Reconciling with the Mahavamsa


By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

The little action that passes for the current government’s much publicised reconciliation effort appears to be partial to an agenda dictated by foreign-funded NGOs and other external forces with vested interests. All current measures appear to be aimed at uncritically addressing age-old grievances thoughtlessly harboured by some groups against the main religion and culture. There seems to be no attention paid to the disruptive effects of mindsets behind such complaints. It is apparent that those seeking national reconciliation in Sri Lanka need to get some ‘home truths’ clear if their endeavours are to succeed. The first is to distinguish between of true, lasting reconciliation measures and merely symbolic gestures that will only appease minority ethnic communities temporarily.

Attacks against the historical narrative of the majority Sinhalese community, often derogatorily described as the ‘Mahavamsa mindset’, appears to underlie the current reconciliation programme. A careful examination however, reveals that the Mahavamsa mindset denunciation, like the one about a Protestant Buddhism, is a largely baseless and trite supposition. Quite apart from its implications on hindering reconciliation, the inanity of the Sri Lankan minorities simply rejecting such a great achievement as the Mahavamsa (Mhv) through misapprehension can involve incalculable national costs. The tragedy with the simplistic accusation of a Mahavamsa mindset — based on readings of defective colonial translations of the chronicle and its ‘bad-faith’ analyses by the colonisers — is that it demeans us all as a nation. At a practical level, it has acted to prevent rational communication on the Mhv outside the parameters set by imperialist plans to divide and rule.

Rejecting a historiographical and cultural achievement as significant as the Mhv— not only in the Sri Lankan context, but in the history of human civilisation — on the grounds that it represents a set of beliefs described as ‘Sinhala nationalism’ has proved to be an irredeemable blight on the nation. From a positive point of view, as the longest established record of national, political and cultural history of the island, the Mhv offers the best instrument for use in building a Sri Lankan identity all Sri Lankans could rightly own.

The objective here is to expound the idea that national reconciliation in Sri Lanka cannot take place until the mindset that rejects the Mhv narrative is reviewed intelligently in a constructive spirit.

Elaborating the ways how the Mhv could provide the basis for a national identity needs to be preceded by the recognition of the irrefutable fact that national reconciliation essentially involves building consensus on a ‘national’ identity to replace fragmented ethnic identities. It is widely acknowledged that a national identity can only be constructed on the foundation of a coherent, continuous national history of the geographical space the diverse groups occupy. While acknowledging the existence of differing narratives of perceived national history among different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, the contemporary challenge is to develop a national identity founded on a sound historical base, agreeable to all groups.

This will require tracing and eliminating any ‘fault lines’ that lie along the boundaries between historical narratives of different ethnic groupings that place emphasis on different phases and facets of national history, detracting from a unified national identity. A process of compromise by all groups within a framework of correct understanding of current perceptions about the other groups’ historical narrative, and of the nation, would be crucial for future success. Envisaging progress towards reconciliation that would yield common values, attitudes, and behaviour through other alternative routes will be a fool's errand. A review of the saga of the Mhv needs to be taken against this background.

The Mahavamsa, its translations and distortions

Accurately appraising the Mhv as a chronicle of national history of Sri Lanka requires extricating it from well over a century of vicious undermining of its true stature by colonial operatives and some local academics moulded by them, and by Hindu nationalists of India for good measure. The task involves examining the background to the versions of Mhv that has drawn criticism in the past, and the quality of analysis such criticisms have been based on.

Looking first at the colonial approach to the study and analysis of our history overall, it needs to be noted that the value of academic and intellectual theft by the British colonisers — through the services of erudite Bhikkus in collating, editing and translating Pali and Sanskrit manuscripts in to Sinhala with scholarly explanatory commentaries on content and grammar — would far exceed the economic plunder that took place. The list of Bhikkus involved, compiled by the late Dr Ananda Guruge, gives details on how various British ‘scholars’ exploited the magnanimity of venerable monks such as Waskaḍuwe Sri Subhuti, Polwatte Buddhadatta, Weligama Sri Sumaṅgala, Aluthgama Sri Seelakkhandha, Hikkaḍuwe Sri Sumaṅgala, Migettuwatte Guṇananda and Yatramulle Sri Dhammarama Thera of Bentota.

Guruge vividly narrates, for example, how the unparalleled 19th century Pali scholar Ven. Waskaḍuwe Sri Subhuti did most of the work on books credited to international Indologists (including the Pali Dictionary credited to R.C. Childers, and other works by the Danish national Viggo Fausbölln, Hermann Oldenberg, Wilhelm Geiger and the American H. C. Warren) in the traditional Buddhist spirit and cultural heritage as facilitators of learning, and perhaps mistakenly believing the British as having replaced the kings of Sri Lanka as patrons of Buddhism and the Sangha.

The lack of appreciation of the Bhikkus’ contribution by the ‘knowledge thieves’ is exemplified by the form of acknowledgement of R. C. Childers — who went around Europe as the ‘father of modern Pali Lexicography’ — in Khuddaka Paṭha, A Pali Text with Translation and notes (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society IV, 1870): ‘The text which I have adopted is that of a Manuscript written and collated for me by a Singhalese priest of great learning’; Childers did not have the decency to name ‘the priest’.

They, however, received tutelage of the learned Bhikkus only infrequently, clearly in doses insufficient to accurately translate texts written in the Canonical, Old Indic paradigm of the Pali language with regard to the idioms and their precise meanings that was in use in the social milieu close to two millennia ago. Armed with such clearly inadequate mastery of the Pali language they went about merrily translating, interpreting and critiquing complex ancient and medieval treatises such as the Mhv and Dipavamsa. (The exercise is reminiscent of the first translation of the Bhagavat Gita by the EIC trader and typographer Charles Wilkins in 1784.)

The current adverse view of the Mhv is based on its English and German translations that were colonial attempts at converting ancient and medieval Pali poems into 19th century Western European historical reference book form, by authors who were officials attached to the colonial Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) and philologists with a missionary background. The first translators of the Mhv into English, George Turnour and Louis Corneille Wijesinha (LCW), fall into the former category, and Wilhelm Geiger and his collaborator Rhys Davids into the latter. While Turnour and LCW translated the Mhv from Pali to English — Turnour, chapters 1-38 (1837) and LCW, chapters 38-100 (1889) — the English translation of Mabel Haynes Bode was from the German translation of Wilhelm Geiger. The obvious avenues of distortion in such a circuitous route need no embellishment.

It is highly relevant that being a CCS officer moonlighting as a historian, Turnour had gained only a smattering of Pali before attempting the mammoth task of translating an epic of Mhv proportions. Born in Ceylon in 1799 during his father’s stint here as a military officer, (dismissed the same year George was born, on ‘gross and incalculable fraud’ in the Mannar Pearl Fishery), Turnour joined the CCS in 1818 after receiving his education in England. His Pali education was limited to infrequent and informal tuition from a monk for two years while stationed at Ratnapura as government agent, and a further several years of self-study at the library of the Malvatta Vihara from 1833 while stationed in Kandy, prior to publishing a translation of the Mhv in 1837. Turnour however, was lucky to have received, in l827, through the agency of the monk from Ratnapura, the palm-leaf manuscripts of the Vamsatthappakasini (VAP) (also known as the Mahavamsa Tika) — the commentary on the Mhv — from the Mulkirigaila Viharaya. Access to VAP would have bettered his otherwise hopeless prospects of meaningfully deciphering the root text of the Mhv. He left Sri Lanka in 1841 due to ill health, moved to Italy for recuperation, but died at the age of 44 at Naples in 1843.

The second English translation by Mabel Haynes Bode, a person with specialisation in the Pali literature of Burma, appeared in 1912 following an unexplained set of events that took place in 1908, courtesy of Rhys Davids. A Congress of Orientalists held at Copenhagen in August 1908 and a Congress on the History of Religions in September 1908 at Oxford, entrusted Rhys Davids of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) to choose ‘one’ competent critical scholar for carrying out a revision of Turnour’s translation. Davids recommended Wilhelm Geiger, who had just translated the Mhv text into German in prose form in 1908, published by the Pali Text Society (founded by Rhys Davids). On Davids’ urging, Geiger added an introduction, appendices, and notes to his German version, to be translated in to English by Bode, under Geiger’s supervision.

The expressed objective of the process of ‘revision’ was to produce a literal translation of the Mhv for historical purposes, a retrograde step considering Turnour had been the first Britisher to read the Mhv with the aid of VAP. A reading between the lines points to intense struggle Rhys Davids had with the Theosophists being the reason to ‘revise’ LCW’s work. The scion of a Ceylonese father and a Dutch mother and a second generation Minister of the Wesleyan Methodist Church (a split group from the Church of England), LCW had abandoned the Church in favour of Theosophism. Irrespective of his intentions, Davids effectively erased the name of LCW from the Mhv narrative.

Attacks on Mhv by Indologists, Turnour and Sri Lankans

In reviewing the Indologists’ criticism of the Mhv, it must be noted that they showed extreme resentment generally to what they discovered in Sri Lanka as an advanced civilisation that had, albeit based on the Indian prototype had galloped away to develop a distinctive language and engineering structures such as reservoirs and stupas that had no antecedents in India (or elsewhere). Through a combination of ignorance and inferiority complex, they disparaged the tank and stupa building as slave-labour projects undertaken by kings seeking to aggrandize themselves. What irked them most was the elaborate, far-thinking actions taken by the Bhikkus under the patronage of kings to preserve Theravada Buddhism in its pristine form, with aids to understand and interpret the Dharma.

Being predominantly of Jewish extraction, most Indologists had ‘taken a shine’ to the Mahayana version, due mostly to the Messianic aspects that echoed Jewish eschatology; They always sought to promote Mahayana Buddhism at the expense of the Pali-based Theravada Buddhism which they denigrated and sought to undermine. (This process is continuing today, with the incorporation of anti-Chinese propaganda disguised as attempts to protect Tibetan Buddhism from ‘vile’ Communist attacks.)

Since the Indologists found that the Mhv provided clues to the ‘Holy Grail’ of chronology of Indian kings they had been after for nearly a century — by establishing a link between the reigns of Asoka and that of Devanampiyatissa and by relating the year of consecration of Asoka to the 218th year after the Buddha’s parinibbana, allowing the accurate determination of the Buddha’s birth year — they started vigorously digging holes in the Mhv narrative.

George Turnour, despite being the translator, showed a distinct lack of understanding of the Mhv within its cultural context, and made the critical error of attempting to interpret the Mhv applying the so-called ‘Western’ historiographical framework with a heavy focus on chronology and personalities as per the method of ‘scientific’ historians. He failed to understand that the Vedic tradition of recording history was done without a ‘byline’, giving priority to the idea or message rather than its purveyor or the time frame.

Turnour showed particularly deplorable bad faith in attributing the alleged ‘discrepancy’ of about 60 years between the year of the Buddha’s parinibbana given in Dipavamsa and Mhv to ‘an undeniable and intentional perversion of historical data’ by the monks who compiled these otherwise ‘purely historical’ texts to ‘designedly’ create ‘fictional synchronisms’ and ‘fabulous exaggeration’ in the interest of proving that ‘certain pretended prophecies of Sakya’ had actually been realised. Based on this alleged discrepancy, Turnour recommended that the history of India proper was to be relinquished to his colonial Indologist friends in Bengal, but if someone wants to know about Sri Lanka—’Vide the Mahavamso’.

Wilhelm Geiger later pointed to ‘conclusive’ inscriptional evidence that the 60-year ‘discrepancy’ that had troubled Turnour, was the result of a change in the calculation of the Buddha era that occurred in 11th century Sri Lanka, shifting the date of the Buddha’s death from 483 (the date Indology wanted) to 543 BC.

V. A. Smith, another Indian-born and British educated son of a British military man turned Indologist, wrote in his book Asoka, the Buddhist Emperor of India (1901). The Ceylonese chronology prior to 160 BC is absolutely and completely rejected, as being not merely of doubtful authority but positively false in its principal propositions. He took exception to the fact that Asoka makes no mention of Mahinda and Sanghamitta in his rock Edicts their man James Prinsep had discovered in the 1830s. In Early History of India (1908), he says ‘the value of these Sinhalese stories has been sometimes overestimated’.

Even John Davy, physician to governor Robert Brownrigg decided to ‘put the boot in’, and others writing under the pseudonyms such as A. M. Philalethes, and the missionary Peter Percival declared that Sri Lanka’s early annals were ‘barren of events’ providing no more than ‘wild stories’.

Among the more recent critics, A. K. Warder (1924-2013) of the University of Toronto (where the late Prof Dhammavihari, formerly Prof Jotiya Dhirasekera, abandoned a career of teaching Buddhism) asserted that ‘there is in fact no reason to credit the Buddhists in particular with having been the fathers of history in India’.

Prof of English at Peradeniya University, E. F. C. Ludowyk — no historian — saw a conspiracy in the Mvs to retrospectively author a link between religion and state-power, through stages. Ludowyk suggested that Devanampiyatissa’s ready acquiescence with King Asoka’s exhortation to accept the ‘religion of the Sakya son’ including the donation of a park as the physical site of the new religious order, ‘may have’ meant more than the introduction of a new religion to Ceylon’. He also saw danger less concern in the Mhv with the impact of the new doctrine on the people at large, than to inscribe an intrinsic connection between Buddhism and (state) power. He further suggested that the colocation of identifying traits of the Sinhala, being the Buddhist, Sinhala speaking descendants from Vijaya is a product of the 16th century European colonialism. A strange observation indeed.

Such totally baseless speculation on possible ulterior motives of one of the most significant civilising missions of human history, and other flagrant lies, need to be discarded as evil thoughts of a demented mind rather than valid criticism deserving rebuttal.

A right reading of the Mahavamsa

A realistic appraisal of the Mhv reveals that it is the product of an advanced historiological tradition that started with the inscribing of the Pali Tipitaka. The Mhv is a monumental literary work based on the information contained in post-canonical Sinhala commentaries on the Tipitaka (Atthakatha) and other historical chronicles (Dipawamsa), textbooks, Pali grammars and articles by learned scholars. The Mhv, as is widely known, is essentially a refinement of the Dipavamsa by Bhikku Mahanama (and possibly others) with greater skill and acumen in the use of the Pali language.

Considered together with archaeological and epigraphic material (more than 2500 inscriptions including 1000 cave inscriptions going back to the 3rd century BC, originally compiled by Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe in Epigraphia Zeylanica, later greatly enriched by the late Prof Laxman S. Perera) the Mhv provides an authentic source of historical knowledge and a comprehensive literary record of Sri Lanka. The publication of the critical edition of the VAP by Prof G. P. Malalasekera has greatly enhanced the ability to read and interpret the Mhv in a manner consistent with its original meaning.

Sri Lanka is unique in the possession of a historical record so ancient, continuous and reliable, going back at least to the 5th century BC and continuing the story, with a chronology of kings for at least 25 centuries. The literal and historiological acumen displayed by the author is a testimony to the remarkable level of sophistication the Sri Lankan culture had reached for the age in which it was written. There is absolutely no reason to doubt the scholarship and sincerity of intentions of the compilers of the Mhv, or the other commentaries. This achievement needs to be considered the heritage of all people who call themselves Sri Lankans today.

It is a fact that the primary focus of the Mhv is on the establishment and growth of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, including information on invasions, conquests, civil wars and succession disputes, to the extent they represented threats to survival of Buddhism through royal patronage. The often-raised criticism of the Mhv devoting more than half its content, 863 verses, to Dutugemunu needs to be viewed in this particular context. Sincerity of intentions can be gauged by the portrayal of Elara as a just ruler, despite the threat he posed to Buddhism.

In summary, the Mhv being a medieval historical texts with deep ancient roots, attempts to understand its content need to be based on the perspective of the ancient world-view and itihasa tradition it represents. Only such empathy will allow accurately dealing with the inter-mingling of historical facts with myths and legends for propagating ethical maxims — as was done unashamedly by ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Plutarch in their history writing. Attempts to indiscriminately tear information out of their context for the reconstruction of history are bound to yield exasperating results, as the Indologists found out.

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