Haunted By Mahavamsa
“Hatred of one group can lead to hatred of others” Amartya Sen (The Argumentative Indian).
In Sri Lanka the boundary line between myth and history is dangerously amorphous. And this twilight world often plays a decisive role in Lankan politics.
Sinhala school children are taught that they belong to a race which began when an Indian-Aryan princess eloped with a lion. They learn this tale not in the story-hour but during the history lesson.
The lion myth is from the Mahawamsa, venerated by most Sinhala-Buddhists as a history book cum sacred text. It is the grandson of the lion and the princess the Mahawamsa embraces as the originator of the Sinhala race. According to Mahawamsa itself, Vijaya ‘was of evil conduct’; he and his followers committed so many crimes of such horrific nature that his father was eventually compelled to exile them[i]’.
Vijaya’s enforced sea-journey supposedly coincided with the death of the Gautama Buddha. According to Mahawamsa the Buddha, on his deathbed, told the Chief among deities, Sakka, “Vijaya, son of king Sihabahu, is come to Lanka….. In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established; therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka”.
So the Mahawamsa created the myth of the ‘Chosenrace’ with its ‘sacred space’. This myth became the foundation for what I call the ‘Hosts and Guests’ concept of Lanka. According to this, the island belongs to Sinhala-Buddhists, who are its sole real owners. This ‘sacred bequest’ must be protected by whatever means necessary, including the use of violence.
In the teaching of Gautama Buddha, there is no concept of holy war, no space for the use of force/violence in the protection of either the Dhamma or those who practice it. Given the absolute taboo against the taking of any life in Buddhism, killing human beings to ‘protect Buddhism’ could not be justified without adding a major new chapter to Buddhist teaching. This is precisely what the author of Mahawamsa did by depicting the conflict between the Buddhist Dutugemunu and the Hindu Elara for political supremacy as a Sinless/Meritorious War.
Elara, according to Mahawamsa, was regarded by men and gods alike as a just ruler[ii]. He was no invader bent on rampage and pillage, no tyrant crushing the people under his royal feet, but a good man and a fair ruler. But Elara’s admirable qualities were irrelevant and immaterial because he was an ‘unbeliever’. Therefore he had to be deposed and killed, as an integral part of a divinely sanctioned enterprise to save Sinhala-Buddhism and its chosen country, Lanka, from enemy aliens.
Dutugemunu is the star of Mahawamsa, the hero-king of Sinhala Buddhism, the standard against which all subsequent rulers were measured. His life-story, as Mahawamsa narrates, contains the same combination of natural and supernatural, human and divine that passes off as history even in modern-day Sri Lanka. He was said to have been conceived immaculately[iii] and with a divine mandate to restore Buddhist rule over the island. If the apocryphal tale of Buddha’s Bequest provides the ideological basis of the Hosts and Guests concept, the Dutugemunu story details the manner in which ‘guests’ who violate the ‘rules’ should be dealt with.
Prince Gemunu’s reply to his mother’s query about his foetal sleeping posture identifies the problem as one of territory and Lebensraum: “Over there beyond the Ganga are the Damilas, here on this side is the Gotha-ocean, how can I lie with outstretched limbs?” The story of the three cravings of Queen Vihara Maha Devi, when pregnant with Prince Gemunu, identifies the enemy: “She craved to drink, while trampling on his very head, the water in which was washed the sword that beheaded the chief warrior among the Elara soldiers…. The queen informed the King and the Lord of the earth asked the soothsayers. Hearing it they said, ‘The queen’s son will vanquish the Damilas…’”. The response of the Sangha to King Dutugemunu’s anguish over enemy deaths introduces the concept of sinless/meritorious war: “By this act of yours there is no hindrance in the way to heaven…. only one and a half men were killed here. One was established in the refuge and the other only in the five precepts. The heretical and evil others who died were like animals…”
That was the moment Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama was transformed into Sinhala-Buddhism, a new religion of the book, the Mahavamsa. The war against unbelievers was consecrated as sinless and meritorious; a straight path to heavenly bliss, akin to Crusades and Jihads. Not only was Dutugemunu reborn in the highest heaven, according to the Mahawamsa; he “will be the first disciple of the sublime Metteyya, the king’s father (will be) his father and the mother his mother. The younger brother, Saddhatissa will be his second disciple, but Salirajakumara, the king’s son will be the son of the sublime Metteyya”. The Mahawamsa clinches the argument of the meritorious nature of waging war for Buddhism by demonstrating that it will benefit not just the holy warrior but his entire family.
The Mahawamsa was written around seven centuries after the Dutugemunu-Elara war, by a Buddhist monk with a political agenda. Even a passing knowledge of the teachings of Gautama Buddha would suffice to know that shedding all attachments is a sine-qua-non for the attaining of Arhathood. A man or woman with attachments, however understandable or justifiable, is bound to the samsara by those very bonds. Those who have attained Arhathood have no attachments, including to country, race or religion. Nor can they condone any killing. The claim by Bhikku Mahanama that monks who had attained Arhathood justified mass murder in the name of religion was an obvious and an evil lie. Yet this lie has triumphed over the First Precept.
Constantine and his heirs had to remake Jesus from a man of peace to a prince of war; they were aided in this re-make by the vengeful God of the Old Testament. Mahanama had to do the job by himself, without any doctrinal help. He, and not the Buddha, is the true teacher and leader of the likes of the JHU and the BBS.
Myth as Destiny
The Mahawamsa stories are not just popular myths retold in an ancient chronicle. They have determined the trajectory of Ceylon/Sri Lanka in modern times.
The anti-minority nature of the 19th Century Buddhist renaissance, under the tutelage of Anagarika Dharmapala, was fuelled by the Mahawamsa myths. Distorted and enslaved by the Mahawamsa myths, Sinhala-Buddhism lost the ability to appeal to Tamils or to create a Lankan Dr Ambedkar. Had there been a significant segment of Buddhist Tamils, with a voice within the Sangha, our post-Independence history may have taken a less destructive path. But to be able to appeal to Tamils, Buddhism has to cease being the identity-badge of Sinhala supremacism and reclaim its pre-Mahawamsa universalist potential.
“Our challenge is to devise some arrangement which enables us to coexist if not in amity then at least in forbearance,” Jawaharlal Nehru told Andre Malraux (Anti-Memoir). That is the challenge facing any pluralist nation. Sri Lanka will fail to win this challenge, so long as we remain in thrall to Mahawamsa myths.
[i] He “caused Vijaya and his followers, seven hundred men, to be shaven over half the head and put them on a ship and sent them forth upon the sea….”
[ii] He was so just, that gods intervened to end a drought, at his pleading, according to Mahawamsa
[iii] King Kawantissa and his queen were childless for many years. The Queen sought the advice of a sage and was told to obtain the consent of dying monk to be reincarnated in her womb as her son. The queen attended the monk on his death bed and obtained his consent to her wish. While she was on her way to inform her husband of the felicitous tidings, the monk died and “he returned to a new life in the womb of the queen while she was yet upon her journey; when she perceived this she halted. She sent that message to the king….”
To read this in Sinhala click here
. Translation by Yahapalanaya Lanka.