“The Historical and Philosophical Background of Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka“-Ven. Dr. Rambukwelle Devananda
Posted on January 22nd, 2021

Book Review Dr. Sudath Gunasekara B. A.  (Hons) (Geography) Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Ph. D. (Agriculture)

Book Review Dr. Sudath Gunasekara B. A.  (Hons) (Geography) Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Ph. D. (Agriculture)

Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Visiting Lecture Univ. Peradeniya, Retired Permanent Secretary to Prime

Minister Sirimavo Bandaarnaayaka (SLAS) 21.1.2021.

Ven. Dr. Rambukwelle DevanadaThera Chief incumbent of Sri Sambhodi Vihaara, Berlin, was awarded

a Ph.D. (Dr. Phil) magna cum laude” with First Class Honours by the prestigious Berlin Humboldt

National University of Germany for a Dissertation written in German on the Historical and Philosophical

background of Buddhist Festivals in Sri Lanka. He was registered as a post graduate student of the World

Religions and Philosophy Faculty of the University of Humboldt. This is the first time a Sri Lankan has

received a First Class with a magna cum laude” for a Ph.D. by the University of Humboldt.

This is a brief resume of the thesis written in German.

He begins his Dissertation with a brief introduction on Sri Lanka focusing attention on the close relationship between Lord Buddha and Sri Lanka with a short account on the pre-historic period as well.

With a short discussion on Theravada, (The Great Vehicle) Mahayana (The Lesser Vehicle) and Vajrayana Diamond Vehicle”) traditions in Buddhism he has pointed out the historicity and the authenticity of Theravaada tradition very clearly.

The author extensively make use of works like Mahavansa and Chulavansa by Wilhelm Geiger (1953) edition first published in (1912) History of Ceylon by K.L.M. De Silva (1981 Edition) printed in Los Angeles, The history of Buddhism in Ceylon WalpolaRahula and Deepavansa by Hermann Oldenburg (printed in Delhi and Madras reprinted in Berlin (1879) to trace back authenticity of historical events like the arrival of Vijaya in 543 BC coinciding with the passing away of Lord Buddha; the founding of the Anuradhapura Kingdom; The advent of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in 307 BC with the arrival of MahindaThera and the conversion of the whole Island to Buddhism and the Tambapanni being called the Dhramadweepa ((The Land of Righteousness) in the backdrop of this Island being sanctified thrice by Lord Buddha’s visits. With these events occurring in this manner the author traces back the origin of Sri Lankan art of Stupa building tradition, Festival of the Tooth Relict and other Buddhist festivals like the Poson festival also to a period as early as the 3rd Century BC.

Then he goes on to give a brief account of all important religious events from Anuradhapura period to the beginning of the Kandyan Kingdom. It is followed by a detailed narration of important religious events starting from the committing to writing of the Tripitaka in 103 BC at Matale at Aluvihaara for the first time in world history, the decline of Buddhism since then up to the Kandy period (1460-1753), and the religious revival that took place during the Kandy period among which the most important events were the introduction of Higher Ordination from Siam in 1753 and the inauguration of the Siamese Sect and thereby re-establishment of Buddhism in this country. The changes and decline of Buddhist festivals over time during this period are also well documented.

Thereafter he gives special attention to document the national, religious and cultural destructions and devastation done by the Western colonial invaders like Portuguese (1505+ 1658), Dutch (1658-1796)  and the British (1796 -1948) He has clearly documented the revival of Buddhist traditions during the Kandyan period that were dormant due to restrictions and bans imposed by the Portuguese during their time. The lifting of the ban on the Vesak Holiday that continued up to the British times, the restarting of the Kandy Esala Perahera and the Buddhist resurgence is well documented. He devotes the first Chapter to show the destruction the Western colonial invaders had continuously done for 443 year to this country.

The author who delves on an analysis of the manner in which the living beings transmigrate in sansara being born continuously in realms with form and without form , the possibility of being born in the 136 great hells and in the same way in the four fold worlds of goblins, and the six heavens after death and how Buddha had gained the supreme position in all these realms as the Buddha, is succinctly explained to the Germen readers with the help of a graph in a manner that could be easily understood them. In the same manner he explains how Amisa Puja (material offering) could help to be born in realms of pleasure without vileness. Similarly he has explained the subtle points of the fundamental concepts such as Karma, the Doctrine of Patichchasamuppaada, Trilakshana, Punarbhavaya, Chaturaryasatya (The Four Noble Truths), AryaAsthaangikamarga (The Exalted Eightfold Path), Sila, Sansara, Sataramanga (Sovan, Sakurdaagaami, Anagaami and Arihat) and Sataraphala (linked with Nivan in detail, pointing out how merit making is closely related to the Buddhist dispensation..

While narrating the life of Buddha to trace back the fundamentals of worship practices to the life and time of Buddha the author also uses it to educate the readers on the Buddha’s life story which has helped to dispel certain misconceptions that prevailed among the Germens on Buddha’s life and connected matters. In the same way he has made use of the Thripitaka literature (The Three Baskets) to prove that there are valid reasons behind the origin and practice of Buddhist worship practices and the Buddha himself had approved the worship practices such as the worship of the threefold Saririka, Paribhogika and Uddesika relics as worship worthy objects. The author has succinctly attributed the origin, development and expansion to these objects and practices to other areas for these reasons.

In the chapter dealing on the historical development of Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka he has discussed Buddhist and Sinhala festivals separately, though they are interconnected and indivisible except for core emphasis. He points out that Hunting and Bathing ceremonies were there in this country even before the arrival of Arahat Mahinda and the Aesala Festival had got inspiration from the practices prevailed in Ancient India that were there even before the 3rd  century BC. He has added value to his Thesis by quoting from works of Authorities like Wilhelm Geiger and Edmund Hardy. Describing naming ceremonies and ploughing festivals and offering of Vihaara and monasteries during the time of the Buddha he has moved on to give details of cremation that were there after Buddha attained  Parinibbaana and gives a vivid account on the cremation ceremonies that were there during the time of the Buddha, using quotations from Maha Parinibbaana Sutta, Mahavagga in DighaNikaya thus, Bhagavato sariran Dibbehica Manussehica naccehica, giitehica vaaditehica, maalehi ghandehi sakkaranto, garukaranto, maanento, pujento” by the humans and devas Thus he gives a fascinating account of such festivals during the Buddha’s time in ancient India. Thereafter he focus his attention to all festivals and ceremonies that prevailed in Sri Lanka starting from Giribhanda festival that was there in 67-69 AD and abandoned later, AriyavansaDesana held in Anuradhapura that was again abandoned during the Polonnaruwa period and Anagatavansa Desanava, MaitriiVannana that were started during the Kandy period and were abandoned later and Suvisi Puja that could be seen even today being conducted in village temples in the Kandyan area and Ganagarohana Puja practiced during the Dambadeniya (1220-1293) period.

He has shown how different types of Amisa and Dharma puja traditions as approved by the Buddha got transformed into religious festivals, particularly the Vesak and Daladaa festival came to be recognized as historical events and how they have undergone ups and downs from time to time. He has pointed out that according to MahavansaVesak Festival had been celebrated for 28 years by King Bhatikaabhya (38-66) AD and 44 years by Vasabha (127-171) AD and Maha Parakramabahu (1153-1186) declared VesakPoya as a National Holiday and also as the National Day of the Sinhala Nation. He also has pointed out as to how bans and proscriptions imposed on VesaK celebrations and discriminations against Sinhala Buddhists by foreign invaders since 1505 (Portuguese) Dutch (1665=1796) and British (1796-1948) affected the progress of Sinhala Buddhist activities. He has extensively used the works of authorities on these subjects like Wilhelm Geiger (Chula vansa), Tennakoon Vimalananda (The State and religion In Ceylon since 1815) Henry Olcott (Der Buddhistische Kattechismus) to prove his conclusions. Delving in details on the subject of Buddhist renaissance emerged with the new lease of life given to Vesak Festival he has made a deep analysis and has shown how the Sinhala culture had become one with the Buddhist Culture. Tracing the festival of Katina Chivara puja that has assumed the most important place, second only to Vesak the author also has pointed out how the Fivefold grievous sins lead the way to hell, the Eightfold Meritorious Deeds lead the way to Nibbana. He has also given details of traditions such as invocations for the Rainy season, offering of robes for the rainy season, beginning of Vas period, ending of Vas and offering of Katina robes, quoting extensively from the Tripitaka. Making an excellent interpretation on preaching of Dhamma he has pointed out as to how preaching the Dhamma had become a Great meritorious event with examples from history. For example how King Devanampiyatissa (247-207)) and King Dutugemunu (161-140) on their own had gone to listen to Bana preaching, and King Agbo the 5th(711-717) AD, preached Bana himself to the people. At the same time he has given 16 occasions when monks should not preach Dhamma, using mahavansa, Sekiya Heranasikha, and Praatimoksha. At the same time he has shown the development of a wealth of B  uddhist literature in the country by compiling hundreds of books on Dhamma from Anuradhapura period  to the present time. He also has shown the historical and philosophical background of different variances of Bana preaching like Mangul Bana, Avamangul Bana, Pohoya Bana, Maranaasanna Bana, Mataka Bana, Kavi Bana, Bhuktaanumodana Bana, Yugaasana Bana and other Bana preaching types that have gone in to disuse. Based on PirithDesana, how they were converted to merit making events, how the Pirit Pota (Book of Protection) came in to being how Pirit Mandapas were constructed incorporating the meaning embodied in sutras and how Buddhist art and musical instruments such as Davula (Large Drum), Tammetama (Kettle Drum), Getaberaya, Hakgediya (Conch) and Horaneva (Flute) and accompanying music developed around these practices giving rise to a unique Buddhist art. He also has shown how different types of ailment both physical and mental including those caused by physical causes, evil spirits and famines and natural calamities and various other difficulties faced by humans both from the visible and un-visible forces were cured by using religious methods like Pirith for thousands of years, in an age when modern medical systems were not developed. The historical and philosophical background is also clearly explained on practices and traditions like Seth Pirit, Varu Pirith, Tunwel  pirith, Pasvel and Hath wel pirith, Tistun Paye  Pirith and Sati Pirith. He has pointed out the philosophical meaning of Saangika                                                              Daana (Daana offered to a group of minimum of five monks together with the relics casket representing the Buddha) including how it confers benefits as preached by the Buddha, how it benefit all those in the Three Worlds, the meaning of Daana and how it should be prepared and offered. Referring to Netraa Pratishthaapanaya (inserting eyes in an image) is one of the greatest meritorious acts, he says. From the discussion he has had with Suranga Rajawardhana a reputed vihaara artist in the District of Kandy the author has revealed many a rare secret on Netra pratishthaapana festival including how an image is converted to the status of a living Buddha.

The historicity of all these offerings and ceremonies, their development, and changes taken place over time like a links of a chain and how all of them are interconnected with the Buddha’s teaching, the Author has displayed in a very fascinating style.


He has made use of this section to explain in detail, many a knotty point. Among them he has included 108 terms used to name the Buddha; 94 terms to Nibbana: with Germen translations of Pali and  Sanskrit terms displaying his familiarity with both oriental and occidental languages


The number of texts author has referred in pursuit of this great feat are as follows Sinhala 30: Pali 16; English 32; Germen 22, Sutras in Tripitaka 80 and 21 Websites. This Thesis is generously illustrated with rare and relevant Photographs. Each Chapter is meaningfully linked to the other in a manner that keeps the reader interested and spell bound to read it. In addition this work includes valuable information on subjects such as history of Sri Lanka, Buddhism, Buddhist Philosophy, and 04 Buddhist social style, methods of Buddhist meditations, Sinhala culture and Buddhist Civilization. Scholarly and academic distinction:

The awarding of a First Class Honours Degree by a prestigious University one of the best in the world on Oriental studies alone is enough proof to warrant the scholarly and academic distinction of this work. Among the many eminent and distinguished scholars whose works referred to by the author include Revs Polwatte Buddhadatta, Balangoda Ananda Mayitriya, Gnanaponika, Profs. Senarat Paranavitana, Tennakoon Wimalananda, Gunapala Malalasekara, Robert Knox, Henry Parker, Henry Olcott, Wilhelm Geiger, H.C. Norman, Richard Gombrich, Herman Oldenburg, Ramachandara Rao and Ananda K.Coomarasmy.

 Professor Dr. Dr. Bertram Schmitz writes in his forward to this book Ven Rambukwelle Devananda has presented a new aspect of Theravada Buddhism to Europe that is more familiar with Mahayana. While making use of his personal experience he has explained the reasons for these Theravada ceremonies beautifully documenting every stage of these ceremonies and festivals.

 Anyone reading this work will feel that he is witnessing this experience in person. At the same time his presentation of this work within a research framework and his connectivity of Theravada Buddhism with the Western philosophy also has heavily contributed to its success”

This Thesis written in Germen running in to 488 pages was printed by Tectum at Baden-Baden. It has already been distributed to all National Universities and to over 200 Libraries and also to countries like Switzerland and Austria where Germen is used. The Price is Euro 88.00 Euro (Rs.20, 592).The interest of Germen people in this book is evident by the fact already the first print is over within one month.

This rare and extraordinary Academic achievement of Dr. Rambukwelle Devananda could be taken as an end product of his success as a Buddhist monk engaged in missionary work following the Buddha’s Path. Needless to say that this masterpiece achievement of the author by coming first among 54 International scholar candidates is an honour not only to Sri Lanka the Home of Theravada in particular and to the Malwatta Chapter of Sri Lanka to which he belongs but also to Theravada school of Buddhism in general all over the world. Born and bred as a Buddhist in a Sri Lankan Buddhist family, having entered the Order at the age of 12 years old and lived the life of a Buddhist Monk, observed and practiced  the religious rituals vigorously, his, is first hand personal experience and therefore it is an insider’s view   and this Thesis therefore is an Actors model” different from an Observers Model’ which reflects an                  outsiders view sans personal experience.

The value of this Thesis is, thus, more than anything else, the end product of long process of learning, living and reflections, reinforced by both extraordinary academic and practical competence and dedication and commitment to his religion and motherland. Even at Home, way back in Sri Lanka, in his early life both at High School / Pirivena levels and at baccalaureate at University he has demonstrated the potentials of an outstanding future scholar when he scored the highest marks in the Island in public examinations. It was Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught” (1959) that opened the doors to new dimensions in authentic Buddhism in the Western World. Reading through this Thesis made me feel that in Rambukwelle Devananda, a new Walpola Rahula is in the making. Rahula’s work of cause is an encyclopedia on Buddhism as a Doctrine, Philosophy and a Way of life where as Devanada’s work has taken a different path focusing on it as a living religion that keeps the adherents deeply attached to a refined human civilization call ed Buddhist Civilization in the world that opens the doors to happiness, peace, prosperity and contentment in life in this world.

I see no wonder on his achievements, dedication and commitment to Sasana and Buddhist religious practices in Sri Lanka, being the chief incumbent of the Sri Sumantindarama Rajamaha Viharaya, Sadananda maha Pirivena of Doranegoda, a leading Pirivena in Sri Lanka that Rajamaha  Viharaya was started during the time of King Devanampiyatissa by one of his Ministers by the name  Sumantri. Making use of his scholastic talents and deep knowledge and intuition, I invite him to undertake similar studies on Sri Lanka Buddha Statues and Stupa Art both of which are unique to Sri Lanka so that his name will be ever immortal and glitter in high heavens in the galaxies of Sri Lankan scholars.

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