Image courtesy The Star

[Constitutional amendments at Anuradhapura were signified by the erection of a new stupa; or as in the case of King Kasyapa, by moving the capital to another place. The ideological changes they symbolized wrought modifications to the tri-partite consensus of king-sangha-village as this ancient kingdom rolled on for over 1300 years. These changes were implicit but real unlike modern constitutional amendments which are explicit, and utterly false.]


The reception of Buddhism in Sri Lanka coincided with a holistic process of state formation in the 3rd century BC. An inquiry into the nature and character of early Buddhism as received in Lanka is necessary for those who struggle to understand the continued influence of the Sangha over the people. At the same time there are aspects of both religion and radical freedom (which may be referred to as the total Indian inheritance) that were never fully accepted in Lanka.

A holistic convergence of social foundations

Bandaranayake[1] identifies the period between 1000 – 500 BC as the time when the islanders moved ‘from stone age food gathering to the making of pottery, sedentary farming, irrigation, wet rice cultivation and iron technology.’ From 500 BC up to the beginning of the Common Era there is a period of remarkable growth in which there is ‘complex social and political systems, adoption of a higher religion, the formation of a (relatively) centralized state and an advanced literate civilization – the latter, centuries earlier than similar developments in mainland or insular Southeast Asia or Japan.’

Axial legacy as a formative influence

This transition from a tribal way of life to a monarchical society which went on to develop an advanced irrigation culture was initially influenced by the Axial legacy transmitted by Emperor Asoka. His personal transformation to a way of non violence, good governance and equality led to several imperial missions that propagated the Buddha Dharma around Asia in the 3rd Century BC. He favored the island of Lanka with his own son and daughter as emissaries.

Arahat Mahinda, the son of Asoka, converted the king and people of Lanka to Buddhism and established the Sangha or noble order of monks. In doing so he took great care to ensure a foundation of discipline as prescribed by the Buddha.[2] The Prince Gothama Siddhartha had followed a pre-existing tradition of renunciation, a grand sramanic and non vedic movement that was the core of the axial tradition of India.[3] The rules of discipline or vinaya that the Buddha laid down for his sangha were an extraction from the collective experience of these renunciants. This sramanic movement was a thoroughgoing critique and revolt against organized religion, society and orthodoxy in India at the time. As Sangarakshitha observes it is rare for such movements to succeed in closed societies:

Every society has its orthodoxies and alternative traditions: those systems of belief that underpin the security and cohesion of the ‘group’ and those which feed and direct the creative aspirations of society’s true individuals. The two rarely get along and the price of non conformity can be heavy indeed.[4]

But India was a unique society that reserved a special place for the non-conformist, heretic and truth seeker. As Joshi points out:

What Franklin Edgerton called the “extraordinary norm” in Indian tradition is of sramanic or non Brahmanic origin. The great doctrines concerning yoga, dhyana, karma, moksha, and samsara seem to have been the legacy of muni’s or sramana’s ‘ascetic sages.’ These great ideas were the distinguishing features of sramana thought which was perfected in early Jainism and Buddhism. In the older Upanishads these ideas appear only as intruders in the framework of Brahmana thought.[5]

While the spiritual message of the imperial siblings was inspired and nourished by this fertile background its institutionalization in Sri Lanka gave it the clear status of a state religion and made it a part of society. Thus the Lankan Sasana came to share, for better or worse the fortunes of that society.

Co-sovereigns of an island state

The formal establishment of the Sangha added the spiritual component that completed the three pillars of sovereignty of the new island state. The other two were the self-sufficient village of free cultivators headed by a gamani and a king who derived his power and authority from below as the first of all gamanis.[6] Lanka at this time was a nascent state, legendarily founded by a North Indian Prince named Vijaya whose arrival in the island had coincided with the passing away of the Buddha in 483 BC. The moral authority and imperial blessing fulfilled through the mission of Mahinda secured, strengthened and legitimized it. The local monarch was to follow an Asokan model of Buddhist kingship[7] and the foundation was laid for the Sangha to act as co-sovereigns with the king and villages.

This was the official beginning of Buddhism in Ceylon, and from the first it was marked by rather a different relationship between the king, Devanampiyatissa, and the Buddhist Order. There was a single sangha, the Mahavihara, which was established in the capital and recognized by the state; and, if legend is even approximately correct, the newly consecrated king himself took a hand in delimiting the boundary for that sangha’s observances. And the new king was expressly Buddhist: his legitimacy depended partly on his patronage of the Buddhist monks, as if in imitation of Asoka, though in fact Asoka’s own legitimacy had never been so dependent. The monks, in short, were part of the Establishment. The way was laid open for this sangha to become the Sangha, upper case, the clergy of a Buddhist nationalist state.[8]

This was a profound and lasting political entanglement.

A brief comparison would be sufficient to appreciate how Buddhism in Sri Lanka became structurally different from religion in general in India from the very inception.

Different conceptions of religion and freedom in India and Lanka

With Mahinda’s mission there was in Benedict Anderson’s phrase a ‘territorialization of religious faith’ so that the land and faith became indissolubly one in popular imagination.[9] In India faith was its own territory and it had no formal authority, hierarchy or organization. This had implications for the way religion was understood and practiced in India. Conversely Lanka becoming the ‘holy land’ of Buddhism had its own implications for the way Buddhism was understood and practiced here.

Absence and presence of an organized religion

Not having a historical founder or church Hinduism does not have a history as we understand it in the conventional sense. It is thus referred to as sanathana dharma or eternal doctrine. As Kathleen Raine observes:

The stories we tell one another are of what seems significant to us, personally or culturally. In the West a story tends to be some event or fact of the outer world; in the East, of the inner world, of soul’s country.[10]

Thus the great epics like the Mahabharatha and Ramayana are stories of the journeys of the soul. The first conventional or western style historical writing in the pan-Indian cultural area were produced in the Buddhist monasteries of Lanka with the Dipavamsa in the 4th Century AD and it’s more refined successor the Mahavamsa in the following century.

According to Gombrich:

A religion which ascribes its origins to a human founder – like the three great world religions: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam –

is intensely concerned with the biography of that founder, and above all with how he came to have access to the truth. A religion which sees itself as having a beginning in time also foresees its end (coterminous, perhaps, with the end of the world), though both beginning and end may be cyclically recurrent events in a timescale stretching beyond the limits of human imagination. Extending from a beginning to an already predicted end, the religion will thus have a course to run through history,

and its adherents may chart its progress. Such religions tend to produce chronicles of their central institution, their church, for the health of that organization is the best measure of the health of the religion as a whole, an indicator whether it is duly proceeding towards apocalyptic climax or terminal decline.[11]

This is the spiritual or existential anxiety that we may regard as the shadow of all organized religions – a phenomenon that took its own shape and colour under Sri Lankan skies. 

Bringing Buddhism down to earth

The axial enterprise in India was launched, sustained and fulfilled in a state of freedom by sramana’s who stood outside society. Their work could be understood as the ‘cultural’ period of Buddhism. This was succeeded after Buddha parinirvana by ‘civilizing’ or external features that converted Buddha Dharma into a formal and specialized approach to human salvation.

It was the sangha (lower case) established by the Buddha through the rules of discipline in the Vinaya Code who would initially systematize and conceptualize the teachings and practice into a coherent whole within the first five hundred years after the Great Passing of the Buddha. Carrithers who examined the Vinaya texts with reference to the status of this original sangha concludes that:

Properly speaking, the Vinaya texts allot monks no role at all in society. In their view the sangha is self referring and autonomous…[12]

It is proposed that the way to interpret this unequivocal statement is to qualify it to read ‘no formal role’ in society. Monks are encouraged (within the bounds of Vinaya) to live a life of wisdom and compassion and they are the best teachers of dharma when they live that teaching and embody it. Guiding and helping others informally may even be required as part of their spiritual practice. It is only when a particular social role gets formalized that the monk stops being free. At this point the monk steps across an important threshold back to society.

Thus Malalgoda[13] observes that Buddhism as spiritual technology was completely unsuited to become a world religion. The driving factors that led to this conversion (in the case of Lanka) were the missionary zeal of an emperor and accommodations made to meet the pragmatic needs of tribal unification and state building. The grandeur of state religion and popular piety of communal religion were strictly extraneous to the authentic path of renunciation and liberation; yet they became integral elements of Buddhism in Lanka. 

Social ordering through communal religion

It has been the function of Vedic religion to ensure the whole gamut of social ordering in India. As Gombrich notes:

It solemnizes what happens to people, both singly and corporately, in the course of their lives in society; so on the one hand it marks life crises (birth, puberty, marriage, death) and on the other hand it is used for events of communal importance, to bring rain or celebrate a victory. The commonest name for the patterned action which religion prescribes is ritual, but it shades over into etiquette and hygiene. The problem to which such religion primarily answers is the ordering of society; for this it provides rules which typically operate without regard for individual preferences or the individual conscience. Indeed, such rules, whether or not they are ascribed to a personal law-giver (human or divine), are felt to be grounded in reality and thus not susceptible to change by mere human decision.[14]

Thus what India lacks by way of organized religion is provided at the level of each family through the sacred rites and practices of communal religion transmitted from generation to generation by parents to their children. While Hinduism also charts paths of liberation out of the bondage of karma into moksha they are admittedly not the concern of the majority of India’s millions. Thus the central figure of communal religion is the householder who can still be guided by the divine examples of Hindu Gods and Goddesses – all of whom are also engaged in their own family lives as part of an integrated quest for salvation. This effortless linking of the profane with the profound is demonstrated by the shiva lingam – the sacred symbol of Shiva. The erect phallus that ordinarily represents sexual energy of desire is transmuted by Shiva into a vigilant meditative mind symbolized by a cobra guarding over it. In this way the lower and higher are connected and integrated without being separated.

Much has been said of the rigidity and oppression of the caste system. However this ordering has also provided stability, continuity, cultural adequacy, worth and identity that long periods of foreign rule including western colonization could not erase. Effective lay education and empowerment is another result of the responsibilities cast on householders for the maintenance of rituals.

However, it must also be conceded that segments of the population were also placed outside this social ordering as untouchables.

What is worthy of note is that these outsiders also had their champions – starting with that first outsider elevated in the post Vedic Trinity as Mahadev or god of gods – Shiva. The sramanic movement with major figures like Mahavira and Buddha and the later Bakthi movement all produced social protest and dissent against caste and social oppression, and this continued through the 19th century Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and Ramakrishna Mission to Ambedkar and beyond. The most recent entrant to this line was a Catholic Nun – Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

In Sri Lanka the reception of a higher religion and political unification led to a complex and hierarchical society. However integration of the lower was weak and an element of duplicity was preserved for the official affirmation of the purity of Theravada. As Gombrich points out:

When Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka … it entered a society without an articulated or systematized communal religion. If there were any Brahmins there, as the chronicle avers, they were émigrés some two thousand miles from the centre of Brahmin culture, in north India. It seems that then, as ever since, the communal religion of Sri Lanka consisted of a pantheon and a ritual and social system composed of elements which had arrived from southern India; as the result of the arrival of Buddhism, some new elements were added – for instance Buddhist priests were in a limited way substituted for Brahmins – and the whole was coloured by Buddhist ethical values. These composite elements of Hindu provincial culture have never been seen by the Sinhala Buddhists as forming a single system, so naturally they have no collective name; they merely share the negative characteristic of being irrelevant to salvation and so, in the words of my informant, ‘nothing to do with religion.’

Innovations of an agrarian society 

Given this unbridgeable distance set up between the great mass of society and salvation a secondary goal was conceived for making merit to improve their karmic standing. This shift of emphasis led to a corresponding change in the organization and activities of the Sangha who were designated as the merit field where one could sow seeds of merit and reap a good harvest in the births to come.

Hence the order came to be considered an indispensable institution for the religious activities of the laity. [15]  

The generous endowments made to the Sangha by kings, nobles and people created ‘monastic landlords’ who took their places alongside the secular nobility in a feudal agrarian society. According to Carrithers who defines the principle that created the village Sangha:

…Buddhism originated and flourished in sedentary agrarian societies… First, in such a sedentary society a monk tends to be dependent on a particular group of people who form a particular set of fields. The Sangha is spread throughout the countryside, the monks of a village are frequently sons of the village, and communication within the Sangha itself is attenuated. Furthermore, as we have seen, monks are legitimated in the village by their ceremonial role, rather than by their moral purity or their ordination. They spend most of their time with villagers, and therefore share the latter’s values and behaviour; and when they become custodians and even owners of land, as they inevitably do, they share the views of landowners. [16] 

Malalgoda identifies the bundle of beliefs that came to nestle within the religious tradition of Sinhala Buddhism:

Merit-making itself, as was already indicated, was an accommodation made by Buddhism to meet the needs of the laity. Still, the religion of the laity was not exclusively Buddhist even in this compromised and moderated form. In addition to Buddhist beliefs and practices they indulged in a rich array of ‘non Buddhist beliefs and practices, which is taken in isolation, stood in open opposition to Buddhist ones.[17]

These included astrology and the benevolent actions of higher deities (devas) and malevolent actions of lesser spirits or demons (yakkhas).

It is necessary to note however, that these beliefs and practices did not have an independent existence. The Buddhist great tradition exercised a deep and pervasive influence over the beliefs and practices of the non Buddhist little tradition, and through the inter-mixture of these two traditions was formed the Sinhala Buddhist religious system.[18]

Buddhism becomes a religion of the book

But very soon the axial spirit, the emphasis of Arahat Mahinda on vinaya and spiritual technology were institutionally downgraded, even though the meditating forest monks remained a force to be reckoned with up to the end of the Polonnaruva age.

The period of 161 years from the enthronement of Devanampiyatissa (250 BC) to the restoration of Valagamba (89 BC) was a baptism of fire for the young island nation as it fought and struggled to stand on its own feet in the face of three foreign conquests by South Indian adventurers. From the horse traders Sena and Guttika through Elara to Pas Dravida the total period of alien rule amounted to 80 years within that period of 161 years. And while the war of liberation by Dutugemunu was a celebrated people’s war – backed totally by the monks of Mahavihara, Valagamba did not enjoy such unqualified backing – a circumstance that led to the emergence of Abhayagiriya as a rival monastic centre after the re-conquest.

Faced with a hostile and victorious monarch the Mahavihara monks adopted radical counter-measures codifying the Buddhist canon and establishing a hierarchy within the Sangha that favoured the Dhammakathika’s or preachers over the Pamsukulikas – the rag robe wearers and meditators. This division within the Sangha very early in the life of the Sasana in Lanka probably reflected a deep difference of opinion between monks who aligned themselves closely with society (Dhammakathikas) and those who sought a radically independent way of life following the tradition of renunciation in India (Pamsukulikas).  The resolution of this power struggle by upholding the primacy of learning over practice led to a worldly Sasana – but one that endured over time with its fortunes linked directly with the monarchy and the people.

While the meditating forest monk who strives for enlightenment following the path of practice was venerated then and now the post Valagamba Sangha ensured that the spiritual leaders of society would always be those monks within the ‘establishment’ who fostered and maintained the interests of Buddhism as state religion. It would also be the same ‘establishment monks’ who would maintain and protect the authentic externals of the sasana, the relics, texts and ancient monuments (including the Atamasthana) that would be resorted to by the people for popular worship and pilgrimage. Once the needs of both state and society were ensured in this manner, mind cultivation or bhavana – as a spiritual technology of wandering mendicant monks was marginalized as an optional activity.

Apart from being ‘spiritual nobles’ the monks always stood in the position of teachers viz a viz kings, secular nobility and the people. Their monopoly over dhamma and the intellectual heritage of the young island nation, and their solidity and continuity as an entrenched community gave them an incomparable vantage point from which to mould an elitist Sinhala Buddhist ideology.

Sinhalese write their story…

The internal balance of power held after Valagamba.  518 years of peace ensued before the next foreign invasion of Buddhist Khalabras in 429 AD. The hela text was converted to Pali by the Indian Monk Buddhagosha before the Kahalabra occupation and the hela original was destroyed. This moved the written teachings away from the ordinary Sinhalese further consolidating the position of monks as interpreters of the Buddha dhamma.

When the liberator Dhatusena (455-473 AD) commissioned his uncle the monk Mahanama to compose a politico-religious history of the island a clear need was perceived to develop a unique identity that went beyond a shared Buddhist identity with mainland India. This was a creative and empowering act for a people who originally united around the sasana but then came to develop a distinct linguistic and cultural identity. The role of Mahavihara monks in composing the Mahavamsa speaks volumes about the role of monks in shaping the minds of the people and their faith. The Sinhalese were clearly departing from the Indian traditional conception of history and moving into a more ‘western and external mindset’ in the 5th century AD.

From radical to relative freedom

These constitutional limitations defined the Buddha’s dispensation – also referred to as the Sasana in this island. However the transformation of society gave birth to a genuine culture; and this generated patterns of thought and action that challenged Sinhalese conservatism and orthodoxy on several occasions during the 1000 year reign of kings at the first capital in Anuradhapura.

In fact the emergence of Abhayagiriya and Jethavanaramaya as alternative and sometimes rival centres of Buddhist learning and practice ensured a lively debate that balanced orthodoxy with liberal and progressive ideas. India remained the well spring of Buddhist creativity and adaptation as radical renouncers applied Mahayana and Vajrayana thought into their practice. Lankans drew generously from this spring to keep the torch of radical Buddhist freedom alive. However the institutional safeguards of this freedom were severely undermined or lost with the forced displacement from Rajarata in the 13th century. The departure of Buddhism from India northwards to a new home in Tibet with the Muslim invasions also meant a loss of essential Buddhist cultural unity with the mother country. With the drift to the south west the best Buddhist monks displayed a marked preference for scholarship over meditation. The historic election of Dhammakathikas after codification of the Buddhist canon to acquire ownership of the ‘true doctrine’ through learning and postponing practice was now beginning to take full effect. The displacement from Rajarata was the disembodiment of the spirit of Sinhalese culture. This lost body was never re-created in the South West or in Kandy. A new spirit was needed but it never re-appeared to create a new body. Old forms were simply perpetuated.

Crisis of identity

When the British arrived in Lanka as its new masters, ideas about social equality and separation of church and state were self evident truths and second nature to them. The Magna Carta of 1215 was the historical milieu in which these ideas were first fashioned. (It is significant that the same year – 1215 marked the first graveyard of Sinhalese culture – the second being the Colebrooke Cameron Reforms of 1833 – and the birth of British constitutional and political culture) These principles were developed and refined through the renaissance and the age of reason in the 18th century which also threw up multi-faceted ideas relating to secularism in Europe. At the time of the final conquest in 1815 the Lankans had been through 300 traumatic years of fighting for survival against superior odds. When the last of their patriotic leaders were killed or banished after the rebellion of 1818 the British imagined – in the same way that the post Eelam war regime imagines today – that they were working with a clean slate on which they could freely write, build, rule and plunder. Then and now – the people are right-less non-beings, confused about who they truly are.

But the past is never truly erased from the minds of people. When pushed against the wall they will hold fast to the old and familiar – however irrational this may seem. And so the British moved too fast in de-linking the Sangha from their position of influence when they continued to wield significant informal power. They also moved too fast in dismantling an ancient social system together with the relationships of the people to their ancestral lands and their old superiors. There was no social vision behind the Colebrooke Cameron Reforms. They were simply using imperial might to re-order an ancient land to make it an economically viable fixed asset in the imperial balance sheet. This ensured that the centre of thought and expression would be closer to western than Indian culture. Sri Lanka became – in many ways, a little England. Not so, our true mother nation – India.

Continuing relevance of Anagarika Dharmapala

With their sadhus and sramanas – to be joined later by the likes of Guru Nanak, Kabir, Mirabhai and Sufi renouncers (who formed what was referred to as the Bhakti movement) India continued to witness in the living flesh, demonstrations of radical freedom, social protest and social dissent. During the British Period the likes of Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda and finally Gandhi walked along this same tried and tested sramanic tradition. In Sri Lanka radical freedom was never fully accepted by conventional society from the very beginning and elitism played a big hand in defining the content of freedom from time to time. As a result we have the exceptional case of Anagarika Dharmapala who walked the sramanic path in Lanka – but utterly without the support of a tradition. The people coloured him using the context of anti-colonial nationalism and his own attitudes towards Hindus and Indians pre-empted the creation of a grand coalition of protest against imperialism that transcended national limitations. Since then the Sinhala Buddhists continue to be stuck in his adversarial rhetoric (that should be contextualized within his life and times) and neglect his legacy of renunciation, service and independent spirit (which must be applied to current problems).

What must be done

This is no time to discuss what might have been. The point to be borne in mind is that feudalism and ancient privileges must be questioned and challenged from within religion if lasting reforms are to take place in society. This is what the reformation did in Europe. The time for a Buddhist led Buddhist reformation that extricates the Sasana from its worldly entanglements for re-directing energies towards the noble eightfold path is NOW. A new social vision and assertion of social solidarity must emerge from the Sasana itself if our society is to bridge the social distances within Sinhalese society and within the larger Lankan society. For the majority of Sinhala Buddhists the Sasana is inseparable from country and any new social vision must necessarily encompass both.

Buddhists of Lanka need a worldview and sense of self that is not devastated by the likes of Kalinga Magha, western colonial powers and colonising politicians of the present day. They cannot be enslaved to old forms that clothe self-interest, greed, caste, hatred and parochialism. They must strive to make a living adaptation of the Buddhist message for their own time and place by returning to the path. A timeless teaching cannot be trapped in verbal formulas and hackneyed ancient ceremonies. Those are for followers – not leaders; and a Buddhist is never the follower of another person or a blind imitator of tradition.

Better than sole sovereignty over the earth,
Better than going to heaven,
Better even than lordship over all the worlds,
Is the fruition of stream entry
(Dhammapada 178)

[1] Bandaranayake, Senaka (2012) Continuities and Transformations: Studies in Sri Lankan Archaeology and History, Social Scientists Association, Colombo pp 15/16

[2] Rahula Walpola (1956), History of Buddhism in Ceylon, The Buddhist Cultural Centre, 56 quoting the original source Samantapasadika Smp. (SHB), 60

[3] Armstrong, Karen (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions. Anchor, New York p 145/146

[4] Acarya Sangarakshitha (1986) Alternative traditions Windhorse Glasgow

[5] Joshi, L.M. (1973) Aspects of Buddhism in Indian History – Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, p 16

[6] P.B. Rambukwelle (1993) Study of Sinhala Kingship from Vijaya to Kalinga Magha, Sridevi Dehiwala pp 1,2, 37-42, 43,44

[7] Tambiah, S.J. (1984) Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets Cambridge p 2

[8] Carrithers, Michael (1983) The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka, Oxford University Press pp 166/67

[9] Anderson, Benedict (1991) Imagined Communities, Verso, London

[10] Raine, Kathleen (1990) India seen afar, Green Books, Devon p 201

[11] Gombrich, Richard F. (1988) Theravada Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, Routledge p 6

[12] Op cit supra n 8 p 142

[13] Malalgoda, Kitsiri (1976) Buddhism in Sinhalese Society 1750-1900: A Study of Religious Revival and Change University of California Press, Berkely and LA pp 11-15

[14] Op cit supra n 11 p 26

[15] Op cit supra n 13 p 17

[16] Op cit supra n 8 pp 140/41

[17] Op cit supra n 13 p 22

[18] Id p 24