Sinhalese, Tamils and Buddhism

By Vinod Moonesinghe

(Part I of this article appeared yesterday)

In ancient times, the name of a people referred mainly to its elite, the ruling class which held most of the cultural capital. In Herodotus’ debate between Darius and the others about which type of state was desirable, ‘the people’ refer to the upper class. Karl Kautsky has pointed out how the Jews kept their identity only because of the preservation in exile in Babylon of their elite.

Similarly, ‘Sinhalese’ and ‘Tamil’ in the context of ancient Sri Lanka and South India must relate mainly to their upper social strata, which superimposed their own languages and cultures on the indigenous populations. When Dutugemunu waged war against Ellalan (Sinhala ‘Elara’), it was a battle between two dynasties, one Sinhalese and the other Tamil, not two peoples.

The picture emerges of an indigenous population (Nagas and Yakshas), related to populations in South India and in Bengal, being overlaid by an elite stratum of Indo-Aryan speakers, who spread out from the Tambapanni area and establish cultural hegemony over the rest the island. Certainly, by the 5th century BC, there was evidence of Prakrit writing in the Brahmi script at Anuradhapura.

This viewpoint is given added plausibility by studies done on Iron Age remains at Pochampad in Andhra Pradesh which indicate that there was a continuity of populations over time, rather than abrupt demographic displacement, and a gradual merging of invading peoples with the existing populations.

The spread of Tamil would have followed a similar pattern. Tamil was a relative newcomer to the ‘Tamil homeland’, Tamilakam. Some linguistic studies have indicated that the Godavari valley was the homeland of the Dravidian speakers, but others suggest that they have migrated to this area from the North West. The split between Telugu and Tamil took place about 1000 BC, so the arrival of Tamil-speakers in Tamilakam was probably later than this.

The Chola, Pandya and Satiyaputra dynasties are mentioned in the Asokan rock edicts from the third century BC. About this time began Sangam literature, associated mainly with the Pandyan capital Madurai.

However, Indologist Aska Parpola has suggested that the Pandyas were an Indo-Aryan dynasty ruling over a Dravidian population. Interestingly, 2nd century BC Brahmi script inscriptions at Kodumanal, near Coimbatore, have revealed Indo-Aryan names, such as Sumanan, Tissam, and Visaki, along with rather more Tamil-sounding ones.

The discovery of Brahmi characters in the Tamil language, incised on pottery in Adichanallur, near Tirunelveli, may push the boundary back a couple of centuries. It is significant that the discovery has been made directly across the Gulf of Mannar from Anuradhapura, the site of the contemporary Brahmi script pottery, suggesting a common origin.

The earliest evidence we have of Tamil-speakers in Sri Lanka comes from the Mahavamsa, which mentions the ‘Damila’ sons of a horse-shipper, Sena and Guttika about the 2nd century BC. It also mentions, shortly after this, that Elara was a ‘Damila’ nobleman who came from the Chola country.

In terms of religion, there was no clear-cut differentiation into ‘Sinhalese Buddhists’ and ‘Tamil Hindus’. Jainism and Ajivakism, as well as Buddhism, flourished in Sri Lanka. The Mahawamsa says that Pandukabhaya built dwellings for Brahmins, Ajivakas and Jains (‘Niganthas’). Vattagamani Abhaya built the Abhayagiri Buddhist monastery on the site of Pandukabhaya’s Jain Tittharama, in revenge for the taunts of a Nigantha called Giri.

Jainism and Buddhism also had a strong hold among contemporary Tamils. The term ‘Sangam’ in the description of classical Tamil literature refers to the Jain Sangha. ‘Aimperumkappiyam’, the five great epics of ancient Tamil literature are: ‘Silappatikaram’, a neutral work by a Jain author, Ilango Adigal; the Buddhist ‘Manimekalai’ and ‘Kundalakesi’; and the Jain ‘Civaka Cintamani’ and ‘Valayapathi’.

The city of Kaveripattinam (modern Puhar), appears to have been central to Buddhism in Tamilakam. Significantly, it is considered to be the birthplace of the deities Pattini and Devol. The Manimekalai says it had seven Buddhist monasteries, built by ‘Indra’ (possibly the Arhant Mahinda).

It is possible that Mahinda and Aritta, a relative of the Sinhala king Devanampiya Tissa, proselytised Tamilakam. Near Madurai is the hill of Arittapatti, originally a Buddhist site, now holy to Siva.

In the 5th century AD a celebrated Tamil monk, Ven Buddhadatta studied at the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. He later composed Buddhist works in Tamilakam, at Kaveripattinam, Uragapuram, Bhutamangalam and Kanchipuram. He was one of many learned Tamil Buddhist monks, of whom the names of at least thirty have come down to us.

The Buddhism practised in Tamilakamam (where it seems to have existed until the 13th century) was liberal and open-minded, allowing much speculation considered heretical by the orthodox Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. Thus Mahayanism and Tantrism flourished. Aspects of the southern Bhakti belief also began to intrude into Buddhism. Evidently, Tamilakam was the origin of Bodhisattva worship.

There was a legend that Agastya, the father of Tamil, learnt the language from the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the god of the Potiyil hill to which he had withdrawn. According to the Japanese scholar Shu Hikosaka, Potiyil is derived from ‘Bodhi-il’ (‘Buddhist place’) and is the same as Mahayanist Potalaka (‘Buddha Loka). He identified it with the Pothigai hills (also known as Agastiyar Malai) near Tirunelveli.

One is tempted to draw a connection between ‘Pothigai’ or ‘Potiyil’ with the Potgul Vehera in Polonnaruwa. Interestingly, former Archaeological Commissioner, Raja de Silva has identified the statue at the Potgul Vehera, commonly assumed to be Parakramabahu, as Agastya. Could this have been a Mahayanist institution, associated with Avalokitesvara?

Avalokitesvara had many of the attributes of the pre-Brahmanical deity Siva (also known as Isvara), including the possession of two gender aspects – the female ‘Shakti’ being Tara. It is hence not surprising that many south Indian Buddhist places of worship subsequently became Siva temples.

This may be a clue to the Mahavamsa’s attitude to Tamils. Historians have tended to focus on the fact that the chronicle was written at the time of Dhatusena, who had just completed a struggle against several Tamil kings, which they consider the reason for this antipathy.

However, the Mahawamsa was primarily an ecclesiastical document of the Mahavihara, seeing the world through orthodox Theravada Buddhist eyes. Its concern with worldly activities was mainly limited to maintaining royal patronage. The primary threat to that patronage came from what it saw as heresies.

The Mahawamsa’s treatment of Elara is moderate; it not only praises the justice of his rule, thus making him the prototype ‘good Soli king’ of later folk lore. It says he ‘freed himself from the guilt of walking in the path of evil... though he had not put aside false beliefs’. Nor does it speak badly of the ‘Seven Damilas’ who overthrew Vattagamani Abhaya; it merely mentions that, on being asked whether Buddhism would prosper under the former or the latter, the Sangha took the King’s side.

On the other hand, its treatment of Sanghamitta, ‘a bhikkhu from the Cola people who was versed in the teachings concerning the exorcism of spirits, and so forth’, is clearly antagonistic. This ‘lawless’ bhikkhu (apparently of the Dharmmaruci sect) was embittered against the Mahavihara, it says, and ingratiated himself with the future king Mahasena.

Under the last-named, Theravada was persecuted and the Dhammaruci sect was triumphant. Under Dhatusena and his sons too, that is, in the period the Mahawamsa was written, Theravada Buddhism was embattled. Archaeological evidence indicates that Sigiriya, to which Dhatusena’s son Kasyapa retreated, was a Mahayanist monastery complex.

So the Mahavihara was threatened not by Tamil monarchs or armies, but by Buddhist schismatics influenced by Tamil priests from Tamilakam. Hence, what we read in the chronicles is not antagonism towards Tamil people, but antipathy to ‘heresies’ carried hither by Tamil Buddhist prelates.

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