The Island, Thursday 07th December, 2001
The Sihalavatthu Pakarana is the oldest book which we Sinhalese possess. It is older than the Dipawansa, Mahavamsa and the Commentaries to the Buddhist Canon. It was not written in Sinhalese As the name implies it is a Pali work. Sihalavatthu Pakarana means book of Sinhalese religious stories. Many of the stories pertain to the reigns of King Saddha Tissa and his brother Dutugemunu.
The background is Sri Lanka of the Anuradhapura period. There are 82 stories in all. The author was one Rev. Dhammanandi who had gone to South India - (Andhra) for missionary work. At the time he wrote the book, he lived in a monastery at Kantakasolai. Kantasolai Vihara is referred to in an inscription at the famous monastery where the celebrated Buddhist Master Nagarjuna lived. Even Rev. Dhammanandi's name is mentioned in that inscription as reported by Dr. Senarath Paranavitana. This book must have been written after the famous famine called Beminitiya Seya occured during the time of King Valagamba.
There are several references to this famine in several stories. Men lived on the coarsest food and leaves, and many people abandoned their villages and went to the up-country (Malaya desa). Monks fled to South India and the Maldives for lack of food. Ptolomey the Castographer refers to Kantakasolai as Kantakasulos in his charts and writings Ptolomey had some idea of the shape and dimensions of Sri Lanka. But the Sinhalese while they had a correct idea of the dimensions thought Sri Lanka was round like the moon as is seen from this book.
The Sihalavatthu is of interest to us because it gives us a glimpse into Sinhalese society, culture, religious background, manners,
customs, food, pilgrimages to the Buddhist holy land in India, ports of embarkation agriculture, slavery and a host of other details.
There is reference to Maldive Islands its monasteries and monks. It was referred to as in the middle of the sea infested with sharks.
The favourite food of the well to do was peacock's flesh and hill-paddy. Sinhalese were not vegetarians as there is reference to
peacock-flesh, hare flesh and pork being offered with alms to monks.Other delicacies were milk, ghee, molasses and honey. There is a reference to a novice monk who wished he might get to eat peacock's flesh and hill paddy in his future lives also. Many of the stories inculcate the great benefits and celesteal pleasures that await men who give alms to monks. They also depict terrible sufferings that befall men who steal monastic property when they become hungry ghosts after death. Poor people were so indoctrinated in the benefits of giving alms to monks that there are a few stories in which men sold their children as domestic servants to rich families, and with their earnings gave alms to monks. A nobleman who listened to the Vessantara Jataka, preached in a sermon gave his wife and children as slaves to the Sangha. Then he offered himself as a slave. Later he
redeemed all of them by payment to the Sangha.
Jaffna peninsula was Sinhalese country governed by a King's officer.Sinhalese went on pilgrimage to India from the port of Kankesanturai and Mantota. There is reference to a group of monks who went to Buddha-Gaya. From there they went to China for missionary work and obtained royal patronage. They preached the Dharma to the people and built temples in many villages, King Saddha Tissa once went in disguise as a labourer and worked for hire as a farm-hand at harvesting. With the earnings he gave alms to monks, because he thought that would give him greater merit.
We get the picture of a people priest-ridden and superstitious prone.The miraculous element looms large in several stories, with Arahants coming air-borne from the Maldive Islands here for their alms.Superstitious like worship of Kataragama-God, the Tooth-relic and Sri Pada foot print were unknown to the Anuradhapura Sinhalese. These facts came later on.
The story of Prince Saliya meeting the outcaste girl Asokamala is a fascinating tale. King Dutugemunu was angry with this marriage, when the king visited them, she came forward with a bowl of water to wash his feet. The king thought she was more a goddess than a human being. He forgave the son saying men in love know no caste-barriers.
There are several stories of exemplary and virtuous monks who set an example in perfection and virtue, one such monk was Ven.... King Saddha Tissa asked the headmen of a province `can you tell me of a virtuous monk in your area whom I should associate and take as my spiritual advisor. They told him of a forest dwelling Arahant, who lived about 15 miles away. The king went on foots with his attendants and courtiers. He left them at a distance and went to see the Elder.The Elder knew by his super normal powers that the king was coming and what his purpose was.
The Elder thought going to the royal palace and keeping the company of the rich and powerful is too much bother for me. I am frugal, contented and happy with the barest of necessities. Only the foolish crave for gains and honours. I will disappoint the king and send him away. So he took no notice of the king who was peeping through a key-hole. The Elder was scrawling some letters on the ground. The King thought he is a flippant wordly man. He is not fit to be my spiritual mentor, and went away.
Later when he died men held his cremation with the highest honours.The King attended the cremation, hard of his exemplary saintly virtues, and wept bitterly for the foolish mistake he made by judging an Arahant according to wordly standards.
The Sihalavattu Pakarana was considered a lost book for a long time.Aggamahapandita P. Buddhadatta Thero discovered a copy in a Burmese monastery. He copied it and brought it to Ceylon in 1903. Later he discovered a copy at the headquarters of the Amarapura Sect at Welitara. It was written in Burmese characters. Hence it would have been brought there a hundred years ago when the founder came from Burma.
The author of Rasavahini, a later Pali work has taken many stories from the Sihalavatthu Pakarana to his books from Rasavahini - Ven. Dharmakeerty Sangharaja of Gadaladeniya temple took many of these stories to his celebrated Sinhala classic Saddharmalankaraya (Ornament to the Good Doctrine). Hence many stories from the Sinhalawatthu are known to students of Sihalese literature. In 1959 Ven. Polwatte Buddhadatta Thera translated this book to Sinhala and published it under the title "It Perani Sinhala Bana Katha". (Ancient Sinhalese Religious Stories).