Comparison of the Mahindian and post- Mahindian eras of Sri Lankan Buddhism


By Professor M. M. J. Marasinghe

The year 2014 brings the Sri Lankans to the fourteenth year of the twenty fourth century from the introduction of Buddhism into this Island, almost immediately after the conclusion of the Third Buddhist Council held under the patronage of Emperor Asoka of India. The Mahindian mission brought with them the Pali canonical texts of the Theravada tradition, as approved by the third Buddhist Council and these became the consultative texts or source books of the tradition thereafter. It may also be noted here that the Sri Lankan mission seems to be the only mission of the several sent out by Asoka to neighbouring countries and regions which was entrusted with such weighty responsibility. The Venerable Thera being more than well aware of the great responsibility which lay upon himself, made provision to see that the new teaching was firmly founded in the Island. This was achieved by providing facilities for two types of activities.

The first was the organization of a network to create and maintain an indigenous expertise on the Pali canonical texts, the indispensable source books of the teaching. As the Pali canonical texts consisted of three principal divisions each of which in turn consisted of many lengthy texts, the study and teaching of manageable units from each division was entrusted to carefully identify bhikkhus whose followers were entrusted with responsibility for the allocated unit of text. Monks known as Suttantika (expert in the suttas – discourses), Vinayadhar6 (expert in the disciplinary rules) and Abhidhammika (expert in the Buddhist metaphysics) show how they were known by their specialties of the tradition (Adikaram, EHBC,24). Thus, learning and education of the Pali canonical texts which formed the foundation of the Buddha’s teaching ensured that it was well established in the Island and each monk of the tradition grew up into seniority with a sense of great dedication and service to their followers.

The Pali canonical texts and their knowledge were in active use by the members of the Order which marked a significant difference from the present day arrangement where these texts are safely locked up in cupboards and very rarely tampered with. It is difficult to understand how the source material of such a tradition could get into the cultural content of a people who depend on enrichment by their content.

Second was by recognizing the need to provide facilities for those who desired to follow the meditative path of training to attain the extinction of suffering. The preparation of sixty eight caves in the Cetiyapabbata (Mihintale) for meditators within the first few weeks of Venerable Mahinda’s coming to Anuradhapura gives an indication of the importance with which the meditative path was considered an urgently required aspect of the Buddhist spiritual training.

Since the aim of training of the monk or layman according to the Buddha’s teaching was the attainment of Nibbanic peace, the final aim and direction of all activities of religion was aimed or targeted towards this final attainment. It must be kept in mind that the Buddha was the only religious teacher in world history who declared with proven certainty that the final goal of his religion was attainable in this life itself, that is while still living. The accumulation of merit was never needed as we will see later, for its attainment. Religious activities of the period seem to have been totally different from what they changed into in the next phase of development pioneered by Buddhaghosa and the Mahavihara fraternity, the era of entry into theistic ritual worship.

According to the Samantapa’sadika, the commentary on the Vinayapitaka by Buddhaghosa, Venerable Mahinda is said to have preached on the Petavatthu and the Vimanavatthu and the Sacca Saiyutta of the Saiyutta Nika’ya to the people of Anuradhapura when he met them on his first visit to the city. But, this seems to be what Buddhaghosa would have wished Venerable Mahinda to have discoursed on to the residents of Anuradhapura on his first encounter with them. This suspicion is aroused as neither ancestor worship nor any other form of primitive belief or ritual worship had ever drawn the attention of Venerable Mahinda not only during the first few days or months of his stay at Anuradhapura but during his long stay in the Island. It must be noted that Buddhaghosa would not have had to write his fairy tales into his commentaries to smuggle in the rituals if ritual worship was in active use at the time. In other words, if people were used to, at the time of worshipping the Bodhi and the Cetiya with flowers and incense and if healing rites like paritta was in use to dispel affliction by amanussa, the wording in the insertion of Buddhaghosa’s stories should have definitely been quite different.

Therefore, it is not possible to think that theistic ritual worship of the Buddhaghosa type was not yet in common religious use in the Buddhist tradition as irrationally palmed on to it by the traditional writers of the legends. The construction of Cetiyas to enshrine the relics of the Buddha, the planting of the Bodhi and the representations of the Buddha by statues or pictures did not mean the growth of ritual worship around these objects of veneration. None of these items of veneration had yet been endowed with the power to generate merit and bless their, worshippers. Buddhaghosa had to invent the historically unproved story of the Ananda Bodhi and the equally false Vesali famine to tell the Sri Lankans that these forms of worship with the associated powers and capabilities were part of the religion from the time of the Buddha to convince them, because these were not part of Buddhist practice at the time he was writing. It was Buddhaghosa who executed the theistic power enrichment of these objects of veneration.

Neither the acquisition of specialist knowledge in the assigned texts of the Pali canonical texts, nor the completion of the different stages of attainment on the path to nibbanic perfection did depend upon ritual compliance like theistic worship, neither before commencement, during, nor, after completion. This meant that ritual compliance of any type was not a mandatory requirement for completion of either of the two branches of Theravada Buddhism, the textual or the meditative. Thus, while the study of the canonical texts produced experts in the textual traditions, the Sinhaqla commentaries were prepared to assist the future learners of the Pali texts. The meditative tradition is said to have produced many arahants and the attainment of arahathood was never considered a difficult attainment which must await the required accumulation of merit (punya). At the time, it was said to have been gossiped that there were so many arahants traversing the skyline in Anuradhapura that housewives of the period grumbled that it was difficult to dry their paddy for finishing by mortar and pestle as the Nipuna type of milling was not available to them at the time. It may also be remarked here that the use of iddhi (psychic power) does not seem to mean physical locomotion of the subject to be seen by others according to the texts. Iddhi powers are definitely said to be part of the accomplishments of an arahant who has perfected himself in the six higher know ledges. The Buddha is never recorded in the canonical Pali texts to have made a public show of his iddhi powers. He has given his reasons for not exhibiting his iddhi powers in the Tevijjua Sutta of the Dygha Nikaya (D.1.212f).


The concluding part of this article will appear next Saturday


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