Notes from BPU Sri Lanka - Third Year

Mahāvaṃsa – introduction (lectured by Mrs. Peiris) 10th of February, 2011  

LISTEN >>>Recording by ven. Mon Suriya, 31st of March, 2011;
Mrs. Merlin Peiris, PG I 301.
Mahāvaṃsa is the great chronicle of Sri Lanka, although the author wanted to write about religion. He had written a lot about the history of Sri Lanka and India. The author of Mahāvaṃsa is Mahānāma Thera. He was a monk who lived in the Mahāvihāra. Mahāvaṃsa was written using Dīpavasa as the source. The Mahāvasa is called 'an epic poem'. The language is lucid and flowing as well as poetical.

The Mahāvasa begins with introducing the life of Gotama Buddha. It explains His life as the Bodhisattva. The Mahāsammata clan is described; the names of the parents of prince Siddhatta, His wife and son are given. In this manner, the family background of the Bodhisattva is given.

Mahāvasa describes the three Buddhist Councils that were held in India. The First Council was held at Rājagaha, three months after the passing away of the Buddha. The chief monk was Mahā Kassapa. During this council Dhamma was collected and classified. Ānanda Thera was in charge of Dhamma. Upāli Thera was in charge of Vinaya. The second council took place hundred years after the Buddha passed away. It was held at Vesālī. During this council, the Vajji monks tried to prove the ten unlawful points as correct. But the Theravāda monks did not accept. After this council, the monks divided into two groups. They were Theravāda and Mahāsaghika. The Third Council was held during the rule of Dhammāsoka at Pātaliputta. Moggaliputtatissa Thera was the chief monk. It is important, since the king took steps to send nine missions (to spread the Buddha's teaching to other countries).

Mahāvasa records the three visits of the Buddha to Sri Lanka.

  1. The Buddha first came to Mahiyaṅgaṇa. At that time, he made the place free from yakkhas (in this cased 'yakkhas' uncivilized/uncultured people or a kind of tribe) (actually the Buddha preached Dhamma to the yakkhas, making them civilized and cultured).
  2. Second time, the Buddha visited Nāgadīpa. At that time, there was a fight between two Nāga kings - Cūlodara and Mahodara for a jewelled seat (here nāgas should be again understood as a tribe or a certain group of people). The Buddha brought pacification, they were united and they offered the seat to the Buddha. 
  3. The Buddha's third visit was to Kelaniya at the request of Maniyakkhika Nāga king. During this visit, he went to the Samantakūṭapabbata (Adam's Peak, Śrī Pāda) and gave his footprint there. 

Mahāvaṃsa speaks about the pre-Buddhist background of Sri Lanka. It mentions the coming of king Vijaya to Sri Lanka. After that, it mentions king Paṇḍukābhaya as an important pre-Buddhist king. During this period people believed in existence of yakkhas and petas. The king Paṇḍukābhaya performed a festival, keeping the statues of Kālavēla and Cittarāja on either sides (to honor these previously servants and now helping yakkhas). Another yakkhinī, Valavāmukhī, was housed in a separate mansion. People during this period worshiped trees. For example banyan tree, palm tree etc.

Mahāvasa speaks about the kingship of Sri Lanka. It explains the rule of Devānampiyatissa.
  • There was king Asoka in India. He was supposed to be the 'wheelrolling/wheelruling monarch' (Cakkavatti – king ruling for the benefit of surrounding countries, according to the Dhamma). (Note: According to the Buddha's teaching there cannot be a Cakkavatti until the Buddha's Sāsana is flourishing in the world. Therefore, king Asoka could not be a Cakkavatti. Moreover, king Asoka didn't have the 'treasures' that a Cakkavatti must possess.) Devānampiyatissa was first known as Tissa. Tissa and king Asoka were very good friends. When king Asoka had the second consecration, he received new epithet – 'Devānampriya' (pleasing to the gods) (name was in Sanksrit). After king Tissa got to know about it, he desired to have that epithet also – thus he became Devānampiyatissa.

This king introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka through his son, Mahinda Thera. His daughter Sanghamittā brought the branch of the Bodhi Tree. During his kingship, Thūpārāma was constructed.

Mahāvasa gives a description about the king Duthugemunu. The chronicle gives a full description about his family background. It explains how he fought with king Elāra and brought freedom to Sri Lanka. He built many religious buildings, such as:
  1. Ruwavelisēya,
  2. Mirisaveiya,
  3. Lōhapasāda.

Mahāvasa describes the kingship of Valagamba. His kingship is important, because he constructed Abhayagiri Vihāra. This construction became a turning point in the history of Sri Lanka. Abhayagiri monks accepted Mahāyāna teaching and always there were conflicts between Mahāvihāra and Abhayagiri Vihāra.

Mahāvasa ends with the rule of Mahāsena. He destroyed Mahāvihāra and therefore he was not famous. Later he understood his folly/mistake and repaired Mahāvihāra and also constructed Jetavana Vihāra. This king did much for the economic development. The author of Mahāvasa did not like him - he devoted only one chapter for the king.