MAHINDA AND THE ARRIVAL OF BUDDHISM IN SRI LANKA

  1. MAHINDA AND THE ARRIVAL OF BUDDHISM IN SRI LANKA

BUDDHISM IN SRI LANKA

Buddhism has had a strong presence in Sri Lanka for 2,200 years. A key element of the identity of the Sinhalese, the dominant ethnic group there, it took hold very quickly and has evolved hand in hand in with Sri Lankan culture, literature and art. Sri Lanka is believed to be where the Theravada School of Buddhism originated. Today, Sri Lanka is regarded is a major center of Buddhist teaching and thought. Many Buddhists in Southeast Asia, where Theravada Buddhism dominates, look to Sri Lanka for guidance.

It is said that Buddha himself visited Sri Lanka in the 6th century. He is said to have visited three places during his visit. The couch he reportedly slept on while he was in the Colombo areas is inside the stupa at Kelaniya Temple, near Colombo. The worship of Buddha has been expressed symbolically with stupas and bo-trees. One of the world’s first stupa was built in present-day Anuradhapura and nearby a bo tree was planted from shoot of the original bo tree, under which Buddha attained enlightenment in India.

Buddhism, which evolved after the Buddha’s death, arrived in Sri Lanka in the third century B.C. as part of the expansion of the northern Indian Mauryan kingdom under the emperor Ashoka (272-232 B.C.). According to ancient chronicles Buddhism was introduced by a monk named Arahat Mahinda who came to Sri Lanka from India in 247 B.C. He converted King Devanampiya-Tissa who in turn converted his kingdom. Before that time Sri Lankans worshipped pagan gods similar to the Hindu deities in India.

Buddhism also had a great effect on the literary development of the island. The Indo-Aryan dialect spoken by the early Sinhalese was comprehensible to missionaries from India and facilitated early attempts at translating the scriptures. The Sinhalese literati studied Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures, thus influencing the development of Sinhala as a literary language. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka at least by the third century B.C. from India, where it had been established by Siddartha Gautama three centuries earlier. At the time Buddhism entered Sri Lanka it was also widespread in India and found as far west as Afghanistan. But in the centuries that followed Buddhism declined these places was largely dead there by the A.D. 8th century. But in the meantime Buddhism went through rough periods in Sri Lanka but for the most part remained alive and well.

The introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka is attributed to Ashoka’s son Mahinda who came to the Island about the middle of the third century B.C. Though this event may be regarded as the official introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Buddhism as well as the news of the great activities of the mighty Indian Emperor Ashoka appear to have reached the shores of Sri Lanka before the arrival of Mahinda. From the time of King Vijaya there had been a constant intercourse between the two countries. Some of the south Indian Pandya families, who came to Sri Lanka, had originally belonged to the Madhyadesa and some of them, in fact, may have been Buddhist. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Ashoka’s social activities embraced Sri Lanka and his envoys probably visited the Island before Mahinda and it is likely that they spoke to the people of Sri Lanka about Ashoka’s Buddhist activities. Some scholars like Oldenberg and Malalasekera even believe that Buddhism may have gradually spread over the Island from Kalinga and the attempt of the Sri Lankan chronicles to link spread of Buddhism with Ashoka and his family is understandable. However even if this were true, Buddhism does not appear to have been organised and was without any monks before Mahinda’s arrival.

Buddhism at the Time It Entered Sri Lanka

When the Indian missionaries brought Buddhism to this Island they carried here with them not only the teaching of the Buddha but also the culture and civilisation of Buddhist India. Almost all Buddhist rites , ceremonies, festivals and observance of Sri Lanka were with slight local changes and modification, the continuation of Indian practice which the early Buddhist missionaries introduced into this country. It necessary there at the time of the advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Buddhism began as an intellectual and ethical moment in the sixth century B.C with the first sermon preached by the Buddha to the five ascetics at Isipathana near Benares. It spread gradually during the life-time of the Buddha along the gangetic valley and found its way into several kingdoms in north India between the vindhya mountains and the Himalayas Kings and ministers ,bankers and wealthy merchant ,brahmins and peasants became the followers of this new teaching which was a revolt again some of the accepted theories and practices of the day.

At the time of the Buddhas death about 483 B.C almost all the important states in North India seemed to have been deeply influenced by the new teaching. According to the Mahaparinibbna- sutta eight countries clammed, on various ground, a portion of the ashes of the Buddha which shows that he had already gained many ardent devotees in these states. Yet there is no evidence to show that the teaching of the Buddha had been adopted as the state religion of these kingdoms till long after his death.

Sri Lanka at the Time Buddhism Arrived

In the third century B. C the capital of Sri Lanka was Anuradhapura. It was Pandukabhaya (377-307 B.C.).who developed the original Anuradhapura in to real nagara or city and he seems to have organised it very efficiently. Before Pandukabhaya there was nothing which could properly have been called a city in Sri Lanka. All centres of population were called gamas villages , but the words gama and nagara in the early part of the Mahavamsa are used indiscriminately both for village and city or town and do not help us to decide on the size and extent of place. Before Anuradhapura came into prominence there were other places like Tambapanni Vijitapura and Upatissagama which served as the seats of government for short periods. But from the time Anuradhapura was raised by Pandukabhaya to the eminence of a city in the latter part of the fourth century B.C it remained as the capital of Sri Lanka for a about twelve centuries. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

By the end of the third century B.C the architectural development of Anuradhapura seems to have reached a fairly high stage Pandukabhayas grand -uncle, Anuradha, who originally established the village of Anuradhagama calling it after his own name built for himself a house which was call Rajageha.

When Pandukabhkaya entered Anuradhapura , after the destruction of his enemies the old chief offered his house to his victorious grand-nephew and went to live in another house. Pandukabaya is not reported to have built a place for his residence .But there is mention made of various buildings erected by Pandukabhaya in Anuradhapura and its suburbs. We are told also of a particular building called Ekathunika in Upati-sagama, the seat of government before Anuradhapura. This house which which as its name implies, stood on one pillar, was constructed by Panduka-bhayas uncles for the specific purpose of imprisoning their sister citta in a futile attempt to prevent her from begetting a son. It was ventilated with windows (gavakkha).

Religion in Pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka

“Prior to the advent of Buddhism, there was evidently no national or state religion systematically organised in the Island of Sri Lanka. In the words of Xuan Zang (Hsuan-tsang) “The Kingdom of Sinhala was addicted to immoral religious worship. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Ancestor Worship: Different kinds of primitive cults were prevalent in the Island in which supernatural being and Yaksas and Yaksinis played an important role. Yaksas called Kalavela and Cittaja were the two most important Yaksas worshipped by the pre-Aryan aborigines. These Yaksas and Yaksinis resided in the Cetiyas. It also appears that people believed in the fact that faithful and devoted persons after their death were born as Yaksas and Yaksas and continued to watch over the interests of their former friends, dear ones and patrons. In fact, Mahinda is reported to have preached on the second day of his arrival in Sri Lanka from the Petavatthu and the Vimanavatthu, two Buddhist texts dealing with the spirits of the dead. This perhaps indicated that Mahinda, at the beginning of his missionary activities in Sri Lanka, thought of winning the hearts of people by appealing to their sentiments through a sermon which they could easily understand and appreciate.

“Apart from the two Yaksas mentioned above, following were the important deities worshipped by the Sri Lankans prior to the arrival of Buddhism: 1) Cetiya (also called Valaramukhi); 2) Cetiya’s husband, Jutindhara; 3) Maheja; 4) Jayasena; 5) Kammara-deva: god of smiths; 6) Pura-deva : god, who presided over city; 7) Vyadha-deva : god of huntsmen; 8) Pacchima-rajini, “Western Queen”, nothing much is known about her. Some of these deities were actually the ancestors of the people. Houses, shrines and cetiyas were built to honour these deities.

“It is only natural to expect that Mahinda overcame and converted some superhuman beings in Sri Lanka. Mahinda appears to have converted at least one such superhuman being called ‘rakus’ (demon) who later served Buddhism quite well. God Sumana of Samantakuta (Adam’s Peak) was also pre-Buddhist deity. He was, perhaps, originally a Yaksa, and later on was elevated to the position of a deva after his conversion to Buddhism by the Buddha during the latter’s first visit to Sri Lanka. Even after the Sri Lankans were converted to Buddhist they desired to continue to venerate their friendly deities. But being Buddhists, they did not like to worship a non-Buddhist deity. They, therefore, converted these deities to Buddhism and elevated them to a higher plane, as in the case of Sumana. Such is also the case with most of the other local gods. There may have been some minor deities who were not converted to Buddhism, but almost all the important deities who survived the introduction of Buddhism became Buddhist sooner or later.

Tree-Worship was also prevalent in the pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka. Tree-worship, as a popular cult is regularly mentioned in the early Buddhist texts and some trees, in fact, were termed cetiyas. In the pre-Buddhist period, banyan and palmyrah were treated as sacred.

Niganthas (Jainas) appear to have already made their presence felt in the pre-Buddhist Island of Sri Lanka, but they were not very many in numbers and were not organised. Jotiya, Kumbhanda and Giri were the three Jainas at the time of King Pandukabhaya. They all had their own monasteries. We hear no more of the monasteries of the Niganthas in later times, and there are no archaeological remains found to indicate the sites of any Jaina monasteries Anuradhapura or elsewhere in Sri Lanka. The Jaina monasteries were probably converted to Buddhist viharas, just as in the case of Giri’s monastery in Anuradhapura or the old cetiyas of yaksas in ancient Sri Lanka.

Saivism is the worship of the Hindu god Shiva. “There is reason to believe that Saivism also existed in pre-Buddhist India. The Mahavamsa records that Pandukabhaya built a sivika-sala where Shivalinga was established. The following types of ascetics (samanas) were also present in the Island in fair numbers.; 1. Paribbajakas : Pandukabhaya built a monastery for them.; 2. Ajivikas : Pandubhaya built a house for them.; 3. Pasandas; 4. Pabbajitas; 5. Tapasa : Pandubhaya built a monastery for them.

Cult of Astrology: Cult of astrology was also prevalent in the Island of Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of Buddhism. Even names of persons and some festivals were given after certain constellations. Soothsayers were also known in the pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka.

Emperor Ashoka and the Arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

The powerful Indian monarch, Ashoka, nurtured the new comprehensive religio-philosophical system of Buddhism in the third century B.C. Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism marks one of the turning points in religious history because at that time, Buddhism was elevated from a minor sect to an official religion enjoying all the advantages of royal patronage. Ashoka’s empire, which extended over most of India, supported one of the most vigorous missionary enterprises in history. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In the last years of the century B.C Chandragupta Maurya had founded and organised a large and powerful empire extending approximately from Afghanistan to Mysore. Territories which are even now outside the Government of India were part of the Indian Empire under Chandragupta and his son Askoka. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

The missionaries for the establishment of Buddhism were sent out to nine countries among which Sri Lanka was included. King Ashokas own son Mahinda was entrusted with the task of establishing Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The emperor perhaps felt that his work would be most fruitful in this Island for Devanampriya-tissa the King of Sri Lanka had already expressed his friendship by sending ambassadors with valuable gift to the Indian emperor. Wherever they went the Indian Buddhist missionaries were successful. Even Greeks like Yonaka Dhammarakkhita become Buddhist bhikkhus but Sri Lanka was the most fertile of fields for the Buddhist activities of Ashoka. So far as Edicts are concerned, Sri Lanka is mentioned as Tamraparni in Rock Edicts II and XIII and as the country already included by Ashoka in the list of countries to which he despatches his Dutas or messengers to prosecute his scheme of Dharma Vijaya or Moral Conquest, thus by the time of these Edicts 9258-257 B.C Sri Lanka was already a sphere of Ashokas missionary activities which according to Rock Edict II

Emperor Ashoka (born 304 B.C.,ruled 274-236 B.C.) was arguably the greatest ruler in Indian history and was the man who ensured Buddhism success as a world religion and unified the India subcontinent for the for the first time. He sent Buddhist missionary ambassadors, including his son, a Buddhist monk, to Sri Lanka, to spread the dharma of Buddhism.

In contrast to the theological exclusivity of Hindu Brahmanism, the Ashokan missionary approach featured preaching and carried the principles of the Buddha directly to the common people. This proselytizing had even greater success in Sri Lanka than it had in India and could be said to be the island’s first experiment in mass education. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Mahinda, Ashoka’s Son, and the Arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Mahinda, the son of Ashoka, is credited with introducing Buddhism to Sri Lanka, where it was quickly embraced. He came to Sri Lanka with seven others, including two close relatives — Sumana Samanera, the son of his sister Samghamitta and Bhanduka Upasaka, the son of his mother’s sister’s daughter, Their inclusion in the party signified, possibly, a particular intimacy with and friendliness towards Sri Lanka.

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: “The chronicles aver that a son (Mahinda) and a daughter (Sanghamitta) of the great third century B.C. Indian emperor Ashoka arrived on the island at this time to convert the Lankan king, Devanampiya Tissa, to the Buddha’s dharma and to establish the Buddhist order of monks and nuns in the newly consecrated capital city of Anuradhapura. Sanghamitta is said to have brought with her a sapling of the original bodhi tree under which the Buddha had gained enlightenment. The same tree, one of the world’s oldest, continues to be venerated by Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka to this day as a symbol of the Buddha’s dharma. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe wrote in the Sunday Obervor: Ashoka’s famous rock edicts read: “May the Dhamma last as long as my sons and grandsons, and the sun and the moon will be, and may the people follow the path of the Dhamma, for if one follows the path, happiness in this and in the other worlds will be attained.” Even today, the Ashoka Chakra (the Wheel of Ashoka) dominates the national flag of India. Ashoka, earlier as the viceroy of Udenipura (now Ujjain) in Avanti, fell in love with a beautiful damsel named Devi, the daughter of a wealthy merchant of Vidisa, who bore him two children. One was Mahendra (Mahinda) and the other was Sanghamitra (Sangamitta), both of whom entered the holy order of a bhikku and bhikkuni in fulfilment of the wish of their father Ashoka. Mahinda entered the order at the age of 26 years, and elevated his spiritual position as an Arhant, having destroyed all passions pertaining to mundane existence. When he came to Sri Lanka, he was 32 years old. It may rightly be considered that he was the first real teacher of Sri Lanka, who did much for the establishment of Buddhism in the island and the uplift of the Buddha Sasana. He stands credited for bringing about a socio-religious revolution in the country and in promoting religious zeal among the people. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe]

The Sri Lankan tradition mentions a son called Mahinda, who was sent to Sri Lanka as a Buddhist missionary; this son is not mentioned at all in the North Indian tradition. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang states that Mahinda was Ashoka’s younger brother (Vitashoka or Vigatashoka) rather than his illigitimate son. According to Sri Lankan tradition, Ashoka had a daughter named Sanghamitta, who became a Buddhist nun.

Mahinda’s Arrival in Sri Lanka

Arahat Mahinda, the profoundly sapient thera, came to Sri Lanka as bidden by his father, the emperor Ashoka (264-267 B.C.) of India, who was earlier known as Chandasoka (Asoka the wicked), but later, when he renounced armed conquests, he came to be known as Dharmasoka (Asoka the pious). He proclaimed Buddhism, having become a convert to the faith, throughout India, as the state religion, and did everything for the propagation of Buddhism in the country.

However, Arhat Mahinda postponed his mission to Sri Lanka until the time was appropriate for him to undertake the mission, as the then king Mutasiva (367-307 B.C.), was too old and feeble to understand the doctrine of the Buddha. In order to mark time, first he left for the Dakkhinagiri vihara to see his mother and other kith and kin. He went there with the four theras, Itthiya, Utthiya, Sambala and Bhaddasala and the novice Sumana samanera.

After six month, they all left for Vidisagiri in Sanchi and lived there until the death of King Mutasiva. The enthronement of King Devanampiyatissa (the second son of Mutasiva), was found suitable to fit the occasion, and Arhat Mahinda, with his companions, left Vidisagiri vihara, bound for Sri Lanka. They were accompanied by Bhanduka upasaka, the lay-disciple. According to Mahavamsa, (Ch. 13:20), Arhat Mahinda and his companions, altogether six, “rose aloft into the air that very vihara, and instantaneously alighted atop the superb Missaka mountain (Mihintale), and stood on the rocky peak of the delightful and celebrated Ambatthala.”

Mahinda and King Devanampiya-Tissa

The first meeting of Mahinda and Devanampiya-Tissa (247-207 B.C.), who was on a hunting expedition, took place on the Missaka-pabbata (now called Mihintale), about 80 miles to the east of the city of Anuradhapura, on the full moon day of Jettha. Devanampiya-Tissa received the Buddhist missionaries with the greatest kindness and regard. Buddhist chronicles tells us that Arhat Mahinda met the king while he was on a hunting trip in the wilderness of Mihintale. Chasing wild animals was a favorite form of amusement, which he did when he had the opportunity and time to do so. Seeing a stag browsing in the thicket, the king’s fine sportive spirit could not brook on the idea of taking the grazing animal unawares. Pursuing the animal, which fled in the direction of Silakuta (the northern peak of Mihintale mountain), the king suddenly came upon Arhat Mahinda and his companions. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

During their first conversation, Mahinda is said to have given an a sort of I.Q. test to Devanampiya-Tissa and closely examined his intelligence and capacity to understand the teachings of the Buddha. On finding him good enough, he at once, proceeded to preach the Culahatthipadopama Sutta (simile on the foot of an elephant) to him and converted those assembled to Buddhism (Mhv. 14:22). This Sutta gives a clear idea of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. . Later, he preached to those assembled, the Petavattu, Vimanavattu, Saccasamyutta, Devaduta Sutta, Balapandita Sutta, Agghikkhandopama Sutta, Asivisupama Sutta, Anamataggiya Sutta, Khajjaniya Sutta Gomayapindi Sutta, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (the first discourse of the Buddha), Mahappamada Sutta and the Cariyapitaka.

The selection of the Culahatthipadopama Sutta for through first sermon was very appropriate as the sutta gives a clear idea of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha., and describes how one is converted to Buddhism and becomes a monk. It also describes in detail the simple and holy life of a monk, the sublime qualities he practices and possesses, the things from which he abstains, the various stages of development of his life and his attainment of Arhatship which is the final fruit of Buddhsim. The sutta also contains almost all the principal teachings of the Buddha. Apart from a general knowledge of Buddhism, it was necessary for Mahinda to convey to his host, who knew nothing about Buddhist practices, an idea of the Sangha and their mode of life, so that the king might learn how to treat his new guest. At the end of the sermon, the king and his retinue got converted to Buddhism. The king straight away invited the guests to his capital, but they politely refused and spent the night on the mountain.

Next morning, Mahinda and his colleagues entered Anuradhapura, were received by the king and taken in a procession to the royal house. Mahinda and even some soothsayers predicted full success for the mission. After all, the king had received the guests with utmost cordiality and got himself converted. After the meal, Mahinda addressed the royal household which was mainly composed of ladies of the king’s house. For such an audience, he selected a subject which would appeal to them. First he related them stories from the Petavatthu and the Vimanavatthu, which deal with the spirits of the dead in the peta-world and the deva-loka depending on past kamma. This must have appealed to an audience already possessing faith in the spirits of the dead, and must have made Buddhism agreeable and acceptable to them. Mahinda ended his sermon by expounding the Four Noble Truths. Here too he had the occasion to show them how dreadful samsara and the cycle of birth and death is to which they were subject to endlessly.

The sermons followed in quick succession to an ever-increasing audiences. The suttas chosen for these sermons were significant, particularly in view of the mental attaimnents and beliefs of the listeners. The first was the Devaduta Sutta, which deals with: 1) Results of good and bad actions; 2) the misery that awaits criminals; and 3) Descriptions of the tortures in hell. It was designed to persuade men to resist from wrong-doing for fear of evil consequences. Next came the Balapandita Sutta describing how through folly men commit evil and suffer therefore both here and hereafter. These sermons were designed to show how the consequences of action were to be felt here and now , and not only in near future birth. Mahinda introduced a new scheme in which emphasis was laid on the moral side of religion as a requisite for a happy life. It brought to his audiences a new vision, unfolding new horizons of spiritual development.

Mahinda at Mahameghavana

Arhat Mahinda and his companions spent 26 days at the Mahamegha park in Anuradhapura, At the insistence of the king, Mahinda and his companions made their residence in the royal pavilion of the Mahameghavana which was “neither too far nor too near the city.” When the king came to know that the guests liked this place, he offered the Mahameghavana to the Sangha, pouring water from a vase over the hands of Mahinda signifying the gift being offered and accepted. This gift expressed in a tangible and visible form the inner-religious devotion of the king and assured the material security necessary for the spiritual life of the monks. Mahinda, therefore, made in public the most significant announcement that Buddhism would be established in Sri Lanka. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

After the Mahameghavana was offered to the Sangha, Mahinda at once set about to plan the headquaters of Buddhism which in later times became the famous Mahavihara, the great centre of Buddhist culture and learning in the Island, the stronghold of the Theravada. There is very good reason to believe that what later came to be called the Holy City of Anuradhapura was originally planned and laid out by Mahinda because he had seen at Pataliputta and Vidisa in India monasteries having been built by his father and mother.

The acceptance of Mahameghavana was followed by the preaching of the Aggikkandhopama Sutta, which teaches that a monk should be virtuous and live a holy life so that those who provide him the necessities of life may be benefitted and that for his own benefit as well as for the benefit of others. The sermon on this occasions, after a great gift, seems to have been a suggestion that the monks on whom the king lavished so much hospitality were worthy of such a treatment, and that the king himself would be justly rewarded for his good deeds.

A sima (boundary) is necessary, for Acts of the Sangha where the recitation of the Vinaya is essential. For the establishment of the Sasana, thus establishment of the sima and the recital of the Vinaya is essential. King’s nephew Maha-Arittha Thera formerly a minister, was selected by Mahinda for the act of reciting the Vinaya at the ceremony

During their 26 days in Anuradhapura Mahinda moved speedily and great changes took place. He delivered a number of sermons to convince the people of the value of the new faith. Most of these sermons deals with the transitoriness of life, the dreadful nature of samsara and the noble life necessary to escape from samsara and to attain Nibbana. His sermons also included the Dhamacakkappavattana Sutta which deals with the fundamental teachings of the Buddha.

Anuradhapura, A Small Place When Buddhism Arrived

All the same there seems to have been a few buildings in Anuradhapura even in the time of Devanampiya-Tissa could not, for instance, find a suitable house as residence for Mahinda. He hurriedly builds a house of mud and dries it with torch-fire. On account of the method adopted for drying it the wall became dark and the house was called Kalapasada-privana, Dark Residence. How the house built is not quite clear. But it is evident that there were no burnt brinks available for the purpose, at least locally or within easy reach. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Devanampiya-Tissa would never have offered such a residence as this to the great royal missionary, son of Emperor Ashoka and a visitor from India, if he had been in a position to provide more suitable accommodation.

It may be argued that Devanampiya-Tissa out of great respect did not wish to offer the holy man a house which had been occupied by others. But this does not seem likely, because Devanampiya-Tissa invited Mahinda, on the second day of his arrival to spend the night in a house in Mahameghavana and the latter consented. The house had undoubtedly been used by other people-at lease by the king and his queen and other members of royal family.

It would seem that there was no large hall in the city for a public gathering. When the townspeople desired to see and hear Mahinda, the king seeing that there was no room within the premises of the place, ordered the hall of the State Elephant to be cleansed and arranged for the purpose. It was here that the citizens assembled to listen to the royal visitor. As Mahindas audience grew bigger and bigger the venue had to be shifted from the Elephant hall to the bigger Nandana Garden outside the southern gate of the city, where open-air meetings were held in the royal park, thickly shaded, cool and covered with verdure.

These instances would show that there was a general lack of buildings in Anuradhapura at that time. It was only after the introduction of Buddhism that massive buildings like the Lohapasada began to rise in Sri Lanka. Although various religious buildings are said to have been built by Pandukabhaya there is no evidence of the existence of a single building spacious enough to accommodate large assemblies, this further indicates that either no public meetings were held, or if at all they were held in the open air. Perhaps it may be that it was only after the introduction of Buddhism that the people of Sri Lanka began to hold organised public gatherings for specific purposes such as listening to a religious discourse.

Planting of the Bodhi Tree Branch

On the 27th day, Mahinda left for Missaka-pabbata to spend the Rainy Retreat there. Maha-Arittha along with 55 others joined the order and thus, 62 of them in all spent the Rainy Retreat. Caves in the neighbourhood of the present Kantaka Cetiya were already cleared at the order of Devanampiya-Tissa for the occupation of the 62 monks. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Meanwhile king’s junior queen Anula and her companions expressed a desire to join the order as nuns. At Mahinda’s suggestion, the king despatched an emissary to the court of Ashoka to bring Theri Samghamitta along with the southern branch of the Bo-tree. Anula and her companions shifted to a nunnery called Upasika-Vihara, especially constructed for them and observed the dasa-sila and waited for Samghamitta there.

After the Vassavasa, Mahinda suggested to Devanampiya-Tissa the idea of building a cetiya to enshrine the relics of the Buddha. Sumana Samanera who acted as deputy on behalf of Mahinda and Devanampiya-Tissa was able to obtain for Sri Lanka from his grandfather Ashoka the right collar-bone, and a large quantity of other bone relics together with the alms bowl (patra-dhatu) of the Buddha. These relics were kept at the Missaka-pabbata for the time being and henceforth the mountain was named Cetiya-pabbata. The collar-bone of the Buddha was enshrined in the Thuparama Dagoba which thus became the first cetiya to be built in Sri Lanka.

When Samghmitta arrived with the branch of Bo-tree, Anula and her companions entered the order of nuns. Upasika-Vihara was improved and enlarged. Now, it was also given a new, name and came to be known henceforth as Hatthalhaka Vihara. Samghamitta started living over here.

The planting of the Bo-tree was performed with great ceremony in which people from all parts of the Island participated. Ashoka himself had sent a large number of families from India to attend and thus, India was also represented in a big way. Besides Anuradhapura and its vicinity, a total of 32 saplings ultimately were distributed all over the Island.

The bringing of the branch of the Bo-tree and the relics of the Buddha along with the alms bowl further strengthened the great cultural links between India and Sri Lanka. The planting of the Bo-tree was symbolic of the establishment of Buddhism and Buddhist culture in the Island. This also served as an inspiration to the people who had recently embraced Buddhism. The relics of the Buddha were regarded as representing the Buddha himself and their enshrinement was as good as the Buddha’s residence in Sri Lanka. The alms bowl of the Buddha was kept within the king’s house, and it became a national “palladium” of the Sinhalese, just as happened later in the case of the Tooth Relic.

As the Order increased in size, Devanampiya-Tissa established more monasteries in different parts of the Island. Well-known monasteries established by Devanampiya-Tissa included Mahavihara, Cetiva-pabbata. Issarasamnaka, Vessagiri, Tissamahavihara, Jambukolapattanavihara and Mahapali (a refectory at Anuradhapura)

Mahinda’s Stay in Sri Lanka

Mahinda and his companions later retired to Mihintale to observe the first ‘vas’ (retreat). When the king went to see him, he delivered the discourse of Vassupanayikakkhandaka Sutta, The King built for them 68 caves to shelter themselves.

When Arahat Mahinda came to Sri Lanka, he brought with him the Theravada canon or orthodox Buddhism, preserved in memory by oral tradition, and finally redacted at the Third Buddhist Council held at Pataliputra (now Patna), under the leadership of the Maha Thera Moggaliputta Tissa. According to Mahavamsa, Aritta and fifty-five of his brothers were the first in the island to receive the pabajja (ordination), at the hands of the Arahat Mahinda.

The succeeding years were marked by increasing religious activity throughout the island. Buddhism spread to every town, village and hamlet, where it was enthusiastically embraced. At the same time, a large number of viharas, cetiyas and other religious edifices soon dotted the island with everlasting grace. Arhat Mahinda was now old, having lived for 80 years of which 60 years he was a bhikkhu. After establishing Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and labouring in its cause, his strenuous life came to an end.

Mahinda, who had come to Sri Lanka at the age of 32, died in 259 B.C. at the age 80 while spending vasavassa at Cetiya-pabbata. The king at the time of Mahinda’s death was Uttiya (267-257 B.C.), and when he heard of the sad news, his sorrow was poignant. The corpse was brought to the city of Anuradhapura for cremation, adorned in a golden bier. After solemn obsequies, the body was cremated at a place to the left of the Maha Thupa (Ruvanweliseya) of later construction. The place was named Isibhumangana (Courtyard of the sages). The death occurred during the 8th year of the reign of Uttiya, Tissa’s younger brother and his successor to the throne. Many stupa enshrining the relics of Mahinda were built at different places in Sri Lanka including Anuradhapura. Samghamitta died one year after Mahinda at the Hatthalhaka nunnery at Anuradhapura.

Legacy of Mahinda’s Introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka

Mahinda’s arrival in Sri Lanka can be regarded as the beginning of Sinhalese culture. He brought to Sri Lanka not only a new religion but also a whole civilization then at the height of its glory. He introduced art and architecture into the Island along with monasteries and cetiyas. He can be regarded as the father of Sinhalese literature. Buddhaghosa says that Mahinda brought to the Island the commentaries of the Tipitaka and put them into Sinhalese for the benefit of the people of the Island. He thus, made Sinhalese a literary language and inaugurated its literature. It is probable that he introduced the Ashokan alphabet as well. Thus it is impossible to overrate the influence exercised by Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Practically her whole culture and civilization were derived from it. Pali became the literary language of Sri Lanka and still holds that position. Sri Lankan literature was an offshoot of Indian literature, and the art of Sri Lanka — architecture, sculpture and painting — were derived from India. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

The remarkable success of Mahinda’s mission and unusually rapid spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka occurred due to a variety of reasons. Mahinda’s arrival was the consummation of a series of social, cultural and diplomatic relations between India and Sri Lanka. Devanampiya-Tissa was eager to earn the friendship of Ashoka. After the king, his family and important ministers had entered Buddhism, the rest must have been plain sailing. Also there was no properly organised religious group that could throw any sort of challenge to Buddhism. The saintly life of the monks must have also presented a good example and their dedication must have impressed many people.

Medium of communication with the Sinhalese offered but little difficulty to the work of the missionaries. If we compare the language of Ashoka’s inscriptions and the Sri Lanka inscriptions of the third century B.C., we can see that the two languages were almost similar. Thus, communication appears to have been easy.

During the 48 years of work of Mahinda in Sri Lanka, Buddhism was firmly established in the Island, and spread into most parts of the country. The following centuny saw a very rapid growth of the new faith among the masses. Many hundreds of viharas were constructed during that period. The four brothers of Devanampiya-Tissa, who ruled in succession after him at Anuradhapura, also did their best to spread the religion by opening new centres and providing maintenance to the monks. Kakavanna-Tissa and other rulers of Rohana, the southern principality, built a large number of viharas including Tissamaharama, Cittalapabbata (the famous centre of meditation) and Kirivihara at Kataragama. Tissa of Kalyani (modern Kelaniya) played his part in propagating Buddhism in the western principality. Kakavanna’s younger son Tissa contributed towards the spread of the new faith in many ways in the Eastern Province of the Island.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022


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