Had the Mahavamsa author recorded the carefully-studied plans made towards the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the strategic moves and the shuttling diplomacy that followed for Buddhism to take firm root, King Devanampiyatissa would have stood taller in history.
Besides the introduction of Buddhism, the Devanampiyatissa-reign also marked the golden period of Indo-Lanka relations. The Mahavamsa author’s tendency to dramatize events instead of recording them with accuracy, contributed considerably to dim King Devanampiyatissa’s portrayal.
It should be mentioned however that Mahavamsa author Venerable Mahanama’s priority in writing the Chronicle was not to record history but to propagate Buddhism. He recorded politics in relevance to Buddhism.
The famous first meeting between Mahinda Thera and King Devanampiyatissa as recorded in the Mahavamsa, was no mere accident. The representation of this encounter as a chance meeting after which Mahinda Thera delivered his sermon following a test of the King’s intellect, is an underestimation of one of Sri Lanka’s turning-points in history.
Many unanswered questions arise from the Mahavamsa records. Did Emperor Dharmasoka, who had committed himself to propagate Buddhism, simply send his son and the rest of the missionaries to unknown territory trusting providence to take care of the rest? Could it have been possible for Mahinda Thera and the rest to travel to Sri Lanka by means of supernatural powers? If Mahinda Thera arrived here without having made prior contacts, in which language did they hold the famous conversation?
Today, historians such as Professors Mendis Rohanadheera, Indrakirthi Suraweera and Ven. Medhananda Ellawela Thera who declare that the introduction of Buddhism was the culmination of excellent diplomatic relations and statesmanship of the highest order of both rulers in Sri Lanka and India, have delved into the related events and have placed them before us rationally and chronologically.
|An artist’s impression of the famous first meeting between Mahinda Thera and King Devanampiyatissa
According to the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, the resolution to send out Dharmadutha Missions to states outside the Maurya Empire was adopted during the third mammoth Dharmasangayanaya (the Buddhist Council) held after the Parinirvana of the Buddha. It was conducted by Emperor Dharmasoka at Ashokaramaya in the kingdom of Magadha and was headed by Moggali Puththatissa Thera.
Mahinda Thera - the only son of King Dharmasoka who was twelve years a bhikkhu at the time, along with Ishtiya, Uththiya, Sambala and Bhaddhasala Theras were assigned to carry out the 9th Dharmadutha mission to Sri Lanka. But, unlike the rest of the missionaries, they did not leave immediately.
Why was this? The goal of the Dharmadutha mission was not to spread the word of the dhamma alone but also to establish the Buddha Sasana. To achieve this, the mission needed the patronage of an active and energetic king, younger in age. Emperor Dharmasoka through his information network found that King Mutaseeva who ruled at the time, was too advanced in years. Therefore the missionaries delayed the departure until a younger king ascended the throne.
Tissa on the other hand, when he took over as ruler (307-260 BC) was well aware of the many conquests made by Emperor Dharmasoka and the rapid expansion that was taking place in the Maurya kingdom. Sri Lanka could not match its military strength. His strategy therefore was to establish friendly relations through diplomacy with his formidable neighbour. Displaying ingenious statecraft he dispatched a high-powered embassy headed by Prime Minister - Mahaaritta, who was his sister’s son with gifts consisting of the most valuable gems and pearls to the Mauryan Emperor. Malla, Minister without portfolio, Talipabbatha, a Brahmin and Tissa, an accountant from the Ministry of Finance were included in this delegation. This was the first batch of diplomats in history to leave Sri Lanka on a goodwill mission!
The delegates reached Pataliputhra - the capital city of the Maurya kingdom on the first of the month of Il (November) in 235 Buddha year. Needless to say that Emperor Dharmasoka was overjoyed by the opportune visit of the Lankan delegation.
According to the Chronicles, the Lankan delegation remained as visitors of the Royalty in the Courts of Emperor Dharmasoka perhaps on his insistence until Amavaka in the month of Bak (April) - which worked up to 5-6 months. The Dipavamsa however has recorded that the Lankan delegation left Pataliputhra on the day of Vesak, a month later. “They got into a boat on the Gangese river from Palalup and at Thamralipti port boarded a ship and reached Dambakolapatuna on the same day - 12th of the Vesak month and met King Tissa.”
However, while the delegation remained in the Indian Royal Court, they may have been frequent visitors of Mahinda Thera since Asokaramaya had been located close to the Emperor’s Palace which may have enabled him to acquaint himself with the country where he was planning to propagate the dhamma.
But what was the language spoken for this exchanges of information? In the 3rd century BC, the language in use in Sri Lanka may have been a mixture of the indigenous Hela and a development of the language brought by the Aryans when they came and settled down in Sri Lanka about 200 years earlier. The Aryan settlers came here from Northern India and some believe that their origin was in the kingdom of Magadha - the area visited by the Sri Lankan embassy. The two parties therefore, may not have found it too difficult to comprehend each other.
However, Mahinda Thera may have certainly used the opportunity to acquaint himself with the new language. Chronicles mention that Mahinda Thera delivered his sermons in the Hela language which were recorded by the Buddhist monks in the Tripitaka and other Buddhist Commentaries.
On the same day of the Lankans’ departure, Mahinda Thera according to documentations, had left Palalup city. He had reached Vedisigiri where he had stayed with his mother before leaving his motherland for good.
Did the delegates arrive at Mihintale by miraculous means? According to historians, they had reached Sri Lanka one month and three days after the return of the Lankan delegates. In the ancient South Indian Sangam literature it is stated that in 258 BC, the Buddhist mission travelling to Sri Lanka, passed through South India. Sri Lankan scholars are of the opinion that Mahinda Thera stayed in a monastery constructed by Emperor Asoka on his way to Sri Lanka, propagated the doctrine and set off by sea from Kaveripattnam.
Venerable Mahanama wrote Mahavamsa at a time when several South Indian invasions had devastated the country. Therefore, to avoid recording that Mahinda Thera travelled through South India Mahavamsa may have resorted to the aerial route and indicated that the missionaries used supernatural powers for travel, a clear instance where Venerable Mahanama’s prejudices surfaced.
However, in spite of inaccuracies and lack of credibility in some of the records, Mahavamsa remains the backbone of Sri Lanka’s early history. He provided us continued reporting of events from the 5th century BC – a privilege no other nation enjoys and it is now the responsibility of the present generation to do the checking and cross-checking.
How did Mahinda Thera carry out his tasks? The Mauryan delegation, besides the missionaries, included two of Mahinda Thera’s relatives, his nephew - Sumana samanera who was his sister Theri Sanghamitta’s son and his mother’s sister’s grandson - Bhanduka. Bhanduka became the first to be ordained in Sri Lanka by Mahinda Thera, probably an act carried out as an incentive to draw Lankans to the Bhikkhu Sasana.
The Sri Lankans not only accepted Buddhism but entered the Bhikkhu Sasana in great numbers when Queen Anula, the King’s sister-in-law requested that she too be ordained. Mahinda Thera responding to the request asked the King to send Prime Minister Mahaaritta to the Indian capital once again when Emperor Dharmasoka sent his only daughter Theri Sanghamitta to Sri Lanka to commence the Bhikkhuni Sasana. As it had by this time, proved beyond doubt that Sri Lanka was fertile soil for the establishment of the Buddha Sasana, the Emperor sent with Theri Sanghamitta a sapling from the Southern Branch of the Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi. Accompanying her were eight royal princes, Prime Minister Mahaaritta and 200 from 18 clans of industries, arts and culture in order that they perform customs, traditions and rituals connected with the worship of the Sri Maha Bodhi.
The contribution made by these clans towards building a unique Lankan Buddhist culture, is beyond estimation. However, Mahinda Thera realizing that the establishment of the Buddha Sasana alone was not sufficient said that he needed a Living Buddha for worship which prompted King Devanampiyatissa to query as to how that could be done. Sumana Samanera sent as a result to Pataliputhra returned to Sri Lanka with Buddha’s Right Collar Bone - akkha-dhathu in Buddha’s alms bowl along with other relics. The King thereupon, with the guidance of Mahinda Thera, built Sri Lanka’s first Chaitya - Thuparama in Anuradhapura enshrining these relics, thus launching a magnificent tradition of sthupa-construction.
Devanampiyatissa was pleased that he had played his role towards the establishment of Buddhism. But Mahinda Thera believed that Buddhism is established in the real sense only once a son of Lankan parents could recite the Buddhist doctrine by heart.
Prime Minister Mahaaritta who himself by this time had entered Bhikkhu Sasanaya and had learnt the doctrine had sat by the side of Mahinda Thera at a public Bhikkhu conference at Thuparama when he had recited the entire Buddhist doctrine. It is recorded that it was only after this display that it was accepted that the island could now be called a Buddhist kingdom.