Buddhism and Architecture in Sri Lanka | Daily News

Buddhism and Architecture in Sri Lanka

Ajanta Caves (The local feudalistic lord and king – Upendragupta), Ellora Caves(built during 757-783 AD by Krishna I who was the uncle of Dantidurga)
Ajanta Caves (The local feudalistic lord and king – Upendragupta), Ellora Caves(built during 757-783 AD by Krishna I who was the uncle of Dantidurga)

Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in 236 BC and became the national religion of the Sinhalese from that date. It is, however, necessary for a proper study of the history of Buddhism in the island to consider the state of the island and its social and political developments, and the culture and character of the people immediately preceding this period.

This will enable us to get a clear understanding of the manner in which such a far-reaching revolution in the beliefs, manners, customs and character of a people was affected by the introduction of this new religion and the progress in literature, art and culture that has been manifested through its influence.

Emperor Asoka and Buddhism in India

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 Bindusaara 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 Kaalinga, in the course of which 100,000 were slain and 150,000 taken prisoners. But the carnage of the Kaalinga war caused him much grief and the king were attracted towards the humanistic teachings of Buddhism.

According to the Sri Lanka chronicles, it was a young novice named Nigrodha who converted Asoka.

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 (Saasana). It was at this Council held by a thousand theras (elders) under the leadership of Moggaliputta Tissa, at Paataliputta, that the Pali Canon of the Theravaada, 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 Saasana there. Thus the thera Moggaliputta Tissa deputed Majjhantika Thera to Kaasmira-Gandhaara, Mahaadeva Thera to Mahisamandala, Rakkhita Thera to Vanavaasi, Yona-Dhammarakkhita Thera to Aparaantaka, Dhammarakkhita Thera to Mahaarattha, Mahaarakkhita Thera to Yonaloka, Majjhima Thera to Himavanta, theras So.na and Uttara to Suvannabhuumi, and Mahinda Thera with theras Itthiya, Uttiya, Sambala and Bhaddasaala to Lanka, saying unto the five theras: “Establish ye in the delightful land of Lanka the delightful religion of the Vanquisher.”

Mahinda Thera and Devaanampiya Tissa

The first meeting of the king of Lanka and the thera Mahinda is graphically described in the chronicles of Sri Lanka. The full-moon day of Jettha was a day of national festival in Lanka. Men and women were engaged in amusing themselves.

The king with a large party of followers went to Mihintale hills on a hunting expedition. There he saw the theras with shaven heads dressed in yellow robes, of dignified mien and distinguished appearance, who faced him and addressed him not as ordinary men addressing a king but as those to whom a king was their inferior. The conversation impressed the king and his immediate surrender to the wisdom and piety displayed by the thera was complete. Mahinda Thera in reply to the king’s inquiry as to who they were and whence they had come, said:

“Sama.naa maya.m Mahaaraaja Dhammaraajassa saavakaa tav’eva anukampaaya Jambudiipaa idhaagataa.”

“We are the disciples of the Lord of the Dhamma. In compassion towards you, Mahaaraaja, We have come here from India.”

When he heard these words of the thera, the king laid aside his bow and arrow, and approaching the thera, exchanged greetings with him and sat down near him. Mahinda then had a conversation with the king, and realizing that the king was intelligent enough to comprehend the Dhamma, preached the Cuulahatthipadopama Sutta.At the end of the discourse the king and his retinue of forty thousand people embraced the new faith. Having invited the missionaries to the city the king left for his palace. Mahinda spent his first day in Sri Lanka at Mihintale where he solemnized the first ecclesiastical act by admitting to the Order the lay-follower Bhanduka who had accompanied him from India.

Progress of Buddhism in Lanka

Devaanampiya Tissa ruled in Sri Lanka for forty years. It was in the first year of his reign that Buddhism was introduced and from that time the king worked for the progress of the new faith with great zeal. Apart from the Mahaavihaara, the Cetiyapabbatavihaara, the Thuuparaama and the Sacred Bodhi Tree, he established numerous other monasteries and several Buddhist monuments.

The chronicles mention that he built monasteries a yojana from one another. Among these monuments the Isurumuni-vihaara and the Vessagiri-vihaara are important centers of worship to this day. He is also credited with the construction of the Pathamaka-cetiya, the Jambukola-vihaara and the Hatthaalhaka-vihaara, and the refectory. Thousands of men and women joined the Order during his reign.

The king not only built vihaaras for their residence but also provided them with their requisites. It was not only in the capital city that Buddhism spread in his reign but even in distant regions like Jambukola in the north and Kaajaragaama and Candanagaama in the south.


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