The power and the glory of Mahavamsa
“And the soothsayers, when they saw the seats prepared, foretold: ‘The earth is occupied by these (bhikkus); they will be lords upon the island.’ – Mahavamsa–IV:53. . In the opening paragraph Bhikku Mahanama, the Father of Sri Lankan history, makes it clear that he didn’t sit down to write the Mahavamsa because he had oodles of time hanging on his hands and did not know what to do with it. He declares in no uncertain terms that his mission was to write a new history from the available old histories (example: Atthakathas, Dipawamsa). The result was a classic text in historiography that gave meaning and purpose to the adventurous, intrepid and creative journey of the descendants of the Aryan First Settlers. Though there were pre-Aryans like the Nagas and the Yakkas it is the indelible footprints left behind by the First Settlers that elevates them as the pioneering makers of history in the island. In time they came to be known as the Sinhala-Buddhists who steered their way triumphantly down the passage of time into the 21st century. The Mahavamsa says that “all those (followers of Vijaya) were (also) called Sihala.” (MV – VII: 42). (Please note that all MV quotes in this article are from Wilhelm Geiger’s translation). With or without the Mahavamsa, the epigraphical and archaeological evidence would confirm that the Sinhala-Buddhists were not only the pre-eminent makers of history but also the guardians of history and its heritage. The monumental legacies left behind by the Aryan-“Sihalas” establish incontrovertibly that it was they who laid the foundations for a new civilisation. Their declared mission, as stated in the Mahavamsa, was to make “the island a fit dwelling-place for men” (MV-1:43). They accomplished that mission with monumental contributions to art, architecture, engineering, humane culture, language, religion, and other achievements that could match any other civilisation of its time. And according to accepted tradition making the “the island a fit dwelling-place for men” makes them the legitimate inheritors of its territory, history and the legacy left behind by their forefathers. For instance, the history that rules America, Australia, etc., is based on this principle. Mahavamsa is the document that goes back in time to trace the footsteps of those who made history. The committed and dedicated purpose of their historic journey in the island was clearly defined from the outset. It set out the purpose, meaning and the direction taken by the Aryan First settlers who opened up the virgin land and paved the paths for the unfolding future fulfilled by the descendants of the “Sihalas”. Mahavamsa, therefore, is just not a record of who did what, when and where. It depicts history as a secular and spiritual journey. Whether it is in spelling out the goals of history, or in defining the guiding ideology, or in narrating the events that shaped the evolving history, historian Mahanama took great care to weave all factors into a holistic panorama. By the time he wrote his history the nation had advanced into a cultural and political maturity and unity, including the act of giving the final touches to the new Sinhala language which had been evolving in the preceding centuries. He had also witnessed the great unthinkable: the rift that split the Sangha into two camps with King Mahasena taking the side of the Mahavihara. With all these events behind him he was in a commanding position to survey the past and portray the sense of nationhood that had gathered momentum into a lasting and formidable historical force. In the compassionate and universal language of the Mahavamsa the sole objective was to “make the island a fit dwelling-place for men”– the ultimate goal of religious leaders, utopians, visionaries and secular philosophers. From Isaiah to Marx they all agreed on this fundamental. Making the world “a fit dwelling-place for men” is the ultimate pragmatic and humane vision. It projects the attainable resting place for worldlings running in search of elusive havens. It is the soteriological and the teleological goal available for all human agents struggling to make history work for all mankind. There are no messianic missionaries prophesying the end of the world and leading the people to dead-ends as in the Middle Ages of Europe. Mahanama’s concise and compressed definition of making the world “a fit dwelling-place for men” found its expanded and detailed expression in the UN Charter. It can be argued that it is Mahanama’s seminal thoughts expressed in the broad terms that evolved in time to the detailed contents in the UN Charter. Every bit of the UN Charter is to create a “fit dwelling-place for men” in the world. The benign underlying objective of political theories, which wound its way into the UN Charter as the ultimate repository of the ideals of the political man, is to make the world – all of it – into a “fit dwelling place for men”. Unlike millenarian wild dreams of Christian Europe which have ended in dystopias, Mahanama’s objective is an attainable goal. The single thread that runs through political philosophers and visionaries, from Isaiah to Marx, is the hope of making the world “a fit dwelling-place for men” with all its freedoms, liberties, equalities, fraternities, resources, dignity, respect and the universality of the rights of man, rising above caste, class, creed, race, and gender. In this day and age, these fundamentals are taken for granted as basic secular necessities that would go to make the world a “fit dwelling-place for men”. But to have conceived this concept in the 5th century can be attributed to the universality of Buddhist compassion for all sentient beings. In crafting this felicitous and comprehensive phrase it is fair to assume that Mahanama would have envisaged the inclusion of these fundamentals in a spirit of compassion and tolerance. Of course, considering the limitations of his time, he could not have thought of it in the refined political terms of the 21st century. But life, liberty and happiness are fundamentals inherent in the Dhamma. Certainly, it is not dressed in the secular manifestations found in materialistic America. But Buddha was the first to recognise the worth of the individual and his responsibilities and duties for his own salvation and, by extension, that of society. For it to be defined so succinctly in the 5th century highlights the intellectual depth and the pragmatic insights of historian Mahanama. The “Sihala” descendants of the First Aryan settlers made “the island a fit dwelling place for all men” by creating (1) a new civilisation, (2) a new culture and (3) a new language. These three unique contributions, which no other community even attempted to create, stand today as the pillars of the nation. In making history down the ages the “Sihalas” were conscious of their responsibilities and duties to their future as well as to the non-“Sihalas”, most of whom were absorbed into the mainstream. The role they played indicates that they were driven by a deep sense of history, protecting and defending their identity and territory, particularly from Indian and Western invaders. The Mahavamsa shines today as the symbol and the transmitter of that deep sense of history. Though it dealt with the past it was meant for the future. It shaped the future of the evolving a nation. No other known text has had the ideological and political impact as Bhikku Mahanama’s 37 chapters. There are 17 universities and “4,500 faculties in Sri Lankan university system”. (The Island, 19/6/18 – Devenesan Nesiah). Which university or faculty has produced anything comparable to that of the Mahavamsa? The laboured doctoral theses of current holders of chairs in academia are gathering dust in the morgues of university libraries where the MA and PhD theses pile up like discarded cadavers, unread, unsung, unwanted and unknown. The Mahavamsa, on the contrary, remains as live force to this day, renewing its power with each passing century. Eminent scholars have been falling over each other to analyse its contents in minute detail. There are four main translations in English, starting from that of George Turnour (1837) of the Ceylon Civil Service. Before Turnour’s translation there was a French translation done by Eugene Burnouf (1826). Scholars also have discovered Burmese and the Cambodian translations of the Mahavamsa. Dr. Hema Goonatilake, UN adviser to Cambodia, has documented in her essays on Buddhism in South East Asia that epic scenes from the Mahavamsa have been painted on the walls of the Myinkaba Kubyank-gyi temple by the Burmese King Kyanzitta in 1113 in honour of his dying father. (Goonatilake, 12th century paintings of Mahavamsa in Burma, Sri Lanka Puravidya Samhita, Vol 2, Archaeological Society of Sri Lanka, 2006). The Mahavamsa advanced further into Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Dr. Goonatilake’s research has revealed the role of Sinhala monks as missionaries who had to first combat legacies of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism in converting these nations to Theravada Buddhism. The best known translation is that of the Indologist Wilhelm Geiger. It became so popular that one of the most respected historian / archaeologist, Prof. S. Paranavitana, said: “Poor Mahanama! Everyone calls his book as Geiger’s Mahavamsa!” (p.21, Mahavamsa, The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, edited by Dr. Ananda Guruge, Lake House publications.) Nevertheless, the Mahavamsa has come in for criticism, and even derision, by the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist lobby, particularly in academia, because they are under the misapprehension that it has glorified the Sinhala-Buddhists, denying the minorities their rightful place. But nowhere in the Mahavamsa has historian Mahanama said that it was written for the Sinhala-Buddhists. He is quite specific on this aspect. He says, at the end of each chapter that it was “compiled for the serene joy and emotional peace of the pious.” Like all good historians he is conscious of plurality and diversity. He points to the political principle that the king (state) is anointed “mindful of the good of all” (MV – 1V:7). He is emphatic that the king (state) is not anointed for the Sinhala-Buddhists alone which he could have done if he was a propagandist for the Sinhala-Buddhists. He is conscious of the presence of the non-Sinhala-Buddhists. In particular he gives a prominent place to the Tamils. For instance, he places the Tamil king Elara on a pedestal. The extent of the honour he confers on Elara for his just rule demotes some of the Sinhala kings to a lesser grade of rulers. Mahanama was to history what Elara was to his subjects – a fair, objective and just judge of events. It is his neutrality and objectivity that makes Mahanama a great historian. His use of neutral language without keeling heavily and excessively to glorify Buddhism is, for a Buddhist monk, a remarkable achievement. He neither preaches overly nor excoriates the “other” as Satanic forces that should be exterminated. Occasionally, he talks of “asawas” without resorting to severe condemnation. His references to Buddhism are measured, subtle and indirect. His refrain at the end of every chapter is a case in point. When he says that each chapter was “compiled for the serene joy and emotional peace of the pious” it comes from the depths of Buddhist philosophy. But he does not couch it in Buddhist terminology. It does not sound like another precept of Buddhism. He phrases it in tempered non-Buddhistic terminology that is acceptable to every layman, Buddhist or non-Buddhist. The heavy hand of Buddhist preaching is kept out, as much as possible, for the flow of the overall secular narrative.