Sun, 05 Dec 2021 Today's Paper

Was there Buddhism in early Sri Lankan history?

Duruthu Poya

28 January 2021 02:50 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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It was with the formal establishment of the Bhikku Order that the propagation of Buddhism commenced when the bhikkus worked towards the promotion and the preservation of the sublime Doctrine to last over 2500 years     (Pic AFP)

However, it could be argued that the lack of Buddhist activity in the island after the recorded visits of Buddha, was caused by the absence of bhikkus

The first account of Thapassu and Bhalluka, appeared in the ‘Vinayapitaka’ which mentions that they offered the Buddha His first meal after the Enlightenment

 

The ancient chronicles have documented the introduction of Buddhism to  Sri Lanka in 236 BCE as the dawn of the Buddhist era when the seed of Buddhism were sown; implying that the period prior to the advent of Arahant Mahinda this Land was  bereft of Buddhism. And that the early inhabitants were unaware of the teachings of the Buddha.


These chronicles however, give themselves away with the documentation of the three visits of the Buddha to Sri Lanka, recorded as having taken place about two and a half centuries before the ceremonial introduction of the Doctrine by Arahant Mahinda.


It is recorded that Gautama Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka nine months after His Enlightenment was to Mahiyangane which according to chronicles had been made on a Duruthu Pasalosvaka Poya day. His next visit was to Nagadeepa which He had made five years later and to Kelaniya eight years later. These places are still considered sacred and are venerated as places visited by the Buddha.


Mahavamsa on Buddha’s visit to Mahiyangane wrote thus: ‘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 dagaba of sapphire at Mahiyangane.


‘And on the deathbed of the Buddha, Sarabhu Thera, who was a disciple of Arahant Sariputta, extracted from the embers the ‘givatti-dhathu’ (adam’s apple) brought it to Sri Lanka and enshrined it in the same dagoba in Mahiyangane.’


Dagabas at Nagadeepa and Kelaniya denote Buddha’s second and the third visits respectively which are continued to be venerated. Therefore, with Buddha’s visits thus documented in the ancient chronicles, could it be possible that Buddhism was non-existent before its formal introduction by Arahant Mahinda? And the mentioning of Sarabhu Thera’s presence at the Parinirvana ceremony of the Buddha reveals that there had even been monks in Sri Lanka,  during the time of the Buddha and long before the establishment of the Bhikku Order by 
Arahant Mahinda.


However, it could be argued that the lack of Buddhist activity in the island after the recorded visits of Buddha, was caused by the absence of bhikkus. It was with the formal establishment of the Bhikku Order that the propagation of Buddhism commenced when the bhikkus worked towards the promotion and the preservation of the sublime Doctrine to last over 2500 years.


There is however archaeological and literary evidence of Buddha’s earliest converts, the two trading brothers – Thapassu and Bhalluka, who having been converted to Buddhism, travelled to Sri Lanka and set up one of the earliest sthupas during the lifetime of the Buddha.


The first account of Thapassu and Bhalluka, appeared in the ‘Vinayapitaka’ which mentions that they offered the Buddha His first meal after the Enlightenment.


‘Pujavaliya’ however gives a detailed account of the event: Two merchants, Thapassu and Bhalluka from the ‘North’ met Buddha who was meditating just after the Enlightement. The two merchants offered ‘mee-pindu’ to Thathagatha. After its acceptance, they asked the Thathagatha for somethings for veneration when He gave them a handful of hair relics. The brothers accepted the relics and took them in a golden casket to their hometown in a chariot. In their hometown, they venerated the hair relics. However, as they were maritime traders, they landed in Sri Lanka. While they were resting in Girihandu, they kept the relics on the Girihandu rock. When the merchants tried to pick up the relics before leaving, it was not moving from where it was placed. Deciding it was a sacred place, Thapassu and Bhalluka, covered the casket with a heap of stones, offered flowers to the mound and continued with their journey. Later, a ‘vehera’ named Girihandu Seya was built with the hair relics enshrined.


Such accounts are evident of there being Buddhist activity in Sri Lanka even during the lifetime of the Buddha. A seventh century CE inscription written in Sanskrit, found near Girihandu Seya or Thiriyaya sthupa in the Trincomalee District, mentions that Thapassu and Bhalluka built a sthupa there.


Detailed accounts of the two trading brothers found in several literary works reveal that they may have made Lankans aware of the Teachings of the Buddha while engaging in trade.


‘Therigatha Commentary’ relating the story of the two brothers wrote that they were sons of a caravan leader of Pokkharavate who belonged to a family of traders while Pali texts reveal that they were merchants travelling along ‘Uttarapatha,  the Northern trade route that originated from China and extended via Central India through Savitthi and Varanasi. It ran passing Thakshila in Gandhara and ended in Central Asia.


Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim of early seventh century CE had witnessed the remains of two sthupas built enshrined with Buddha’s Hair Relics while he travelled from Balkh to Bamiyan in Gandhara. He gives credit to the two brothers for introducing Buddhism to Central Asia.


However, it was John S. Strong, scholar on Art and Culture who  was the first to declare that the first Buddhsit sthupa was built by Thapassu and Bhalluka. He wrote that the Buddha Himself showed the merchants how a sthupa should be erected. He folded the robes four times to show what the base should look like and then inverted and placed His alms bowl upon the robes to illustrate the dome. He thereafter kept His staff upon the bowl to represent the pinnacle.


Therefore, evidently, while caravans of Thapassu and Bhalluka rolled along trade routes and their ships crossed the seas, they built sthupas at places they stopped over. Remains of sthupas which they built had been seen in places in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Burma.


Thiriyaya on the eastern coast in the Trincomalee District, was evidently on their trading route. If the two merchants met the Buddha in Bodhgaya, they may have travelled from there to the Eastern Coast of India and used the sea route to arrive in Thiriyaya. From Thiriyaya, they may have sailed to  Burma where they had also built a sthupa enshrining perhaps with  Hair relics of the Buddha which they may have preserved to take to Burma.


Therefore, ideologies from Northern India that travelled along trade networks, overland and via the sea, did have a cultural impact on Sri Lanka. And while historical records reveal that Bhalluka, who with his brother Thapassu, spread the Teachings of the Buddha during their long commercial sojourns, early Central Asian literature reveal that Bhalluka returned home as a monk and built many Buddhist temples at Balk in Afghanistan which was his hometown named after him.  

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