Posted on May 5th, 2020


Revised 6.5.20

The third nikaya to emerge in Sri Lanka was the Ramanna Nikaya.  Ramanna nikaya was started byAmbagahawatte Saranankara. (b. 1832) He had received the Kalyani Upasampada of the Siyam Nikaya from Benthara Atthadassi,   but later found that this ordination was suspect. Instead of joining Amarapura nikaya, Ambahawatte Saranankara decided to go to Burma and bring back a fresh Upasampada.

Kulatunge gives two possible reasons for this. He says low country Siyam Nikaya had become disgusted with their own Nikaya, which they said was corrupt and the bhikkhus immoral.  Standards of the low country monks had      deteriorated.  Vagegoda Dhammakusala, of Rankotmale vihara, Vagegoda, close to Tangalle, had some time before, written to Saranankara Sangharaja about the unprincipled behavior of the low country Siyam monks.

Low country Siyam also found that Malwatte looked down on them   as second class. Low country Siyam monks were not given equal status by Malwatte, though they were equally learned. It is difficult to see how these could have been precipitating causes for Ven. Ambagahawatte to run to Burma, but these are the explanations Kulatunge has found.

Kulatunge says Ambahawatte Saranankara had been influenced to go to Burma by his teacher Ven. Bulatgama Dhammalankara.  Two bhikkhus who had got ordained in Burma earlier, Pohoddaramulle Vanaratana    and Vaskaduwe Dhammakkhanda had also told him about Burma.

Ambahawatte Saranankara left for Burma in 1860, with Dipegoda Silakkandha, Palpola Dhammadassi, two samanera and two laymen.    He received higher ordination in 1861 in Ramanna desa in Lower Burma,   from Neyyadhamma Munivara nanakitsiri Sangharaja of Ratnapunna Vihara.  He was given the name ‘Indasabhavaranana Sami’. He received a second ordination at   Udakukkhepa Sima, in Irrawaddy River. 

The team returned in 1862 to Galle harbor, to a great welcome. Those assembled to meet him included Ven. Bulatgama Dhammalankara of Paramananda Vihara in Galle and Ven. Akmimana Sobhita of Vijayananda Pirivena in Wellawatte in Colombo. 

Thereafter the first higher ordination of the new Ramanna Nikaya was performed in 1864 at Udakukkhepa sima at Mahamodera Galle. Those ordained were all from Siyam nikaya. The delay of two years was because they were waiting to join up with two other monks, Ven. Warapitiye Sumitta and Puwakdandave Pannananda ,   who had also gone to obtain ordination from Siam and Ramanna. Sumitta acted as the Preceptor for the Ramanna Upasampada.

Kulatunge also mentions another ordination.  He says 16 from Matara nikaya   and five from Ambagaswatte group had, assembled at Sailabimbaramaya in Dodanduwa and got ordained and entered the order under Mirisse Dhammananda. Ambagahawatte had signed as Ambagahawatte Indasabhavaranana Sami  in the articles of association of this nikaya.    It is not clear how these two ordinations link up.

A second Ramanna Higher ordination ceremony was held at Gampola in 1867. An Udakukkhepa sima was built on Mahaweli Ganga at Rankada Ella near Gampola by the owner of Unambuwa walawwa, Gampola, with the assistance of others. The bhikkhus of the aranyavasi group received ordination from Ramanna there.

Ramanna Nikaya has looked to the forest monks to increase its ranks. Most of the forest monks at the time were attached to Asgiri. They were happy to leave Asgiri and join Ramanna as all sorts of charges were made against Asgiri. Ramanna Nikaya is today known for its vanavasi monks.

Ramanna spread in Nuwara Kalaviya, Sat Korale, Satara Korale, Dumbara, Matale, Hevaheta, Uda palata. Ramanna also expanded into Kegalla and Dambadeniya, helped by bhikkhus such as Minvane Dhamma kusala, Katugastota Sumanatissa and Naranpanave Indrajoti.

There were other bhikkhu lineages that supported the spread of Ramanna in the up country. They included, Sarananda bhikku paramparava, whose center, Sarananda Pirivena was in Anuradhapura. Also the Waduwatte parapura and the Handagala parapura in Nuwara Kalaviya.  Handagala vihara in Hurulu palata is a Ramanna vihara. The Vanavasi parapura of Kossokanda at Maradankadavala which has links with the Handagala group also helped propagate Ramanna.

Ramanna nikaya had its own distinctive style. They used begging bowls instead of plates. Instead of umbrellas, they used folded palmyrah leaves, in the form of “bogava”.  The bogava introduced by Ambagahawatte was made usable by CB Nugawela, chairman of the Up country Sabha for the Protection of Nikaya. They wore robes that were   dyed according to the traditional rules.

More important, Ramanna did not allow devales for various gods   to be built in their temples. They rejected the worship of the gods.In 1871 Ambagahawatte began a debate on the subject. The Deva puja vadaya”    continued for three or four decades.

Ramanna Nikaya was considered to have pure, disciplined, virtuous bhikkhus, stated Kulatunge. Ramanna gave ordination to anyone without caste discrimination. These practices impressed the intelligentsia and they supported the Ramanna nikaya, said Kulatunge.

Ramanna succession led to many disputes and the possibility of splits. However, Kulatunge reports that ‘all acted in unity while performing Upasampada. Regional Samagri Samgha sabhas were set up, such as the Up country Sri Athadassi Sangha sabha of the Gallangolla Samgha Community.

This Gallangolla samgha community, which is vanvasi, objected to Ramanna obtaining registration from the government .They said that in ancient times there was no such thing.  This was interference into their freedom. They split and formed the Mulika Ramanna Nikaya in 1954. They reunited with the rest of Ramanna in 1968.

The three nikayas were named after the places from where     they got their higher ordinations. Siyam Nikaya simply took the name of the country the Upasampada came from, Siam. In the case of Amarapura and Ramanna, they took the name of the Burmese region that the ordination came from. Amarapura was in Upper Burma close to present day Mandalay. Ramanna desa was in Lower Burma. Hamsavati was one of the three divisions in Ramanna.

The Sangha never liked the fact that the two Nikayas which had broken away from Siyam, Amarapura and Ramanna, were operating as separate nikayas, bringing the total of main Nikayas to three. The Sangha wanted to see the two ‘younger’ Nikayas brought together

A historic agreement merging the Amarapura and Ramanna Chapters was signed in 2019.The two chapters would hereafter be known as a single entity, the Sri Lanka Amarapura Ramanna Saamagri Maha Sangha Sabha.”The agreement was signed by the Amarapura Mahanayake,  Ven. Kotugoda Dhammavasa and the Ramanna Mahanayaka, Ven. Napana Pemasiri .The two prelates would function as Joint Chairpersons of the new Sangha Sabha.

The agreement marks a turning point in the history of the Buddha Sasana in the country, said the Sangha. It was reached after years of talks.  The reasons for this merger included the need to take decisions jointly regarding issues affecting the Buddha Sasana and the country, building a disciplined Sangha society and providing guidance to young monks to face social challenges.

The Sangha community, it appears, is in no hurry to add Siyam Nikaya to this list.  The Siyam Nikaya remains the most important of the three Nikayas. It played a historical role. It is the Nikaya which saved Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It is also Sri Lanka‘s sole royal nikaya. It was installed in Sri Lanka at a high diplomatic level.  The Dalada Maligawa and   the Raja Maha vihara come under Siyam Nikaya. Siyam has the best Upasampada, one which can be traced directly to the Sinhala Upasampada which had gone to Thailand long ago.

The division between the three Nikayas did not  get deeper over the years. There was nothing to  encourage further division and plenty to discourage it. There were no doctrinal differences, no separate congregations and no differences in ritual.    All three Nikayas  ministered to the same pool of lay Buddhists,  uttering the same gathas and reciting the same pirit.

In 1998 or so, Bellanwela Wimalaratne   and Karagampitiye Jinaratana  said in interview that divisions in terms of nikayas are not there now in the way it was in the past. Today, the three Nikayas work together and receive alms together. There is no division as such, they said. Now everyone works together except in disciplinary proceedings. When necessary monks live for extended periods in temples that do not  belong to their own nikaya. The Sangha   now  group themselves according to pupillary succession.

 Until the Siyam Nikaya was set up, there was no talk of caste in the sangha.the Pali sentence used by  Malwatte was  also present in the   Polonnaruwa and Dambadeniya katikavata. There  it was interpreted mean ‘suitable persons’ which was always a condition in enrolling into the Sangha. The present caste system was not in existence at the time, anyway.

Walpola Rahula in his  book Satyodaya”, (Godage 1992) pointed out  that though Buddhism does not recognize caste, caste is active in all three Nikayas in modern Sri Lanka . Siyam starts with caste. In the case of Amarapura and Ramanna,though there is no caste barrier to  joining, ‘caste is alive and active in the temple’ ,said Walpola Rahula. There is a secret presence of caste.’

It is not that secret. The caste affiliation of a  Karawe temple, for instance, is open knowledge. I think ( Kamalika Pieris)   that  temples get linked to a particular caste,  not because of the Sangha,but becase of the patrons, those who gave the money to build the temple.These donors tend to come from just one caste. The chief priest installed there   would  be someone known to them and therefore also of the same caste and the pupillary descent would also go caste-wise.  But the caste affiliation of a Buddhist temple ends there.

Any Buddhist vihara is open to all Buddhists, whatever the caste. They can come in and worship, attend bana, pirit, participate in a  prerahera, give a dane,  or simply sit   there, regardless of their social status. Access is not denied in a Buddhist temple on grounds of caste,  or any other status.

There is also another twist to this. The creation of Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas indicate  that Sri Lanka did not have a strong caste system or indeed a caste system at all. In a normal caste system,  never mind a strict one, castes which are prohibited from ordination, cannot  crash in and create new Nikayas as they did here.

Kulatunge suggests that if the Amarapura and Ramanna  Nikayas were not created then the non-govi castes would have gone Christian , ‘like Wattala Negombo and Chilaw.’ This is unlikely. Sri Lanka has undergone 450  years of Christian rule and throughout this period  there was fierce resistance to conversion.

Non-Buddhists, specially Christians working in  questionable NGOs , look at the Nikayas and declare that Buddhism is a caste ridden religion. They seem unaware that in India, Christianity was confined to the low castes. In Sri Lanka too  the Christian church was obliged to respect caste differences. Ralph Pieris told me that his family was living in Panadura in late 1930s or early 1940s (  forget which) and the Anglican Church they attended had two separate sets of pews for Govigama and Karawe.

 In Protestant Christianity, each Christian  is registered with a church and attends services there. Baptisms are also carried out in that church, with great sentiment. If a Christian is dying, you need to know   the church the patient attended, before you  can find a  priest to give Extreme Unction. Otherwise they will not come. Extreme Unction differs with each denomination, apparently.  I speak from experience .In the Buddhist  community, a bhikkhu will come  to a  deathbed without  asking any questions.

To conclude, Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas  did not arise  due to doctrinal disputes and the wish to start new religions, as in the case of Protestant Christianity. Nor was it an excuse to  engage in a purely caste exercise. If so, all they had to do was to get a shoddy Upasampada  from somewhere  and  wave the caste flag. The non-Govigama castes, wanted  instead to create  a  non-govi Sangha that the island could be proud of  and in this way  contribute to the  strength and integrity of the Sangha. This essay is based on information from T.G. Kulatunge’s  Buddhist Nikayas in Sri Lanka


Chandra R de Silva, historian has provided some factual information on the nikayas..

  • CR de Silva says Siyam Nikaya has over 18,000 monks. Amarapura has about 12,000 and Ramanna has between 6000 and 8000 monks.
  • Amarapura nikaya split into divisions due to geography, caste identity and other disputes. Each   branch has its own Mahanayake. The Constitution of the Amarapura Nikaya specifically forbids the use of official titles when participating in political activity.
  • Ramanna has a single Mahanayake and is organized into regional units. It is particularly strong in the south west, but has expanded into other regions during the last century.     It has no specific caste affiliation, but many of its prominent lay supporters are from the Karava caste.
  • Seniority and respect among peers is the key factor in advancement in the Nikaya hierarchies. Ramanna is the most democratic in this respect. It allows a monk with three months residence in an area to have a vote in the Regional council. But the President and Vice President have to be ‘mahastavira’ or monks with at least ten years of experience after their higher ordination. All other office bearers also come from senior ranks.
  • In the case of Amarapura, the Ruling Council of 43 is made up of the Mahanayakes and the secretaries of the 21 constituent units plus the Chief Secretary General of the Nikaya. It is this body of senior Bhikkhus who elect the Supreme Chief, ‘Uttaritara Mahanayake’ who has life tenure. The executive committee of 11 bhikkhus that makes most of the decisions is equally tilted toward senior monks, being made up of 6 office bearers and 5 other monks elected by the Ruling council, Sri Lanka Amarapura Mahasanghasabhaa.

(Source Buddhism, Conflict and violence in modern Sri Lanka, ed. by Mahinda Deegalle, 2006, repr 2020) (Concluded)

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