Was it simply an intelligence test?:
Mango Puzzle of Arahant Mahinda
The most significant event in the history of Buddhist Civilization of
Sri Lanka is the introduction of Buddhism by the Great Arahant Mahinda
Thera in the middle of the third century BC. It marked a new era in our
history. Even though we were very close to India physically and
culturally we were not blessed with the presence of Buddhist monks who
would enrich our national life with Buddhist values until Emperor Asoka
sent his own son Mahinda to introduce Buddhism to Sri Lanka. We,
therefore, respectfully venerate Mahinda Thera as ‘anubuddha’ (second
Buddha) and feel ever grateful to Emperor Asoka.
The long overdue introduction of Buddhism took place as a consequence
to Emperor Asoka’s adoption of Dhamma Vijaya policy. Having changed his
mindset after saddeningly shocking experience of Kalinga war he had
given up conquering of land (Dig Vijaya) and hunting expeditions (Vihala
yata). He had studied the Buddhist Scripture to the extent of being able
to design a course of scriptural studies for Buddhist monks. And he
wanted to actively engage in expanding the message of the Buddha to the
rulers of neighbouring provinces and countries too.
He was probably inspired by the Chakkavatti Sihanada Sutta where an
emperor’s portrait is painted as spiritually conquering the world by a
programme of moral education based on five precepts. Educating friendly
kings in Buddhism by correspondence is not unusual in the history of
India. As a matter of fact the first correspondence of Buddhism was
offered by king Bimbisara.
He sent correspondence lessons to the King of Gandhara and the king
of Roruka. Both of them were converted to Buddhism. Emperor Asoka
followed suite when he wrote to the king of Sri Lanka, Devanampiya Tissa.
They were, as recorded, unseen friends. Asoka is reported to have
written to Devanampiya Tissa “I have taken refuge in the Buddha, his
doctrine, and the Order of Sangha.
I have proclaimed myself a lay follower of the religion of the son of
Sakya clan. Seek then, O the best of men, refuge in these holy Gems,
converting your mind with believing heart.” This indicates that the king
of Sri Lanka was pre-educated by the Emperor of India before the arrival
of Mahinda, none other than his own son.
The first encounter between the Sri Lankan king and the missionaries
of Asoka was also an interesting event. That day the king of Sri Lanka
was on a hunting expedition, one of the cruel practices Emperor Asoka
gave up after converting to Buddhism.
As the king of Sri Lanka most probably had pre-knowledge of it, he
might have felt rather embarrassed being caught in the unethical act. It
is reported he immediately dropped the bow and arrows, symbolizing a
change in behaviour the moment Mahinda introduced himself and the
retinue as ‘Dhammarajassa savaka’.
Then Arahant Mahinda asked two set of questions from the king. Those
questions are known as mango question and relations question. E F C
Ludowyk has stated that it had ‘something of Socratic guile’, while the
erudite Buddhist scholar Ven Walpola Rahula Thera has said it was the
first ‘intelligence test’ on record.
As Professor Walpola Rahula writes: “During their first conversation,
Mahinda, in order to gauge the king’s intelligence and capacity to
understand, put to him some questions. This test, which can be regarded
as the first intelligence test recorded in history and, though simple
and easy at first glance, required a clear and acute mind to answer it.”
The mango question and answers were as follows:
“What name does this tree bear, O King?”
“The tree is called mango.”
“Is there another mango tree besides this?”
“There are many mango trees.”
“Are there any trees other than this mango tree and other mango
“There are many trees, Sir, but those are not mango trees.”
“And are there, besides other mango trees and those trees which are
not mango trees, yet other trees?”
“There is this mango tree, Sir”
“Thou hast a shrewd wit, O ruler of men.”
Then Arhant Mahinda asked another set of questions which formed in
the same format. Arahant Mahinda asked the king:
“Do you have relations, O king?”
The king answered: “Yes Venerable Sir, I have.”
“Do you have people who are not related you?”
“Yes Venerable Sir, there are many unrelated people.”
“Except those who are related and unrelated, are there any others?”
This would have been a tricky question, as any one would think when
the society is divided into related and non-related the entire
population is virtually exhausted. Yet the king’s mind was already fine
tuned with the previous question to analyze it carefully and give the
correct answer. He replied: “Yes Venerable, Sir, there is one. That is
What would have happened if the mango questions were not asked before
the second question, and the king gave a wrong answer to the second
question on relations? This is very important since Arahant Mahinda
would not have asked a second intelligence question of the same format
if his aim was just testing King’s intelligence.
On the other hand we cannot expect a king of a country to tolerate a
missionary to keep on ‘bullying’ him with similar set of questions like
this. Rahula has hinted the questions were to test the king’s
intelligence and capacity to understand. ‘Capacity to understand’ what?
He has not explained.
The second question appears to be the most important. Mahinda
definitely wanted to get the right answer to it. As we have already
mentioned the nature of the second question is such that it is likely
that some one might answer it in a hurry taking the division implied in
the question exhaustive as in the most of general dualistic divisions.
One may think that no one is left out when we divide the world into
our relations and those who are not related. To avoid this pitfall
Mahinda orientated the thought process of the king to see that he would
answer analytically by asking the less complicated first question.
The point we have to focus on, then, is the reason why Mahinda wanted
the king to be analytical and why he wanted the king to end up singling
out himself. In other words what significance is there in the concepts
of ‘analysis’ and ‘self’ in the message Arahant Mahinda had to offer the
king? This brings us to the very important crisis the Theravada Buddhism
in India had undergone that time.
Emperor Asoka and Arahant Moggaliputta Tissa had to face the
difficult task of filtering of Buddha’s message from ‘impurities’ of
eternalist interpretations that had crept into Buddhism in the guise of
Sabbathivada (All exist theory that confused past and future with the
In original Buddhism of Gotama Buddha, time is analyzed into past,
present and future and three verbs ‘was, is and will be’ were used
respectively to keep these three times apart from each other. But a
group of monks who had developed a wrong Abhidhamma claimed that the
term ‘is’ applicable to all three times and everything exists all three
In other words everything eternally exists in their nature (svabhava).
Traditional Theras maintained that this interpretation amounts to
smuggle in Eternalism (sassatavada) back into Buddhism and emphasized
that the Buddha was an analyst (vibhajjavadi) in relation to this
problem and maintained that there is no such ‘substance’ to be called
svabhava or atta (Self).
This indicates that to obtain a correct understanding of the Buddha’s
teachings one has to be analytical in approach and also to start with an
analytical understanding of self to avoid the wrong notion of Self. In
Buddhist ethics we have to realize the existence of conventional self
and non existence of any absolute Self.
This was still more important for Theravada since, by this time,
Mahasanghika schools (proto-Mahayanists) were developing their
criticisms against the goal of Arahanthood calling it is selfish and
developing the Bodhisattva ideal. But for Theravada, conventional self
is an important concept both ethically and ontologically.
Buddhist ethics begins with self and the criterion of good is based
on our concept of happiness. It is epitomized in Attupanayika Dhamma
pariyaya which is equivalent to the golden rule in Greek and Chinese
philosophies. Theravadins being their loving kindness meditation also
with the idea of ‘let I be happy, healthy, loving and hate-free person’.
And at the level of ontology they will analytically meditate on anatta
which brings them to the understanding of Self-less-ness (Anatta).