WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


The introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka is attributed to Asoka's son Mahinda who came to the Island about the middle of the third century BC. 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 Asoka 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.

Asoka'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 Asoka'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 Asoka 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.

Mahinda came to Sri Lanka with four others. Its purpose in bringing them was evidently to confer the upasampada on anyone who desired to get it. In his party consisting of seven, there were two who were close relations of his. 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.

The first meeting of Mahinda and Devanampiya-Tissa (247-207 BC), 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. During their first conversation, Mahinda is said to have given an 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 to him. The selection of the sutta for thr 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

a. Results of good and bad actions;

b. The misery that awaits criminals; and

c. 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.

On the pressing invitation 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.

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

Mahinda spent 26 days in Anuradhapura. During this period things 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.

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.

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 Asoka 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 Asoka 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 Dagaba 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-tre was performed with great ceremony in which people from all parts of the Island participated. Asoka himself had sent a large number of families from India to attend and thus, India was also represented in a big way. Besides Anuradhpura 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 strenghtened 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

  1. Mahavihara
  2. Cetiva-pabbata
  3. Issarasamnaka
  4. Vessagiri
  5. Tissamahavihara
  6. Jambukolapattanavihara
  7. Mahapali (a refectory at Anuradhapura)

Mahinda, who had come to Sri Lanka at the age of 32, died at 80 while spending vasavassa at Cetiya-pabbata during the 8th year of king Uttiya (200 BC>) -- Tissa's younger brother and his successor to the throne. Many cetiyas enshrining the relics of Mahinda were built at different places in Sri Lanka including Anuradhapura and Cetiya-pabbata. Samghamitta died one year after Mahinda at the the Hatthalhaka nunnery at Anuradhapura.

Mahinda's arrival in Sri Lanka can be regarded as the begining 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 Sihalese a literary language and inaugurated its literature. It is probable that he introduced the Asokan 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.

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 Asoka. After the king, his family and important ministers had entered Buddhism, the rest must have been plain saling. 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 Asoka'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 Tisamaharama, Cittalapabbata (the famous centre of meditation) and Kirivehara at Kataragama. Tissa of Kalyani (modern Kalaniya) 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.

Under the influnce of the new religion the Sinhalese worked in peace and harmony, and the country progressed quite fast. But this process of smooth progress was disrupted by the invasions from southern India, particularly by a Cola prince called Elara. who capture the government at Anuradhapura towards the middle of second century BC and ruled for about 45 years. However, Rohana in the south remained unaffected by this invasion.

Several important events -- both national and religious -- took place as a result of this foreign rule. Duttha-Gamani (101-77 BC), the son of Kakavanna-Tissa of Rohana, undoubtedly the greatest hero of early Buddhist Sri Lanka, organised a great crusade to liberate at Sri Lanka and Buddhism from foreign rule. His cry was "Not for kingdom, but for Buddhism." The entire Sinhalese race was united under the banner of the young Gamani. This was the beginning of nationalism among the Sinhalese. It was a new race with healthy young blood, organised under the new order of Buddhism. A kind of religio-nationalism roused the whole Sinhalese people all of whom without exception had now become Buddhist.

After Elara's defeat, Duttha-Gamani regretted the loss of life on such a large scale. However, he was consoled by "Eight Arhants from Piyangudipa" that there was no cause for regret as "thou wilt illumine the doctrine of the Buddha in many ways, therefore, dispel care from thy mind."

In this way, orthodox Buddhist opinion encouraged Buddhist nationalism. For the first time in the history of Buddhism monks now officially entered the field of political and mundane interest. At the request of Dutta-Gamani they accompanied the liberating army "since the sight of the monks is both blessing and protection for us." Monks were encouraged even to leave their robes and join the army for the sake of Buddhism and the nation. Gamani himself had a relic of the Buddha put into his spear. Dutta-Gamani seems to have exploited to the hilt all the religious and national sentiments of the people in order to unite them and rid Sri Lanka of foreign rule.

Dutta-Gamani erected many religious edifices, including the Mahathupa .(Ruvanavalisaya), Maricavatti (Mirisavatiya) and the nine-storeyed Lohapasada which was the Uposatha house of the Mahavihara. He made Buddhism the pride of his people and very large numbers of people came from abroad to witness the grand celebrations of the dedication festival of Mahathupa. The prototype of the Vesak is for the first time referred to during this period and Putta-Gamani is said to have held 24 Vesak ceremonies.

His brother Saddha-Tissa (77-59BC) who succeeded him, did a great deal for Buddhism and built, among many other viharas, the Dakkhinagiri -Vihara at Anuradhapura which later played an important role in the history of Sri Lankan Buddhism.

The latter part of the first century BC saw some very important events in the Buddhist history of Sri Lanka. A Brahmana named Tissa in Rohana rose in rebellion against Tissa in 43 BC and at the same time Tamils from south India invaded the north. The whole country was devastated by war and strife. For 14 years five Tamils ruled at Anuradhapura in succession. Besides this calamity, the whole country was ravaged by very severe famine during which thousands of people including monks and nuns perished. People are said to have literally eaten each other during this period. Many Buddhist monuments suffered as a result of the neglect and monks in

large numbers migrated to India. King Vattagamani-Abhaya (29-17BC) lay in hiding. The very existence of Buddhism appeared in danger and the oral tradition of passing the Tipitaka from generation to generation also appeared no longer feasible.Thus, the teachings of the Buddha had to be preserved under any cost. Therefore, the far-sighted Mahatheras under the patronage of a local chief, assembled at Aluvihara at Matale, employed 500 reciters and scribes for the purpose and committed to writing the whole of the Tipitaka with the commentaries thereon for the first time in history "in order that the true doctrine might endure." The Pali Tipitaka, which was the result of their labour, still survives as the sacred canon of which the original disappeared long ago from India without leaving any trace. Finally, Vattagamani-Abhaya defeated the Tamils and their fourteen-year long reign came to an end. He demolished the Giri-monastery of the Jainas and built the great Abhayagiri-vihara in its places.

The king offered this vihara to a thera called Mahatissa, who had been of great help to him during the days of his misfortune. Five generals of the king also built five viharas and dedicated them to a thera named Tissa in gratitude for his friendship and help to them in their difficulty. Actually a reconciliation was brought by these theras between these five disgrunted generals and the king during the anti-Tamil campaign. In fact, had the far-sighted theras not intervened at that moment, no one could say what the fate of Buddhism and the Sinhalese people would have been. Only the king and the generals knew what they owed to the learned theras. That was why, Abhayagiri and the other viharas built by the king and the generals were given to Mahatissa and Tissa theras. This was the first time when a vihara was given to a monk as a personal gift. It was purely an expression of personal gratitude on the part of the king and his generals.

Earlier Mahatissa used to live at an unimportant place in a remote area. But now on the special invitation of the king, he shifted to Anuradhapura and must have now, as a result, weilded a great influence over the ruling class. This evidently distributed the prestige and authority of the Mahavihara monks. He subsequently charged Mahatissa Thera with having frequented the families of laymen and imposed on him the punishment of expulsion (pabbajaniyakamma). This was also, perhaps, an indirect disapproval of the action of the king and the generals. Some of the disciples of Mahatissa like Bahalamassu-Tissa did not agree with the justification of the charge. The Mahavihara as a result even tried to punish Bahalamassu-Tissa for having sided with the "impure". Bahalamassu-Tissa became very angry and left the Mahavihara along with a large following of monks. Henceforth, he made his headquarters at Abhayagiri. This was the beginning of dissensions in the Sangha, which had till then been united under the influence of the Mahavihara. Between these two groups of monks there was hardly any difference in the begining except that they lived at two different places and the Abhayagiri monks did not agree with the charge against Mahatissa.

However after a while, some monks who were the followers of Dhammaruci, of the Vajjiputta Sect in India , came to Sri Lanka and were received by the monks at Abhayagiri. One can understand that the Abhayagiri, now separated from the powerful Mahavihara, desired to win some allies to strengthen their position. Some of the teachings and interpretations of the Vajjiputta Sect were not in agreement with those of the Theriya Sect which was the Mahavihara. There was no official suppression of the new sect or views, evidently because the king was in their favour. From this time onwards the Abhayagiri monks seem to have kept up constant contact with various Buddhist sects and new movements in India, from which they derived inspiration and strength. They were liberal in their views, and always welcomed new ideas from abroad and tried to be progressive. They studied both Mahayana and Theravada and "widely diffused the Tipitaka". The Mahavihara, on the other hand remained conservative, studied only the Theravada, was opposed to the Mahayana, and discouraged any kind of new interpretations. It was faithful to the very letter of the orthodox teachings and traditions accepted by the Theravadins. The Abhayagiri monks, therefore, appeared in the eyes of the Mahavihara to be unorthodox and heretic. The Mahavihara was the original and first centre of Buddhism, hallowed by Mahinda himself; its monks were proud of the great tradition, and zealously guarded the honour and authority of the vihara. They had enjoyed the undivided regard and respect, loyalty, and support of the state and the public, and did not like new elements entering the field to share their previlege and dividing the attention. But it was not possible to suppress social, economic and political changes. The dissensions in the Sangha were by no means a symtoms of decay and degeneration, but a sign of movement and progress.

The following period of about three centuries went through typical vicissitudes of history. Vattagamani's son Coranaga (03 BC - 09) was hostile to the Sangha and destroyed eighteen viharas where he had not been given refuge during the days of his rebellion against his cousin Mahaculika Mahatissa (17-03 BC). His activities appear to have done massive damage to the

cause of Buddhism. Later, King Bhatikabhava (38-66 AD) is reported to have held 28 Vesak festivals and also supplied requisites to monks engaged in studies. During the reign of his successors. Mahadathika Mahanaga (67-79 AD) , the famous festival of Giribhanda-puja came into origin. This king was religious and pious to a fault and contributed a great deal in the spread of Dhamma. His son, Amandagamani (78-89 AD) was the first to issue the order of non-killing (maghata) of animals all over the Island. His brother and successor Kanirajanu-Tissa (8992 AD) ordered about 60 monks to be thrown down the precipice of a rock in the Cetiyapabbata as they allegedly tried to kill the king who in turn had tried to impose his decision on them regarding a monastic dispute.

After this incident, for about 3 1/2 decades, no king seems to have paid any attention to Cetiyagiri till Vasabha (127-171 AD) effected some improvements there. He appears to have patronised all viharas impartially, and he did a great deal to further the cause of Buddhism by providing for the preachers of dhamma and building new cetiyas and images, and repairing old monasteries. Viharas were built even in Nagadipa (modern Jaffna peninsula) in the north during the reign of this king. He is said to have celebrated 44 Vesak festivals. Between the reigns of Vasabha and Voharika-Tissa (269-291 AD) for about a century, nothing of importance appears to have taken place. During the time of Voharika-Tissa, we hear for the first time of a new school of thought called Vetullavasda, Vaitulyvada or Mahasunnavadi. This school of thought believed that the Buddha, having been born in Tusita heaven, lives there and never comes down to the human world, and that it is only a created phantasmal form (nimmitarupamattakam) and not the Buddha that appears among men. Both this created form. and Ananda who learned from it preached the dhamma; the Buddha himself never preached. Further more, according to this view, the Buddha as such does not take anything (na Bhagava kinci paribhunjati), but pretends to accept offerings in order to be in comformity with the world (lokanucattanattham). Therefore, what is given to him bears no fruit because it is of no help (nirupakaratta). The king who supported the two viharas --Mahavihara and Abhayagiri -- is said to have suppressed Vaitulyavada, keeping heretics in check with the assistance of his minister Kapila, who was evidently well-versed both in the law of the Buddha and in that of the land. Voharika-Tissa had not only to suppress the Vaitulyas, he had also to purify the Sangha as a whole. Buddhism seems to have been in a bad state and the Sangha.was corrupt. The king is said to have paid three hundred thousand and freed many monks who were in debt. Such a thing was unheard of during the early days. Perhaps during a famine about two decades before Voharika -Tissa's reign monks incurred these debts as alms-begging may not have been easy. Voharika -Tissa is said to have established alms-giving at places all over the Island where the Ariyavamsa Sutta was preached which meant that Buddhism was in an unsatisfactory state. Voharika-Tissa also abolished the infliction of physical pain as penalty and held a great Vesak. festival.

The Vaitulyas, despite their suppression by Voharika-Tissa, began to assert themselves again at the Abhayagiri in the days of Gothabhaya (309-322 AD). Gothabhaya was a strong king, and did a great deal to improve the material conditions of Buddhism by providing an abundance of requisites for monks, repairing old monasteries, building new ones, and holding popular festivals such as the Vesak Puja. When the Dhammarucikas or the residents of the Abhayagiri accepted Vaitulyavada a mahathera called Ussiliya-Tissa himself a leading monks at the Abhayagiri wished to avoid the unpleasant consequences of a situation as had happened in the days of Voharika-Tissa. He, therefore, left the place with about three hundred monks and lived at the Dakkhanagiri cut off from the Dhammaruci sect. One of this new group, a mahathera named Sagala, began to teach religion there; and from that time a new sect called Sagaliya, came into existence at the Dakkhinagiri, Gothabhaya held an enquiry, suppressed the Vaitulyakas, burnt their books, and exiled sixty of their leaders from the Island. Some of the exiled monks left Sri Lanka and stayed at Kavirapattana in south India. These monks in south India became intimately connected with a powerful and able young monk named Samghamitta, who later became the champion of Mahayanism in Sri Lanka. When Samghamitta heard of the plight of the exiled monks, he was greatly moved, and landed in the Island with the firm determination of spreading Mahayanism there.

He got an opportunity to succeed in his designs during the reign of Mahasena (334-362AD), who happened to be one of his disciples. Mahasena figures in Sri Lankan history not only as a strong and able king who did a great deal for his country, but also as a man who had the courage of his conviction to stand against the authority of the Mahavihara, which no ruler ever before dared to attempt. Sanghamitta who resided at the Abhayagiri, tried in vain to convert the Mahavihara to Mahayanism. Thereupon, he persuaded his pupil Mahasena, to issue an order forbidding the public to provide alms to the monks of the Mahavihara on penalty of a fine. The monks of the Theriya sect left Anudhapura and went to Rohana and Malaya principalities which always stood by the Mahavihara firmly. For 9 years the Mahavihara was deserted; Sanghamitta, with the approval of the king and the help of a minister named Sona, demolished the seven-storeyed Lohapasada and many other buildings of the Mahavihara, and utilized their materials to erect new buildings at the Abhayagiri. The premises of the Mahavihara were ploughed and sown with beans. Meanwhile Cetiya-pabbata was occupied by the Dhammarucikas of the Abhayagiri.

The whole country was shocked by the action of the king. The popularity of the Mahavihara was so great that public opinion turned against him. Even those closely connected with the king were full of resentment and in fact, some of his close friends raised a banner of revolt against him. Little had the king realised the influence of the Mahavihara over the people. Mahasena was, thus, brought to his senses and realised the gravity of the situation. The king realised his error in time and agreed to restore the Mahavihara. Sanghamitta and Sona lost their lives during the confused situation. The Mahavihara was chiefly restored through the good offices of the king's minister Meghavana-Abhaya. Though the king had agreed to restore the Mahavihara, but he was still hostile to it. He therefore built the great Jetavana within the boundaries of the Mahavihara ignoring the strong protests of its authorities, and dedicated it to a thera named Tissa of the Dakkhanagiri and a follower of the Sigaliya sect. As a consequence, the Mahavihara was abandoned once again for nine months. Tissa Thera was charged in the assembly of monks with having committed an offence of the gravest kind. Meghavanna-Abhaya, disrobed Tissa even though the king was against such an action. Mahasena's power as secular head of the religion was evidently weakened by his rash acts and he felt helpless in the face of public opinion going against him. Mahasena was known even in contemporary India, perhaps because of his leanings towards Mahayanism, we are told that the Tooth Relic was sent to him from India for protection, but he was dead by the time it arrived in the country. Reference for the first time, is also made to the image of a Bodhisatta during his reign, which is a clear proof of the Mahayana influence that was powerful at that time.

Mahasena's eldest son, Siri-Meghavanna (362-409AD), who succeeded him, apologised to the monks of Mahavihara for the ill-advised actions of his father. He made ample amends for the damage done and did everything in his power to win back the goodwill of the Mahavihara and the people. The diplomatic king had a golden statue of Mahinda made and inaugurated a mammoth festival and a procession lasting for several days to commemorate Mahinda's arrival. He invited to the festival both laymen and monks from all parts of the country and decreed that succeeding kings should hold the festival annually. This great festival was evidently designed to drown the bitter memory of the evil days of the past. In the ninth year of his reign arrived the left eye-tooth of the Buddha from Dantapura in Kalinga. It was kept in a special building within the city and was taken annually, to the Abhayagiri for public exhbition. It is remarkable that the Mahavihara should have had no part in the worship of the Tooth Relic which became the national palladium of the Sinhalese. The prince and the princess who brought the Tooth Relic were, perhaps, themselves Mahayanists and considering that Abhayagiri was known in India as a centre of Mahayanism, they first came in contact with the monks of Abhayagiri. The custodianship of the Tooth Relic, therefore, became the business of the Abhaya and not the Mahavihara. Sri Meghavanna is also said to have sent an embassy to the Indian king Samudragupta for permission to build a monastery at Bodhagaya monastery. Another Sri Lankan monk, Prakhayakitti erected a dwelling place at Bodhagaya.

The famous Chinese pilgrim Fa-xian came to Sri Lanka during the reign of Buddhadasa (beginning of the fifth century AD) the well-known physician king, who provided extensive facilities for both men and animals. He did a great deal to spread the teachings of the Buddha by honouring the learned and fixing payments for the maintenance of preachers. It was during his reign that thera Mahadhammakathi translated the Pali suttas for the first time into Sinhalese. The Abhayagiri was flourishing at that time, most probably after Mahasena's activities. According to Fa-xian, there were 5,000 monks at the Abhayagiri, while there were only 3,000 at the Mahavihara.

During the time of Buddhadasa's son, Upatissa I, a new festival called Gangarohana was inaugurated on the advice of the monks to overcome a famine which occurred early in the fifth century. It was decreed that the festival should be held whenever there was a famine. His brother Mahanama (409-431AD) was favourable to Abhayagiri, while his queen was devoted to the Mahavihara. It was during the time of Mahanama that the commentator Buddhaghosa came to Anuradhapura, and while residing at the Mahavihara, translated the Sinhalese commentaries on the Tipitaka into Pali. After Mahanama the country was in chaos for more than 25 years, during which time six Tamil usurpers ruled in succession at Anuradhapura.

Dhatusena(460-478AD), who liberated the country from foreign yoke became a celebrated king. He was originally a monk, but gave up his robe, killed the Tamils, and re-established the rule. He did a lot of work to promote Buddhism as well as the welfare of the country. Among his works, the vast irrigation tank of Kalavana, is worth mentioning. He was a staunch supporter of the Mahavihara and built 18 great viharas and tanks and offered them to the monks of the Theriya sect. Many smaller viharas and tanks built by him were also made over to the same sect. He provided abundance of requisites for monks and gave every encouragement for the spread of the teaching of the Tipitaka. Though he was a loyal friend of the Mahavihara, he did not forget to make the necessary improvements at the Abhayagiri. He also renovated the Ambatthala-vihara on the Cetiya-pabbata with the idea of giving it to the Theriyas, but on the entreaty of the Dhammarucikas who were in occupation of the hill since the days of Mahasena, the vihara was granted to their sect. Dhatusena made several statues of the Buddha and the Bodhisatta and built houses for them. He made an image of Mahinda and held a great festival at the cremation ground of the thera where, it is said, the Dipavamsa was recited and explained.

Dhatusena was succeeded by his patricide son Kassapa I (478-496 AD) of Sigiriya fame. At first the monks of the Theriya sect were not favourable to him chiefly through fear of public censure. They refused to accept his offer of the Issarasamanarama which was enlarged and enriched with new endowments by Kassapa. but later on they yielded and allowed it to be offered to the image of the Buddha, thus, accepting it indirectly. Kassapa.built a vihara for the Dhammarucikas as well.

An important event that took place during the reign of the next king Moggallana I (496-513 AD)was the bringing of the Hair Relic of the Buddha (Kesadhatu) to Sri Lanka. The Hair Relic was placed in a crystal casket in an image house, and the occasion was celebrated with a great festival. Mogallana also purified the Sasana which was disorganised during the troublesome days of Kassapa I. His son, Kumara-Dhatusena (513-522 AD) is said to have held a Dhammasangiti (Recital of the Sacred Texts) and purified the Sasana. King Silakala (524-537 AD), who was formerly a monk, decreed the order of non-killing over the Island, maintained hospitals, and carried on the usual religious activities. Silakala, who appears to have had some contact with Mahayanists of India, managed to get a text called Dharmadhatu from Kasi, housed it near the place, and took it over to the Jetavana vihara every year for a festival which he made into a regular annual event. The Sagaliya monks of the Dakkhinagiri who lived at the Jetavana at the time, were loath to join in these activities.

We find a great movement for the spread of the Dhamma and the promotion of learning during the reign of the celebrated poet-king Culla-Mogallana or Mogalana II (537-556 AD). Regarding the preachers with abundant gifts of honour, he had the Tipitaka preached along with the Commentaries. He also made arrangements for the books to be written down. He himself composed a religious poem and seated on the back of his elephant, recited it at the end of a sermon in the city at night. He was so anxious to disseminate learning that it is recorded he lured children with sweetmeats to study the dhamma.

During the reign of Aggabhodi I (568-601 AD) a very important incident is reported to have occured. A great thera called Jotipala, who came from India, defeated the Vaitulyas in the Island in a public debate. After this public defeat there were no more converts to the Vaitulya doctrine, and the monks of the nikayas, viz. the Abhayagiri and the Jetavana, dismissed pride and lived in submission to the Mahavihara. This indicates the importance of the Mahavihara in the sixth century AD. Around this time, there was frequent religious intercourse between India and Sri Lanka and many Sri Lankan monks are said to have made frequent visits to the Buddhist shrines at Bodhagaya.

The next king Aggabodhi II (601-611AD) does not seem to have taken interest in the Mahavihara. For instance, when the great thera Jotipala once showed him that a part of the Thuparama Dagaba had come loose and fallen down when the thera was worshipping there, the king expreesed some concern and removed the Collar-bone Relic to Lohapasada, but delayed the repairs. It was only after "threats of dreadful dreams" that the king completed the work on the Dagaba. He built Veluvana-vihara for the monks of the Sigaliya sect. During his time, the king of Kalinga, on account of some political trouble there, came to Sri Lanka and became a monk under Jotipala thera. His queen did everything to make their stay in the Island as happy as possible.

Dalla-Moggallana or Moggalana III (611-617 AD) held a grand recital of the three pitakas and encouraged the spread of religious knowledge by honouring the learned. This gave an impetus to Buddhist literary activity. A reference to a kathina-ceremony is found in the reign of this king. He too purified the Sasana. King Kassapa II (641-650 AD) repaired the buildings that had been destroyed and performed many religious activities. He also arranged for monks to go about and preach the dhamma, and caused a compendium (sangaha) of the Pali texts to be composed. He also had the Abhidhamma recited alone with the Commentaries. This new interest in the Abhidhamma was becoming an outstanding feature of the intellectual class of the period. Xuan Zang records that the Sinhalese monks "were distinguished for their power of abstraction and their wisdom."

During the time of Dathopatissa II (650 -658 -AD) there was again some friction between the king and the Mahavihara. Dathopatissa wanted to build a vihara for the Abhayagiri, but the Mahavihara raised objection on the ground that it was within their boundaries. But the king forcibly carried out his plan. The monks of the Theriya sect were bitter against the king and applied to him the "the Turning Down of the Alms-Bowl (patta-nikkujjana-kamma), which is considered the excommunication of a layman. But the king did nothing against the Mahavihara. It would appear that the monks of the Mahavihara were powerful enough to openly criticise the acts of the king. These facts clearly signify the important position occupied by the Mahavihara in the seventh century AD.

Aggabodhi IV (658-674 AD) made ample amends for all the injustices done to the monasteries by his kinsmen in the past including the previous king his elder brother. All the three nikayas received his favour. Maintenance-villages servants and attendants and all other comforts were provided for them. "To the three fraternities he gave a thousand villages with large assured revenues." The whole country followed the example king. Even the Tamils, who were high officials in the service of the king, followed him in his religious activities. The queen built a nunnery for nuns and provided all comforts for them. For the first time we have the example from the reign of Aggabodhi IV to the chanting of paritta as a ceremony, which became a regular feature of later Buddhist practices. He also proclaimed the order of non-killing. After this a new spirit of regard for animal life can be noticed that began to influence the minds of the people. Another important thing that happened during the time of Aggabodhi IV was that he was the first king to occupy Polonnaruva temporarily. This place from now onwards was growing in importance both on account of its strategic position against invasions and also on account of its prosperity helped by extensive irrigation works in the neighbourhood. Kassapa III (711-724 AD) decreed not only the order of non-killing, but also reared fish in two ponds. Aggabodhi VII (766-772 AD) not only purified the Sasana, but also became the first Sri Lankan king to occupy Polonnaruva as his capital on a permanent basis. Mahinda II (772-792 AD) and Sena I (831-851 AD)are reported to have made provision for fishes, beasts, and birds, while Udaya I or Dappula II (792-797 AD) is said to have given corn to cattle and rice to crows and other birds.

King Udaya II (885-896 AD) was the last king to govern from Anuradhapurra. The great Lohapasada, the nerve centre of Buddhist activities in olden days, had now only 32 monks as residents, even after it was repaired. All interests and activities, both political and religious, were fast shifting into the rich, capital of Polonnaruva, now growing rapidly in importance and size.

During the Anuradhapura period, the Mahavihara played an important role in the development of'Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Also the rise of Abhayagiri was an important phenomenon during the Anuradhapura period. Although it received a favoured treatment from a few rulers like Mahasena, it was not able overshadow the Mahavihara ultimately. Though some new sects did raise their head from time to time in Sri Lanka during the Anuradhapura period, but the Mahavihara-- the citadel of orthodoxy-- under the royal patronage, remained pre-eminent as the main centre of Theravada Buddhism.

Here it may be important to mention that the Buddhist world owes a great debt to Sri Lanka. As mentioned above, the Pali canon has been preserved in its entirely in this Island and Sri Lankan Buddhism had great influence upon Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, the only other countries where Theravada Buddhism flourishies today. Sri Lanka was not, however, merely a passive recipient; it contributed to the development of Buddhsim through its Commentaries.


From the day of the establishment of Buddhsim till to the end of the Sinhalese rule in the nineteenth century AD, only a Buddhist had the legitimate right to be a king of Sri Lanka. By about the tenth century, this belief had bccome so strong that the king of Sri Lanka had not only to be Buddhist but also a Bodhisatta. The Jetavanarama Slab Inscription of Mahinda IV (956972 AD) proclaimed

"None but the Bodhisatta would become kings of Sri Lanka .(who) .... received assurance (vyaran) from the Omniscent Buddha."

Similarly, Kirti Nissanka Malla( (1187-1196 AD) says in his inscriptions that Lanka belonged to Buddhism and that therefore non-Buddhists had no right to the throne of Sri Lanka. Pujavaliya, a Sinhalese prose of the thirteenth century, expresses this idea more explicitly :

"The Island of Lanka belongs to the Buddha himself, it is like a treasury filled with the Three Gems. Therefore, the residence of the wrong believers in this Island will never be permanent... Even if a non-Buddhist ruled Ceylon by force for a while, it is a particular power of the Buddhas that this line will not be established. Therfore, as Lanka is suitable only for Buddhist kings, it is certain that their lines, too will be established."

The existence of such a belief is also testified by various European who visited Sri Lanka in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of them points out that the first rule was that king of Sri Lanka should never give up Buddhism and embrace another religion.

Even Dravadians, who ruled over the Island occasionally, had to become Buddhists, at least for the purposes of the office, whether they liked it or not. For example, Elara, the Cola prince, who ruled at Anuradhapura in the second century BC, is reported to have gone to Cetiyapabbata (Mihintale) to pay homage to and invite the Sangha for alms. Elara, it appears, had no genuine interest in Buddhism, but nevertheless he had to follow the established custom (carittam) of the land. Even the two Tamils. Sena and Guttika, who ruled at Anuradhapura about 30 years before Elara, seem to have been Buddhists by faith.

Although the king was included in the laity, his position was quite different from the rest of the lay people. In fact the Suttas actually regard a cakkavatti Emperor almost equal to the Buddha. It is quite natural, therefore, that the king of Sri Lanka was regarded as the secular head of Buddhism who protected the Sasana. In the tenth century AD, Mahinda IV declared clearly that a ksatriya becomes a king "for the purpose of defending the alms-bowl and the robe of the Buddha." The king as the defender of Buddhism,was so highly respected that even words originally used in reference only to the Buddha and the arahants, came to be applied to the rulers of Sri Lanka. For instance, the term prinivi (parinibutta), which is only used in connection with the decease of the Buddha or an arahant, was used in the tenth century AD in reference to the death of a king.

As the secular head and defender of Buddhism, it was one of the primary duties of the king to look after the well-being of the Sasana. Hence, we find quite often kings engaged in the "purification of the Sasana" whenever they found it to be disorganised and corrupt. It was the duty of the state to suppress by law or expulsion undesirable heretical elements that stained the purity of the Sasana. The king also felt it his duty to intervene whenever there arose within the Sangha disputes that could not be easily, settled by the monks themselves. Thus, king Kanirajanu-Tissa (89-92 AD) is reported to have acted as a judge over a dispute at the Uposatha House at Cetiyagiri.

Still, even though the king was "the defender of the faith" his authority over matters ecclesiastical was subservient to that of the Sangha. He had no power to force the hands of the Sangha against its wishes. When, for instance, Silameghavanna (617-626 AD) requested the monks of the Mahavihara to perform the Uposatha ceremony with those of the Abhayagiri, the Mahavihara refused to comply with the request of the king and he was powerless to enforce his will.

Although there were occasional disagreements between the Sangha and the state regarding spiritual and religious matters, there was evidently no friction between the two over matters political and mundane. Monk never seem to have attempted to weird political power directly by themselves. But they always used their influence to help and support kings whom they could persuade to carry out their wishes. Mention is, however, made of monks who took an active part in bringing about settlements between political leaders and even selecting kings. For example, Godhagatta-Tissa Thera settled the civil war between Duttha-Gamani and his brother. There are also examples of individual theras acting as advisers to kings.

The influence of the Sangha was so great over the masses that rulers were careful to win the hearts of the monks for the sake of peaceful and successful Governments. To obtain the approval of the Sangha was to ensure public support. This was probably why Duttha-Gamani put the relics of the Buddha into his spear and invited the Sangha to accompany him in the war "because their sight is both blessing and protection to us."

The first thing that a king did after ascending the throne was to display his interest in relation to religion by giving or repairing monasteries or holding grand religious festivals. The coronation of kings, bringing a secular business of state, later assumed the garb of a religious ceremory. The constitutional position of Buddhism became so strong that to act against the Sasana was treated as a high treason.

In fact, the Sasana constituted a full-fledged state department. Safe-guarding the purity and well-being of the Sasana and maintaining the Sangha and monasteries were duties incumbent upon the state, although private individuals and the public collectively established and maintained aramas on a smaller scale. There were full and permanent staffes paid by the state to look after the business of the larger monasteries such as Mihintale and Abhayagiri. These were governed by rules and regulations laid down by the kings with the approval of the Sangha. Taxes on goods were sometimes levied for the maintenance of aramas.

Some kings even prohibited the killing of animal based on the principle of ahimsa and hunters probably had to look for new occupations. Monks were also paid remuneration by the state according to their ability and service.

An the relics of the buddha received from India were treated as property of the state. The offering of the kingdom by kings to the Sasana which was not uncommon in ancient Sri Lanka was also symbolic of the principle that the state was run for the good of Buddhism.

The national wealth, energy and administrative ability of the country were, thus, lavishly bestowed upon Buddhism. The monasteries formed the centres of national culture, and monks were the teachers of the whole nation-- from the prince to the peasant. They helped the king to rule the country in peace. Monks considered it their duty, according to the Vinaya, to support the king. They used their influence over masses to support the king, who in return, looked after their interest.

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