28 May, 2024


Which Buddha? Whose Buddhism?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“…it was like a poisoned source which would continue to rot both people and things…” – Émile Zola (Truth)

King Dutugemunu fought his first war en famille, literally. According to Mahawamsa, he waged two succession-wars against his usurping younger brother, Tissa. It was after securing his throne that Dutugemunu began his series of wars against several ‘lesser’ kings and ultimately against King Elara.

Mahinda BuddhismAgain according to Mahawamsa, ‘many thousands’ lives were lost in the two succession wars. Since these were civil conflicts, it is reasonable to assume that the dead were predominantly – if not exclusively – Sinhala and Buddhist. And yet, Mahawamsa says nothing about Dutugemunu being filled with horror and remorse at killing his fellow religionists. According to Mahawamsa, the only crisis of conscience the king suffered was over the deaths he caused in his war against Elara.

The Chronicle has monks assuring Dutugemunu that there is no reason for regret or fear: “From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been killed by thee….. The one had come unto the (three) refuges and the other had taken on himself the five precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts…” This ‘assurance’ would not have been possible had Dutugemunu’s crisis of conscience included the Buddhists he killed in the succession wars. Mahawamsa mentions only one crisis of conscience because its purpose was to establish a new dogma: unbelievers are worse than beasts; it is no sin to kill them; fighting for the faith opens up a straight path to heaven.

Bhikkhu Mahanama places these words in the mouths of Arhats to lend them gravitas and legitimacy. He had to, because the Buddha had been very clear on the subject. The deliberate taking of life – human or non-human – is a sin, under any circumstances. There are no exceptions; none at all.

In Yodhajiva Sutta (Gamani Samyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya), Yodhajiva, a headman asks the Buddha whether warriors who die in battle go to heaven. Thrice the Buddha evades the question. Pressed again, he answers: “When a warrior strives and exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized and debased and misdirected by the thought: ‘May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’ If others then strike him down and slay him while he is thus striving and exerting himself in battle, then with the break up of the body he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle.”[i]

There is no ambivalence here, no qualification. The Buddha does not say those who die in battle to protect Buddhism will go to heaven.

And this unequivocal rule would not have suited either Bhikkhu Mahanama or the monarch who is said to have commissioned the Mahawamsa, Dhatusena.

Dhatusena was Bhikkhu Mahanama’s patron – and his nephew. The uncle brought up the nephew, in adversarial times. Lanka was under Pandyan rule for almost thirty years[ii]; Dhatusena came to the throne after overthrowing the last Pandyan king.

Wars cause carnage. Perhaps Dhatusena was appalled at having to break the first precept on a massive scale; perhaps his warriors were concerned about their afterlife. At this distance, only surmises are possible. And it is reasonable to assume that Bhikkhu Mahanama created the myth of ‘Sinless War’ to encourage the king and/or his warriors before the war and to comfort them post-war.

Bhikkhu Mahanama was a superlatively successful ideologue-propagandist. He upended the Buddha’s teachings and created a new, totally perverted Buddhism, which continues to inform and shape Lankan politics fifteen centuries later.

The Mahawamsa Trap

“Last night

I dreamt

Buddha was shot dead

By the Police…

His body drenched in blood

On the steps of the Jaffna Library…”

Thus begins Prof. MA Nuhman’s hauntingly beautiful poem on the burning of the Jaffna Library. When agitated ministers ask the policemen why they murdered the Buddha they reply,

“Without killing him

It was impossible to harm a fly…”[iii]

True. But the original murder of the Buddha happened in the 6th Century. Bhikkhu Mahanama not only rewrote Buddhism; he created a new martial Buddha to fit in with the new martial faith.

The Buddha of Mahawamsa is a totally different being from Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha we meet in the Tripitaka and other Buddhist texts. Mahawamsa-Buddha is a holy-warrior who uses natural cunning and supernatural force to defeat enemies of faith. Mahawamsa-Buddha does not regard every living being with equal compassion, as the Buddha did. Mahawamsa-Buddha has attachments; he wants to protect Lanka, as the sole future-refuge for his teachings; in this political project, gods are his allies, arch-criminal Vijaya his instrument and Yakkas, the original inhabitants of Lanka, his enemies.

So Mahawamsa-Buddha does something the Buddha never did. He comes to Lanka, and instead of preaching to the yakkas, chases them away. In the Tripitaka, yakkas are not treated as enemies. In the Yakka Samyutta, the Buddha seeks out and converts Alawaka Yakka, with patience, reason and wisdom; Sivaka, another yakka, thrice encourages the merchant-prince Anathapindaka to ‘go forth’ to visit the Buddha[iv].

But in Mahawamsa, yakkas are the original bad guys (to be succeeded by ‘Damilas’). Mahawamsa-Buddha sets an example to Mahawamsa-Buddhists by vanquishing them; he strikes “terror to their hearts by rain, storm, darkness and so forth” and chases them from the future holy land.

Modern Lanka’s inability to maintain civil peace is sourced partly in the Hosts and Guests concept, the belief that Buddhists are the sole owners of the island and everyone else is a mere guest without inalienable rights. This concept is based on another Mahawamsa-creation – the myth of the original bequest. According to Mahawamsa, the Buddha on his death-bed tells the gods, “In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect…Lanka”

The Buddha’s final days are detailed in the Maha-Parinibbhana Sutta[v]. And nowhere in that extensive account can one find such a request mentioned. The Buddha never says that his teachings in their pristine form will survive only in a tiny island; he does not ask the gods to protect it. The Consecration myth too is obviously another Mahanama fabrication.

In the Yodhajiva Sutta, when Yodhajiva hears the Buddha’s reluctant answer, he weeps. When the Buddha reminds him that he insisted on knowing the answer, he explains that he is crying because he was “deceived, cheated and fooled for a long time” by false teachers who preached that heavenly bliss awaits warriors who die in battle.

Fifteen centuries after the writing of Mahawamsa by a political monk, we are being ‘deceived, cheated and fooled’ by his lay and ordained successors.

Mahawamsa-Buddhism declared Lanka as the sole Buddhist holy-land, decreed that Buddhists and non-Buddhists cannot co-exist here and proclaimed that to wage wars against encroaching unbelievers is no sin. These three myths have helped to turn majority-minority relations in modern Lanka into a zero-sum game underlined with violent intolerance. A Lankan peace and a Lankan nation cannot be until our history, our politics and Buddhism are liberated from these pernicious fabrications by Bhikkhu Mahanama and his descendents.

[i] http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn42/sn42.003.than.html

A more extensive treatment of the subject matter can be found in the writings of the late Prof. Sucharitha Gamlath, especially in the columns he wrote to the Divaina.

[ii] According to the Introduction to the Mahawamsa which says that the five Pandyan/Tamil kings ruled from 480-509 CE

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Tisaranee, you’re a another writer who’s ‘barking up the wrong tree’ for the country’s problems.

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