How Bodhidharma and his Buddhism disappeared from Tamil Nadu?

How Bodhidharma and his Buddhism disappeared from Tamil Nadu?

by Sidharth Gautham Sunder:

March 23, 2013

The Tamil film 7 am arivu has evoked much interest about Bodhidharma. The story of the film revolves around this Buddhist monk who preached Buddhism, martial arts and medicine in China.

Bodhidharma was a Tamil prince born in Kancheepuram, the Pallava capital in 440 AD. After learning Buddhism, he travelled to China to spread the true Buddhist way of life.

Buddhism – a school of thought in philosophy, as a religion was born in Northern India but evolved and spread to Tamil Nadu and from there it crossed the seas to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. In the 5th and 6th centuries Buddhism thrived in Tamil Nadu.

When Bodhidharma landed in China as a Buddhist monk, he was invited with honour to the court of Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty. The dialogue of Philosophy was a practice of many Tamil kings in those days. We have a history of Tamil Kings getting converted to another faith after a convincing conversation with the godmen. It happened in China too. Bodhidharma too is known to have had a philosophical conversation with Emperor Wu. Later on, Bodhidharma stayed in China and he is considered a philosopher of Zen Buddhism and an expert who framed the rules for the physical training of monks which transformed into martial arts in China.

The question is why he is unknown in his place of birth? If he was born and brought up in Tamil Nadu and was practising Buddhism here, what happened to the ancient Buddhist religious establishments in Kancheepuram? Why there is no Buddhist temple or monastery in Kancheepuram?

We have to look back in History.

Buddhism disappeared from Kancheepuram to give way to indigenous religious practices interwoven with vedic religions. In fact many practices, customs and stories believed now in Hinduism are adopted from Buddhism. We come to know about this from the book Bouthamum Thamizhum by the research scholar Mylai Seeni Venkatasamy ( MSV) (1900 to 1980). The book reveals some startling details. We share what we learn and the facts inferred from this book briefly.

The following seven were adopted by the Hinduism from Buddhism

1. Hindu religion accepted Buddha as one avatar of Thirumal

2. The mini dheivams and village angels of Buddhism were absorbed

3. The animal sacrifice was abandoned by caste Brahmin priests and they converted themselves to vegetarian food for defending their profession

4. The Bodhi tree worship of Buddhism was accepted as it was popular among people

5. Maths were established following such practice by Buddhists

6. Adi Sankara adopted Soonyavadha of Buddhism to get Mayavadha

7. The Buddhist Jataka tales were also accepted

We need to know the following to understand how it happened in Tamil Nadu:

1. Originally there was Tamil religion in Tamil Nadu, where Maayon, Seyon, Vendhan, Varunan were worshipped (refer Tholkappiam period dated BC). The absence of other (later additions) gods of Hinduism in Tholkappiam shows the practice of Tamil Religion in pre-Aryan age. In Tholkappiam age and Sangam age, the arrival of Aryans and their rituals can be spotted not on a mass following of a Vedic religion but as the arrival of unorganized individual Aryans and their influence on Tamil Society.

2. Buddhism came to Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka during the rule of Asoka in BC time. At the same time, the other religions of Jainism, Vedic Brahminism and Aasivaham came to Tamil Nadu and commenced their philosophic fights and priestly contests and competitions to gain popularity among the rulers and the people and to create assets for their religions. We have references for all these religions in Silappathiharam and Manimehalai which represent a later period than Tholkappiam.

Initially, Buddhism got popularity among people of Tamil Nadu as is evident from reading Manimegalai. But Buddhism as religion fell by itself as the followers fought among themselves by divisions.

3. Jains replaced the Buddhists in Tamil Nadu. The Buddhist temples were converted into Jain temples and the caves, where Buddhist monks were living, were occupied by Jains. The Jains set a precedent of capturing Buddhist temples which was followed by Vedic/Hindu priests.

4. When the Jains were powerful in Tamil Nadu among the followers including the traders and ruling class (between about 500 AD to 900 AD), the Vedic religion got mixed with the Tamil religious practices and cults in Tamil Nadu, made compromises of accepting the gods and goddess of Tamil Nadu, including festivals etc, organized itself into Saivism and Vaishnavism by Bhakti movements and began a fight against Jain religion and succeeded (definitely not by following Ahimsa principle.)

While the Saiva and Vaishnava had to fight it out with Jains, as ample evidence are available through Appar, Sambandar…., it seems that it was easy to capture the Buddhist temples as they were already under ruin for lack of patronage.

5. The Bhakti Movement washed away, cleared, Jain and Buddhism from entire India. Further, it went on to propagate itself positively in the South East Asian countries.

Regarding the temples the researcher says:

1. In Kumbakonam Nageswaran thirumanjana veedhi, there was a Buddha statue called bagavarishi. The Nigandu says that Buddha was called by the name Vinayaka. In later periods many Buddha temples were converted as Vinayaka temples.

2. The Chinese traveller who visited Kancheepuram in 640 AD, has recorded that Kanchi was having hundred Buddha temples and thousand monks.

3. According to Ananatha nayinar (1932 ), in Kanchi Kacheeswar temple Buddha images were found in the foundation base of the gopuram. The lake on the west of the temple was called as Buththeri and the street as Buththeriththeru. But when I visited that temple those stones could not be identified. I could see Buddha images only in the pillars.

4. I visited Pallavapuram near Kanchi on 15.7.1946. Nearby in Kinikiluppai, a Buddha statue was found on the banks of a lake in the same village, I could find the base of the Buddha statue very near the Vinayaka temple. There was also a standing stone with Dharma Chakra. They had constructed Vinayaka temple by demolishing Buddha temple.

Mylai Seeni Venkatasamy has collected many more information in his book describing evidence of the existence of Buddha temples and the conversion of those temples into Jain or Hindu temples.

………..Originally Kamatchi Amman temple was a Buddhist temple. There were many Buddha images in this temple. One of the images of Buddha, a 6 feet standing statue is now in the Chennai Museum. The statues of Buddha found in the temple tank could not be found now. Once I myself saw some other stone statues of Buddha in good condition in this temple. Later I found the same images broken into pieces.. Now I could not trace the same………

……….Manimehalai, Sambapathi, Tara Devi were the deivams worshipped by Buddhists in Tamil Nadu. Later these goddesses were taken over by Hindus and renamed as Kali, Pidari and Throubathai. Researches say that the Annapoorani Amman in Kamatchi Amman temple is actually Manimehalai, who attained Veeduperu at Kancheepuram and the Kamatchi Amman temple is actually Tharadeviamman temple belonging to Buddhists.

Therefore it cannot be said that the wisdom of Bodhidharma or Manimehalai is forgotten. They live in some other forms or in some other names.

One Response to How Bodhidharma and his Buddhism disappeared from Tamil Nadu?
Nalliah Thayabharan says:

November 6, 2016,

South India 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 South India..

South Indian Buddhist monk Thera Buddhaatta lived during the time of Accyutarikkanta, the Kalabra ruler of the Cola-Nadu; was a senior contemporary of Buddhaghosa. He was born in the Chola 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, a contemporary of Buddhadatta also composed many Buddhist commentaries.

Buddhaghosha is a South Indian 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 South India 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 South Indian 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 Chola monk Kassapa, in his Pali work, Vimatti-Vinodani, this South Indian monk provides interesting information about the rise of heretical views in the Chola Sangha and the consequent purification that took place. There are so many other South Indian monks who are attributed to the Pali works some of them were resident at Mayura-rupa-pattana (Mylapore, Madras) along with Buddhagosha.

The South Indian Buddhist monks used Pali languages 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.

On the other hand, the well known Tamil Buddhist epics found were Manimekalai, Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi, and Jivaka Cintamani. The lost Tamil Buddhist works include the grammar Virasoliyam, the Abhidhamma work Siddhantattokai, the panegyric Tiruppadigam, and the biography Bimbisara Kada. 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. It is a work expounding the doctrines and propagating the values of Buddhism. It also talks about the South Indian Buddhists in the island/Nagadipa even though Manimekalai and Silappathikaram were considered as Tamil literary work and not as historical work.

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 South Indian 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 South India, it has contributed a great deal to the enrichment of South Indian culture and has exerted a significant influence, both directly and indirectly, on the South Indian religious and spiritual consciousness, present as well as past.

It is also believed that Bodhidharma who lived during the 5th/6th century AD was a South Indian Buddhist monk and the son of a Pallava king from Kanchipuram. Bodhidharma had travelled from South India by sea to the Far East for the purpose of spreading the Mahayana doctrine, transmitting his knowledge of Buddhism and martial arts. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolinquan.

As Buddhism was one of the dominant religions in both South India and Sri Lanka, naturally there were very close relations between the two regions. The monks from Sri Lanka, too, went across to the South India and stayed in the monasteries. 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. South Indian Buddhist monks were more orthodox than their counterparts in Sri Lanka.

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 which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli after the Chola emperor. Another was the Vikkirama-Kalamekan-perumpalli.

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 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. 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 South India, 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 South India came under attack when they began to lose popular support and the patronage from the rulers.

Even though today there are no Tamil Buddhists in Sri Lanka, 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 can be considered as Sinhala-Buddhist.

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 South India? Why do the Sri Lankans think, in Sri Lanka a Buddhist should be a Sinhalese and a Hindu should be a Tamil even though the Sinhalese worship most of the Hindu/Brahmanical Gods

Unfortunately, the majority of Sri Lankans are ignorant of their ancient past. They think of the ancient past in today’s context.

Today, the Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolized by the Sinhalese and they call it Sinhala-Buddhism. The fusion of Sinhala and Buddhism into Sinhala-Buddhism took place only in the early 20th century by revivalists such as Anagarika Dharmapala. Unfortunately today the Sri Lankan Tamils also believe that Buddhism is a Sinhala religion and is alien to them, but this was not the case in the early past. Unlike today, the Ancient Buddhist/Hindu civilization in Sri Lanka and the ancient Pali/Sanskrit place names has nothing to do with the ethnicity.In otherwords, the Ancient Buddhist/Hindu heritage and the ancient Pali/Sanskrit place names in the North and East of Sri Lanka has nothing to do with Sinhala.

The Tamil politicians, scholars, intellects and the Tamil media should take every effort to educate the Sri Lankan Tamils to be aware and to understand that Buddhism was a part of Tamil civilization in the ancient past. The Tamil politicians should engage in preserving the `Tamil heritage’ of North & East of Sri Lanka. The most important part of the Tamil Heritage of North & East is its Buddhist and Hindu civilization.

The lost Tamil Buddhism should be restored back in the North & East. The erection of new Buddha statues in the North & East should be welcomed and the Tamils should consider Buddha also as a part of their religion. Just like in Sri Lanka where in every Buddhist temple you find Hindu Gods, if you go to India, especially the North, in every Hindu temple there is a Buddha statue. There is nothing wrong in having a Buddha statue in the Hindu temples. Also, Tamil Buddhist temples should come up; Tamils should embrace Buddhist monkhood; Buddhism must be taught in Tamil; preaching and worshipping Buddhism in Tamil; Tamil Buddhist monks and a Tamil Buddhist Maha Sangam should be formed.

If there are Tamil speaking Hindus, Christians, and Muslims in Sri Lanka today, why cannot there be Tamil speaking Buddhists also? After all, we were all Buddhists once upon a time. It all depends on how the Tamil leaders and the Tamil media can enlighten the Sri Lankan Tamils to understand their ancient past and convince, inspire and persuade them to accept Buddhism and the Buddha statues with an open heart and make them a part of their belief system.


About editor 3048 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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