Mahavamsa

Mahavamsa

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The Mahavamsa is a historical poem written in the Pali
Páli
- External links :* *...

 language, of the kings
Monarch
A monarch is the person who heads a monarchy. This is a form of government in which a state or polity is ruled or controlled by an individual who typically inherits the throne by birth and occasionally rules for life or until abdication...

 of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is a country off the southern coast of the Indian subcontinent. Known until 1972 as Ceylon , Sri Lanka is an island surrounded by the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, and lies in the vicinity of India and the...

. The first version of it covered the period from the coming of King Vijaya of the Rarh region
Rarh region
Rarh region of West Bengal is the region that lies between the Western plateau and high lands and the Ganges Delta...

 of ancient Bengal
Bengal
Bengal is a historical and geographical region in the northeast region of the Indian Subcontinent at the apex of the Bay of Bengal. Today, it is mainly divided between the sovereign land of People's Republic of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, although some regions of the previous...

 in 543 BCE to the reign of King Mahasena (334–361).

The first printed edition and English translation of the Mahavamsa was published in 1837 by George Turnour
George Turnour
Honorable George Turnour, CCS was a British civil servant, scholar and a historian. He was member of the Ceylon Civil Service. He is known for his translation of the Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lankan history which was published in 1837. Along with James Prinsep and Captain Edward Smith,...

, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service
Ceylon Civil Service
The Ceylon Civil Service, popularly known by its acronym CCS, originated as the elite civil service of the Government of Ceylon under British colonial rule in 1833 and carried on after independence, until May 1, 1963 when it was abolished and the much larger Ceylon Administrative Service was...

. A German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

 translation of Mahavamsa was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912. This was then translated into the English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 by Mabel Haynes Bode, and the English translation was revised by Geiger.

Buddhism


While not considered a canonical religious text, the Mahavamsa is an important text in Theravada Buddhism
Theravada
Theravada ; literally, "the Teaching of the Elders" or "the Ancient Teaching", is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. It was founded in India...

. It covers the early history of religion in Sri Lanka, beginning with the time of Siddhartha Gautama
Gautama Buddha
Siddhārtha Gautama was a spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. In most Buddhist traditions, he is regarded as the Supreme Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit: सिद्धार्थ गौतम; Pali: Siddhattha Gotama) was a spiritual teacher from the Indian...

, the founder of Buddhism. It also briefly recounts the history of Buddhism
Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha . The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th...

 in India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

, from the date of the Buddha's death to the various Buddhist councils where the Dharma
Dharma
Dharma means Law or Natural Law and is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. In the context of Hinduism, it refers to one's personal obligations, calling and duties, and a Hindu's dharma is affected by the person's age, caste, class, occupation, and gender...

 was reviewed. Every chapter of the Mahavamsa ends by stating that it is written for the "serene joy of the pious". From the emphasis of its point-of-view, it can be said to have been compiled to record the good deeds of the kings who were patrons of the Mahavihara
Mahavihara
The Mahavihara was for several centuries the center of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It was founded by king Devanampiya Tissa in his capital Anuradhapura. The Mahavihara was the place where Theravadin orthodoxy was established by monks such as Buddhaghosa...

 temple in Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura, , is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, famous for its well-preserved ruins of ancient Lankan civilization.The city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies 205 km north of the current capital Colombo in Sri Lanka's North Central Province, on the banks of the historic...

.

History


Buddhist monks of the Mahavihara
Mahavihara
The Mahavihara was for several centuries the center of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It was founded by king Devanampiya Tissa in his capital Anuradhapura. The Mahavihara was the place where Theravadin orthodoxy was established by monks such as Buddhaghosa...

 maintained chronicles of Sri Lankan history, starting from the 3rd century BCE. These annals were combined and compiled into a single document in the 5th century CE by the Buddhist monk Mahathera Mahanama. It was written based on prior ancient compilations known as Sinhala Atthakatha
Atthakatha
Atthakatha refers to Pali-language Theravadin Buddhist commentaries to the canonical Theravadin Tipitaka. These commentaries give the traditional interpretations of the scriptures. The major commentaries were based on earlier ones, now lost, in Old Sinhalese, which were written down at the same...

, which were commentaries written in Sinhala. Mahathera Mahanama relied on this text, as he mentions in Mahavamse tika, that is the preface to Mahavamse. Another, earlier document known as the Dipavamsa
Dipavamsa
The Dipavamsa, or "Deepavamsa", is the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka.It means Chronicle of the Island. The chronicle is believe to be compiled from Atthakatha and other sources around the 3-4th century. Together with Mahavamsa, it is the source of many accounts of ancient history of Sri...

, which survives today, is much simpler and contains less information than the Mahavamsa, and was probably compiled using the Sinhala Mahavamse Atthakatha as well.

A companion volume, the Culavamsa
Culavamsa
The Cūḷavaṃsa, also Chulavamsa, is a historical record, written in the Pāli language, of the kings of Sri Lanka. It covers the period from the 4th century to 1815....

 ("lesser chronicle"), compiled by Sinhala
Sinhalese people
The Sinhalese are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group,forming the majority of Sri Lanka,constituting 74% of the Sri Lankan population.They number approximately 15 million worldwide.The Sinhalese identity is based on language, heritage and religion. The Sinhalese speak Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan language and the...

 Buddhist monks, covers the period from the 4th century to the British
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

 takeover of Sri Lanka in 1815. The Culavamsa was compiled by a number of authors of different time periods.

The combined work, sometimes referred to collectively as the Mahavamsa, provides a continuous historical record of over two millennia, and is considered one of the world's longest unbroken historical accounts. It is one of the few documents containing material relating to the Nāgas
Naga people of Sri Lanka
The Nāka people were the aboriginal inhabitants of Sri Lanka who ruled Nagadeepa or Nāka Nadu - the coastal districts of mostly Western and Northern Ceylon, particularly the Jaffna peninsula from the 6th century BCE to 3rd century CE...

 and Yakkha
Yakkha
Yakkha is an indigenous ethnic group of Nepal . It is one of the progenies of Nepal's prehistoric Kirat dynasty of around 100 BC.-Etymology:...

s, the dwellers of Lanka
Lanka
Sri Lanka is the name given in Hindu mythology to the island fortress capital of the legendary king Ravana in the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata...

 prior to the legendary arrival of Vijaya.

As it often refers to the royal dynasties
Dynasty
A dynasty is a sequence of rulers considered members of the same family. Historians traditionally consider many sovereign states' history within a framework of successive dynasties, e.g., China, Ancient Egypt and the Persian Empire...

 of India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

, the Mahavamsa is also valuable for historians who wish to date and relate contemporary royal dynasties in the Indian subcontinent
Indian subcontinent
The Indian subcontinent, also Indian Subcontinent, Indo-Pak Subcontinent or South Asian Subcontinent is a region of the Asian continent on the Indian tectonic plate from the Hindu Kush or Hindu Koh, Himalayas and including the Kuen Lun and Karakoram ranges, forming a land mass which extends...

. It is very important in dating the consecration
Consecration
Consecration is the solemn dedication to a special purpose or service, usually religious. The word "consecration" literally means "to associate with the sacred". Persons, places, or things can be consecrated, and the term is used in various ways by different groups...

 of the Maurya emperor Asoka, which is related to the synchronicity
Synchronicity
Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance and that are observed to occur together in a meaningful manner...

 with the Seleucids and Alexander the Great.

Indian excavations in Sanchi
Sanchi
Sanchi is a small village in Raisen District of the state of Madhya Pradesh, India, it is located 46 km north east of Bhopal, and 10 km from Besnagar and Vidisha in the central part of the state of Madhya Pradesh. It is the location of several Buddhist monuments dating from the 3rd...

 and other locations, confirm the Mahavamsa account of the Empire of Asoka. The accounts given in the Mahavamsa are also amply supported by the numerous stone inscriptions, mostly in Sinhala, found in Sri Lanka. Karthigesu Indrapala has also upheld the historical value of the Mahavamsa. It is in this sense that the Mahavamsa differs from the Mahabharata
Mahabharata
The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India and Nepal, the other being the Ramayana. The epic is part of itihasa....

, Ramayana
Ramayana
The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit epic. It is ascribed to the Hindu sage Valmiki and forms an important part of the Hindu canon , considered to be itihāsa. The Ramayana is one of the two great epics of India and Nepal, the other being the Mahabharata...

 and other epics that have no direct historiographic value. If not for the Mahavamsa, the story behind the large stupas in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, such as Ruwanwelisaya
Ruwanwelisaya
The Ruwanwelisaya is a stupa in Sri Lanka, considered a marvel for its architectural qualities and sacred to many Buddhists all over the world. It was built by King Dutugemunu, who became lord of all Sri Lanka after a war in which the Chola King Elara, was defeated...

, Jetavanaramaya
Jetavanaramaya
The Jetavanaramaya is a stupa, located in the ruins of Jetavana Monastery in the sacred world heritage city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. King Mahasena initiated the construction of the stupa following the destruction of Mahavihara, his son Maghavanna Ithe construction of the stupa...

, Abhayagiri
Abhayagiri Dagaba
Abhayagiri vihāra is situated in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. It is one of the most extensive ruins in the world and one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage cities in the nation. Historically it was a great monastic centre as well as a royal capital, with magnificent monasteries rising to many...

, and other works of ancient engineering would never have been known.

Most important Pali epic poem


Besides being an important historical source, the Mahavamsa is the most important epic poem in the Pali
Páli
- External links :* *...

 language. Its stories of battles and invasions, court intrigue, great constructions of stupas and water reservoirs, written in elegant verse suitable for memorization, caught the imagination of the Buddhist world of the time. Unlike many texts written in antiquity, it also discusses various aspects of the lives of ordinary people, how they joined the King's army or farmed. Thus the Mahavamsa was taken along the silk route to many Buddhist lands. Parts of it were translated, retold, and absorbed into other languages. An extended version of the Mahavamsa, which gives many more details, has also been found in Cambodia. The Mahavamsa gave rise to many other Pali chronicles, making Sri Lanka of that period probably the world's leading center in Pali literature.

Political significance


The Mahavamsa has, especially in modern Sri Lanka, acquired a significance as a document with a political message. The Sinhalese majority often use Manavamsa as a proof of their claim that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation from historical time. The British historian Jane Russell has recounted how a process of "Mahavamsa bashing" began in the 1930s, especially from within the Tamil Nationalist
Tamil nationalism
Tamil nationalism in India is an aspiration by some Tamils to establish, at minimum, self determination or at maximum secession from India to establish an Independent Tamil State of which would consist of today's Tamil nadu, Puducherry and Tamil Eelam of Sri Lanka...

 movement. The Mahavamsa, being a history of the Sinhala Buddhists, presented itself to the Tamil Nationalists and the Sinhala Nationalists as the hegemonic epic of the Sinhala people. This view was attacked by G.G. Ponnambalam, the leader of the Nationalist Tamils in the 1930s. He claimed that most of the Sinhala kings, including Vijaya, Kasyapa, and Parakramabahu, were Tamils. Ponnambalam's 1939 speech in Navalpitiya, attacking the claim that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese, Buddhist nation was seen as an act against the notion of creating a Buddhist only nation. The Sinhala majority responded with a mob riot, which engulfed Navalapitiya, Passara, Maskeliya, and even Jaffna
Jaffna
Jaffna is the capital city of the Northern Province, Sri Lanka. It is the administrative headquarters of the Jaffna district located on a peninsula of the same name. Jaffna is approximately six miles away from Kandarodai which served as a famous emporium in the Jaffna peninsula from classical...

. The riots were rapidly put down by the British colonial government, but later this turned through various movements into the civil war in Sri Lanka which ended in 2009.

Various writers have called into question the morality of the account given in the Mahavamsa, where Dutthagamani
Dutthagamani
Dutugamunu , also known as Dutthagamani duṭṭhagāmaṇī) and Gamani Abhaya ගාමිණී අභය gāmaṇī abhaya, "fearless Gamini" was a Sinhalese King of Sri Lanka who reigned from 161 BC to 137 BC...

 regrets his actions in killing the Chola king Elara and his troops. The Mahavamsa equates the killing of the invaders as being on par with the killing of "sinners and wild beasts", and the King's sorrow and regret are assuaged. This is considered by some critics as an ethical error. However, Buddhism does recognize a hierarchy of actions as being more or less wholesome or skillful, although the intent is as much as or more important than the action itself. Thus the killing of an Arahant may be considered less wholesome and skillful than the killing of an ordinary human being. Buddhists may also assert that killing an elephant is less skillful and wholesome than killing an ant. In both cases, however, the intent must also be considered. An important thing to note is that Dutthagamani regretted his act, and this was also true of King Asoka, who became a pacifist after a series of bloody military campaigns.

An eminent historian who has come to the defense of the Mahavamsa is Karthigesu Indrapala. He has argued that the popular presentation of the Mahavamsa as a work of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism is incorrect, and that the Mahavansa writer was singularly fair in his presentation.

Historical accuracy


The historical accuracy of the Mahavamsa, given the time when it was written, is considered to be astonishing, although the material prior to the death of Asoka is not considered to be trustworthy and is mostly legend.

This date of Vijaya's arrival is thought to have been artificially fixed to coincide with the Ceylonese date for the death of Buddha
Buddha
In Buddhism, buddhahood is the state of perfect enlightenment attained by a buddha .In Buddhism, the term buddha usually refers to one who has become enlightened...

 - 543 BCE.The story of Vijaya's arrival was also written much later after it had occurred, as the Mahavansa is thought to have been written in 6 CE to 1877 CE by Buddhist Monks.

The historical accuracy of Mahinda converting the Sri Lankan king to Buddhism is also debated. Professor Hermann Oldenberg
Hermann Oldenberg
Hermann Oldenberg was a German scholar of Indology, and Professor at Kiel and Göttingen .His 1881 study on Buddhism, entitled Buddha: Sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde, based on Pāli texts, popularized Buddhism and have remained continuously in print since their first publication. With T. W...

, a German scholar of Indology
Indology
Indology is the academic study of the history and cultures, languages, and literature of the Indian subcontinent , and as such is a subset of Asian studies....

 who has published studies on the Buddha and translated many Pali texts, considers this story a "pure invention". V.A Smith (Author of Asoka and Early history of India) also refers to this story as "a tissue of absurdities". V.A Smith and Professor Hermann came to this conclusion due to Ashoka not mentioning the handing over of his son, Mahinda, to the temple to become a buddhist missionary and Mahinda's role in converting the Sri Lankan king to Buddhism, in his 13th year Rock Edicts. Particularly the Rock-Edict XIII.

There is also an inconsistency with the year on which Ashoka sent buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka. According to the Mahavamsa the missionaries arrived in 255 BCE, but according to Ashoka's Rock-Edict XIII it was 5 years earlier in 260 BCE.

Editions and Translations

  • Turnour, George (C.C.S.): The Mahawanso in Roman Characters with the Translation Subjoined, and an Introductory Essay on Pali Buddhistical Literature. Vol. I containing the first thirty eight Chapters. Cotto 1837.
  • Sumangala, H.; Silva Batuwantudawa, Don Andris de: The Mahawansha from first to thirty-sixth Chapter. Revised and edited, under Orders of the Ceylon Government by H. Sumangala, High Priest of Adam's Peak, and Don Andris de Silva Batuwantudawa, Pandit. Colombo 1883.
  • Geiger, Wilhelm; Bode, Mabel Haynes (transl.); Frowde, H. (ed.): The Mahavamsa or, The great chronicle of Ceylon / translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger ... assisted by Mabel Haynes Bode...under the patronage of the government of Ceylon. London : Pali Text Society 1912 (Pali Text Society, London. Translation series ; no. 3).(Online text)
  • Guruge, Ananda W.P.: Mahavamsa. Calcutta: M. P. Birla Foundation 1990 (Classics of the East).
  • Ruwan Rajapakse, Concise Mahavamsa, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2001
  • Guruge, Ananda W. P. Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, A New Annotated Translation with Prolegomena, ANCL Colombo 1989


Possibly an early edition (of parts?):
  • Upham, Edward (ed.): The Mahavansi, the Raja-ratnacari, and the Raja-vali : forming the sacred and historical books of Ceylon; also, a collection of tracts illustrative of the doctrines and literature of Buddhism: translated from the Singhalese. London : Parbury, Allen, and Co. 1833 (3 vol.).

See also

  • History of Sri Lanka
    History of Sri Lanka
    The History of Sri Lanka begins around 30,000 years ago when the island was first inhabited. Chronicles, including the Mahawansa, the Dipavamsa, the Culavamsa and the Rajaveliya, record events from the beginnings of the Sinhalese monarchy in the 6th century BC; through the arrival of European...

  • Anuradhapura
    Anuradhapura
    Anuradhapura, , is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, famous for its well-preserved ruins of ancient Lankan civilization.The city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies 205 km north of the current capital Colombo in Sri Lanka's North Central Province, on the banks of the historic...

  • Polonnaruwa
    Polonnaruwa
    The second most ancient of Sri Lanka's kingdoms, was first declared the capital city by King Vijayabahu I, who defeated the Chola invaders in 1070 AD to reunite the country once more under a local leader.-History:While Vijayabahu's victory and shifting of Kingdoms to the more strategic Polonnaruwa...

  • Buddhist texts
    Buddhist texts
    Buddhist texts can be categorized in a number of ways. The Western terms "scripture" and "canonical" are applied to Buddhism in inconsistent ways by Western scholars: for example, one authority refers to "scriptures and other canonical texts", while another says that scriptures can be categorized...

  • Bodhi Vamsa
    Bodhi Vamsa
    The Bodhi-Vamsa, or Mahabodhi-Vamsa, is a prose poem in elaborate Sanskritized Pali, composed by Upatissa in the reign of Mahinda IV of Sri Lanka about AD 980....

  • Dipavamsa
    Dipavamsa
    The Dipavamsa, or "Deepavamsa", is the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka.It means Chronicle of the Island. The chronicle is believe to be compiled from Atthakatha and other sources around the 3-4th century. Together with Mahavamsa, it is the source of many accounts of ancient history of Sri...

  • Ashoka the great

External links