Vesak which marks the Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and the Passing Away, has been a day of spiritual enhancement since the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Religious Observances had been followed down the ages. Unfortunate circumstances however have driven Sri Lankan Buddhists for the second successive year to observe Vesak at home depriving them from engaging in religious practices they normally follow. However, Sri Lankans have experienced far worse calamities than Covid-19 when Buddhism had been threatened to a point of extinction. Yet it had emerged unscathed, ensuring the sanctity of the Doctrine. A twelve-year Famine which was unparallel in Lankan history, ultimately led to the Teachings of the Buddha, retained through the Oral tradition up to then, to be committed to writing.E.W.Adhikaram in his “Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon” writes of the famine that impacted disastrously on Buddhism. Scarcely five months into the reign of Vattagamini in 43 BCE, (or Valagamba,) the third son of Saddhatissa who was the brother of Dutugamunu, a Brahmin named Tissa (Brahmanatissa) in Rohana, raised a revolt against Vattagamini and went on a plundering rampage of villages.
However, Sri Lankans have experienced far worse calamities than Covid-19 when Buddhism had been threatened to a point of extinction
Twelve thousand Arahants in them had left for other Viharas, but midway when they heard the same news, they entered forests and passed away
Simultaneously seven Tamils invaded Sri Lanka from South India when Vattagamini went into hiding. Adhikaram wrote that at the same time of the invasion, there occurred a famine which was named ‘Brahmanatissa’ or ‘Baminitissa’, after the southern rebel. With it the monasteries in Anuradhapura were abandoned and bhikkus and bhikkunis in them either sailed to India or travelled to the South of Sri Lanka. Adikaram quoting the ancient commentary “Sammohavinodani” said that “Mahavihara had been empty and on the courtyard of the Mahacetiya (Ruwanveliseya,) castor plants and weeds had sprung up. The Cetiya itself had been covered with moss.”The famine had been so acute that many monks and lay people had died of starvation. According to the same commentary both at Tissamaharaama and Situlpawwa, there had been sufficient grain for three years. But monks in these temples had found the stocks attacked by rats. Twelve thousand Arahants in them had left for other Viharas, but midway when they heard the same news, they entered forests and passed away. According to the “Vattabbaka Nigrodha,” the situation had been so bad that even human flesh had been consumed!Adikaram, quoting commentaries such as “Manorathana Purani” and “Atthasalini” had said that bhikkus such as Isidatta, Culasiva, Tissabhuti, Sumana Deva of Gama, Pussadeva and Upatissa protected the doctrine. The Teachings were handed down orally from teacher to pupil and from the dying to the living. The danger thus existed of using only some parts of the Teachings as a result of death of those who had memorised them and the inability of many weakened by starvation to proceed with their studies. Nor was there any guarantee of bhikkus returning from overseas as they did not know when the famine would end. Realising the grave danger that lay ahead, those who had committed the Buddha Dhamma to memory, took precautions to prevent Dhamma from falling to oblivion. Sixty bhikkus who had gone as far as the coast to cross over to India, decided to return to Southern Malaya Rata (the hill country) and while living on roots and leaves, kept reciting the Texts lest they forget them.When they had sufficient strength to sit erect, they recited keeping themselves in that position. When they couldn’t keep their bodies erect, they laid their heads on mounds of sand and continued their recitations. This way, they preserved in full for twelve years the Texts as well as the Commentaries.At the end of the twelve year famine, Brahmana Tissa died. Commentaries are silent about the invasion of seven Tamils but Mahavansa has recorded that rebel Brahmana Tissa was slain by the Tamil invaders. Vattagamini is reported to have killed the last of the invaders and commenced his second stint of reign from 24-17BCE. With the peril over, bhikkus who left to India returned. The survivors of the sixty monks who went to the hills went in search of the others remaining and when they compared the Texts with each other, the versions of the two parties agreed word to word. The first schism in the meantime, occurred among the Sangha during the reign of Vattagamini. He built the Abhayagiri and separated it from the Mahavihara which later became a centre of Mahayana School. King Vattagamini’s partiality towards the new school may have also been a worry for the Bhikkus.Bhikkus did overcome losing the Texts through the famine. But preserving them by word of mouth was a grave risk. Bhikkus of the Mahavihara as a result, thought it expedient to commit to writing the Teachings of the Buddha. Five hundred monks with help received from an unnamed chieftain, gathered at Alu-Vihara (Aloka-Vihara) and performed the historic task, which spelt the future of Theravada Buddhism. The calamity thus helped to record for all time the Buddhist dispensation in written form.