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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2729

Glimpses from the Mahavamsa; Did Prince Vijaya actually land in Sri Lanka? Did the Buddha visit Lanka?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The very interesting debate between two scholars, Mr Sumanadasa Wijayapala and Dr Mithra Fernando has prompted the writer to add to the debate by highlighting some comments made by another scholar, Professor William Geiger in his translation of the Mahavamsa. His comments castes some doubts on the exact location of Vijaya’s eventual disembarkation after he was banished from Lala (present day Bangladesh) and also almost forced to leave Supparaka (west coast of India). This article is written to solicit some comments from both Mr Wijayapala and Dr Fernando considering that the writer is no scholar to make any comments on Professor Geiger’s comments and as only others who are well versed with the Mahavamsa would be able to make them for the benefit of others.

Professor William Geiger’s translation of the Mahavamsa is acknowledged as an accurate translation of the great chronicle. Geiger’s work, in addition to the prime task of translation, addressed issues raised by other learned personages like R O Franke who questioned basic acceptances (by some) of the existence of canonical works older than and which served as the foundation for, the Dipavamsa which preceded the Mahavamsa. Geiger states that an older work, as a constituent of Atthakatha, i.e. the old commentary and literature on the canonical writings of the Buddhists, existed prior to Dipavamsa. R O Franke was of the view that Dipavamsa was a botched compilation of Pali quotations from the Jataka’s and other canonical writings and that Mahavamsa has merely copied the Dipavamsa. Geiger concludes otherwise and has taken great pains to demonstrate that older historical work was the foundation for the Dipavamsa and hence the Mahavamsa.

If we are to accept Geiger’s conclusions, then the authentisity of recordings in Mahavamsa becomes even more heightened. However, Geiger, quoting Rhys Davids says, “Chronicles contain no pure history, and they represent the traditions of their time and permit us to draw retrospective conclusions as to earlier periods.”

Mahavamsa, like many other chronicles has its fables and marvellous tales. It has its miracles to demonstrate the splendour and majesty of the Buddhist order and its establishment in Sri Lanka. (Lanka at the time). Many of these fables, miracles and tales are at best outward decorations that can and should be removed by the intelligent and discerning in understanding the traditions, the environment and circumstances that prevailed at the time.

With this backdrop to recordings in Mahavamsa, there are some glimpses to our past in this Chronicle which are interesting and at times confusing.

Lord Buddha’s visit to Lanka is one such record. The Mahavamsa states that Buddha first visited Lanka in the ninth month of his Buddha hood. It is somewhat beguiling why Buddha chose to visit Lanka (inhabited by Yakkas) to preach his doctrine when only a few months before he had entertained grave doubts about preaching to anyone, as he doubted peoples ability to grasp the depth of his doctrine. His first sermon was in India, after much thought, to the five monks who were his mentors at one stage when he was attempting to find the “truth”. The Mahavamsa says that Buddha had to perform many miracles in Lanka to drive the Yakkas to the highlands before he could preach to the Devas and convert millions (kotis) in the process. What are we to discern in this recording? Purely that Buddha visited Lanka and that he had superhuman powers?

The Mahavamsa records that Buddha knew Lanka as a place where his doctrine would shine in glory and infact it records Buddha’s words to Sakka (A name of Indra, King of Gods) during his nibbana that “Vijaya, son of King Sinhabahu has gone to Lanka from the country of Lala, together with seven hundred followers. In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka”.

Many in contemporary Sri Lanka, particularly the Buddhist clergy have taken Buddha’s forethoughts and predictions about his doctrine as recorded in the Mahavamsa at its face value, and it has become an important symbolic issue in national politics today with Sinhala Buddhists being regarded (by the Buddhist Clergy), as the guardians of Buddhism and therefore of Sri Lanka much to the distress and discomfort of Sri Lankans belonging to other religions and races.

Prince Vijaya, alluded to have begun the Sinhala race, (Sinhabahu’s people having come from the land of Lala, present day Bangladesh) has a chequered history, and the Mahavamsa does not treat young Vijaya kindly. It records that “Vijaya was of evil conduct and his followers were (like himself), and many intolerable deeds of violence were done by them”. In the end, having exhausted his patience and heeding the desperate calls of his people about the behaviour of Vijaya and his followers, “ Then the King (Sinhabahu) cause Vijaya and his followers, seven hundred men, to be shaven over half the head and put them on a ship and sent forth upon the sea, and their wives and children also”.

The Mahavamsa records that Vijaya and his followers having left present day Bangladesh, first landed in Supparaka (situated on the west coast of India, now Sopana in the Thana district, north of Bombay), and finding it difficult to live there and facing the wrath of people, set forth sail and landed in Lanka in the region called Thambapanni.

Vijaya’s involvement with the Yakkini Kuveni is recorded and much publicised. Perhaps what is less publicised is the record that Kuveni bore him two children, a son and daughter and how all three were asked to flee by Vijaya (to save their lives) when the princess from Madhura (South India) had arrived to become his queen. Kuveni was slain by her own Yakkas when she went back to them, thinking that she was spy. The children fled to Samanalakuta (Adams Peak) where the son married his sister and founded the Pulinda (designation of barbarous tribes, evidently a name for Weddhas). The Mahavamsa does not mention a son or daughter as an heir to King Vijaya.

Interestingly Geiger casts some doubt whether Tambapanni mentioned in Asoka inscriptions infact meant Lanka. He says the name may possibly designate the Tinnevelli district at the southern extremity of India, where the river Tamrapanni flows to the sea. If Tambapanni referred to in the Asoka inscriptions is the Tambapanni where Vijaya is supposed to have landed, and it was not in Lanka, one is entitled to ask whether Vijaya ever came to Lanka or whether he landed in South India when he set sail from the Thana district near North Bombay?

What then of Lord Buddha’s words to Sakka? Was he wrong about Vijaya? Who was he mentioning to Sakka if it was not Vijaya? If Vijaya did not come to Lanka who infact did come and was responsible for the origins of the Sinhala race? Did Buddha ever visit Lanka, or did he also visit the Southern Indian extremity Tinnavelli district near river Tambrapanni?

Fact, fiction or myth, Buddhism has established and flourished in Sri Lanka. Buddha’s words to Sakka, the King of Gods, more than two and half thousand years ago has had a lot to do with it.

The power of repetition is indeed very strong particularly if it is done over hundreds of years. The Buddhist clergy of today will continue this centuries old practice, and others after them will do so for many more centuries to come. One cannot but wonder though, if Lord Buddha were to visit Sri Lanka today, for the fourth time, whether he will recognise his doctrine in the land in which he thought it would shine in glory.

- Asian Tribune -

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