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Religious practices before Arahat Mahinda's arrival

Mahinda Thera's arrival in Lanka, and the events of the next two days as told in the Mahavamsa implies that the people of this island knew nothing of the Buddha or his teachings until Mahinda Thera spoke to them – first to the king and his men who were out hunting, the next day at the palace to the royal family and courtiers, and later to the crowd that gathered outside the palace gates, curious to see the strangers about whose arrival they had heard from those who went hunting with the king the day before, and again, the day after, to the vast crowd gathered at the Nandana Park near the south gate of the city.

The chronicles would have us believe that listening to Mahinda Thera the people accepted what he said and instantly became followers of the Buddha an exaggeration beyond belief.

Was this the very first time that the people in Lanka heard of the Buddha and the way of life he preached. Most unlikely!

Migrants

Vijaya's arrival in Lanka was followed by waves of migrants from the mainland even as there must have been before him and these men and women who settled in various parts of the island would have brought with them their gods, belief rituals and practices.

Eminent scholars, such as Dr. S. Paranavitana, Dr. E.W. Adikaram and Ven. Walpola Rahula, have ferreted out from the two Pali chronicles. Mahavamsa and Deepavamsa, and from Pali commentaries much information about the beliefs and practices of the people and the religious sects in the pre-Mahindian era in Lanka.

They found that people belonging to almost every sect in India then, were living in Lanka. King Pandukabhaya was a patron of all these sects. At the northern periphery of Anuradhapura the king established a hermitage for these various sects and for men who had given up the lay-life and belonged to no particular sect. They were the ‘Tapas'.

There were Nigantas or Jains, followers of Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha. In Pandukabhaya's time they had been a very influential sect. Three Nigantas for whom residences were built are mentioned as Jotiya, Khumbanda and Giri.

It was another Niganta, Giri, who centuries later, living in a monastery founded by King Pandukabhaya, seeing Valagamba fleeing, to escape his Damila enemies shouted ‘the big black Sinhalaya - ‘Maha Kalu Sinhalaya’ is running away.

Once Valagamba vanquished the Damilas and became king, he demolished the Niganta monastery where Giri lived and built on its site a dagaba and named it Abhayagiri after him (Abhaya) and the Nigante Giri who lived there.

The Brahmanas (Brahamins) also had a separate site in this vast complex at Anuradhapura's northern periphery. The Sottisaala mentioned with other shrines and monasteries, could be “a hall where Brahamins gave benediction” says Ananda Guruge in the comments to his translation of the Mahavamsa.

Advisers

Brahmanas (Brahamins) were the most respected and most influential of the religious groups, being advisers to the king and tutors to their sons. Brhamin rites and rituals were very much a part of the king's life.

There were Pabbajakas, a class of wondering ascetics and Ajeevakas followers of Makkhali Gosala, another contemporary of the Buddha.

King Pandukabhaya provided homes and facilities for these two groups and another group separately identified as Samana. A glaring omission in this list of ‘homes’ set up by King Pandukabhaya is a home for Bhikkhus.

If almost every religious group in India at that time was found in pre-Mahindian Lanka why is there no mention of bhikkhus? Was ‘Samana’ the word used for Bhikkhu at that time? I would say yes-when Mahanama thera, the auther of the Mahavamsa introduced Mahinda Thera and his fellow Bhikkhus, he makes Mahinda Thera say ‘Samana mayam Maha Raja, Maha Raja we are Samanas, Dhammarajassa Saavakah, Disciples of the king of the Dhamma (Buddha).It is clear that followers of the Buddha (Samanas/Bhikkhus) were present even in small numbers in Pandukabhaya's time and it is for them that Pandukabhaya built a home.

Badda Kachchana, consort of King Panduvasdeva and grand mother of Pandukabhaya was a Sakya princess, daughter of a close kinsman of the Buddha. Baddakachchana would certainly have known about the Buddha who had passed away only about 100 years earlier – known and even practised the way of life he taught. It is possible that she and her friends, even a few of the 32 who accompanied her, would have continued to follow the Buddhist way of life they were used to even covertly, if the king didn't approve and others outside the palace too would have got to know and followed some of the Buddhist practices.

“Whether any evidence of the presence of Bhikkhus was deliberately kept out to increase the importance of Mahinda Thera's mission is a moot point”, comments Dr. Ananda Guruge.

Forty odd years before Guruge made his comment Dr. E.W. Adikaram gave a similar explanation for the absence of any mention of Bhikkhus in pre-Mahindian Lanka.

“The only explanation possible is that silence was observed in order to create a dark background on the canvas on which the enthusiastic narrator of Buddhist history might paint his glowing picture of Ven. Mahinda's miraculous conversion of the island”.

Summing up Dr. Adikaram says, “Buddhism did exist in Ceylon before the time of Mahinda, though it is only after Devanampiyatissa's conversion that it became the state religion.

It may be justly said that Mahinda's mission had as its chief aim, not the mere introduction of the teachings of the Buddha to Ceylon, but the formation of the monastic order and thereby the establishment of the sasana in the island”.

Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon.

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