On a Poson Full Moon Poya Day in 247 BCE, Arahant Mahinda arrived from the Asokan Empire and planted the
Devanampiya Tissa’s initiative to plant a Bo Sapling in Anuradhapura was found to be a wise move by the King to spread the doctrine islandwide
seed of Buddhism in Sri Lanka – a seed that took firm root and is still flourishing 2266 years thereafter. The Royal patronage of the Lankan ruler Devanampiya Tissa and the formation of the monastic order by Arahant Mahinda made Sri Lanka a fertile soil for the dissemination of the sublime Teachings of the Buddha, while the momentous event transformed Sri Lankan culture bringing about a new dimension to Lankan civilisation.
The advent of Buddhism however, was not an isolated event. According to studies made by historians, it was the outcome of statesmanship and high level diplomacy between Anuradhapura and Pataliputra, the capital of the Asokan Empire. While it established and strengthened bonds between Devanampiya Tissa and the Mauryan Emperor Asoka, emissaries comprising members of the royalty and ministers of the two countries criss- crossed between the two Capitals holding discussions. The arrival of Arahant Mahinda was the end result of such diplomatic activity.
The introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka formed part of a broader mission of carrying the Teachings of the Buddha to different parts of the then known civilised world. Sri Lanka was the ninth and the last country in the list of Emperor Asoka – a plan delayed by him for nine years. With Mutaseeva, an aging king on the Lankan Throne, the Mauryans preferred to await for the reign of the young king Devanampiya Tissa to start their mission. Just six months after Devampiya Tissa’s consecration, Asoka dispatched his two siblings to Sri Lanka, Arahant Mahinda, 32 years of age and Asoka’s daughter Sanghamitta, a few years younger to Arahant Mahinda. She arrived six months later bringing with her the Sacred Bo Sapling from Bodhi Gaya. Their arrival with several of their close relatives, shows the extent of trust and confidence Asoka had in the new King.
The whole hearted patronage in the meantime on the part of Devanampiya Tissa, helped the swift spread of the new religion across the island. Historian K.M. De Silva in “ A History of Sri Lanka “ wrote, “ No doubt the conversion of Devanampiya Tissa was decisive in ensuring its success. At a time when the authority of Anuradhapura Kingdom over other kingdoms in the island was on the increase, the patronage given by the Anuradhapura Royalty, would have hastened the acceptance of the religion by the people at large.”
Also convincing was the fact that many, with the royalty leading, took to robes. This followed many more to enter monkhood with the King granting everyone of them accommodation in the Mahamega Park. Devanampiya Tissa’s invitation to the regional rulers and provincial leaders to participate in the hallowed planting ceremony of the Bo Sapling in Anuradhapura which they accepted and attended was found to be a wise move by the King to spread the Doctrine islandwide. He further strengthened the spread by distributing 100 Bo Saplings that sprang from the Mother Tree to the provinces which caused the establishment of Buddhist Viharas and monasteries throughout the regions around the planted saplings.
In the Asokan Empire, Emperor Asoka, who had been repenting of the destruction he created in Kalinga War which he waged with repeated conquests, had transformed himself to “Dharmasoka” in the tenth regnal year following the Kalinga War. The serene demeanour of samanera Nigrodha is said to have caused the transformation in him. His Minor Rock Edit 1 and Pali sources of Sri Lanka however, have agreed that his devotion to Buddhism was a gradual process which had taken place through his association with the Sangha.
"The introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka formed part of a broader mission of carrying the Teachings of the Buddha to different parts of the then known civilised world"
In Asoka’s early years after conversion, he was totally immersed in promoting the essence of Buddha Dhamma within his Empire. He undertook pilgrimages to places connected with the Life of the Buddha and erected Asoka Pillars at such places and at meeting places with his thoughts inscribed. He was also constructing memorials and Stupas when he was informed by the Maha Sangha of the offensive behaviour of certain members of the Sangha and the harm they were causing to the Order by not conducting themselves in keeping with Buddhist Teachings. The unpleasant development was causing much concern and anxiety to them. It was in order to bring such monks to book and maintain discipline that they proposed to Asoka to organise a Buddhist Council.
The King who accepted the proposal, held the Baudhya Sangayanaya or the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra when such monks were questioned, punished and some even purged from the Order. Also expelled were monks guilty of schisms.
The most far reaching decision taken at the Third Buddhist Council however was to disseminate the Buddha Dhamma beyond India. Emissaries as a result, who spoke the Greek language such as those who arrived in the East with Alexander’s troops and settled down in the NorthWest of India and had taken to robes were among those who trekked to the West with the message of Buddhism. Remains of Buddhist monuments erected along ancient trade routes in West Asia and East European countries give evidence of Buddhist pockets between India and Europe. These emissaries said to have travelled through Afghanistan, Persia, Turkey and going as far as Egypt, Macedonia and Greece spreading the Buddhist Teachings.
"In Asoka’s early years after conversion, he was totally immersed in promoting the essence of Buddha Dhamma within his Empire"
The spread of the doctrine evidently had met with greater success in the East as Buddhism still thrives in countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea although it diminished in India, the country of its Birth. Yet, Asoka’s dissemination programme helped Buddhism to survive and become a world religion – an exercise he explained as conquests by righteousness when he achieved what he could not have achieved militarily.
The Buddhist Doctrine in the meantime, remains as the most precious gift Asoka gave his close friend, Sri Lanka, which had been preserved and nourishing the Lankans through 2000 years.