Looking back at Sri Lanka's early history
During the period of history that begins with the sixth century B.C.
and ends with the close of the fifteenth century A.D., our ancestors,
especially of the Lion race, have earned fame and honour for their great
achievements - political, economic and cultural.
These achievements constitute the greater part of the national
heritage of Sri Lanka. There had been an intermingling of diverse
cultures that enriched the civilisation and culture of the island.
The people endowed with originality and genius succeeded in evolving
a distinctive culture that can be called our own-an indigenous culture.
Today, we need to develop a line of national thinking based on our
national heritage. This is a pre-requisite for elevating the Motherland
to the prestigious status. 'The Wonder of Asia'.
Avukana Buddha statue exudes serenity
and compassion of the founder of Buddhism that changed the
course of Sri Lanka’s history
The social system introduced by the Indo-Aryan colonists has lasted
up to date. It has the village as its basic unit. The rice-cultivation
they introduced is the basis of our agricultural economy. The dialect
they spoke evolved into Sinhala language the medium through which the
profound and sublime thoughts and the sensibilities of a people refined
by humanity have been expressed.
Humanity is the most striking feature of our civilisation as in the
Indian civilisation. The rule by Gamani - the village head, evolved into
the institution of kingship.
The kingdom of Anuradhapura that spanned over the vast plains of
Rajarata came into existence in the fourth century B.C. Pandukabhaya
became the king. The fact that this kingdom lasted 1,500 years in a
unique event in the history of the Island. It is also a very rare event
in world history.
Introduction of Buddhism and establishment of the Buddha Sasana
(Buddhist Order) by Arhat Mahinda, a son of the great Emperor, Asoka, in
the third century B.C. is undoubtedly the greatest event in the long
history of the island. Within about half a century, the New Faith spread
throughout the length and breadth of the country. Buddhism became the
national religion and also the State religion.
The rapid spread of Buddhism, and all that by peaceful means, is a
very rare event in the religious history of the world. Almost all the
kings of Lanka were patrons of the Buddhism - "At the time of Dutugamunu
and his brother, Sadda Tissa, the island witnessed the zenith of
Buddhist Glory" (Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon - P72, by Dr. E. W.
Adikaram). The firm establishment of the Buddha Sasana on the soil of
Lanka, is symbolized by the oldest historical tree of the world - Jaya
Sri Maha Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura.
"It is doubtful if any other single incident in the long history of
their race has seized upon the imagination of the Sinhalese with such
tenacity as the planting of the aged tree. Like its pliant roots which
find sustenance on the face of the bare rock and cleave their way
through the stoutest fabric, the influence of what it represents, has
penetrated into the innermost being of the people till the tree has
become almost human". (Paul E. Pieris, quoted by Prof. G. P.
Malalasekara, the Pali Literature of Ceylon P.24)
The concept of Dharmadvipa closely associated with Buddhism as the
State religion has been a dynamic historical force.
The concept implies that the king of the Island, should be
essentially a Buddhist. He should be guided by the Maha Sangha - The
Buddhist Fraternity and the traditional code of ethics - 'Perasiritha'.
The sanction of the Maha Sangha was essential-for anyone to be king.
He should rule the country righteously (daehaemen semen).
He should patronize the Buddhist shrines. Preservation of Buddhism
was the paramount duty of the king. Sri Lanka had the distinction of
being accepted as the centre of Theravada Buddhism in South-East Asia.
The Sacred Scriptures - Pali Tripitaka that had been orally handed
down was written on ola leaf at Matale, Alu Vihare in the first century
B.C. a wise decision taken to ensure the preservation of the Dhamma. We
are fortunate that we possess myriads of Pali Chronicles which narrate
the history of the island.
The great Pali Chronicle, the Maha Vamsa, written about the fifth
century A.D. is unique as a source of history for it narrates the
history of the Island in unbroken continuity, with sufficient details of
the main events, and these have been confirmed by many other sources,
i.e. epigraphic and archaeological.
A people divided into diverse groups, such as race, tribe, caste and
creed were brought together under the Buddhist Wheel - Dharma-Chakra,
the symbol of virtue and power, thus resulting in social unification
that eventually led to political unification. Vasabha became the king of
the whole Island, in the first century A.D.
Edification of the people was the onus of the king. Village temples
and spacious monastic buildings were constructed. Vast monastery
complexes were built in the cities: for instance, Maha Vihara at
Anuradhapura. Maha Viharaya was also a great centre of learning,
perhaps, it was the oldest university of the world. Stupendous stupas
(dagabas) were built.
An elementary knowledge of the Stupa was borrowed from India, but the
ancient Sinhalese artist developed it further. Stupa is one of the
magnificent creations in ancient Lanka. Ruwanweli stupa of the great
King Dutugamunu is the oldest and the tallest stupa built of brick in
the ancient Buddhist world. Being built on a very strong foundation,
nearly twenty fathoms deep, it rises into the deep blue sky, with its
colossal, milk-white, bubble-shaped dome, depicting the incomparable
greatness of the Master and the absolute Truth of Impermance. Stupa,
like many other art-forms of the period, evokes "serene joy and emotion
of the pions'.
The new faith-encouraged rational and realistic thinking,
self-confidence and self-discipline, love of freedom, religious
toleration, eco-friendliness and simple way of life.
Values are the basic of culture, the core of which is disciplined
behaviour. The system of values of Sri Lanka, particularly in the
traditional Sinhalese village is common to that in any other advanced
culture. Prof. J. B. Dissanayake gives us a vivid picture of the values
in the traditional Sinhalese village. (The Monk and the Peasant). The
life of the farmer is imbued with values such as kindness to animals,
respect for elders and sense of being grateful. The sinhalese Buddhist
Villager shares what he has with others, and treats others as one (with
equality). The Caste System that was in vogue has not been rigid,
relative to that in India.
The institution of slavery too was mild relative to that in ancient
Assyria. The number of slaves was limited. The people worked with a
cooperative spirit. They had great concern for health and hygiene. They
respected and protected public property.
Though the land they cultivated belonged to the king, in theory, they
were the de facto owners of those lands. All in all, Buddhism is the
golden thread that runs through the fabric of our civilization.
Except in few instances, the king did not claim the divine right to
kingship. He maintained law and order in the country and withstood
foreign attacks. The virile, valiant, freedom-loving people, trained in
war-craft, were with the king. Though the country was affected by waves
of foreign aggression,
It was only once in our long history that we lost our national
freedom. Monarchy, as the form of government had received the acceptance
from the subjects and it lasted till 1815 A.D.
The Indo-Aryans who came to Ceylon and colonised it had a knowledge
of both rice cultivation and of irrigation. From this basic elementary
knowledge there developed later, the greatest engineering skill
exhibited in the ancient Sinhalese kingdom, namely the progressive
building up of a colossal and complex system of inter-related dams and
canals mingling the waters of rivers flowing in different directions;
"no parallel of the same magnitude and intricacy in the contemporary
India" (Concise History of Ceylon pp 97-98).
"The tank-temple and village concept of development formula may have
not yielded princely comfort and wealth for everyone, but at least
ensured that no one went hungry to his or her mat at night": Editorial,
CDN of Aug. 6, 2004. So, in ancient Lanka, there was progress with
The "Gam Sabha", the village committee in the 18th century, settled
disputes among the villagers. The ordinary man who had absorbed the
quintessence of the Buddhist Teaching was a man of virtue and matured
wisdom and to that extent he closely resembled a philosopher. He was
self-restrained and descent.
Though devout Buddhists, the people were not pessimistic and
lethargic. They did not hold the ascetic view of life. They had a
refined taste of beauty.
The ancient Sinhalese art is not a replica of ancient Indian Art.
Ours is symbolical, spiritual and realistic as well. Martin
Wickramasinghe, the sage of Koggala, tells us in an article entitled
"Literary and humanist aspects of Jataka Stories, CDN June 19, 1965,
that the Buddhist Jataka Stories are the oldest, representative and
realistic stories of the world. A.D.T.E. Perera, the then Asst. Editor
of the Buddhist Encyclopaedia, is of the view that our art is
predominantly religious in both theme and concept. It differs from the
contemporary Buddhist art of India, in general.
He further says, that the ancient Sinhalese art, influenced the art
in the lands of South-East Asia. In regard to the Stupa, he tells us,
"Of all artistic concepts of the Buddhist, the Stupa (dagaba) was the
apex through which streamed down other lateral trends" - (The
Revolutionary Buddhist Art of the Sinhalese - the article published in
the Ceylon Observer of May 20,1970).
The Sinhalese Art at the time also different from the Western Art in
the Medieval Period. Naturalism is the landmark feature of that Western
Art. The Sinhalese art addressed the inner being of man's-spiritual life
and wisdom. Hence it is intellectual.
It is unsullied by mysticism. Simplicity is the most striking feature
of the ancient Sinhalese art. "It was a religious art and so, a popular
art. It was also a National art -
It was the art of a people whose kings were one with the religion and
the people." (Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy - The Medieval Sinhalese Art
preface). Dr. Pandit Amaradeva, the Maestro of Sinhalese Music, tells,
that a great artist closely resembles a sage. He takes the Way of the
Prof. Senarath Paranavithana, the savant, makes the following
observation: "During the long period of nearly two thousand years, the
island passed through various vicissitudes, but in the main its
destinies were shaped by the actions of its own people.
While it was, by its geographical position, exposed to political,
economic and cultural influences from various directions, its people,
during the greater part of the period...... had enough vitality to
absorb modify and assimilate these to suit their own environment.
Not only did they succeed in evolving a political and social system
which stood the test of time, but they also exerted considerable
influence, particularly in the domain of culture and religion, on the
life of peoples in many lands of South-eastern Asia. Among the peoples
of the Indian civilisation the island was held in an esteem much greater
than was its due,
if the extent of territory and its material resources were the
determining factor. Though not unaffected by the revolutionary changes
in religious doctrines which the neighbouring continent witnessed from
time to time, the people of Ceylon, throughout his long period,
considered it of paramount importance to preserve the form of Buddhism
which they received from India, early in their history, thus making a
distinctive contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind" (History
of Ceylon, Vol 1 - part 1 Introduction, University) publication.
The civilization and culture of the Resplendent Island of Sri Lanka,
a tiny bubble in the indian Ocean, yet esteemed as the Pearl of the
Orient and seen by the great Russian writer, Anton Chekov as the
Paradise on Earth, is the fascinating story of a people, intensely
inspired by lofty ideals, particularly the Ideal of Nirvana - the
Supreme Bliss of Buddhism. The island owes much to Buddhism.
Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a great son of Lanka reminds us, "It is
a great loss to be ignorant of and indifferent to the past". He quotes
the true saying, "a people without a past is as a ship without ballast."