Our chronicles, which are amongst the earliest and the most reliable in the world, records that the first immigrants from India reached our shores on the very day of the Buddha’s Final Release, his ‘Parinibbhana’.
As the Master was breathing His last, in the Salgrove of the Mallas in Kusinara, He saw with His divine eye their arrival and enjoined upon the ‘devas’ who were around Him to give them their special protection.
Historically speaking, it was not till two centuries later that Buddhism was firmly established in Sri Lanka, when the Arahant Mahinda, son of great Emperor, Asoka, came over from India and converted to the new faith, the reigning monarch, Devanampiyatissatissa, beloved of the gods.
The hill at Mihintale – later so called after Mahinda himself – eight miles from Sri Lanka’s ancient capital, Anuradhapura (now famed throughout the Buddhist world as a sacred city), was the site of this historic meeting between saint and king.
And here, on every full-moon day of the month of ‘Poson’ (June), millions of pilgrims wend their way to relive in their imagination the drama of the introduction of Buddhism into this lovely land.
Mahinda’s mission was the most successful of the many missions sent by Asoka for other propagation of Buddhism. The conversion of the King was soon followed by that of other people who welcomed the teaching with the utmnost enthusiasm.
The circumstances that prevailed were most favourable for its immediate acceptance and rapid spread. Buddhism thus became the state religion of Sri Lanka and the way of the life of its people, bringing with it untold blessings of peace and happiness.
Asoka himself took great personal interest in the propagation of the religion in Sri Lanka and soon, after Mahinda’s arrival, followed the visit of his daughter, Sanghamittha, who had become a Bhikkhuni, carrying a branch of the sacred tree under which the Buddha had reached the supreme enlightenment.
The arrival of the Bodhi-tree in the island kindled the people’s imagination as no single event has done before or since, Just as securely as the roots of that tree wended their pliant way into the soil of Lanka, so did other teachings of the Buddha enter the innermost lives of the people influencing them into the pursuit of noble virtues.
The branch of the Bodhi-tree was one of the many objects of worship associated with Buddhism in the island. Soon after the acceptance of the teaching by the King, Mahinda obtained for him from India relics of the Buddha.
They were enshrined in massive structures, the ‘Dagabas’, as they were called, and successive rulers vied with one another in their construction whenever they were able to secure more relics from the mainland of India.
The first ‘dabaga’ to be built in Sri Lanka was the ‘Thuparama’, small in size and with a roof, on stone-pillars, to protect it. It was the work of Devanampiyatissa himself. But the most famous of Sri Lanka’s ‘Dagaba’ is the ‘Ruvanweli’ called in Pali ‘Suvannamali’ constructed by Dutthagamini, hero of the Pali chronicle, the Mahavamsa, who, more than any other monarch in Sri Lanka’s history, has kindled popular imagination.
For, it was he who saved Buddhism from the marauders of South India when they invaded Sri Lanka and the nation was thereby threatened with extinction. Numerous legends are current about this warrior-king. After his death, he was born in ‘Tusita-heaven’ from where he acts as the guardian of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Buddhist ritual in Lanka was greatly enriched by the arrival here of the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha in 312 A.C. It was brought here on the instructions of her father by the Kalinga princess Hemamali.
The relic eventually became the greatest national treasure of Sri Lanka and its possession was regarded as the essential qualification for kingship, in every capital of the kingdom.
A special shrine was built for it, as part of the king’s palace, and king after king lavished upon it every token of deep regard. Its present resting-place is Kandy, the capital of the last Sri Lankan king and the Dalada Maligava or Temple of the Tooth Relic which is annually visited by millions of pilgrims from every part of the world.
A very colourful ritual is witnessed, especially on the special occasions when the relic is shown to devotees. In the 10th century the even tenor of Budhist development was greatly disturbed by the incursion into Sri Lanka of the mighty empire of the Chola in South India.
For 50 years, Lanka was ruled by the Cholas who did everything in their power to destroy Buddhism in this country.
The arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka in 1505 A.D. proved a turning point in the island’s history. “There is no page in the story of European colonisation”, writes Sir Emmerson Tennant, one time Lieutenant – Governor in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) “more gloomy and repulsive than that which recounts the proceedings of the Portuguese in Ceylon …. They appeared in the Indian seas in the threefold character of merchants, missionaries and pirates.
Their ostensible motto was, ‘amity, commerce and religion’, but their expeditions consisted of soldiers as well as adventurers, and included friars and a chaplain-major; and their instructions were, ‘to be in by parching but, that failing, to proceed to the decision of the sword.”
The Portuguese occupied other maritime provinces of Sri Lanka and remained there for 150 years, oppressing and harassing the people, with unbelievable cruelty. The Portuguese historian, Manuel de Faria Souza writes.
“When he (Jeronymo de Azavedo) was acting in Ceylon as lord of war, he used to oblige women to throw their own children into stone-troughs and pound them in them as they would do for spices in brass mortars, without any mitigation of the cries uttered by those innocent ones under the blows that fell and without any pity for other hearts of mothers who saw themselves made the cruel executioners of their own sons.
A son as they had reduced (the children) to paste, he had other women beheaded as if they had not obeyed him. The Portuguese were eventually driven away by the Dutch. Their main concern was trade, especially in cinnamon which they found was ‘the very best in the world and abundant’. Unlike the Portuguese, they did not persecute the Buddhists, all their venom was directed against the Roman Catholics.
Ironically enough, the Roman Catholic Portuguese had to seek the protection of the Sinhala Buddhist Kings who yet held sway in the central parts of the island and this protection was given in ample measure.
Lands were given for the establishment of Roman Catholic seminaries and Roman Catholic priests were allowed the freedom to preach their religion even in the heart of the Buddhist king’s capital. Such was the tolerance that characterized the Buddhists of Sri Lanka.
In 1796 A.D., the British took over the Dutch possession in Sri Lanka. So far, Sinhala-Buddhist kings had continued to rule in the centre of the island, while the three European races successively occupied the maritime regions.
In 1815 A.D., however, because of a variety of causes the whole of Sri Lanka passed into the hands of the British, the Kandyan provinces (so-called because their capital was in Kandy being given to them by a treaty (called the Kandyan Convention), according to which the British undertook” to protect and maintain the religion of the Buddha” and to preserve the inviolate the rites and ceremonies connected with it.
The British proved themselves to be better rulers than either the Portuguese or the Dutch, probably because they came from Europe which was more enlightened than that of their predecessors.
Generally speaking, British administrators in Sri Lanka tried to observe the terms of the Kandyan Convention, at least in the letter. But the pressure of Christian missionary bodies in England often proved too srong to resist and the consequent damage to Buddhism was almost irreparable.
No education was allowed except in schools where the most important part of the curriculum was the compulsory study of the Bible. The disabilities suffered by the Buddhists were such that many of the more ambitious among them became Christians for wordly gain.
There were others who were ashamed to own themselves Buddhists in public. In the course of time, there came into being a strongly favoured minority of Sri Lankans, educated in English, bearing foreign names and proud of the fact, practically all of them Christians, who controlled the administration of the country.
The prestige of Buddhism suffered greatly. In addition, many hundreds of thousand of acres of land, belonging to Buddhist institutions, which had been gifted by kings and the rich men of old, were systematically expropriated and the religious establishment thus completely impoverished.
Some of this land was given to the missionaries for their churches and schools, often set up cheek by jowl with the institutions to which the land had earlier belonged. Public funds were freely given for the construction of churches and Christian padres paid government salaries from public revenue.