WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


The arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe 

It was on the memorable Poson fullmoon day in the month Jattha (June), in BC 306, (i.e., 237 years after the demise of the Buddha), that the Arhat Mahinda, the illustrious apostle of Buddhism met King Devanampiyatissa (307-267 BC) of Sri Lanka, atop the Mihintale rock (then known as Missaka-pabbata), situated about 12 km. east of Anuradhapura. This confrontation paved way for the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Arhat Mahinda, the profoundly sapient thera, came to Sri Lanka as bidden by his father, the emperor Asoka (264-267 BC) 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.

Asoka'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 Asoka Chakra (the Wheel of Asoka) dominates the national flag of India. Asoka, 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 Asoka. 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.

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 BC), 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." This spot is now known as the aradhana-gala atop which the historic Mahinda-Tissa confrontation took place.

At this spot stands the Ambatthala chetiya of later times, built by King Mahadatika Mahanaga alias Maha Deliyamana (06-18 AD). On completion of the chetiya, the king held a splendid feast known as the Giribhanda-pooja (lighting the whole city with oil lamps), and an alms-giving known as Thulabhara-dana (offering of gold equal to king's weight).

If we are disposed to consider the mode of travel from Vidisagiri in India to Mihintale in Sri Lanka, we might consider them having followed the common routes of travel known at that time. It is said that the normal course would have been to arrive overland to a sea-port on the western coast of India, most probably, Bharukacca, and thence to take vessel to the island. If they had walked from the sea-port to Mihintale, many questions crop up. How did they reach Mihintale, through thick jungle infested with wild beasts? Who supplied meals to them en route, and who provided shelter for the night? How did they escape the attention of the king's spies who were on alert for intruders?

History reveals

Authentic history tells us that Arhat Mahinda met king Devanampiyatissa, when he was on a hunting spree towards the wilderness of Mihintale. Chasing wild animals was his famous form of amusement, which he did when he had the opportunity and leisure 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.

After a brief conversation to test the intelligence of the king, preparatory to preaching the Dhamma, the thera delivered the discourse on Culahastipadopama Sutta (simile on the foot of an elephant), and converted those assembled to Buddhism (Mhv. 14:22). This Sutta gives a clear idea of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and describes how one is converted to Buddhism and becomes a bhikkhu, the sublime qualities he practises and possesses, the things from which he abstains, the various stages of spiritual development in his life and his attainment of arhantship (the final fruit of Buddhism, ceasing rebirth). 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 advent of Arhat Mahinda in Sri Lanka, brought forth a socio-religious revolution, changing the life and habitat of the people. The establishment of the Buddha Sasana in the island was the greatest step taken by him to mould the character of the masses, leading to spiritual awareness and morality. We observe that Arhat Mahinda belonged to the school of vinayadharas, who advocated discipline as the best weapon to fight against all evil.

Socio-religious revolution

When King Devanampiyatissa inquired from Arhat Mahinda, whether the Buddha Sasana had been well established in the island, the reply was that it would happen only when a person of the Sinhalese race studies the vinaya (code of discipline) and expounds it clearly and explicitly. Accordingly, conversion of the king and his people to the new faith can be regarded as the most important event in the socio-religious history of the island. The introduction of Buddhism, with a civilisation attached to it, brought about a distinctive cultural pattern in the social and religious life of the community.

Dr. Senerath Paranavitana, the late Archaeological Commissioner of Sri Lanka, surveying the religious condition that prevailed in the island, prior to the advent of Arhat Mahinda, says: "When the missionaries of Asoka preached the doctrine of the Buddha, it becomes clear that the great majority of the people worshipped nature spirits, called the yakkas (demons), who were supposed to dwell in rivers, lakes, mountains, trees etc.

The worship of the sacred trees and groves was also connected with this primitive forms of worship. The heavenly bodies received the adoration of the people, and to a great extent influenced their everyday life. The more intellectual among the people, perhaps, followed the brahminical religion, i.e., Hinduism."

When Arhat 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 Arhat Mahinda.

Arhat Mahinda and his companions spent 26 days at the Mahamegha park in Anuradhapura, and later they 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.

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, chetiyas 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. He breathed his last in BC 259.

The king at the time was Uttiya (267-257 BC), 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). Thus ended the life of the illustrious thera, who was second to Buddha in the island.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka