Posted on April 30th, 2021


The most important achievement of the 1956 government was the entrenchment of Buddhism. MEP government gave Buddhism its ‘rightful place.’ It is tempting to make fun of this phrase but it is an accurate description of the historical role of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Buddhism came to Sri Lanka in the time of Gautama Buddha, in 6th century BC. The evidence lies in the regular exchange of travelers between the Ganges plains and Sri Lanka during this time. Arahant Mahinda who came in the 3rd century BC did not bring Buddhism, it was already there. He came, on invitation, to set up the Sinhala Sangha with its own upasampada and monasteries.

The visit of Arahant Mahinda would have been a high level embassy involving much planning. King Devanampiyatissa would not have been deer hunting in a forest when Mahinda arrived. He would have been in the city, waiting to greet Arahant Mahinda. Mahinda would not have needed to climb up a hill either.

Buddhism lacked the qualities popularly associated with ‘religion’.  It was not based on blind faith and had no salvation component. Instead Buddhism offered its followers a daunting   physical and mental discipline based on a highly intellectual argument. Anuradhapura, to its credit, was careful not to distort or reduce this thinking. It took care to preserve the doctrine.

Anuradhapura over time became a recognized centre for Buddhist studies. Maha vihara held a valuable set of commentaries written in Sinhala. Abhayagiri monastery was an international centre for Buddhist scholarship in the three main schools of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana and Tantra.

Anuradhapura helped spread Buddhism in Asia. Sinhala bhikkhunis went to China in 5 AD, probably to develop Mahayana. Bhikkhuni Chandramali went to Tibet to help with Tantric Buddhism. Abhayagiri influenced Buddhism in Indonesia. Maha vihara helped to entrench Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and Laos.

Buddhism produced a substantial literature which is well regarded today, this includes the Vamsa collection.  The Buddhist architecture of Anuradhapura was much admired.  Jetavana is recognized as one of the world tallest building, pre 7 century.  In another ranking, two stupas from Anuradhapura are included in the ten highest buildings in the ancient world,   Jetawanaramaya at 4th place and Ruvanvelisaya at 7th place.

Jetavanaramaya boasted of the largest stupa in the entire world (while also holding the honor of the tallest stupa in the ancient world), said the selectors. The originally 400-ft tall stupa accounted for an astronomical base area of 233,000 sq m,  which is equivalent to 43 football fields! This massive structure was estimated to be constructed from 93.3 million baked bricks (each of which could withstand loads of up to 166 kg), with one side of the enormous stupa measuring 576 ft (176 m) in length.

Ruvanvelisaya  (2 BC ) has a massive tapering dome originally rising to 300 ft,  and a diameter of around 295 ft (90 m) and circumference of 950 ft (292 m)., the base area of Ruvanvelisaya equates to over 68,300 sq ft, which is bigger than a conventional football field. [1] 



[1] The two sources are:  (

Buddhism played a significant role in the social and cultural life of the country from Anuradhapura  period  to  the end of the  Udarata kingdom.   The Udarata kingdom remained Buddhist. Kings were imported from Tamilnadu, but were compelled to embrace Buddhism. There is no mention of kovils in Udarata. There were no mosques either.  Muslim traders stayed in Buddhist temples.

This special position of Buddhism was recognized in the 1815 convention. Clause 5 of the Kandyan convention said. . The religion of Boodhoo, professed by the chiefs and inhabitants of these provinces, is declared inviolable, and its rites, ministers, and places of worship are to be maintained and protected.”

The British administration had no   intention of keeping this promise. The British rulers were not interested in protecting Buddhism, they wanted to contain Buddhism. They did so by encouraging three other religions, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. These religions were brought in for a disruptive purpose, to challenge Buddhism.

Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam were firmly entrenched in the island by the British administrators. The entrenchment was done mainly by the allocation of strategically placed land for churches, kovils and mosques. They were given prime land.  The dates of origin of present day churches, kovils and mosques fall within the British administration.

In Christianity, the British encouraged both Catholics and Protestants. Therefore both Catholics and Protestant churches flourished in British times. St Paul’s Church was built in the premises of the Dalada Maligawa and a Roman Catholic convent was set up in the heart of the Anuradhapura sacred area.

Hinduism was a new arrival. It catered to the Tamil immigrants brought in by the Dutch and British rulers.  Hindu kovils were artificially introduced into places which had never had Hinduism before, such as Colombo, Kandy and the central hills.

These activities were resentfully observed by the Buddhists living under British rule. Their resentment was building up and would burst at some point. They hoped for a change once Independence was granted. Independence came in 1948. The Buddhists found that after 450 years of Christian rule, they were now facing a fresh bout of post independence Christian rule under the UNP. The Buddhists were not prepared to tolerate continued Christian dominance.

 In 1951 the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress   wrote to Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake referring to the disappointment, almost resentment, growing among the Buddhists of Ceylon,” and asked the UNP government to extend to Buddhism the same patronage as was extended to it by Sinhalese rulers of old.”

 The ACBC called upon the government to remedy some of the damage done to Buddhism during the reigns of the Portuguese, Dutch and British by offering greater state support for Buddhist education, monks and temples, and to appoint a Buddhist Commission. .

Senanayake  refused. The Buddhist Congress created their own Buddhist Commission of Enquiry. The ACBC Commission undertook a two-year investigation to explore the extent of the injuries done to Buddhism during the colonial period and to recommend actions that the state should take to repair them. The work culminated with the publication of a Sinhala report, the English summary of which was titled The Betrayal of Buddhism. This report of the Buddhist Commission became one of the leading campaign documents of the 1956 election.

The 1956   MEP victory brought to the Buddhists the recognition they had asked for. Buddhism also  became important in politics. After 1956, all politicians, on taking office paid a visit to the  Dalada Maligawa  in Kandy, dressed in white and bearing trays of flowers.  Buddhism has continued to strengthen its position .

A related development of 1956 was the rise of the Maha Sangha as a political force.  the aggressive Buddhist movement that started in the 1940 and gathered momentum in the 1950s brought the entire Maha Sangha to the forefront as an active social and political force,  said Wiswa Warnapala.

 In ancient times the Sangha had a legitimate role in the political affairs of the country. They guided the king. They did not wield power directly. This traditional role was now resurrected in a modern setting.  The Sangha is now an active social and political force in modern Sri Lanka, he concluded. It is now   a permanent part of the political culture of Sri Lanka. ( continued)

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