Posted on June 4th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

Let the Poson full moon dispel the gloom!

May peace, health, and content in the land bloom!

The first three months of the lunar calendar of the Sinhalese: Bak, Vesak, and Poson (roughly corresponding to the months of April, May and June in the Gregorian calendar which is in common use today) are each marked by one of their three most important annual celebrations. The month of Bak has the Sinhala Aluth Avurudda, an age-old harvest festival organized  according to traditional astrological beliefs based on the idea of the sun completing an annual circuit across the twelve signs of the zodiac from Aries to Pisces, and resuming another  (marking the end of one lunar year and the beginning a new year); hence it is also called the Surya Mangalyaya (Sun Festival); the Aluth Avurudda is a secular celebration marked by feasting and recreational activities that usually go on for days in normal times. The Vesak is an entirely religious  ceremony that pays homage to the Buddha, marking the full moon day of the month as the day that his birth, enlightenment and death are traditionally believed to have taken place; this is the most important religious celebration of the year for Sri Lankan Buddhists. Colourful illuminations and the unique dansaelas (alms centres that offer free food and beverages to all who are willing to accept them). The third most important annual national ceremony is held on the Poson full moon poya day, which, this year falls today (June 5, 2020). It is also a completely religious event that is hardly less significant than Vesak. If Vesak is dedicated to the Buddha, Poson is held for paying homage to Arhant Mahinda, who is revered as the Anu Budu or Surrogate Buddha, for it was he who brought Buddhism to Lanka and established it as the country’s state religion in the 3rd century BCE as recorded in the Mahavansa or the Great Chronicle composed in the 5th century CE, thus officially  initiating the still dominant Sinhala Buddhist civilizational foundation of the island nation. 

The social, cultural and political significance of these celebrations is inexhaustible, irrespective of the secular or spiritual nature of each ceremony. They are not  meaninglessly fun and frolic based. They create and consolidate solidarity within the nation and project its identity to other nations as worthy of their courtesy, friendship and formal and informal recognition (i.e., what is collectively called the ‘comity of nations’), something that was gravely jeopardised during the previous few years. They are mass national morale-boosters, so to speak. These three festive or celebratory occasions could not be properly observed last year and the year before and that  fact added to the collective gloom that enveloped the Sri Lankan society when the buoyant mood of the post-war years was deliberately squashed by an engineered regime change. (Foreigners and culturally alienated locals do not experience any empathy with Sri Lankans on these points.) November 2019 brought some respite. People were hopeful that the general election that was to follow would bring a permanent end to the gloomy anarchical state of affairs, and give them the chance to celebrate all three events making up for what they had to forego before. But the Covid-19 pandemic started wreaking havoc across the world. Yet, Sri Lankans as a nation still remain relatively safe from the deadly virus, and can look forward to a reasonably early easing of the existing oppressive situation.  This is largely due to the altruistic commitment to their duties and the selfless sacrifices of the health workers and security forces personnel tasked with the containment and control of the disease; they have been efficiently mobilised and managed under the current government; the process has been facilitated by the common citizenry empowered as they are by the characteristic moral attributes of resilience, patience, compassion, and discipline imparted to them by the dominant traditional culture.

Sri Lankan Buddhists are observing the 2267th Poson Full Moon poya day today, Friday June 5, 2020. Buddhists have been instructed by the Maha Sangha and the government to do the Poson devotions and carry out other observances associated with it, while being confined to their houses as required under the quarantine conditions. The state Poson ceremony is to be held  today at the Mihintala Raja Maha Viharaya under the guidance of the incumbent monk Ven. W. Dhammaratana in conformity with specific health guidelines.  We may now reflect on the special significance of Poson for the nation in this unexpected period of apprehension as well as hope. 

The Sinhala word ‘poya’ comes from the Pali ‘uposatha’ (which means ‘to fast’); in the Sinhalese lunar calendar, the full moon day of every month is considered by the Buddhist public as their main poya day or fasting day in each month, which they are recommended  to spend, as Buddhists, engaged in religious rituals and practices. The special  significance of the Poson poya day for Buddhists derives from the fact that  Arhant Mahinda Thera (son of Emperor Asoka Dharmasoka of Jambudipa/India) arrived at Mount Missa and stationed himself ‘on the rocky peak of the delightful and celebrated Ambatthala’ in the island of Tambapanni or Lanka along with four other bhikkhus, a samanera or novice bhikkhu named Sumana (young son of Sangamitta, Mahinda Thera’s sister), and an upasaka (a lay follower) by the name of Bhandu, who was a grandnephew of Devi of Vedisa in the Avanti country, who was none other than Mahinda Thera’s mother. This momentous event has been dated to 247 BCE in terms of information given in ancient Chronicles such as Dipavansa and Mahavansa composed respectively in the 4th and 5th CE, the latter relatively more sophisticated than the former. 

Chapter 13 of the Mahavansa deals with the arrival of Arhant Mahinda Thera in Lanka and Chapter 14 with his meeting with the ruler of the island king Tissa/Devanampiya Tissa, and the royal reception of the missionaries and their simultaneous introduction to the populace in the capital Anuradhapura. From the various incidental scraps of information that can be gathered from the previous and following Chapters, it can be inferred that this obviously formal introduction of Theravada Buddhism to Lanka was as much an instance of peaceful political intervention as a religious-cultural event. For example, Arhant Mahinda lived for some time at Vedisa visiting his mother and other relatives just before proceeding to Lanka on his mission. In Chapter 13 of the Mahavansa (contained in the first part of the book translated by George Turnour in 1836, which Mudliyar L.C. Wijesinghe added, with notes and emendations, to his own  Government of Ceylon commissioned translation of the Mahavansa in two parts published in 1889), we have the following detail concerning this brief stay of Arhant Mahinda in the Avanti country: ‘At this period (of Mahinda’s visit) she (the queen) was residing there, in Cetiyanagara (LCW emends this as ‘Vedisa’). While the thera was sojourning there, he thus meditated: The period has arrived for undertaking the mission enjoined by my father. May the said Devanampiyatissa, having already solemnised his inauguration with utmost pomp, be enjoying his regal state. May he, after having ascertained from my father’s ambassador the merits of the three blessed treasures (sent by my father), acquire a right understanding of them (the doctrines of Buddha). May he on the full moon day on the month of ‘jettha’ visit Missa mountain (Mihintale), for on that very day shall I myself repair to renowned Lanka”’. So, Mahinda Thera’s mission was a royal command to be carried out; the Lankan ruler, Devanampiyatissa, on the other hand, was required by Emperor Asoka to ‘acquire a right understanding of the three blessed treasures’ (which LCW interprets as the ‘doctrines of Buddha’) earlier conveyed to the former through ambassadors sent to him by the latter (i.e., Asoka). The fact that Mahinda Thera was his son also means something; that is, it indicates a relationship that was valued at a personal level (enhancing the political aspect of the mission). Mahinda Thera waited till the death of the aged king Mutasiva, the revolutionary Pandukabhaya’s son; he was waiting for Mutasiva’s son, Devanampiyatissa to ascend the throne. This suggests that Emperor Asoka had envisaged the introduction of a lasting change of order in the country by way of converting the ruler and the people to the new spiritual way shown by the Buddha. The old Mutasiva, being his father’s son, was probably too independent minded to give up his traditional ways.

Chapter 11 gives hints about the nature of the relationship that had existed between Emperor Dharmashoka of Jambudipa and DevanampiyaTissa of Tambapanni or Lanka. The chapter is titled ‘The Inauguration of Devanampiya Tissa’. Mutasiva dies an old man after a sixty year reign, leaving ten sons and two daughters. Devanampiya Tissa, the second son, is crowned king. He sends a delegation of ambassadors led by his chief minister Maha Arittha, his maternal nephew, accompanied by the Brahman of the Hali mountain, a minister of state by the name of Malla, and a retinue, bearing royal gifts to the court of Dharmashoka in Pataliputra (Patna today). They are well received there, and after a five month stay, they return to Anuradhapura, along with Dharmashoka’s own ambassadors bearing valuable gifts and royal advice to the Lankan ruler asking him to accept the treasures of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. Dharmasoka’s ambassadors also bring requisites for Devanampiya Tissa’s coronation a second time. What made that a necessity? It is possible that the relationship between the two monarchs was unequal. It could be that it was an empire vs vassal state relationship. Even the title ‘Devanampiya’ (Pali lit. ‘beloved of the gods’) belonged to Emperor Dharmashoka. It is found in his rock edicts. It could have been conferred on the Lankan king as a special honour or a special mark of recognition. This connection laid a firm foundation for the evolution of Sri Lanka as a celebrated centre of commerce and culture on par with the physically much larger and more powerful nations in the east.

The fact that the Mahavansa itself refers to this highly formal  exchange of deputations of ambassadors between the two kings prior to the arrival of Arhant Mahinda suggests that the story of the monk on the mount with his sacred mission surprising the monarch on the chase in the wilderness is a dramatic fictionalisation of a real historical event found in the ‘epic poem’ which the Mahavansa is according to one interpretation. Probably there was no better way of recording for posterity of a gradual profound process that must have spread over a long period of time marked with disputes and debates and even violence between the adherents of local animistic forms of religious belief and the ‘newfangled’ (so to say) Buddhists (the process here being the weaning of the rulers and the common people of their primitive modes of religion). The miraculous aerial passage of Mahinda Thera and group from Jambudipa to Lanka, and from Mount Missaka (Mihintale) to the capital (Anuradhapura) must be a similar piece of fiction. The ambassadors travelled between the two countries by sea and land. The missionaries must have used the same modes of travel. The famous ‘intelligence test’ given by the monk to the king could be a part of the drama. The diplomatic interactions between the two monarchs made it evident that Devanampiya Tissa didn’t lack intelligence. Could we say that bhikkhu Mahanama, the author, in this context, mythologised history to make it more memorable and popular, instead of doing the reverse as normally charged? 

The foreign missionaries addressed the locals in the latter’s own language (the ancestor of today’s Sinhala), which means that it had been a sophisticated enough medium for them to communicate the new doctrine, and that the audiences were intellectually advanced enough to be receptive to its message. So, the ‘introduction’ of Buddhism by Arhant Mahinda was not the case of a hardly civilized primitive people being led from total darkness to clear light in spiritual terms, but  an inspiring example of an increasing number of people of an obviously civilised community being rationally and compassionately persuaded to embrace Buddhist teachings in place of their less rational traditional beliefs. It is significant that Arhant Mahinda Thera began his missionary preaching with the profound Cullahatthipadopama Sutta or the ‘Discourse on the Shorter Elephant Footprint Simile’ (for a good English translation of which one may check out this link:  https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN27.html). The Mahavansa text contains similar references to other discourses of the Buddha. Reading them is essential for a fuller understanding of the book. The Cullahatthipadopama Sutta contains the story of how brahman Janussoni, while riding out of Savatthi, at the time the Buddha  was living in Jeta’s Grove near that city, sees the Wanderer Pilotika Vacchayana coming towards him after a visit to the great sage. Janussoni is greatly impressed by what he hears about the Buddha from Vacchayana, and he calls on him. The Buddha teaches him the rational way of his teaching. If an elephant hunter finds one big footprint of an elephant in the forest and concludes that it is the footprint of a big male elephant, he is not necessarily right. There are many other points to consider before arriving at the right conclusion. Janussoni is taught about the ‘footprints’ of the Tathagata (Buddha), which involves his teachings about virtue, sense restraint, mindfulness and alertness, abandoning hindrances, the Four Jhanas, and the Three Knowledges. Buddha in this discourse makes an incidental reference to ‘cosmic expansion and cosmic contraction’ (two thousand five hundred years before modern physicists came out with the theory that the universe expands and then contracts! We are now in the expanding phase of the universe according to this theory).  A ruler and a race capable of responding to profound doctrinal concepts and explications were certainly not an uneducated and intellectually too unrefined a people.

So, we were a civilized people even before the formal introduction of Buddhism. This is being confirmed by recent archaeological discoveries and revolutionary new methods of exploring the past. We can be truly proud of our long history that is distinguished in its various aspects, of our beautiful country, of our language literature and our multilingual legacy of the past centuries, the democratic system of government which is getting stronger by surviving unprecedented trials, and above all, of our humanistic and humanitarian spiritual tradition that eschews violent extremism, and that finally ‘aims at creating a society where the ruinous struggle for power is renounced; where calm and peace prevail away from conquest and defeat; where the persecution of the innocent is vehemently denounced; where one who conquers oneself is more respected than those who conquer millions by military and economic warfare; where hatred is conquered by kindness, and evil by goodness; where enmity, jealousy, ill-will and greed do not infect men’s minds; where compassion is the driving force of action; where all, including the least of living things, are treated with fairness, consideration and love; where life in peace and harmony, in a world of material contentment, is directed towards the highest and noblest aim, the realization of the Ultimate Truth Nirvana’ (The words within quote marks are from Ven. Dr Walpola Rahula’s ‘What the Buddha Taught’. The apt relevance of these sentiments to the conflict-ridden world of today including our country need hardly be pointed out.)

The historic event that the Poson ceremony commemorates today is the ever enduring cornerstone, buried in history though it is, that our hoary forefathers laid with great hindsight and foresight for building our unique island civilization. The Sinhalese built that great edifice in Lanka, their only historic homeland, disciplined by the Buddhist teachings introduced by Arhant Mahinda. Protecting the great legacy that forms the warp and weft of the most hospitable and humane cultural fabric of our country is the responsibility of, not only the Sinhalese Buddhists, but Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and religions. It is a common inheritance of all Sri Lankans.

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