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The Gods & Deity Worship in Sri Lanka

 

(Source: The Wheel Publication No. 402/404, ISBN 955-24-0126-7, Buddhist Publication Society  P.O. Box 61, 54  Sangharaja Mawatha Kandy, Sri Lanka )

Copyright 1995 A.G.S. Kariyawasam

Deva Worship
Besides the ceremonies and rituals like pirit, sanghika-dana,kathina, etc., that can be traced in their origin to the time of the Buddha himself, there is another popular practice resorted to by the average Sri Lankan Buddhist which cannot be traced to early Buddhism so easily. This is deva-worship, the worship of deities, in what are popularly called devalayas or abodes dedicated to these deities. This practice cannot be described as totally un-Buddhistic, yet at the same time it does not fall into the category of folk religious practices like bali and tovil adopted by popular Buddhism.

The word deva, meaning "god" or "deity" in this context, signifies various classes of superhuman beings who in some respects are superior to ordinary human beings through their birth in a higher plane. As such, they are capable of helping human beings in times of difficulty. There is also another class of such superior beings who were originally extraordinary human beings. After their death, they have been raised to the level of gods and are worshipped and supplicated as capable of helping in times of need. These are the gods by convention (sammuti-deva) or glorified human heroes like the Minneriya Deviyo, who was glorified in this manner in recognition of his construction of the great Minneriya Tank at Polonnaruwa, or God Vibhishana, one of the four guardian deities of Sri Lanka. Both these categories of deities are, however, subject to the samsaric laws pertaining to birth and death. Thus it is seen that deva-worship is based on the theory that a superior being can help an inferior being when the latter needs such help.

In addition to their role as helpers in need, an additional duty ascribed to the devas is the safeguarding of the Buddha-sasana, i.e., the Buddhist religion. This also has its origin in the story of the Buddha himself when the four divine regents of the universe mounted guard over him and helped on various occasions of the Bodhisatta's life from his conception onwards. The benevolence of the deities is also extended to the protection of the faithful followers of the Buddha's teachings as exemplified by Sakka, the good Samaritan in many Buddhist stories.

In Sri Lanka there are four deities regarded as the guardians of the Buddha-sasana in the island: Vishnu, Saman, Kataragama, and Vibhishana. Although Vishnu is originally a Hindu god, the Buddhists have taken him over as a Buddhist deity, referring to him also by the localized designation Uppalavanna. And so are Siva, specially under the name Isvara, and Ganesha under the name Ganapati or the more popular appellation Gana-deviyo.

In the devala-worship the devotees make offerings to these deities and solicit their help for special purposes, especially in their day-to-day problems. A noteworthy feature in this practice is the presence of a mediator between the deity and the devotee, a priest called kapurala, or kapu-mahattaya or simply kapuva, the equivalent of the Hindu pusari. This figure has been copied from South Indian Hindu practices, for even in North India the devotees appeal directly to these higher powers without the help of such an intermediary.

By devala offering is meant the offering of food and drink as well as gifts of cloth, coins, gold, and silver often accompanied by eulogies addressed to the particular resident deity and recited by the kapurala. In many Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka there are devalayas dedicated to various deities. Devala-worship of this type is a ritual that has gained popularity among the local Buddhists since the Polonnaruwa period (12th century). In the present day it has acquired a vital place in the religious life of the Buddhist masses. This is one of the aspects by which the "great tradition" of Nikaya Buddhism has been supplemented by popular elements. This shows that if Buddhism is to prevail as a living force among all classes of its adherents, it has to make provision for the popular demands related to the day-to-day life of the common populace.

It is customary for many Sri Lankan Buddhists to visit a devalaya of one of the deities and make a vow that if the problem at hand (i.e., illness, enemies, etc.) is solved, they will make an offering to the deity concerned. Offerings are made even without such a special request. Whatever the case may be, this practice has become a ritual of propitiation through the kapuralas.

The main duties of the kapuralas are to look after the devalayas in their charge, to perform the prescribed rituals, and to offer in the inner shrine the offerings brought by devotees. The kapurala is given a fee for his services. Once the ritual is over, a part of the offerings is given back to the devotee for him to take home and partake of as having a sacramental value. The offerings normally consist of milk-rice, coconuts, betel, camphor, joss-sticks, fruits, along with flowers, garlands, flags, etc. All these are arranged in an orderly manner in a basket or tray and handed over respectfully to the kapurala, who takes it inside and offers it at the statue of the main deity inside the inner room. The devotees wait outside with clasped hands while the kapurala makes his pleadings on their behalf.

The statement he recites, called yatikava in Sinhala, is a panegyric of the deity concerned and it constitutes a humble and respectful request to bring succour to the devotee in his particular predicament. After this the kapurala emerges from the inner shrine room and blesses the devotees by using his thumb to place on their forehead a mark of a paste made from saffron, sandalwood, and other ingredients. This mark, the symbol of sanctification, is known as the tilaka.

This form of ritualistic propitiation of deities is a clear adaptation of the Hindu system where the very same method is followed, though more elaborately.
 

The Gods
Kataragama. Devalayas dedicated to the different deities are scattered all over the island. God Kataragama (Skanda) in southern Sri Lanka is by far the most popular, as he is considered to be the most powerful deity capable of granting the requests of the worshipper. It is for this reason that he has acquired territorial rights throughout the island. Devalayas dedicated to him are found in many places in the island, some of which are maintained by the Hindus.

Ganesha. The elephant-shaped god Ganesha, regarded as the god of wisdom and the remover of obstacles, is also very popular among the Buddhists under the names Ganapati or Gana-deviyo. He is worshipped as the chief of obstacles (Vighnesvara) because it is believed that he is responsible for creating and removing obstracles. He does this through troops of inferior deities or demi-gods considered as attendants of Siva, present almost everywhere, who are under his command. It is in this sense that he is called Gana-pati (chief of hosts), which is the epithet popular among the Buddhists. The devalayas dedicated to him are mostly run by the Hindus. The Buddhists worship him either through his statues, found in many Buddhists temples, or by visiting the Hindu kovils dedicated to him. As the god of wisdom and of learning, he is propitiated at the time a child first reads the alphabet. As the chief of obstacles, as their creator as well as remover, the Hindus begin their devala-ritual by making the first offering to him.

Another popular aspect of his worship in some parts of Sri Lanka can be observed along the main roads, especially in the North-Central Province, where his statue is placed near trees and propitiated by travelers so that they may have a safe journey. The propitiation usually consists of breaking a coconut in his name, offering a coin (pandura), etc.

Natha. Natha is purely a Buddhist god, apparently the local counterpart of the all-compassionate Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. He is referred to in Sri Lanka by the abbreviated form Natha. His cult, as that of Natha, had become quite popular during the Kotte period (14th and 15th centuries), while references to him are found as early as the 9th and 10th centuries as shown by archaelogical evidence. The center of the cult was Totagamuwa near Hikkaduwa in the Galle District. Two of the more ancient devalayas dedicated to this deity are found at Kandy and at Vagiriya. The premises of the Kandy devalaya, opposite the Temple of the Tooth, are considered especially lucky and sacred, for the important royal rites like choosing a name for the king, putting on the royal sword, etc., were held there. It was Natha's all-pervading compassion that seems to have been appealed to by the local devotees.

Vishnu. The important Hindu god Vishnu has also assumed a special Buddhist significance in the island. He is identified with the god Uppalavanna of the Mahavamsa, to whom Sakka, the king of the gods, is said to have entrusted the guardianship of Sri Lanka at the request of the Buddha before his passing away. This god is said to have arrived in the island to fulfill this mission. The name Uppalavanna means "the color of the blue water-lily." As Vishnu is of the same color, Uppalavanna became identified with Vishnu, and in the wake of the Mahavamsa tradition, he became, as Vishnu, the protector of the Buddha-sasana in Sri Lanka. The calculated omission of the name Vishnu in the Mahavamsa in this connection may be viewed as an attempt at total localization of the divinity with a view to harmonize him with the cultural fabric of the island. His main shrine is at Devinuwara (Dondra), at the southern tip of the island, where an annual Esala (July-August) festival is held in his honor. If the identification is correct his cult can be traced to the earliest phase of the history of the island and has been popular up to the present day.

Pattini. Goddess Pattini, referred to above (see p.59), is prominent as the most popular female Buddhist divinity; she has her devalayas scattered throughout the country. Her cult goes back at least to the second century A.C. The then ruler, King Gajabahu, is said to have introduced the worship of this divinity into the island from South India.The legend about her life is told in the Tamil poem Silappadikaram. According to the myths current in the island about her, she had seven incarnations, being born seven times from water, the tusk of an elephant, a flower, a rock, a fire (or peak), cloth, and a mango. Hence she is designated as sat-pattini, sat meaning seven.

There are colorful stories woven around these births. The story about her unswerving fidelity to her fickle husband Kovalan (or Palanga) in her birth as Kannagi, is quite popular among the local Buddhists as attested by the existence of many Sinhala literary works dealing with the story (e.g., Vayantimalaya, Pattinihalla, Palanga-halla, etc.).

Her favors are sought especially at times of pestilences like chicken pox, measles, etc. and also by women who desire children. It is customary for the Sri Lankan Buddhists to visit her devalaya and worship her with offerings after recovery from infectious diseases. The banishment of evil influences and the attainment of prosperity in general and good harvests are other purposes behind the ceremonies performed in her honor. She also plays an important part in the ceremonies connected with the offering of first fruits.

Devalayas dedicated to her are found in many parts of the island, the one at Navagamuwa, about fifteen miles from Colombo on the old Avissavella Road, being the most important. The sanctity of this place seems to go back to the time of King Gajabahu.

Sakka. Sakka, the king of the gods, has been an important figure in the Buddhist affairs of Sri Lanka. Tradition connects him with the Buddha himself in connection with the landing of Vijaya and his followers in the island in the 6th century B.C. On this occasion, at the Buddha's request, Sakka is said to have entrusted Vishnu with the guardianship of Buddhism in the island. It was Sakka too who sought Arahant Mahinda and requested him to come over to the island when the time became opportune for its conversion (Mhv. xiii,15,16,17).

Saman. Another important deity in the island is Mahasumana, Sumana or Saman, the guardian or the presiding deity of Sri Pada mountain or Sumanakuta (Adam's Peak), which the Buddhists treat as sacred on account of its bearing the impression of the Buddha's left foot, which he left on his third visit to the island. (Mhv.i,77ff.).

God Saman is recorded as having met the Buddha on the latter's first visit to the island when he visited Mahiyangana to drive away the yakkhas. Saman became a stream-entrant (sotapanna) after listening to the Buddha, who gave him a handful of hairs with which he erected the dagaba at Mahiyangana (Mhv.i,33). He is regarded as the chief deity of the area surrounding the sacred mountain as well as of the hill-country in general. Accordingly his main shrine is at Ratnapura, where an annual festival is held in his honor.

Vibhishana. Another deity, somewhat similar to Saman, is Vibhishana, who is regarded as the brother of the pre-historic King Ravana of Sri Lanka. His main shrine is at Kelaniya, as a part of the famous Buddhist temple there.

Dadimunda. Another deity who likewise came into prominence during the Kandyan period (17th and 18th centuries) is Dadimunda (Devata Bandara) who, according to the prevalent tradition, landed at Dondra (Devinuvara) in South Sri Lanka from South India. He proceeded to Alutnuvara in the Kegalla District, taking up permanent residence there in a temple, which he himself got constructed. This is the chief shrine of this deity and here too an annual festival is held. He is regarded as a general of Vishnu and accordingly, at the main Vishnu shrines in the island, he also has his shrine on a side (e.g., Dondra, Kandy, etc.). Another interesting tradition says that he was the only deity who did not run away in fear at the time of Bodhisatta Siddhattha's struggle with Mara. While all the other deities took flight in fright, he alone remained fearless as the Bodhisatta's only guardian. He is portrayed in the attire of a Kandyan chief with his special attribute, a walking stick (soluva). His Kandyan dress symbolizes his suzerainty over the Kandyan area.

Huniyan Deviyo. The patron deity of the sorcerers in Sri Lanka is Huniyan or Suniyan, who has been promoted from the status of a demon to that of a deity. He is also regarded as the deity presiding over a village area bounded by its boundaries (gam-kotuwa), in which role he is designated as gambhara-deviyo (deity in charge of the village). In many of the composite devalayas he too has his shrine, the one at Lunava, about seven miles from Colombo close to the Galle Road, near the Lunava railway station, being his chief devalaya.

Besides these deities so far enumerated there are many other minor figures who are too numerous to be mentioned here. What is important is that in the case of all these deities, the method of propitiation and worship is the same as explained earlier and every such deity is in charge of a particular aspect of life. And all of them are faithful Buddhists, extending their respective powers not only to the Buddha-sasana but also to those who follow it faithfully.

As Buddhists, none of these is regarded as superior or even remotely equal to the Buddha. They all are followers of the Buddha, who has transcended the round of rebirth (samsara), while they are still within samsara, hoping to achieve release from it by following the Buddha's Teaching


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