A layman’s view of the Mahavamsa
Posted on October 10th, 2018

By Rohana R. Wasala

(This article was first published in The Island newspaper (Sri Lanka) more than ten years ago

( on January 23, 2008). The writer wishes to share it with the Lankaweb readers. The original title was:

Is the Mahavamsa a Tissue of Myths?)
The  Mahavamsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon (to use the title of the English translation by Wilhelm Geiger of the ancient classic) is a book of history in the form of a poem in the Pali language composed by a Bhikkhu named Mahanama at Anuradhapura around the latter part of the 5th or the beginning of the 6th century CE (Common Era). This work was commissioned by King Dhatusena (c. 460 -478 CE). Professor Wilhelm Geiger translated into German his own revised critical edition of the Pali original, which had been published in 1908. He added an introduction, appendices and notes to the German version. Mabel Haynes Bode put Geiger’s German translation into English. Professor Geiger then revised Mrs Bode’s English translation. Geiger’s  Mahavamsa  is in prose. Its first edition, prepared by T.W.Rhys Davids , was published in 1912.

The Mahavamsa  is a cherished symbol of the national identity of the Sinhalese, the builders of the unique two and a half millennia old island civilization. This land abounds in the ruins of ancient monuments and also restored edifices that bear testimony to that unbroken island-wide historical achievement. There is no evidence of any other independent parallel civilization within its boundaries. The Mahavamsa gives the Sinhalese a feeling of continuity of nationhood. The danger of the Mahavamsa becoming an unnecessary casualty of ethnic politics is real, but such a fate is something unthinkable for us as a race with a distinct history. It is criticized by some because it does not  provide a historical precedent that might support  their unjust political claims. Some others treat it with contempt claiming that it divides the Sri Lankans. The truth is that the Mahavamsa refers to the close links that existed between Lanka and South India in propitious circumstances in early times, which should actually unite rather than divide different races. Then there are  those  ‘enlightened’ individuals who just cannot  tolerate even the mention of the legitimate claims of the Sinhalese!

The Mahavamsa is a serious book of history, though it was composed at least one thousand five hundred years before modern concepts of historiography evolved. Bhikkhu Mahanama, the author, at the very opening relates himself to the existing historical literature and popular traditions thus: “That (Mahavamsa) which was compiled by the ancient (sages) was here too long drawn out and there too closely knit; and contained many repetitions. Attend ye now to this (Mahavamsa) that is free from such faults, easy to understand and remember, arousing serene joy and emotion and handed down (to us) by tradition, – (attend ye to it) while that ye call up serene joy and emotion (in you) at passages that awaken serene joy and emotion.” Mahanama’s Mahavamsa comes to a conclusion in Chapter 37, which deals with the reign of King Mahasena (c. 325 – 352 CE). The subject of the Mahavamsa  is  the early phase of the history of the Sinhalese race and that of the establishment of the Buddhist faith in the island. But the Mahavamsa was later continued up to the end of the 18th century by different authors at different times (in the form of the Culavamsa) The Culavamsa  opens in the middle of the 37th chapter where the earlier Mahavamsa came to an abrupt end, and completes the 101th chapter which ends thus: “After they had brought the King, the torturer of his people, to the opposite coast the Ingirisi by name seized the whole kingdom” (i.e. the British took possession of the whole island with the capture of the last king of Sinhale Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe). The Mahavamsa  has been updated since, and now comprises the whole history of the island to date.

So the 6th century Mahavamsa covers roughly the first eight hundred years of the island  civilization since the legendary Vijaya, which period ended about one hundred and fifty years before the reconstruction of its history by Mahanama. However, the book cannot be dismissed offhand as a mere imaginative concoction by a partisan Buddhist monk obliged to obliterate certain important details unflattering to his royal patron or his own race.

In any case, since the Mahavamsa is not sacred dogma it can be subjected to academic and scientific scrutiny, as it has already been dealt with. What is of enduring significance to the Sinhalese, however, is the fact of its existence, not the presence or absence of absolute historical validity of its contents, which is something nearly impossible for any historiographer to achieve. It is also a fact that it remains the principal  source of the island’s history. And that is a rare treasure for any particular nation.

Narration of historical events, especially events said or believed to have happened in another age or in another place than those in which the narrator happens to live  involves the use  not only of tangible sources such as literary works and popular traditions, but also of imagination. In other words history is, at least partly, a form of story telling: it is  literature, the use of the creative possibilities of human language. The Mahavamsa can be regarded as both literature and history. As literature it conforms to the conventions of a particular literary genre. It is a kavya (poetic work)  constructed according to alankara (poetic or literary ornamentation) conventions accepted in  ancient Indian literature and as such  it harks back to earlier models. Professor Geiger warns us (in his foreword to Dr G.C. Mendis’s 1931 book ‘The Early History of Ceylon’) that we should remember this in judging the more recent parts of the book. This is not to belittle the value of the Mahavamsa as history. In western literature also there are books that are acclaimed as histories, but are admired as artistic masterpieces as well , e.g. Herodotus’ The Histories  and Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. (I mention the last two because they seem to enjoy readier acceptance as history among some local scholars than our own Mahavamsa.) The fact that Bhikkhu Mahanama used the Pali language to write his poem does not necessarily mean that the Sinhala language was at that time too primitive for that purpose. Professor Geiger refers to Atthakatha (commentary literature) composed in old Sinhalese prose as one source that was available for the author of  the  Mahavamsa. Bhikkhu Mahanama’s adoption of Pali may be compared to our use of English as the chosen medium for a special purpose such as  education or business.

The grand purpose of the monk’s whole endeavour was, after all, to compile this history “…for the serene joy and emotion of the pious”, (as the less than ideal English rendering of the original Pali phrase tells us). The book is intended to generate ‘serene joy and emotion’ in the pious. Each chapter  of the Mahavamsa and its sequel the Culavamsa ends with the postscript “Here ends the … chapter, called ‘…….’, in the Mahavamsa, compiled for the serene joy and emotion  of the pious”. (Prof. Geiger glosses the two terms pasada (serene joy) and samvega (emotion) thus: ‘Pasada signifies the feeling of blissfulness, joy and satisfaction in the doctrine of the Buddha, samvega the feeling of horror and recoil from the world and its misery’. So the Mahavamsa does not sound like political propaganda bolstering the claims of one race against those of another. The Mahavamsa  author makes Buddha’s Passing Away  coincide with Vijaya’s arrival with his followers in Lanka. The Buddha, on his death bed, requests  Sakka, the king of the gods, to ‘protect him (Vijaya) with his followers and Lanka’. The king of the gods entrusts this task to ‘the god who in colour is like the lotus’ i.e. Vishnu (Actually, ‘uthpalavanna’ means lily coloured, not lotus coloured (god). A mistranslation, perhaps? This is not surprising, Ceylonese English professor E.F.C. Ludowyke in his The Footprint of the Buddha (1958) translates ‘hansa’ (‘swan’, the bird celebrated in Sinhala poetry, and often featured in decorative wood carvings and architecture) as ‘goose’, which corresponds to the common ‘paththaya’ in Sinhala!) By this  the poet historian seems to be accommodating a contemporary popular belief of the Sinhalese that they had been assigned a special destiny as the Protectors of the Buddha Sasana by none other than the Guide of the World Himself. (This claim, probably nothing more than the introduction of a popular tradition into the fabric of the poem, more as a poetic trope than a verifiable historical fact, gave an excuse for certain historians and anthropologists, including some locals who were content to be clones of British masters, to create the fallacy that the Sinhalese regard themselves as a ‘Chosen People’ in the Judeo-Christian sense and to attack them as racist supremacists.) The poet monk’s choice of  Pali to record the history of the Sinhalese was an appropriate one, Pali being the language of the sacred texts of the Buddhism In his introduction to the Mahavamsa Professor Geiger avers that both the anonymous author of the fourth century CE Dipavamsa (The Island Chronicle) and Bhikkhu Mahanama of the Mahavamsa used an older work ‘a sort of chronicle of the history of the island from its legendary beginnings onwards’ in compiling their works, and that this work formed part of the Atthakatha (commentaries) ‘in the canonical writings of the Buddhists which later Buddhaghosa took as a basis for his illuminating works’. Geiger thinks that the author of the  Mahavamsa not only knew  the Dipavamsa , but also consciously and intentionally rearranged it, so that the Mahavamsa  is a sort of commentary to the earlier work (i.e. the  Dipavamsa ).

Professor Geiger refers to the various degrees of skepticism with which the European orientalists of his time treated the Ceylonese Chronicles as historical sources. His own opinion about these works supports the more favourable judgement of Rhys Davids, which he represents with a quotation from the latter’s ‘Buddhist India’ (1903): “The Ceylon Chronicles would not suffer in comparison with the best of the Chronicles, even though so considerably later in date, written in England or in France”. Geiger also refers to another contemporary researcher in the same field H.C.Norman as sharing similar views. Both the Dipavamsa  and the Mahavamsa contain many stories of miracles orchestrating the historical events that they record, like the arrival of Arhant Mahinda  with his companions flying through the air by their miraculous powers, and his making his followers invisible to the King until he was prepared to face them without fear. Such normally incredible details are only part of a tradition . They are meant to reflect the attitude of owe and piety of the faithful towards those events which were extraordinarily significant for them. The coming of Buddhism to the island, whether it happened over a period of time or during a single visit of some missionaries, actually took place; it is a historical fact. So is the conversion of the King of the land to the new faith. The extraneous mythical, legendary details express a people’s unconscious desire to emerge  out of their own insignificance.

In the Prologue to his book ‘The Footprint of the Buddha’ already referred to, Professor E.F.C. Ludowyk writes: The myths and legends which accompany every stage of a people’s history need not be accepted as anything but the mode in which a people has attempted to satisfy its unconscious needs. Not only the poet  who has given the legend artistic form, but all those who have handed down the tradition of some mythical event, like the descent of the founder of the race from the sun-god, receive gratification for the deepest unknown longings through their fantasies. And if for man there exists something that is supernatural, then he may be able to raise himself from his insignificance through participation in this supernatural. The garb in which these fantasies appear says more perhaps of  the cultural and social circumstances of a people than its recorded history. To discard legend, and myth, and fairy tale would just as much rob one of one’s most valuable sources of information about a people as to reject its art and literature as unimportant.” So the presence of myth and legend in popular tradition or literature including the Chronicles serves an essential function, and it does not falsify by itself the history that the Mahavamsa  records. It is the historian’s job to remove the external additions and check the remainder for trustworthiness through internal and external evidence (to borrow from Geiger).

That the authors of the Chronicles wished to tell the truth and that they did not intend to deceive the hearers or readers  is clear, as Geiger points out. Both the Dipavamsa  and the Mahavamsa  represent the deadly enemies of the Sinhalese kings – the foreign conqueror Elara, and the usurpers Sena and Guttika – as righteous rulers. Geiger also maintains that there is a clear and consistent endeavour to make out a systematic chronology so as to inspire confidence at the outset. Whole sections of the Dipavamsa are devoted to the purpose of synchronizing the history of the Buddhist church with the secular history of the island, and the latter with the history of India, an exercise that would lend more credibility to the contents of the book. There is more important external support for the Chronicles. For example, the list of Indian kings before Asoka, and the statements about Bimbisara and Ajatasattu as contemporaries of the Buddha agree with the canonical writings  according to Geiger. A Chinese pilgrim by the name of  Hiuen-thsang  mentions the name Mahendra as the missionary who spread the true doctrine in the kingdom of Sinhala.

Also the history of the Missions in the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa is  corroborated by inscriptions discovered in India.

This brief reference to internal and external evidence is meant to demonstrate the fact that the Mahavamsa is not a mere imaginative fabrication that deliberately omits to mention actual events that support one racial community’s claim to the sovereignty of the whole island in order to reinforce another’s similar claims. If the book was considered such a fabrication, why didn’t this allegedly misrepresented group write their own equivalent of the Mahavamsa , especially when they were supposed to be of a superior culture? (This is not meant to be so much a challenge as a suggestion for further inquiry.) Any racial or ethnic community has an inalienable right to assert its particular identity as a distinct group and realize its human potential, while acknowledging the right of other communities to do the same, and promoting friendly coexistence with them as members of the same human race. The past history of any particular race is part of its unique identity. No racial community, large or small,  should be asked to forget or ignore its past on fabricated evidence in order to gratify ephemeral political sensitivities. The ability to live in harmony with others in spite of differences of culture is an essential characteristic of civilized  humanity.  A community’s enjoyment of its distinct identity is not bigotry.   Bigotry results  when members of  one  group refuse to recognize the worth of another group because of a strong belief in their own racial or other superiority. The vast majority of ordinary Sinhalese are not guilty of such bigotry. They may appear bigoted to the really bigoted.

Partisan judgements on the Mahavamsa range from popular uneducated scoffing to more serious academic stigmatization. An example of apparently serious academic censure of the classic is its inclusion of Chapters 6 to 14 of the Mahavamsa in the External GAQ syllabus (2003) of the Sri Jayawardanepura University under ‘Mythology’. The syllabus for the First  Examination in Arts of the External Programme of this university offers four subjects for study, out of which the students must select three for their examination (English I – English IV). Of these English III covers ‘Classical Literature’. It has two papers: Paper I – An Introduction to Epic, and Paper II –  An Introduction to Mythology.

The Mahavamsa is prescribed for Paper II, i.e. under Mythology. The other texts recommended  for this paper are Greek Myths by Robert Graves, The Metamorphosis by Ovid, and The Book of Genesis from The Authorized Version of the Bible.

Following are the titles of the nine chapters from the Mahavamsa :     Chapter 6: The Coming of Vijaya     Chapter 7: The Consecrating of Vijaya     Chapter 8: The Consecrating of Panduvasudeva     Chapter 9: The Consecrating of Abhaya     Chapter 10: The Consecrating of Pandukabhaya     Chapter 11: The Consecrating of Devanampiyatissa     Chapter 12: The Converting of Different Countries     Chapter 13: The Coming of Mahinda     Chapter 14: The Entry into the Capital So according to the scholars who drew up this syllabus the arrival of a north Indian conqueror in the island, and the introduction of Buddhism by a group of missionaries from India, and the other events recorded in the book are just myths like those Greek myths, and the stories in the Bible (Whether the wisdom of classifying the Genesis chapters from the Holy Bible as mere mythology is acceptable to the Christian faithful is doubtful ).

The same scholars prescribe Herodotus’ The Histories (Books 1 to 5), and Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War (Books 1 to 3) for Paper II of English III – Classical Literature for BA Part II of the said External Degree Programme, which covers ‘Greek and Roman History’. Both these works predate the Mahavamsa by about a thousand years. Herodotus has been considered as the Father of History in the Western World, but he has also been ridiculed as the Father of Lies by his successors. It is said that he traveled extensively in the Middle East in order to collect data for his great pioneering work, which deals with the wars between the Greeks and the Persians (490, 480 – 479 BCE). Just as our Mahanama, the author of the Mahavamsa, refers to supernatural events in his narrative, so does Herodotus meditate on divine interventions and other similar miracles in his; he also records popular beliefs when evidence is lacking. Herodotus’ immediate successor Thucydides (c. 460 – 400 BCE), was obviously more committed to accuracy of information. His work is a factual record of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) waged on the imperialist Athens by Sparta and its allies on land and sea, that devastated the entire Greek world. The Mahavamsa shares the ‘defects’ of Herodotus’ The Histories (if its inclusion of myths and its dependence on popular beliefs can be called such) and the strengths of  Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War ( its commitment to the representation of events as they really occurred). It also stands comparison with the other two in terms of a clearly conceived and well  articulated  authorial purpose: Herodotus writes so ‘that the great deeds may not be forgotten … whether Greeks or foreigners: and especially, the causes of war between them’ (Herodotus – The Histories , Penguin Classics, 1972 ed. Intro. P.7); Thucydides aims to produce a piece of writing that would last for ever, not one devoted to the ephemeral dreams of an immediate public; Thera Mahanama of the Mahavamsa compiles his book ‘for the serene joy and emotion of the pious’.

Of the three monumental works the Mahavamsa comprehends the widest scope, being an attempt to record the entire history of a people: whereas Herodotus and Thucydides deal with two wars of a few years’ duration and some related events, Mahanama initiates a history that extends over many centuries. Although it is a work of history in conception, in tone it is  more  a work of religion  intended to generate ‘serene joy and emotion of the pious’. This partly accounts for the author’s attitude towards the material he is dealing with: apparently he sees the history of the island as a fusion of the Buddhist faith and the Sinhalese nationhood. Of course as history Mahanama’s  Mahavamsa is lopsided in that the author focuses on the rulers’ acts of devotion towards Buddhism such as the building of viharas, dagabas,  preaching halls, hospices for monks, etc. to the almost complete  exclusion of problems of statecraft and economy, the stability of which he seems to take for granted; at the same time it should be pointed out that the ancient classic enjoys a high level of credibility in its representation of the succession of Sinhalese monarchs who held general sway over the whole island despite temporary breaches of its continuity due to foreign invasions or internal divisions.

The Mahavamsa records the historical and cultural heritage of the Sinhalese which spans over two thousand five hundred years. It gives them a sense of continuity from time immemorial to this day. It is a treasured national possession which they cannot allow to be devalued or desecrated as a mere tissue of myths by those who wish to obliterate that unique history.

The Island/23.01.2008 (Midweek Review)

6 Responses to “A layman’s view of the Mahavamsa”

  1. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Though Mahavamsa was composed by Bhikkhu Mahanama in 6th century AD it covers roughly the first eight hundred years of the island civilization since the legendary Vijaya landed in Lanka. Bhikkhu Mahanama being an Indian by nationality has deliberately ignored the technically advanced local civilisation existed at that time. They were called Yakkas not because of demons like nature. But, the Name Yakka was given to that civilisation as they have mastered the technology of Iron making. After arrival Vijaya married the local yakka queen called yakkinee “Kuveni but ultimately abandoned her after establishing his rule through island of Lanka

    In one of the most recent archaeological discoveries in Lanka, Steel Smelting Furnaces along with samples of steel, belonging to 200 BC, were discovered from a village in Hingurakgoda. They supported the previous discoveries made in Anuradapura, Sigiriya, Ala Kola Weva, Kuratiyaya, and Nikavatana.

    Mrs. Gill Juleff, a researcher university of Exter revealed that the Sri lankans in the past have been manufacturing high – quality, and clean Iron, using local but high – tech methods. She also said that, the Sri Lankans have used the wind directions, and mountain – peaks to perfection, in order to get a good out cones. She also said that these methods can be applied even today for manufacturing iron in now a days.

    Field trials using replica furnaces confirm that this furnace type uses a wind-based air-supply principle that is distinct from either forced or natural draught, and show also that it is capable of producing high-carbon steel. This technology sustained a major industry in this area during the first millennium AD, and may have contributed to South Asia’s early pre-eminence in steel production
    This proved the Syrian records that once Sri Lankans had the world’s best steel technology. These ancient Lankan furnaces might have produced the legendary Damascus swords. It was these steel that was exported to the middle east. There are records in Syria that the best steel they reeceived was from “Sivhala” (Lanka).

    It is possible that Vijaya has come to Lanka in search of high grade steel as there was a big demand for steel in Bengal even though Bengalis learnt the process of casting bronze (kahsa) as an alloy of copper and tin they needed more steel for making weapons, agricultural implements and ship building.

    In Lanka these smelting furnaces had been built on locations where the wind crossed. Using this natural wind blowing and the manual blowing of wind, the soil with iron was heated up on wood pieces until the temperature reached 1100-1200 centigrade. After several hours the steel was formed at the top while the rubbish ended up in the bottom. Then the steel pieces were washed in water. Sinhalese made one ton of pure best quality steel out of every 2 tons of soil. That was a remarkable feat.

    One of these furnaces was in such an intact state, the archaeologists were able to actually use it. They used the natural monsoon winds to smelt the iron ore, freely found in the Samanalawewa area. They produced steel ingots in the same way it was produced for over 2,200 years by the lankan engineers of those times.

  2. aloy Says:

    At the time Brits came to Ceylon Rajarata was covered in dense jungle and one of them had to ‘discover’ Sigiriya. This is same as a Frenchman discovered the Sri Vijaya Empire of Malays through laser imagery. A couple of years ago I watched a documentary of a local TV channel in which an archaeologist was saying that they discovered some artefacts including vials of perfumes, nails polishers etc. used by women buried in an ancient cemetery couple of kilometres from Sigiriya, which were carbon dated to be about 4500 years old. This perhaps is the Rawana time. If this is true Anuradhapura kings may have discovered the ruins of Ravana age in the same way as the Brits discovered Sigiriya. Bikku Mahanama was the brother of one of the wives of the king, perhaps a tamil princess from South India. So, his writing may have had a bias towards South India. But king Dhatusena who was his ancestor was a descendant of Mourya clan (king Asoka’s) of North India.

    Neela took a detour to explain that Sri Lanka already had an advance society when Vijaya and them arrived. This I believe is relevant. The corollary is that these skills are in the genes of the Sinhalas and the rulers should make use of them to put this country in the world map istead of allowing foreigners to discredit it as a robbers den while at the same time making use of our talents. For instance look at what happened to Millennium company which built the worlds fastest stock market control system. It went into foreign hands and now they are using our talents to replicate and sell it to many capitals of western world. Why are our talents leaving?.

  3. Vaisrawana Says:

    @aloy,

    Sorry for barging in before NeelaMaha Yoda, who, I am sure will respond to your comment, has had time to do so. But I’d like to say something about your comment. I am afraid it is misleading, particularly, the following part.

    “Bikku Mahanama was the brother of one of the wives of the king, perhaps a tamil princess from South India. So, his writing may have had a bias towards South India. But king Dhatusena who was his ancestor was a descendant of Mourya clan (king Asoka’s) of North India.”

    The truth is: King Dhatusena was not Bhikkhu Mahanama’s ‘ancestor’. Mahanama was Dhatusena’s uncle, who protected him from enemies in his childhood and youth in the then prevailing circumstances in the island kingdom. It was king Dhatusena who commissioned this work, during his reign as this article says, probably in reaction to royal disputes that inspired internal and external conspiracies against the state and the Theravada Buddhist religious establishment. The Mahavamsa writer’s bias, if any, is towards Aryan Indians, not towards Dravidian South Indians, if by ‘bias towards’ @aloy means ‘bias for’, not against (south India).

    Besides, if Mahanama was “the brother of one of the wives of the king”, how could the very Dhatusena be his ancestor?

  4. aloy Says:

    What I meant was that King Dhatusena’s ancestors were the Maurya clan of the north Indians. Sorry for the erroneous meaning given by that sentence. In fact I wanted to correct it.
    What I have read is that Bhikkhu Manahama’s sister was married to the king who commissioned him for writing Mahavansa. It is written in the same style of a novel at the beginning. I read it about a fifty years ago.

  5. Charles Says:

    We should be proud of our Mahavansa. How many Nations in the world have a written ecording of their history with what ever defffects one may point out ?

    The Sri Lanka Tamils who claim that they were here even before Buddha have their own words to believe. Have they any recording of their presence even a stone Pillar ?

    We are sad it did not happen to our Thri Pitaka. Our commentaries on the teachings made in Sinhala by our Sinhala Rathan Vahansela., were handed over to an Indian monk who was not even a stream entrant Buddhaghosa. He translated the Sinhala Commenaries and sub Commentaries and wrote the Visuddhimagga including in it Hindu teachings, and including what even the Buddha did not say. And having written his Visuddhi Maggha he burnt all Sinhala Commentaries and sub commentaries.

    I have read that Mihindu Maha Rahathan Vahanse made his discourses in Sinhala, but where are they. Were they too burnt by Ven. Buddhaghosa ?

  6. Charles Says:

    Thank you Rohana Wasal much grateful for this article , which gives so much of information on Mahavansa.

    Selection of Pali to write the Mahavansa would not have been by choice. Those days the education may had been restricted to the temples. The Monks would have been those who had the time for an ativity of writing. Legends, myths, and tales by word of mouth (katakathaa) were a part of a people. I have seen many non-Buddhists put tales about the Buddha and Bodisattva to legends and anecdotes. Even the story of the lotus that bloomed at every step the baby Siddhartha kept is also not accepted as a mangala karunak.

    If Dipavamsa was an attakatha handed over to Buddhaghosa that too may have gone up in flames along with the Commentaries in Sinhala.

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