Buddhism in Russia and the Lankan connection
Posted on May 3rd, 2015

Janaka Perera


People who were educated in British schools and who were taught European history and geography, neglecting native history and geography cannot see the true value of their country’s past which they view with the eyes of the foreigners.” – Ivan Minayev


While Sri Lanka and many other predominantly Buddhist countries celebrate Vesak today (May 3), it is worth recalling this island’s connection with Buddhism in Russia.

On May 23, 2012 the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences released the 1,045 page- Encyclopedia of Buddhism edited by Dr. Marietta Stepanyants.  The event took place in the presence of scholars from France, India, Iran, Japan, Lithuania, Russia, Syria, Turkey, UK, and USA, who were participating in the Third International Conference on Comparative Philosophy: Philosophy and Science in the Cultures of East and Westorganized by the Institute of Philosophy in Moscow.

Six years ago on August 24, 2009 Russian Buddhists received political acknowledgement when the then President (now Prime Minister) Dmitry Medvedev announced his support for Buddhism’s revival during a visit to Buryatia, Siberia.  Addressing Russian Buddhists at the Ivolga Datsan Monastery, he said (as reported in the American Buddhist journal Tricycle):

Russia is in a special position in the sense that it is the only European country that recognizes Buddhism as one of the traditional religions. One of the world’s oldest it has been practiced for over three centuries by Buryats, Kalmyks,Tuvans and other peoples native to this country, Buddhism’s philosophy and spiritual practice have had a deep-reaching influence on the customs and traditions of all those who live here and all those who follow this religion. Of course the unique Buddhist culture is an integral and greatly valued part of Russia’s common historical and cultural heritage.

Buddhism was incorporated into Russian society in the 17th Century when Kalmyk people traveled to and settled in Siberia which is now the Russian Far East. Russia’s main school of Buddhism is Tibetan Buddhism which spread to Mongolia and via the latter to Russia.

The introduction of the Buddhist teaching into the country generated an interest in the subject among Russia scholars and academics. There have been Slavic converts to Buddhism since the 19th Century. But it is only

after 1990 that real growth of Slavic converts to Buddhism began. They are based in the large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg where there is greater access to urban Buddhist centres and facilities.

Although religious practices were suppressed in former Soviet Russia under communist rule, academic interest in different civilizations and cultures was renewed after Stalin’s death. This included the study of Buddhist philosophy and culture and their role in Russia’s relations with Asian countries, including Sri Lanka.

The journalistic notes by Vladimir Yakovlev Russian diplomat and the first Soviet Ambassador in Sri Lanka give a good insight to this. He had taken the decision to write them since very few Sri Lankans remembered his compatriots who had acquainted Russia with this island.

Among the first Russians to visit here was Ivan Minayev, a prominent 19th Century Buddhist scholar whose name ranks with the founders of the Russian school of ‘Buddhalogy’ as they called it.   Among his pupils were leading Orientalists S.F. Oldenburg and F.I Shcherbatskoy who wrote the two-volume Buddhist Logic.  Sri Lankan Buddhist monks showed a copy of this important work in a library to Ambassador Yakovlev, after his arrival in Sri Lanka in April 1957.

Minayev also wrote, Buddhism, Research and Documents published in 1887.  The total number of works he published is 130, according to Yakovlev. The latter quotes Soviet Orientalist G.M. Bongard-Levin as saying that Minayev understood and always emphasized the great role of Buddhism in the cultural and historical development of the Orient and widely used Buddhist documents in his studies of folk-lore, literature, ethnography, religion and languages.

Minayev knew many languages including Sanskrit and Pali which enabled him to analyse archive papers in European libraries. He was however not an armchair scholar but was willing to experience Buddhism in practice -first of all Theravada. Between 1874 and 1877 he made several lengthy trips to Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Myanmar. Before coming to Sri Lanka Minayev had made a thorough study of the ancient Sinhala chronicles, Deepavansa and Mahawansa.

Minayev’s critical attitude to Britain’s colonial policy in Sri Lanka runs through his entire description of the country’s political and social life.  His righteous approach and protest against colonial oppression are clearly expressed in his articles and books.

Minayev did not stay long in Colombo after arriving in Sri Lanka on July 18, 1874. He was anxious to see the places where Buddhism emerged in this ancient land and the country’s national culture originated – above all the island’s former capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. He travelled all the way to by foot and by cart to examine the ruins of temples and palaces, unscrambled ancient inscriptions and made sketches of architectural monuments and wall paintings in his diaries.

He wrote:Those historical relics were a live book of intellectual and spiritual life of the ancient people

Minayev used Buddhist chronicles to re-create the appearance of the majestic structures the ancient architects had built. He wrote that the various images on the huge granite plates, columns and cornices were evidence of what these people believed in whom they prayed to, how rich the ancestors of the Sinhalese of today were and the elegance and good taste with which they surrounded their life.” 

It needs to be emphasized that when he wrote this he was well acquainted with such masterpieces of ancient architecture and art as the stone sculptures of Ellora and the immortal creations of anonymous artists in the Ajanta caves of India. He stressed the originality and national uniqueness of the art of ancient Sri Lankans.

Nowhere else in the world will you find anything like the monuments of the past in Ceylon, either in design or executionwrote Minayev. He studied the country meticulously, starting with its ancient history. To the East of Matara, sprawled the ancient kingdom of Ruhuna. Minayev studied in detail the surviving monuments of that once flourishing land. Walking about the ruins, he determined and wrote down the dimensions of the once magnificent stupas and temples and made their exact sketches.

From Hambantota he returned to Colombo where he put up at the Oriental Hotel (GOH) a place where only Europeans lived at the time. Minayev felt disgusted with the racism of the hotel management.  He wrote Not a single coloured person is allowed in the hotel, where Europeans live” 

He says, In Ceylon the British are not only rulers but also elite people of a higher race, who have nothing in common with the coloured people. The natives feel this and such attitude of the rulers to their motherland does not stir any sympathy in their hearts of course.” 

He visited Kandy several times and stressed in his notes that the Kandyan state encircled by the jungle and mountain ranges was the last bulwark of the Sinhalese people’s independence.

According to Yakovlev, Minayev would often live in ordinary cells of the Buddhist monks, many of whom became his friends.  In his diaries he wrote on such leading bhikkus as the Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Venerable Migettuwatte Sri Gunananda (the brilliant orator whose polemical skills in the Panadura Buddhist-Christian debate of 1873 drew the attention of Col. Henry S. Olcott),and Venerable Battaramulle Subhoothi with whom Minayev exchanged letters after his return to Russia.  Minayev called Ven, Subhoothi, the most learned of the Sinhalese.

In 1873 Ven. Subhoothi founded the Vidyodaya Pirivena which later became a University.  He was also the only teacher of the pirivena which was attended by 45 monks and 12 laymen at the time.

Everything Minayev wrote about Sri Lanka and her Buddhist heritage was new and attracted the attention of the Russian readers.     He often noted the monks’ cordial hospitality.

They are very open-hearted. Never shun Europeans and never hide their sacred relics or books from the newcomer.  They are very complaisant and willingly show all the things of interest in the monasteries.

At the same time Minayev noted with sorrow that a section of the population worshiped everything related to the British culture.

People who were educated in British schools and who were taught European history and geography, neglecting native history and geography cannot see the true value of their country’s past which they view with the eyes of the foreigners.”

The Russian scholar noted that people got anglicised unconsciously and many of them thought that patriotism is identical with wearing a sarong!

3 Responses to “Buddhism in Russia and the Lankan connection”

  1. AnuD Says:

    As I read, countries along the Silk route had been practising Buddhism until the Moslem conquesters used the same route invade countries and to convert those to Buddhism. Still some societies, I heard are to be Buddhists.

  2. Independent Says:

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered his prayers for Nepal earthquake victims as he took stage at the International Buddha Purnima Diwas celebrations in Delhi .

    Modi is addressing the gathering, that is being attended by scholars and Buddhist monks from across the world along with MPs and Ambassadors.

    Here are the highlights of his speech.
    •It is time to live for the principles that Buddha had given
    •Those principles can hep us wipe out the tears of Nepal

    •The freedom from Yudh can be brought upon through the the Marg of Buddha only. Buddha’s words are relevant even this day

    •The solution to the difficult times faced by all lies in Buddha.

    •If we are not adopting Buddha’s teachings, 21st century will not be ours.

    •2,500 years ago Buddha talked about the same issues that we are facing now.

  3. Independent Says:

    Shall we have a look at Mr’s Vesak message on his Facebook

    Mahinda Rajapaksa

    3 May at 04:20 · Edited ·
    Vesak commemorates the Birth, Enlightenment and Parinirvana (Passing Away) of the Lord Buddha. Today, let us honour the Buddha’s message of peace. -MR

    බුදුන්වහන්සේගේ උපත, බුද්ධත්වය ලැබීම සහ පිරිනිවන්පෑම වෙසක් පොහෝ දින සැමරේ. බුදුන්වහන්සේගේ සාමයේ පණිවුඩයට අද දින අප සැවොම ගරු කරමු.

    கௌதம புத்தர் அவர்களின் பிறப்பு, ஞானம் அடைந்தமை, பரிநிர்வாணம் ஆகியவற்றை நினைவுபடுத்தி வெசாக் கொண்டாடப்படுகிறது. கௌதம புத்தர் அவர்களின் சமாதானத்திற்கான செய்தியை நாம் இன்று கௌரவப்படுத்துவோம்.

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