Sri Lanka and its Buddhist History *
Sri Lanka is an island located in the Indian Ocean southeast from the tip of the Indian subcontinent. It straddles the main Sea Lanes between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. This strategic location has determined its history as a cultural and artistic repository of 2,600 years of a Buddhist tradition which is distinctly its own.
When the Mauriyan Emperor Ashoka decided to spread the message of the Buddha, Sri Lanka was the first country to receive and accept Buddhism. Since then Theravada Buddhism has been the national religion of the people of Sri Lanka. The Buddhist Sangha order has played an essential role as the custodians of the faith and the practitioners of its traditions. The political institutions of traditional Buddhism were formed by the order of the Buddhist Sangha.
Thus, from the 2nd century B.C., onwards, history was written in Sri Lanka with the particular aim of educating or instructing the people.
This narrative of history begins with the meeting of King Devanam Piyatissa with Arahant Mahinda. In the year 236 BE (i.e. 250 BCE) on the full-moon day of Jettha Arahant Mahinda thero met King Debanam Piyatissa the king of Sri Lanka. Arahant Mahinda thero informed the King.
“Samaņā mayaṃ Mahārāja
“We are the disciples of the Lord of the Dhamma. In compassion towards you, Maharaja, We have come here from (Jambudipā) India.”
The earliest account the Dipavamsa or “Chronicle of the Island” was compiled in 5th century A.d. The Mahavamsa the “Great Chronicle” was written by the Buddhist Monk Mahanama in the 6th century. This history is also the history of the traditional Theravada Buddhism.
Since the Ashokan mission was directed to the King, the Ashokan concepts of governance were adopted by the political authority of the island.
The purpose of this political authority was to build a welfare-state in which the abundance of produce was sufficient to provide for the welfare of the poor and the disabled, to offer the opportunity of leading the religious life for as many monks as possible. The King was required to ensure the material welfare of the Sangha and to sustain monastic institutions. During the mediaeval period, regulations for the Sangha were formulated by Sangha assemblies and were ceremonially promulgated by the king. Such documents are known as katikavattas. Several of these texts have been preserved and translated into English.
The Buddhist religion constituted the essential factor of identity and legitimacy of the political authority. Simultaneously it prevented the misuse of political power.
This system of symbiosis between the State and the Sangha in the Buddhist Kingdoms were destroyed by colonial conquest. The breakdown was made irretrievable by the effective separation of the Sangha from the Colonial state administration. Colonial rule ‘disestablished Buddhism‘. The Buddhist institutions shaped through the centuries were now orphaned and became private institutions.
By the early 19th century the nation despaired that Buddhism would gradually disappear from the island. But what happened in fact was the quite opposite. Buddhism was so deeply rooted in the culture of the island nation that the threat to Buddhism became the principal rallying point for the emerging urban and semiurban population created by the mercantilism of the colonials. This urban and semi urban population was articulate and easier to be mobilized than the rural peasantry.
Buddhism now served as the symbol of cultural heritage and became integral to the freedom struggle against foreign occupation and domination.
The galvanizing of public opinion was undertaken by the intelligentsia of the freedom movement. They depicted the pre colonial life of the people as an idealistic image of life of idyllic existence under the shade of the Buddhist temple with abundance assured by the hydraulic civilization. These writings were avidly read by the new middle-class.
In this background, emerged what anthropologists call Buddhist modernism. Its
modernity was its reaction to colonial governance. It was an opposition fueled by political and cultural aspirations but was essentially Buddhist centric. This movement sought the revival of the heritage of the ancient national culture.
There were public debates between Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries. The
resultant Buddhist consciousness managed to arrest the decline of Buddhism. The first of these public debates was held as early as in 1865.
The most successful defense of Buddhism was considered to have been produced by
Mohotivatte Gunannda Thera in the Panadura vada in 1873. The text of this debate which was
translated into English was read by Colonel Henry Stel Olcott who came to Sri Lanka and played a pioneering role in the Buddhist revival. The most influential of all reformers was Anagarika Dharmapala (1864 – 1933. His greatest achievement was the founding of the Maha Bodhi movement which played a vital role in preserving the historic Buddhist shrines and sites in India and specially the restoration of Bodhgaya.
The most noteworthy development of the decolonization of Buddhism was the emergence of new concepts. These were the natural responses to Western cultural influences. The Buddhist modernists were quick to argue that Buddhism was by far superior to Christianity. Buddhism is the religion of reason. Buddhism rejected blind belief. The philosophy of Buddhism is in total accordance with modern science. “Buddhism and Science” has remained one of the main arguments of Buddhist modernism until today. To reinforce this contention, modern Buddhists sought to trace the original sources of Buddhism. Their objective was to distinguish between the essential teachings of Buddhism and the subsequent mythological additions. This search for the original teachings of the Buddha was the catalyst for a remarkable confluence of Scholars’ of Buddhism from East and West. The German scholar Hermann Oldenberg was the first to give a reliable account of the Buddha, his life, his doctrine and his Sangha to the.
Western world in 1881 in his famous work “Buddha.”
In the year 1950 Professor G.P Malalasekera the great Buddist savant and scholar founded the World Fellow ship of Buddhists at an inaugural session held in Colombo Sri Lanka. Professor Malalasekera observed o that occasion that it was the appropriate time to unite the Buddhists of Asia emerging from colonial bondage. Bhikkus from Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos conversed with their host Bhikkus of Sri Lanka and Professor Malalasekera himself in Pali, perhaps as Buddhagosha did in the 5th century in Anuradhapura. Among the international participants were King Sisavong Vong of Laos and Rani Dorji of Bhutan, Princess Poon Diskul of Thailand, Baba Saheb Ambedkar the Indian Buddhist leader, the Zen scholar Dr.D.T.Suzuki and Major General Tun Hla Aung of Burma. Sri Lanka has thus assumed the mantle of leadership of the World Buddhist community a role that history has bequeathed.