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Buddhist Thamil Literature: Bodhisattvas

by K S Sivakumaran

(April 08, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I make it a point to read regularly the articles by Prof Nalin de Silva. The main reason for this is that he is one of the few writers in English writing to Lankan English language papers that reflects clear thinking, logical and lucid writing style. I could discern his training as an academic teacher of mathematics and scientific subjects as the reason for it.

They say that there are two kinds of thinking "straight and crooked". Very often I feel hurt when he makes some negative remarks on Lankan Thamil Community at times. This is because I am a Thamilian. I also feel that sometimes he is not equipped with full facts or the origin of some problems faced by the Lankan Thamilians.

Two of his concepts are Sinhala Buddhists (by this he means those who profess Theravada Buddhism) and Judaic thinking in Western Civilization. It is interesting to note the Theravada Buddhism is practiced mostly in Sri Lanka. And in most other countries in East Asia and South East Asia it is the Mahayana Buddhism that prevails. We also learn that Jesus Christ condemned Judaism.

Researchers and scholars have now found that Buddhist ideals were already in vogue in Thamilnadu and ancient Lanka before the advent of Emperor Asoka’s son Venerable Mahinda’s arrival in Lanka. The language of the day among the learned and educated was Pali in Sri Lanka like Latin in the west. The Dravidians including the Thamilians used Pali for their writing. While Theravada Buddhists used Pali as the lingua franca, the Mahayana Buddhists used Sanskrit which was considered the ’Deva Bashawa’

My article here is a recording of gleanings from an essay on the subject by Dr S N Kandaswamy culled out from his book Tamil Literature and Indian Philosophy published by the International Institute of Tamil Studies in Chennai.My thanks are due to the writer and the Institute.

* Hinayana (Theravada) and Mahayana were not totally opposed to each other. They shared some common aspects of the original teachings of the Buddha.

* The cult of Bodhisattvas spread over a period of 500 A D to 1400 A D

* In Thamil Literature Manimekalai (450 A D – 550 A D, and Viracholiyam (1100 A D provide major source materials for the study. Nilakesi (850 A D) and Sivagnana Chiththiyar (1250 A D) are additional texts.

* In the tradition of Thamil Buddhism as recorded in the earliest Buddhist Thamil epic Maimekalai, reference to the ideal of Arhat is rarely noticed

* The word Bodhisattva originally meant one who aspired for the attainment of Enlightenment and thereby denoted the: Would-be Buddha" The word would mean an exalted being with supreme wisdom.

* The noble trait of the Bodhisattva is also noticed in another Buddhist Thamil epic Kundalakesi

* Viracholiyam (1100 A D) is a Buddhist Thamil grammatical work

* Unlike the Sanskrit Buddhism which considered Avalokita to be the personification of compassion, the Thamil Buddhism extolled him to be the god of leaning. He was treated on a par with lord Siva.

* A minor Thamil Buddhist work is Thirupathikam

* The concept of Bodhisattva is essentially concerned with boundless compassion, complete enlightenment and universal Nirvana as evidenced from the Buddhist Thamil


The whole point in my writing this piece is to show non-Thamil readers that a great religion or philosophy is not exclusively Sinhala Buddhism but Thamil Buddhism as well. In other words I suggest that we should leave out labels and make Buddhism a universal phenomenon which spoke of compassion in particular shedding prejudices that are coloured by narrow politics.

Scholars, historians and other intellectuals should not depend only on politicized views if they are to seek truth. It’s not only Pali texts but also Sanskrit and Thamil texts too should be earnestly studied to see the other side of the picture. This should apply not only to religion, but also to Lanka’s ancient history. After all narrow parochialism hinders harmonious progress towards the realization of ONENESS. This is my humble request.

(The writer can be reached at sivakumaran.ks@gmail.com )

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