Self-destructive features of kingship as explained in the Attanagalu-vansa


Dr. B. S. Wijeweera

The story revolving around the pious King Sri Sanghabodhi is one with which most of us are familiar. Kingship was thrust on him, when his preferred vocation was that of a recluse. During his brief reign at Anuradapura he tried his utmost to invest pristine Buddhist values into statecraft, but went into voluntary exile when faced with an insurrection rather than expose the country and the people to a bloody war. In the end, he even gave up his life to appease his ambitious companion, Gothabaya, who usurped his throne.

Brief though his reign was, it has got etched in the annals of our history. G.P. Malalasekera in his Pali Literature of Ceylon refers to King Sanghabodhi as "one of the most revered names in Ceylon history."

The Mahavamsa (Geiger) assigns to his rule the period 300 - 302 A.D and that of Gothabaya the period 302 - 315 A.D. Ananda Guruge in his version of Mahavamsa assigns the periods 247 - 249 A.D. and 249 - 263 A.D respectively. EW Adikaram in his Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon attributes to Sanghabodhi the period 307-309 A.D and Gothabaya the period 309-322 A.D (Appendix III).

Hattha - Vanagalla - Vihara - Vamsa

A story so full of drama cannot but attract the mind of the poet. So it happened that, according to Malalasekara in the reign of Panditha Parakramabahu (Parakramabahu III?), a young Bhikku acting on the advice of his elder monk put the story into Pali verse in the form of Hattha-vanagalla-vihara-vamsa. Overtly, it was meant to be the history of the Attanagalla Vihara built, as legend has it, on the very spot that Sanghabodhi scarified his life for the sake of peace in the country. However, the major part of the work is a panegyric dealing with the life of Sanghabodhi himself: his birth, upbringing, migration to Anuradapura and the other aspects of his life with which we are familiar. Malalasekera describes this work "as one of the first works in Pali to which a student is introduced in Ceylon monasteries with a view to familiarizing him with Pali grammatical forms and constructions" (p. 219).

English Translation

For the benefit of those who are not conversant in Pali, a lawyer by profession and an Advocate in the Supreme Court of Ceylon, James D'Alwis, translated the Pali work into English in 1866 under the title Attanagalu-vansa. His scholarship was so well accepted that the government of the day extended its support to this undertaking. What follows is an account gleaned from this translation.

Early Life of Sanghabodhi

Sanghabodhi was the son of a chieftain in Mahiyangana. His father died when he was seven years old. Thereafter, he was brought up and educated by his maternal uncle, Maha Nanda Thero, who was the chief incumbent at the Mahiyangana Temple. When Sanghabodhi had grown into manhood, Nanda Thero saw in him a bright future though the young man was more inclined to religious life.

Then as now, to make a mark in life young men of promise have to move to the capital city to fully realize their talents. Thus, Nanda Thero decided to take his protege to Anuradapura where the royal court flourished. The king at Anuradhapura at this time was Vijaya Kumara (295 - 296 A.D, Geiger), son of Srinaga II.

Nanda Thero set out to Anuradhapura with Sanghabodhi and two of the latter's friends and associates: Sanghatissa and Gothabaya. Sanghatissa was the eldest and Gothabaya the youngest of the three. Approaching the capital city when they were walking along the Tisa- wewa bund in single file according to age, a soothsayer predicted that the three "princes" would be kings one day. Only Gothabaya who was the last in the line heard this and upon his prodding was informed by the soothsayer that the longest and firmest reign would be that of the last. Perhaps, Gothabaya interpreted this to mean the last to ascend the throne.

The three visitors found favour with the king and entered his service as courtiers. Very soon Sanghatissa was raised to the rank of Senapati. Sanghabodhi after his daily duties at the palace used to retire to the Temple in the evening and engage in religious observances.

Sanghatissa and Gothabaya conspired to kill the King. This they did in the king's inner palace and Sanghatissa ascended the throne. Sanghatissa reigned only four tears, at the conclusion of which he was poisoned by the people who could no longer bear the oppression of the exactions he imposed.

Though he was the elder of the two, Sanghabodhi did not entertain ambitions for kingship. He spent most of his free time at the temple engaged in religious observances. Gothabaya on the other hand craved for regal splendour, but was inhibited by the prophesy made by the blind soothsayer that the last to be king would enjoy the longest reign. He and the royal courtiers tried to persuade Sanghabodhi to ascend the throne, but to no avail.

Sanghabodhi's Discourse

Gothabaya next assembled together all the people of the villages and towns of the kingdom and together with the courtiers repaired to the Mahavihara and having paid obeisance to the monks sought their intervention to persuade Sanghabodhi to accept the kingship. Upon which Sanghabodhi fell prostrate before the monks and sought their permission to address the crowd on the perils of kingship. The discourse that the author-poet of Attanagalu-vansa had composed for articulation by Sanghabodhi is a classic statement on governance and is reproduced below almost verbatim (but abridged) as given in the English translation:

"Countrymen, the prosperity of a kingdom is like a camphor light which is stained with its own grime. Indeed, a kingdom is like a stream in the waters of which grow poisonous weeds. Its allurements are like the melodious song of a hunter in the ears of the hunted animal. In its tendency to corrupt the morals, it acts like a sheet of smoke on a fine painting. It is a fainting fit which induces the slumber of folly, a screen which obscures the eyes of wisdom, a standard hoisted for the triumph of a multitude of sin, a river infested with crocodiles of hasty passions, a tavern for the enjoyment of the wench of false beliefs, a hall for merriment to the dancers of prosperity, a cave occupied by the serpent of enmity, a rod which drives away all righteousnous, a prologue in a drama that promotes hypocrisy and the very mouth of Rahu that swallows up the moon-like truths of the dhamma. I know not of a single person who on his elevation to the throne has not been tainted.

Even at the very inauguration as king, his esteemable qualities vanish away as if washed off by the water of consecration; his heart is stained as it were by the smoke of the sacrificial fire; his patience and forbearance are driven away; his perception of decrepitude is dimmed as if blinded by the royal head-dress; his views on death and life hereafter are screened as it were by the state-canopy; his love of truth is blown afar as if by the wind of a fan; and his good principles are driven away as it were by the blows of a ferule.

Some, intoxicated with the wine of regal prosperity entertain knaves who abound like cranes in the pond of society and who live for their own gain like vultures. These knaves offer advice which declare that gambling is a pastime, adultery is gallantry, deer hunting is the best exercise, drinking is a social etiquette, discarding ones wife is a virtue, treating with contempt the teachings of tutors is independence, seeking solace in devivaru is seeking happiness, patronizing dancing, music and harlots is the style of a man of taste, following ones own inclination is the prerogative of a learned man, and that the adulatory praises of courtiers is evidence of world-wide renown.

Dazed by false adulations and praises of those who are accomplished in the art of flattery, kings without much reflection and by reason of their vanity mistake evil for good. They who are but human, thus, elated by pride first consider themselves to be superhuman, next as having acquired a semi-divine status and finally as being gods themselves. In time, they cultivate the mannerisms and behavioural characteristics of gods. The consequence is, alas, condign disgrace in public estimation.


What is the moral of the Sanghabodhi discourse? Firstly, it has universal appeal. Though composed in the 13th century, its message is true for all time, to all monarchs and rulers both past and present. Secondly, it lifts human failings to the plane of systemic fault-lines in kingship. We tend to think of individuals as being arrogant, ruthless, ambitious, corrupt, tyrannical or whatever as if these are innate qualities of such individual. The author-poet of Attanagalu-vansa, no doubt inspired by Buddhist philosophy, sublimates these human failings into system flaws in the very nature of kingship itself. In an age in which the concept of popular sovereignty is being increasingly invoked and traduced to provide cover for personal aggrandizement, it challenges us to devise effective ways and means to check and balance the power of rulers.

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