Roots and routes of Buddhist diplomacy | Daily News

Roots and routes of Buddhist diplomacy

Unlike Vesak, which is celebrated on different days at different times and with different festivities in different countries throughout Asia, Poson is specific to Sri Lanka and India. Briefly, it celebrates the coming of Buddhism to the island through an embassy or retinue of five monks, one samanera, and one layman, led by Mahinda Thera, the son of Asoka Maurya from his second wife, Vedisa-Devi. The Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa are the main literary sources from this country that we have for the details of this embassy, while all other accounts are more or less variations of them.

According to the Chronicles, Tissa, the second son of Mutasiva, was out on a hunt with 40,000 of his courtiers during a water festival, when he caught sight of an elk-stag (or a deer) which he proceeded to give chase to. After signalling his presence to it, he pursued it to the top of Missaka Mountain, or Mihintale as it is known today, where Mahinda Thera preached the Dhamma to him after testing his intelligence. The choice of the discourse by Mahinda Thera – the Cula Hatthipadopama Sutta or the “Lesser Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint”– indicates that the aim of the embassy was to convince the king and the people of the country of the intrinsic purity of the Dhamma. After the conversion of the 40,000, the Chronicles tell us that, through intervention by Tissa (or Devanampiyatissa as he was later to be called), it was established in the island.

Anuradhapura origins

Buddhism was not unheard of or ignored in Sri Lanka before Mahinda Thera’s arrival. Adikaram puts it that even prior to the establishment of links between the Mauryan Empire and the Anuradhapura Kingdom, Buddhist temples existed side-by-side with Jain and Hindu temples, as well as yaksa and tree cults. Pandukabhaya, the de facto founder of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, built a temple for the Yakkha Cittaraja, whom Paranavitana identified as a water spirit, while also fixing a banyan tree near the Western Gate of the kingdom for Vaisravana, along with a Palmyra tee for Vyadha Deva.

Patron deities and Jains, the latter including the Nigantas who were to lose patronage during the reign of Vattagamini-Abhaya, as well as Paribbajakas and Ajivikas, had several cults of their own, which if we are to believe the Dipavamsa survived even Gautama Buddha’s three visits to the island. Significantly in the first of those visits, the Sakyamuni, in contrast to his calm demeanour, inspires terror among the yaksas and banishes them; this reading of the visit may have been due to the need of the writers to uphold the primacy of Theravada Buddhism “by seeking authority in the past”, as Sirima Kiribamune put it.

King Devanampiyatissa came to the throne almost 20 years after Asoka Maurya had, yet the trajectory of the doctrine had a lot to do with the friendship between the two monarchs. The ascent of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, in fact, was coterminous with its decline after the death of arguably the single greatest patron of the religion in India. Popular historians attribute the decline to the lack of interest shown in it by Asoka’s successors, but as writers such as Romila Thapar have concluded, those successors didn’t hesitate to sponsor the renovation of temples and dagabas. The truth was that Asoka had, in his intense zeal for Buddhism, in which he found a philosophy which suited the needs of an empire that had reached its zenith, established the closest to a Buddhist State India came to; his decease in that sense signalled the end to such a polity, a polity that was to find its expression later in Sri Lanka.

The groundwork had been laid down by his predecessors. By the time of the Buddha’s passing away the Magadha region had turned into a monarchy, shedding away the janapadas and tribal republics from which the founder of the doctrine had emerged. Under the Haryankas (546-414), the Sisnugas (414-346), and the Nandas (344-322), the kingdom expanded to the territories of Kosala and Vrjis in the north, Kurupancala and Mathura in the west, Avanti, Haihaya, and Asmaka in the centre and the southwest, and Bengal and Kalinga in the east.

Sponsorship for Buddhism

Bimbisara, Ajasattru, Udayin, Munda, and Kalasoka lavishly patronised Buddhism, although other kings, while not privileging it, nevertheless did extend support to its propagation. Interestingly enough, neither Uttarapatha nor Sri Lanka, which Buddhist missionaries were to touch later, figured in as important regions (or polities) in the Magadha Period; Uttarapatha of course was the site of Taxila, the famous ancient university.

The teachings of the Buddha flourished particularly in the Middle Ganges. Lack of patronage stunted its potential to expand further, however, and it was soon overshadowed by the rival orders of the Nigantas, Ajivikas, Aviruddhakas, Tendandikas, and other sects. The two Councils, one convened in the year of the Buddha’s decease in 486 BC at Rajagaha and the other 100 years later at Vaisali, tried to stamp out heterodox tendencies from the Order.

The fact that its founder had refused to name or designate a successor did not help reconcile these rival factions. In any case, right after the death of Kalasoka, under whom the capital was shifted from Rajagaha to Pataliputra, and who was arguably the last Magadhan king to publicly patronise Buddhism, a period of 22 years of rule by no fewer than 10 kings was followed by another 22 years of rule by nine kings of the House of Nanda, of which the last, Dhana-Nanda, was killed by Chandragupta Maurya with the help of Kautilya in 320 BC.

The fight was harsh, if not bloody: the Nandas were reported to have a powerful army of 20,000 infantrymen, 20,000 horsemen, 2,000 chariots drawn by four horses EACH, and 3,000 elephants. While they were in Pataliputra, moreover, Alexander the Great had conquered the northwest.

The shift to a new monarchical order, and the statecraft of Kautilya, did much to erode State support for Buddhism. In Kautilya and his Arthashastra the Mauryans had their equivalent of Machiavelli and The Prince. Both laid emphasis on two key imperatives: stability through an authoritarian State, and sustained intervention in all spheres of activity. Chandragupta’s defeat of the Nandas was the defeat of a kshatriya or upper caste clan of a lower caste one, according to mythical lore (the founder of the Nanda dynasty was the son of a Shudra peasant woman), so the emphasis on caste, sidelined if not abhorred by Buddhists, came to the fore during his reign.

The needs of empire were prioritised over the qualms of religious doctrines, and so with “an army of 600,000 men” (according to Plutarch) the founder of the new dynasty “overran and subdued the whole of India.” Chandragupta’s war with Seleucus I – which may have ended in defeat for the latter, but which, more probably, ended in the signing of a treaty of friendship between the two – confirmed the immense, awesome power of the Mauryans over the country and the continent. This is puzzling when you consider that the founder of that immense, awesome empire was eclipsed by his less ambitious grandson.

Mauryan expansionism

Asoka’s achievement was his realisation of a Buddhist State against the backdrop of an empire which had reached its zenith. His conquest of Kalinga or Orissa, which had resisted Mauryan expansionism until then, led to the deaths of 100,000 and the deportation of 150,000 others. Popular accounts pin this as the starting point of Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism. The temporal conquest was followed by the spiritual: by 258 BC, two years after the end of the war, he had turned to the new doctrine.

Both Chandragupta and his son Bindusara had resisted converting to Buddhism, the former spending his last years as a Jain hermit in the forest, succumbing to hunger brought on by a fast. So the effect of becoming a devout follower of the new doctrine, which emphasised a middle path that favoured neither self-indulgence nor self-denial, was symbolically to transform Chandasoka, or the Evil Asoka, who had reportedly prior to the Kalinga Campaign murdered his brothers and suppressed a revolt in Taxila, to Dharmasoka, who balanced the needs of that faith with a state policy that laid emphasis on peace at home and abroad. He privileged Buddhism, yet he didn’t do so by withdrawing support for other heterodox sects: as one of his Major Rock Edicts (No 12) put it, “one should honour the sect of another, for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own.”

With that policy Asoka balanced the needs of the State and the needs of the faith while keeping the two distinct and at the same time entangling them in each other. While implementing the norms of the Dhamma in his empire, he was pragmatic enough to understand that there were religious mores and, paraphrasing the Biblical phrase, a law of Caesar that had to be rendered to.

He frequently had to intervene in the affairs of the Sasana, as when forest-dwellers were causing a schism, and raised the concept of ahimsa to the level of state policy by, inter alia, banning animal sacrifices and paring down the cooking of meat (though as we know from his own inscriptions, he allowed for the cooking of “a little venison and peacock meat”, which evidently were his favourites). He deemed sideshows and ceremonies as useless and unworthy, yet he did not object to displays of divine power as long as they created an interest, among village dwellers, in the Dhamma. Asoka was the foremost patron of Buddhism. He also was a pragmatist who had to juggle competing State interests.

Propaganda and propagation has a lot to do with the spread of a faith. So it was with Buddhism after the Third Council, where it was held that missions should be despatched to other parts of the region. Under Moggaliputta, who presided over the Council, these missions gained an evangelical character, though with Asoka’s patronage they became a spiritual expression of a temporal need.

Epigraphical evidence

One of them was even sent to the country of the Yonas, the Greeks, while others were sent to the Himalayas and to Suvarnabhumi, or Indonesia. Mahinda, with the theras Ittiya, Uttiya, Samba, and Bhaddasala, and the samanera Sumana, were selected for the mission to Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa, as well as other narratives, tell us that after they visited the city of Mahinda’s mother, Vedisagiri or Vidisha, a layman called Bhanduka, a nephew of Mahinda, joined them. From there they miraculously floated through the air and alighted at Missaka or Mihintale, where they encounter Tissa.

We have epigraphical evidence for this encounter. In 1935 22 inscriptions were discovered at a cave in Rajagala or Rassahela in Batticaloa. One of these was a record in ancient Brahmi script dating back to around 200 BC, commemorating the arrival of Mahinda’s entourage. The inscription read “Ye ima dipa patamaya idiya agatana Idika-tera-Mahida-teraha tube”, or “This is the stupa of the Elder Idika [Ittiya, one of the monks in the embassy] and the Elder Mahinda, who came to this island by its foremost good fortune.”

Paranavitana contends that the stupa alluded to in the inscription could have been built after Mahinda’s decease. More importantly, he interprets the word Idiya to mean, as it usually does, “prosperity” and “good fortune”, and suggests that by distorting this to “Iddhi”, the Pali word for supernatural power, later chroniclers could have taken it to mean that Mahinda and his embassy came to this island by miraculous means: by flight through air, for instance.

As Buddhism began its descent in Mauryan India, the patronage of Asoka soon gave way to a more lukewarm reception from his successors – his son Kunali, born to his third consort Padmavati, was as sainted as Mahinda, yet either was blinded by his fourth consort, Tisyaraksita, or, as Romila Thapar argues, metaphorically blinded himself by turning away from Buddhism – and later, by the time of a new dynasty, the Shungas, an attitude of indifference and dis-favouration.

Buddhism in India at this juncture survived thanks to two main factors: the sheer largeness of India which allowed for sects to develop and flourish even if they militated against the conventional doctrines, and the enmeshing of Buddhism in folk religion across more rural parts of the country. To these we can add another crucial factor: the spread of Buddhism to other parts of the continent, including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, and Sri Lanka: which brings to light the importance and the relevance of Poson, not just to Sri Lanka, but also to the rest of the Buddhist world.


Add new comment