Anuradhapura, Politics and Governance, Polonnaruwa

Nalanda Sahayogaya

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Grappling and struggling
With this constructed reality
Where everyone wants to succeed
But so few do
Why don’t we try and forge
Our own reality?

I find it difficult to judge or criticize the actions and omissions of individuals without reference to the ideas and times they served. In the final analysis every individual is part of a larger pattern, a larger emotion and though process shared by other countrymen. This implementation of a collective will is what we refer to as our praxis – the application of a theory into life. Within the pan Indian cultural world (which extended from Maldives to Lanka and Indonesia in the South) this idea of putting principles into practice was recognized as yoga. Under Sri Lankan skies where the dharma taught by Buddha was practiced in earnest and integrated into both work and life (as far as the intelligence of Anuradhapura man permitted) this collective effort came to be known as sahayogaya or collective praxis and collaboration.

Over the centuries our collective ignorance has taken toll of this practical spirit so much that we are now comfortable with the widest gap between rhetoric and reality. We are also happy to celebrate abstract learning as an end in itself. Truly the history of Sri Lanka has been a march from authenticity to mediocrity.

Simplicity, creativity and spirit were lost as insecurity and ego assumed control over a displaced nation. The Sinhalese were only displaced from Rajarata – not from their country. But they left their soul amongst the ruins there. In this essay we trace two remarkable tendencies that coexisted throughout the Second Sinhala Civilisation that originated in Dambadeniya. They testify equally to our incapacity and capacity for cooperation and coexistence.

Resisting ‘others’ – Kandyan Buddhism

One of these became crystallized as Kandyan Buddhism – a form of Buddhism that came to represent the visible and political remnant of the great heritage of the ancient Sinhalese. This is the mainspring from which the exclusivist Buddhist identity draws sustenance.

By the time the Sinhalese took refuge in Polonnaruva the South Asian region and in fact the world had changed. The great irrigation civilisations were living on borrowed time. Exploration, plunder, piracy and trade would become the new sources of global power. We were a nation of cultivators that lacked a standing army and a serviceable navy. We had no visions of distant foreign lands, no tradition of trade and commerce to build a foundation for this new age. And so we continued to look inward and find strength in the same ethic of cultivation and a brotherhood united by a sacred bond to the Buddha Sasana. The Sinhalese could not be mobilized to kill or lay their lives down for anything less.

Court politics for the nobility and kings on the other hand acquired a markedly cosmopolitan character. This elite had now drawn away considerably from the old tripartite consensus of the village, sangha and king where the Gamani and Asoka principles ensured a strong interdependence between these three elements of sovereignty. These two principles would remain relevant right up to the reign of our last sovereign king to fuel our economy, defence and state policy but their vitality would be markedly diminished in this second phase from 1236 to 1815.

Vijayabahu I had fought a ‘soldier’s war’ unlike Dutugemunu who drew his power directly from the people. The connection between the king and countrymen was less horizontal and more vertical now. In fact Vijayabahu relied on the ‘velaikkara’s – the South Indian warriors to guard the palladium of kingship – the tooth relic. All this pointed to a marked reduction of the democratic element that underscored Gamani Kingship. The plebeian age was drawing to a close. The new age would be patrician where military force rather than the consent of the people would validate and sustain monarchy.

The alienation between the elite and people that set in is dealt with in some detail by Martin Wickramasinghe in his work Buddhism and Culture. Sanskrit became the language of the lettered, the Brahmins infiltrated court rituals and became chief advisors (purohitas) to kings. The unlettered villagers and the simple monks who served them continued to use prakrit – the simple language that would be the distinguishing marks of works like Saddharmalankaraya, Saddharmaratnavaliya and Loveda Sangarava. The word Hinduism was not in vogue then (this being a term coined during the British Raj in India). Brahmanism and Saivism with their locally domesticated Gods had encroached the sphere of influence of the sangha and this gave a new impetus to a strong strain of anti-Brahmin sentiment among the local monks who saw their role as guardians of the purity of the Buddhist faith and by implication of the Sinhala race.

Kalinga Magha, who lit the funeral pyre of the First Sinhala Civilisation launched a savage attack against the monks and nobles who were predominantly of the govi caste. Liyanagamage poses the question whether Magha, a religious fanatic was influenced by the Veera Saiva sect in Southern India that stood against all caste distinctions. In fact the Second Sinhala Civilisation, which placed survival of the state (as defined by the elite) before other considerations drew the elements of Sinhala race, govi caste and Buddhism tightly to affirm an ideal of purity by birth referred to as ‘ubhaya kula parishuddha’.

Brahmin influence however did not wane. Even during the reign of Parakramabahu VI, the last unifier of Thunsinhale the Brahmin purohitas continued to function. In fact the last Buddhist King of Kotte Buvanekabhahu VII was advised by Sri Ramaraksha Panditha, a Brahmin who also led the famous Kotte embassy to Lisbon in 1543.

The second half of the 16th century was period of profound uncertainty where the fate of Sinhala Buddhist kingship hung in the balance. Both the Kings of Kotte (Dharmapala) and Kandy (Karaliyadde) had converted to Christianity. Sitawaka Rajasinha bore the standard of resistance to the Portugese but ultimately he too renounced the ancient faith of his forefathers to embrace Saivism. The reasons for this conversion are not clear and Alan Strathern[1] states that a conspiracy by the Buddhist sangha against him could have been either the cause or consequence of his conversion.

In any event the sangha was hard at work during this disastrous period to restore Buddhist Kingship. Even the tooth relic may have disappeared with the death in Jaffna of Vidiya Bandara – perhaps its last custodian. Vidiya was hounded out of Kotte by the Portugese and Sitawaka forces acting in unison against a feared adversary. He found sanctuary in Jaffna but it was his fate to meet a violent end there. The tooth relic was somehow ‘re-discovered’ in Delgamuva to serve the interests of the Second  Sinhala Civilisation.

Devanagala Ratanalankara was the monk who worked indefatigably to bring the Kandyans together. They found their champion in a chieftain – a non royal, Konappu Bandara, who had defected to the Portugese and then turned apostate to re-establish Buddhist Kingship in Kandy. The point here is that the Kandyan Kingdom was formed in staunch opposition to both Saivism and Christianity. The name chosen by Devanagala for Konappu Bandara – Vimaladharmasuriya which means ‘sun of the pure doctrine’ is expressive of this aspiration towards purity in an age of little purity. Of course the rank duplicity and infidelity of these times stands in contra-distinction to the noble aspirations of monks like Devanagala (and also Welivita Sri Saranankara after him) to defend what seemed an absent ideal.

The South Indians kept coming in to be naturalized as Buddhists and Govi kula Sinhalese. In addition to these immigrants the Kandyan Kings sought royal wives from South India to keep the idea of royal blood alive and to avoid a marriage into any family of a Kandyan noble. With these royal maidens came their relatives – the Malabar traders among them who maintained their separate identity, religion and a trade supported by whatever royal monopoly Kandy enjoyed under the stranglehold of the Dutch, thus forming a distinct power bloc. The resultant anti-Malabar sentiment would eventually separate the king from the Nobles who conspired to bring in the British as the saviours of the people.

Consequently Kandyan Buddhism, which is here used as a composite term to denote the ideology of opposition based on a unique Sinhalese identity had no consistent enemy. It would sometimes join with the South Indians against the white man and at other times join with the white man against the South Indians. This selective xenophobia was a result of the absence of clear moral principles as the basis of state policy.

Students of history are more familiar with the concept of “Protestant Buddhism” developed by Obeysekere and Gombrich – where lay activism and leadership used modern technology to compete against Christianity, most notably in the field of education. However within the trinity of Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala, Colonel Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala it was the high priest Sumangala who retained full allegiance to Kandyan Buddhism – a form which has continued to flourish well into the 21st century. The three signal characteristics of Kandyan Buddhism (past and present) can be set out as follows:

  • Hierarchical and exclusive – instinctively royalist and backward looking
  • Apex social institution sharing the advantages, divisions and defilements of  a feudal society
  • Custodian of all authentic externals as successor to conservative Mahavihara – the texts, physical relics and monuments that reify the idea of holiness deftly shifting the focus away from the duty upon Buddhists to embody the living dharma through authentic internals such as renunciation and meditation.

Our Axial Heritage

The second remarkable tendency is a tradition of collaboration with our South Indian neighbours that stretches back to antiquity. It is written down that King Vijaya sought and obtained his wife from Madhura – thus making the Dravidians co-creators of Lankan Kingship. Kuveni’s children sought refuge in Malaya Rata – just as the Sinhalese themselves would find their last resting place there. The cycle ended with the arrival of Nayaks from Madhura to provide us with our last four kings, Sri Vijaya, Kirthi Sri, Rajadhi and Sri Wickrama.

Just as our ancient history can be viewed as a defence of the island against South Indian invasions it can also be viewed as a historic collaboration with progressive and sympathetic forces on the mainland from time to time.

The Dravidian had a special place within the Lankan Royal Court – a place that is consistent with the origins of the Vijayan regal line and the loyalty they have displayed in service to the Lankan crown and Buddhist Kingship.

Colonial Tamil intellectuals and leaders like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan were well aware of this historical fact and they considered themselves genuine and true blooded Lankans. Some of the Sinhalese leaders on the other hand preferred to forget or ignore this facet. Democracy and universal franchise promoted a sense of dominance through numbers and this alienated the Tamils. Ignorant to their common history most Sinhalese and Tamil colonial leaders were blinded by English education and their new trappings and they literally dug the graves of future generations of Sinhalese and Tamil youth who would die fighting each other.

The Polonnaruva Period represents a triumph of this principle of co-existence and harmony as this was also a time of extensive contacts with our South Indian neighbours. One only needs to compare the ancient monuments in Anuradhapura with those in Polonnaruva and ask if the Siva Temples found side by side with Buddhist architecture represents a dilution of Buddhism or a higher level of spiritual sophistication.

It is often overlooked that Lanka became a beneficiary of the Axial Age with the reception of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. The axial age was a transformative period for human societies in China, India, Israel and Greece as this produced a whole pantheon of human beings – Lao Tzu and Confucius in China, Mahavira and Buddha in India, the Old Testament Prophets in Israel and the Greek Philosophers including Socrates and Pythagoras who rose to a position that virtually challenged the Gods in the sense of blind belief and fear of unknown forces of nature.

These were human beings who swung the attention of the people away from distant Gods and rituals towards their own heart and mind; their ‘higher self’. It was the axial age that bestowed on humanity its most powerful ideas like self-reliance, compassion, interdependence and that the earthly body and mind could be transcended with the human spirit. It conveyed the idea that human beings could evolve into a divine way of life by working through and rising above our animal and human realities.

Axial wisdom acknowledges that different cultures may, in their search for truth, develop approaches that seem different from an external perspective. Nevertheless the basic motivation and human qualities that drive this search by different individuals separated from each other by time and space can be remarkably uniform and consistent from an internal perspective. The spiritual history of mankind has, from its very inception, been an exercise in communication. The great teachers of the axial age sought the best and highest knowledge and they were not compartmentalized by current classifications and written doctrines produced by latter day priests. It is the free exercise of their critical faculties, their wisdom and compassion that provided the spiritual scaffolding for those societies that received the axial inheritance. Just as Buddhism borrowed freely from non vedic sramanic or ascetic movements that pre-dated Buddha, Brahmanism borrowed sramanic ideas to change and reform from within. In the same way Judaism, Christianity and Islam represent different stages in one search for God shaped as always by social changes and by the pioneering spirits who worked on the frontiers of human conscience.

Both the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva Periods represent the ability of the ancient Lankan to apply the wisdom of the axial age to a changing reality in order to respond to human needs in a way that was fundamentally sane and constructive without resorting to unnecessary violence as a solution to human problems.

The reign of Kirthi Sri Rajasinha (1847-1882) and his collaboration with the last Sangharaja Welivita Sri Saranankara was the last flicker of this same spirit – a clear application of the axial tradition against overwhelming odds in an age of deceit and violence. At the same time we saw in the attempted assassination of Kirthi Sri by a clique of Kandyan Buddhist monks and nobles the limits of its application in feudal Sinhalese society where hatred of the Saivite ‘other’ would re-surface to cloak personal greed and weakness in a nationalist garb. Kirthi Sri survived the assassination attempt to pardon both the Sangharaja and his deputy after banishing them for 5 years.

The Esala Pageant – the traditional homage paid to the revered tooth relic by the Kandyan Buddhists has chosen to reflect diversity within the traditional Buddhist unity by accommodating the four devales dedicated to the Gods, Natha, Vishnu and Kataragama and the Goddess Pattini. This is an express moderation or modification of Kandyan Buddhism that enriches and ennobles it; a change to the form that enhances the overall substance by acknowledging a wider reality.

Collaboration with ‘others’ – the Nalanda Principle

In the dead centre of this island, connecting the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva with the last Royal capital in Kandy is found the monument to our Axial Heritage of wisdom, inclusion, openness and collaboration. The little village of Nalanda may be named to remind Lankans of the great Buddhist University in India where the intellect and spirit soared high in Buddhist India. The recently diverted Mahaweli River skirts the sacred ground that is tucked away just one kilometre from the main road. The surrounding environment is idyllic and peaceful – unspoilt by the attentions of our cacophonic organized religion. The glory of Nalanda seems to be its unobtrusive and enigmatic nature – neither totally Buddhist nor totally Hindu; it defies definition, appropriation and misappropriation. The architecture is South Indian and Pallava and its construction is placed between the 8th and 10th centuries.

This is a terribly important period for several reasons.

The Muslim invasions were ravaging India and institutional Buddhism there was nearing collapse. At the same time a new phase of Buddhism began under the patronage of the Pala Emperors where Buddhist individuals began to leave the monastic fold and its limitations and sought a new synthesis of practical living that would affirm the original democratic, egalitarian and liberative fundamentals of Buddhism. This was the Tantric Age and its exemplars were the 84 Maha Siddhas who would renounce worldly convention and respectability in their search for truth.

Tantrism influenced Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Of its positive side there is little mention whilst the negative side dominates our official history. Conversely we know everything positive about Theravada orthodoxy but the negatives are not part of the establishment but individual deviance. Tantric Buddhism requires the same treatment.

In any event the critical tradition of our early Buddhism was receptive to those currents of Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism that made their way into the island and this checked the dominance of the traditional Mahavihara.

This period also coincides with the outstanding stewardship of the Second Lambakarna Dynasty which began when the First Sena (or warrior) King Manavamma returned from India. He had lived there where he fought on the side of Pallava Princes and won their confidence as a man of great nobility and courage. He was crowned in 684 AD after liberating the land from the menace of foreign mercenaries who had dominated local politics for a long time. The 300 year period that thus began ended with the capture of the last King of Anuradhapura and the relegation of Lanka to a Province of the Chola Empire. The second Lambakarna era was the final consolidation of the Anuradhapura Kingdom – an era of peace, prosperity and stability due in great measure to the restraint, moderation and discipline of the royalty who ensured peaceful and orderly successions to the throne. This was an exceptional record considering the periods that went both before and after it.

Thus this period began with a strong Pallava influence. The Nalanda Gedige bears an interesting design. The rectangle that houses it is divided into four squares.

As we move counter-clockwise from the figure six on the clock face the first square on the right hand side has a Bo Tree. This is a symbol of growth. The second bears the mound of a stupa.  This is a circle which stands for harmony and inclusion within a homogeneous identity unified by Buddhism. The third square is the Gedige in sculpted sandstone. This is a square. The movement from a circle to a square is also the movement from a simple homogeneous to a complex heterogeneous identity. This is precisely the challenge facing Lankans today. Engaging a resurgent religion (Hinduism) at the spiritual level requires religious sophistication. Such sophistication was demonstrated most notably by Indians when they refined the concepts of Gods Shiva and Vishnu in response to the challenges posed by Buddhism and Jainism from the 5th century BC. The construction of the Gedige probably anticipated a time when Buddhism in Lanka would co-exist with other faiths.

The fourth and final square is empty. The Buddhist disciple who recites ‘I take refuge in Buddha’ must eventually see what the Buddha sees. He or she must endeavour to see with the eyes of a Buddha – not with worldly eyes that discriminate between ‘this’ and ‘that.’ The Buddha inside Nalanda Gedige sees emptiness and freedom – the final square which is devoid of all man-made symbolism.

Nalanda is a place where time has literally stood still. Its message has eluded Lankans who go from place to place wondering, who built this? Who lived here? When was this built and what do the carvings represent and how can we label this? Buddhist, Saivite or Tantric?

These are no doubt an important part of the inquiry. But the real question is who is the person standing before this monument? What is the personal message it bears for me across the centuries? To me, stuck with a plastic identity card that ensures my movement unmolested by the Police and Army and an equally plastic identity defined by race, religion and caste that seeks life and meaning in a world threatened with change and annihilation? What is the square I must relate to and occupy to understand its message?


[1] Strathern, Alan (2010). Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth Century Sri Lanka: Portugese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land. Cambridge University Press India/Vijitha Yapa Colombo