Studies in Bhikku succession

Reviewed by Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne


Succession of Sri Lankan
Buddhist Monks
Vol: 1 Part - Malvatu Chapter
Vol: 2 Asgiriya Chapter
Compiled by Kapila Pathirana Vimaladharma
Varuni Publishers; 716/A, Peradeniya Rd, Kandy, June 2003



Mankind, whether they belonged to a primitive or civilized society, at all times believed in preserving a memory, if not the records of their ancestry. This was particularly seen when it came to families that held authority over a society. As Sri Lankans we are proud to inherit a record of such an ancestry of kings who ruled from the beginning of our history. The succession to the throne is well attested to in the chronicles such as Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa. On the other hand, the inscriptions record the succession of contemporaneous rulers giving details of their parentage and origin. Similarly the succession is recorded of prominent monks in the Buddhist Sasana in the commentaries like Samantapasadika, naming the generation of monks who maintained the Dhamma and Vinaya by pupillary succession.

The tradition of a continuing pupillary succession, though not very successful always, is still seen from the early Polonnaruwa period. Thus, we are in a position to trace the succession of venerable monks to high offices in the Sasana up to medieval times. In the history of Sri Lanka the succession to high positions is well recorded during the Kotte period and again during the Kandyan period. It ended with the elevation of Venerable Welivita Saranankara to the exalted position of Sangharaja (Chief Prelate), in the eighteenth century.

The Malvatta and Asgiriya temples in Kandy are the main Buddhist institutions in Sri Lanka with an unbroken tradition going back to its beginnings in the establishment of the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa in the 3rd century BC, along with the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. However, it must be stated that nothing was systematically recorded with regard to the bhikkhu succession, even after the introduction of the higher ordination (Upasampada) by Venerable Upali Thera from Thailand in the year 1753. It was after this event that a new fraternity or Nikaya called Siyam Nikaya was established. When compared with the Siyam Nikaya the period prior to that does not clearly tell us in detail about the succession to high offices in the sasana history immediately after the collapse of the Kotte kingdom. In the period between the 14th and 15th century, the names of Vanaratana, Vimalakirti, Dharmakirti, Galaturumula Medhankara, Totagamuve Rahula, Vidagama Maitreya, Mangala Vanaratana, Devanagala Ratanalankara emerge as the leading Mahatheras who held the office of Mahasami or Sangharaja representing the gramavasi (village-dweller) and aranyawasi (forest-dweller) sects in the Buddha sasana in Sri Lanka. Therefore a publication devoted to the subject of sacerdotal succession is a worthy contribution to our knowledge of the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It complements a study by Prof. Mendis Rohanadheera on the dynasty of Mahasami Sangharaja in medieval Sri Lanka, which is another worthwhile contribution in this field.

Immediately prior to the publication of the present two volumes, Kapila Vimaladharma had published early this year, a Directory of Office Holders of the Kandyan kingdom and a separate study on the women in the Kandyan kingdom. He plans to bring out shortly the other 5 volumes in the series on the succession of Sri Lanka Buddhist Monks. Several other sociological and historical studies by him, bearing on the Kandyan kingdom have been announced. Also in the pipeline is a series of volumes called Genealogia Zeylanica being genealogical charts of some old families in the Kandyan and maritime areas. The last is the result of what he started as a hobby but later developed into leisurely research on which he has spent most of nearly four decades of his life collecting and recording information. Indeed this is a tremendous intellectual effort on the part of one who has given the best years to serving the government and the people and now in retirement seeks to add to our knowledge of past history and society.

The present review on the Sacerdotal Succession of Sri Lankan Buddhist Monks is confined to two volumes on Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters of the Siyam Nikaya. These two institutions, no boubt, are the continuations of the Gramavasi and Vanavasai Nikaya tradition of the Buddhist dispensation in Sri Lanka. Volume 1 deals with the pupillary succession of the Malwatta Vihara headed by three important generations of monks, namely Welivita, Kobbekaduwe and Tibbatuveva and Tibbatuvave sangha lineages. When Venerable Upali visited Malvatta Maha Vihara in 1753 bringing along the Upasampada, it was Ven. Kobbekaduve Nayaka Thera who headed the monastery. In the same year King Kirtisri appointed Venerable Tibbatuvave as the Mahanayaka (Supreme Prelate) of the Malwatte Chapter. The first volume, as stated above, traces the pupillary succession to date of these three bhikku paramparas. Unfortunately, today we do not find direct kin-descendants of Kobbekaduve and Velivita gnatisisya paramparas. Bambaradeniya succession is now extinct. However, the Tibbatuwave family continues the kin pupillary succession; the present Anunayaka, Ven. Tibbatuvave Sumangala of the Ridi Vihara heads that lineage.

It is no easy task to compile a list of these paramparas, and Kapila Vimaladharma has achieved this goal very successfully. In the introduction to the first volume, he has noted briefly the history of the Malwatta Vihara and the beginning of the Siyam Nikaya. He has taken extra pain to trace the development of the Malwatu Chapter which led to the division in later times, such as those of the Kalyani (1855), Kotte (1894), Uve (1939), Vanavasa (1968) and Rohana (1986).

In dealing with succession lineages since 1753, a noteworthy feature is, the main and sub-divisions and branches he has traced and the many informative footnotes he has appended. The second, third and fourth parts of the volume on Malavatu Vihara will trade the lineages of Daramitipola, Moratuwa, Ginigatpitiye, Wehelle, Sitinamaluve, Mulgirigala, Wegegoda, Kotte, Kelani and Rohana fraternities. In yet another two volumes he will trace the bhikku lineages of the Amarapura and Ramanya Nikayas. Thus will be completed the robing history of the pupillary succession from the pioneer six recipients of the reintroduced upasampada in 1753 down to contemporary times. This is indeed a tremendous task requiring a substantial investment in time and money.

Volume 2 of the series is devoted to the Asgiriya Chapter of the Siam Nikaya. Here again the author has followed the same method in tracing the succession from the first recipients of the 1753 upasampada from the Asgiriya Mahavihara. The key lineages noted are those of Urulevatta, Indavalugoda, Rambukwelle, Pothuhera, Madanvala, Gomagoda, Medapitiya, Suduhumpola etc. However, only a few lineages have produced the monks who rose to high positions such as Mahanayaka and Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter.

The present volumes on the succession of the Buddhist bhikkus is an useful addition to the study of Buddhist ecclesiastic organization in Sri Lanka. The information contained therein highlights the fact that Malvatta monastery was largely a gramavasika (village-dweller) community and as such had the advantage of drawing royal and court patronage, privilege and prestige which it employed to influence the course of political history. The succession charts alone show the pre-eminent place that some monks with kinship links to royalty and ruling elite enjoyed throughout the Kandyan times.

The author has deliberately avoided the controversy regarding the antiquity or superiority of one or the other of the two city-based monastic headquarters. As stated, his intention was not to investigate the history of the monasteries but to trace the sacerdotal succession from their key founders in the span of 250 years from the 1753 upasampada. This task he has accomplished commendably well.

Kapila P. Vimaladharma was a senior civil servant in the administrative service, serving as government agent, director of Agricultural Diversification, pioneer general manager of the agricultural diversification and Settlement Authority, Additional General Manager of the Mahaveli Development Board, Commissioner of Land Title Settlement, last serving as the director of the Sri Lanka Institute for Development Administration, and after retirement as an expatriate consultant on a World Bank project in Pakistan.

It must be emphasized that, the contribution made by Kapila Vimaladharma in bringing out these two volumes and his projected publications in the series, will no doubt be remembered by future generations of scholars, as a unique and useful contribution to scholarship. We are indeed grateful to him and hope that the other volumes would follow soon.