Some inquiries into the shrIlankan past

Whereas Hindus on the mainland are reputed to have no historical sense and consquently no history, their cousins on the island are supposed to have a rich historical account in the form of the pALi mahAvaMsha and the chULavaMsha. These sources have been the bed rock of the current lankan ekIya and reinterpretted by the modern sthaviravAdin saMgha with a distinct anti-Tamil and anti-Astika emphasis. A study of the vaMsha-s themselves suggests that this distinctly anti-Astika streak, while having older antecedents, has been expanded more recently culminating in the dramiDa-siMhala mahAyuddha that recently concluded with a massacre of the former. We have been investigating this as part of an attempt to understand the older systems of dharma in the island. This has several historical dimensions that include: 1) The greater Astika influence and presence on the island in the past; 2) The worship of Astika devatA-s within the bauddha framework originally practiced on the island. 3) The role of the dramiDa-s, chera-s and kali~Nga-s at different points in the development of practices in the island. A complete consideration of all this will require a monograph, but that is not our intention here. Instead, we simply collect a few vignettes that illustrate certain aspects of the above points.

One point that caught our attention is centered on the life and time of the shrIlankan hero parAkrama-bAhu-I (1153-86 CE) who is described as the great upholder of the sthaviravAda tradition and it is unifier. The lankans record with much pride his invasions of Myanmar and southern India and on the whole in more recent times he has been presented as the bauddha hero who brought down the Astika Tamils. The chULavaMsha records interesting aspects of his life: 1) It mentions that he underwent the upanayana ceremony given the mantra dIkSha by his uncle kIrti-shrI-megha assisted by brAhmaNa-s well-versed in the veda (CHV 64.13-17). The upanayana by brAhmaNa-s is not something which a pure follower of the nAstika-mata would normally give in to. What it shows is that at least kIrti-shrI-megha was conscious of his kShatriya varNa and observed its practices in relation to the shruti, even though he was a bauddha. 2) In this context it should be noted that his predecessor vikrama-bAhu is mentioned as having performed vaidika shrauta rituals aided by his purohita and R^itvik-s well-versed in the veda-s and vedA~Nga-s. He too is otherwise described as being a bauddha upholding the traditions of the saMgha. Thus, it is clear that the medieval kShatriya-s of lanka even though bauddha-s are likely to have not given up their vaidika rites which are obligatory for a proper member of that varNa. 3) Further, parAkrama-bAhu-I is described as having extensively built several new deva temples and repaired those built earlier by choLa-s (CHV 79.19, 22, 81), in addition to the bauddha relic shrines, tAthAgata images and stupas and vihAra-s he was constructing. So the indications are that he did support public worship of Astika deities within shrIlankA and the available archaeological evidence appears to support these records of the vaMsha.

Similarly, parAkramabAhu-II, in addition to performing daily vaidika rites with the help of brAhmaNa-s, is described as having sponsored brAhmaNa-s who maintained and taught “secular” saMskR^ita texts to the lankans. Importantly, after his generals defeated the Indonesian naval invasion of shrIlanka (sometime between 1245-1265) he went to Devinuvara, which is southern-most port in the Indian subcontinent, to renovate the temple of viShNu as an act of thanks-giving for his victory. In this regard, it is of interest to note a ritual chant deployed to viShNu preserved in lankan text called the sarva-deva-kannalava used by bauddha-s of the island to worship Astika and other local deities. Unfortunately due my difficulties with working through the Lankan script all I have with me now is a translation of the viShNu chant by a certain sItArAman:

Bearing a chakra in the right hand,
with your body shiny blue,
mounted on your vehicle garuDa,
O viShNu, provide us with good luck.

O lord of the vaikuNTha mountain,
guarding the four great devAlaya-s [of shrIlankA]
accept our acts of puNya,
bring wealth and good luck in our grasp.

shrIlankA and the buddhashAsana
are under your protection, lord of vaikuNTha;
O divine shrI viShNu, may you provide
all that it good in every way.

In the sea, on land, in the sky and beneath or anywhere,
cries from the high, low, poor and homeless or anyone,
you have never let down anyone;
O might deva, give me good protection.

Offering chandana, karpUra, lamps and flowers,
mighty deva, we always seek your help;
We offer you our acts of puNya – open your eyes
and remove my troubles.

Of the deva mahAviShNu,
there is great power and authority.
If I have committed mistakes, forgive me;
accept our acts of puNya, and save us.

This chant or its variants are widely used by the kapurAla-s or lay bauddha-s in Devinuvara and other parts of the island. They are in hybrid siMhala-pAlI-saMskR^ita language and are distinct from Astika ritual texts, which are in saMskR^ita and drawn from various vaidika, paurANika and tAntrika texts of the Astika canon. The printed version of the sarva-deva-kannalava had pictures of viShNu seated on garuDa but his depiction was different from the Astika form in that he lacked the typical U-shaped UrdhvapuNDra on his forehead. This suggests that a distinct lankan liturgy and iconography was developed for the same Astika deities. Nevertheless, it is clear that the lankans repeatedly received Astika inputs, in large part due to the proclivities of their rulers. Indeed, in support of this we have some evidence based on inscriptions that there were pA~ncharAtrika brAhmaNa-s performing rituals at Devinuvara at the time of parakramabAhu-II’s reign. Much earlier, in the 800s of CE the shrIlankan ruler dapulusena is mentioned as having brought in pA~ncharAtrika brAhmaNa-s from Rameshvaram to install the rakta-chandana idol of viShNu at Devinuvara and consecrate it. Hence, there is evidence for a long pA~ncharAtrika presence in the hallowed shrine of Devinuvara. Thus, there appear to have been two parallel but interacting tracks of ritual and iconography – one of folk worship, such as that represented by the above text, which was followed by the mass of bauddha-s and their kapurAla priests in shrIlankA, and second of the brAhmaNa-s who were sponsored by key the kShatriya clans. During the reign of rAjasiMha-I who was a largely Astika ruler among the shrIlankan-s there was a major battle with the Portuguese terrorists. The king had besieged them in the fort of Colombo in 1587 CE and had reduced them to precarious state. In order relieve the pressure a Portuguese armada attacked and destroyed the Devinuvara temple and carried the idol studded with gems on their ship – interestingly, the ship carrying the idol was lost at sea. After, this the brAhmaNa rituals in Devinuvara appear to have had a hiatus and the precise knowledge of the earlier traditions is largely lost. However, rAjasiMha-II (~1635-87 CE) with auxiliary naval support from the marATha naval captain maynak bhaNDArI recaptured Devinuvara and rebuilt the temple. However, there is no evidence for any pA~ncharAtrika revival at this point and it appears that the folk lankan form of ritual and liturgy came to be norm.

The evidence for a hybridization of pA~ncharAtrika and bauddha elements in the liturgy of the kapurAla-s is clearly indicated by the rite of tAmbula offering to viShNu. The chant which accompanies this ritual goes thus as per the sItArAman translation:

After 5000 years of prosperity I will become a buddha,
like the moon over the Milky Way, lankA will shine in its greatness;
The golden screen of the palace of vaikuNTha opens;
May your compassion last a 5000 years, the deva arrives!

Seven chourie bearers holding golden bows and arrows on either side of
the blue screens and shining white umbrellas in the middle of the vaikuNTha palace,
deva upulavanna [blue lotus colored] deva nArAyaNa will become the buddha in the future.
May you O nArAyaNa kindly accept our offerings of flowers and tAmbula.

vasudevaH parabrahmA tanmUrtiH puruShottama |
avyaktash cha nirguNash cha prAshAntAtmA tathaiva cha |
tvAm eva shrI mahAviShNus sunAmnA pujayAmy ahaM ||

OM hraM hrIM hrUM shrI mahAviShNu devAnAm adhideva asmin shubha kShaNe bhArata varShe pUrva-bhAgAt A gamat; abhighR^iNa, abhighR^iNa, nivAsaya, AdhAraya, AdhAraya, rakSha, rakSha, jayatu, jayatu ||

The first two shloka-s are in pAlI-sIMhala hybrid and represent the nAstika element. The remaining two are essentially saMskR^ita and the last one in particular is a tAntrika mantra. These second two betray a pA~ncharAtrika origin. Interestingly the mantra explicitly mentions pUrva-bhArata (eastern India) which might indicate a provenance in the kali~Nga country.

We suspect that the end of the kShatriya power in shrIlankA resulted in an imbalance between the Astika elements supported by them and the exclusivist nAstika interpretation of the bikkhu-s of the saMgha. In 1840s both the Astika-s, spearheaded by brAhmaNa polemicists like kumAra-kArttikeya ayyar supported by various drAviDa leaders, and the nAstika revivalists were focusing their attack on the pretamata and the English. 1848 the nAstika-s organized the last great attempt to overthrow the English power under gongalegoDa banDa, who denounced the pretamata and vowed to fight the mlechCha-s with the aid viShNu. After the English eventual defeated and humiliated him they suppressed any royal worship of the deity. They also incited the saMghakAra-s to insinuate this as a failure of viShNu and kumAra to help the lankans in their attempt for freedom. With the loss of the royal patronage, and English encouragement for nAstika separatism, the sthaviravAdin elements similar to the old maitreya and dharmakIrti gained an upper hand in their attempt to marginalize the worship of Astika deities.

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