Mahavamsa : 2500-year history of  heroic Sinhalay people mellowed by humanity
Posted on October 24th, 2018

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy: The Daily Mirror

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.

There are several other translations of the Mahavamsa produced before and after this date by  local and foreign scholars such as George Turnour (1837), L.C. Wijesinghe (1889), and Ananda W.P. Guruge (1989), to name some of them. My personal opinion as a lay reader is that the local Sinhalese translators of the book are better guides to its meaning than European oriental scholars because of the formers’ natural cultural affinity with the work and their intuitive attunement to its broad communicative frequency; and it is a fact that visiting European scholars were automatically inclined to consider themselves as being in the intellectual vanguard of those colonizing powers, who hypocritically believed that they were bearing the so-called ‘white man’s burden’ of forcing European civilizational values on them. Naturally, such scholars were reluctant to acknowledge the actual cultural superiority of the Sinhalese that they wanted to ‘civilize’. However, among them Geiger could be an exception. He betrays little evidence of any ‘orientalist’ prejudice (defined by Edward Said in his 1978 book ‘Orientalism’) against the Sinhalese whose ancient cultural-historical classic he tried to interpret.

It was fortunate for us that Western scholars such as Geiger and Rhys Davids tried to understand our history and culture reasonably free from preconceived notions of their own superiority over the ‘natives’ usually prevalent among imperialistic Europeans at that time. Apart from this, the Geiger translation is still the best known and the most commonly used one, particularly among foreign scholars interested in the island history; it is probably the most authentic English version of  The Great Chronicle done by any non-Sinhalese translator. This is the justification of my choice of the Geiger translation as the main source of this brief essay on the monumental work from a nonacademic ordinary reader’s point of view.

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. Sri Lanka (known in history by an array of different names such as Sivhela/Sihela/Sinhale, Serendib/Swarnadipa, Rathnadeepa, etc) 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 having evolved 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 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! They are racists who, nevertheless, have no qualms about sticking the label on their victims, 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 in 1815). The Mahavamsa  has been updated since, and now comprises the whole history of the island to date. So the sixth 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.

It is appropriate to consider against this background where we are at present in our understanding of our history as a nation (a group of people occupying a specific geographical space, speaking a unique language and generally identified with one spiritual tradition). Today, we have a more national minded generation of local archaeologists and historiographers than before who are free from the enslaving influence of orientalist prejudices of the past, and who are inspired by a sense of  ‘apekame’ (lit. usness) or national pride. Their researches are breaking new ground in the field. For example, the findings of foreign and locally trained archaeologists Drs Shiran Deraniyagala (e.g., relicts of a pre-Vijayan civilization found in excavations in the inner city of Anuradhapura) and Raj Somadeva (objects dug up and rock inscriptions deciphered at many places across the island including Kuragala, Welmeethalawa, and Kegalle, and a gold sheet writing discovered at Vallipuram in Jaffna, for instance) prove beyond doubt that the Sinhalese have a much longer and a more glorious history than that celebrated in the Mahavamsa. Such successful challenges to the authority of the Mahavamsa represent a tribute to its avowed commitment to the elimination of defects found in earlier treatises such as the Dipawansa, which it uses as its sources.

The pre-Vijayan culture predates Vijaya by at least three centuries. Somadeva’s findings (pieces of pottery, bone ornaments, iron implements, clay receptacles found at burial/cremation sites, etc which are signs of a sophisticated culture) have been determined to be over 4350 years through radiocarbon dating. The important thing to mark here is that this culture was independent of any foreign (that is, Indian or other) influence, unlike the Sinhala Buddhist civilization historicized by the Mahavamsa narrative. The brightening prospects of revealing these more ancient historical roots of the Sinhalese (according to Somadeva these could be as old as 6000 years) should not be seen as an emergent threat to the status of the Mahavamsa as the incomparable national monument it is. It only proves that the Sinhalese were heir to a much older, and certainly more advanced civilization than the Mahavamsa author dared to credit them with. The unlocking of the ancient secrets of our history through the use of technologies that are the most advanced to date will be in the interest of not only the Sinhalese and the minorities that make Sri Lanka their common home, but also of the whole of humanity.

The grand purpose of the Mahavamsa author’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’. This historic monument must be cherished for its humanity as much as for its value as a historical document. It is this noble culture of humanity inspired by Theravada Buddhism that made Sri Lanka a secure home for diverse minorities living in harmony with the majority Sinhalese. Suppressing it is not the way to bring about communal harmony in the land.

7 Responses to “Mahavamsa : 2500-year history of  heroic Sinhalay people mellowed by humanity”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    Many thanks to Rohana R Wasala for putting things in perspective. It is just unfortunate that there are elements in Sri Lanka who hate their own skin and face, that they are intent on destroying the Crown Jewels in our possession without realizing that they have already become world heritage and can never be destroyed by vilification!

  2. Charles Says:

    Thank you Rohana Wasala for the write up on Mahavansa. I have not had the opportunity to read even though Ananda Guruge gave me an outline of it when I met him when he was writing it. You say about Geiger’s translation of it that ” it is probably the most authentic English version of The Great Chronicle done by any non-Sinhalese translator. This is the justification of my choice of the Geiger translation as the main source of this brief essay on the monumental work from a nonacademic ordinary reader’s point of view.”

    It is good reading some thing authentic about our History when there is even a Modern Buddhism being prepared by Cognitive Scientists isolating “pain” from all other suffering(Dukkha) that comes along with birth. I even got a whipping for calling that a mutilation of Buddhism. Of course they pointed out two sutta’s where they showed Buddha’s pain management process ……… in meditation.

  3. Nimal Says:

    Please don’t hallucinate about our history which has no relevance to todays problems. I constantly deal and associate with Persians, Greeks, Italians and they too have a history but they don’t brag about it like us the Sinhalese. This a national disease that had rammed down out throats by religious, cultural and political freaks that live a double life at the expense of the suffering people in our countries.
    All histories on every country were cruel and only a very few rouges were ever benefitted but the innocent people with no right to life were slaves, never lived beyond 30 years.
    This was all changed due to the time of the colonials where we all had public toilets,schools,hospitals,courts of law and other democratic institutions that was responsible for the people in the country but sadly our politicians get elected to fleece the people and live a double life. What good the last colonials did was endless and we are in denial but these cruel freaks and rouges prefer to live in the countries of former colonials and write crap while we taxpayers in SL have to pay for it with our hard earned taxes.
    Here is a simple example of the cruel history that we constantly glorify is the Taj mahal built by 40 thousand slaves whose hands and eyes were cut off so that they could not do a similar thing elsewhere, only for the pleasure of a cruel king in the name of his wife. It was called the symbol of love, give me a break!
    My advise is to not to go back in history but to look ahead and develop the country where there are many problems for the innocent people.

  4. Charles Says:

    Namal, Namal Please History is important are we going to bury our 2600 year old cultural heritage and the history beyind that while Tamils and Muslims who came here yesterday are upholding their history, their culture and a false national pride above that of ours ? I do not know from which planet you are but if you are a Sinhalese what we are, what we had been are important for our future survival.

  5. Dilrook Says:

    Pre-Buddhist Sinhala civilisation (at least 3,317 years) is longer than Buddhist only Sinhala civilisation (1,770 years till 1505). Sinhala Buddhist and Sinhala Christian history is only 513 years old disregarding minute populations before 1505. Newly emerging Sinhala Islam history is also significant.

    Limiting Sinhala history to Buddhist history is highly restrictive. Very little attention has been paid to pre-Buddhist Sinhala history and remains of it. These inlude ancestor worship (Kataragama, Saman, Vibhishana, Natha and 330 million ancestors immortalised as gods). As these have been neglected, Arabs, north Indians and south Indians have laid claims for our ancestors! This can be seen in all these shrines. If they succeed in making these claims fix, that automatically decides for all practical purposes who were in the island before Buddhism. We must not do this mistake. People must be credited for keeping these shrines relevent to the Sinhala community. It is a wise move to take these under the Buddha Sasana Ministry as we don’t have a Sinhala affairs Ministry.

  6. aloy Says:

    Nimal, “What good the last colonials did was endless and we are in denial but these cruel freaks and rouges prefer to live in the countries of former colonials and write crap while we taxpayers in SL have to pay for it with our hard earned taxes.”

    Each colonial power that came to our country wanted to rule their colony in the best possible way and prolong their stay, if not completely take over it. They set up good schools and gave the best education to Colombo crowd and those in NE and put them to civil service and gave all advantages. They did all these developments for them to rule for ever, not for their love for us. These Colombo crowd are ruling the same way the British did but in a very insensitive manner taxing us.

  7. Vaisrawana Says:

    Dear Nimal, you write:
    “What good the last colonials did was endless and we are in denial but these cruel freaks and rouges prefer to live in the countries of former colonials and write crap while we taxpayers in SL have to pay for it with our hard earned taxes.”

    Three decent fellow commenters that I respect have responded to your comments. Their responses explain the meaning of the endless good you say was done by the colonials that you admire. My reply to you on that score would be the same. Here I wish to offer an answer to the other part of what is quoted above from your comment. My idea is that no sensible reader is likely to call the contents of the above article on the Mahavamsa ‘crap’ simply because they don’t like to agree with the author. Be that as it may, you also imply that the writer of this article is one of your “cruel freaks and rouges who live in the countries of former colonials”. The basis of your charge is not clear. You also say you are among the taxpayers in Sri Lanka. I will not ask you “So, what do you mean?” I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. Relax. Cheers!

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