Kubera and Ravana. The Tamils also consider Ravana one of their kind and a great Siva baktha (worshipper). The Mahavamsa may have inadvertently drawn two strands of beliefs together and underlined our-Sinhala and Tamil- common ancestry.

Mahavamsa also has indicated that Vijaya and his seven hundred followers imported wives from Madurai (Pandya Kingdom) and these maidens were accompanied by several thousand servants and artisans. (Dr. Paranavitharna however tried very hard to prove that the brides and their retinue came from Madura in North India. This was a shameless attempt to bolster the claims of Aryan origin for the Sinhalese). The generation born out of the Vijaya group wedlocks would have been 50% Tamil and the servants and artisans would have by themselves brought forth 50-100 % Tamils. Modern DNA studies confirm that the Sinhalese and Tamils have very similar genetic origins. These studies confirm the Mahavamsa history.

The Mahavamsa also says that after the slaying of King Elara by Prince Dutugemunu, he, ” Marched with chariots, troops and beasts for riders, into the capital. In the city, he caused the drum to be beaten, and when he had summoned the people from a yojana around he celebrated the funeral rites for king Elara. On the spot where his body had fallen, he burned it with the catafalque, and there did he build a monument and ordain worship. Ands even to this day the princes of Lanka, when they draw near to this place, are wont to silence their music because of this music.” This is definitely an objective rendering of history and the said monument to Elara existed until recent times (I hope this monument is re-built at its original site by the government to remind the present and future generations of the magnanimity and graciousness of King. Dutugemunu). The Mahavamsa also states that after Dutugemunu, ” Knew no joy, remembering that thereby (his war with Elara) was wrought the destruction of millions of beings”. He also is reported to have told the Arahats visiting him, ” How shall there be any comfort for me, O venerable sirs, since by me was caused the slaughter of a great host numbering millions?”.

The Arahats are reported to have replied, ” From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one-half human beings have been slain by thee, O lord of men. The one had come unto the (three0 refuges, the other had taken on himself the five precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to the do trine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from thy heart, O ruler of men!”. In reporting this incident a part of Mahanama Thera, the ardent Buddhist monk asserts itself over that part of him which was a historian. Many Muslims of the extremist type (e.g. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda) consider non-believers as ‘Infidels’ who deserve death, even today. Mahanama Thero the Buddhist Monk and Scholar, exposes his vulnerability to the sentiments and environment prevailing at this point in history- probably a period of intense rivalry between Buddhism and Hinduism.

This incident as reported by Mahanama Thero underscores the attribution of the events of post-independence years by many Tamils to the ‘Mahavamsa mindset’. Was Hitler’s campaign to annihilate the Jews, Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia, what happened in Rwanda and similar events, which were much larger in scale than the events in Sri Lanka, also the result of the ‘Mahavamsa mindset’? These events, which have manifested throughout history, are the result of the ‘ Blood thirstiness’ ( to call it ‘Animal’, would be an insult to them !) yet lingering in the humankind, and not the result of a ‘ Mahavamsa or any other mindset’.

Mahanama Thero concludes the chapter on Dutugemunu’s victory over Elara by stating,” Should a man think on the hosts of human beings murdered for greed in countless myriads, and should he carefully keep in mind the evil arising from that, and should he also very carefully keep in mind the mortality as being the murderer of all, then will he, in this way, shortly win freedom from suffering and a happy condition”. At this point in the story, Mahanama the Buddhist philosopher has taken over the narrative.

Related article:- The Sinhala (Mahavamsa) Buddhism Revisited

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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