This year, Unduwap full moon day falls on December 22, the day commemorating the arrival of Theri Sangamitta, who brought with her a branch of the Great Bodhi tree at Buddhagaya. It was 2,264 years ago that Thera Mahinda arrived in this island. According to Geiger, that was in 246 B.C. on the full moon [...]

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Make Sangamitta Day National Women’s Day


This year, Unduwap full moon day falls on December 22, the day commemorating the arrival of Theri Sangamitta, who brought with her a branch of the Great Bodhi tree at Buddhagaya.

It was 2,264 years ago that Thera Mahinda arrived in this island. According to Geiger, that was in 246 B.C. on the full moon day of Poson. His arrival with the five disciples opened a new chapter in the history of the island. They not only introduced a new faith based on the sublime teachings of the Buddha, but also gifted the country with a new civilization and a culture.

Six months later, the arrival of Theri Sangamitta marked the second stage of this Cultural Revolution in the island.

When Anula, the consort of King Devanampiyatissa’s brother, sought ordination and the king concurred, the Thera Mahinda addressing the king, told him, ‘’It is not allowed to us, O Great King ,to bestow the pabbajjä (Ordination) on women. But in Pataliputta there lives a nun (bhikkhuni), my younger sister known by the name Sangamitta. She, who is ripe in experience, shall come hither, bringing with her the southern branch of the great Bodhi tree and bringing also bhikkhunis renowned. On her arrival, she will confer the pabbajja upon these women.”

Accordingly, a request was sent to King Asoka by King Devanampiyatssa to send Bhikkhuni Sangamitta to bestow pabbajja on Sri Lankan women. Recalling, his son Mahinda and Surnana the grandson, leaving to Sri Lanka few months back, Asoka was not keen to part with her daughter, too. But Sangamitta was keen not to disappoint her brother. She said, “Weighty is the word of my brother .Therefore I must depart there.”

Arrival of Theri Sangamitta

Theri Sangamitta, travelling from Pataliputta capital of Asoka to Tamalitti at the mouth of the Ganges and from there, braving the Indian Ocean with a retinue of bhikkhunis and a mixed group of laymen arrived at Jambukola north of the Island on the full moon day of Unduvap. Among the bhikkhunis who accompanied her, according to Dipavamsa were Uttara, Hema, Pasadapala, Aggimitta, Dasaka, Phegghu, Pabbata, Matta, Malla and Dhammadasiya. It also mentions that they were young, probably as they had to face the vagaries of a foreign climate which was different from that of Pataliputta. Although Thera Mahinda arrived with five other Theras, Theri Sangamitta was accompanied by a bigger group of bhikkhunis; there was a big task awaiting her. Already Queen Anula with five hundred women of the royal palace and an equal number of maidens were ready to receive the ordination. Once they received the ordination, there were many to follow them. Dipavamsa mentions names of several others who subsequently entered the Order. They included Soma, Dhamma and Sobhani.

The bhikkhunis from Jambudvipa also had the added task of teaching the Dhamma particularly the Vinaya (disciplinary rules) to the newly ordained nuns, and all the bhikkhunis who came from Pataliputta were well versed in Vinaya. Dipavamsa mentions several of the local bhikkhunis, namely Mahila, Sata, Kali and Uttara who mastered the Vinaya rules within a short time. Thus Theri Sangamitta not only opened the doors of emancipation to Sri Lankan women but also laid the foundation for their education.

Theri Sangamiita was also mindful of the progress of the doctrine and the welfare of the bhikkhunis. Accordingly, additional dwellings for the occupants were erected. King Devanampiyatissa who visited the Theri had arranged to erect a pleasing convent for the bhikkhunis. Known as Hatthalakavihara, it provided an opportunity for a disciplined community life. The bhikkhunis had come from different walks of life. Dipavamsa mentions that Girikali was the daughter of a chaplain (purohita); Sivala and Samuddanava were daughters of the King and Mahatissa the daughter of Gamika (village chief). This broke the social barriers among them.

With the royal patronage received and the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Order, thus two thousand two hundred and sixty four years ago, Sri Lankan women came to be liberated. Social barriers were broken. Spiritually, they could reach the highest levels.

Planting of the Bo tree

It has to be mentioned that the planting of the branch of the Bodhi tree from Buddha Gaya was as equally important as the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Order.

Elaborate arrangements had been made in Pataliputta for its dispatch and in Anuradhapura for its reception. Once it was planted, it is said that eight shoots had grown from it and they were planted in several places around Anuradhapura and one in Katargama; the two main Aryan settlements in the island. Another 32 had been planted in different places covering most of the key points in the country affirming the establishment of the Buddhist Order in the major parts of the Island.

Professor Malalasekera quoting from P.E. Pieris (Ceylon and the Portuguese pp 3-4) where reference is made to the planting of the Bodhi Tree says, “It is doubtful if any other single incident in the long story of their race has seized upon the imagination of the Sinhalese with such tenacity as this of the planting of the aged tree. Like its pliant roots which find sustenance on the face of the bare rock and cleave their way through the stoutest fabric, the influence of what it represents has penetrated into the innermost being of the people till the tree itself has become almost human. The axe of the ruthless invaders, who for so many centuries to come were destined to spread ruin throughout the country, was reverently withheld from its base. And even now on the stillest night, its heart shaped leaves on their slender stalks ceaselessly quiver and sigh, as they have quivered and sighed for twenty-three centuries” (Pali literature of Ceylon pp24-25)

Theri Sangamita was also accompanied by eighteen princes from royal families to watch over the Bodhi tree and eight from Brahman families and of traders and persons from the cowherds, the weavers, the potters and from all other handicrafts. While Thera Mahinda with bhikkhus and Theri Sangamitta with the bhikkhunis were concentrating on the spiritual advancement of the people, the craftsmen would have taken upon them the task of improving their economic and social advancement…. For example bringing cowherds itself was important. To dissuade a community which for centuries was used to live mainly by hunting, obviously needed an alternate occupation if they were to live by the teachings of the Buddha. Though pottery, weaving and paddy cultivation were known to pre-Devanampiyatissa times as seen from the archaeological remains, chronicles and folklore, the arrival of craftsmen from overseas would have given a new impetus and brought in new technologies which blossomed later into a culture of its own identity.

The arrival of Theri Sangamitta to establish the Bhikkhuni Order, with the branch of the Bo tree , accompanied by a group of disciplined and erudite Bhikkhunies was an unparalleled event in the history of the Island. She was a unique lady. Being the daughter of the most powerful ruler at the time, her renunciation itself has to be admired. Following the words of the Buddha “caratha bhikkave carikam bahujana hitaya bahujana sukhaya” (Go forth o monks for the benefit of the many, for the happiness of the many), she left her mother, father and her motherland. She, perhaps, was one of the few early bhikkhunis who undertook missionary work to propagate Buddhism. Most of the theris mentioned in Their-Gatha during the time of the Buddha mainly looked for their own salvation. Sangamitta came over to Sinhala-Deepa and spent the rest of her life in this island serving the people, particularly the women for a better spiritual and a worldly life. It is the lead given by her that resulted in such heroines like Viharamahadevi and Somadevi to play a vital role in the history of the country. The Bhikkhuni Order she set up in the Island was instrumental in establishing the Order in other countries, too. According to a Chinese tradition, Bhikkhuni “Devasara” from Sri Lanka set up the Bhikkhuni Order in that country. Thus she was the torch bearer for the emancipation of women not only in Sri Lanka but also in some of the southeastern and eastern Asia countries.

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8 every year. It commemorates the movement for women’s rights. After women gained suffrage in Soviet Russia in 1917, March 8 became a national holiday there. The day was then predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted in 1975 by the United Nations as International Women’s Day’ (Wikipedia).

The International Women’s Day is of recent origin and an alien concept which has no bearing on women of this island, whereas women in Sri Lanka two thousand years back threw away the shackles that bound them. Declaring the day Bhikkhuni Sangamitta arrived in the Island as the National Women’s Day is the least the present generation could do to honour this great lady. Already it is a public holiday.

National Women’s Day

It is for all these reasons that Sri Lanka should be grateful and remember this great personality. It is suggested that the Sangamitta day be declared the National Women’s Day in Sri Lanka.

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