According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Sri Lanka is home to the world's oldest continuing Buddhist civilization. Brahmi inscriptions etched in stone on drip ledges above natural caves in the country's North-Central province indicate that hermitages have been dedicated by Buddhist laity for the meditation needs of monks since the third century B.C. Moreover, the fourth- and fifth-century c.e. monastic chronicles, the Dipava sa (Chronicle of the Island) and the Mahava sa (Great Chronicle), contain a series of myths in which the Lankan king Devana piya Tissa (third century B.C.), a contemporary of the Indian emperor ASoka, is said to have been converted to the Buddha's teachings by ASoka own missionary son, Mahinda. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“Thus, from inscriptions and monastic literary traditions, it is known that by the third century B.C. lineages of forest monks supported by Buddhist laity were established on the island in the region that became Lanka's political center for thirteen subsequent centuries. Since ASoka is also thought to have provided support for Devana piya Tissa's abhi eka (coronation), it would seem that Buddhism became formally associated with Lanka's kingship by this time as well. For more than two millennia, until the British dethroned the last Lankan king in 1815, a symbiotic relationship entailing mutual support and legitimation between the Lankan kings and the Buddhist sa gha (community) was sustained, either as an ideal or in actual practice.

“Over the course of this long history, other forms of Buddhism joined the predominant Theravada bhikkhu (monk) and bhikkhuni (nun) sa has, which the Mahava sa asserts were established by AShoka's children, Mahinda and his sister SaSghamitta, respectively, and whose lineages were preserved by the Theravada Mahavihara nikaya. These included the cults of MahAyAna bodhisattvas such as AvalokiteSvara, and the teachings of several Mahayana schools and of tantric Buddhist masters associated with Mahavihara's rival in Anuradhapura, the Abhayagiri nikaya, which were established and thrived, particularly during the seventh through the tenth centuries c.e.

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe wrote in the Sunday Obervor: 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? [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe]

Missaka mountain (Mihintale) 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 A.D.) . 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).

King Devanampiya Tissa and the Introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka

The Buddhist tradition of chronicling events has aided the verification of historical figures. One of most important of these figures was King Devanampiya Tissa (250-c. 207 B.C.). According to the Mahavamsa, Ashoka's son and emissary to Sri Lanka, Mahinda, introduced the monarch to Buddhism. Devanampiya Tissa became a powerful patron of Buddhism and established the monastery of Mahavihara, which became the historic center of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Subsequent events also contributed to Sri Lanka's prestige in the Buddhist world. It was on the island, for example, that the oral teachings of the Buddha — the Tripitaka — were committed to writing for the first time. Devanampiya Tissa was said to have received Buddha's right collarbone and his revered alms bowl from Ashoka and to have built the Thuparama Dagoba, or stupa (Buddhist shrine), to honor these highly revered relics. Another relic, Buddha's sacred tooth, had arrived in Sri Lanka in the fourth century A.D.. The possession of the Tooth Relic came to be regarded as essential for the legitimization of Sinhalese royalty and remained so until its capture and probable destruction by the Portuguese in 1560. The sacred Tooth Relic (thought by many to be a substitute) that is venerated in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy links legendary Sri Lanka with the modern era. The annual procession of Perahera held in honor of the sacred Tooth Relic serves as a powerful unifying force for the Sinhalese in the twentieth century. Ashoka's daughter, Sanghamitta, is recorded as having brought to the island a branch of the sacred bo tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. According to legend, the tree that grew from this branch is near the ruins of the ancient city of Anuradhapura in the north of Sri Lanka. The tree is said to be the oldest living thing in the world and is an object of great veneration.

The connection between religion, culture, language, and education and their combined influence on national identity have been an age-old pervasive force for the Sinhalese Buddhists. Devanampiya Tissa employed Ashoka's strategy of merging the political state with Buddhism, supporting Buddhist institutions from the state's coffers, and locating temples close to the royal palace for greater control. With such patronage, Buddhism was positioned to evolve as the highest ethical and philosophical expression of Sinhalese culture and civilization. Buddhism appealed directly to the masses, leading to the growth of a collective Sinhalese cultural consciousness.

Socio-Religious Revolution of Buddhism

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe wrote in the Sunday Obervor: 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. [Source: Aryadasa Ratnasinghe]

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 Ashoka 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."

Buddhism Hangs On Despite Upheaval and Invasion in 1st and 2nd Century B.C. Sri Lanka

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 B.C. and ruled for about 45 years. However, Rohana in the south remained unaffected by this invasion. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Several important events — both national and religious — took place as a result of this foreign rule. Duttha-Gamani (101-77 B.C.), 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 (77-59 B.C.) 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 B.C. 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 B.C. 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 (29-17 B.C.) 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.

Early Buddhist Schisms in Sri Lanka

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. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

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, wielded 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 Theravada Buddhists. 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.

Theravada Buddhism and Sri Lanka

Theravada Buddhism is believed to have gotten its start in Sri Lanka and helped re-energize Buddhism as a whole at a time when it was declining in India. Theravada Buddhism did not have a lasting impact in India but it spread from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia, where it remains the dominant religion in Burma, Thailand and Laos today

Theravada Buddhism was once one of many schools that existed in the early years of Buddhism. It stayed close to the original Pali canon. Pali is the language that Buddha spoke 2,500 years ago. As a result of the work of Buddhaghosa and other compilers such as Dhammapala, Sri Lanka developed a strong tradition of written textual transmission of the Pali Canon. The compilation of the Atthakatha (commentaries) along with the Nikayas and other Pitakas were committed to writing for the first time in the Aluvihare Rock Temple during the first century B.C.. Buddhist literature in Sinhalese also thrived and by 410, Sri Lankan monks traveled widely throughout India and Asia introducing their works. [Source: Wikipedia]

There were attempts to introduce Mahayana Buddhism and rivalry developed between two school of thought. Dominance seesawed back and forth depending on the sect the ruler belonged to . Theravada won out in the A.D. 4th century and has remained relatively unchallenged since then in Sri Lanka and later Southeast Asia. Mahayana Buddhism took root in China and from there spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: “Although forms of Mahayana Buddhism were practiced in medieval Sri Lanka, especially from the eighth through the eleventh century, the predominant form of the religion that has been sustained is the Theravada (way of the elders), self-styled as conservative in nature and purporting to represent the original teachings of the Buddha (Tipitaka) as preserved in the Pali Tipitaka and its commentaries. Theravada claims an unbroken lineage of teaching from the time of the Buddha's formation of the monastic sangha to the present day. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Schisms Within Buddhism Before It Entered Sri Lanka

Immediately after the Buddhas death a council was held at Rajagaha during the rainy season under the patronage of Ajatasattu, king of Magadha, which Maha-kassapa as its president the mojstsenior of the disciples of the Buddha then alive.Its purpose was to decide and settle the authentic teaching of the Master. The Buddhas immediate deciples, likeAnanda and Upali, were the principal protaganists in this great event. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

About a century later, in the fourth century B.C during the time of King Kalasoka of pataliputta, a group of monks known under the generic name of Vajji bukkhus, residing at the Mahavana monastery in vesali raised ten new points of indulgence which perturbed the orthodox authorities. Under the guidance of Yasa, Revata and Sabbakami three leading theras of the day, a great council was held at Vasali and the ten joints raised by the Vajji bhikkus were condemned as false and heretic. The authentic and genuine teaching of the Master was defined for the second time.

After this second council the bhikkhus, who were condemned as unorthodox and heretic assembled elsewhere, held a rival council and inaugurated a new sect called Mahasanghika (or Mahasangiti) ,different from the theriya sect. The following century saw the rise of eighteen sects in all including the various schools of the Theravada.

Development of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka

During the Anuradhapura period, Mahaviharaya (Pali for "Great Monastery") was an important monastery for Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It was founded by king Devanampiya Tissa (247–207 B.C.) in Anuradhapura. The Mahavihara was the place where the Mahavihara orthodoxy was established by monks such as Buddhaghosa. The traditional Theravadin account provided by the Mahavamsa stands in contrast to the writings of the Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian), who journeyed to India and Sri Lanka in the early 5th century (between 399 and 414 CE). He recorded that the Mahavihara was not only intact, but housed 3000 monks

The Mahavihara played an important role in the development of'Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Also the rise of Abhayagiri (another monastery) 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.

The Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices says: “According to monastic histories, the teachings of the Buddha were first committed to writing in the first century B.C.. Subsequently monastic controversies of two types began to assail the unity of the sangha (monastic community) in the early Common Era centuries: (1) doctrinal arguments over the nature of the Buddha (supramundane or not) and (2) arguments over the monastic vocation (whether the path of the Buddha's dharma is best pursued through mediation in isolated forest hermitages or through acquiring wisdom by scholarly learning in a village, a context in which the laity might also be better served). [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Theravada Subdivisions in Sri Lanka

Over much of the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, there were three subdivisions of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, with each associated with a different monasteries (mahaviharas): 1) Anuradhapura Mahavihara, 2) Abhayagiri vihara and 3) Jetavanaramaya. Anuradhapura Mahavihara was the first. Abhayagiri vihara and Jetavanaramaya were established by monks who had broken away from the Mahavihara tradition. [Source: Wikipedia]

In the 7th century, Xuanzang described two major divisions of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka: 1) the Abhayagiri tradition as the "Mahayana Sthaviras" and 2) the Mahavihara tradition as the "Hinayana Sthaviras."Abhayagiri appears to have been a center for Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings; Xuanzang writes, "The Mahaviharavasins reject the Mahayana and practice the Hinayana, while the Abhayagiriviharavasins study both Hinayana and Mahayana teachings and propagate the Tripi aka.

In the 8th century, both Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism were being practiced in Sri Lanka and two Indian monks responsible for propagating Vajrayana Buddhism in China, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, visited the island during this time. According to HR Perera, the Theravada commentaries considered them heretical. They held the view that the Buddha, having been born in the Tusita heaven, lived there and never came down to earth and it was only a created form that appeared among men. This created form and Ananda, who learned from it, preached the doctrine. They also held that nothing whatever given to the Order bears fruit, for the Sangha, which in the ultimate sense of the term meant only the path and fruition, does not accept anything. According to them any human pair may enter upon sexual intercourse by mutual consent.

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: “After the demise of the Anuradhapura civilization (third century B.C. through tenth century c.e.), wherein the Mahavihara monastery had flourished as a bastion of the Theravada, and following the reestablishment of Sinhala kingship at Polonnaruva in the twelfth century under Parakramabahu I, the Buddhist sangha throughout the country was thereafter unified "under one umbrella," although the community of nuns (bhikkhunisangha) was not reestablished at that time. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“From this reestablished base of Theravada Buddhist monasticism in which the institution enjoyed lavish royal patronage, an orthodox form of Buddhism stressing the progressive path of sila (morality), prajna (wisdom), and samadhi (meditation) spread to Pagan (Myanmar [Burma]) and from there to northern Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to become the normative form of religion in mainland Southeast Asia to this day. In Sri Lanka, Theravada's historical condition has stood in reflexive relationship to the health of Lankan kingship — that is, whenever the kingship atrophied, so did the health of the religion, as the king was its chief patron. Monastic and temple culture flourished especially during the reigns of Parakramabahu I in Polonnaruva (twelfth century), Parakramabahu II in Dambadeniya (thirteenth century), Parakramabahu VI in Kotte (fifteenth century), and Kirti Sri Rajasimha in Kandy (eighteenth century). Following the disestablishment of Lankan kingship by the British in 1815, the religion atrophied until the closing decades of the nineteenth century, from which time it has reemerged as a vital force in Sri Lanka's cultural regeneration and the rise of nationalist politics.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the A.D. Early Centuries

The following period of about three centuries went through typical vicissitudes of history. Vattagamani's son Coranaga (03 B.C. - 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 B.C.). His activities appear to have done massive damage to the cause of Buddhism. Later, King Bhatikabhava (38-66 A.D.) 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 A.D.) , 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 A.D.) was the first to issue the order of non-killing (maghata) of animals all over the Island. His brother and successor Kanirajanu-Tissa (8992 A.D.) 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. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

After this incident, for about 3 1/2 decades, no king seems to have paid any attention to Cetiyagiri till Vasabha (127-171 A.D.) 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 A.D.) 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 A.D.) . 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.

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

Buddhism in the Anuradhapura Period (3rd Century B.C. - A.D. 10th Century)

The famous Chinese pilgrim Fa-xian came to Sri Lanka during the reign of Buddhadasa (beginning of the fifth century A.D.) 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.

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Faxian (ca. 337–ca. 418 c.e.), the itinerant Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, has provided a valuable description of fifth-century Anuradhapura, reporting that approximately eight thousand Buddhist monks then resided in the capital city. Faxian also reports that a public ritual procession of the Da ada (tooth-relic of the Buddha) was celebrated annually, that the cult of Sri Mahabodhi (a graft of the original bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in India) was regularly venerated and lavishly supported by the laity and the king, and that Lankan kings had built massive stupas to commemorate the Buddha and his relics. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“Well before Faxian's time and long thereafter, the city of Anuradhapura had become a politically powerful and cosmopolitan center whose successful economy had been made possible through the development of sophisticated hydraulic engineering and through the establishment of trade with partners as far flung as China in the east and Rome in the west. Furthermore, the city had become the administrative pivot of the three great monastic nikayas (chapters) of the Lankan Buddhist sa gha: the Theravada Mahavihara; and the more doctrinally eclectic Abhayagiri and Jetavana chapters, each of which systematically established a vast array of affiliated village monasteries and forest hermitages throughout the domesticated rice-growing countryside. During the first millennium c.e., the three nikayas in Anuradhapura and their affiliated monasteries dominated every facet of social, economic, educational, and cultural life. Some have argued that just as Lankan polity was expected to be the chief patron supporting the sa gha functioned as a "Department of State" for the kingship. Perhaps somewhat exaggerated, that assertion does point to the extent to which Buddhist institutions became the basic social infrastructure in Lanka for many centuries.

“Given the congenial relationship between polity and religion, the Anuradhapura period witnessed the fluorescence of an economically advanced and artistically sophisticated culture. Although the only surviving examples of painting are the frescos of heavenly maidens (perhaps apsaras) found at Sigiriya, thousands of free-standing stone sculptures of the Buddha, scores of stone-carved bas-reliefs, and hundreds of bronzes are still extant, including the famous colossal images at Avukana and the meditative Buddhas that remain within the ruins of the Abhayagiri monastic complex at Anuradhapura. Early anthropomorphic images of the Buddha in Lanka bear a stylistic, and sometimes material, affinity with Buddha images created at Amaravati in south India, while images from the later Anuradhapura period, such as the eighth-century Avukana image, reflect the development of a distinctive Lankan style that emphasized the significance of the Buddha as a mahapuru a (cosmic person).

“The Mahavasa asserts that the Buddhist canon (Tripi aka; Pali, Tipi aka) was first committed to writing during the reign of King Va agami I Abhaya in the first century B.C. at Aluvihara just north of Matale, inaugurating, perhaps, the tradition of inscribing Buddhist texts on to ola leaves, a tradition of committing the dharma to handwriting that continued into the nineteenth century. In rare instances, texts were also inscribed on gold or copper plates, such as the gold leaves bearing an eighth-century fragment of a Sanskrit Prajñaparamita-sutra (Perfection of Wisdom Sutra), found within the massive stUpa at Jetavana in Anuradhapura in the early 1980s.

“In addition to the Pali Tipi aka and the Pali monastic chronicles Dipavamsa and Mahava sa, the fifth and sixth centuries were the backdrop for the commentaries produced by Buddhaghosa. His Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), an elaborate and precise exegesis of sila (Sila; English, morality), samadhi (meditation), and pañña or prajÑA (wisdom) — the three elemental principles of practice that Buddhaghosa regarded as the bases of the Buddha's "noble eightfold path" — eventually became an enduring centerpiece of normative orthodoxy for Theravada in Sri Lanka and later in Southeast Asia. The Visuddhimagga stressed the interrelated and dependent nature of sila, samadhi, and pañña, and the fundamental reality of paticcasamupada or pratItyasamutpAda (dependent origination).

Buddhism in the Polonnaruva Era (11th-13th Centuries)

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Beginning with the Polonnaruva era (eleventh through thirteenth century c.e.), and especially during the reign of Parakramabahu I (1153–1186 c.e.), when the sa gha was reunified after its demise by south Indian Co a invaders who had demolished Anuradhapura in the late tenth century, Theravada became the exclusive form of doctrinal orthodoxy patronized by the kingship in Sri Lanka. It was specifically this reconstituted Theravada that was exported to Burma (Myanmar) in the eleventh century and subsequently into northern Thailand, spreading from those regions to become the dominant religion of mainland Southeast Asia. What was not reconstituted at Polonnaruva, however, was the bhikkhunisa gha, a sorority that had thrived during the Anuradhapura centuries and had spread its lineage as far as China. Yet Polonnaruva became a marvelous city for a span of about 150 years before it was sacked by another south Indian invasion. Although its beautiful stupas could not rival the size of the Abhayagiri, Jetavana, and Ruvanvälisa¨ya topes in Anuradhapura, and although its sculptures lacked the plastic fluidity of times past, the architecture, literature, and educational institutions of Polonnaruva were unparalleled anywhere in South or Southeast Asia at that time. The massive Alahena monastic university, a bastion of Theravada orthodoxy, at one time housed as many as ten thousand monks. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004

“It was also at Polonnaruva and in the courts of kings who soon followed, such as Parakramabahu II at thirteenth-century Dam̆bade iya, that new literary innovations were cultivated, in part due to the stimulus and presence of Hinduism and Sanskrit literature, and in part due to the maturation of the Sinhala language itself. At Polonnaruva, the Hindu temples built by the Co a invaders had not been destroyed by the reconquering Sinhalas in the eleventh century because the queens of the Sinhala kings, who were brought from south India, were nominally Hindu, as were their relations and retinues. Thus, the royal court headed by a Sinhala Buddhist king was heavily influenced by a classical Sanskritic or Hindu presence seen not only in the substance and style reflected in contemporary sections of the Cu avamsa (Minor Chronicles, the sequel to the Mahava sa), but also in the cultic life and sculptural creations of Polonnaruva, which included the veneration and depiction of Hindu deities such as Vi u and Siva. In this context, Gurulugomi, a Buddhist upasaka (layman), composed the first Sinhala works of prose, including the Amavatura (The Flood of Nectar), a reworking of the life of the Buddha aimed at demonstrating his powers to convert others to the truth of dharma. Since the Amavatura seems to have been written in a conscious effort to avoid using Sanskrit words, some have suggested that his writings reflect an antipathy for an ever-growing Hindu influence on Sinhala Buddhist culture in general. The late Polonnaruva era also marks the creation of many other important Sinhalese Theravada Buddhist classics, including the Butsara a (Refuge of the Buddha), the Pujuvaliya (The Garland of Offerings), and the Saddharma Ratnuvaliya (The Garland of Jewels of the Good Doctrine), all didactic and devotional works.


Mihintale (11 kilometers east of Anuradhapura) is regarded the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It is a mountain monastery built where it is said Arahat Mahinda, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to the island. He reportedly converted King Devanampiya Tissa, who was deer hunting in area at the time, in 247 B.C. and he in turn spread Buddhism throughout Sri Lanka. Before the conversion took place the kings were selected if they correctly answered a series of riddles involving mango trees.

Despite the rapid expansion of religious edifices in Anuradhapura, the importance of Mihintale , the fountain of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, remained unchanged. We see from the accounts given in the Chronicle that King Devanampriya Tissa himself developed Mihintale, the fountain of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, remained unchanged. We see from the accounts given in the Chronicle that King Devanampiya Tissa himself developed Mihintale as the ritual centre outside the city. Mahinda Maha Thera opted to live there until his death with the result that the ruling king as well as his successors were compelled to focus their attention on the religious activities at Mihintale giving them priority. Thus the Missaka Mountain, by which name it was called during the visit of Mahinda to Sri Lanka, soon became known as Cetiya pabbata, the Mountain of Stupas. [Source: Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Sri Lanka]

The ruins at Mihintale include the remains of a “hospital” (with a number cells and a stone trough), the Stairway (1840 gransite slab steps that lead up the hillside), several ruined dagobas, a relic hose, monks refractory, assembly hall caves, mediation rocks and temples, Most of the buildings are just foundations and walls. A fair amount of climbing and hiking is required to take them all in. There are some noteworthy friezes of dwarfs, geese and flowers.

Sacred Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura

The Sacred Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura is said to be grown from a branch from the original Bodhi Tree under which Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment in India. The bringing of the branch to Sri Lanka is historic event tied with the introduction of Buddhism to the island. The bodhi tree is now very large and is considered to be the oldest recorded tree in the world.

The right branch of the sacred Bodhi Tree is said to have been brought by Arahat nun Sangamitta, sister of Arahat Mahinda and daughter of Emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century B.C.. The branch was planted in the Royal gardens at Anuradhapura by King Devanampiya Tissa who was ruling Anuradhapura and the island at that time.

The bodhi (bo) tree is one of Sri Lanka’s holiest pilgrimage sites. Many saffron-robbed monks and pilgrims come to pay homage to it. Many pilgrims leave offerings of flowers at its base and tie prayer flags to its branches. There are several bodhi trees at the site. The very old and sacred one sprouts from the highest platform. The crush of pilgrims is particularly high during the times of the full moon.

An elaborate gateway marks the entrance to the bo tree area. Over the years a number of kings have taken measures to protect it. Several retaining walls have been built around it. Even during occupations by southern Indian Hindu kingdoms the tree was looked after. Today it is taken care of by a special team of botanists appointed by the government. A gilded fence known as the Ran Vet was fairly recently placed around it.

According to ancient chronicles the bringing of the sacred Bodhi tree branch to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta took place a few months after the arrival of Mahinda. Amidst much rejoicing and ceremony, this tree was planted at Maha Mevuna Uyana. The Bo tree (Pipal – Ficus religiosa) branch was brought by Sanghamitta, as a gift from her father Mauryan Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka. It is regarded as the oldest historical tree (i.e. having the longest recorded written history) in the world. It has been protected by an uninterrupted series of Buddhist monks since it was planted. The high terrace on which the tree sits is seven meters (21 feet above the ground) and surrounded by railings. It is one of the most sacred Buddhist relics and one of the most important places in Sri Lanka. The parapat wall around the compound where the bo-tree is planted is about 213 meters (700 feet) in length. This wall was constructed during the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha, to protect the tree from wild elephants. [Source: My Sri Lanka mysrilanka.com ]

Temple of the Tooth

Temple of the Tooth (on the side of the lake in the center of Kandy) is the sacred temple, known locally as Dalada Maligawa, that houses Buddha's tooth, which is said to be an upper left incisor snatched from Buddha's funeral pyre in 543 B.C. The tooth was reportedly brought to Sri Lanka from India in the 4th century A.D. hidden in the hair of an Indian princess and given to the Sri Lankan king, Kithsiri Megawanna, who in turn placed in an edifice built by King Devanampriyatissa.

The Sinhalese kings considered themselves the guardian of the sacred tooth, which was considered the source of their power and venerated to invoke the blessings of the king and his people. The sacred tooth was kept in Anuradhapura for a while and moved around Sri Lanka as the Sinhalese kings changed the location of the Sri Lankan capital until it finally came to rest in the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy during the Kandyan period.

Placed on a site, where an auspicious white tortoise was found, the temple is a white crenelated temple structure with a moat and towers that look like swirls of soft ice cream. The closet that visitors get to the tooth is a view of the golden reliquary that holds the tooth through a glass portal.

A two-story shrine was built next to a lake to house the relic by Sinhalese king, Wimala Dharma Suriya I in 1590, when the relic was taken to Kandy. The current two-story pink structure was built under King Narenda Sinhala in 1687 to 1707 and expanded from 1747 to 1782. The tooth is kept in an inner chamber. The temple is surrounded by a moat. The octagonal tower in the moat was built to house palm-leaf manuscripts. The gilded roof was deed by President Premadasa.

The entrance to the temple features moonstone steps, two stone elephants and five intertwined damsels. Pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka converge on the temple during the lunar month of Esala (July or August) for the massive Perahara festival that honors the tooth. At 6:00am and 4:00pm daily the tooth is venerated with a special ceremony that involves drumming. and sacred chanting.

The Dalada Maligawa was badly damaged by a bomb attack in January, 1998 that killed 16 people and was believed to have been set by the Tamil Tigers. The relic was not damaged but the octagonal tower was. The building was not badly damaged because the walls are made of wattle and daub and shock waves from the explosion passed right through them. The damage was fixed in time for the next festival. The tile roof was repaired, painting and teak carvings were retouched. The blast was a sort blessing on an archeological and art level in that paintings covered by plaster over the years were revealed. When visiting, shorts are not acceptable. Sometimes tourists with are given a sarong to wear over their shorts. There is an extra fee for a camera and even more for a video camera.

Buddhism as a State Religion in Sri Lanka

From the day of the establishment of Buddhsim till to the end of the Sinhalese rule in the nineteenth century A.D., 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) 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) 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 B.C., 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.

Role of the King in a Buddhist State

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 A.D., 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 A.D. 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) 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) 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.

Role of the Sangha (Monks) in a Buddhist State

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.

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.

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.

Relations Between the Sangha and the King in a Buddhist State

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.

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.

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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