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Mauryan society introduced Bodhi worship to Sri Lanka

by Prof. M. Rohanadeera

Sunday Observer, June 15, 2003:

The event of the introduction of Buddhism to Sinhala Dvipa took place in the eighteenth regnal year of Asoka. By that time Asoka had become a great follower of the Buddha and a great patron of Buddhism.

"The fact that Asoka embraced Buddhism and gave Buddhist institutions his special patronage and support is no longer debated," says Ananda W. P. Guruge. Even if tradition and literary sources are discounted, the following inscriptions leave no room for doubt:

1. Minor Rock Edict (MRE I) says that he became a lay follower (Upasaka) of the Buddha two years and a half ago.

2. Same MRE; (Ahraura Version) pilgrimage for two hundred and fifty nights.

3. MRE III says he pledges his reverence and faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

4. Rock Edict VIII says, he visited the sacred Bodhi Tree, ten years after his coronation.

5. Minor Pillar Edict (MPE) says that he made monks and nuns united.

6. MPE I (Sanchi text) furnished that the same information is emphasized.

7. MRE I and II furnished same facts about unification.

The Sri Lankan chronicles are full of details about the establishment of Buddhism in Sinhala Dvipa. The accounts recorded in the chronicles about the arrival of Mahinda, the son of Asoka, would give one the notion that Mahinda's arrival was an unexpected surprise to Devanmpiya Tissa, the ruler of Lanka.

But a careful study of source material on this event has revealed that the event was a result of negotiations by royal missions from both countries during the previous seven months. The successive missions are given below in Buddhist Era as furnished in Sri Lankan chronicles. The period of seven months falls within two hundred thirty-five and two hundred thirty-six of Buddhist Era corresponding to eighteenth year after the coronation of Asoka.

235 B.E., Waxing moon of the month of Kattika (October): Conclusion of the third Buddhist Council held for nine months at Asokaramaya in Pataliputra, presided over by Great Thera Moggaliputta Tissa.

First Waning moon of Kattika (October): By this date the eight missions to other countries had left Pataliputra, but Thera Mahinda who was assigned to Lanka was still awaiting the news of the consecration of the new king Tissa in Sri Lanka, relying possibly on information furnished by Asoka's royal messengers.

First Waxing moon of Maggasira (November): Consecration of Devanampiya Tissa in Lanka.

First Waning moon, Maggasira (November): Mission headed by Arittha, the prime minister and Bhagineya, the sister's son of Tissa, started from Anuradhapura. Carrying valuable items such as Gem, Pearl, etc., which rose from the earth at the consecration ceremony of Tissa, to be presented to his unseen friend Asoka.

Eighth Waning moon Maggasira (November): Arittha led missions landed in Tamralipti.

Fifteenth Waning moon (November): Lankan Mission arrived in Pataliputra where they met Mahinda who was still awaiting their arrival.

From 235 B.E., first Waxing moon of November to fifteenth Waning moon, April: For five months, the Sri Lankans Royal Missions was staying in Pataliputra as Royal guests of Emperor Asoka. Thera Mahinda was also residing close by at Asokaramaya, Pataliputra, probably meeting each other daily during the five months.

235 B.E., first Waxing moon of May: The Lankan Mission left Pataliputra for Lanka via Tamralipti, whereas Maurya Missions led by Mahinda left Pataliputra to come to Lanka via Ujjayini through Vedisagiri.

235 B.E., 12th Waxing moon of May: Lankan Royal Mission came back to Anuradhapura, handed over the message and the requisites sent by Emperor Asoka for Mauryan consecration of Sri Lankan king.

236 B.E., 15th Waxing moon of May: Tissa performed his second consecration, using requisites and instructions sent by Asoka. The epithet Devanampiya used by Asoka seems to have been received by the Lankan king probably on instructions sent by the Emperor. By this date, Mahinda Missions would have reached Vedisagiri after two weeks' travel from Pataliputra.

236 B.E., 15th Waxing moon of June: Mahinda Mission from Vedisagiri appeared on Cetiya pabbata, seven miles east of the capital Anuradhapura, where they met with Lankan king Tissa and his retinue with fourfold army who probably would have gone to meet the mission on the way.

Two more delegations sent, thereafter, from Lanka to Mauryan capital, have been recorded in the chronicle. One was Novice Sumana, who came to Sri Lanka with Elder Mahinda, Sumana was the grandson of Asoka.

Mahinda sent Sumana to Asoka requesting sacred corporal relics of Buddha. Asoka sent an alms-bowlful of relics including the sacred collar bone, to be venerated by the new converts in Sri Lanka. Devanmpiya Tissa built the first stupa, the Thuparama by enshrining the collar bone.

The next delegation sent to Pataliputra was also led by Arittha, probably the same Arittha who led the first delegation. He started on the second Waxing moon of Assauja, (September). This time he went to Asoka with a message from Mahinda. The message was to send his sister, Theri Sanghamitta, along with a branch of the sacred Bodhi tree.

Accordingly, Asoka sent Sanghamitta who was thirty years old, and the right branch of the Bodhi tree together with a retinue of about two hundred belonging to various walks of life. They arrived in Anuradhapura on the seventh day of the bright half of Maggasira, November, in year 236 B.E. Sanghamitta came with eleven other nuns. She ordained five hundred Lankan ladies including Queen Anula.

Thus within six months after the arrival of the Mahinda Mission, Buddhism was well established in Sri Lanka. A new society with the fourfold Bhiksu, Bhiksuni, Upasaka, Upasika was evolved. Lanka was gifted with the sacred relics, and the sacred Bodhi tree for worship. The ceremonies connected with Bodhi worship were introduced from Mauryan society to Sri Lankan society.

Sri Lanka appendage of Mauryan Empire

Asoka conferred designation of ranks in the Mauryan administration system, on each member of the first Sri Lankan Embassy: Senapati, commander of the army, on the chief of the delegation; purohita, the chaplain, on the Brahmana; dandanayaka, the rank of general, on the minister and setthi on the treasurer.

Although it has not been specifically mentioned in the chronicle, it may be surmised that the Emperor conferred his royal epithet Devanpiya on his friend Tissa, in absentia, for we find Tissa being introduced in Sri Lankan tradition as Devanampiya Tissa, whereas Asoka in his numerous edicts being mentioned as Devanampiya, Piyadasi Raja. Looking at the subsequent events, one can argue that Asoka's wish behind Indo-Lankan contacts during this early stage was to convert Sri Lanka to an intimate and trustworthy appendage of the Mauryan Empire.

He wished his son Thera Mahinda to stay in Sri Lanka and to have mutual contacts regularly between the Mauryan capital and the Sri Lankan capital. On Thera Mahinda's request, he sent Buddha's corporal relict to Sri Lanka, through his grandson, Novice Sumana. Asoka also sent his daughter Sanghamitta with a group of eleven nuns, carrying the sacred Bodhi branch to be venerated by the new converts of Sri Lanka.

A huge retinue comprising about two hundred, was sent along with the sacred Bodhi branch. It is interesting to note that most of the high rankers in the retinue were the brothers and kith and kin of Vedisa Devi, Asoka's queen, who was also the mother of Mahinda. Some scholars tend to argue that Asoka would have wished Sri Lanka to be a haven for relatives of his queen Vedisa Devi in order to avoid future confrontation between them and his own relatives of ksatriya clan.

One significant feature of the retinue sent by Asoka along with the Bodhi tree is that it constituted a number of craftsman of the Mauryan society, who brought with them the skills which had been evolved by the Mauryan civilization and which had a special bearing on the art and architecture associated with the propagation of Buddhism. The early Brahmi inscription which specify professions or trades of the donors of caves, indicate that a wide variety of services, trades and crafts that those persons performs, it becomes clear that they represented a typical cross section of the contemporary Mauryan society.

Thus it will be clear that the waves of contacts between Sri Lanka and Mauryan empire resulted not only in establishing Buddhism in Sri Lanka but in introducing and establishing Mauryan political-social and cultural institution in Sri Lanka under the vigilance and patronage of the Mauryan Emperor. It would be clear by the above discussion that Buddhism was established in Sri Lanka on a strong foundation backed by Mauryan polity, society and culture into a model representing and akin to Mauryan interests.

By the second century B.C. Sri Lanka had been well-known and reputed in the contemporary Buddhist world. As a flourishing centre of Buddhism, this is attested by the delegates from various countries participated in the ceremony held on the inauguration of the Great Thupa by Duttagamini in Anuradhapura - delegations of Bhikkhus from various countries, neighbouring and far distant, Rajagaha, Isipatana, Kosambi, Pataliputra, Cashmir, Pallava, Alexandria, etc. Such was the state of Buddhism in the earliest phase of Sri Lankan history.

The Tipitaka handed over by Thera Mahinda to the first in his generation of Sri Lanka pupil monks was the one which was purified and concluded at the third convocation held in Pataliputra. The Sri Lankan monks brought it down in memory (Vacana magga) through generations until first century B.C. when they were afflicted with twelve years of continuous famine in Sri Lanka.

Once the famine was over, the groups of monks who preserved the sections of the Tipitaka, which they were entrusted to bring in memory, assembled in a cave at Matale in Sri Lanka and wrote down the Dhamma on ola leaves with the fear that in future the memory of the Sangha will decay and the Dhamma will be forgotten and afflicted with new waves of Mahayana which were about to blow from Indian shores.

The designations Senapati, Dandanayaka, Setthi, Purohita which were conferred on the members of the first Sri Lankan delegation came down through centuries as part and parcel of the Sri Lankan political system. Even in the twelfth century we find Dandanayaka designation is in vogue in Sri Lanka. Budal, the hero of Panakadu copper plate of A.D. 1096, has been referred as Ruhunu Dandanayaka, Dandanayaka of Rohana. The Mauryan totamistic Royal clans which came along with the Bodhi tree founded their own clans in Sri Lanka. We find such clans like Lamba Karna, Moriya, Kulinga, etc., throughout ancient and medieval periods of history.

The descendants of the families of Vaisya, Brahmana, service and craftsmen accompanied with the Bodhi tree performed their respective services and crafts through the ancient and medieval times and based on them the Sri Lankan social fabric was evolved. The Mauryan architecture, namely, town and garden planning, layout of Buddhist shrines introduced by Mahinda and the service men and craftsmen became the models of Lankan art. Mauryan sculptural motifs seen on Sanchi reliefs became the models of Lankan sculptural decorations. The decorative motifs on frontispiece of Kanthaka chetiy's at Mihintale are the best example.

Asokan Brahmi scripts were the base of origin of Sri Lankan script found in Sri Lanka. Inscriptions belong to the period from third century B.C. to A.D. first century are almost the same Brahmi script of Asoka. In this way, we can conclude in short that the Sinhala Buddhist culture was a model logically evolved from the nutshell of the Mauryan culture that was introduced in the third century B. C. under the vigilant patronage of Dhammasoka, the Mauryan Emperor.