Was there Buddhism before the advent of Mahinda Thera?

The Sambuddhajayanthi - the 2600th year of Buddha’s Enlightenment which falls on the day of Vesak this year will be celebrated especially in Sri Lanka which is renowned for the preservation of Theravada Buddhism

by Rajitha Weerakoon

(May 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
The introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in 236BC by Mahinda Thera was the most significant event documented by Venerable Mahanama in the Great Chronicle - Mahavamsa. It is a fact that no other historical event impacted on the lives of Sri Lankans as the arrival of Buddhism.

The introduction of the doctrine did not come in isolation as with it was established a vibrant culture which changed Sri Lanka’s landscape in every sphere. It brought an amazing architectural construction technology, a rich artistic tradition and a disciplined life-style among the people with spiritual directions taking a meaningful turn.

Besides, the fact that Emperor Asoka sent his son Mahinda Thera to establish the Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka and thereafter dispatched his only daughter Theri Sanghamitta with the Bo sapling may surely have had effects unparalleled on the Sri Lankans while the Royal patronage the new religion received from King Devanampiyatissa (307-267BC) laid the foundation for Buddhism to flourish for well over 2500 years.

However, was Buddhism not known among the earlier inhabitants of Sri Lanka before the ceremonial introduction of the doctrine by the Indian Emperor? According to archaeologists and historians, ideologies from Northern India travelled from the 6th century BC to the South along India’s trade network, both overland and via the sea.

The Jataka tales abound with stories of carters travelling from one town to another, trading goods. Even Suppadevi – Vijaya’s grandmother’s episode as given in the Chronicle relates her being carried away by a lion while travelling with traders – stories which indicate the existence of a bustling trade network across ancient India.

The documentation of the two trading brothers from Sri Lanka – Thapassu and Bhalluka, Buddha’s earliest converts illustrates the access Sri Lankans had to Buddhism via sea routes. As the two brothers had reached a port north of present Trincomalee, historians state that it was most likely that they had sailed to this port from an Eastern Indian trading port. And most probably, they were engaged in international trade as from the port of Lanka, they had sailed to the East. So, Buddhism had travelled along sea routes from India to Sri Lanka and from Sri Lanka probably to the East.

The Mahavamsa author although he had not acknowledged the fact that Buddhism was known among the early inhabitants long before it was formally introduced, however gives himself away with the documentation of the Visits of the Buddha to Sri Lanka which should have taken place about two and a half centuries before the arrival of Buddhism.

The Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka, documented as the visit to Mahiyangana, was recorded to have taken place nine months after He attained Enlightenment. “When God Sumana met the Buddha and supplicated for a token to be worshipped, the Buddha presented him with a fistful of blue-black hair from the crown of His head which God Sumana enshrined in a small dagoba of sapphire (Indunilmini Seya) at Mahiyangane. On His death bed of the Buddha, Sarabhu Thera, a disciple of Sariputta, one of Buddha’s chief disciples extracted with his bare hands from the embers the givatti-dhathu (adam’s apple,) brought it to Sri Lanka and enshrined it in the same dagoba in Mahiyangane.”

Buddha’s next visit had been to Nagadeepa, five years later. His visit to Kelaniya had been recorded as having taken place eight years later.

All these hallowed places still stand and are venerated as places visited by the Buddha. Therefore, if the Buddha did visit Sri Lanka, could it be possible that Buddhism was non-existent before the arrival of Mahinda Thera? It cannot be said that it was due to the fact that Sri Lankans at the time did not have the intellectual depth to absorb a doctrine such as Buddhism. The two trading brothers from Sri Lanka – Thapassu and Bhalluka were converted to Buddhism by the Buddha Himself at a time when they were on a trading mission to India.

Mahavamsa also has the account of the Tiriyaya sthupa located in the North East in the Trincomalee District built by these two trading brothers. According to the Mahavamsa, the brothers arriving in Sri Lanka from India, built the sthupa – which happened to be during the lifetime of the Buddha. If they embraced Buddhism and overwhelmed with devotion built the first sthupa of Sri Lanka, would they not have imparted the message of Dhamma to the people of Sri Lanka?

Mahavamsa records the fact that princess Bhaddhakachchana who arrived in Sri Lanka from North India and was made the Queen of King Panduvasdev was the daughter of Buddha’s first cousin King Pandushakya. Pandushakya was the son of King Amithodana, who was the brother of King Suddhodhana, the father of the Buddha. Bhaddhakachchana was followed by her six brothers who set up kingdoms in Sri Lanka in the 5th century BC. Therefore, is it not possible that they, who were close relatives of the Buddha, followed Buddhism in their adopted homeland?

Besides, Sri Lanka, being located in close proximity to India, all cultural forces and ideologies that existed in ancient India did flow to Sri Lanka and Buddhism could not be an exception. There is Hinduism, Jainism, Brahmanism and various other faiths mentioned in our ancient documentation. The Mahavamsa author, however, may not have been too keen to state that Buddhism did exist in ancient Lanka as it certainly was more attractive to say that Buddhism was sent by no less a person than the great Indian Emperor -Dharmasoka through his son Mahinda.

And even though Buddhism had been known among the ancient Sri Lankans, the formal introduction of Buddhism did make a tremendous impact on Sri Lankans that led to a change in direction in Sri Lanka in every sphere.

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