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Wednesday 26 February 2014

The Mahavamsa myth

There is supposed to be a problem in Sri Lanka. It is discrimination of Tamils by the Sinhala people in general and what is called the government of the latter or the Sinhala government. As a solution to the problem it had been suggested that power should be devolved to the Northern Province and the Eastern Province, which are described as the Tamil homeland, traditional habitats etc., of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The so called problem had been “formulated” differently over time but in essence it has been discrimination of the Tamils by the Sinhala people. It is also said that problem started after the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, and the SLFP led by the Bandaranaikes and now by Rajapakse is responsible for creating and worsening the discriminations against the Tamils. As an answer to the important question why the Sinhala Buddhists should discriminate against the Tamils it is very often said that it is the result of Mahavamsa mind set whatever is meant by that term. Some pundits even go to the extent of equating Mahavamsa with Thripitaka (translated as the Three Baskets) and as such Sinhala Buddhists are supposed to have Chaturpitaka (four baskets)!

Mahavamsa undoubtedly has conditioned the Sinhala people over the years, and together with the Visuddhimagga and Pali commentaries supposed to be written by Ven. Buddhagosha Thera (and probably other Bhikkus from Andra Pradesh and Sri Lank) from Andra Pradesh, with the Mahavira Bhikkus “supervising” the work, has been the main text along which Sinhala nationalism had been built in the academic world. (In fact Visuddhimagga very much above the standard of most of the Ph.D Theses written following the English university traditions after the nineteenth century could be considered as one of the best works done under “supervision”.) The other book that influenced the Sinhala people, mainly the common man,   is the Jathaka Potha that was written much later. The Mahavamsa and the commentaries have been written circa fifth century and obviously there had been some reason(s) for writing of these texts more or less during the same time. They could not have been written against the Tamils as there were no permanent Tamil residents in the country at that time. There were occasional invaders from what is presently called South India but there was no reason to write the commentaries with the assistance of Bhikkus from Andra Pradesh against Dravidian invasions. The commentaries together with Thripitaka define what can be called the Theravada Bududahama or the Bududahama of the third council (sangyana) during Asoka’s time.

I prefer to call this Bududahama, Asoka Bududahama or the Bududahama of the third council, and the Mahavamsa that ends with the reign of Mahasen, though the book was written much later, clearly establishes the victory of Mahavihara the center of Asoka Bududahama over Abhayagiriya, Jethavana and the other centers of what could be called non pure Asoka Bududahama. Mahasen demolished Mahavihara but later he was made to apologize to Mahavira Bhikkus, and rebuild it. Regarding Mahasen’s death, Mahavamsa says the king died after acquiring much pav (sin) and pin (merit). The Mahavamsa or the Vamsa of the Buddha is identified as the Vamsa of Asoka Bududahama, and the book written by Mahanama Thera gives prominence to the King Asoka of Dambadiva, though it is supposed to deal with the history (Vamsakatha) of Bududahama in Sri Lanka. Mahavamsa is clearly the Vamsakatha (history) of the Asoka Bududahama, and it establishes the “supremacy” of that sect over the other sects of Bududahama or other Bududahamas. However, Mahavamsa should not be considered as a book of history in the western tradition as no attempt has been made to write a history of Sri Lanka or the Sinhala nation. Ideally it should be treated as a Vamsakatha and nothing more.  

Mahavamsa and the commentaries together with Thripitaka, if at all can be considered as the texts of Asoka Bududahama, the Bududahama of victors over the other Bududahamas. It appears that politically and culturally (“doctrinally”) the Asoka Bududahama was under threat from the Madhyamaikas and Sauthranthikas not only in Sri Lanka but in Andra Pradesh and other parts of present day India, during this period, and at least in Sri Lanka the Asoka Bududahama had been able to defeat the others, though not decisively. It appears that the Asoka Bududahama decisively established its “supremacy” with the revival during the time of Weliwita Sri Saranankara Sanga Raja Thera, as probably the others had died a “natural death” as there was no patronage from anybody to revive those Bududahamas. The fact that there has been a book called “Vargapurnikava” copied during the last phase of the Sinhala kingdom reveals that other Bududahamas and Vamsakathas had been existence as late as that period. 

It can be stated that Mahavamsa if at all is not against Tamils or any other ethnic community, but is the result of attempts by Mahavihara Bhikkus to preserve Asoka Bududahama as against Madhyamikvada, Sauthranthikavada and Mahyana Bududahamas. The Mahavihara Bhikkus considered Asoka Bududahama as the “original” Bududahama and they were determined to protect that Bududahama, and Mahavamsa and the commentaries including Visuddhimagga have been written with that purpose in mind. Ven. Gnanaponika Thera in his  “Anatta and Nibbana”, which I read in the Sinhala as translated by N T S A Senadheera, claims that Visudddhimagga had been careful to “interpret” Nibbana not as a Sunya Dhamma in order to distinguish Theravada (Mahavihara) from Sauthranthikas in order to avoid any criticisms from Mahayana sects.

It is difficult to agree with the “interpretation” of Nibbana as given in Visuddhimagga, and I personally would have liked to see other Bududahamas flourishing in Sri Lanka in addition to Asoka Bududahama in what may be called the Shastriya Lokaya (Academia if I may use a term from the western tradition). In any event Sinhala Buddhagama as practiced in Sri Lanka is not scholastic or shastriya Asoka Bududahama of Mahavihara and one could see the Devagama of “Yakshas” and other gothras (not tribes in the way western academics use the term) blended with various Bududahamas, which had been taught in Abhayagiriya , Jethavana and other places. It is interesting to note that the Sinhala English Treaty of 1815 refers to Buddhagama and Devagama and not Buddhagama as such. Buddhagama and Devagama can be considered as the forerunner of present day Sinhala Buddhagama, which has a history going back to more than two thousand three hundred years  if one believes in Vargapurnika.

The Mahavamsa myth as propagated by the westerners, the Tamil racists, pundits of NGOs and the academia is itself is a myth coined by them as Mahavamsa is not a book written against the Tamils. It is an intra Buddhist “quarrel” between Mahavihara and the other centers such as Abhyagiriya and Jetavana, which comes to light when Mahavamsa is read with the Visuddhimagga and the commentaries, and those who should have any problem with Mahavamsa are not the Tamils but those who do not agree with Asoka Bududahama, and that again is confined to few people in the Shastriyia Lokaya.

Nalin De Silva