Buddhism in Pre-Independent Sri Lanka | Daily News


Buddhism in Pre-Independent Sri Lanka

The Lankan soil has long been blessed by the Buddha. After the Parinibbana, the introduction of Buddhism by Thera Mahinda with its vast array of benefits one could call it, the greatest civilizing force in the history of the island. To begin with, Buddhism flourished with great splendour. The active pursuit of Dhamma by the royalty helped Buddhism to make great headway.

Early History

The kings became benefactors of Buddhism. They donated land, erected religious buildings, vihara, viharas and tried their best for Buddhism. But unstable political conditions due to warfare between two leading clans, civil wars, invasions by South Indian kingdoms, Chola, Pandya, Pallava etc, made island suffer at various times.

The most outstanding was king Duttagamini of the Anuradhapura period, who unified Sri Lanka and made the greatest contribution to Buddhism. In 1017 with the Chola conquest when Polonnaruwa was made the capital, the Chola rulers certainly did not support Buddhism as Buddhist kings had done in the past. It was influenced by developments in Hinduism as the Chola rulers were Hindus. During this period it was Parakramabahu (whom some have ranked with Dutugamunu), Vijayabahu and Nissankamalla were the only 3 kings, who could restore Buddhism to its former position. In 1213 AD with Magha invasion and consequent drift to the South West, Buddhism deprived of royal patronage, received a set back as never before. In the course of this drift, capitals of the kingdoms were changed till Kotte was made the capital in 1415 AD. A century later came the 4 Portuguese and with their arrival, began a new epoch in the history of Buddhism.

Western Rule

Now for the first time in the history of the island, it is a struggle by the people, to drive away the foreigners of the West, who not only settled permanently in the island but also, gradually established their superiority completely alien, in the race, language, religion and culture. The first Western power to set in was the Portuguese, with the drifting of their vessel in 1505. Next came the Dutch who stepped into their shoes in 1658 expelling them completely. Being aliens totally, it was no surprise, that they confiscated the lands, persecuted Buddhism by destroying Viharas, robbing their wealth, being cruel to Monks thus ruthlessly crushing all opposition.

The British in 1796 captured the maritime provinces. Their main interests were spices and Christians. All three powers were after trade and commerce. The British, in addition, were very keen on naval supremacy. Deterioration of discipline and the philosophy amidst the wars with the Portuguese and the Dutch during the period of eight kings, lasting 153 years, was the main cause for the political instability which directly affected the position of Buddhism.

This was remedied and saved by WelivitaSaranankaraSangharaja Thera to whom the credit goes for the revival effected and the preservation of Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha. Events in Kandy was the best example for the state of Buddhism during the British regime. 1818 is a red-letter day in the history of Buddhism in then Ceylon. The royalty that supported was no more.

The people were alienated from their religion and culture. The dark age of Buddhism still continued. To this dormant society with hardly any respect for the Blessed One by the Imperialists emerged, Anagarika Dharmapala, with his clarion call ‘Awake Sinhala people, save Buddhagaya’. By this time, following and imitating the West was the order of the day. Dharmapala knew that it was Buddhism that shaped the life of the people and the destiny of the country for the last so many years.

He ruthlessly attacked Western habits. In addition, there were patriots like WalisingheHarischandra, John de Silva, well-known novelist Piyadasa Sirisena, Tibetan Monk S Mahinda Thera whose writings, inspired and stirred nationalism among the people. Consequently, Buddhism began to gain ground so much so that it was gaining popularity in many countries of the West too. The publication of Sir Edwin Arnold’s ‘Light of Asia’ in 1879 was another landmark among these events.

Timely Union

It is well on record that at the Panadura debate Ven MohottiwatteGunananda Thera refuted the missionaries and defended Buddhism before an audience of ten thousand. The event re-awakened the interests of the Buddhist public regarding the rich potential of their own tradition. The media of the day contributed a great deal towards the Buddhist revival. A report of the Panadura debate reached the hands of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, in America, who developed a keen interest and enthusiasm in Buddhist philosophy as a true religion, arrived in May 1880 along with Madam Blavatsky as a timely saviour of Buddhism. The establishment of the Buddhist Theosophical Society opened a new chapter in Buddhist education as well as the struggle for Independence. He succeeded in persuading the Government to acknowledge the rights of the Buddhists.

He started the campaign for Buddhist schools. The Buddhist Sunday School system also owes its origin to him. Together with Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera and Anagarika Dharmapala (mentioned earlier) they became a massive force in the Reform Movement creating a new generation of leaders, providing leadership to the Revivalist Movement.

Buddhist Organization

Yet another important aspect of the combined Buddhist freedom struggle was the Temperance Movement which had emerged during this time. It was a protest against the Imperial and missionary values.

Another alarming event was the riots of 1915 – a Buddhist-Muslim confrontation which led to the jailing of the Buddhist leaders of the day. Among them were FR and DS Senanayake, Sir D B Jayatilleka, D R Wijewardena and Arthur V Dias. Immediately after their release, they resumed their fight with greater enthusiasm. Consequently, several Buddhist organizations emerged. These in addition to the earlier (BTS) Buddhist Theosophical Society and Mahabodhi Society were Colombo (YMBA) Young Men’s Buddhist Association, (ACBC) All Ceylon Buddhist Congress and the Ceylon National Congress. Their main aim was to rebuild Lanka on Buddhist national values and revive the Buddhist tradition undoing the menace caused by Imperialism.

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