18 September, 2019

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Dr. P G Punchihewa On Sinhala Buddhagama

By Gamini Seneviratne

Gamini Seneviratne

Dr. Punchihewa’s essay on Sinhala Buddhagama comes at the end of his account of Arahant Mahinda’s legacy to the people of this country, – an island named Sinhale or Lanka. It was from here that the buddha dhamma as explained by the Arahant and his associate bhikkus, Ishtiya, Uttiya, Shamkhala and Bhadrashaala spread eastward to Myanmar, Lao, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Dr. Punchihewa records too the role played by the Arahanth’s sister, the theri Sanghamitta in ‘empowering’ women – to use a term in frequent use today especially in the western media that determine who should rule the world as they see it and how that should be done.

What instruction we children received on the pathways of life included the weekly daham paasela at or close by the village temple. Besides guidance at home, generally from their mother, the daham paasela provided pointers towards a life marked by compassion towards all living beings. One of the ‘texts’ used there was the lo vaeda sangarava the 15th century AC instructional poem by the Vidagama Mahathera. (Incidentally, a fresh annotation of the poem together with a translation into English by Jinasoma Weerasuriya, the whole edited by Dr. Punchihewa, has been published recently and would serve as a companion to the book under review here, “Anubudu Mihindu Mahimi”).

In our childhood we had other ‘teachers’ as well, depending. I do not know how it was with Punchi but I was taught Pali at our village temple in Mattumagala before I was four years old. Things did not proceed as hoped, the oldest of us cousins thought to be fit for the sangha taking to medicine, the next to the civil law and I – well, to public administration, coming round through those excursions to the humanities and the social sciences that, together and with much else, seem to straddle ‘religion’.

How close or far those disciplines were/are to Sinhala Buddhism I leave it to you to judge. Reference to matters somewhat close to me are made here also as demonstration that in its history Buddhism has not been treated by the Sinhalese as some exotic kind of worship.

At the daham paasela, usually on the temple premises, occasionally at the village school nearby, we learnt compassion and quietude. At Royal College, a “secular” school (to adopt the much misused current parlance that is value-loaded to obfuscate superstitions put about by the ‘western world’}, we had a reading from a text (the dhammapada, bhagavat gita, bible, koran) twice a week at senior assembly and, at General Assembly each Friday, a talk on one of them by an old boy who could relate those beliefs / injunctions in clear language and hold the attention of 10 to 18 year olds for little short of an hour. Such was the “religious instruction” we received at Royal and it served us well. (The school prize for Comparative Religion – which btw I won – was named after its donor, S H Mackeen: there was a question on each of the religions mentioned above with three out of four requiring an essay – I wrote on Christianity, Islam and on the Upanishads).

In later years, in the Third Form at Royal, I returned to Pali to escape from “Pol-Thel” Baptist and his lessons in the Geography of Ceylon. And I continued with Pali, taught by a later, senior colleague in the CCS, D M P B Dassanayake, in a failed attempt to dodge K C (Penguin) Fernando who taught Sinhala Literature – though he was the compiler of an English-Pali Dictionary then in use in schools and pirivenas. (Mr. Fernando had been a classmate of my father at Ananda and felt obliged to be extra-stern in assessing such work as I managed to do: ‘corporal punishment’ was not unusual at that time and, at a rough guess, I received five times the share that, maybe, was due to me).

Such were some of the circumstances under which Sinhala buddhagama came to be lodged in our consciousness.

Dr. Punchihewa’s is an erudite essay in recounting the history of the Chandragupta – Asoka heritage in the spread of the doctrine developed by Prince Siddhartha Gautama over twenty-five centuries ago. It is informed by a quality of study that has become rare. I myself lack the tools of scholarship needed to evaluate the particularities in his exposition. Dr. Punchihewa has drawn on documentation that range from Lanka / Sinhale to the Asokan rock inscriptions. As for Asoka himself, Punchi quotes H G Wells (whose “Outline of History” paved the way for A J Toynbee’s 12 volume “Study of History”): Wells held that “among the thousands of kings, emperors and savants in human history the name of Asoka glitters like a lone star”.

Punchi also recounts the close association that Asoka had with the king of Lanka, Devanampiyatissa. That led to the emperor sending his son, the Arahanth Mahinda, to introduce the Buddha vacana and their import to Lanka’s king. That event and its sequel in being placed within the literary record, over 2000 years ago at Aluvihare, laid the foundation for the unique place of Sinhala Buddhist culture in the history of human society.

The notion (which Punchi quotes) that the stability of buddhagama is somehow related to the country producing a native arahanth is not one that Gautama would have seen any logic in. Be that as it may we did have the Maliyadeva rahathan vahanse, resident initially at Dimbulagala and later at Arankele, not many centuries ago. In the late 1970’s a scholar from northern Europe who was engaged in doctoral studies on mahayana Buddhism was sent to me for assistance in obtaining an extension of his resident visa here. I remarked that Mahayana is practiced mostly in and above the upper reaches of what is referred to as ‘India’ and he should perhaps conduct his researches there. He said he had spent three years in Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet and had been told that in Lanka there was a Theravada bhikku who had reached arahathood: he had come here in the hope of meeting him. The bhikku was named Katukele Seevali and was known to reside in the forest hermitage of Arankele. He was indeed a savant and possessed of a presence that gave support but did not overawe: he died young.

The name of this country has been distorted through the centuries, as often happens to other, much larger, spaces as well, innocently by travelers and not innocently by covetous intruders. Hence, it would seem appropriate in these times of ‘fakery’ on a global scale to provide a word or two on the genesis of the name of this sacred island and, by extension, what “sinhala buddhagama” behooves.

Following the name associated with Prince Vijaya (6th century B.C.), this island was known as Tambapanni in the time of Asoka (3rd Century B C) or, in the corrupt version adopted by the Greeks, as Taprobane.

By the 2nd century B C it was known as Heladiva (in old or Elu Sinhala), Sinhaladvipa in Sanskrit and Sihalam in Pali. It was known as Siar-xa-diep in China (2nd century A C) and by the 4th century A C as Serendivi in the Roman Empire. Wang-te-Yuan who visited Adam’s Peak in 1330 A C refers to the island as Seng-ka-la.

Marco Polo, late 13th century, refers to it as Zeilan. The editor of Polo’s ‘Travels’, Thomas Wright, observes, “The name of this important island is pronounced Selan by the Persians and the people of Hindoostan (who also call it Serendib)”. Mahdi Hussain (in his edition of The Rehlat of Ibn Battuta) has it that “Siylan appears to have been connected with Sihalam the Pali name of Sarandip

Nearer in distance and time South Indian records have consistently maintained the identity of the island as Sinhala (e.g., the Ariyur Plates of Virupaksha, 1390 A C), and the Telegu composition Simhaladvipa Kathava (16th century).

The processes by which Buddhism in this island came to acquire its Sinhala-specific character could be traced by observation or in conversation with bhikkus at most viharas and at pirivenas. Pirivenas are centres of learning and also serve as repositories of large collections of palm leaf manuscripts as well as of printed documents of more recent vintage. Am slightly acquainted with the Vidyalankara pirivena, (our maternal great grandfather L Weerasinghe and his senior nephew, D B Jayatilaka, were among its dayakayas), and I had the privilege, when I served as a visiting lecturer there, of guiding its senior academic, the Venerable Kotahena Pannakitti, through Nehru’s “The Discovery of India”.

Half a century ago, besides the famous pot gula at Hanguranketha, the Mahamantinda pirivena in Matara and the Ridigama pirivena were home to invaluable libraries mostly of religious texts. I have since learnt that following the LTTE’s terrorist attack on the Dalada Maligawa, officers of the National Archives in Kandy had catalogued the holdings of the Maligawa library – a most praiseworthy action. The Government Archivist, as that office was originally designated, continues to have responsibility for preserving such palm leaf and other manuscripts for the use of scholars – bhikkus as well as lay persons.

Reports of the population of Buddhists in the world suggest that there are over 500 million worldwide. Percentage-wise Myanmar and other east Asian countries have high numbers (in Sri Lanka Buddhists have been put at 2/3rds of the total population). One supposes that Australia showing the highest ‘growth rate’ of Buddhists would excite interest in some quarters.

Persons who have been in one way or another exposed to the practice of Buddhism would have acquired some form of sympathetic understanding of it. At a kind of memorial gathering in honour of Professor S J Tambiah a couple of years ago, his colleague Professor Gananath Obeyesekere said that after his work in Thailand that resulted in his major work, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background’, Tambi had become a crypto-Buddhist. Such a development is not unusual in social anthropology as also among those whose personal experience of a culture has provided insights that go beyond their specialist interests.

The research engineer (he designed the first air balloon that could carry passengers across continents) and novelist, Nevil Shute, went that way. Among anthropologists, I believe Gehan Wijewardena too may have been a crypto Buddhist. Gehan carried out his field work in Thailand. He also translated a novel that explicated Thai life into English.

Closer here was Martin Southwold whose studies were in a village off Kurunegala. As he wrote to me some years later, his book ‘Buddhism in Life: The Anthropological Study of Religion and the Sinhalese Practice of Buddhism’ had drawn the ire of some colleagues at his University in Manchester. They had castigated him for becoming ‘a Sinhalese Buddhist’ – a reading he was happy to accept.

So, it would appear that Sinhala Buddhagama has had a way of spreading beyond the lands of eastern Asia.

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Latest comments

  • 3
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    I was amused, somewhat saddened but not surprised to read Gamini Seneviratne’s article on Buddhism.

    On Campus, Seneviratne was a strong Trotskyite, and had nothing to do with institutionalised religion.

    Why is that with age the tendency is for inviduals to swing to the right?
    To use a Biblical reference: Why do those who, when young, were Pauls become, in old age, Sauls?

    Of course, he makes no distinction between Buddhist doctrine, precepts etc and Buddhism the religion, that is, Buddhism as it is actually practised / expressed – in Sri Lanka, Myannmar and elsewhere.

    So it has been with all religions: religious doctrine is one while its expression in the public domain is quite another.

    Buddhhist in ‘doctrine’ but not in ‘religion’

  • 1
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    Did they teach NOT to engage in adultery at Royal those days?

    • 0
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      ABM,

      Do you mean, the adultery practiced at an Agrarian Institute in Colombo ?

      This writer must have his own reminiscences of the type of adultery I am referring to

  • 1
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    My concern is, since the 2nd century, sinhala was called, HElaDIVA. That Heladiva also was called SivuHele (Raksha, Deva, Naga, Yakkha), then THUNHELE (Ruhunu, Phiti, Maya) So, Sivu-HELE became sinhale which is a Racist word and makes new minorities in Sri lanka grieve or Sad and not feeling belonging to the country. So, we have to give up all those sansaric habits by which we say thunhele, sinhale, etc., But, the initial name comes since the second century. As far as I know, Thambiah is anti-buddhist. Gananath OBeysekara loves Srilanka but he is not buddhist. But even his university investigazte PAst lives.
    Anyway, as DOCTRINAL BUddhist say, Sinhala buddhism or buddhism in sinhale, Myanmar and thailand are not institutionalized. That is why the West finds those two countries are difficult to deal with. Lord Buddha before the PArinirvana mentioned and made the Buddha dhamma the teacher when Buddha would not be there anymore. But, in Mahayana countries and in Thailand where it was institutionalized buddhist bhikkus could be controlled by the outside. . If you read books written in the West because of the political interests (e.g cold war monks needed to talk against Communist theory), now miltant buddhism is a problem because bhikkus do not practice buddhism alone they engage in Politics and do not allow Neo-liberal destructive policies to reign the society. The most recent is buddhism and violence in Asia or Srilanka. So, they need a villain and Ven. Ghansara fits that model very well and he needs to be kept in the Jail for ever in order to continue that Political Propaganda.
    Mahinda rajapakse govt tried to institutionalise Bhikkus in a different way by trying to appoint Mahanayakes by him or by some friendly bhikkus.

  • 1
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    Some thing that I want Dr/Mr Gamini Senevirathne to think about is Lord buddha was such extra ordinary visionary, 2600 years ago, Buddha knew saw many things and did not appoint a Leader to succeed, Instead Placed Buddha Dhamma as the teacher. Buddha Dhamma is complete and there is nothing investigate in that. So, Buddha had mentioned specifically, investigate it as much as you want. both middle eastern Religions which came after that have Buddha Dhamma influence. but, there teachings are not complete. so, one needs a teacher to interpret it. the other has settled now. It is mostly infighting. I heard One such Indian religion Jainism had such problems, just after their leaders death they were fighting for dominance..
    Buddhism is the only religion which says there was an infinite number of Buddhas succession one after the other. so, even the Judaism must have Buddha dhamma influence but they all believe in a supreme god who has a form instead Nirvana is formless and mindless.

    • 1
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      Didn’t know Siddharta Gautama had received a British peerage, to be called ‘Lord’ Buddha by JD. (Lordships are inherited feudal titles in Britain).
      /
      Is it a case of us learning every day, or our inability to free ourselves or to think intelligently?
      /
      reading such stupidities written by so-called Buddhists makes us feel ashamed to fall in to the same category

      • 0
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        Mawanalle Saranankara. ” reading such stupidities written by so-called Buddhists makes us feel ashamed to fall in to the same category “

        I studied at Ananda. So you can stop calling me a catholic saboteur., when you cannot answer my questions.

        1.The Gauthama Buddha advised his disciples to respect his teachings.Never did he ask his des ciples to worship him. If so how come that we were taught to worsip him re Buddhang Saranag Gachchami? Was it a means to get us to say sangan saranag gachchami. It is like Ara hamuduruwonta beddhanna – when a tasty curry is being served?

        2. I was taught that Gauthama Buddha on his parinibbana bed ( Death bed) requested saman Deviyo to look after and protect Vijaya, who is said to have landed on this island the same day as the day of Parinibbana.

        With the same breadth we are taught that the Gauthma the Buddha could see the past as well as the future.
        If so to say that gauthama the Buddha requested Saman Deviyo to protect and look after a thug, and a thief who later in life killed his wife and the two children, is an insult to Gauthama the Buddha.

        Overe to you mawanelle

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    Jainism worships Vishnu. it is part of deity and idol worship. It was no doubt prospering during the time of Buddhism and thus was at the receiving end of Hindus. Many hindu revivalist and religious poets in Thamil nadu focussed on this conversion that led to several scared and prayer hindu songs were written in tamil, often attacking non hindus. On the other hand Buddha opposed Brahminism and postulated his views as Buddam. He opposed hero worship, idol worship and deity worship. He did not believe in rebirth or moksha and instead and quite rationally postulated that hell and heaven are within us and in this life. So let us work for it in this life using our knowledge and intelligence. Do good to others and n- violent. Jainism in fact is more emphatic of non violence than buddhism. Even Sekhism is the same, no idol worship, no deity worship, no god men and no discrimination, all humans are the same. Hinduism divided and discriminated the people and segregated people owing to manipulative and greedy Brahmins and they flourished on these divisions, even today. So if we look around from ancient times religions are invented like political parties, by people with various vested interests., motives, agenda, self- interests and so on. If anyone rationally look at religions these various religions only led to more suffers than wisdom or unity or goodness to mankind. Religions appear to be the biggest curse to humanity than any other issues. Do the Buddhists in SL in anyway follow what Buddha had preached? Do they even know exactly what he had preached? Buddhism in SL, is it a political and racial symbol or a really divine religious symbol? The bikkus are politicians, businessmen and ruffians and too glad to lead violent mobs. There is certainly no buddhism at all in them. All the religions today are institutionalised business, money making establishments.

  • 1
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    Contd……

    Why our learned, Buddhist Sinhala people with means always run to Thirupathy, Saibaba, and kerala kovils? Even military leaders go and get the blessings from them before military operations. Why not their maha nayakas or dalada maligawa or other buddhist temples? So isn’t it obvious that they dont have any faith in Buddhism. Is it in anyway different to Sinahlas going to s’Pore or US or Aussie for surgery etc not having any trust or faith in their own people and experts. This is how they set an example! This is exactly what the patriotic Buddhists “scholars” too are doing. HLD the greatest Buddhist patriot SL had ever invented does not live in SL and instead enjoy life in Down Under enjoying the Aussie welfare system. And why our gullible trust him or even welcome him here? His lies and distortion and virulent language are more pleasant to hear than hearing the truth. The whole thing about race and religion are mere con and a pastime for the bankrupt and morally defunct crooks and they are not at all intended to improve our human values.

    Punchi heva has this to say: “[I have since learnt that following the LTTE’s terrorist attack on the Dalada Maligawa, officers of the National Archives in Kandy had catalogued the holdings of the Maligawa library – a most praiseworthy action. The Government Archivist, as that office was originally designated, continues to have responsibility for preserving such palm leaf and other manuscripts for the use of scholars – bhikkus as well as lay persons.” When did these LTTE rascals attacked Maligawa, was it before burning the Jaffna Library or after? That too is of a historic and religious query to enlighten us at a time of wrong history, wrong philosophies and misleading scholars.

  • 1
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    Contd…..
    The author talks of Vijayan, Thambapani, Heladiva, Asoka, Sangamita etc, but none of them seem to be natives of lanka. All these were imported from India. From where did Pali, Sanskrit, Thamil come from and they too imported. Then who were the un-imported people of Pre-Thambapani? Why no one talks of Vedda people and how so many vedda words in Sinhala? This is just an imagination or desire to create an authenticity by hook or crook and to have a place in the world. Some are hidden and some are over played and this is what one calls biased and malicious history telling. Evolution of languages is part of normal change and adoption and influences and there is nothing sacred or holy or divine about it. Buddha never thought of an exclusive race far away from where he lived. Buddhism came in pali to a land where natives were living and where natives kingdoms were existing. Mahinda or Sangamitta were not Sinhalese or Sinhala speaking but spoke pali and other early Indian languages. Thus the natives took to full time Indian Buddhist influence and pali and Buddhism went hand in hand. Then evolved a language made up of Vedda, Pali, Sanskrit and Thamil with direct influence from Indian subcontinent and slowly evolved a somewhat new language. If Sinhala was so advanced why so many loan words including Portuguese, Dutch and English? So evolution of a new language is not a miracle or a divine act but a natural process of evolution based on environmental factors, needs, and necessities. For heaven sake don’t make it a miracle or a heavenly act. In a world with millions of years of human habitation, our scholars trying to make a case for themselves based on some 2000 year old story and most of them too based on myths than facts. Pomparippu where Vijayan had allegedly landed in Mannar area is Pon-Paruppu in Thamil is an area where there were flourishing grains cultivation like oats and barli.

  • 1
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    Contd…

    The SL 3 cts stamp depicting the arrival of Vijayan released in 1956 was withdrawn within a few days since some smart arse found that the stamp undermining the Sinhala Ownership of the Island. The stamp showed Kuveni seated at the beach while Vijayan arriving on a boat. Mind you that stamp was released to commemorate 2500 year old Buddhism in Lanka! But at that time, was there Buddhism in lanka? Was Vijayan a Buddhist? Was Kuveni a Buddhist? Arrival of mythical Vijayan predates Buddha. And some smart Lankan scholar claimed that Vijayan arrived on the day Buddha attained nirvana? Isn’t it an insult to Buddha to equate Buddha with Vijayan who was punished by his father for wantonness, evilness who was like a somewhat unrefined form of Angulimala. I appeal to the academics to be real academics and not being politico-religious academics.

  • 1
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    does Mr seneviratne have any ideas why buddhist countries make a hash of liberal democracy? eg myanmar, thailand, lanka? is the concept of imposing one’s chinthana on a society a sinhala or buddhist precept??

  • 0
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    Lord Buddha never taught his disciples & followers to go against mother nature but taught them to live with it under its rules and regulations. First rule of mother nature for its sons & daughters is self defense.and first advise of mother nature to its followers to create its own kinds. That is equally applicable to all living beings including its sons & daughters like human,animals and all the other creatures.That is very much needed for every bodies & everything survival.Man can not survive without help of the other things.. The other thing can not survive without sympathies of man. As such Buddhists have every rights to defeat or annihilate its revivals. If things come in violent forms reprisal might need in violent forms. But you should not start violence against anybody or anything unless it is absolutely necessary for your survival . That is the Buddhism go alone with rules & regulations of mother nature I suppose & I understood. as a Buddhist.

  • 0
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    You can not project into the PAST present day ideology and systems or ways of thinking. Racism is a word that has come about because of the rise of whites into power. They used Darwinian concepts to justify their slavery policy and treating coloured and non-whites differently where ever they encountered them.

    In Sri Lanka at most and at worst we have severe ethnic competition. NOT racism…Know and analyse the concepts before using them.

  • 0
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    You can not project into the PAST present day ideology and systems or ways of thinking. Racism is a word that has come about because of the rise of whites into power. They used Darwinian concepts to justify their slavery policy and treating coloured and non-whites differently where ever they encountered them.

    In Sri Lanka at most and at worst we have severe ethnic competition. NOT racism…Know and analyse the concepts before using them.

  • 0
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    What is Sinhala Buddhism?
    BBS-Buddhism founded and practiced by Gnanasara Thera eschews non-violence. Gnanasara says his mission is to create a Buddhist-Sinhala nation.
    Gnanasara’s anti-Muslim activities/actions fit the internationally accepted description of ‘Terrorist’.
    Some political leaders and businesspersons queue to receive his blessing and patronage.
    .
    Sinhala Buddhists withstood 500 years of colonialism. May be gone. Watch out.

  • 2
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    Seneviratne – old hypocrite that he is – writes of “Sinhala Buddhism”. It’s as absurd as those who talk of “Christian science”. Buddhism is Buddhism and universal, and science is neutral and objective, free of prior assumptions.

    I gather that Seneviratne has passed on his racial thinking, and that his children, infected, are now racists – AND PROUD OF IT!

    I wish he would cast aside this lofty (and fake) cloak of Buddhism, and address more immediate and real issues, ones which affect the daily life of the people:
    poverty and hardship,
    violence and crime,
    inadequate schools and hospitals –

    in short, infrastructure. Why is the blessed “Paradise Isle” such a hell for so many, and that too, on a daily basis?

    Old Socialist

    • 1
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      Old socialist,
      \
      You sound old, but we can’ tknow about claims to being a socialist.
      /
      You cowardly crunt, if you wnt to attack Buddhism and Buddhists, come out like a man who has a dip stick, and don’t hide behind bogus identities.
      /
      You should be ashamed of your goo self, but you are such a low life, it is unlikely!

  • 0
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    Gamini S

    Have you seen the recent article which appeared in a leading Indian news paper that says that the DNA analysis proves that the Sinhalese ancestors came from the present day day Bangldesh regions, please google it, it’s still there, after all Sinhalese are supposed to believe in science

    Secondly the Sinha La again come from this region as this is a very common surname for this part of the world, examples are Kumar Sinha, Pradeep Sinha, Bikram Sinha, Vijaya Sinha

    So these People who had common surnames were later recognized as Sinha la with the passage of time

    If you study the east bengal history before the advent of Mughals or islam, it used to be a Buddhist empire, such as Pala dynasty and Mauran dynasty, and their names very similar to present day Sinhalese names, please check, pala, dasa, tissa etc

    So there is 99% possibility that Buddhism was also brought in to the island by Vijaya when he was banished from this region

    The names, language and the culture of the bengalis and Sinhalese are also very much similar of these previous civilizations

    Like they say don’t take anything for granted, please do a research on this and you will find the real facts

    Good luck with your research

  • 0
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    Concerned Citizen, so contrary to your popular political claims you guys are migrants from ancient Bengal. Have you ever travelled in India man? If I Blind fold you and leave you in a Kerala village, you will think it is your Sinhala desh. Their food habits, chewing raw arecanuts, cloth and jacket, malvattiya with lotus to temples, hoppers, Pittu, so still you guys claim you are all an exclusive Lankan evolution. Have you seen their dances, including kathakali all are yours too. For Heaven sake don’t say now that India evolved from sinhalas. What does it matter whether you came from a Bengal or odisha or Timbuktu, Bottom line you are all migrants.

  • 0
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    Most interestingly the lion flag used by the present day Sri Lanka has nothing to do with Sinhala, this is a Persian lion used in the Persian flag which again was used by the South Indian kings during the Kandian kingdoms, which after the independence, Sri Lankan sent delegates to a museum in Chelsea in England to study the actual flag of the kandian kingdoms and did the modern day Sri Lankan flag with this Persian lion

    So when you actually see most of the things we assume of Sinhala and things are all borrowed from different places and today people are trying to make non existent history of Sinhala and lion are all nonsense, these are concocted history made by people by just hypnotizing different theories

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