Welivita Saranankara Sangharaja – pioneer of Buddhist renaissance of modern Sri Lanka

The Syamopali Mahanikaya established in 1753 with the co-operation of the Mahasangha of Thailand, completes 250 years of its existence, in the year 2003. The present writer traces the development of the profound Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka which started with the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Arahat Mahinda thera in the 3rd cent. B.C., and how this civilization was badly hampered by three colonial powers that subjugated Sri Lanka, beginning from 1505 A.C. The line of teacher-pupil succession of the Sri Lankan Mahasangha came to an end at the beginning of the 18th century, and the temples became deserted. It was on account of the pioneering effort of a youngster by name Kulatunga Banda from Welivita in Thumpane, who later rose to fame as Rev. Welivita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja, that the line of succession of the Sri Lankan Bhikkhusangha was re-established, with the support of the Mahasangha of Thailand. The present writer describes how the activities initiated by Rev. Welivita Saranankara Sangharaja subsequently paved the way to a great Buddhist educational and cultural revival in the late 18th, the 19th and the 20th centuries A.C.

The profound Buddhist Civilization that grew and developed in Sri Lanka during 18 centuries from the middle of the 3rd century B.C. was vehemently hampered by the subjugation of the Island nation by three colonial powers, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, beginning from 1505 A.C.

by Dr. W. G. Weeraratne

Editor-in-Chief, Encyclopaedia of Buddhism

The profound Buddhist civilization that grew and developed in Sri Lanka during 18 centuries from the middle of the 3rd century B.C. was vehemently hampered by the subjugation of the island nation by three colonial powers, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, beginning from 1505 A.C.

Buddhism was officially introduced to Sri Lanka in the reign of King Devanampiyatissa, by a strong delegation of Buddhist missionary bhikkhus, sent by the Great Emperor Asoka of India, after the successful conclusion of the 3rd Buddhist Convocation held in India, under the chairmanship of Moggaliputtatissa Maha thera and with the patronage of the Emperor Asoka himself. It is recorded in the Mahavamsa that Emperor Asoka of India and king Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka were in friendly contact through exchange of occasional greetings. The mission was led by Mahinda thera, the Emperor’s son, and among the other bhikkhus was Sumana Samanera, the Emperor’s grandson. "The composition of the mission was evidence of the Emperor’s seriousness of purpose as well as his affection for the king of Ceylon" says Professor J. E. Jayasuriya in his book Educational Policies and Progress (p. 5).

The Buddhist delegation led by Mahinda thera met king Devanampiyatissa at the Missaka mountain (Mihintale), 18 miles away from the city of Anuradhapura. The king was on a hunting expedition at the time, and was chasing a fleeting deer. Mahinda thera, on seeing the king, called him by his personal name: "Come hither Tissa". The king was astonished, and stopped to see who it was that called him by his personal name.

Mahinda thera declared: "Recluses are we, O Great king! Disciples of the king of Truth. From compassion towards three, are we come hither from Jambudvipa!"

After exchanging of friendly greetings and after listening to a convincing sermon of Mahinda thera, king Devanampiyatissa embraced Buddhism. All the personnel of the king’s entourage, too, followed the example of the king and embraced Buddhism.

The king invited the delegation to visit the city the following day.

An unprecedented and enthusiastic congregation welcomed the delegation in the city, and after listening to another sermon of Mahinda there, the entire mass of people embraced Buddhism.

Many young men desired to become members of the bhikkhu sangha to lead full religious lives, and king Devanampiyatissa made arrangements for the provision of a monastery and facilities for the ordination of local devotees as bhikkhus. Among the fifty-six bhikkhus ordained at the first ordination ceremony was king Devanampiyatissa’s nephew, Maha-arittha.

Some ladies of the Royal Household, too, expressed their desire to become bhikkhunis, but as it was not customary to ordain ladies in the absence of competent bhikkhunis, Mahinda thera sent word to his royal sire to send a delegation of bhikkhunis from India who had received their higher ordination. Emperor Asoka selected his own daughter Sanghamitta theri, Arahat Mahinda thera’s sister, to lead this delegation.

Sanghamitta theri came to Sri Lanka with several other competent bhikkhunis, six months after the arrival of Arahat Mahinda thera. She also brought with her an invaluable religious and cultural gift from India to Sri Lanka, namely the Southern branch of the Sacred Bodhi tree in Buddhagaya under with the bodhisatta sat in meditation to attain Enlightenment. The bodhi branch was ceremonially planted in the royal park Mahameghavana in Anuradhapura, and it thrives to date with a long history behind it.

Sanghamitta theri ordained several ladies of the royal household headed by Anuladevi, and after training them for sometime, made them full members of the bhikkhuni-sangha by giving them the higher ordination. Thus, the Buddhasasana became firmly established in Sri Lanka, complete with all four groups - Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni, Upasaka and Upasika.

Mahinda thera and Sanghamitta theri brought with them the complete texts of the Thripitaka (the Buddhist canon) with the commentarial explanations. Actually, they did not bring them in written book form. The bhikkhus and the bhikkhunis who accompanied Mahinda thera and Sanghamitta theri brought them in their memory and were taught to Sri Lankan bhikkhus and bhikkhunis by them. Mahinda thera and Sanghamitta theri, and those theras and theris who accompanied them to Sri Lanka did not go back to India.

They stayed behind in Sri Lanka until their death, busily engaged in training their Sri Lankan counterparts in various aspects of the Buddha-dhamma and its multifaceted culture.

Within several decades of the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka thousands of men and women had joined the Sangha and temples came into being in many parts of the country to accommodate them. These temples became in course of time, in addition to accommodating the bhikkhus and the bhikkhunis, educational and cultural centres, and before long Sri Lanka came to possess hundreds of erudite and disciplined bhikkhus and bhikkhunis who had mastered the Thripitaka along with the commentaries.

Educational activities in the temples developed to such an extent that it was possible to hold a convocation of five hundred learned bhikkhus in Aluvihara in Matale in the 1st century A.C. and render into writing the whole Thripitaka with the commentaries, and it led to developing libraries in the temples. At the beginning the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura was the foremost seat of Buddhist learning. In the 5th century A.C. the famous Buddhist commentator, Buddhaghosa and subsequently Buddhadatta from South India came to Sri Lanka to utilise the extensive library facilities in the Mahavihara monastery to render into Pali the commentarial literature that had grown in Sri Lanka in the language of the country.

Many other educational institutions came into being, before long, in other parts of the country, too. Some of the educational institutions that came up in this manner were Thuladharapabbata and Kaladighavapi Vihara in the South of Sri Lanka, Tissamaharamaya and Cittalapabbata in the Mahagama and Mandalarama in the Kallagama. Jetavanarama and Abhayagiri Viharas in Anuradhapura were two prominent educational institutions that developed in later times.

By the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka in 1505 A.C. the hundreds of Buddhist temples scattered throughout the country were very active centres of Buddhist education, training and guiding the bhikkhus, and teaching the laity the Dhamma and languages such as Pali, Sinhala and Sanskrit, and subjects like poetics, prosody and astrology.

The Portuguese came to Sri Lanka along with the clergy of the Catholic Church, the Franciscan Friars. They were given all encouragement and facilities by the Portuguese to put up Catholic Churches to convert the local Buddhist population to Catholicism, and to train and discipline them to suit the needs of the Portuguese invaders. Alongside the churches, Catholic schools were started to attract the Buddhist children to join them. Only those who were willing to give up their allegiance to Buddhism and become Catholics were admitted to these schools. The Portuguese language and the Catholic religion were compulsory subjects in these schools.

The facilities enjoyed by temple schools under Sri Lankan kings were withdrawn by the Portuguese regime. The soldiers, of the Portuguese with the blessing of the Franciscan Friars, destroyed many temples with the educational institutions in them, and burnt the libraries with their invaluable ola leaf manuscripts and plundered whatever treasures they could lay their hands on. Bhikkhus were tortured and driven away from their monasteries. Many bhikkhus went into hiding or gave up their robes and reverted to lay life.

Paul E. Peiris in his book Ceylon under the Portuguese gives a vivid description of the wanton destruction and damage done by the Portuguese to Buddhism and its educational institutions in Sri Lanka. ‘This destruction was carried on by the Portuguese in Sri Lanka and India concurrently on the orders of the king of Portugal himself’ (F. Y. Sousa: Asia Portuguese Vol. I, p. 53).

When the Dutch gained possession of the maritime provinces of Ceylon from the Portuguese in 1658, they utilized some of the leading educational institutions set up by the Portuguese to convert and train the local Buddhist population and the Catholics to their own Church- the Dutch Reformed Church. The Buddhist temples and organisations were further harassed and inconvenienced by them, so that their hold on the local population became further weakened. Only those who were ready to become converts to the Dutch Reformed Church could gain admission to these educational institutions and seek government employment. They set about this task in a very systematic fashion, and "not a village or hamlet within the dominion appears to have been without a parish school run by the Dutch in association with the parish church. The school masters, and indeed all persons aspiring to public office, high or low, had to be Christians belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church. Many professed Christianity in order to become eligible to hold such posts, and the schools had to play a key role in conversions of the people. The Headmaster of the parish school was entrusted with the maintenance of various records relating to the residents of each parish. He registered births and solemnized marriages, and he wrote and attested deeds for the transfer of property.

Marriages had to be performed according to the rites of the Dutch Reformed Church in order to be legal, and only children of such a union could inherit property, provided that they had been duly baptized in the Dutch Church" (J. E. Jayasuriya, ibid. p. 24).

(To be continued next week)