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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2679

Response to Glimpses from the Mahavamsa

By Sumanadasa Wijayapala

In my first response to Dr. Mithra Fernando, I acknowledged that the early parts of the Mahavamsa do not have corroborating evidence from other sources, compared to the later sections (from King Devanampiya-Tissa), and thus I do not automatically accept the early sections as established history. I personally believe that the story of Vijaya is a myth and that Gotama Buddha had probably never visited the isle of Lanka. After all, the Suttas and the Vinaya do not mention any episode where the Buddha had ventured outside the domain of old Magadha, and likewise there is no evidence that Buddhism had spread beyond the Magadha region until the time of Emperor Asoka. Indeed, Asoka is revered in the Pali chronicles as the sovereign who sponsored the spread of the Dhamma to all parts of the Indian Subcontinent; the credit for introducing Buddhism to the island properly belongs to Mahinda and Sanghamitta, not to the Buddha himself.

However, I had asked how such mythology had created the conditions for the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, to which Dr. Fernando did not supply a coherent answer. Myths only become harmful when others are forced to accept them as fact, but I demonstrated in my first article that the medieval Tamils of Sri Lanka had most certainly embraced the Vijaya myth within their own literary tradition. Indeed, the Tamil kings of Jaffna went as far as to associate their lineage with Vijaya to establish their legitimacy as rulers of the entire island (as Indrapala pointed out, the Jaffna kings never claimed to rule only the north and east). Denigrating the Vijaya myth would thus necessarily involve denigrating the medieval Sri Lankan Tamil literary tradition.

Interestingly, the story of the Buddha visiting ancient Lanka also is found in Tamil literature, as many Tamils know. The Tamil epic Manimekalai describes the story of the Buddha coming to an island to resolve a conflict between two Naga kings, a story which tallies with the Mahavamsa’s description of the Buddha’s journey to Nagadipa. The inclusion of this tale in Manimekalai demonstrates not only that the ancient Tamils were aware of Nagadipa as a Buddhist site, but that they had probably traveled there as devout Buddhist pilgrims. Thus we have another Mahavamsa “myth” which demonstrates the strong relationship between Tamils and Sinhalese in ancient times. It does not matter whether the Buddha had actually come to Sri Lanka or not. What matters is that both peoples shared the same mythology which to a certain extent suggests a common heritage, something which both peoples can cherish. How would it be possible to use this part of the Mahavamsa to demote the Tamils to second-rate status?

On the topic of the Buddha’s association with the Pali chronicles, we must return to Dr. Fernando’s apology for the low quality of his prior article. I accept that nobody is perfect, but nevertheless I must insist that it is a crime of hypocrisy for someone like him to denigrate the Pali chronicles as lacking credibility by using erroneous and invalid arguments and associations. Paradoxically, he had shown himself to be a less reliable source than the very Mahavamsa he is desperate to tarnish!

However, just as the Mahavamsa has its flimsy areas as I noted above, Dr. Fernando sometimes has something useful to say, as he demonstrated in his credible citation of Geiger’s argument that the chronology from Vijaya to Devanampiya-Tissa is probably flawed, that at the very least the reigns of Pandukabhaya and Mutasiva (what kind of Sinhala name is “Mutasiva?”) were lengthened to tally with the Buddha’s Paranibbana. Dr. Fernando is also correct to mention the links between Buddhism in Sri Lanka and S. India, which the Sinhala supremacists hope to suppress. Unfortunately, his usefulness ends with his continued attempts to undermine the Mahavamsa, this time by trying to show that the Paranibbana date of the 5th century BCE is false.

Mithra and the Hindu Right-wing

Following his practice of “name-dropping,” Dr. Fernando brings in some dubious Indian scholarship without himself assessing whether their arguments are sound, and the name Dr. Prasad Gokhale is dropped. Here I must show the reader that Gokhale’s “work” Antiquity and Continuity of Indian History is not a publication which has gone through the process of peer review within the academic discipline of history (although it is certainly a piece of work); it appears that the Internet Scholar Dr. Fernando had lifted it from Antiquity and Continuity of Indian History, a Hare Krishna website in New Zealand (on the same site, you can download an eggless cake cookbook, for free!). Dr. Gokhale appears to hold a Ph.D., but his field is mechanical engineering not history.

Who is Prasad Gokhale?? The names Subhash Kak, Koenraad Elst, and David Frawley in his bibliography read as a who’s who list of the Hindu right-wing in the US. A quick Google shows Prasad Gokhale’s name on some Hindutva websites, where he criticizes the “Aryan invasion theory” (which the Hindutvaadis call AIT). The article which Dr. Fernando cites also attacks the AIT, demonstrating that we probably are dealing with the same Gokhale.

In his rush to attack the Sinhala-Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka, Dr. Fernando has apparently enlisted the Hindu extremists in his cause!

Dr. Fernando had tried to wiggle out of his “Knapp” gaffe by mumbling something about his respect for Vedic traditions, and I suspect he will repeat his appeal here. At this point it may be humorous to ask him whether he endorses the politics of Hindu primacy in India. The Hindutva doctrine proclaims that the Hinduism is the only way of life indigenous to the Indian Subcontinent, all others—Islam and Christianity—had been brought by outside invaders. It has no problem accusing Indian Muslims and Christians of being foreigners in their own homeland. The weakness in this agenda is the claim of Western scholarship that the oldest Hindu literature—the Vedas—also originated outside India; hence the Hindu right-wing attempts to discredit the Aryan invasion theory.

Chronology of the Buddha

The Hindu right-wing finds the dating of the Buddha to the 5th century BCE offensive, as they accuse Western scholars of shifting the antiquity of Indian civilization. Dr. Gokhale particularly finds the Pali chronicles to be “nothing but a hinderance (sic) of ancient Indian history.” As Gokhale is ignorant of these chronicles, he does not focus on the flawed Vijaya-Devanampiya Tissa chronology but rather the chronology from the time of the Buddha to Emperor Asoka. Unfortunately, the latter chronology is far more credible than the former, as Asoka has been independently dated thanks to the Rock Edicts and Greek records.

Rock Edict #13 mentions four Yona kings: Amtiyoko, Turamaye, Amtikini, Maka and Alikasudaro, who correspond to the Greeks Antiochos the Seleucid, Ptolemy of Egypt, Antigonos of Macedon, Magas of Cyrene, and Alexander II of Epirus, all of whom were contemporaries of each other in the 3rd century BCE. Gokhale’s citation of an Agarwal (who does not appear in the bibliography) that these kings were “Jana-rajyas” is not substantiated; he does not give us the source of the Afghan king Amtiyoka, and more importantly he does not explain how these five names could so closely resemble five Greek kings who were contemporaries of each other. We know that the Asokan edicts were constructed by the Asoka of the Mahavamsa, because the language of the edicts (Magadhi) closely resembles the Pali preserved in Sri Lanka, the Pali which was brought by Asoka’s own children Mahinda and Sanghamitta.

In case Dr. Fernando feels like recycling V.A. Smith’s erroneous conclusions about Mahinda and Sanghamitta from the dustbin of his first article, I would direct him to Geiger’s observation that the remains of certain luminaries of the Mahavamsa’s 3rd Council were found at the Sanchi stupa in India. One burial urn contains two of the five “Hemavata” (Himalaya) theros: Majjhima, Kassapagotta, and Dundubhissara. The latter two monks are mentioned in the Mahavamsa commentary, but Majjhima is described in the Mahavamsa itself as the thera who converted the Himalayas. Another urn is inscribed with “Moggaliputta,” presumably referring to the great Moggaliputta-Tissa, the teacher of Mahinda. The oldest inscription in Sri Lanka, traced to King Uttiya (the brother and successor of Devanampiya-Tissa) details the final resting place of Mahinda in Sri Lanka.

Dr. Fernando’s citation of the 1000 BCE Greek tomb to “Sramanacharya” is totally erroneous; the term does not even transliterate like that into Greek. The tomb was for “Sarmano,” a sramana belonging to an Indian mission who burned himself alive in 10 CE Athens to demonstrate his faith, a story cited by both Strabo and Dio Cassius. I dealt with the fallacious method of dating through astronomical calculations in my previous article- the margin of error is simply too wide.

The True Origin of Ethno-nationalism in Sri Lanka

Dr. Fernando is correct to argue that Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism has alienated the Tamils. He is wrong to believe that the Mahavamsa is responsible for Sinhala nationalism, hence his very shoddy attempts to undermine it by invoking (incorrectly) alleged university presidents and Indian Hindu fundamentalists. The root of Sinhala nationalism is the fact that Sri Lanka is and has been the only home of the Sinhala people and culture throughout their entire known history. Some traces of this nationalism are evident even in the Mahavamsa, where young Dutugemunu infamously bemoans that to one side are the Tamils, and to the other side is the sea.

However, this nationalism only took a concrete form through the colonial era in response to British imperialism. The Buddhist monk, Sinhala teacher, and traditional ayurvedic practioner mobilized in the 19th century in response to the Christian missionary, English teacher, and Western physician. The Sinhala workers in Colombo mobilized in the early 20th century against south Indians brought by the British as scabs to break their strikes. The literature of this early Sinhala nationalism emphasized the fact that the Sinhalese were being marginalized in their only home.

Likewise, Tamil nationalism does not trace back to any imagined Tamileelam kingdom, or to the Cleghorn Minute, or to any “superiority” or “majority complex” among the Tamil minority. Tamil nationalism arose in reaction to 20th century Sinhala nationalism, as the Sinhalese who were once marginalized by the British now began to marginalize the Tamils. Federalism became the expression of this nationalism, which was not strong enough to support separation until the 1983 riots. The murder of 3000 Tamils and displacement of thousands more gave this feeling of alienation a solid basis, yet there are a few Sinhalese today who still claim that the riots did not kill many Tamils, and that in any case the Tamils were to blame.

The fact of Sri Lanka as the only home of the Sinhalese has been twisted by a fear of the Tamils which has ignorance as its basis. Any attempts to jettison the Mahavamsa will not add anything to our understanding of the Tamils and their ancient links with the Sinhalese. I have demonstrated that the Pali chronicles represent one step in exploring these links, and I encourage Dr. Fernando to cease embarrassing himself in this forum and look to sources other than the Internet to educate himself and present proper arguments. Otherwise, as I quote Confucius (or so I’ve heard…): “Man who pees upwind gets wet.”

Also Read:

1. "The myth of 'Lion ancestry' & adults-only tales of the Lala land."

2. Response to Dr. Mithra Fernando’s “The Myth of ‘Lion Ancestry”

3. Giving Mahavamsa the measles

4. Continuing Adventures in Mithra’s Lala Land

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

6. An Apology for mistaken identity but the measles remains a handicap.

7. Dr. Fernando is wrong again

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