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The Tamil Buddhists of the Past and the Future

by J.L. Devananda, Sri Lanka Guardian, Oct 5, 2010

Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolized by the Sinhalese and they call it Sinhala-Buddhism which is Theravada Buddhism (Tripitaka) mixed up with the Mahavamsa. Will the Sinhala-Buddhist Maha Sangha accept any Tamil Buddhist monks? Will the Tamils accept Mahavamsa as a part of Buddhism or Buddhist history knowing very well that it is a Sinhala-Buddhist mythology?

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- In his keynote address at the 2554th Vesak (Vaishakha Purnim) celebrations at the Mahabodhi Society in Chennai, Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne, University of Sri Jayawardenapura said, “As we are nearing 2600 Buddha Jayanthi, as a Sinhala Buddhist, this is my humble dream for the future: Tamil Buddhist temples should come up in Sri Lanka; Tamil children should embrace Buddhist monkhood; Buddhism must be taught in Tamil; preaching and worshipping Buddhism in Tamil; Tamil Bikkus should have Sinhala followers and Tamil Bhikkus must visit Sinhala homes. That togetherness should be there.”

This sounds somewhat similar to the famous speech “I have a Dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march for freedom at Washington. The only difference is Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne’s dream of Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the future had already existed in the past.

Ancient Buddhist links between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

Today, the Palk Strait which lies between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan land masses, is seen as a divider, separating two different distinct ethnicities, religions, cultures and political entities but there was a phase in history when Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka enjoyed very close ties, thanks to a shared interest in Buddhism. During the early period, the Palk Strait was not seen as a divider but it was a unifier. At that time Buddhism was a bridge between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. The fascinating story of the historical links - Golden threads between Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka was narrated by Dr. Shu Hikosake, Director and Professor of Buddhism, Institute of Asian Studies in Madras in his book 1989 Buddhism in Tamil Nadu: a New Perspective. Dr. Hikosaka's study is based on his doctoral dissertation.

The earliest inscriptions in Tamil Nadu written in the Brahmi character of the time, on the walls of the natural caves in the Tamil districts of Madura, Ramnad and Tirnnelveli belongs to the third century BC. They are of considerable interest to students of South Indian Buddhism. It is learnt from these Brahmi inscriptions, that Buddhism had come into Tamil Nadu even then. However, the epigraphical evidence seems to confirm that, it was to King Asoka and the missionary monk Mahinda (believed to be his son) that the introduction of Buddhism into Tamil Nadu may be attributed. In his Rock-Edict No. III, King Asoka says that his Dharma Vijaya prevailed in the kingdoms of the Colas, Pandyans and at Tambapanni (Sri Lanka). Particularly the edict number XIII found near Peshawar, there is reference to the Buddhist missions of Asoka. Among the countries referred to are Cola, Pandya, and Tambapanni. This inscription was written in 258 B.C. and is direct evidence of the Buddhist missions of Asoka to the Tamil country and Sri Lanka even though it does not mention about his son Mahinda. As Buddhist missions to Sri Lanka had to come by way of South India, the spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and South India in the 2nd century AD should be considered contemporary events, but it was King Asoka’s son Mahinda who was responsible for the introduction of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Mahinda is said to have erected seven viharas at Kaveripattinum, the capital of Cola while he was on his way to Sri Lanka. According to Dr. Hikosaka, contrary to the general impression, Buddhism might have gone to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu by sea-route, a route by which one can reach Sri Lanka easily. Since there existed very close cultural affinities between Sri Lanka and the Tamil country from time immemorial, the Buddhist activities in India could have easily influenced in some way or other the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, says Dr. Hikosaka.

Even though it is believed that Buddha had visited this region, South India (Andhra) and Sri Lanka, according to historians, Buddhism began to make a strong impact on Tamil Nadu only in the 3rd century AD. During that period Buddhism had spread widely in Tamil Nadu and won the patronage of the rulers. The remains of a Buddhist monastery excavated at Kaveripattinum which could be assigned to the fourth century are believed to be the earliest archaeological relics of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu. The major urban centers of Kanchipuram, Kaveripattinam, Uragapura (Uraiyur), and Madurai were not only centers of Buddhism, but these were also important centers of Pali learning. The other minor towns of Tamil country where Buddhism was active were Buddhamangalam, Sanghamangalam, Kumbakonam, Mayurapattanam, Alamkudipatti, Kuvam, Sanghamangai, Tiruppadirippuliyur, and so on.

Tamil Buddhists contribute to Buddhist scriptures

It was at this time that Tamil Nadu gave some of its greatest scholars (both Theravada and Mahayana) to the Buddhist world. Tamil Nadu boasted of outstanding Buddhist monks, who had made remarkable contributions to Buddhist thought and learning. Three of the greatest Pali scholars of this period were Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala and all three of them were associated with Buddhist establishments in the Tamil kingdoms.

Buddhadatta or Thera Buddhaatta as he is called lived during the time of Accyutarikkanta, the Kalabra ruler of the Cola-Nadu; was a senior contemporary of Buddhaghosa. He was born in the Cola kingdom and lived in the 5th Century AD. Under the patronage of this ruler, Buddhadatta wrote many books. Among his best known Pali writings are the Vinaya-Vinicchaya, the Uttara-Vinicchaya and the Jinalankara-Kavya. Among the commentaries written by him are the Madhurattha-Vilasini and the Abhidhammavatara. In the Abhidhammaratara he gives a glowing account at Kaveripattinum, Uragapuram, Bhutamangalam and Kanchipuram and the Mahavihara at Anuradapura, (Sri Lanka). While he was at Sri Lanka, he composed many Buddhist works such as Uttara-viniccaya Ruparupa Vibhaga Jinalankara etc. Buddhaghosha, contemporary of Buddhadatta also composed many Buddhist commentaries.

Buddhaghosha is a Tamil monk, who made a remarkable contribution to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He stayed and studied Buddhist precepts at Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. The Visuddhimagga was the first work of Buddhaghosha which was written while he was in Sri Lanka.

After Buddhaghosha, the important Theravada monk from the Tamil country was Dhammapala. Dhammapala lived in the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. He composed paramathadipani which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha’s work on Khuddaka Nikaya and Paramathamanjusa, which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha's Visuddhimagga. A close study of the three Buddhist monks viz Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosha and Dhammapala shows that Tamil Buddhists were closely associated with the Sri Lankan Buddhists around the 5th century AD.

The author of Nettipakarana is another Dhammapala who was a resident of a monastery in Nagapattinam, another important Buddhist centre from ancient times. One more example is the Cola monk Kassapa, in his Pali work, Vimatti-Vinodani, this Tamil monk provides interesting information about the rise of heretical views in the Cola Sangha and the consequent purification that took place. There are so many other Tamil monks who are attributed to the Pali works some of them were resident at Mayura-rupa-pattana (Mylapore, Madras) along with Buddhagosha.

The Tamil Buddhist monks used Pali languages in preference to Tamil in their writings. This is because the Buddha spoke in Magadi Prakrit (Pali). Sanskrit is the sacred language of the Hindus, and similarly Pali is considered as the sacred language of the Buddhists. The well known Tamil Buddhist epics found were Manimekalai, Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi, and Jivaka Cintamani. Manimekalai, a purely Buddhist work of the 3rd Sangam period in Tamil literature is the most supreme and famous among the Buddhist work done in Tamil Nadu. It is a work expounding the doctrines and propagating the values of Buddhism. The interaction between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan monks finds mention in Manimekalai, which is set in the Tamil towns of Kaveipumpattinam, Kanchi, and Vanchi. There is mention about the presence of wondering monks of Sri Lanka in Vanchi, which was the capital of the Chera Kings of Tamil Nadu. The Chinese traveller, Tsuan Tsang, wrote that there were around 300 Sri Lankan monks in the monastery at the Southern sector of Kanchipuram. Ancient Kanchipuram, the capital of Tondaimandalam, ruled by the Tamil Pallava dynasty, an offshoot of Chola rulers was the major seat of Tamil learning and is also known as the city of thousand temples. Even Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil couplets/aphorisms celebrated by Tamils is based on Buddhist principals. Although Buddhism has become almost extinct from Tamil Nadu, it has contributed a great deal to the enrichment of Tamil culture and has exerted a significant influence, both directly and indirectly, on the Tamil religious and spiritual consciousness, present as well as past.

Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka

As Buddhism was one of the dominant religions in both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, naturally there were very close relations between the two regions. The monks from Sri Lanka, too, went across to the Tamil kingdom and stayed in the monasteries. As Dr. Leslie Gunawardana says, `The co-operation between the Buddhist Sangha of South India and Sri Lanka produced important results which are evident in the Pali works of this period`. He also says that the Tamil Buddhist monks were more orthodox than their counterparts in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the relations between the Tamil and Sinhala Buddhist monks were so close that the latter sought the assistance of the former in political turmoil.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism shared the common places of worship with the Sinhalese, but there were also Tamil Buddhists who were following the Mahayana Buddhism and they had their own Mahayana temples. There are still some Tamil Mahayana Buddhist establishments (Palli) in the east and possibly in the Jaffna peninsula. The best known was Velgam Vehera (see details below), which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli after the Cola emperor. Another was the Vikkirama-calamekan-perumpalli.

Some ten miles northwest of Trincomalee off the Trincomalee - Horowupothana road is an ancient Buddhist shrine with origins dating back to the years before the second century. It is a historical fact that among the many ancient Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka Velgam Vehera which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli, also called Natanar Kovil by the present day Tamils stands out as the only known example of a `Tamil Vihare or Buddhist Palli` or as the late Dr. Senerath Paranavithana described it in his book `Glimpses of Ceylon`s Past` as an `Ancient Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people`. Some of the Tamil inscriptions found at the site record donations to this shrine and are dated in the reigns of the Chola Kings, Rajaraja and Rajendradeva. It was his view that the date of the original foundation of the vihare was no doubt considerably earlier than the reign of King Bhatika Tissa II.

The situation in Tamil Nadu, however, began to change towards the beginning of the 7th Century AD when the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism posed a serious challenge to Buddhism and Jainism. There was a significant increase in Hindu/Brahmanical influence and soon the worship of Siva and Visnu began to gain prominence. The Buddhist and Jaina institutions in Tamil Nadu came under attack when they began to lose popular support and the patronage from the rulers. One result of this was the migration of Buddhist and Jaina monks and devoted lay members to kingdoms where they could find refuge. While the Jainas and Buddhists (mostly Mahayana) were able to go to Kannada and Andhra/Telugu regions, a large part of the Buddhists (Theravada) turned to Sri Lanka and assimilated with the local Buddhist population.

Mahavihara monks of Anuradapura and the Pali chronicles

Although Buddhism flourished in South India in ancient times, the 5th century AD Pali chronicles such as the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa written by the Mahavihara monks of Anuradapura (Sri Lanka) remained silent about the introduction of Buddhism to South India. This is because, when Hindu/Brahmanism started reappearing in India and posed a threat to Buddhism, the Mahavihara monks of Anuradapura (Sri Lanka) due to their strong devotion to Buddhism and desire to consolidate and protect this religion in Sri Lanka wrote the Pali chronicles Deepavamsa/Mahavamsa just to glorify Buddhism and the Buddhist kings of Sri Lanka and not to record objectively what happened. The `Lion Ancestry` and the myths about the origin of the Sinhala race as pre-destined, true custodians of the island of Sri Lanka and guardians of Buddhism is a myth of the creative authors to protect Buddhism and is not the common true history. The ancient Sri Lankan Kingdom (Anuradapura) was ruled by both Buddhist and Hindu kings. There is no evidence what so ever to prove that they were Sinhala. An analysis of the Pali chronicles (Deepavamsa/Mahavamsa) makes it very clear that the Mahavihara monks who authored them in the 5th century AD have created the ethnic identity Sinhala, yoked it with Buddhism and created a new ethno-religious identity in Sri Lanka known as Sinhala-Buddhist to sustain the religion in the country for 5000 years.

The ancient Brahmi inscriptions (before 7th century AD) in Tamil Nadu are in old Tamil where the Tamil names did not end with an ‘N’ or an ‘M’, but were very similar to those Sanskrit/Pali names. It was only after the 7th century AD, that the Tamil language adopted some changes to its Grammar, script, etc. and evolved into the present form. This might have happened after the Tamils developing what is commonly called as the pulli (dot) system which is peculiar to Tamils in particular among the Indian languages and due to this dot system the words/names ending with ‘A’ ends up with ‘N’ and ‘M’. This is the reason why, in the Pali chronicles and in the Brahmi stone inscriptions the names of the Tamil Kings of Anuradhapura were referred to as Sena, Guttika, Elara, Pulahatha, Bahiya, Panayamara, Parinda, Dathiya, etc and not as Senan, Guttikan, Ellalan, etc. Similarly in Tamil Nadu, the names of the ancient kings were referred to as Kulothunga Chola, Vikrma Chola, Aditya Chola, Kulasekara Pandya, Vira Wickrama Pandya, Parakrama Pandya, Sundara Pandya, etc.

It is believed that most of the Tamil Buddhist literary work has been destroyed during religious controversies. The loss of Tamil Buddhist literature was a death blow to Tamil Buddhism. Apart from the Brahmi inscriptions and other archeological evidence found in Tamil Nadu and the available Tamil literary works, the Rock-Edicts of King Asoka also sheds much light on this subject. Even though the Pali chronicles did not mention the ethnic background of the ancient Sri Lankan Buddhists and the Buddhist kings right from Devanampiya Tissa, the Mahavamsa referred to the Non-Buddhist kings as Tamils (invaders). The above facts and the non-existence of Tamil Buddhists during the colonial period (due to the 10th century Chola invasion) led the 19th century European Pali scholars who translated the Pali chronicles to assume and subsequently the present day Sri Lankans to believe that the ancient Buddhists and the Buddhists Kings of Sri Lanka were Sinhalese.

Unfortunately, today there are no Tamil Buddhists in Sri Lanka but the majority of the early Tamils of Sri Lanka (before the 10th century Chola invasion) were Buddhists. The ancient Buddhist remains in the North and East of Sri Lanka are the remnants left by the Tamil Buddhists and not anybody else. They are part of the heritage of Sri Lankan Tamils. Only the Buddhist temples, statues and structures build in the recent past and present in the North and East remain as Sinhala-Buddhist.

Important Questions

The questions still remain, why are the Sri Lankans ignorant of their past or rather, why is the Sri Lanka’s past hidden from its own people? Why does the Sri Lankans believe that the Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka belong only to the Sinhalese (Sinhala heritage) and not to the Tamils? Why are the Sri Lankans ignorant about the early Tamil Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu? Why do the Sri Lankans think, in Sri Lanka a Buddhist should be a Sinhalese and a Hindu should be a Tamil while the Sinhalese worship most of the Hindu/Brahmanical Gods?

Not only the Indians but even the Sri Lankan Tamils gave up Buddhism and accepted Hinduism. For them to go back to Buddhism, has 2500 years of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (the so called Dhammadveepa) influenced any major changes in the Sinhala society (the so called guardians of Buddhism chosen by none other than the Buddha) in terms of attitude, character, behavior, morality and so on or has it failed miserably? Are the Buddhist monks practicing Ahimsa (non-violence), Karuna (compassion), Metta (affection), and Maithriya (loving-kindness) towards fellow humans (irrespective of race/religion) or are they in the name of Buddhism promoting ethno-religious chauvinism and hatred?

Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolized by the Sinhalese and they call it Sinhala-Buddhism which is Theravada Buddhism (Tripitaka) mixed up with the Mahavamsa. Will the Sinhala-Buddhist Maha Sangha accept any Tamil Buddhist monks? Will the Tamils accept Mahavamsa as a part of Buddhism or Buddhist history knowing very well that it is a Sinhala-Buddhist mythology?

Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne’s dream of future Tamil Buddhists is very genuine and apt during this period. As he says, it may recreate the togetherness, the common bond that once existed between the Sinhalese and Tamils. It will not be a surprise if Nanda Malini sings about the Damila Buddhayo of the past and the future but can his dream materialize? Of course, miracles do happen; Martin Luther King Junior’s dream came true so let us have some hope.



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