Haunted By Mahawamsa

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By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Hatred of one group can lead to hatred of others” Amartya Sen (The Argumentative Indian).

In Sri Lanka the boundary line between myth and history is dangerously amorphous. And this twilight world often plays a decisive role in Lankan politics.

Sinhala school children are taught that they belong to a race which began when an Indian-Aryan princess eloped with a lion. They learn this tale not in the story-hour but during the history lesson.

The lion myth is from the Mahawamsa, venerated by most Sinhala-Buddhists as a history book cum sacred text. It is the grandson of the lion and the princess the Mahawamsa embraces as the originator of the Sinhala race. According to Mahawamsa itself, Vijaya ‘was of evil conduct’; he and his followers committed so many crimes of such horrific nature that his father was eventually compelled to exile them[i]’.

Vijaya’s enforced sea-journey supposedly coincided with the death of the Gautama Buddha. According to Mahawamsa the Buddha, on his deathbed, told the Chief among deities, Sakka, “Vijaya, son of king Sihabahu, is come to Lanka….. In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established; therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka”.

So the Mahawamsa created the myth of the ‘Chosenrace’ with its ‘sacred space’. This myth became the foundation for what I call the ‘Hosts and Guests’ concept of Lanka. According to this, the island belongs to Sinhala-Buddhists, who are its sole real owners. This ‘sacred bequest’ must be protected by whatever means necessary, including the use of violence.

In the teaching of Gautama Buddha there is no concept of holy war, no space for the use of force/violence in the protection of either the Dhamma or those who practice it. Given the absolute taboo against the taking of any life in Buddhism, killing human beings to ‘protect Buddhism’ could not be justified without adding a major new chapter to Buddhist teaching. This is precisely what the author of Mahawamsa did by depicting the conflict between the Buddhist Dutugemunu and the Hindu Elara for political supremacy as a Sinless/Meritorious War.

Elara, according to Mahawamsa, was regarded by men and gods alike as a just ruler[ii]. He was no invader bent on rampage and pillage, no tyrant crushing the people under his royal feet, but a good man and a fair ruler. But Elara’s admirable qualities were irrelevant and immaterial because he was an ‘unbeliever’. Therefore he had to be deposed and killed, as an integral part of a divinely sanctioned enterprise to save Sinhala-Buddhism and its chosen country, Lanka, from enemy aliens.

Dutugemunu is the star of Mahawamsa, the hero-king of Sinhala Buddhism, the standard against which all subsequent rulers were measured. His life-story, as Mahawamsa narrates, contains the same combination of natural and supernatural, human and divine that passes off as history even in modern day Sri Lanka. He was said to have been conceived immaculately[iii] and with a divine mandate to restore Buddhist rule over the island. If the apocryphal tale of Buddha’s Bequest provides the ideological basis of the Hosts and Guests concept, the Dutugemunu story details the manner in which ‘guests’ who violate the ‘rules’ should be dealt with.

Prince Gemunu’s reply to his mother’s query about his foetal sleeping posture identifies the problem as one of territory and Lebensraum: “Over there beyond the Ganga are the Damilas, here on this side is the Gotha-ocean, how can I lie with outstretched limbs?” The story of the three cravings of Queen Vihara Maha Devi, when pregnant with Prince Gemunu, identifies the enemy: “She craved to drink, while trampling on his very head, the water in which was washed the sword that beheaded the chief warrior among the Elara soldiers…. The queen informed the King and the Lord of the earth asked the soothsayers. Hearing it they said, ‘The queen’s son will vanquish the Damilas…’”. The response of the Sangha to King Dutugemunu’s anguish over enemy deaths introduces the concept of sinless/meritorious war: “By this act of yours there is no hindrance in the way to heaven…. only one and a half men were killed here. One was established in the refuge and the other only in the five precepts. The heretical and evil others who died were like animals…”

That was the moment Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama was transformed into Sinhala-Buddhism, a new religion of the book, the Mahavamsa. The war against unbelievers was consecrated as sinless and meritorious; a straight path to heavenly bliss, akin to Crusades and Jihads. Not only was Dutugemunu reborn in the highest heaven, according to the Mahawamsa; he “will be the first disciple of the sublime Metteyya, the king’s father (will be) his father and the mother his mother. The younger brother, Saddhatissa will be his second disciple, but Salirajakumara, the king’s son will be the son of the sublime Metteyya”. The Mahawamsa clinches the argument of the meritorious nature of waging war for Buddhism by demonstrating that it will benefit not just the holy warrior but his entire family.

The Mahawamsa was written around seven centuries after the Dutugemunu-Elara war, by a Buddhist monk with a political agenda. Even a passing knowledge of the teachings of Gautama Buddha would suffice to know that shedding all attachments is a sine-qua-non for the attaining of Arhathood. A man or woman with attachments, however understandable or justifiable, is bound to the samsara by those very bonds. Those who have attained Arhathood have no attachments, including to country, race or religion. Nor can they condone any killing. The claim by Bhikku Mahanama that monks who had attained Arhathood justified mass murder in the name of religion was an obvious and an evil lie. Yet this lie has triumphed over the First Precept.

Constantine and his heirs had to remake Jesus from a man of peace to a prince of war; they were aided in this re-make by the vengeful God of the Old Testament. Mahanama had to do the job by himself, without any doctrinal help. He, and not the Buddha, is the true teacher and leader of the likes of the JHU and the BBS.

Myth as Destiny

The Mahawamsa stories are not just popular myths retold in an ancient chronicle. They have determined the trajectory of Ceylon/Sri Lanka in modern times.

The anti-minority nature of the 19th Century Buddhist renaissance, under the tutelage of Anagarika Dharmapala, was fuelled by the Mahawamsa myths. Distorted and enslaved by the Mahawamsa myths, Sinhala-Buddhism lost the ability to appeal to Tamils or to create a Lankan Dr. Ambedkar. Had there been a significant segment of Buddhist Tamils, with a voice within the Sangha, our post-Independence history may have taken a less destructive path. But to be able to appeal to Tamils, Buddhism has to cease being the identity-badge of Sinhala supremacism and reclaim its pre-Mahawamsa universalist potential.

“Our challenge is to devise some arrangement which enables us to coexist if not in amity then at least in forbearance” Jawaharlal Nehru told Andre Malraux (Anti-Memoir). That is the challenge facing any pluralist nation.Sri Lanka will fail to win this challenge, so long as we remain in thrall to Mahawamsa myths.


[i] He “caused Vijaya and his followers, seven hundred men, to be shaven over half the head and put them on a ship and sent them forth upon the sea….”

[ii] He was so just, that gods intervened to end a drought, at his pleading, according to Mahawamsa

[iii] King Kawantissa and his queen were childless for many years. The Queen sought the advice of a sage and was told to obtain the consent of dying monk to be reincarnated in her womb as her son. The queen attended the monk on his death bed and obtained his consent to her wish. While she was on her way to inform her husband of the felicitous tidings, the monk died and “he returned to a new life in the womb of the queen while she was yet upon her journey; when she perceived this she halted. She sent that message to the king….”

To read this in Sinhala click here.  Translation by Yahapalanaya Lanka.

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80 Responses to Haunted By Mahawamsa

  1. 0
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    So what is Tisaranee Gunasekara’s theory ?

    Sama
    March 18, 2013 at 4:42 am
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    All Southerners. including even the non LTTE Tamils living below Mahaveli Ganga were in a worse than “foetal position”, when Mr Prabakaran, the modern day Elara,was ruling the North East. Because old Elara didn’t send suicide bombers to kill and main them in their homes work places and on roads in the South. Any one travelling around in the post Nanthikadal Srilanka can see how the inhabitants of all ethinicities are living in harmony in the current peaceful environment , making a living in the rapidly expanding economy. Prosperous Muslim areas in the midddle of the Catholic hearland of Negambo ,three story brand new Ramakrishna Temple in Wellawatta,do not show any sig of oppression of minority groups How can the construction of Million Dollar Luxury Villas with private boat mooring in the Kalpitiya lake, which are being built with Diaspora funds and totally supervised and managed by Jaffna Tamil youth possible if the people of the North are suppresed and oppressed as Mr Gagendran and Premachandranclaim in Geneva?. Is Ms T towing the same line?.

    K.A Sumanasekera
    March 18, 2013 at 4:55 am
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      “in the rapidly expanding economy”???

      economist
      March 21, 2013 at 10:41 am
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    Mahawamsa is undoubtedly a work that deserves our respect and we should not disparage it just because some lunatics cling to some absurd mythological drivel found in it as authentic history. According to Mahawamsa Dutugemunu set forth on his campaign against Elaara with his army together with a squadron of Buddhist monks and armed with his spear containing Buddha`s relics – to kill Tamils!(kunthe dhatum nidhaapetva..). He cannot be considered such a great hero compared to kings like Walagabaahu, Dhaatusena and WijayabaahuI et.al. Dutugemunu is the first leader who made use of religion and race to achieve his political ends. Second was Bandaranaike who ironically was gunned down by a Buddha Putra himself in the end. Buddhists – the real followers of Buddha Dhamma – should realize that the present day Sangha Samaajaya is a generally corrupted and degenerated one. Most of them surpass lay men in their pursuit and involvements in mundane matters. Some Chief monks are billionaires living in all luxury wallowing in sensual pleasures wielding immense political powers. Some charge exorbitant rates to deliver a preaching or conducting a Bodhipoojas. Some who do not have an adequate knowledge of Dhamma lead their followers to further ignorance, making them perform various Poojas. Some parasites involved in Tirascheena Vidya – yantra, mantra, necromancy etc. occassionally seduce their frustrated and ignorant upaasaka Ammaas , who in turn are tempted to participate in such meritorious acts hoping to feel a touch of Nibbaana. It should be said that Buddhism does not need any protectors. It is a well documented philosophy which can survive without any guardians. If the Buddha – with his divine eye – saw what is happening today in this so called “Buddha Raajyaya” I think,he would not have preached his Dhamma at all or he might have embraced some other religion!

    Rohana Casturi
    March 18, 2013 at 7:58 am
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      Rohan, we laugh at the Australians that their origin is from Criminal Pirates, where as if we believe the Sinhalese origin is from Vijaya according to Mahawamsa, we too are in the same boat, because Vijaya himself was a renegade and a criminal who was banished from his country of birth.

      gamini
      March 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm
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    EXCELLENT …..Dear my fellow BUDHIST FRIENDS…. PLEASE GO TO THIS LINK AND WATCH…….. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPPPBQEy2SA

    PEACELOVER..
    March 18, 2013 at 9:07 am
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      SHIT LOVER MOST IDIOTIC, RETARDED PIECE OF SHIT I’VE EVER WATCHED. YOU IGNORANT MORON, FIRST LEARN BEFORE YOU MAKE A FOOL OF YOURSELF.

      Rambler
      March 18, 2013 at 8:34 pm
      Reply

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    “Sinhala school children are taught that they belong to a race which began when an Indian-Aryan princess eloped with a lion….. It is the grandson of the lion… Vijaya, son of king Sihabahu, is come to Lanka”, mentiones Tissaranee. But, Vijaya was son of Sinhabahu, who was a son of a lion. But, Vijaya’s mother was not discussed by Tisaranee. Sinhasivali, who was Vijay’s mother was Sinhabahu’s sister. So, the originator of Sinhala race was born out of incest (if we go by the myth). Then, Vijaya went to Pandya kingdom to get women for himself and his friends. So, Vijaya was half Aryan and half lion. His friends maybe full Aryans. All their women were Tamils. So, Sinhala people are at least 50% Tamils. Unfortunately, the same Sinhala people laugh at Moors, who were the descendents of Arab men, and they took their wives from Sri Lanka (most of them were Tamils). Which Sinhala person has the backbone to stand up and say, “we all are half Tamils”? This is one of the reasons why they are standing on Buddhism now. Tamil Buddhism was very strong in Tamil Nadu, where we had more Buddhists than the Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

    Rohan
    March 18, 2013 at 9:34 am
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  6. PEACELOVER..
    March 18, 2013 at 9:43 am
    Reply

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    DEAR signle Champike ,Kiribath gamanpilla Dont compare or mix islam and taliban . we are living in a country where there are laws and police , if there are taliban they will take care of it. Study the greate religion ISLAM. PLEASE WATCH THESE VEDIOS 1)How 100,000 Britons have chosen to become Muslim… and average convert is 27-year-old white woman Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1343954/100-000-Islam-converts-living-UK-White-women-keen-embrace-Muslim-faith.html#ixzz2LtDtYPXI 2)Why do Western Women Convert? Read more http://standpointmag.co.uk/features-may-10-why-do-western-women-convert-julie-bindel-islam-female-conversion 3)Women & Islam: The rise and rise of the convert Three-quarters of Britons who become Muslims are female. Now a major new study has shed light on the difficulties they face in adjusting to their new life. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/women–islam-the-rise-and-rise-of-the-convert-6258015.html 4)WHY YOUNG BRITISH WOMEN Converting to ISLAM? – BBC Documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPwaJSMCGTE

    Champukege
    March 18, 2013 at 11:57 am
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    Good analytical article.It open eyes and lay platforms for meaningful discussions.I personally believe religion is like ”quantum physiscs” because to me the different brands of religion look at the same concept through different angles and they see the same thing differently but with same core values. Whatever you follow we are extremely helpless in this hollow universe clinging to a moving ball. By carrying many risks over our shoulders we continue our endless journey without knowing a clear finishing line.We are extremely foolish in that context to fight and hate each other as there are no winners in this game.We all die one day and that is by no means a joke.In this modern world, the old world boundaries becoming less and less conspicuous and new generation is prepared to embrace each other disregarding their colour,race or religion.We are definitely better than fifty years ago and it is getting even better in more democratic countries. Unless we move with this trend, we will find our place in the dustbin of the history very soon.Ironically, the fundamental buddist teachings go very well with this modern world and it is very sad that most of our countrymen do not see this reality.

    Priya
    March 18, 2013 at 8:42 pm
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    When I read the comments alongside the author I feel very sad and shocked at the amount of hatred being targeted at Buddhism and its history simply to make a point against the BBS. This shows that the BBS is considered a great threat to their evil ways. This shows that the BBS is winning the people’s voice which is again a challenge to them. So we can expect more Buddhist bashing in the forth coming days… These Abrahamic religions do not stop criticising and think itself lily white angels…

    Shiva
    March 19, 2013 at 5:30 am
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    Two many historians. Everyone is a self claimed historiographer! What a joke That is the bane of our country.This is not an informed debate.

    Mahavamsa Reader
    March 19, 2013 at 9:04 am
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    Thisaranee seems to know diddly-squat about Mahawamsa to think that it a sacred text in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, she should understand the Sinhala society before pretending to be a pundit.

    Sam Perera
    March 19, 2013 at 1:55 pm
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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

    karunarathnedissanayake
    March 20, 2013 at 10:14 am
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    To discredit everything in the Mahavamsa based on the fact that Lions and Humans dont interbreed is silly and convenient for those attempting to propagate a completely different and unsubstantiated version of Sri Lanka’s history. (without any epigraphic or archaeological evidence to back it) You will not find even a handfull of Sinhalese today who believe that a Lion and a woman interbred to form a hybrid half lion/half human. These stories belong to mythology much like the Ramayana, Mahabharatha and the Greek myths and chronicles where Monkey/Human, Horse/Human (Pegasus), Human/Bovine(Minator), Man/Horse(minator) abound. But what if the Lion was a human of the “Lion” tribe like a Ranasinghe, Wickremesinghe, Samarasinghe, Weerasinghe or one of their counterpart Singhs or Singhams in India or Jaffna? Perhaps they were one of the original constituent tribes of India like the Nagas. I have wondered about the common occurence of Singha and Naga prefixes and suffixes in our names in both India and Sri Lanka. Is it some kind of ancient clan identity that is now lost due to interbreeding? Notice there are no other references to animals in our names even though cattle and poultry are far more important to us and the Tiger a far more common and fearsome animal throughout India?

    dingiri
    March 20, 2013 at 11:05 am
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    Thisaranee is a [Edited out]. How can she understand this Greate Sinhala buddhism, When people live in public interest and private interest is the thing people has to understand…In the History of Sinhala buddhism it has seen thousnd of people like Thisaranee kind of men and weman for the following 2600 yrs but that’s how it protect buddhism over the years still nabody cannot let it down all are barking at but the cart is moving forward

    Daminda
    March 21, 2013 at 5:55 am
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    The Great Sinhala Buddhism will be even richer if we take the trouble to correct the deceptions built into the Mahavamsa. Give our archaeologists a chance to explain what they have already found out. The Buddhist clergy are not the experts that you should be listening to. That is the problem. We are blinded by the teachings of the clergy. When this view is challenged we turn on the messenger and accuse them of everything you can think of. For example we pride our selves for the recorded history going back to over two thousand years. What if this recorded history goes back even futher. What if the existence of an even more fabled capital city hinted at in some old texts that survived the burning proves to be true. Learning the truth is not an attack on Buddhism it enriches it stop closing your minds.

    Mark
    March 21, 2013 at 11:18 pm
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    MAHAWAMSA IS A LITERARY WORK IN LITERATURE YOU FIND ALL KIND OF IMAGINARY THINGS IN LITERATURE IT IS PERMITED.PEOPLE QUESTIONING MAHAWAMSA DO NOT QUESTION MAHABHARATHA.ORIGIN OF SIHALESE IS ATTACHED TO A LION AS LION IS CONSIDERED THE MOST FEARLESS ANIMAL AS SUCH TO INFUSE FEARLESSNESS TO SINGHALESE NOT BECAUSE SINGALESE WERE FATHERED BY A LION.SIMILARLY IN INDIA THERE ARE NAGA TRIBALS IT DOES NOT MEAN THESE HUMANS WERE FATHERED BY A SNAKE.ALL THESE STORIES EMERGED MANY THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO WHEN PEOPLE ACCEPTED ANY STORY WITHOUT QUESTIONING .HOW EVER MAHAWAMSA IS IMPORTANT AS A HISTORY BOOK TOO.HISTORICAL REPORTS IN MAHAWAMSA ARE SUPPORTED BY HISTORICAL WRITINGS SUCH AS RAJATHARANGANI OF KASHMIR AND RECORDS KEPT BY CHINESE TRAVELLER MONKS FA HIEN AND HU EN TSAN.MAHAWAMSA IS NOT AN OBSTACLE TO TAMIL SINGHALESE RELATIONS. KANDIAN KINDOM HAD ABOUT FIVE KINGS OF TAMIL ORIGIN ACCEPTED AND RESPECTED BY SINHALESE BUDHISTS.EVEN TODAY WE WOULD HAVE A TAMIL IN SRI LANKA THRONE IF SRI WICKRAMA RAJASIGHA DID NOT BECOME A DRUNKARD WHICH WAS A BRITISH CONSPIRACY.IF NOT DUE TO TAMIL NADU INTERFERENCE SINGHALESE AND TAMILS WOULD BE THE BEST FRIENDS IN THE WORLD.AS REGARDS MUSLIM PROBLEM IS CONCERNED WE MUST TREAT THEM AS BROTHERS BUT BE VERY CAREFUL OF THEM THINKING WHAT THEY DID IN AFGHANISTHAN AND SINDPROVINCE IN WESTERN INDIA.

    gunadasa
    March 22, 2013 at 3:56 pm
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      Very true

      Suran
      September 11, 2013 at 2:43 pm
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    “O Mankind! reverence your Guardian – Lord Who created you from a single person, created, of like nature,his mate, and from them twain scattered(like seeds)countless men and women; reverence God, through Whom Ye demand your mutual(rights), and (reverence) the wombs(that bore you); for God ever watches over you.” Holy Quran Sura 4 Verse 1. If we believe in above philosophy we donot need to fight among ourselves-we all are brothers/sisters belong to one family and no one is above the other!

    Fazlul
    March 24, 2013 at 4:05 am
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  18. 0
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    Very interesting article I must say. Job well done. But I have trouble figuring out how you are still alive!?! Australia awaits you…

    Nuwan Perera
    March 29, 2013 at 9:46 am
    Reply

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