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Friday 24 January 2014

The Mahavamsa phobia

According to learned opinion Mahavamsa was written in the fifth century by a Bhikku named Ven. Mahanama. Mahavamsa may not be the most authoritative book on history in the western tradition, but it is definitely the most hated book on history by the Tamil separatists, and in general the anti Sinhala Buddhist activists. Mahavamsa is a history book though not in the tradition of western knowledge after the fifteenth century, where they attempt to separate different disciplines. In the old Sinhala tradition history was not separated from knowledge of other disciplines such as Dhamma. The Samadhi statue in Anuradhapura is mainly for worshipping but it is a work of art as well. This feature was not confined to Sinhala Buddhist culture but could be seen in Hindu temples, and paintings in Vatican. It was only after the Greek Judaic Christian (GJC) Chinthanaya became the dominant Chinthanaya in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that an attempt was made to separate disciplines from one another.

The concept of separation of state from religion was introduced in the west after the GJC Chinthanaya became the dominant chinthanaya but all these separations were only in name as the underlying chinthanaya would never allow for such separation. Thus English state is not separated from the Anglican Christian religion and to date the king or the queen of England remains the head of state as well as the church. In all the western countries the state is associated with some denomination of Christianity though the western pundits would not accept it. When the American President takes his oath he keeps his hand on a copy of the Bible and not on a copy of Dhammapada or Quran or Bhagawath Githa. The whole of western knowledge is based on GJC Chinthanaya and that knowledge is Christian from A to Z.

However, the western pundits and of course their imitators here, would claim that the western knowledge is objective and that the state should be separated from religion. They pretend it to be so in the western countries in order to propagate the view that knowledge other than western science, which covers the entire spectrum from Astronomy to Literary Criticism to Political Science to Zoology, is myth. They would demand that the Sri Lankan state should be separated from Buddhism or Buddha Sasana and that in Sri Lanka Buddhism has become the state religion forgetting conveniently that in England Anglican Christianity is the state religion. The western knowledge is basically to maintain the hegemony of Judaic Christian culture, condemning other systems of knowledge as myths.

Mahavamsa is not a pure history book and no Sinhala Buddhist brought up in the tradition of Sinhala Buddhist culture will ever claim that it is only a book of history written attempting to follow the GJC tradition of so called separation of disciplines. However, Mahavamsa is not a book belonging to Thripitaka (the three baskets) and neither could it be considered as the fourth pitaka. However it is an important book in Sinhala Buddhist culture just as much the Jathaka Potha is. There have been other records of history (the Sinhala Buddhists have no problem in admitting that there are other “histories” (not versions of one history) as well). Recently a book called “Vargapurnikava” has surfaced giving a history from the point of view of the Yakshas. Unfortunately these are not reported in the English media and very often I find that English speaking people in Sri Lanka are in the dark with respect to knowledge on Sinhala Buddhist culture. Though there are various histories of Sri Lanka the Mahavamsa history had been  accepted by the learned Bhikkus when the English administrators especially from the civil service turned their attention to Sri Lankan history.

Thus English administrators such as Codrington and Turnour treated Mahavamsa as the book on history of Sri Lanka and most of the historians brought up in the western tradition followed them when studying Sri Lankan history. It is the English who made Mahavamsa a history book and not the Sinhala Buddhists nor Ven Mahanama Thero who wrote the book for the “hudi jana pahan sanvegaya” (serene joy and emotion of the pious as translated by Turnour). The important fact in this regard is that as far as history of Sri Lanka is concerned is that there is no book in Tamil or Sanskrit (Pure Thamilians would object to this reference to Sanskrit) in the Tamil tradition. The only book that is found in Tamil is Yalpanam Vaipava Malai that had been written as the fulfillment of an assignment given by the Dutch to a Tamil Mudaliyar in Jaffna. If there was a history written by the Tamils the English civil servants would not have spared it as the English were pro Vellala in their administration. The English who wanted the Ramanathan family to be the leading family in Sri Lanka would have gladly translated a Tamil history of Sri Lanka if they could find one. The Dutch assigned the Mudaliyar to compile a history of Sri Lanka in order to deprive the Sinhala kings the eastern coast, which had been leased to them by the latter. If the English came across a Tamil history they would have accepted that as the “authentic” history of Sri Lanka as the Tamils led by the English educated Tamils who did not fight against the English were favoured by the colonialists.

The English had no alternative but to consider Mahavamsa history as the history of Sri Lanka as the vast number of inscriptions and archeological evidence seemed to support the contents therein. Of course there are some discrepancies (internal contradictions) regarding the periods of some kings before Devanampiya Tissa but that does not make Mahavamsa a myth. These contradictions can be resolved with the aid of books such as Vargapoornikava and some inscriptions that have been found recently. Mahavamsa has been written relative to Sinhala Buddhist culture and is the viewpoint of Mahavihara. One does not need to hide the fact that the Mahavamsa had been written with the objective of protecting Buddhism of the third council (Sangayana) headed by Moggaliputta Tissa Maha Thera. One could call this particular Buddhism, Ashokan Buddhism if one wishes.

The Mahavamsa has to be read together with the commentaries written by Ven. Buddhaghosha Thera, and they should not be dissociated from each other. Both have been written in Pali originally and Sinhala scholars such as Kumaratunga Munidasa were of the opinion that it was not in the best interests of Sinhala Language to say the least. The Theravada Buddhism of the third council had come under criticism by Madhyamikavada founded by Nagarjunapada after the second century and the Andra Pradesh centre of the tradition of Ashokan Buddhism had declined by the fifth century. It is clear that the Theravadins of Andra Pradesh and Mahavihara in Anuradhapura had wanted to make sure that the Buddhism of the third council prevailed at least in Sri Lanka, and Mahavamsa and the commentaries attributed to Ven. Buddhaghosha Thera were basically the result of that objective. Mahavamsa is in a way, as much as the commentaries, belongs to the combined Andra Pradesh - Mahavihara tradition, these two centers being the strongholds of what may be called Ashokan Buddhism of the ancient world. In that sense one could see a Dravidian tradition in Mahavamsa. It is said that both Mahanama Thera and Buddhaghosha Thera were of Dravidian stock.

The Mahavamsa is the only ancient source in Sri Lanka that refers to Tamil and other Dravidian elements, and if not for these references there is no way to claim any presence of Tamils in the country even on a temporary basis as invaders, scholars etc. Of course, Mahavamsa establishes the Sinhala Buddhist prominence (not dominance) in the country as far as the Ashokan Buddhism is concerned, which cannot be discarded however much one hates that fact. Abhayagiriya was not a Mahayana abode as some seem to believe but unlike Mahavihara it kept its doors open to other Buddhisms as well. Naturally the Mahavihara did not like the Abhayagiriya tradition knowing very well what happened in Andra Pradesh and objected to Theravada as practiced by the Abhyagiriya Bhikkus. The Mahavamsa phobia of the non Sinhala Buddhists is baseless and if at all it is the Sinhala Buddhists who do not entirely subscribe to Ashokan Buddhism who should find fault with this great book that is called the great chronicle in English.   

Nalin De Silva