Traditions of the pre-Mihintale era | Daily News


Traditions of the pre-Mihintale era

It is evident from the chronicles relating the early history of Sri Lanka that before the introduction of Buddhism in the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BCE) there was no single religion which was widely accepted as the national religion of the country. Nevertheless, there was a wide range of religious beliefs and practices, different from one another, and each individual seems to have freely observed his religion according to his belief.

A noteworthy feature of the pre-Buddhist religion of Sri Lanka is that it was a mixture of the aboriginal cults and the beliefs of the aryan newcomers.

The worship of yaksas and yaksinis was a widely prevalent aboriginal custom of pre-Buddhist Lanka. King Pandukabhaya, the grandfather of Devanampiya Tissa, provided shrines for many of these spirits and also gave them sacrificial offerings annually. Some of these yaksas and yaksinis mentioned by name are Kalavela, Cittaraja, Vessavana, Valavamukhi and Citta. Vyadhadeva, Kammaradeva and Pacchimarajini, though not known as yaksas and yaksinis, also belong to the same category of aboriginal spirits. Trees like the banyan and palmyrah were also connected with the cults of these spirits showing that tree-worship was also prevalent.

Many scholars agree that these yaksas and other non-human beings are none but the spirits of the dead relatives and tribal chiefs who, the people believed, were capable of helping friends and harming enemies. This belief, as is widely known, formed one of the main features of the primitive religion and is extant even today.

Accounts relating the pre-Buddhist history of Sri Lanka also show a considerable influence of the religious trends of India on the society of Lanka. Several niganthas (Jainas) such as Giri, Jotiya and Kumbhanda lived in the reign of Pandukabhaya and hermitages were constructed for them and other ascetics like ajivakas, brahmans and the wandering mendicant monks. Five hundred families of heretical beliefs also lived near the city of Anuradhapura. The brahmans occupied a high place in society and their religious beliefs were also respected. The worship of Siva too may have been prevalent.

The account in the Mahavamsa of the settling of the adherents of various sects by King Pandukabhaya does not specifically mention the presence of any adherents of Buddhism among them. But the work refers to three visits of the Buddha to Sri Lanka, a statement which, though not corroborated by other evidence, has not been disproved. Legendary accounts also claim that two stupas — the Mahiyangana and the Girihandu — were constructed before the introduction of Buddhism. Among the newcomers too there could have been some members who were acquainted with Buddhism, especially as Bhaddakaccana, who arrived with 32 other maidens in the guise of nuns, was a close relative of the Buddha.

Humanistic teachings of Buddhism

Buddhism as a form of religious expression gained ascendency in India during this period. Emperor Asoka was crowned, according to the chronicles, in the year 218 of the Buddhist era (i.e., 268 BCE). Like his father Bindusara and grandfather Candragupta, Asoka was a follower of the brahmanical faith at the beginning of his reign. In the early years of his reign he followed an expansionist policy and in the eighth year of his coronation he conquered Kalinga, in the course of which 100,000 were slain and 150,000 taken prisoners. But the carnage of the Kalinga war caused him much grief and the king was attracted towards the humanistic teachings of Buddhism. According to the Sri Lanka chronicles, it was a young novice named Nigrodha who converted Asoka.

After the conversion of this great emperor Buddhism flourished under his patronage. He inculcated the teachings of the Buddha and set up edicts of morality at numerous places of his vast empire so that his subjects would adhere to them and his successors might follow him. He himself followed those morals and set an example to the others. The king is reputed to have built 84,000 stupas. The monks were lavishly provided with their requisites.

The king even permitted his son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta to join the Order when they were twenty and eighteen years of age respectively. These two illustrious disciples became noted for their piety, attainments, learning and profound knowledge of the Dhamma.

Vast numbers joined the Order in the reign of Asoka solely to share the benefits showered on it by the king, and such people were not only lax in their conduct, but also held doctrines counter to the teachings of the Buddha.

It was this dissenting element that led to the holding of the Third Buddhist Council under the patronage of King Asoka in order to purify the Buddhist religion (Sasana). It was at this Council held by a thousand theras (elders) under the leadership of Moggaliputta Tissa, at Pataliputta, that the Pali Canon of the Theravada, as it exists today, was finally redacted.

At this Council was also taken the important, decision of sending missionaries to different regions to preach Buddhism and establish the Sasana there. Thus the thera Moggaliputta Tissa deputed Majjhantika Thera to Kasmira-Gandhara, Mahadeva Thera to Mahisamandala, Rakkhita Thera to Vanavasi, Yona-Dhammarakkhita Thera to Aparantaka, Dhammarakkhita Thera to Maharattha, Maharakkhita Thera to Yonaloka, Majjhima Thera to Himavanta, theras Sona and Uttara to Suvannabhuumi, and Mahinda Thera with theras Itthiya, Uttiya, Sambala and Bhaddasala to Lanka, saying unto the five theras: “Establish ye in the delightful land of Lanka the delightful religion of the Vanquisher.”

Mahinda was thirty-two-years-old when he undertook the mission to Sri Lanka. He had adopted the religious life at the age of twenty, mastered the doctrines and attained the highest spiritual life, i.e., arahantship. Pondering on the fitting time to come to Lanka, he perceived that Mutasiva, the ruler at that time, was in his old age, and hence it was advisable to tarry until his son became ruler.

Message from Asoka

In the meantime Mahinda visited his relatives at Dakkhinagiri and his mother at Vedisagiri along with his companions. His mother Devi, whom Asoka had married while he was yet a prince, was living at Vedisagiri at that time. Having stayed for six months at Dakkhinagiri and a month at Vedisagiri, Mahinda perceived that the right time had come, for the old ruler was dead and his son Devanampiya Tissa had become king.

Devanampiya Tissa was the second son of Mutasiva. He was a friend of Asoka even before he became king but the two had not seen each other. The first thing that Devanampiya Tissa did when he became king was to send envoys to Asoka, bearing costly presents. The envoys, when they returned, brought among other things the following message from Asoka:

“Aham Buddhañ ca Dhammañ ca Sanghañ ca saranamgato upasakattam vedesim Sakyaputtassa sasane tvamp'imani ratanani uttamani naruttama cittam pasadayitvana saddhaya saranam bhaja.”

“I have taken refuge in the Buddha, his Doctrine and his Order, I have declared myself a lay-disciple in the religion of the Sakya son; seek then, O best of men, refuge in these best of gems, converting your mind with believing heart.”

This message of Asoka was conveyed to King Devanampiya Tissa in the month of Vesakha and it was the full-moon day of the following month Jettha (Sinhala Poson) that Mahinda fixed for his arrival in Sri Lanka. Among the companions of Mahinda were the theras Itthiya, Uttiya, Sambala and Bhaddasala, the samanera Sumana who was the son of Sanghamitta, and the lay-disciple Bhanduka who was the son of a daughter of Devi's sister and had become an anagami (once-returner) on hearing a sermon of Mahinda preached to Devi. 

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