Hinduism and Buddhism, An Historical Sketch, Vol. 3 (of 3)
by Charles Eliot
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[Footnote 24: The Mahavamsa was continued by later writers and brought down to about 1780 A.D.]

[Footnote 25: The Mahavamsatika, a commentary written between 1000 and 1250 A.D., has also some independent value because the old Atthakatha-Mahavamsa was still extant and used by the writer.]

[Footnote 26: Son according to the Sinhalese sources but according to Hsuan Chuang and others, younger brother. In favour of the latter it may be said that the younger brothers of kings often became monks in order to avoid political complications.]

[Footnote 27: The modern Mahintale.]

[Footnote 28: The Mahavamsa implies that he had already some acquaintance with Buddhism. It represents him as knowing that monks do not eat in the afternoon and as suggesting that it would be better to ordain the layman Bhandu.]

[Footnote 29: The chronicles give with some slight divergences the names of the texts on which his preaching was based. It is doubtless meant that he recited the Sutta with a running exposition.]

[Footnote 30: Mahavam. xx. 17.]

[Footnote 31: Many other places claimed to possess this relic.]

[Footnote 32: Of course the antiquity of the Sinhalese Bo-tree is a different question from the identity of the parent tree with the tree under which the Buddha sat.]

[Footnote 33: Mahavam. XVIII.; Dipavam. XV. and XVI.]

[Footnote 34: But he says nothing about Mahinda or Sanghamitta and does not support the Mahavamsa in details.]

[Footnote 35: Duttha, meaning bad, angry or violent, apparently refers to the ferocity shown in his struggle with the Tamils.]

[Footnote 36: Dipavamsa XIX. 1. Mahavamsa XXVII. 1-48. See Fergusson, Hist. Ind. Architecture, 1910, pp. 238, 246. I find it hard to picture such a building raised on pillars. Perhaps it was something like the Sat-mahal-prasada at Pollanarua.]

[Footnote 37: Parker, Ancient Ceylon, p. 282. The restoration of the Ruwanweli Dagoba was undertaken by Buddhists in 1873.]

[Footnote 38: Mahavamsa XXVIII.-XXXI. Dutthagamani died before it was finished.]

[Footnote 39: Mahavamsa XXIX. 37. Yonanagaralasanda. The town is also mentioned as situated on an Island in the Indus: Mil. Pan. III. 7. 4.]

[Footnote 40: According to the common reckoning B.C. 88-76: according to Geiger B.C. 29-17. It seems probable that in the early dates of Sinhalese history there is an error of about 62 years. See Geiger, Trans. Mahavamsa, pp. XXX ff. and Fleet, J.R.A.S. 1909, pp. 323-356.]

[Footnote 41: For the site see Parker's Ancient Ceylon, pp. 299 ff. The Mahavamsa (XXXIII. 79 and X. 98-100) says it was built on the site of an ancient Jain establishment and Kern thinks that this tradition hints at circumstances which account for the heretical and contentious spirit of the Abhaya monks.]

[Footnote 42: Mahav. XXXIII. 100-104. See too the Tika quote by Turnour in his introduction, p. liii.]

[Footnote 43: A work on ecclesiastical history written about 1395. Ed. and Trans. Colombo Record Office.]

[Footnote 44: The probable error in Sinhalese dates mentioned in a previous note continues till the twelfth century A.D. though gradually decreasing. For the early centuries of the Christian era it is probable that the accepted dates should be put half a century later]

[Footnote 45: Mahavamsa XXXVI. 41. Vetulyavadam madditva. According to the Nikaya Sang, he burnt their Pitaka.]

[Footnote 46: On Katha-vat. XVIII. 1 and 2. Printed in the Journal of the Pali Text Soc. for 1889.]

[Footnote 47: Watters, II. 234. Cf. Hsuan Chuang's life, chap. IV.]

[Footnote 48: Mahavam. XXXVI. iii. ff. Gothabhaya's date was probably 302-315 and Mahasena's 325-352. The common chronology makes Gothabhaya reign from 244 to 257 and Mahasena from 269 to 296 A.D.]

[Footnote 49: Quoted by Turnour, Introd. p. liii. The Mahavam. V. 13, expressly states that the Dhammaruci and Sagaliya sects originated in Ceylon.]

[Footnote 50: I.e. as I understand, the two divisions of the Sutta Vibhanga.]

[Footnote 51: It was written up to date at various periods. The chapters which take up the history after the death of Mahasena are said to be the work of Dhammakitti, who lived about 1250.]

[Footnote 52: He was a contemporary of the Gupta King Samudragupta who reigned approximately 330-375 A.D. See S. Levi in J.A. 1900, pp. 316 ff, 401 ff. This synchronism is a striking confirmation of Fleet and Geiger's chronology.]

[Footnote 53: E.g. the tomb of Ramanuja at Srirangam.]

[Footnote 54: For a somewhat similar reason the veneration of relics is prevalent among Moslims. Islam indeed provides an object of worship but its ceremonies are so austere and monotonous that any devotional practices which are not forbidden as idolatrous are welcome to the devout.]

[Footnote 55: Dig. Nik. XVI. v. 27.]

[Footnote 56: Plutarch mentions a story that the relics of King Menander were similarly divided into eight portions but the story may be merely a replica of the obsequies of the Buddha.]

[Footnote 57: IV. 3, 24. The first text is from Mahaparinibbana Sutta, V. 24. The second has not been identified.]

[Footnote 58: Journal des Savants, Oct. 1906.]

[Footnote 59: See Norman, "Buddhist legends of Asoka and his times," in J.A.S. Beng. 1910.]

[Footnote 60: Just as the Tooth was considered to be the palladium of Sinhalese kings.]

[Footnote 61: Record of Buddhist kingdoms. Legge, pp. 34, 35. Fa-Hsien speaks of the country not the town of Peshawar (Purushapura).]

[Footnote 62: Ibid. p. 109. Fa-Hsien does not indicate that at this time there was a rival bowl in Ceylon but represents the preacher as saying it was then in Gandhara.]

[Footnote 63: Watters, I. pp. 202, 203. But the life of Hsuan Chuang says Benares not Persia.]

[Footnote 64: Marco Polo trans. Yule, II. pp. 320, 330.]

[Footnote 65: For the history of the tooth see Mahavamsa, p. 241, in Turnour's edition: the Dathavamsa in Pali written by Dhammakitti in 1211 A.D.: and the Sinhalese poems Daladapujavali and Dhatuvansaya. See also Da Cunha, Memoir on the History of the Tooth Relic of Ceylon, 1875, and Yule's notes on Marco Polo, II. pp. 328-330.]

[Footnote 66: I.e. about 361 or 310, according to which chronology is adopted, but neither Fa-Hsien or Hsuan Chuang says anything about its arrival from India and this part of the story might be dismissed as a legend. But seeing how extraordinary were the adventures of the tooth in historical times, it would be unreasonable to deny that it may have been smuggled out of India for safety.]

[Footnote 67: Various accounts are given of the disposal of these teeth, but more than enough relics were preserved in various shrines to account for all. Hsuan Chuang saw or heard of sacred teeth in Balkh, Nagar, Kashmir, Kanauj and Ceylon. Another tooth is said to be kept near Foo-chow.]

[Footnote 68: Plausibly supposed to be Puri. The ceremonies still observed in the temple of Jagannath are suspected of being based on Buddhist rites. Dantapura of the Kalingas is however mentioned in some verses quoted in Digha Nikaya XIX. 36. This looks as if the name might be pre-Buddhist.]

[Footnote 69: They are called Ranmali and Danta in the Rajavaliya.]

[Footnote 70: There is a striking similarity between this rite and the ceremonies observed at Puri, where the images of Jagannatha and his relatives are conveyed every summer with great pomp to a country residence where they remain during some weeks.]

[Footnote 71: See Tennent's Ceylon, vol. II. pp. 29, 30 and 199 ff. and the Portuguese authorities quoted.]

[Footnote 72: Fortune in Two Visits to Tea Countries of China, vol. II. pp. 107-8, describes one of these teeth preserved in the Ku-shan monastery near Foo-chow.]

[Footnote 73: This practice must be very old. The Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivadins and similar texts speak of offering flowers to a tooth of the Buddha. See J.A. 1914, II. pp. 523, 543. The Pali Canon too tells us that the relics of the Buddha were honoured with garlands and perfumes.]

[Footnote 74: Chap. XXXVII.]

[Footnote 75: Both probably represent the tradition current at the Mahavihara, but according to the Talaing tradition Buddhaghosa was a Brahman born at Thaton.]

[Footnote 76: The Mahavamsa says he composed the Jnanodaya and Atthasalini at this time before starting for Ceylon.]

[Footnote 77: Fa-Hsien is chary of mentioning contemporary celebrities but he refers to a Well-known monk called Ta-mo-kiu-ti (? Dhammakathi ) and had Buddhaghosa been already celebrated he would hardly have omitted him.]

[Footnote 78: In the Coms. on the Digha and Dhammasangani.]

[Footnote 79: See Rhys Davids and Carpenter's introduction to Sumangalavi, I. p. x.]

[Footnote 80: In the Journal of Pali Text Soc. 1891, pp. 76-164. Since the above was written the first volume of the text of the Visuddhi magga, edited by Mrs. Rhys Davids, has been published by the Pali Text Society, 1920.]

[Footnote 81: Bhagavato Sasanam. See Buddhaghosuppatti, chap. I.]

[Footnote 82: It appears to be unknown to the Chinese Tripitaka. For some further remarks on the Sinhalese Canon see Book III. chap. XIII. Para. 3.]

[Footnote 83: That is according to Geiger 386-416 A.D. Perhaps he was the Ta-mo-kiu-ti mentioned by Fa-Hsien.]

[Footnote 84: The tendency seems odd but it can be paralleled in India where it is not uncommon to rewrite vernacular works in Sanskrit. See Grierson, J.R.A.S. 1913, p. 133. Even in England in the seventeenth century Bacon seems to have been doubtful of the immortality of his works in English and prepared a Latin translation of his Essays.]

[Footnote 85: It is reported with some emphasis as the tradition of the Ancients in Buddhaghosuppatti, chap. VII. If the works were merely those which Buddhaghosa himself had translated the procedure seems somewhat drastic.]

[Footnote 86: Mahav. XXXIII. Dhammasokova so kasi Pitakattaye Sangahan. Dhatusena reigned from 459-477 according to the common chronology or 509-527 according to Geiger.]

[Footnote 87: Mahav. XLII. 35 ff.]

[Footnote 88: Mahav. LXXVIII. 21-23.]

[Footnote 89: Mahav. XXXVIII. Akasi patimagehe bahumangalacetiye boddhisatte ca tathasun. Cf. Fa-Hsien, chap. XXVIII. ad fin.]

[Footnote 90: Or Parakkama Bahu. Probably 1153-1186.]

[Footnote 91: Mahavamsa LX. 4-7.]

[Footnote 92: Mahavamsa LXXVIII. 21-27.]

[Footnote 93: Mahav. LXXXIV. If this means the region of Madras, the obvious question is what learned Buddhist can there have been there at this period.]

[Footnote 94: J. Ant. 1893, pp. 40, 41.]

[Footnote 95: I take this statement from Tennent who gives references.]

[Footnote 96: See Ceylon Antiquary, I. 3, pp. 148, 197.]

[Footnote 97: Rajasinha I (1581) is said to have made Sivaism the Court religion.]

[Footnote 98: His reign is dated as 1679-1701, also as 1687-1706. It is remarkable that the Mahavamsa makes both the kings called Vimala Dharma send religious embassies to Arakan. See XCIV. 15, 16 and XCVII. 10, 11.]

[Footnote 99: See for some details Lorgeou: Notice sur un Manuscrit Siamois contenant la relation de deux missions religieuses envoyees de Siam a Ceylon au milieu du xviii Siecle. Jour. Asiat. 1906, pp. 533 ff. The king called Dhammika by the Mahavamsa appears to have been known as Phra Song Tham in Siam. The interest felt by the Siamese in Ceylon at this period is shown by the Siamese translation of the Mahavamsa made in 1796.]

[Footnote 100: Ramanna is the part of Burma between Arakan and Siam.]

[Footnote 101: See Spence Hardy, Manual of Buddhism, chap. VII.]

[Footnote 102: A translation by S.Z. Aung and Mrs. Rhys Davids has been published by the Pali Text Society. The author Anuruddha appears to have lived between the eighth and twelfth centuries.]

[Footnote 103: The Sinhalese had a special respect for the Abhidhamma. Kassapa V (c. A.D. 930) caused it to be engraved on plates of gold. Ep. Zeyl. I. p. 52.]

[Footnote 104: See Coomaraswamy in J.R.A.S. 1909, pp. 283-297.]

[Footnote 105: For intercourse with Camboja see Epigr. Zeylanica, II. p. 74.]

[Footnote 106: A dubious legend relates that they were known in the north and suppressed by Harsha. See Ettinghausen, Harsha Vardhana, 1906, p. 86. Nil Sadhana appears to be a name for tantric practices. See Avalon, Principles of Tantra, preface, p. xix.]

[Footnote 107: In the reigns of Voharatissa, Gothabhaya, Mahasena and Ambaherana Salamevan. The kings Matvalasen and Mungayinsen are also known as Sena I and II.]

[Footnote 108: Secret Vinaya.]

[Footnote 109: Epigraphia Zeylan. I. p. 4.]

[Footnote 110: One of the king's inscriptions says that he reconciled the clergy of the three Nikayas. Ep. Zeyl. I. p. 134.]

[Footnote 111: See Bowden in J.R.A.S. 1893, pp. 159 ff. The account refers to the Malwatte Monastery. But it would appear that the Patimokkha is recited in country places when a sufficient number of monks meet on Uposatha days.]

[Footnote 112: Even the poets were mostly Bhikkhus. Sinhalese literature contains a fair number of historical and philosophical works but curiously little about law. See Jolly, Recht und Sitte, p. 44.]

[Footnote 113: E.g. in the Atanatiya sutta (Dig. Nik. XXXII.) friendly spirits teach a spell by which members of the order may protect themselves against evil ones and in Jataka 159 the Peacock escapes danger by reciting every day a hymn to the sun and the praises of past Buddhas. See also Bunyiu, Nanjios Catalogue, Nos. 487 and 800.]

[Footnote 114: See for an account of the Maha Saman Devale, Ceylon Ant. July, 1916.]

[Footnote 115: So a mediaeval inscription at Mahintale of Mahinda IV records the foundation of Buddhist edifices and a temple to a goddess. Ep. Zeyl. I. p. 103.]

[Footnote 116: Similarly in a religious procession described in the Mahavamsa (XCIX. 52; about 1750 A.D.) there were "men in the dress of Brahmas."]

[Footnote 117: Rock Edicts, II. and XIII. Three inscriptions of Asoka have been found in Mysore.]

[Footnote 118: The Manimegalei even mentions six systems of philosophy which are not the ordinary Darsanas but Lokayatam, Bauddham, Sankhyam, Naiyayikam, Vaiseshikam, Mimamsakam.]

[Footnote 119: Kan-chih-pu-lo. Watters, Yuan Chuang, II. 226. The identification is not without difficulties and it has been suggested that the town is really Negapatam. The Life of the pilgrim says that it was on the coast, but he does not say so himself and his biographer may have been mistaken.]

[Footnote 120: See art. by Rhys Davids in E.R.E.]

[Footnote 121: See Forchhammer, Jardine Prize Essay, 1885, pp. 24 ff.]

[Footnote 122: Author of the Abhidhammattha-sangaha.]

[Footnote 123: Some have been published by the P.T. Society.]




Until recent times Burma remained somewhat isolated and connected with foreign countries by few ties. The chronicles contain a record of long and generally peaceful intercourse with Ceylon, but this though important for religion and literature had little political effect. The Chinese occasionally invaded Upper Burma and demanded tribute but the invasions were brief and led to no permanent occupation. On the west Arakan was worried by the Viceroys of the Mogul Emperors and on the east the Burmese frequently invaded Siam. But otherwise from the beginning of authentic history until the British annexation Burma was left to itself and had not, like so many Asiatic states, to submit to foreign conquest and the imposition of foreign institutions. Yet let it not be supposed that its annals are peaceful and uneventful. The land supplied its own complications, for of the many races inhabiting it, three, the Burmese, Talaings and Shans, had rival aspirations and founded dynasties. Of these three races, the Burmese proper appear to have come from the north west, for a chain of tribes speaking cognate languages is said to extend from Burma to Nepal. The Mons or Talaings are allied linguistically to the Khmers of Camboja. Their country (sometimes called Ramannadesa) was in Lower Burma and its principal cities were Pegu and Thaton. The identity of the name Talaing with Telingana or Kalinga is not admitted by all scholars, but native tradition connects the foundation of the kingdom with the east coast of India and it seems certain that such a connection existed in historical times and kept alive Hinayanist Buddhism which may have been originally introduced by this route.

The Shan States lie in the east of Burma on the borders of Yunnan and Laos. Their traditions carry their foundation back to the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no confirmation of this, but bodies of Shans, a race allied to the Siamese, may have migrated into this region at any date, perhaps bringing Buddhism with them or receiving it direct from China. Recent investigations have shown that there was also a fourth race, designated as Pyus, who occupied territory between the Burmese and Talaings in the eleventh century. They will probably prove of considerable importance for philology and early history, perhaps even for the history of some phases of Burmese Buddhism, for the religious terms found in their inscriptions are Sanskrit rather than Pali and this suggests direct communication with India. But until more information is available any discussion of this interesting but mysterious people involves so many hypotheses and arguments of detail that it is impossible in a work like the present. Prome was one of their principal cities, their name reappears in P'iao, the old Chinese designation of Burma, and perhaps also in Pagan, one form of which is Pugama.[124]

Throughout the historical period the pre-eminence both in individual kings and dynastic strength rested with the Burmese but their contests with the Shans and Talaings form an intricate story which can be related here only in outline. Though the three races are distinct and still preserve their languages, yet they conquered one another, lived in each other's capitals and shared the same ambitions so that in more recent centuries no great change occurred when new dynasties came to power or territory was redistributed. The long chronicle of bloodstained but ineffectual quarrels is relieved by the exploits of three great kings, Anawrata, Bayin Naung and Alompra.

Historically, Arakan may be detached from the other provinces. The inhabitants represent an early migration from Tagaung and were not annexed by any kingdom in Burma until 1784 A.D. Tagaung, situated on the Upper Irrawaddy in the Ruby Mines district, was the oldest capital of the Burmese and has a scanty history apparently going back to the early centuries of our era. Much the same may be said of the Talaing kingdom in Lower Burma. The kings of Tagaung were succeeded by another dynasty connected with them which reigned at Prome. No dates can be given for these events, nor is the part which the Pyus played in them clear, but it is said that the Talaings destroyed the kingdom of Prome in 742 A.D.[125] According to tradition the centre of power moved about this time to Pagan[126] on the bank of the Irrawaddy somewhat south of Mandalay. But the silence of early Chinese accounts[127] as to Pagan, which is not mentioned before the Sung dynasty, makes it probable that later writers exaggerated its early importance and it is only when Anawrata, King of Pagan and the first great name in Burmese history, ascended the throne that the course of events becomes clear and coherent. He conquered Thaton in 1057 and transported many of the inhabitants to his own capital. He also subdued the nearer Shan states and was master of nearly all Burma as we understand the term. The chief work of his successors was to construct the multitude of pagodas which still ornament the site of Pagan. It would seem that the dynasty gradually degenerated and that the Shans and Talaings acquired strength at its expense. Its end came in 1298 and was hastened by the invasion of Khubilai Khan. There then arose two simultaneous Shan dynasties at Panya and Sagaing which lasted from 1298 till 1364. They were overthrown by King Thadominpaya who is believed to have been a Shan. He founded Ava which, whether it was held by Burmese or Shans, was regarded as the chief city of Burma until 1752, although throughout this period the kings of Pegu and other districts were frequently independent. During the fourteenth century another kingdom grew up at Toungoo[128] in Lower Burma. Its rulers were originally Shan governors sent from Ava but ultimately they claimed to be descendants of the last king of Pagan and, in this character, Bureng or Bayin Naung (1551-1581), the second great ruler of Burma, conquered Prome, Pegu and Ava. His kingdom began to break up immediately after his death but his dynasty ruled in Ava until the middle of the eighteenth century.

During this period Europeans first made their appearance and quarrels with Portuguese adventurers were added to native dissensions. The Shans and Talaings became turbulent and after a tumultuous interval the third great national hero, Alaung-paya or Alompra, came to the front. In the short space of eight years (1752-1760), he gained possession of Ava, made the Burmese masters of both the northern and southern provinces, founded Rangoon and invaded both Manipur and Siam. While on the latter expedition he died. Some of his successors held their court at Ava but Bodawpaya built a new capital at Amarapura (1783) and Mindon Min another at Mandalay (1857). The dynasty came to an end in 1886 when King Thibaw was deposed by the Government of India and his dominions annexed.


The early history of Buddhism in Burma is obscure, as in most other countries, and different writers have maintained that it was introduced from northern India, the east coast of India, Ceylon, China or Camboja.[129] All these views may be in a measure true, for there is reason to believe that it was not introduced at one epoch or from one source or in one form.

It is not remarkable that Indian influence should be strong among the Burmese. The wonder rather is that they have preserved such strong individuality in art, institutions and everyday life, that no one can pass from India into Burma without feeling that he has entered a new country. This is because the mountains which separate it from Eastern Bengal and run right down to the sea form a barrier still sufficient to prevent communication by rail. But from the earliest times Indian immigrants and Indian ideas have been able to find their way both by land and sea. According to the Burmese chronicles Tagaung was founded by the Hindu prince Abhiraja in the ninth century B.C. and the kingdom of Arakan claims as its first ruler an ancient prince of Benares. The legends have not much more historical value than the Kshattriya genealogies which Brahmans have invented for the kings of Manipur, but they show that the Burmese knew of India and wished to connect themselves with it. This spirit led not only to the invention of legends but to the application of Indian names to Burmese localities. For instance Aparantaka, which really designates a district of western India, is identified by native scholars with Upper Burma.[130] The two merchants Tapussa and Bhallika who were the first to salute the Buddha after his enlightenment are said to have come from Ukkala. This is usually identified with Orissa but Burmese tradition locates it in Burma. A system of mythical geography has thus arisen.

The Buddha himself is supposed to have visited Burma, as well as Ceylon, in his lifetime[131] and even to have imparted some of his power to the celebrated image which is now in the Arakan Pagoda at Mandalay. Another resemblance to the Sinhalese story is the evangelization of lower Burma by Asoka's missionaries. The Dipavamsa states[132] that Sona and Uttara were despatched to Suvarnabhumi. This is identified with Ramannadesa or the district of Thaton, which appears to be a corruption of Saddhammapura[133] and the tradition is accepted in Burma. The scepticism with which modern scholars have received it is perhaps unmerited, but the preaching of these missionaries, if it ever took place, cannot at present be connected with other historical events. Nevertheless the statement of the Dipavamsa is significant. The work was composed in the fourth century A.D. and taken from older chronicles. It may therefore be concluded that in the early centuries of our era lower Burma had the reputation of being a Buddhist country.[134] It also appears certain that in the eleventh century, when the Talaings were conquered by Anawrata, Buddhist monks and copies of the Tipitaka were found there. But we know little about the country in the preceding centuries. The Kalyani inscription says that before Anawrata's conquest it was divided and decadent and during this period there is no proof of intercourse with Ceylon but also no disproof. One result of Anawrata's conquest of Thaton was that he exchanged religious embassies with the king of Ceylon, and it is natural to suppose that the two monarchs were moved to this step by traditions of previous communications. Intercourse with the east coast of India may be assumed as natural, and is confirmed by the presence of Sanskrit words in old Talaing and the information about southern India in Talaing records, in which the city of Conjevaram, the great commentator Dharmapala and other men of learning are often mentioned. Analogies have also been traced between the architecture of Pagan and southern India.[135] It will be seen that such communication by sea may have brought not only Hinayanist Buddhism but also Mahayanist and Tantric Buddhism as well as Brahmanism from Bengal and Orissa, so that it is not surprising if all these influences can be detected in the ancient buildings and sculptures of the country.[136] Still the most important evidence as to the character of early Burmese Buddhism is Hinayanist and furnished by inscriptions on thin golden plates and tiles, found near the ancient site of Prome and deciphered by Finot.[137] They consist of Hinayanist religious formulae: the language is Pali: the alphabet is of a south Indian type and is said to resemble closely that used in the inscriptions of the Kadamba dynasty which ruled in Kanara from the third to the sixth century. It is to the latter part of this period that the inscriptions are to be attributed. They show that a form of the Hinayana, comparable, so far as the brief documents permit us to judge, with the church of Ceylon, was then known in lower Burma and was probably the state church. The character of the writing, taken together with the knowledge of southern India shown by the Talaing chronicles and the opinion of the Dipavamsa that Burma was a Buddhist country, is good evidence that lower Burma had accepted Hinayanism before the sixth century and had intercourse with southern India. More than that it would perhaps be rash to say.

The Burmese tradition that Buddhaghosa was a native of Thaton and returned thither from Ceylon merits more attention than it has received. It can be easily explained away as patriotic fancy. On the other hand, if Buddhaghosa's object was to invigorate Hinayanism in India, the result of his really stupendous labours was singularly small, for in India his name is connected with no religious movement. But if we suppose that he went to Ceylon by way of the holy places in Magadha and returned from the Coromandel Coast to Burma where Hinayanism afterwards nourished, we have at least a coherent narrative.[138]

It is noticeable that Taranatha states[139] that in the Koki countries, among which he expressly mentions Pukham (Pagan) and Hamsavati (Pegu), Hinayanism was preached from the days of Asoka onwards, but that the Mahayana was not known until the pupils of Vasubandhu introduced it.

The presence of Hinayanism in Lower Burma naturally did not prevent the arrival of Mahayanism. It has not left many certain traces but Atisa (c. 1000), a great figure in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, is reported to have studied both in Magadha and in Suvarnadvipa by which Thaton must be meant. He would hardly have done this, had the clergy of Thaton been unfriendly to Tantric learning. This mediaeval Buddhism was also, as in other countries, mixed with Hinduism but whereas in Camboja and Champa Sivaism, especially the worship of the lingam, was long the official and popular cult and penetrated to Siam, few Sivaite emblems but numerous statues of Vishnuite deities have hitherto been discovered in Burma.

The above refers chiefly to Lower Burma. The history of Burmese Buddhism becomes clearer in the eleventh century but before passing to this new period we must enquire what was the religious condition of Upper Burma in the centuries preceding it. It is clear that any variety of Buddhism or Brahmanism may have entered this region from India by land at any epoch. According to both Hsuan Chuang and I-Ching Buddhism flourished in Samatata and the latter mentions images of Avalokita and the reading of the Prajna-paramita. The precise position of Samatata has not been fixed but in any case it was in the east of Bengal and not far from the modern Burmese frontier. The existence of early Sanskrit inscriptions at Taungu and elsewhere has been recorded but not with as much detail as could be wished.[140] Figures of Bodhisattvas and Indian deities are reported from Prome,[141] and in the Lower Chindwin district are rock-cut temples resembling the caves of Barabar in Bengal. Inscriptions also show that at Prome there were kings, perhaps in the seventh century, who used the Pyu language but bore Sanskrit titles. According to Burmese tradition the Buddha himself visited the site of Pagan and prophesied that a king called Sammutiraya would found a city there and establish the faith. This prediction is said to have been fulfilled in 108 A.D. but the notices quoted from the Burmese chronicles are concerned less with the progress of true religion than with the prevalence of heretics known as Aris.[142] It has been conjectured that this name is a corruption of Arya but it appears that the correct orthography is aran representing an original aranyaka, that is forest priests. It is hard to say whether they were degraded Buddhists or an indigenous priesthood who in some ways imitated what they knew of Brahmanic and Buddhist institutions. They wore black robes, let their hair grow, worshipped serpents, hung up in their temples the heads of animals that had been sacrificed, and once a year they assisted the king to immolate a victim to the Nats on a mountain top. They claimed power to expiate all sins, even parricide. They lived in convents (which is their only real resemblance to Buddhist monks) but were not celibate.[143] Anawrata is said to have suppressed the Aris but he certainly did not extirpate them for an inscription dated 1468 records their existence in the Myingyan district. Also in a village near Pagan are preserved Tantric frescoes representing Bodhisattvas with their Saktis. In one temple is an inscription dated 1248 and requiring the people to supply the priests morning and evening with rice, beef, betel, and a jar of spirits.[144] It is not clear whether these priests were Aris or not, but they evidently professed an extreme form of Buddhist Saktism.

Chinese influences in Upper Burma must also be taken into account. Burmese kings were perhaps among the many potentates who sent religious embassies to the Emperor Wu-ti about 525 A.D. and the T'ang[145] annals show an acquaintance with Burma. They describe the inhabitants as devout Buddhists, reluctant to take life or even to wear silk, since its manufacture involves the death of the silk worms. There were a hundred monasteries into which the youth entered at the age of seven, leaving at the age of twenty, if they did not intend to become monks. The Chinese writer does not seem to have regarded the religion of Burma as differing materially from Buddhism as he knew it and some similarities in ecclesiastical terminology shown by Chinese and Burmese may indicate the presence of Chinese influence.[146] But this influence, though possibly strong between the sixth and tenth centuries A.D., and again about the time of the Chinese invasion of 1284,[147] cannot be held to exclude Indian influence.

Thus when Anawrata came to the throne[148] several forms of religion probably co-existed at Pagan, and probably most of them were corrupt, though it is a mistake to think of his dominions as barbarous. The reformation which followed is described by Burmese authors in considerable detail and as usual in such accounts is ascribed to the activity of one personality, the Thera Arahanta who came from Thaton and enjoyed Anawrata's confidence. The story implies that there was a party in Pagan which knew that the prevalent creed was corrupt and also looked upon Thaton and Ceylon as religious centres. As Anawrata was a man of arms rather than a theologian, we may conjecture that his motive was to concentrate in his capital the flower of learning as known in his time—a motive which has often animated successful princes in Asia and led to the unceremonious seizure of living saints. According to the story he broke up the communities of Aris at the instigation of Arahanta and then sent a mission to Manohari, king of Pegu, asking for a copy of the Tipitaka and for relics. He received a contemptuous reply intimating that he was not to be trusted with such sacred objects. Anawrata in indignation collected an army, marched against the Talaings and ended by carrying off to Pagan not only elephant loads of scriptures and relics, but also all the Talaing monks and nobles with the king himself.[149] The Pitakas were stored in a splendid pagoda and Anawrata sent to Ceylon[150] for others which were compared with the copies obtained from Thaton in order to settle the text.[151]

For 200 years, that is from about 1060 A.D. until the later decades of the thirteenth century, Pagan was a great centre of Buddhist culture not only for Burma but for the whole east, renowned alike for its architecture and its scholarship. The former can still be studied in the magnificent pagodas which mark its site. Towards the end of his reign Anawrata made not very successful attempts to obtain relics from China and Ceylon and commenced the construction of the Shwe Zigon pagoda. He died before it was completed but his successors, who enjoyed fairly peaceful reigns, finished the work and constructed about a thousand other buildings among which the most celebrated is the Ananda temple erected by King Kyansitha.[152]

Pali literature in Burma begins with a little grammatical treatise known as Karika and composed in 1064 A.D. by the monk Dhammasenapati who lived in the monastery attached to this temple. A number of other works followed. Of these the most celebrated was the Saddaniti of Aggavamsa (1154), a treatise on the language of the Tipitaka which became a classic not only in Burma but in Ceylon. A singular enthusiasm for linguistic studies prevailed especially in the reign of Kyocva (c. 1230), when even women are said to have been distinguished for the skill and ardour which they displayed in conquering the difficulties of Pali grammar. Some treatises on the Abhidhamma were also produced.

Like Mohammedanism, Hinayanist Buddhism is too simple and definite to admit much variation in doctrine, but its clergy are prone to violent disputes about apparently trivial questions. In the thirteenth century such disputes assumed grave proportions in Burma. About 1175 A.D. a celebrated elder named Uttarajiva accompanied by his pupil Chapata left for Ceylon. They spent some years in study at the Mahavihara and Chapata received ordination there. He returned to Pagan with four other monks and maintained that valid ordination could be conferred only through the monks of the Mahavihara, who alone had kept the succession unbroken. He with his four companions, having received this ordination, claimed power to transmit it, but he declined to recognize Burmese orders. This pretension aroused a storm of opposition, especially from the Talaing monks. They maintained that Arahanta who had reformed Buddhism under Anawrata was spiritually descended from the missionaries sent by Asoka, who were as well qualified to administer ordination as Mahinda. But Chapata was not only a man of learning and an author[153] but also a vigorous personality and in favour at Court. He had the best of the contest and succeeded in making the Talaing school appear as seceders from orthodoxy. There thus arose a distinction between the Sinhalese or later school and the old Burmese school, who regarded one another as schismatics. A scandal was caused in the Sinhalese community by Rahula, the ablest of Chapata's disciples, who fell in love with an actress and wished to become a layman. His colleagues induced him to leave the country for decency's sake and peace was restored but subsequently, after Chapata's death, the remaining three disciples[154] fell out on questions of discipline rather than doctrine and founded three factions, which can hardly be called schools, although they refused to keep the Uposatha days together. The light of religion shone brightest at Pagan early in the thirteenth century while these three brethren were alive and the Sasanavamsa states that at least three Arhats lived in the city. But the power of Pagan collapsed under attacks from both Chinese and Shans at the end of the century and the last king became a monk under the compulsion of Shan chiefs. The deserted city appears to have lost its importance as a religious centre, for the ecclesiastical chronicles shift the scene elsewhere.

The two Shan states which arose from the ruin of Pagan, namely Panya (Vijayapura) and Sagaing (Jeyyapura), encouraged religion and learning. Their existence probably explains the claim made in Siamese inscriptions of about 1300 that the territory of Siam extended to Hamsavati or Pegu and this contact of Burma and Siam was of great importance for it must be the origin of Pali Buddhism in Siam which otherwise remains unexplained.

After the fall of the two Shan states in 1364, Ava (or Ratnapura) which was founded in the same year gradually became the religious centre of Upper Burma and remained so during several centuries. But it did not at first supersede older towns inasmuch as the loss of political independence did not always involve the destruction of monasteries. Buddhism also flourished in Pegu and the Talaing country where the vicissitudes of the northern kingdoms did not affect its fortunes.

Anawrata had transported the most eminent Theras of Thaton to Pagan and the old Talaing school probably suffered temporarily. Somewhat later we hear that the Sinhalese school was introduced into these regions by Sariputta,[155] who had been ordained at Pagan. About the same time two Theras of Martaban, preceptors of the Queen, visited Ceylon and on returning to their own land after being ordained at the Mahavihara considered themselves superior to other monks. But the old Burmese school continued to exist. Not much literature was produced in the south. Sariputta was the author of a Dhammathat or code, the first of a long series of law books based upon Manu. Somewhat later Mahayasa of Thaton (c. 1370) wrote several grammatical works.

The most prosperous period for Buddhism in Pegu was the reign of Dhammaceti, also called Ramadhipati (1460-1491). He was not of the royal family, but a simple monk who helped a princess of Pegu to escape from the Burmese court where she was detained. In 1453 this princess became Queen of Pegu and Dhammaceti left his monastery to become her prime minister, son-in-law and ultimately her successor. But though he had returned to the world his heart was with the Church. He was renowned for his piety no less than for his magnificence and is known to modern scholars as the author of the Kalyani inscriptions,[156] which assume the proportions of a treatise on ecclesiastical laws and history. Their chief purpose is to settle an intricate and highly technical question, namely the proper method of defining and consecrating a sima. This word, which means literally boundary, signifies a plot of ground within which Uposatha meetings, ordinations and other ceremonies can take place. The expression occurs in the Vinaya Pitaka,[157] but the area there contemplated seems to be an ecclesiastical district within which the Bhikkhus were obliged to meet for Uposatha. The modern sima is much smaller,[158] but more important since it is maintained that valid ordination can be conferred only within its limits. To Dhammaceti the question seemed momentous, for as he explains, there were in southern Burma six schools who would not meet for Uposatha. These were, first the Camboja[159] school (identical with the Arahanta school) who claimed spiritual descent from the missionaries sent by Asoka to Suvarnabhumi, and then five divisions of the Sinhalese school, namely the three founded by Chapata's disciples as already related and two more founded by the theras of Martaban. Dhammaceti accordingly sent a mission to Ceylon charged to obtain an authoritative ruling as to the proper method of consecrating a sima and conferring ordination. On their return a locality known as the Kalyanisima was consecrated in the manner prescribed by the Mahavihara and during three years all the Bhikkhus of Dhammaceti's kingdom were reordained there. The total number reached 15,666, and the king boasts that he had thus purified religion and made the school of the Mahavihara the only sect, all other distinctions being obliterated.

There can be little doubt that in the fifteenth century Burmese Buddhism had assumed the form which it still has, but was this form due to indigenous tradition or to imitation of Ceylon? Five periods merit attention. (a) In the sixth century, and probably several centuries earlier, Hinayanism was known in Lower Burma. The inscriptions attesting its existence are written in Pali and in a south Indian alphabet. (b) Anawrata (1010-1052) purified the Buddhism of Upper Burma with the help of scriptures obtained from the Talaing country, which were compared with other scriptures brought from Ceylon. (c) About 1200 Chapata and his pupils who had studied in Ceylon and received ordination there refused to recognize the Talaing monks and two hostile schools were founded, predominant at first in Upper and Lower Burma respectively. (d) About 1250 the Sinhalese school, led by Sariputta and others, began to make conquests in Lower Burma at the expense of the Talaing school. (e) Two centuries later, about 1460, Dhammaceti of Pegu boasts that he has purified religion and made the school of the Mahavihara, that is the most orthodox form of the Sinhalese school, the only sect.

In connection with these data must be taken the important statement that the celebrated Tantrist Atisa studied in Lower Burma about 1000 A.D. Up to a certain point the conclusion seems clear. Pali Hinayanism in Burma was old: intercourse with southern India and Ceylon tended to keep it pure, whereas intercourse with Bengal and Orissa, which must have been equally frequent, tended to import Mahayanism. In the time of Anawrata the religion of Upper Burma probably did not deserve the name of Buddhism. He introduced in its place the Buddhism of Lower Burma, tempered by reference to Ceylon. After 1200 if not earlier the idea prevailed that the Mahavihara was the standard of orthodoxy and that the Talaing church (which probably retained some Mahayanist features) fell below it. In the fifteenth century this view was universally accepted, the opposition and indeed the separate existence of the Talaing church having come to an end.

But it still remains uncertain whether the earliest Burmese Buddhism came direct from Magadha or from the south. The story of Asoka's missionaries cannot be summarily rejected but it also cannot be accepted without hesitation.[160] It is the Ceylon chronicle which knows of them and communication between Burma and southern India was old and persistent. It may have existed even before the Christian era.

After the fall of Pagan, Upper Burma, of which we must now speak, passed through troubled times and we hear little of religion or literature. Though Ava was founded in 1364 it did not become an intellectual centre for another century. But the reign of Narapati (1442-1468) was ornamented by several writers of eminence among whom may be mentioned the monk poet Silavamsa and Ariyavamsa, an exponent of the Abhidhamma. They are noticeable as being the first writers to publish religious works, either original or translated, in the vernacular and this practice steadily increased. In the early part of the sixteenth century[161] occurred the only persecution of Buddhism known in Burma. Thohanbwa, a Shan who had become king of Ava, endeavoured to exterminate the order by deliberate massacre and delivered temples, monasteries and libraries to the flames. The persecution did not last long nor extend to other districts but it created great indignation among the Burmese and was perhaps one of the reasons why the Shan dynasty of Ava was overthrown in 1555.

Bayin (or Bureng) Naung stands out as one of the greatest personalities in Burmese history. As a Buddhist he was zealous even to intolerance, since he forced the Shans and Moslims of the northern districts, and indeed all his subjects, to make a formal profession of Buddhism. He also, as related elsewhere, made not very successful attempts to obtain the tooth relic from Ceylon. But it is probable that his active patronage of the faith, as shown in the construction and endowment of religious buildings, was exercised chiefly in Pegu and this must be the reason why the Sasanavamsa (which is interested chiefly in Upper Burma) says little about him.

His successors showed little political capacity but encouraged religion and literature. The study of the Abhidhamma was specially flourishing in the districts of Ava and Sagaing from about 1600 to 1650 and found many illustrious exponents. Besides works in Pali, the writers of this time produced numerous Burmese translations and paraphrases of Abhidhamma works, as well as edifying stories.

In the latter part of the seventeenth century Burma was in a disturbed condition and the Sasanavamsa says that religion was dimmed as the moon by clouds. A national and religious revival came with the victories of Alompra (1752 onwards), but the eighteenth century also witnessed the rise of a curious and not very edifying controversy which divided the Sangha for about a hundred years and spread to Ceylon.[162] It concerned the manner in which the upper robe of a monk, consisting of a long piece of cloth, should be worn. The old practice in Burma was to wrap this cloth round the lower body from the loins to the ankles, and draw the end from the back over the left shoulder and thence across the breast over the right shoulder so that it finally hung loose behind. But about 1698 began the custom of walking with the right shoulder bare, that is to say letting the end of the robe fall down in front on the left side. The Sangha became divided into two factions known as Ekamsika (one-shouldered) and Parupana (fully clad). The bitterness of the seemingly trivial controversy was increased by the fact that the Ekamsikas could produce little scriptural warrant and appealed to late authorities or the practice in Ceylon, thus neglecting sound learning. For the Vinaya frequently[163] prescribes that the robe is to be adjusted so as to fall over only one shoulder as a mark of special respect, which implies that it was usually worn over both shoulders. In 1712 and again about twenty years later arbitrators were appointed by the king to hear both sides, but they had not sufficient authority or learning to give a decided opinion. The stirring political events of 1740 and the following years naturally threw ecclesiastical quarrels into the shade but when the great Alompra had disposed of his enemies he appeared as a modern Asoka. The court religiously observed Uposatha days and the king was popularly believed to be a Bodhisattva.[164] He was not however sound on the great question of ecclesiastical dress. His chaplain, Atula, belonged to the Ekamsika party and the king, saying that he wished to go into the whole matter himself but had not for the moment leisure, provisionally ordered the Sangha to obey Atula's ruling. But some champions of the other side stood firm. Alompra dealt leniently with them, but died during his Siamese campaign before he had time to unravel the intricacies of the Vinaya.

The influence of Atula, who must have been an astute if not learned man, continued after the king's death and no measures were taken against the Ekamsikas, although King Hsin-byu-shin (1763-1776) persecuted an heretical sect called Paramats.[165] His youthful successor, Sing-gu-sa, was induced to hold a public disputation. The Ekamsikas were defeated in this contest and a royal decree was issued making the Parupana discipline obligatory. But the vexed question was not settled for it came up again in the long reign (1781-1819) of Bodopaya. This king has won an evil reputation for cruelty and insensate conceit,[166] but he was a man of vigour and kept together his great empire. His megalomania naturally detracted from the esteem won by his piety. His benefactions to religion were lavish, the shrines and monasteries which he built innumerable. But he desired to build a pagoda larger than any in the world and during some twenty years wasted an incalculable amount of labour and money on this project, still commemorated by a gigantic but unfinished mass of brickwork now in ruins. In order to supervise its erection he left his palace and lived at Mingun, where he conceived the idea that he was a Buddha, an idea which had not been entirely absent from the minds of Alompra and Hsin-byu-shin. It is to the credit of the Theras that, despite the danger of opposing an autocrat as cruel as he was crazy, they refused to countenance these pretensions and the king returned to his palace as an ordinary monarch.

If he could not make himself a Buddha, he at least disposed of the Ekamsika dispute, and was probably influenced in his views by Nanabhivamsa, a monk of the Parupana school whom he made his chaplain, although Atula was still alive. At first he named a commission of enquiry, the result of which was that the Ekamsikas admitted that their practice could not be justified from the scriptures but only by tradition. A royal decree was issued enjoining the observance of the Parupana discipline, but two years later Atula addressed a letter to the king in which he maintained that the Ekamsika costume was approved in a work called Culaganthipada, composed by Moggalana, the immediate disciple of the Buddha. The king ordered representatives of both parties to examine this contention and the debate between them is dramatically described in the Sasanavamsa. It was demonstrated that the text on which Atula relied was composed in Ceylon by a thera named Moggalana who lived in the twelfth century and that it quoted mediaeval Sinhalese commentaries. After this exposure the Ekamsika party collapsed. The king commanded (1784) the Parupana discipline to be observed and at last the royal order received obedience.

It will be observed that throughout this controversy both sides appealed to the king, as if he had the right to decide the point in dispute, but that his decision had no compelling power as long as it was not supported by evidence. He could ensure toleration for views regarded by many as heretical, but was unable to force the views of one party on the other until the winning cause had publicly disproved the contentions of its opponents. On the other hand the king had practical control of the hierarchy, for his chaplain was de facto head of the Church and the appointment was strictly personal. It was not the practice for a king to take on his predecessor's chaplain and the latter could not, like a Lamaist or Catholic ecclesiastic, claim any permanent supernatural powers. Bodopaya did something towards organizing the hierarchy for he appointed four elders of repute to be Sangharajas or, so to speak, Bishops, with four more as assistants and over them all his chaplain Nana as Archbishop. Nana was a man of energy and lived in turn in various monasteries supervising the discipline and studies.

In spite of the extravagances of Bodopaya, the Church was flourishing and respected in his reign. The celebrated image called Mahamuni was transferred from Arakan to his capital together with a Sanskrit library, and Burma sent to Ceylon not only the monks who founded the Amarapura school but also numerous Pali texts. This prosperity continued in the reigns of Bagyidaw, Tharrawadi and Pagan-min, who were of little personal account. The first ordered the compilation of the Yazawin, a chronicle which was not original but incorporated and superseded other works of the same kind. In his reign arose a question as to the validity of grants of land, etc., for religious purposes. It was decided in the sense most favourable to the order, viz. that such grants are perpetual and are not invalidated by the lapse of time. About 1845 there was a considerable output of vernacular literature. The Digha, Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas with their commentaries were translated into Burmese but no compositions in Pali are recorded.

From 1852 till 1877 Burma was ruled by Mindon-min, who if not a national hero was at least a pious, peace-loving, capable king. His chaplain, Pannasami, composed the Sasanavamsa, or ecclesiastical history of Burma, and the king himself was ambitious to figure as a great Buddhist monarch, though with more sanity than Bodopaya, for his chief desire was to be known as the Convener of the Fifth Buddhist Council. The body so styled met from 1868 to 1871 and, like the ancient Sangitis, proceeded to recite the Tipitaka in order to establish the correct text. The result may still be seen at Mandalay in the collection of buildings commonly known as the four hundred and fifty Pagodas: a central Stupa surrounded by hundreds of small shrines each sheltering a perpendicular tablet on which a portion of this veritable bible in stone is inscribed. Mindon-min also corrected the growing laxity of the Bhikkhus, and the esteem in which the Burmese church was held at this time is shown by the fact that the monks of Ceylon sent a deputation to the Sangharaja of Mandalay referring to his decision a dispute about a sima or ecclesiastical boundary.

Mindon-min was succeeded by Thibaw, who was deposed by the British. The Sangharaja maintained his office until he died in 1895. An interregnum then occurred for the appointment had always been made by the king, not by the Sangha. But when Lord Curzon visited Burma in 1901 he made arrangements for the election by the monks themselves of a superior of the whole order and Taunggwin Sayadaw was solemnly installed in this office by the British authorities in 1903 with the title of Thathanabaing.[167]


We may now examine briefly some sides of popular religion and institutions which are not Buddhist. It is an interesting fact that the Burmese law books or Dhammathats,[168] which are still accepted as regulating inheritance and other domestic matters, are Indian in origin and show no traces of Sinhalese influence although since 1750 there has been a decided tendency to bring them into connection with authorities accepted by Buddhism. The earliest of these codes are those of Dhammavilasa (1174 A.D.) and of Waguru, king of Martaban in 1280. They professedly base themselves on the authority of Manu and, so far as purely legal topics are concerned, correspond pretty closely with the rules of the Manava-dharmasastra. But they omit all prescriptions which involve Brahmanic religious observances such as penance and sacrifice. Also the theory of punishment is different and inspired by the doctrine of Karma, namely, that every evil deed will bring its own retribution. Hence the Burmese codes ordain for every crime not penalties to be suffered by the criminal but merely the payment of compensation to the party aggrieved, proportionate to the damage suffered.[169] It is probable that the law-books on which these codes were based were brought from the east coast of India and were of the same type as the code of Narada, which, though of unquestioned Brahmanic orthodoxy, is almost purely legal and has little to say about religion. A subsidiary literature embodying local decisions naturally grew up, and about 1640 was summarized by a Burmese nobleman called Kaing-za in the Maharaja-dhammathat. He received from the king the title of Manuraja and the name of Manu became connected with his code, though it is really based on local custom. It appears to have superseded older law-books until the reign of Alompra who remodelled the administration and caused several codes to be compiled.[170] These also preserve the name of Manu, but he and Kaing-za are treated as the same personage. The rules of the older law-books are in the main retained but are made to depend on Buddhist texts. Later Dhammathats become more and more decidedly Buddhist. Thus the Mohavicchedani (1832) does not mention Manu but presents the substance of the Manu Dhammathats as the law preached by the Buddha.

Direct Indian influence may be seen in another department not unimportant in an oriental country. The court astrologers, soothsayers and professors of kindred sciences were even in recent times Brahmans, known as Ponna and mostly from Manipur. An inscription found at Pagan and dated 1442 mentions the gift of 295 books[171] to the Sangha among which several have Sanskrit titles and about 1600 we hear of Pandits learned in the Vedasastras, meaning not Vedic learning in the strict sense but combinations of science and magic described as medicine, astronomy, Kamasastras, etc. Hindu tradition was sufficiently strong at the Court to make the presence of experts in the Atharva Veda seem desirable and in the capital they were in request for such services as drawing up horoscopes[172] and invoking good luck at weddings whereas monks will not attend social gatherings.

More important as a non-Buddhist element in Burmese religion is the worship of Nats[173] or spirits of various kinds. Of the prevalence of such worship there is no doubt, but I cannot agree with the authorities who say that it is the practical religion of the Burmese. No passing tourist can fail to see that in the literal as well as figurative sense Burma takes its colour from Buddhism, from the gilded and vermilion pagodas and the yellow robed priests. It is impossible that so much money should be given, so many lives dedicated to a religion which had not a real hold on the hearts of the people. The worship of Nats, wide-spread though it be, is humble in its outward signs and is a superstition rather than a creed. On several occasions the kings of Burma have suppressed its manifestations when they became too conspicuous. Thus Anawrata destroyed the Nat houses of Pagan and recent kings forbade the practice of firing guns at funerals to scare the evil spirits.

Nats are of at least three classes, or rather have three origins. Firstly they are nature spirits, similar to those revered in China and Tibet. They inhabit noticeable natural features of every kind, particularly trees, rivers and mountains; they may be specially connected with villages, houses or individuals. Though not essentially evil they are touchy and vindictive, punishing neglect or discourtesy with misfortune and ill-luck. No explanation is offered as to the origin of many Nats, but others, who may be regarded as forming the second category, are ghosts or ancestral spirits. In northern Burma Chinese influence encouraged ancestor worship, but apart from this there is a disposition (equally evident in India) to believe that violent and uncanny persons and those who meet with a tragic death become powerful ghosts requiring propitiation. Thirdly, there are Nats who are at least in part identified with the Indian deities recognized by early Buddhism. It would seem that the Thirty Seven Nats, described in a work called the Mahagita Medanigyan, correspond to the Thirty Three Gods of Buddhist mythology, but that the number has been raised for unknown reasons to 37.[174] They are spirits of deceased heroes, and there is nothing unbuddhist in this conception, for the Pitakas frequently represent deserving persons as being reborn in the Heaven of the Thirty Three. The chief is Thagya, the Sakra or Indra of Hindu mythology,[175] but the others are heroes, connected with five cycles of legends based on a popular and often inaccurate version of Burmese history.[176]

Besides Thagya Nat we find other Indian figures such as Man Nat (Mara) and Byamma Nat (Brahma). In diagrams illustrating the Buddhist cosmology of the Burmans[177] a series of heavens is depicted, ascending from those of the Four Kings and Thirty Three Gods up to the Brahma worlds, and each inhabited by Nats according to their degree. Here the spirits of Burma are marshalled and classified according to Buddhist system just as were the spirits of India some centuries before. But neither in ancient India nor in modern Burma have the devas or Nats anything to do with the serious business of religion. They have their place in temples as guardian genii and the whole band may be seen in a shrine adjoining the Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda at Pagan, but this interferes no more with the supremacy of the Buddha than did the deputations of spirits who according to the scriptures waited on him.


Buddhism is a real force in Burmese life and the pride of the Burmese people. Every male Burman enters a monastery when he is about 15 for a short stay. Devout parents send their sons for the four months of Was (or even for this season during three successive years), but by the majority a period of from one month to one week is considered sufficient. To omit this stay in a monastery altogether would not be respectable: it is in common esteem the only way to become a human being, for without it a boy is a mere animal. The praises of the Buddha and vows to lead a good life are commonly recited by the laity[178] every morning and evening. It is the greatest ambition of most Burmans to build a pagoda and those who are able to do so (a large percentage of the population to judge from the number of buildings) are not only sure of their reward in another birth but even now enjoy respect and receive the title of pagoda-builder. Another proof of devotion is the existence of thousands of monasteries—[179]perhaps on an average more than two for each large village and town—built and supported by voluntary contributions. The provision of food and domicile for their numerous inmates is no small charge on the nation, but observers are agreed that it is cheerfully paid and that the monks are worthy of what they receive. In energy and morality they seem, as a class, superior to their brethren in Ceylon and Siam, and their services to education and learning have been considerable. Every monastery is also a school, where instruction is given to both day boys and boarders. The vast majority of Burmans enter such a school at the age of eight or nine and learn there reading, writing, and arithmetic. They also receive religious instruction and moral training. They commit to memory various works in Pali and Burmese, and are taught the duties which they owe to themselves, society and the state. Sir. J.G. Scott, who is certainly not disposed to exaggerate the influence of Buddhism in Burma, says that "the education of the monasteries far surpasses the instruction of the Anglo-vernacular schools from every point of view except that of immediate success in life and the obtaining of a post under Government."[180] The more studious monks are not merely schoolmasters but can point to a considerable body of literature which they have produced in the past and are still producing.[181] Indeed among the Hinayanist churches that of Burma has in recent centuries held the first place for learning. The age and continuity of Sinhalese traditions have given the Sangha of Ceylon a correspondingly great prestige but it has more than once been recruited from Burma and in literary output it can hardly rival the Burmese clergy.

Though many disquisitions on the Vinaya have been produced in Burma, and though the Jatakas and portions of the Sutta Pitaka (especially those called Parittam) are known to everybody, yet the favourite study of theologians appears to be the Abhidhamma, concerning which a multitude of hand-books and commentaries have been written, but it is worth mentioning that the Abhidhammattha-sangaha, composed in Ceylon about the twelfth century A.D., is still the standard manual.[182] Yet it would be a mistake to think of the Burmese monks as absorbed in these recondite studies: they have on the contrary produced a long series of works dealing with the practical things of the world, such as chronicles, law-books, ethical and political treatises, and even poetry, for Silavamsa and Ratthapala whose verses are still learned by the youth of Burma were both of them Bhikkhus. The Sangha has always shown a laudable reserve in interfering directly with politics, but in former times the king's private chaplain was a councillor of importance and occasionally matters involving both political and religious questions were submitted to a chapter of the order. In all cases the influence of the monks in secular matters made for justice and peace: they sometimes interceded on behalf of the condemned or represented that taxation was too heavy. In 1886, when the British annexed Burma, the Head of the Sangha forbade monks to take part in the political strife, a prohibition which was all the more remarkable because King Thibaw had issued proclamations saying that the object of the invasion was to destroy Buddhism.

In essentials monastic life is much the same in Burma and Ceylon but the Burmese standard is higher, and any monk known to misconduct himself would be driven out by the laity. The monasteries are numerous but not large and much space is wasted, for, though the exterior suggests that they are built in several stories the interior usually is a single hall, although it may be divided by partitions. To the eastern side is attached a chapel containing images of Gotama before which daily devotions are performed. It is surmounted by a steeple culminating in a hti, a sort of baldachino or sacred umbrella placed also on the top of dagobas, and made of open metal work hung with little bells. Monasteries are always built outside towns and, though many of them become subsequently enclosed by the growth of the larger cities, they retain spacious grounds in which there may be separate buildings, such as a library, dormitories for pupils and a hall for performing the ordination service. The average number of inmates is six. A large establishment may house a superior, four monks, some novices and besides them several lay scholars. The grades are Sahin or novice, Pyit-shin or fully ordained monk and Pongyi, literally great glory, a monk of at least ten years' standing. Rank depends on seniority—that is to say the greatest respect is shown to the monk who has observed his vows for the longest period, but there are some simple hierarchical arrangements. At the head of each monastery is a Saya or superior, and all the monasteries of a large town or a country district are under the supervision of a Provincial called Gaing-Ok. At the head of the whole church is the Thathanabaing, already mentioned. All these higher officials must be Pongyis.

Although all monks must take part in the daily round to collect alms yet in most monasteries it is the custom (as in Ceylon and Siam) not to eat the food collected, or at least not all of it, and though no solid nourishment is taken after midday, three morning meals are allowed, namely, one taken very early, the next served on the return from the begging round and a third about 11.30. Two or three services are intoned before the image of the Buddha each day. At the morning ceremony, which takes place about 5.30, all the inmates of the monastery prostrate themselves before the superior and vow to observe the precepts during the day. At the conclusion of the evening service a novice announces that a day has passed away and in a loud voice proclaims the hour, the day of the week, the day of the month and the year. The laity do not usually attend these services, but near large monasteries there are rest houses for the entertainment of visitors and Uposatha days are often celebrated by a pious picnic. A family or party of friends take a rest-house for a day, bring a goodly store of cheroots and betel nut, which are not regarded as out of place during divine service,[183] and listen at their ease to the exposition of the law delivered by a yellow-robed monk. When the congregation includes women he holds a large fan-leaf palm before his face lest his eyes should behold vanity. A custom which might not be to the taste of western ecclesiastics is that the congregation ask questions and, if they do not understand, request the preacher to be clearer.

There is little sectarianism in Burma proper, but the Sawtis, an anti-clerical sect, are found in some numbers in the Shan States and similar communities called Man are still met with in Pegu and Tenasserim, though said to be disappearing. Both refuse to recognize the Sangha, monasteries or temples and perform their devotions in the open fields. Otherwise their mode of thought is Buddhist, for they hold that every man can work out his own salvation by conquering Mara,[184] as the Buddha did, and they use the ordinary formulae of worship, except that they omit all expressions of reverence to the Sangha. The orthodox Sangha is divided into two schools known as Mahagandi and Sulagandi. The former are the moderate easy-going majority who maintain a decent discipline but undeniably deviate somewhat from the letter of the Vinaya. The latter are a strict and somewhat militant Puritan minority who protest against such concessions to the flesh. They insist for instance that a monk should eat out of his begging bowl exactly as it is at the end of the morning round and they forbid the use of silk robes, sunshades and sandals. The Sulagandi also believe in free will and attach more value to the intention than the action in estimating the value of good deeds, whereas the Mahagandi accept good actions without enquiring into the motive and believe that all deeds are the result of karma.


In Burma all the higher branches of architecture are almost exclusively dedicated to religion. Except the Palace at Mandalay there is hardly a native building of note which is not connected with a shrine or monastery. Burmese architectural forms show most analogy to those of Nepal and perhaps[185] both preserve what was once the common style for wooden buildings in ancient India. In recent centuries the Burmese have shown little inclination to build anything that can be called a temple, that is a chamber containing images and the paraphernalia of worship. The commonest form of religious edifice is the dagoba or zedi:[186] images are placed in niches or shrines, which shelter them, but only rarely, as on the platform of the Shwe Dagon at Rangoon, assume the proportions of rooms. This does not apply to the great temples of Pagan, built from about 1050 to 1200, but that style was not continued and except the Arakan Pagoda at Mandalay has perhaps no modern representative. Details of these buildings may be found in the works of Forchhammer, Fergusson, de Beylie and various archaeological reports. Their construction is remarkably solid. They do not, like most large buildings in India or Europe, contain halls of some size but are rather pyramids traversed by passages. But this curious disinclination to build temples of the usual kind is not due to any dislike of images. In no Buddhist country are they more common and their numbers are more noticeable because there is here no pantheon as in China and Tibet, but images of Gotama are multiplied, merely in order to obtain merit. Some slight variety in these figures is produced by the fact that the Burmese venerate not only Gotama but the three Buddhas who preceded him.[187] The Shwe Dagon Pagoda is reputed to contain relics of all four; statues of them all stand in the beautiful Ananda Pagoda at Pagan and not infrequently they are represented by four sitting figures facing the four quarters. A gigantic group of this kind composed of statues nearly 90 feet high stands in the outskirts of Pegu, and in the same neighbourhood is a still larger recumbent figure 180 feet long. It had been forgotten since the capture of Pegu by the Burmans in 1757 and was rediscovered by the engineers surveying the route for the railway. It lies almost in sight of the line and is surprising by its mere size, as one comes upon it suddenly in the jungle. As a work of art it can hardly be praised. It does not suggest the Buddha on his death bed, as is intended, but rather some huge spirit of the jungle waking up and watching the railway with indolent amusement.

In Upper Burma there are not so many large images but as one approaches Mandalay the pagodas add more and more to the landscape. Many are golden and the rest are mostly white and conspicuous. They crown the hills and punctuate the windings of the valleys. Perhaps Burmese art and nature are seen at their best near Sagaing on the bank of the Irrawaddy, a mighty flood of yellow water, sweeping down smooth and steady, but here and there showing whirlpools that look like molten metal. From the shore rise hills of moderate height studded with monasteries and shrines. Flights of white steps lead to the principal summits where golden spires gleam and everywhere are pagodas of all ages, shapes and sizes. Like most Asiatics the Burmese rarely repair, but build new pagodas instead of renovating the old ones. The instinct is not altogether unjust. A pagoda does not collapse like a hollow building but understands the art of growing old. Like a tree it may become cleft or overgrown with moss but it remains picturesque. In the neighbourhood of Sagaing there is a veritable forest of pagodas; humble seedlings built by widows' mites, mature golden domes reared by devout prosperity and venerable ruins decomposing as all compound things must do.

The pagoda slaves are a curious institution connected with temples. Under the Burmese kings persons could be dedicated to pagodas and by this process not only became slaves for life themselves but involved in the same servitude all their posterity, none of whom could by any method become free. They formed a low caste like the Indian Pariahs and though the British Government has abolished the legal status of slavery, the social stigma which clings to them is said to be undiminished.

Art and architecture make the picture of Burma as it remains in memory and they are the faithful reflection of the character and ways of its inhabitants, their cheerful but religious temper, their love of what is fanciful and graceful, their moderate aspirations towards what is arduous and sublime. The most striking feature of this architecture is its free use of gold and colour. In no country of the world is gilding and plating with gold so lavishly employed on the exterior of buildings. The larger Pagodas such as the Shwe Dagon are veritable pyramids of gold, and the roofs of the Arakan temple as they rise above Mandalay show tier upon tier of golden beams and plates. The brilliancy is increased by the equally lavish use of vermilion, sometimes diversified by glass mosaic. I remember once in an East African jungle seeing a clump of flowers of such brilliant red and yellow that for a moment I thought it was a fire. Somewhat similar is the surprise with which one first gazes on these edifices. I do not know whether the epithet flamboyant can be correctly applied to them as architecture but both in colour and shape they imitate a pile of flame, for the outlines of monasteries and shrines are fanciful in the extreme; gabled roofs with finials like tongues of fire and panels rich with carvings and fret-work. The buildings of Hindus and Burmans are as different as their characters. When a Hindu temple is imposing it is usually because of its bulk and mystery, whereas these buildings are lighthearted and fairy-like: heaps of red and yellow fruit with twining leaves and tendrils that have grown by magic. Nor is there much resemblance to Japanese architecture. There also, lacquer and gold are employed to an unusual extent but the flourishes, horns and finials which in Burma spring from every corner and projection are wanting and both Japanese and Chinese artists are more sparing and reticent. They distribute ornament so as to emphasize and lead up to the more important parts of their buildings, whereas the open-handed, splendour-loving Burman puts on every panel and pillar as much decoration as it will hold.

The result must be looked at as a whole and not too minutely. The best work is the wood carving which has a freedom and boldness often missing in the minute and crowded designs of Indian art. Still as a rule it is at the risk of breaking the spell that you examine the details of Burmese ornamentation. Better rest content with your first amazement on beholding these carved and pinnacled piles of gold and vermilion, where the fantastic animals and plants seem about to break into life.

The most celebrated shrine in Burma is the Shwe Dagon Pagoda which attracts pilgrims from all the Buddhist world. No descriptions of it gave me any idea of its real appearance nor can I hope that I shall be more successful in giving the reader my own impressions. The pagoda itself is a gilt bell-shaped mass rather higher than the Dome of St. Paul's and terminating in a spire. It is set in the centre of a raised mound or platform, approached by lofty flights of steps. The platform, which is paved and level, is of imposing dimensions, some nine hundred feet long and seven hundred wide. Round the base of the central pagoda is a row of shrines and another row runs round the edge of the platform so that one moves, as it were, in a street of these edifices, leading here and there into side squares where are quiet retreats with palm trees and gigantic images. But when after climbing the long staircase one first emerges on the platform one does not realize the topography at once and seems to have entered suddenly into Jerusalem the Golden. Right and left are rows of gorgeous, fantastic sanctuaries, all gold, vermilion and glass mosaic, and within them sit marble figures, bland, enigmatic personages who seem to invite approach but offer no explanation of the singular scene or the part they play in it. If analyzed in detail the artistic merits of these shrines might be found small but the total impression is unique. The Shwe Dagon has not the qualities which usually distinguish great religious buildings. It is not specially impressive by its majesty or holiness; it is certainly wanting in order and arrangement. But on entering the platform one feels that one has suddenly passed from this life into another and different world. It is not perhaps a very elevated world; certainly not the final repose of the just or the steps of the throne of God, but it is as if you were walking in the bazaars of Paradise—one of those Buddhist Paradises where the souls of the moderately pure find temporary rest from the whirl of transmigration, where the very lotus flowers are golden and the leaves of the trees are golden bells that tinkle in the perfumed breeze.


[Footnote 124: For the Pyus see Blagden in J.R.A.S. pp. 365-388. Ibid. in Epigr. Indica, 1913, pp. 127-133. Also reports of Burma Arch. Survey, 1916, 1917.]

[Footnote 125: So C.C. Lowis in the Gazetteer of Burma, vol. I. p. 292, but according to others the Burmese chronicles place the event at the beginning of the Christian era.]

[Footnote 126: Sometimes called New Pagan to distinguish it from Old Pagan which was a name of Tagaung. Also called Pagan or Pugama and in Pali Arimaddanapura.]

[Footnote 127: See the travels of Kia Tan described by Pelliot in B.E.F.E.O. 1904, pp. 131-414.]

[Footnote 128: More correctly Taung-ngu.]

[Footnote 129: For the history and present condition of Buddhism in Burma the following may be consulted besides other works referred to in the course of this chapter.

M. Bode, Edition of the Sasanavamsa with valuable dissertations, 1897. This work is a modern Burmese ecclesiastical history written in 1861 by Pannasami.

M. Bode, The Pali Literature of Burma, 1909.

The Gandhavamsa: containing accounts of many Pali works written in Burma. Edited by Minayeff in Jour. Pali Text Soc. for 1886, pp. 54 ff. and indexed by M. Bode, ibid. 1896, 53 ff.

Bigandet, Vie ou Legende de Gautama, 1878.

Yoe, The Burman, his life and notions.

J.G. Scott, Burma, a handbook of practical information, 1906.

Reports of the Superintendent, Archaeological Survey, Burma, 1916-1920.

Various articles (especially by Duroiselle, Taw-Sein-Ko and R.C. Temple) in the Indian Antiquary, Buddhism, and Bulletin de l'Ecole Francaise de l'Extreme Orient.]

[Footnote 130: So too Prome is called Srikshetra and the name Irrawaddy represents Iravati (the modern Ravi). The ancient town of Sravasti or Savatthi is said to reappear in the three forms Tharawaddy, Tharawaw and Thawutti.]

[Footnote 131: See Indian Antiquary, 1893, p. 6, and Forchhammer on the Mahamuni Pagoda in Burmese Archaeological Report (? 1890).]

[Footnote 132: Dipav. VIII. 12, and in a more embellished form in Mahavamsa XII. 44-54. See also the Kalyani Inscriptions in Indian Ant. 1893, p. 16.]

[Footnote 133: Through the form Saton representing Saddhan. Early European travellers called it Satan or Xatan.]

[Footnote 134: The Burmese identify Aparantaka and Yona to which Asoka also sent missionaries with Upper Burma and the Shan country. But this seems to be merely a misapplication of Indian names.]

[Footnote 135: See Forchhammer, Jardine Prize Essay, 1885, pp. 23-27. He also says that the earliest Talaing alphabet is identical with the Vengi alphabet of the fourth century A.D. Burma Archaeol. Report, 1917, p. 29.]

[Footnote 136: See R.C. Temple, "Notes on Antiquities of Ramannadesa," Ind. Antiq. 1893, pp. 327 ff. Though I admit the possibility that Mahayanism and Tantrism may have flourished in lower Burma, it does not seem to me that the few Hindu figures reproduced in this article prove very much.]

[Footnote 137: J.A. 1912, II. pp. 121-136.]

[Footnote 138: It is remarkable that Buddhaghosa commenting on Ang. Nik. 1. 14. 6 (quoted by Forchhammer) describes the merchants of Ukkala as inhabiting Asitanjana in the region of Hamsavati or Pegu. This identification of Ukkala with Burmese territory is a mistake but accepted in Burma and it is more likely that a Burmese would have made it than a Hindu.]

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