Reflecting on Poson – By Uditha Devapriya

Reflecting on Poson – By Uditha Devapriya


Source :island 

Unlike Vesak, Poson is specific to Sri Lanka and India. It celebrates the coming of Buddhism to the island through an embassy of five monks, one samanera, and one layman, led by Mahinda Thera, the son of Asoka from his second wife, Vedisa-Devi. The Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa are the main literary sources from this country that we have for the details of this embassy. All other accounts are variations on them.

According to these chronicles, Tissa, the second son of Mutasiva, was out on a hunt with 40,000 of his courtiers during a water festival, when he caught sight of an elk-stag (or a deer) which he proceeded to give chase to. He then pursued it to the top of Missaka Mountain, or Mihintale as it is known today, where he encountered Mahinda Thera, who preached the Dhamma to him after testing his intelligence.

Buddhism was not unheard of or ignored in Sri Lanka before Mahinda Thera’s arrival. E. W. Adikaram says that even prior to the establishment of links between the Mauryan Empire and the Anuradhapura Kingdom, Buddhist temples existed side-by-side with Jain and Hindu temples, as well as yaksa and tree cults. Pandukabhaya, the founder of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, built a temple for the Yakkha Cittaraja, whom Paranavitana identified as a water spirit, while also fixing a banyan tree near the Western Gate of the kingdom for Vaisravana, along with a Palmyra tee for Vyadha Deva.

Patron deities and Jains, the latter of which included the Nigantas who were to lose patronage under Vattagamini-Abhaya, as well as Paribbajakas and Ajivikas, had cults of their own, which if we are to believe the Dipavamsa survived even the Buddha’s three visits to the island. Significantly, in the first of those visits, the Sakyamuni, in contrast to his calm demeanour, inspired terror among the yaksas and banished them; this reading of the visit could have been due to the priority writers gave to the primacy of Theravada Buddhism in their texts “by seeking authority in the past”, as Sirima Kiribamune has it.

Tissa came to the throne almost 20 years after Asoka Maurya had. Yet the trajectory of the doctrine had much to do with the friendship between the two monarchs. The ascent of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, in fact, followed its decline in India.

Popular historians attribute this decline to the lack of interest shown by Asoka’s successors. Yet as Romila Thapar has contended, Asoka’s successors did not hesitate to sponsor the renovation of temples and dagabas. To be sure, in Buddhism, Asoka found a philosophy which suited the needs of an empire at its zenith; his passing, in that sense, signalled the end to a polity that would find its expression later in Sri Lanka.

The teachings of the Buddha had earlier flourished in the Middle Ganges. Lack of patronage stunted its potential to expand further, and it was overshadowed by the rival orders of the Nigantas, Ajivikas, Aviruddhakas, Tendandikas, and other sects. Two Councils, one convened in the year of the Buddha’s passing in 486 BC at Rajagaha and the other 100 years later at Vaisali, tried to stamp out heterodox tendencies from the Order.

The fact that its founder had refused to name a successor did not help resolve these rifts. In any case, after the death of Kalasoka, under whom the capital was shifted from Rajagaha to Pataliputra, and who was the last Magadhan king to patronise Buddhism, a period of 22 years of rule by no fewer than 10 kings was followed by another 22 years of rule by nine kings of the House of Nanda, of which the last, Dhana-Nanda, was killed by Chandragupta Maurya with the help of Kautilya in 320 BC.

The shift to a new order, and the statecraft of Kautilya, did much to erode State support for Buddhism. In Kautilya and his Arthashastra the Mauryans had their equivalent of Machiavelli and The Prince. In line with their vision, they brought caste to the forefront and sidelined if not ignored Buddhism.

Chandragupta’s war with Seleucus I – which may have ended in defeat for the latter, but which more probably ended in the signing of a treaty of friendship between the two – confirmed the immense, awesome power of the Mauryans over the country and the continent. This is puzzling when you consider that the founder of that immense, awesome empire would be eclipsed by his less ambitious grandson.

Asoka’s achievement was his realisation of a Buddhist State against the backdrop of an empire that had reached its zenith. His conquest of Kalinga or Orissa, which had resisted Mauryan expansionism until then, led to the deaths of 100,000 and the deportation of 150,000 others. Popular accounts pin this as the starting point of Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism. The temporal conquest was followed by the spiritual: by 258 BC, two years after the end of the war, he had turned to the new doctrine.

He intervened in the affairs of the Sasana, as when forest-dwellers were causing a schism, and raised the concept of ahimsa to the level of state policy by banning animal sacrifices and paring down the cooking of meat (though as we know from his own inscriptions, he permitted the cooking of “a little venison and peacock meat”, which evidently were his favourites). He deemed sideshows and ceremonies as useless and unworthy, yet did not object to displays of divine power, so long as they cultivated an interest, among village dwellers, in the Dhamma. In that regard, Asoka was the foremost patron of Buddhism. He also was a pragmatist who had to juggle competing interests.

Missionary activity has a lot to do with the spread of a faith. After the Third Council, it was thus held that missions should be despatched to other regions. Under Moggaliputta, who presided at the Council, these embassies acquired an evangelical character. It was through Asoka’s patronage that they realised this in full.

One of these missions was even sent to the country of the Yonas, the Greeks, while others were sent to the Himalayas and to Suvarnabhumi, or Indonesia. Mahinda, with the theras Ittiya, Uttiya, Samba, and Bhaddasala, and the samanera Sumana, were selected for the mission to Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa, as well as other narratives, tell us that after they visited the city of Mahinda’s mother, Vedisagiri or Vidisha, a layman called Bhanduka, a nephew of Mahinda, joined them. From there they miraculously floated through the air and alighted at Missaka or Mihintale, where they encounter Tissa.

We have epigraphical evidence for this encounter. In 1935, as many as 22 inscriptions were discovered at a cave in Rajagala or Rassahela in Batticaloa. One of these was a record in ancient Brahmi script dating to around 200 BC, commemorating the arrival of Mahinda’s entourage. The inscription read “Ye ima dipa patamaya idiya agatana Idika-tera-Mahida-teraha tube“, or “This is the stupa of the Elder Idika [Ittiya, one of the monks in the embassy] and the Elder Mahinda, who came to this island by its foremost good fortune.”

Paranavitana contends that the stupa here could have been built after Mahinda’s death. He also interprets the word Idiya to mean, as it does, “prosperity” and “good fortune”, and suggests that by distorting this to “Iddhi”, the Pali word for supernatural power, later chroniclers could have taken it to mean that Mahinda and his embassy came to this island by miraculous means, such as by flight through air.

As Buddhism began its descent in Mauryan India, the patronage of Asoka gave way to a more lukewarm reception from his successors. His son Kunali, born to his third consort Padmavati, was as sainted as Mahinda, yet either was blinded by his fourth consort, Tisyaraksita, or, as Romila Thapar argues, metaphorically blinded himself by turning away from Buddhism. The Shungas, who followed the Mauryans, were even less inclined to supporting or patronising the faith.

At this juncture, Buddhism survived in India thanks to two main factors: the sheer size of the country which allowed for sects to develop and flourish even if they militated against conventional doctrines, and the growing popularity of Buddhism across more rural parts of the realm. To these we can add another crucial development: the spread of Buddhism to other parts of the continent, including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, and Sri Lanka. On Poson, we thus celebrate not just Buddhism’s arrival in Sri Lanka, but also the lifeline it gave to a faith that was slowly losing its resonance in the land of its birth.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst who writes on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He is one of the two leads in U & U, an informal art and culture research collective. He can be reached at .

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