Hinduism and Buddhism, An Historical Sketch, Vol. 3 (of 3)
by Charles Eliot
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Transcriber's Note:

Excerpts from the Preface to the book from Volume 1, regarding the method of transcription used.

"In the following pages I have occasion to transcribe words belonging to many oriental languages in Latin characters. Unfortunately a uniform system of transcription, applicable to all tongues, seems not to be practical at present. It was attempted in the Sacred Books of the East, but that system has fallen into disuse and is liable to be misunderstood. It therefore seems best to use for each language the method of transcription adopted by standard works in English dealing with each, for French and German transcriptions, whatever their merits may be as representations of the original sounds, are often misleading to English readers, especially in Chinese. For Chinese I have adopted Wade's system as used in Giles's Dictionary, for Tibetan the system of Sarat Chandra Das, for Pali that of the Pali Text Society and for Sanskrit that of Monier-Williams's Sanskrit Dictionary, except that I write s instead of s. Indian languages however offer many difficulties: it is often hard to decide whether Sanskrit or vernacular forms are more suitable and in dealing with Buddhist subjects whether Sanskrit or Pali words should be used. I have found it convenient to vary the form of proper names according as my remarks are based on Sanskrit or on Pali literature, but this obliges me to write the same word differently in different places, e.g. sometimes Ajatasatru and sometimes Ajatasattu, just as in a book dealing with Greek and Latin mythology one might employ both Herakles and Hercules. Also many Indian names such as Ramayana, Krishna, nirvana have become Europeanized or at least are familiar to all Europeans interested in Indian literature. It seems pedantic to write them with their full and accurate complement of accents and dots and my general practice is to give such words in their accurate spelling (Ramayana, etc.) when they are first mentioned and also in the notes but usually to print them in their simpler and unaccented forms. I fear however that my practice in this matter is not entirely consistent since different parts of the book were written at different times."


The following are the principal abbreviations used:

Ep. Ind. Epigraphia India.

E.R.E. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (edited by Hastings).

I.A. Indian Antiquary.

J.A. Journal Asiatique.

J.A.O.S. Journal of the American Oriental Society.

J.R.A.S. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.

P.T.S. Pali Text Society.

S.B.E. Sacred Books of the East (Clarendon Press).

Volume 3 has a number of words in Chinese. These are represented by the notation [Chinese: ] in the text files. In html the words are included as image files.




In three volumes VOLUME III

ROUTLEDGE & KEGAN PAUL LTD Broadway House, 68-74 Carter Lane, London, E.C.4.


First published 1921 Reprinted 1954 Reprinted 1957 Reprinted 1962
















XLIV. CHINA (continued). THE CANON






L. TIBET (continued). HISTORY

LI. TIBET (continued). THE CANON


LIII TIBET (continued). SECTS














The subject of this Book is the expansion of Indian influence throughout Eastern Asia and the neighbouring islands. That influence is clear and wide-spread, nay almost universal, and it is with justice that we speak of Further India and the Dutch call their colonies Neerlands Indie. For some early chapters in the story of this expansion the dates and details are meagre, but on the whole the investigator's chief difficulty is to grasp and marshal the mass of facts relating to the development of religion and civilization in this great region.

The spread of Hindu thought was an intellectual conquest, not an exchange of ideas. On the north-western frontier there was some reciprocity, but otherwise the part played by India was consistently active and not receptive. The Far East counted for nothing in her internal history, doubtless because China was too distant and the other countries had no special culture of their own. Still it is remarkable that whereas many Hindu missionaries preached Buddhism in China, the idea of making Confucianism known in India seems never to have entered the head of any Chinese.

It is correct to say that the sphere of India's intellectual conquests was the East and North, not the West, but still Buddhism spread considerably to the west of its original home and entered Persia. Stein discovered a Buddhist monastery in "the terminal marshes of the Helmund" in Seistan[1] and Bamian is a good distance from our frontier. But in Persia and its border lands there were powerful state religions, first Zoroastrianism and then Islam, which disliked and hindered the importation of foreign creeds and though we may see some resemblance between Sufis and Vedantists, it does not appear that the Moslim civilization of Iran owed much to Hinduism.

But in all Asia north and east of India, excluding most of Siberia but including the Malay Archipelago, Indian influence is obvious. Though primarily connected with religion it includes much more, such as architecture, painting and other arts, an Indian alphabet, a vocabulary of Indian words borrowed or translated, legends and customs. The whole life of such diverse countries as Tibet, Burma, and Java would have been different had they had no connection with India.

In these and many other regions the Hindus must have found a low state of civilization, but in the Far East they encountered a culture comparable with their own. There was no question of colonizing or civilizing rude races. India and China met as equals, not hostile but also not congenial, a priest and a statesman, and the statesman made large concessions to the priest. Buddhism produced a great fermentation and controversy in Chinese thought, but though its fortunes varied it hardly ever became as in Burma and Ceylon the national religion. It was, as a Chinese Emperor once said, one of the two wings of a bird. The Chinese characters did not give way to an Indian alphabet nor did the Confucian Classics fall into desuetude. The subjects of Chinese and Japanese pictures may be Buddhist, the plan and ornaments of their temples Indian, yet judged as works of art the pictures and temples are indigenous. But for all that one has only to compare the China of the Hans with the China of the T'angs to see how great was the change wrought by India.

This outgrowing of Indian influence, so long continued and so wide in extent, was naturally not the result of any one impulse. At no time can we see in India any passion of discovery, any fever of conquest such as possessed Europe when the New World and the route to the East round the Cape were discovered. India's expansion was slow, generally peaceful and attracted little attention at home. Partly it was due to the natural permeation and infiltration of a superior culture beyond its own borders, but it is equally natural that this gradual process should have been sometimes accelerated by force of arms. The Hindus produced no Tamerlanes or Babers, but a series of expeditions, spread over long ages, but still not few in number, carried them to such distant goals as Ceylon, Java and Camboja.

But the diffusion of Indian influence, especially in China, was also due to another agency, namely religious propaganda and the deliberate despatch of missions. These missions seem to have been exclusively Buddhist for wherever we find records of Hinduism outside India, for instance in Java and Camboja, the presence of Hindu conquerors or colonists is also recorded.[2] Hinduism accompanied Hindus and sometimes spread round their settlements, but it never attempted to convert distant and alien lands. But the Buddhists had from the beginning the true evangelistic temper: they preached to all the world and in singleness of purpose: they had no political support from India. Many as were the charges brought against them by hostile Confucians, it was never suggested that they sought political or commercial privileges for their native land. It was this simple disinterested attitude which enabled Buddhism, though in many ways antipathetic to the Far East, to win its confidence.

Ceylon is the first place where we have a record of the introduction of Indian civilization and its entry there illustrates all the phenomena mentioned above, infiltration, colonization and propaganda. The island is close to the continent and communication with the Tamil country easy, but though there has long been a large Tamil population with its own language, religion and temples, the fundamental civilization is not Tamil. A Hindu called Vijaya who apparently started from the region of Broach about 500 B.C. led an expedition to Ceylon and introduced a western Hindu language. Intercourse with the north was doubtless maintained, for in the reign of Asoka we find the King of Ceylon making overtures to him and receiving with enthusiasm the missionaries whom he sent. It is possible that southern India played a greater part in this conversion than the accepted legend indicates, for we hear of a monastery built by Mahinda near Tanjore.[3] But still language, monuments and tradition attest the reality of the connection with northern India.

It is in Asoka's reign too that we first hear of Indian influence spreading northwards. His Empire included Nepal and Kashmir, he sent missionaries to the region of Himavanta, meaning apparently the southern slopes of the Himalayas, and to the Kambojas, an ambiguous race who were perhaps the inhabitants of Tibet or its border lands. The Hindu Kush seems to have been the limit of his dominions but tradition ascribes to this period the joint colonization of Khotan from India and China.

Sinhalese and Burmese traditions also credit him with the despatch of missionaries who converted Suvarnabhumi or Pegu. No mention of this has been found in his own inscriptions, and European critics have treated it with not unnatural scepticism for there is little indication that Asoka paid much attention to the eastern frontiers of his Empire. Still I think the question should be regarded as being sub judice rather than as answered in the negative.

Indian expeditions to the East probably commenced, if not in the reign of Asoka, at least before our era. The Chinese Annals[4] state that Indian Embassies reached China by sea about 50 B.C. and the Questions of Milinda allude to trade by this route: the Ramayana mentions Java and an inscription seems to testify that a Hindu king was reigning in Champa (Annam) about 150 A.D. These dates are not so precise as one could wish, but if there was a Hindu kingdom in that distant region in the second century it was probably preceded by settlements in nearer halting places, such as the Isthmus of Kra[5] or Java, at a considerably anterior date, although the inscriptions discovered there are not earlier than the fifth century A.D.

Java seems to have left some trace in Indian tradition, for instance the proverb that those who go to Java do not come back, and it may have been an early distributing centre for men and merchandize in those seas. But Ligor probably marks a still earlier halting place. It is on the same coast as the Mon kingdom of Thaton, which had connection with Conjevaram by sea and was a centre of Pali Buddhism. At any rate there was a movement of conquest and colonization in these regions which brought with it Hinduism and Mahayanism, and established Hindu kingdoms in Java, Camboja, Champa and Borneo, and another movement of Hinayanist propaganda, apparently earlier, but of which we know less.[6] Though these expeditions both secular and religious probably took ship on the east coast of India, e.g. at Masulipatam or the Seven Pagodas, yet their original starting point may have been in the west, such as the district of Badami or even Gujarat, for there were trade routes across the Indian Peninsula at an early date.[7]

It is curious that the early history of Burma should be so obscure and in order not to repeat details and hypotheses I refer the reader to the chapter dealing specially with this country. From an early epoch Upper Burma had connection with China and Bengal by land and Lower Burma with Orissa and Conjevaram by sea. We know too that Pali Buddhism existed there in the sixth century, that it gained greatly in power in the reign of Anawrata (c. 1060) and that in subsequent centuries there was a close ecclesiastical connection with Ceylon.

Siam as a kingdom is relatively modern but like Burma it has been subject to several influences. The Siamese probably brought some form of Buddhism with them when they descended from the north to their present territories. From the Cambojans, their neighbours and at one time their suzerains, they must have acquired some Hinduism and Mahayanism, but they ended by adopting Hinayanism. The source was probably Pegu but learned men from Ligor were also welcomed and the ecclesiastical pre-eminence of Ceylon was accepted.

We thus see how Indian influence conquered Further India and the Malay Archipelago and we must now trace its flow across Central Asia to China and Japan, as well as the separate and later stream which irrigated Tibet and Mongolia.

Tradition as mentioned ascribes to Asoka some connection with Khotan and it is probable that by the beginning of our era the lands of the Oxus and Tarim had become Buddhist and acquired a mixed civilization in which the Indian factor was large. As usual it is difficult to give precise dates, but Buddhism probably reached China by land a little before rather than after our era and the prevalence of Gandharan art in the cities of the Tarim basin makes it likely that their efflorescence was not far removed in time from the Gandharan epoch of India. The discovery near Khotan of official documents written in Prakrit makes colonization as well as religious missions probable. Further, although the movements of Central Asian tribes commonly took the form of invading India, yet the current of culture was, on the whole, in the opposite direction. The Kushans and others brought with them a certain amount of Zoroastrian theology and Hellenistic art, but the compound resulting from the mixture of these elements with Buddhism was re-exported to the north and to China.

I shall discuss below the grounds for believing that Buddhism was known in China before A.D. 62, the date when the Emperor Ming Ti is said to have despatched a mission to enquire about it. For some time many of its chief luminaries were immigrants from Central Asia and it made its most rapid progress in that disturbed period of the third and fourth centuries when North China was split up into contending Tartar states which both in race and politics were closely connected with Central Asia. Communication with India by land became frequent and there was also communication via the Malay Archipelago, especially after the fifth century, when a double stream of Buddhist teachers began to pour into China by sea as well as by land. A third tributary joined them later when Khubilai, the Mongol conqueror of China, made Lamaism, or Tibetan Buddhism, the state religion.

Tibetan Buddhism is a form of late Indian Mahayanism with a considerable admixture of Hinduism, exported from Bengal to Tibet and there modified not so much in doctrine as by the creation of a powerful hierarchy, curiously analogous to the Roman Church. It is unknown in southern China and not much favoured by the educated classes in the north, but the Lamaist priesthood enjoys great authority in Tibet and Mongolia, and both the Ming and Ching dynasties did their best to conciliate it for political reasons. Lamaism has borrowed little from China and must be regarded as an invasion into northern Asia and even Europe[8] of late Indian religion and art, somewhat modified by the strong idiosyncrasy of the Tibetan people. This northern movement was started by the desire of imitation, not of conquest. At the beginning of the seventh century the King of Tibet, who had dealings with both India and China, sent a mission to the former to enquire about Buddhism and in the eighth and eleventh centuries eminent doctors were summoned from India to establish the faith and then to restore it after a temporary eclipse.

In Korea, Annam, and especially in Japan, Buddhism has been a great ethical, religious and artistic force and in this sense those countries owe much to India. Yet there was little direct communication and what they received came to them almost entirely through China. The ancient Champa was a Hindu kingdom analogous to Camboja, but modern Annam represents not a continuation of this civilization but a later descent of Chinese culture from the north. Japan was in close touch with the Chinese just at the period when Buddhism was fermenting their whole intellectual life and Japanese thought and art grew up in the glow of this new inspiration, which was more intense than in China because there was no native antagonist of the same strength as Confucianism.

In the following chapters I propose to discuss the history of Indian influence in the various countries of Eastern Asia, taking Ceylon first, followed by Burma and Siam. Whatever may have been the origin of Buddhism in these two latter they have had for many centuries a close ecclesiastical connection with Ceylon. Pali Buddhism prevails in all, as well as in modern Camboja.

The Indian religion which prevailed in ancient Camboja was however of a different type and similar to that of Champa and Java. In treating of these Hindu kingdoms I have wondered whether I should not begin with Java and adopt the hypothesis that the settlements established there sent expeditions to the mainland and Borneo.[9] But the history of Java is curiously fragmentary whereas the copious inscriptions of Camboja and Champa combined with Chinese notices give a fairly continuous chronicle. And a glance at the map will show that if there were Hindu colonists at Ligor it would have been much easier for them to go across the Gulf of Siam to Camboja than via Java. I have therefore not adopted the hypothesis of expansion from Java (while also not rejecting it) nor followed any chronological method but have treated of Camboja first, as being the Hindu state of which on the whole we know most and then of Champa and Java in comparison with it.

In the later sections of the book I consider the expansion of Indian influence in the north. A chapter on Central Asia endeavours to summarize our rapidly increasing knowledge of this meeting place of nations. Its history is closely connected with China and naturally leads me to a somewhat extended review of the fortunes and achievements of Buddhism in that great land, and also to a special study of Tibet and of Lamaism. I have treated of Nepal elsewhere. For the history of religion it is not a new province, but simply the extreme north of the Indian region where the last phase of decadent Indian Buddhism which practically disappeared in Bengal still retains a nominal existence.


[Footnote 1: Geog. Jour. Aug., 1916, p. 362.]

[Footnote 2: The presence of Brahmans at the Courts of Burma and Siam is a different matter. They were expressly invited as more skilled in astrology and state ceremonies than Buddhists.]

[Footnote 3: Watters, Yuan Chuang, vol. II. p. 228.]

[Footnote 4: But not contemporary Annals. The Liang Annals make the statement about the reign of Hsuan Li 73-49 B.C.]

[Footnote 5: Especially at Ligor or Dharmaraja.]

[Footnote 6: The statement of I-Ching that a wicked king destroyed Buddhism in Funan is important.]

[Footnote 7: See Fleet in J.R.A.S. 1901, p. 548.]

[Footnote 8: There are settlements of Kalmuks near Astrakhan who have Lama temples and maintain a connection with Tibet.]

[Footnote 9: The existence of a Hindu kingdom on the East Coast of Borneo in 400 A.D. or earlier is a strong argument in favour of colonization from Java. Expeditions from any other quarter would naturally have gone to the West Coast. Also there is some knowledge of Java in India, but apparently none of Camboja or Champa. This suggests that Java may have been the first halting place and kept up some slight connection with the mother country.]




The island of Ceylon, perhaps the most beautiful tropical country in the world, lies near the end of the Indian peninsula but a little to the east. At one point a chain of smaller islands and rocks said to have been built by Rama as a passage for his army of monkeys leads to the mainland. It is therefore natural that the population should have relations with southern India. Sinhalese art, religion and language show traces of Tamil influence but it is somewhat surprising to find that in these and in all departments of civilization the influence of northern India is stronger. The traditions which explain the connection of Ceylon with this distant region seem credible and the Sinhalese, who were often at war with the Tamils, were not disposed to imitate their usages, although juxtaposition and invasion brought about much involuntary resemblance.

The school of Buddhism now professed in Ceylon, Burma and Siam is often called Sinhalese and (provided it is not implied that its doctrines originated in Ceylon) the epithet is correct. For the school ceased to exist in India and in the middle ages both Burma and Siam accepted the authority of the Sinhalese Sangha.[10] This Sinhalese school seems to be founded on the doctrines and scriptures accepted in the time of Asoka in Magadha and though the faith may have been codified and supplemented in its new home, I see no evidence that it underwent much corruption or even development. One is inclined at first to think that the Hindus, having a continuous living tradition connecting them with Gotama who was himself a Hindu, were more likely than these distant islanders to preserve the spirit of his teaching. But there is another side to the question. The Hindus being addicted to theological and metaphysical studies produced original thinkers who, if not able to found new religions, at least modified what their predecessors had laid down. If certain old texts were held in too high esteem to be neglected, the ingenuity of the commentator rarely failed to reinterpret them as favourable to the views popular in his time. But the Sinhalese had not this passion for theology. So far as we can judge of them in earlier periods they were endowed with an amiable and receptive but somewhat indolent temperament, moderate gifts in art and literature and a moderate love and understanding of theology. Also their chiefs claimed to have come from northern India and were inclined to accept favourably anything which had the same origin. These are exactly the surroundings in which a religion can flourish without change for many centuries and Buddhism in Ceylon acquired stability because it also acquired a certain national and patriotic flavour: it was the faith of the Sinhalese and not of the invading Tamils. Such Sinhalese kings as had the power protected the Church and erected magnificent buildings for its service.

If Sinhalese tradition may be believed, the first historical contact with northern India was the expedition of Vijaya, who with 700 followers settled in the island about the time of the Buddha's death. Many details of the story are obviously invented. Thus in order to explain why Ceylon is called Sinhala, Vijaya is made the grandson of an Indian princess who lived with a lion. But though these legends inspire mistrust, it is a fact that the language of Ceylon in its earliest known form is a dialect closely connected with Pali (or rather with the spoken dialect from which ecclesiastical Pali was derived) and still more closely with the Maharashtri Prakrit of western India. It is not however a derivative of this Prakrit but parallel to it and in some words presents older forms.[11] It does not seem possible to ascribe the introduction of this language to the later mission of Mahinda, for, though Buddhist monks have in many countries influenced literature and the literary vocabulary, no instance is recorded of their changing the popular speech.[12] But Vijaya is said to have conquered Ceylon and to have slaughtered many of its ancient inhabitants, called Yakkhas,[13] of whom we know little except that Sinhalese contains some un-Aryan words probably borrowed from them. According to the Dipavamsa,[14] Vijaya started from Bharukaccha or Broach and both language and such historical facts as we know confirm the tradition that some time before the third century B.C. Ceylon was conquered by Indian immigrants from the west coast.

It would not be unreasonable to suppose that Vijaya introduced into Ceylon the elements of Buddhism, but there is little evidence to indicate that it was a conspicuous form of religion in India in his time. Sinhalese tradition maintains that not only Gotama himself but also the three preceding Buddhas were miraculously transported to Ceylon and made arrangements for its conversion. Gotama is said to have paid no less than three visits:[15] all are obviously impossible and were invented to enhance the glory of the island. But the legends which relate how Panduvasudeva came from India to succeed Vijaya, how he subsequently had a Sakya princess brought over from India to be his wife and how her brothers established cities in Ceylon,[16] if not true in detail, are probably true in spirit in so far as they imply that the Sinhalese kept up intercourse with India and were familiar with the principal forms of Indian religion. Thus we are told[17] that King Pandukabhaya built religious edifices for Niganthas (Jains), Brahmans, Paribbajakas (possibly Buddhists) and Ajivikas. When Devanampiya Tissa ascended the throne (circ. 245 B.C.) he sent a complimentary mission bearing wonderful treasures to Asoka with whom he was on friendly terms, although they had never met. This implies that the kingdom of Magadha was known and respected in Ceylon, and we hear that the mission included a Brahman. The answer attributed to Asoka will surprise no one acquainted with the inscriptions of that pious monarch. He said that he had taken refuge in the law of Buddha and advised the King of Ceylon to find salvation in the same way. He also sent magnificent presents consisting chiefly of royal insignia and Tissa was crowned for the second time, which probably means that he became not only the disciple but the vassal of Asoka.

In any case the records declare that the Indian Emperor showed the greatest solicitude for the spiritual welfare of Ceylon and, though they are obviously embellished, there is no reason to doubt their substantial accuracy.[18] The Sinhalese tradition agrees on the whole with the data supplied by Indian inscriptions and Chinese pilgrims. The names of missionaries mentioned in the Dipa and Mahavamsas recur on urns found at Sanchi and on its gateways are pictures in relief which appear to represent the transfer of a branch of the Bo-tree in solemn procession to some destination which, though unnamed, may be conjectured to be Ceylon.[19] The absence of Mahinda's name in Asoka's inscriptions is certainly suspicious, but the Sinhalese chronicles give the names of other missionaries correctly and a mere argumentum ex silentio cannot disprove their testimony on this important point.

The principal repositories of Sinhalese tradition are the Dipavamsa, the Mahavamsa, and the historical preface of Buddhaghosa's Samanta-pasadika. [20] All later works are founded on these three, so far as concerns the conversion of Ceylon and the immediately subsequent period, and the three works appear to be rearrangements of a single source known as the Atthakatha, Sihalatthakatha, or the words of the Porana (ancients). These names were given to commentaries on the Tipitaka written in Sinhalese prose interspersed with Pali verse and several of the greater monasteries had their own editions of them, including a definite historical section.[21] It is probable that at the beginning of the fifth century A.D. and perhaps in the fourth century the old Sinhalese in which the prose parts of the Atthakatha were written was growing unintelligible, and that it was becoming more and more the fashion to use Pali as the language of ecclesiastical literature, for at least three writers set themselves to turn part of the traditions not into the vernacular but into Pali. The earliest and least artistic is the unknown author of the short chronicle called Dipavamsa, who wrote between 302 A.D. and 430 A.D.[22] His work is weak both as a specimen of Pali and as a narrative and he probably did little but patch together the Pali verses occurring from time to time in the Sinhalese prose of the Atthakatha. Somewhat later, towards the end of the fifth century, a certain Mahanama arranged the materials out of which the Dipavamsa had been formed in a more consecutive and artistic form, combining ecclesiastical and popular legends.[23] His work, known as the Mahavamsa, does not end with the reign of Elara, like the Dipavamsa, but describes in 15 more chapters the exploits of Dutthagamani and his successors ending with Mahasena.[24] The third writer, Buddhaghosa, apparently lived between the authors of the two chronicles. His voluminous literary activity will demand our attention later but so far as history is concerned his narrative is closely parallel to the Mahavamsa.[25]

The historical narrative is similar in all three works. After the Council of Pataliputra, Moggaliputta, who had presided over it, came to the conclusion that the time had come to despatch missionaries to convert foreign countries. Sinhalese tradition represents this decision as emanating from Moggaliputta whereas the inscriptions of Asoka imply that the king himself initiated the momentous project. But the difference is small. We cannot now tell to whom the great idea first occurred but it must have been carried out by the clergy with the assistance of Asoka, the apostle selected for Ceylon was his[26] near relative Mahinda who according to the traditions of the Sinhalese made his way to their island through the air with six companions. The account of Hsuan Chuang hints at a less miraculous mode of progression for he speaks of a monastery built by Mahinda somewhere near Tanjore.

The legend tells how Mahinda and his following alighted on the Missaka mountain[27] whither King Devanampiya Tissa had gone in the course of a hunt. The monks and the royal cortege met: Mahinda, after testing the king's intellectual capacity by some curious dialectical puzzles, had no difficulty in converting him.[28] Next morning he proceeded to Anuradhapura and was received with all honour and enthusiasm. He preached first in the palace and then to enthusiastic audiences of the general public. In these discourses he dwelt chiefly on the terrible punishment awaiting sinners in future existences.[29]

We need not follow in detail the picturesque account of the rapid conversion of the capital. The king made over to the Church the Mahamegha garden and proceeded to construct a series of religious edifices in Anuradhapura and its neighbourhood. The catalogue of them is given in the Mahavamsa[30] and the most important was the Mahavihara monastery, which became specially famous and influential in the history of Buddhism. It was situated in the Mahamegha garden close to the Bo-tree and was regarded as the citadel of orthodoxy. Its subsequent conflicts with the later Abhayagiri monastery are the chief theme of Sinhalese ecclesiastical history and our version of the Pali Pitakas is the one which received its imprimatur.

Tissa is represented as having sent two further missions to India. The first went in quest of relics and made its way not only to Pataliputra but to the court of Indra, king of the gods, and the relics obtained, of which the principal was the Buddha's alms-bowl,[31] were deposited in Anuradhapura. The king then built the Thuparama dagoba over them and there is no reason to doubt that the building which now bears this name is genuine. The story may therefore be true to the extent that relics were brought from India at this early period.

The second mission was despatched to bring a branch of the tree[32] under which the Buddha had sat when he obtained enlightenment. This narrative[33] is perhaps based on a more solid substratum of fact. The chronicles connect the event with the desire of the Princess Anula to become a nun. Women could receive ordination only from ordained nuns and as these were not to be found on the island it was decided to ask Asoka to send a branch of the sacred tree and also Mahinda's sister Sanghamitta, a religieuse of eminence. The mission was successful. A branch from the Bo-tree was detached, conveyed by Asoka to the coast with much ceremony and received in Ceylon by Tissa with equal respect. The princess accompanied it. The Bo-tree was planted in the Meghavana garden. It may still be seen and attracts pilgrims not only from Ceylon but from Burma and Siam. Unlike the buildings of Anuradhapura it has never been entirely neglected and it is clear that it has been venerated as the Bo-tree from an early period of Sinhalese history. Botanists consider its long life, though remarkable, not impossible since trees of this species throw up fresh shoots from the roots near the parent stem. The sculptures at Sanchi represent a branch of a sacred tree being carried in procession, though no inscription attests its destination, and Fa-Hsien says that he saw the tree.[34] The author of the first part of the Mahavamsa clearly regards it as already ancient, and throughout the history of Ceylon there are references to the construction of railings and terraces to protect it.

Devanampiya Tissa probably died in 207 B.C. In 177 the kingdom passed into the hands of Tamil monarchs who were not Buddhists, although the chroniclers praise their justice and the respect which they showed to the Church. The most important of them, Elara, reigned for forty-four years and was dethroned by a descendant of Tissa, called Dutthagamani.[35]

The exploits of this prince are recorded at such length in the Mahavamsa (XXII.-XXXII.) as to suggest that they formed the subject of a separate popular epic, in which he figured as the champion of Sinhalese against the Tamils, and therefore as a devout Buddhist. On ascending the throne he felt, like Asoka, remorse for the bloodshed which had attended his early life and strove to atone for it by good works, especially the construction of sacred edifices. The most important of these were the Lohapasada or Copper Palace and the Mahathupa or Ruwanweli Dagoba. The former[36] was a monastery roofed or covered with copper plates. Its numerous rooms were richly decorated and it consisted of nine storeys, of which the four uppermost were set apart for Arhats, and the lower assigned to the inferior grades of monks. Perhaps the nine storeys are an exaggeration: at any rate the building suffered from fire and underwent numerous reconstructions and modifications. King Mahasena (301 A.D.) destroyed it and then repenting of his errors rebuilt it, but the ruins now representing it at Anuradhapura, which consist of stone pillars only, date from the reign of Parakrama Bahu I (about A.D. 1150). The immense pile known as the Ruwanweli Dagoba, though often injured by invaders in search of treasure, still exists. The somewhat dilapidated exterior is merely an outer shell, enclosing a smaller dagoba.[37] This is possibly the structure erected by Dutthagamani, though tradition says that there is a still smaller edifice inside. The foundation and building of the original structure are related at great length.[38] Crowds of distinguished monks came to see the first stone laid, even from Kashmir and Alasanda. Some have identified the latter name with Alexandria in Egypt, but it probably denotes a Greek city on the Indus.[39] But in any case tradition represents Buddhists from all parts of India as taking part in the ceremony and thus recognizing the unity of Indian and Sinhalese Buddhism.

Of great importance for the history of the Sinhalese Church is the reign of Vattagamani Abhaya who after being dethroned by Tamils recovered his kingdom and reigned for twelve years.[40] He built a new monastery and dagoba known as Abhayagiri,[41] which soon became the enemy of the Mahavihara and heterodox, if the latter is to be considered orthodox. The account of the schism given in the Mahavamsa[42] is obscure, but the dispute resulted in the Pitakas, which had hitherto been preserved orally, being committed to writing. The council which defined and edited the scriptures was not attended by all the monasteries of Ceylon, but only by the monks of the Mahavihara, and the text which they wrote down was their special version and not universally accepted. It included the Parivara, which was apparently a recent manual composed in Ceylon. The Mahavamsa says no more about this schism, but the Nikaya-Sangrahawa[43] says that the monks of the Abhayagiri monastery now embraced the doctrines of the Vajjiputta school (one of the seventeen branches of the Mahasanghikas) which was known in Ceylon as the Dhammaruci school from an eminent teacher of that name. Many pious kings followed who built or repaired sacred edifices and Buddhism evidently flourished, but we also hear of heresy. In the third century A.D.[44] King Voharaka Tissa suppressed[45] the Vetulyas. This sect was connected with the Abhayagiri monastery, but, though it lasted until the twelfth century, I have found no Sinhalese account of its tenets. It is represented as the worst of heresies, which was suppressed by all orthodox kings but again and again revived, or was reintroduced from India. Though it always found a footing at the Abhayagiri it was not officially recognized as the creed of that Monastery which since the time of Vattagamani seems to have professed the relatively orthodox doctrine called Dhammaruci.

Mention is made in the Katha-vatthu of heretics who held that the Buddha remained in the Tusita heaven and that the law was preached on earth not by him but by Ananda and the commentary[46] ascribes these views to the Vetulyakas. The reticence of the Sinhalese chronicles makes it doubtful whether the Vetulyakas of Ceylon and these heretics are identical but probably the monks of the Abhayagiri, if not strictly speaking Mahayanist, were an off-shoot of an ancient sect which contained some germs of the Mahayana. Hsuan Chuang in his narrative[47] states (probably from hearsay) that the monks of the Mahavihara were Hinayanists but that both vehicles were studied at the Abhayagiri. I-Ching on the contrary says expressly that all the Sinhalese belonged to the Aryasthavira Nikaya. Fa-Hsien describes the Buddhism of Ceylon as he saw it about 412 A.D., but does not apply to it the terms Hina or Mahayana. He evidently regarded the Abhayagiri as the principal religious centre and says it had 5000 monks as against 3000 in the Mahavihara, but though he dwells on the gorgeous ceremonial, the veneration of the sacred tooth, the representations of Gotama's previous lives, and the images of Maitreya, he does not allude to the worship of Avalokita and Manjusri or to anything that can be called definitely Mahayanist. He describes a florid and somewhat superstitious worship which may have tended to regard the Buddha as superhuman, but the relics of Gotama's body were its chief visible symbols and we have no ground for assuming that such teaching as is found in the Lotus sutra was its theological basis. Yet we may legitimately suspect that the traditions of the Abhayagiri remount to early prototypes of that teaching.

In the second and third centuries the Court seems to have favoured the Mahavihara and King Gothabhaya banished monks belonging to the Vetulya sect,[48] but in spite of this a monk of the Abhayagiri named Sanghamitta obtained his confidence and that of his son, Mahasena, who occupied the throne from 275 to 302 A.D. The Mahavihara was destroyed and its occupants persecuted at Sanghamitta's instigation but he was murdered and after his death the great Monastery was rebuilt. The triumph however was not complete for Mahasena built a new monastery called Jetavana on ground belonging to the Mahavihara and asked the monks to abandon this portion of their territory. They refused and according to the Mahavamsa ultimately succeeded in proving their rights before a court of law. But the Jetavana remained as the headquarters of a sect known as Sagaliyas. They appear to have been moderately orthodox, but to have had their own text of the Vinaya for according to the Commentary[49] on the Mahavamsa they "separated the two Vibhangas of the Bhagava[50] from the Vinaya ... altering their meaning and misquoting their contents." In the opinion of the Mahavihara both the Abhayagiri and Jetavana were schismatical, but the laity appear to have given their respect and offerings to all three impartially and the Mahavamsa several times records how the same individual honoured the three Confraternities.

With the death of Mahasena ends the first and oldest part of the Mahavamsa, and also in native opinion the grand period of Sinhalese history, the subsequent kings being known as the Culavamsa or minor dynasty. A continuation[51] of the chronicle takes up the story and tells of the doings of Mahasena's son Sirimeghavanna.[52] Judged by the standard of the Mahavihara, he was fairly satisfactory. He rebuilt the Lohapasada and caused a golden image of Mahinda to be made and carried in procession. This veneration of the founder of a local church reminds one of the respect shown to the images of half-deified abbots in Tibet, China and Japan. But the king did not neglect the Abhayagiri or assign it a lower position than the Mahavihara for he gave it partial custody of the celebrated relic known as the Buddha's tooth which was brought to Ceylon from Kalinga in the ninth year of his reign and has ever since been considered the palladium of the island.


It may not be amiss to consider here briefly what is known of the history of the Buddha's relics and especially of this tooth. Of the minor distinctions between Buddhism and Hinduism one of the sharpest is this cultus. Hindu temples are often erected over natural objects supposed to resemble the footprint or some member of a deity and sometimes tombs receive veneration.[53] But no case appears to be known in which either Hindus or Jains show reverence to the bones or other fragments of a human body. It is hence remarkable that relic-worship should be so wide-spread in Buddhism and appear so early in its history. The earliest Buddhist monuments depict figures worshipping at a stupa, which was probably a reliquary, and there is no reason to distrust the traditions which carry the practice back at least to the reign of Asoka. The principal cause for its prevalence was no doubt that Buddhism, while creating a powerful religious current, provided hardly any objects of worship for the faithful.[54] It is also probable that the rudiments of relic worship existed in the districts frequented by the Buddha. The account of his death states that after the cremation of his body the Mallas placed his bones in their council hall and honoured them with songs and dances. Then eight communities or individuals demanded a portion of the relics and over each portion a cairn was built. These proceedings are mentioned as if they were the usual ceremonial observed on the death of a great man and in the same Sutta[55] the Buddha himself mentions four classes of men worthy of a cairn or dagoba.[56] We may perhaps conclude that in the earliest ages of Buddhism it was usual in north-eastern India to honour the bones of a distinguished man after cremation and inter them under a monument. This is not exactly relic worship but it has in it the root of the later tree. The Pitakas contain little about the practice but the Milinda Panha discusses the question at length and in one passage[57] endeavours to reconcile two sayings of the Buddha, "Hinder not yourselves by honouring the remains of the Tathagatha" and "Honour that relic of him who is worthy of honour." It is the first utterance rather than the second that seems to have the genuine ring of Gotama.

The earliest known relics are those discovered in the stupa of Piprava on the borders of Nepal in 1898. Their precise nature and the date of the inscription describing them have been the subject of much discussion. Some authorities think that this stupa may be one of those erected over a portion of the Buddha's ashes after his funeral. Even Barth, a most cautious and sceptical scholar, admitted[58] first that the inscription is not later than Asoka, secondly that the vase is a reliquary containing what were believed to be bones of the Buddha. Thus in the time of Asoka the worship of the Buddha's relics was well known and I see no reason why the inscription should not be anterior to that time.

According to Buddhaghosa's Sumangalavilasini and Sinhalese texts which though late are based on early material,[59] Mahakassapa instigated Ajatasattu to collect the relics of the Buddha, and to place them in a stupa, there to await the advent of Asoka. In Asoka's time the stupa had become overgrown and hidden by jungle but when the king was in search of relics, its position was revealed to him. He found inside it an inscription authorizing him to disperse the contents and proceeded to distribute them among the 84,000 monasteries which he is said to have constructed.

In its main outlines this account is probable. Ajatasattu conquered the Licchavis and other small states to the north of Magadha and if he was convinced of the importance of the Buddha's relics it would be natural that he should transport them to his capital, regarding them perhaps as talismans.[60] Here they were neglected, though not damaged, in the reigns of Brahmanical kings and were rescued from oblivion by Asoka, who being sovereign of all India and anxious to spread Buddhism throughout his dominions would be likely to distribute the relics as widely as he distributed his pillars and inscriptions. But later Buddhist kings could not emulate this imperial impartiality and we may surmise that such a monarch as Kanishka would see to it that all the principal relics in northern India found their way to his capital. The bones discovered at Peshawar are doubtless those considered most authentic in his reign.

Next to the tooth, the most interesting relic of the Buddha was his patra or alms-bowl, which plays a part somewhat similar to that of the Holy Grail in Christian romance. The Mahavamsa states that Asoka sent it to Ceylon, but the Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hsien[61] saw it at Peshawar about 405 A.D. It was shown to the people daily at the midday and evening services. The pilgrim thought it contained about two pecks yet such were its miraculous properties that the poor could fill it with a gift of a few flowers, whereas the rich cast in myriads of bushels and found there was still room for more. A few years later Fa-Hsien heard a sermon in Ceylon[62] in which the preacher predicted that the bowl would be taken in the course of centuries to Central Asia, China, Ceylon and Central India whence it would ultimately ascend to the Tusita heaven for the use of the future Buddha. Later accounts to some extent record the fulfilment of these predictions inasmuch as they relate how the bowl (or bowls) passed from land to land but the story of its wandering may have little foundation since it is combined with the idea that it is wafted from shrine to shrine according as the faith is nourishing or decadent. Hsuan Chuang says that it "had gone on from Peshawar to several countries and was now in Persia."[63] A Mohammedan legend relates that it is at Kandahar and will contain any quantity of liquid without overflowing. Marco Polo says Kublai Khan sent an embassy in 1284 to bring it from Ceylon to China.[64]

The wanderings of the tooth, though almost as surprising as those of the bowl, rest on better historical evidence, but there is probably more continuity in the story than in the holy object of which it is related, for the piece of bone which is credited with being the left canine tooth of the Blessed One may have been changed on more than one occasion. The Sinhalese chronicles,[65] as mentioned, say that it was brought to Ceylon in the ninth year of Sirimeghavanna.[66] This date may be approximately correct for about 413 or later Fa-Hsien described the annual festival of the tooth, during which it was exposed for veneration at the Abhayagiri monastery, without indicating that the usage was recent.

The tooth did not, according to Sinhalese tradition, form part of the relics distributed after the cremation of the Buddha. Seven bones, including four teeth,[67] were excepted from that distribution and the Sage Khema taking the left canine tooth direct from the funeral pyre gave it to the king of Kalinga, who enshrined it in a gorgeous temple at Dantapura[68] where it is supposed to have remained 800 years. At the end of that period a pious king named Guhasiva became involved in disastrous wars on account of the relic, and, as the best means of preserving it, bade his daughter fly with her husband[69] and take it to Ceylon. This, after some miraculous adventures, they were able to do. The tooth was received with great ceremony and lodged in an edifice called the Dhammacakka from which it was taken every year for a temporary sojourn[70] in the Abhayagiri monastery.

The cultus of the tooth flourished exceedingly in the next few centuries and it came to be regarded as the talisman of the king and nation. Hence when the court moved from Anuradhapura to Pollunaruwa it was installed in the new capital. In the troubled times which followed it changed its residence some fifteen times. Early in the fourteenth century it was carried off by the Tamils to southern India but was recovered by Parakrama Bahu III and during the commotion created by the invasions of the Tamils, Chinese and Portuguese it was hidden in various cities. In 1560 Dom Constantino de Braganca, Portuguese Viceroy of Goa, led a crusade against Jaffna to avenge the alleged persecution of Christians, and when the town was sacked a relic, described as the tooth of an ape mounted in gold, was found in a temple and carried off to Goa. On this Bayin Naung, King of Pegu, offered an enormous ransom to redeem it, which the secular government wished to accept, but the clergy and inquisition put such pressure on the Viceroy that he rejected the proposal. The archbishop of Goa pounded the tooth in a mortar before the viceregal court, burned the fragments and scattered the ashes over the sea.[71]

But the singular result of this bigotry was not to destroy one sacred tooth but to create two. The king of Pegu, who wished to marry a Sinhalese princess, sent an embassy to Ceylon to arrange the match. They were received by the king of Cotta, who bore the curiously combined name of Don Juan Dharmapala. He had no daughter of his own but palmed off the daughter of a chamberlain. At the same time he informed the king of Pegu that the tooth destroyed at Goa was not the real relic and that this still remained in his possession. Bayin Naung was induced to marry the lady and received the tooth with appropriate ceremonies. But when the king of Kandy heard of these doings, he apprized the king of Pegu of the double trick that had been played on him. He offered him his own daughter, a veritable princess, in marriage and as her dowry the true tooth which, he said, was neither that destroyed at Goa nor yet that sent to Pegu, but one in his own possession. Bayin Naung received the Kandyan embassy politely but rejected its proposals, thinking no doubt that it would be awkward to declare the first tooth spurious after it had been solemnly installed as a sacred relic. The second tooth therefore remained in Kandy and appears to be that now venerated there. When Vimala Dharma re-established the original line of kings, about 1592, it was accepted as authentic.

As to its authenticity, it appears to be beyond doubt that it is a piece of discoloured bone about two inches long, which could never have been the tooth of an ordinary human being, so that even the faithful can only contend that the Buddha was of superhuman stature. Whether it is the relic which was venerated in Ceylon before the arrival of the Portuguese is a more difficult question, for it may be argued with equal plausibility that the Sinhalese had good reasons for hiding the real tooth and good reasons for duplicating it. The strongest argument against the authenticity of the relic destroyed by the Portuguese is that it was found in Jaffna, which had long been a Tamil town, whereas there is no reason to believe that the real tooth was at this time in Tamil custody. But, although the native literature always speaks of it as unique, the Sinhalese appear to have produced replicas more than once, for we hear of such being sent to Burma and China.[72] Again, the offer to ransom the tooth came not from Ceylon but from the king of Pegu, who, as the sequel shows, was gullible in such matters: the Portuguese clearly thought that they had acquired a relic of primary importance; on any hypothesis one of the kings of Ceylon must have deceived the king of Pegu, and finally Vimala Dharma had the strongest political reasons for accepting as genuine the relic kept at Kandy, since the possession of the true tooth went far to substantiate a Sinhalese monarch's right to the throne.

The tooth is now preserved in a temple at Kandy. The visitor looking through a screen of bars can see on a silver table a large jewelled case shaped like a bell. Flowers scattered on the floor or piled on other tables fill the chamber with their heavy perfume. Inside the bell are six other bells of diminishing size, the innermost of which covers a golden lotus containing the sacred tooth. But it is only on rare occasions that the outer caskets are removed. Worshippers as a rule have to content themselves with offering flowers[73] and bowing but I was informed that the priests celebrate puja daily before the relic. The ceremony comprises the consecration and distribution of rice and is interesting as connecting the veneration of the tooth with the ritual observed in Hindu temples. But we must return to the general history of Buddhism in Ceylon.


The kings who ruled in the fifth century were devout Buddhists and builders of viharas but the most important event of this period, not merely for the island but for the whole Buddhist church in the south, was the literary activity of Buddhaghosa who is said to have resided in Ceylon during the reign of Mahanama. The chief authorities for his life are a passage in the continuation of the Mahavamsa[74] and the Buddhaghosuppatti, a late Burmese text of about 1550, which, while adding many anecdotes, appears not to come from an independent source.[75] The gist of their account is that he was born in a Brahman family near Gaya and early obtained renown as a disputant. He was converted to Buddhism by a monk named Revata and began to write theological treatises.[76] Revata observing his intention to compose a commentary on the Pitakas, told him that only the text (palimattam) of the scriptures was to be found in India, not the ancient commentaries, but that the Sinhalese commentaries were genuine, having been composed in that language by Mahinda. He therefore bade Buddhaghosa repair to Ceylon and translate these Sinhalese works into the idiom of Magadha, by which Pali must be meant. Buddhaghosa took this advice and there is no reason to distrust the statement of the Mahavamsa that he arrived in the reign of Mahanama, who ruled according to Geiger from 458 to 480, though the usual reckoning places him about fifty years earlier. The fact that Fa-Hsien, who visited Ceylon about 412, does not mention Buddhaghosa is in favour of Geiger's chronology.[77]

He first studied in the Mahavihara and eventually requested permission to translate the Sinhalese commentaries. To prove his competence for the task he composed the celebrated Visuddhi-magga, and, this being considered satisfactory, he took up his residence in the Ganthakara Vihara and proceeded to the work of translation. When it was finished he returned to India or according to the Talaing tradition to Thaton. The Buddhaghosuppatti adds two stories of which the truth and meaning are equally doubtful. They are that Buddhaghosa burnt the works written by Mahinda and that his knowledge of Sanskrit was called in question but triumphantly proved. Can there be here any allusion to a Sanskrit canon supported by the opponents of the Mahavihara?

Even in its main outline the story is not very coherent for one would imagine that, if a Buddhist from Magadha went to Ceylon to translate the Sinhalese commentaries, his object must have been to introduce them among Indian Buddhists. But there is no evidence that Buddhaghosa did this and he is for us simply a great figure in the literary and religious history of Ceylon. Burmese tradition maintains that he was a native of Thaton and returned thither, when his labours in Ceylon were completed, to spread the scriptures in his native language. This version of his activity is intelligible, though the evidence for it is weak.

He composed a great corpus of exegetical literature which has been preserved, but, since much of it is still unedited, the precise extent of his labours is uncertain. There is however little doubt of the authenticity of his commentaries on the four great Nikayas, on the Abhidhamma and on the Vinaya (called Samanta-pasadika) and in them[78] he refers to the Visuddhi-magga as his own work. He says expressly that his explanations are founded on Sinhalese materials, which he frequently cites as the opinion of the ancients (porana). By this word he probably means traditions recorded in Sinhalese and attributed to Mahinda, but it is in any case clear that the works which he consulted were considered old in the fifth century A.D. Some of their names are preserved in the Samanta-pasadika where he mentions the great commentary (Maha-Atthakatha), the Raft commentary (Paccari, so called because written on a raft), the Kurundi commentary composed at Kurunda-Velu and others.[79] All this literature has disappeared and we can only judge of it by Buddhaghosa's reproduction which is probably not a translation but a selection and rearrangement. Indeed his occasional direct quotations from the ancients or from an Atthakatha imply that the rest of the work is merely based on the Sinhalese commentaries.

Buddhaghosa was not an independent thinker but he makes amends for his want of originality not only by his industry and learning but by his power of grasping and expounding the whole of an intricate subject. His Visuddhi-magga has not yet been edited in Europe, but the extracts and copious analysis[80] which have been published indicate that it is a comprehensive restatement of Buddhist doctrine made with as free a hand as orthodoxy permitted. The Mahavamsa observes that the Theras held his works in the same estimation as the Pitakas. They are in no way coloured by the Mahayanist tenets which were already prevalent in India, but state in its severest form the Hinayanist creed, of which he is the most authoritative exponent. The Visuddhi-magga is divided into three parts treating of conduct (silam), meditation (samadhi) and knowledge (panna), the first being the necessary substratum for the religious life of which the others are the two principal branches. But though he intersperses his exposition with miraculous stories and treats exhaustively of superhuman powers, no trace of the worship of Mahayanist Bodhisattvas is found in his works and, as for literature, he himself is the chief authority for the genuineness and completeness of the Pali Canon as we know it.

When we find it said that his works were esteemed as highly as the Pitakas, or that the documents which he translated into Pali were the words of the Buddha,[81] the suspicion naturally arises that the Pali Canon may be in part his composition and it may be well to review briefly its history in Ceylon. Our knowledge appears to be derived entirely from the traditions of the Mahavihara which represent Mahinda as teaching the text of the Pitakas orally, accompanied by a commentary. If we admit the general truth of the narrative concerning Mahinda's mission, there is nothing improbable in these statements, for it would be natural that an Indian teacher should know by heart his sacred texts and the commentaries on them. We cannot of course assume that the Pitakas of Mahinda were the Pali Canon as we know it, but the inscriptions of Asoka refer to passages which can be found in that canon and therefore parts of it at any rate must have been accepted as scripture in the third century B.C. But it is probable that considerable variation was permitted in the text, although the sense and a certain terminology were carefully guarded. It was not till the reign of Vattagamani, probably about 20 B.C., that the canon was committed to writing and the Parivara, composed in Ceylon,[82] was included in it.

In the reign of Buddhadasa[83] a learned monk named Mahadhammakathi is said to have translated the Suttas into Sinhalese, which at this time was esteemed the proper language for letters and theology, but in the next century a contrary tendency, probably initiated by Buddhaghosa, becomes apparent and Sinhalese works are rewritten in Pali.[84] But nothing indicates that any part of what we call the Pali Canon underwent this process. Buddhaghosa distinguishes clearly between text and comment, between Pali and Sinhalese documents. He has a coherent history of the text, beginning with the Council of Rajagaha; he discusses various readings, he explains difficult words. He treated the ancient commentaries with freedom, but there is no reason to think that he allowed himself any discretion or right of selection in dealing with the sacred texts accepted by the Mahavihara, though it might be prudent to await the publication of his commentaries on all the Nikayas before asserting this unreservedly.

To sum up, the available evidence points to the conclusion that in the time of Asoka texts and commentaries preserved orally were brought to Ceylon. The former, though in a somewhat fluid condition, were sufficiently sacred to be kept unchanged in the original Indian language, the latter were translated into the kindred but still distinct vernacular of the island. In the next century and a half some additions to the Pali texts were made and about 20 B.C. the Mahavihara, which proved as superior to the other communities in vitality as it was in antiquity, caused written copies to be made of what it considered as the canon, including some recent works. There is no evidence that Buddhaghosa or anyone else enlarged or curtailed the canon, but the curious tradition that he collected and burned all the books written by Mahinda in Sinhalese[85] may allude to the existence of other works which he (presumably in agreement with the Mahavihara) considered spurious.

Soon after the departure of Buddhaghosa Dhatusena came to the throne and "held like Dhammasoka a convocation about the three Pitakas."[86] This implies that there was still some doubt as to what was scripture and that the canon of the Mahavihara was not universally accepted. The Vetulyas, of whom we heard in the third century A.D., reappear in the seventh when they are said to have been supported by a provincial governor but not by the king Aggabodhi[87] and still more explicitly in the reign of Parakrama Bahu (c. 1160). He endeavoured to reconcile to the Mahavihara "the Abhayagiri brethren who separated themselves from the time of king Vattagamani Abhaya and the Jetavana brethren that had parted since the days of Mahasena and taught the Vetulla Pitaka and other writings as the words of Buddha, which indeed were not the words of Buddha."[88] So it appears that another recension of the canon was in existence for many centuries.

Dhatusena, though depicted in the Mahavamsa as a most orthodox monarch, embellished the Abhayagiri monastery and was addicted to sumptuous ceremonies in honour of images and relics. Thus he made an image of Mahinda, dedicated a shrine and statue to Metteyya and ornamented the effigies of Buddha with the royal jewels. In an image chamber (apparently at the Abhayagiri) he set up figures of Bodhisattvas,[89] by which we should perhaps understand the previous births of Gotama. He was killed by his son and Sinhalese history degenerated into a complicated story of crime and discord, in which the weaker faction generally sought the aid of the Tamils. These latter became more and more powerful and with their advance Buddhism tended to give place to Hinduism. In the eighth century the court removed from Anuradhapura to Pollannaruwa, in order to escape from the pressure of the Tamils, but the picture of anarchy and decadence grows more and more gloomy until the accession of Vijaya Bahu in 1071 who succeeded in making himself king of all Ceylon. Though he recovered Anuradhapura it was not made the royal residence either by himself or by his greater successor, Parakrama Bahu.[90] This monarch, the most eminent in the long list of Ceylon's sovereigns, after he had consolidated his power, devoted himself, in the words of Tennent, "to the two grand objects of royal solicitude, religion and agriculture." He was lavish in building monasteries, temples and libraries, but not less generous in constructing or repairing tanks and works of irrigation. In the reign of Vijaya Bahu hardly any duly ordained monks were to be found,[91] the succession having been interrupted, and the deficiency was supplied by bringing qualified Theras from Burma. But by the time of Parakrama Bahu the old quarrels of the monasteries revived, and, as he was anxious to secure unity, he summoned a synod at Anuradhapura. It appears to have attained its object by recognizing the Mahavihara as the standard of orthodoxy and dealing summarily with dissentients.[92] The secular side of monastic life also received liberal attention. Lands, revenues and guest-houses were provided for the monasteries as well as hospitals. As in Burma and Siam Brahmans were respected and the king erected a building for their use in the capital. Like Asoka, he forbade the killing of animals.

But the glory of Parakrama Bahu stands up in the later history of Ceylon like an isolated peak and thirty years after his death the country had fallen almost to its previous low level of prosperity. The Tamils again occupied many districts and were never entirely dislodged as long as the Sinhalese kingdom lasted. Buddhism tended to decline but was always the religion of the national party and was honoured with as much magnificence as their means allowed. Parakrama Bahu II (c. 1240), who recovered the sacred tooth from the Tamils, is said to have celebrated splendid festivals and to have imported learned monks from the country of the Colas.[93] Towards the end of the fifteenth century the inscriptions of Kalyani indicate that Sinhalese religion enjoyed a great reputation in Burma.[94]

A further change adverse to Buddhism was occasioned by the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505. A long and horrible struggle ensued between them and the various kings among whom the distracted island was divided until at the end of the sixteenth century only Kandy remained independent, the whole coast being in the hands of the Portuguese. The singular barbarities which they perpetrated throughout this struggle are vouched for by their own historians,[95] but it does not appear that the Sinhalese degraded themselves by similar atrocities. Since the Portuguese wished to propagate Roman Catholicism as well as to extend their political rule and used for this purpose (according to the Mahavamsa) the persuasions of gold as well as the terrors of torture, it is not surprising if many Sinhalese professed allegiance to Christianity, but when in 1597 the greater part of Ceylon formally accepted Portuguese sovereignty, the chiefs insisted that they should be allowed to retain their own religion and customs.

The Dutch first appeared in 1602 and were welcomed by the Court of Kandy as allies capable of expelling the Portuguese. This they succeeded in doing by a series of victories between 1638 and 1658, and remained masters of a great part of the island until their possessions were taken by the British in 1795. Kandy however continued independent until 1815. At first the Dutch tried to enforce Christianity and to prohibit Buddhism within their territory[96] but ultimately hatred of the Roman Catholic church made them favourable to Buddhism and they were ready to assist those kings who desired to restore the national religion to its former splendour.


In spite of this assistance the centuries when the Sinhalese were contending with Europeans were not a prosperous time for Buddhism. Hinduism spread in the north,[97] Christianity in the coast belt, but still it was a point of honour with most native sovereigns to protect the national religion so far as their distressed condition allowed. For the seventeenth century we have an interesting account of the state of the country called An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon by an Englishman, Robert Knox, who was detained by the king of Kandy from 1660 to 1680. He does not seem to have been aware that there was any distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism. Though he describes the Sinhalese as idolaters, he also emphasizes the fact that Buddou (as he writes the name) is the God "unto whom the salvation of souls belongs," and for whom "above all others they have a high respect and devotion." He also describes the ceremonies of pirit and bana, the perahera procession, and two classes of Buddhist monks, the elders and the ordinary members of the Sangha. His narrative indicates that Buddhism was accepted as the higher religion, though men were prone to pray to deities who would save from temporal danger.

About this time Vimala Dharma II[98] made great efforts to improve the religious condition of the island and finding that the true succession had again failed, arranged with the Dutch to send an embassy to Arakan and bring back qualified Theras. But apparently the steps taken were not sufficient, for when king Kittisiri Rajasiha (1747-81), whose piety forms the theme of the last two chapters of the Mahavamsa, set about reforming the Sangha, he found that duly ordained monks were extinct and that many so-called monks had families. He therefore decided to apply to Dhammika, king of Ayuthia in Siam, and like his predecessor despatched an embassy on a Dutch ship. Dhammika sent back a company of "more than ten monks" (that is more than sufficient for the performance of all ecclesiastical acts) under the Abbot Upali in 1752 and another to relieve it in 1755.[99] They were received by the king of Ceylon with great honour and subsequently by the ordination which they conferred placed the succession beyond dispute. But the order thus reconstituted was aristocratic and exclusive: only members of the highest caste were admitted to it and the wealthy middle classes found themselves excluded from a community which they were expected to honour and maintain. This led to the despatch of an embassy to Burma in 1802 and to the foundation of another branch of the Sangha, known as the Amarapura school, distinct in so far as its validity depended on Burmese not Siamese ordination.

Since ordination is for Buddhists merely self-dedication to a higher life and does not confer any sacramental or sacerdotal powers, the importance assigned to it may seem strange. But the idea goes back to the oldest records in the Vinaya and has its root in the privileges accorded to the order. A Bhikkhu had a right to expect much from the laity, but he also had to prove his worth and Gotama's early legislation was largely concerned with excluding unsuitable candidates. The solicitude for valid ordination was only the ecclesiastical form of the popular feeling that the honours and immunities of the order were conditional on its maintaining a certain standard of conduct. Other methods of reform might have been devised, but the old injunction that a monk could be admitted only by other duly ordained monks was fairly efficacious and could not be disputed. But the curious result is that though Ceylon was in early times the second home of Buddhism, almost all (if indeed not all) the monks found there now derive their right to the title of Bhikkhu from foreign countries.

The Sinhalese Sangha is generally described as divided into four schools, those of Siam, Kelani, Amarapura and Ramanya, of which the first two are practically identical, Kelani being simply a separate province of the Siamese school, which otherwise has its headquarters in the inland districts. This school, founded as mentioned above by priests who arrived in 1750, comprises about half of the whole Sangha and has some pretensions to represent the hierarchy of Ceylon, since the last kings of Kandy gave to the heads of the two great monasteries in the capital, Asgiri and Malwatte, jurisdiction over the north and south of the island respectively. It differs in some particulars from the Amarapura school. It only admits members of the highest caste and prescribes that monks are to wear the upper robe over one shoulder only, whereas the Amarapurans admit members of the first three castes (but not those lower in the social scale) and require both shoulders to be covered. There are other minor differences among which it is interesting to note that the Siamese school object to the use of the formula "I dedicate this gift to the Buddha" which is used in the other schools when anything is presented to the order for the use of the monks. It is held that this expression was correct in the lifetime of the Buddha but not after his death. The two schools are not mutually hostile, and members of each find a hospitable reception in the monasteries of the other. The laity patronize both indifferently and both frequent the same places of pilgrimage, though all of these and the majority of the temple lands belong to the sect of Siam. It is wealthy, aristocratic and has inherited the ancient traditions of Ceylon, whereas the Amarapurans are more active and inclined to propaganda. It is said they are the chief allies of the Theosophists and European Buddhists. The Ramanya[100] school is more recent and distinct than the others, being in some ways a reformed community. It aims at greater strictness of life, forbidding monasteries to hold property and insisting on genuine poverty. It also totally rejects the worship of Hindu deities and its lay members do not recognize the monks of other schools. It is not large but its influence is considerable.

It has been said that Buddhism flourished in Ceylon only when it was able to secure the royal favour. There is some truth in this, for the Sangha does not struggle on its own behalf but expects the laity to provide for its material needs, making a return in educational and religious services. Such a body if not absolutely dependent on royal patronage has at least much to gain from it. Yet this admission must not blind us to the fact that during its long and often distinguished history Sinhalese Buddhism has been truly the national faith, as opposed to the beliefs of various invaders, and has also ministered to the spiritual aspirations of the nation. As Knox said in a period when it was not particularly flourishing, the Hindu gods look after worldly affairs but Buddha after the soul. When the island passed under British rule and all religions received impartial recognition, the result was not disastrous to Buddhism: the number of Bhikkhus greatly increased, especially in the latter half of the nineteenth century. And if in earlier periods there was an interval in which technically speaking the Sangha did not exist, this did not mean that interest in it ceased, for as soon as the kingdom became prosperous the first care of the kings was to set the Church in order. This zeal can be attributed to nothing but conviction and affection, for Buddhism is not a faith politically useful to an energetic and warlike prince.


Sinhalese Buddhism is often styled primitive or original and it may fairly be said to preserve in substance both the doctrine and practice inculcated in the earliest Pali literature. In calling this primitive we must remember the possibility that some of this literature was elaborated in Ceylon itself. But, putting the text of the Pitakas aside, it would seem that the early Sinhalese Buddhism was the same as that of Asoka, and that it never underwent any important change. It is true that mediaeval Sinhalese literature is full of supernatural legends respecting the Buddha,[101] but still he does not become a god (for he has attained Nirvana) and the great Bodhisattvas, Avalokita and Manjusri, are practically unknown. The Abhidhammattha-sangaha,[102] which is still the text-book most in use among the Bhikkhus, adheres rigidly to the methods of the Abhidhamma.[103] It contains neither devotional nor magical matter but prescribes a course of austere mental training, based on psychological analysis and culminating in the rapture of meditation. Such studies and exercises are beyond the capacity of the majority, but no other road to salvation is officially sanctioned for the Bhikkhu. It is admitted that there are no Arhats now—just as Christianity has no contemporary saints—but no other ideal, such as the Boddhisattva of the Mahayanists, is held up for imitation.

Mediaeval images of Avalokita and of goddesses have however been found in Ceylon.[104] This is hardly surprising for the island was on the main road to China, Java, and Camboja[105] and Mahayanist teachers and pilgrims must have continually passed through it. The Chinese biographies of that eminent tantrist, Amogha, say that he went to Ceylon in 741 and elaborated his system there before returning to China. It is said that in 1408 the Chinese being angry at the ill-treatment of envoys whom they had sent to the shrine of the tooth, conquered Ceylon and made it pay tribute for fifty years. By conquest no doubt is meant merely a military success and not occupation, but the whole story implies possibilities of acquaintance with Chinese Buddhism.

It is clear that, though the Hinayanist church was predominant throughout the history of the island, there were up to the twelfth century heretical sects called Vaitulya or Vetulyaka and Vajira which though hardly rivals of orthodoxy were a thorn in its side. A party at the Abhayagiri monastery were favourably disposed to the Vaitulya sect which, though often suppressed, recovered and reappeared, being apparently reinforced from India. This need not mean from southern India, for Ceylon had regular intercourse with the north and perhaps the Vaitulyas were Mahayanists from Bengal. The Nikaya-Sangrahawa also mentions that in the ninth century there was a sect called Nilapatadarsana,[106] who wore blue robes and preached indulgence in wine and love. They were possibly Tantrists from the north but were persecuted in southern India and never influential in Ceylon.

The Mahavamsa is inclined to minimize the importance of all sects compared with the Mahavihara, but the picture given by the Nikaya-Sangrahawa may be more correct. It says that the Vaitulyas, described as infidel Brahmans who had composed a Pitaka of their own, made four attempts to obtain a footing at the Abhayagiri monastery.[107] In the ninth century it represents king Matvalasen as having to fly because he had embraced the false doctrine of the Vajiras. These are mentioned in another passage in connection with the Vaitulyas: they are said to have composed the Gudha Vinaya[108] and many Tantras. They perhaps were connected with the Vajrayana, a phase of Tantric Buddhism. But a few years later king Mungayinsen set the church in order. He recognized the three orthodox schools or nikayas called Theriya, Dhammaruci and Sagaliya but proscribed the others and set guards on the coast to prevent the importation of heresy. Nevertheless the Vajiriya and Vaitulya doctrines were secretly practised. An inscription in Sanskrit found at the Jetavana and attributed to the ninth century[109] records the foundation of a Vihara for a hundred resident monks, 25 from each of the four nikayas, which it appears to regard as equivalent. But in 1165 the great Parakrama Bahu held a synod to restore unity in the church. As a result, all Nikayas (even the Dhammaruci) which did not conform to the Mahavihara were suppressed[110] and we hear no more of the Vaitulyas and Vajiriyas.

Thus there was once a Mahayanist faction in Ceylon, but it was recruited from abroad, intermittent in activity and was finally defeated, whereas the Hinayanist tradition was national and continuous.

Considering the long lapse of time, the monastic life of Ceylon has not deviated much in practice from the injunctions of the Vinaya. Monasteries like those of Anuradhapura, which are said to have contained thousands of monks, no longer exist. The largest now to be found—those at Kandy—do not contain more than fifty but as a rule a pansala (as these institutions are now called) has not more than five residents and more often only two or three. Some pansalas have villages assigned to them and some let their lands and do not scruple to receive the rent. The monks still follow the ancient routine of making a daily round with the begging bowl, but the food thus collected is often given to the poor or even to animals and the inmates of the pansala eat a meal which has been cooked there. The Patimokkha is recited (at least in part) twice a month and ordinations are held annually.[111]

The duties of the Bhikkhus are partly educational, partly clerical. In most villages the children receive elementary education gratis in the pansala, and the preservation of the ancient texts, together with the long list of Pali and Sinhalese works produced until recent times almost exclusively by members of the Sangha,[112] is a proof that it has not neglected literature. The chief public religious observances are preaching and reading the scriptures. This latter, known as Bana, is usually accompanied by a word for word translation made by the reciter or an assistant. Such recitations may form part of the ordinary ceremonial of Uposatha days and most religious establishments have a room where they can be held, but often monks are invited to reside in a village during Was (July to October) and read Bana, and often a layman performs a pinkama or act of merit by entertaining monks for several days and inviting his neighbours to hear them recite. The recitation of the Jatakas is particularly popular but the suttas of the Digha Nikaya are also often read. On special occasions such as entry into a new house, an eclipse or any incident which suggests that it might be well to ward off the enmity of supernatural powers, it is usual to recite a collection of texts taken largely from the Suttanipata and called Pirit. The word appears to be derived from the Pali paritta, a defence, and though the Pali scriptures do not sanction this use of the Buddha's discourses they countenance the idea that evil may be averted by the use of formulae.[113]

Although Sinhalese Buddhism has not diverged much from the Pali scriptures in its main doctrines and discipline, yet it tolerates a superstructure of Indian beliefs and ceremonies which forbid us to call it pure except in a restricted sense. At present there may be said to be three religions in Ceylon; local animism, Hinduism and Buddhism are all inextricably mixed together. By local animism I mean the worship of native spirits who do not belong to the ordinary Hindu pantheon though they may be identified with its members. The priests of this worship are called Kapuralas and one of their principal ceremonies consists in dancing until they are supposed to be possessed by a spirit—the devil dancing of Europeans. Though this religion is distinct from ordinary Hinduism, its deities and ceremonies find parallels in the southern Tamil country. In Ceylon it is not merely a village superstition but possesses temples of considerable size,[114] for instance at Badulla and near Ratnapura. In the latter there is a Buddhist shrine in the court yard, so that the Blessed One may countenance the worship, much as the Pitakas represent him as patronizing and instructing the deities of ancient Magadha, but the structure and observances of the temple itself are not Buddhist. The chief spirit worshipped at Ratnapura and in most of these temples is Maha Saman, the god of Adam's Peak. He is sometimes identified with Lakshmana, the brother of Rama, and sometimes with Indra.

About a quarter of the population are Tamils professing Hinduism. Hindu temples of the ordinary Dravidian type are especially frequent in the northern districts, but they are found in most parts and at Kandy two may be seen close to the shrine of the Tooth.[115] Buddhists feel no scruple in frequenting them and the images of Hindu deities are habitually introduced into Buddhist temples. These often contain a hall, at the end of which are one or more sitting figures of the Buddha, on the right hand side a recumbent figure of him, but on the left a row of four statues representing Mahabrahma, Vishnu, Karttikeya and Mahasaman. Of these Vishnu generally receives marked attention, shown by the number of prayers written on slips of paper which are attached to his hand. Nor is this worship found merely as a survival in the older temples. The four figures appear in the newest edifices and the image of Vishnu never fails to attract votaries. Yet though a rigid Buddhist may regard such devotion as dangerous, it is not treasonable, for Vishnu is regarded not as a competitor but as a very reverent admirer of the Buddha and anxious to befriend good Buddhists.

Even more insidious is the pageantry which since the days of King Tissa has been the outward sign of religion. It may be justified as being merely an edifying method of venerating the memory of a great man but when images and relics are treated with profound reverence or carried in solemn procession it is hard for the ignorant, especially if they are accustomed to the ceremonial of Hindu temples, not to think that these symbols are divine. This ornate ritualism is not authorized in any known canonical text, but it is thoroughly Indian. Asoka records in his inscriptions the institution of religious processions and Hsuan Chuang relates how King Harsha organized a festival during which an image of the Buddha was carried on an elephant while the monarch and his ally the king of Assam, dressed as Indra and Brahma respectively, waited on it like servants.[116] Such festivities were congenial to the Sinhalese, as is attested by the long series of descriptions which fill the Mahavamsa down to the very last book, by what Fa-Hsien saw about 412 and by the Perahera festival celebrated to-day.


The Buddhism of southern India resembled that of Ceylon in character though not in history. It was introduced under the auspices of Asoka, who mentions in his inscriptions the Colas, Pandyas and Keralaputras.[117] Hsuan Chuang says that in the Malakuta country, somewhere near Madura or Tanjore, there was a stupa erected by Asoka's orders and also a monastery founded by Mahinda. It is possible that this apostle and others laboured less in Ceylon and more in south India than is generally supposed. The pre-eminence and continuity of Sinhalese Buddhism are due to the conservative temper of the natives who were relatively little moved by the winds of religion which blew strong on the mainland, bearing with them now Jainism, now the worship of Vishnu or Siva.

In the Tamil country Buddhism of an Asokan type appears to have been prevalent about the time of our era. The poem Manimegalei, which by general consent was composed in an early century A.D., is Buddhist but shows no leanings to Mahayanism. It speaks of Sivaism and many other systems[118] as flourishing, but contains no hint that Buddhism was persecuted. But persecution or at least very unfavourable conditions set in. Since at the time of Hsuan Chuang's visit Buddhism was in an advanced stage of decadence, it seems probable that the triumph of Sivaism began in the third or fourth century and that Buddhism offered slight resistance, Jainism being the only serious competitor for the first place. But for a long while, perhaps even until the sixteenth century, monasteries were kept up in special centres, and one of these is of peculiar importance, namely Kancipuram or Conjeveram.[119] Hsuan Chuang found there 100 monasteries with more than 10,000 brethren, all Sthaviras, and mentions that it was the birthplace of Dharmapala.[120] We have some further information from the Talaing chronicles[121] which suggests the interesting hypothesis that the Buddhism of Burma was introduced or refreshed by missionaries from southern India. They give a list of teachers who flourished in that country, including Kaccayana and the philosopher Anuruddha.[122] Of Dharmapala they say that he lived at the monastery of Bhadratittha near Kancipura and wrote fourteen commentaries in Pali.[123] One was on the Visuddhi-magga of Buddhaghosa and it is probable that he lived shortly after that great writer and like him studied in Ceylon.

I shall recur to this question of south Indian Buddhism in treating of Burma, but the data now available are very meagre.


[Footnote 10: E.g. Burma in the reign of Anawrata and later in the time of Chapata about 1200, and Siam in the time of Suryavamsa Rama, 1361. On the other hand in 1752 the Sinhalese succession was validated by obtaining monks from Burma.]

[Footnote 11: Geiger, Literatur und Sprache der Singhalesen, p. 91.]

[Footnote 12: Compare the history of Khotan. The first Indian colonists seem to have introduced a Prakrit dialect. Buddhism and Sanskrit came afterwards.]

[Footnote 13: Literally demons, that is wild uncanny men. I refrain from discussing the origin and ethnological position of the Vaeddas for it hardly affects the history of Buddhism in Ceylon. For Vijaya's conquests see Mahavamsa VII.]

[Footnote 14: IX. 26.]

[Footnote 15: Dipavamsa I. 45-81, II. 1-69. Mahavamsa I. 19-83. The legend that the Buddha visited Ceylon and left his footprint on Adam's peak is at least as old as Buddhaghosa. See Samanta-pasadika in Oldenburg's Vinaya Pitaka, vol. III, p. 332 and the quotations in Skeen's Adam's Peak, p. 50.]

[Footnote 16: Dipa. V. x. 1-9. Mahavamsa VIII. 1-27, IX. 1-12.]

[Footnote 17: Mahavamsa X. 96, 102.]

[Footnote 18: For the credibility of the Sinhalese traditions see Geiger introd. to translation of Mahavamsa 1912 and Norman in J.R.A.S. 1908, pp. 1 ff. and on the other side R.O. Franke in W.Z.K.M. 21, pp. 203 ff., 317 ff. and Z.D.M.G. 63, pp. 540 ff.]

[Footnote 19: Grunwedel, Buddhist art in India, pp. 69-72. Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, p. 302.]

[Footnote 20: The Jataka-nidana-katha is also closely allied to these works in those parts where the subject matter is the same.]

[Footnote 21: This section was probably called Mahavamsa in a general sense long before the name was specially applied to the work which now bears it.]

[Footnote 22: See introduction to Oldenburg's edition, pp. 8, 9.]

[Footnote 23: Perhaps this is alluded to at the beginning of the Mahavamsa itself, "The book made by the ancients (porvanehi kato) was in some places too diffuse and in others too condensed and contained many repetitions."]

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