Beginnings of Buddhist culture and withstanding colonial designs

Poson Poya falls on Wednesday
By Upali K. Salgado

Ancient chronicles such as the Mahavansa and the Deepavansa record that before the Maha Parinibbana (demise) of Sakyamuni Gothama Buddha at Kushinara (modern Kashimagar), He foretold to his disciples that, “two hundred and sixty years later, a Thera named Mahinda will arrive with splendour (in the sky) to shine in Lankadeepa. There will be a beautiful place named Thuparama, and the island will be known as Thambapanni. They will deposit a relic of my body in that most excellent place in the island.”

The Mahavansa states that Thera Maha Mahinda with four others, on a full moon day (Uposatha) in the month of Jetta will with wondrous powers alight at the mount Missaka on the Sila peak, at Ambastalle (now identified as Mihintale).

Mihintale: Where the greatest historical event in Sri Lanka unfolded

This event that took place in the 3rd century B.C. could be considered as the greatest historical event in Lanka. Its significance is manifold. The King, Devanampiya Tissa (247-207 BC) when deer hunting had met the great sage Mahinda. In a brief conversation that took place to check the intelligence and comprehension of the monarch, the sage then delivered the Chulla Hatthi Padopama Sutta, which is the essence of Buddhism. At the end of the historic discourse, King Devanampiya Tissa and his entire retinue readily accepted the noble Buddha Dhamma, and became followers of Buddhism.

This historical event is important because it brought a new religious and social revolution in ancient Lanka. It could rightly be said that it was the beginning of Sinhala Buddhist culture, which in later years, with the advent of the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial powers was able to withstand their missionary designs.

The historic event also marked the founding of the Buddhist monastic order in Sri Lanka and paved the way for the arrival of the sage Maha Mahinda’s sister, Sangamitta Theri, the daughter of Emperor Asoka of India (273-236 BC) who brought with her a sapling of the Bo tree from Buddha Gaya to be planted at Maha Megha Uyana in Anuradhapura. Sangamitta Theri and several Bhikkunis who arrived with her were also responsible in establishing a Bhikkuni order (Buddhist nuns). With these happenings there was ushered in the island an effervescence of art and culture that is outstanding. Buddhist and Oriental art with “liyaveli” and lotus motifs, beautiful guardstones and moonstones adorned vihares, vahalkadas and large buildings which are now in ruins. The visit of Maha Mahinda Thera also is important as it cemented a close relationship with India during Emperor Asoka’s time.

No story about Mihintale would be complete without a reference to two men who left an indisputable record of achievements. Prof. Senerath Paranavithana, the epigraphist and archaeologist of fame who toiled in malaria-infested dense jungle habitats with inadequate manpower and finances is one of them. The other is Walisingha Harischandra whose stentorian voice was heard to thunder without the aid of a microphone for devotees on poya days, decrying what the colonial Britisher moved to do in about 1923, by taking over unjustly vast tracts of Mihintale Temple property under the Waste Lands Ordinance. He often went to jail because he was the “champion” of Buddhist causes.

With the arrival of the Western powers the status of Buddhism in the island was challenged. At first there was a decline in the spiritual aspect of the preservation of the Buddhism “with gannin-nanses” residing in temples. During the reign of King Keerthisri Rajasinghe of Kandy (with the help of Dutch who controlled the Maritime Provinces of Ceylon, two sailing vessels were provided), Ven. Welivita Pindapathika Asarana Sarana Saranankara Maha Thera (1753-1777) sailed from Trincomalee to Siam (presently known as Thailand) to bring to Lanka, a valid Upasampada (Higher Ordination). This was held at Pushparama Temple, now known as the Malwatte Maha Vihara in Kandy. Thus was born the Siyam Maha Nikaya on July 10 1753 and subsequently, in 1803 the Amarapura Maha Nikaya was established at Ambagahapitiya Mula Maha Vihara, Welithara, Balapitiya. The Ramanya Maha Nikaya was also established in 1807.

In the background of all these happenings during colonial rule, the historic Panadura Debate took place in about 1875 with the Wesleyan Mission. This was followed by a Buddhist renaissance. Several large stupas and temples, which were in ruins were restored and new Buddhist schools were established all over the island. Ananda College had its early benefactors namely, Gate Mudliyar Samson Rajapaksha and Peter De Abrew; Mahinda College, Galle had Gate Mudliyar Henry Woodward Amarasuriya, and his son H.W. Amarasuriya as benefactors, Dharmaraja College, Kandy had Anagarika Dharmapala and Sir D. B. Jayathilake as founders with H. Billimoria (a Parsee) as a pioneer educationalist; Museaus Girls’ School was helped by Sir D. B. Jayathilake and had Marie Higgins as the Head; Visakha Vidyalaya was founded by Mrs. Jeremias Dias Celestina Rodrigo, while Mahamaya Girls’ School had Sir Bennet and Lady Sara Soysa as founder philanthropists.

Meanwhile much was invested in rehabilitating Buddhist sites. The Tissa Maha Seya was renovated in about 1908 with the leadership of Mudliyar Sudurukku Francis Jayawickrama of Matara and N. Amarasingha of Tangalle while the Seruvila Maha Seya was renovated around 1915 under the leadership of Mudliyar D. D. Weerasingha of Wellawatte. Between 1935 and 1948 the Kelani Raja Maha Viharaya was renovated with beautiful wall paintings of Solis Mendis, with the influence of Helena Wijewardena and her children. Philanthropist Sir Ernest De Silva founded Devapathiraja College Ratgama, the Walana Katunayake Boys’ School and the Buddhist Orphanage and donated the Polgasduwa island in Dodanduwa to be a hermitage for Buddhist monks. Dr. W. Arthur Silva and his wife Kathrene donated four acres of land at Wellawatta to establish the Sri Lankadara Society Orphanage in 1922. Around 1920, the Pedris family of Colombo donated to the Maha Sangha the Isipathanaramaya in Colombo.

Over 100 years ago Sir D. B. Jayathilake founded of the YMBA, a powerhouse to hold dhamma classes, seminars and other Buddhist activities. The Buddhist renaissance made the Tower Hall, Maradana a hive of activity with song and dance. The Jathaka “Vessantara” was seen on the boards of the theatre, and the immortal song “Danno Budunge” was sung for the first time in about 1917 under the leadership of the celebrated playwright Proctor John De Silva.

Restoration of the Ruwanveli Maha Seya, Anuradhapura took place in about 1938 and was a major event in the Buddhist calender. The ancient hermitage of King Valagamba’s time known as Salgala Aranaya situated near Warakapola was again founded by H. Sri Nissanka K.C. The Vajirarama temple in Bambalapitiya became a great seat of learning and was founded in 1905 by the most Ven. Sri Vajiragnana Maha Nayaka Thera. Other scholar monks associated with this temple were Ven. Narada Maha Thera, Ven. Soma Maha Thera, Ven. Keminda Maha Thera, Ven. Piyadassi Nayaka Thera.

Notable monks of the British colonial period were Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Ven. Weligama Sumangala Nayaka Thera, Ven. Soratha Thera, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitriya Thera, Ven. Heenatiyana Dhammaloka Tissa Maha Nayaka Thera, Ven. Renukane Chandavimala Thera, Ven. Gnanatiloka Maha Thera and Ven. Gnanaponika Maha Thera.

Whilst this story has unfolded through the ages from the arrival of Arahant Maha Mahinda and Sanghamitta Theri, the people continue to cherish and be enriched with the noble Buddha Dhamma, and Buddhist culture.

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