Tamil Buddhism in Ancient South India and Sri Lanka

| by J.L. Devananda

(November 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The fascinating story of the historical links – Golden threads between Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka was narrated by Dr. Shu Hikosake, Director and Professor of Buddhism, Institute of Asian Studies in Madras in his book 1989 “Buddhism in Tamil Nadu: a New Perspective”. Dr. Hikosaka’s study is based on his doctoral dissertation.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism shared the common places of worship with the Sinhalese, but there were also Tamil Buddhists who were following the Mahayana Buddhism and they had their own Mahayana temples.
The earliest inscriptions in Tamil Nadu written in the Brahmi character of the time, on the walls of the natural caves in the Tamil districts of Madura, Ramnad and Tirnnelveli belongs to the third century BC. They are of considerable interest to students of South Indian Buddhism. It is learnt from these Brahmi inscriptions that Buddhism had come into Tamil Nadu even then. However, the epigraphical evidence seems to confirm that, it was to King Asoka and the missionary monk Mahinda (believed to be his son) that the introduction of Buddhism into Tamil Nadu may be attributed. In his Rock-Edict No. III, King Asoka says that his Dharma Vijaya prevailed in the kingdoms of the Colas, Pandyans and at Tambapanni (Sri Lanka). Particularly the edict number XIII found near Peshawar, there is reference to the Buddhist missions of Asoka. Among the countries referred to are Cola, Pandya, and Tambapanni. This inscription was written in 258 B.C. and is direct evidence of the Buddhist missions of Asoka to the Tamil country and Sri Lanka. As Buddhist missions to Sri Lanka had to come by way of South India, the spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and South India in the 2nd century AD should be considered contemporary events, but it was King Asoka’s son Mahinda who was responsible for the introduction of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Mahinda is said to have erected seven viharas at Kaveripattinum, the capital of Cola while he was on his way to Sri Lanka. According to Dr. Hikosaka, contrary to the general impression, Buddhism might have gone to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu by sea-route, a route by which one can reach Sri Lanka easily. Since there existed very close cultural affinities between Sri Lanka and the Tamil country from time immemorial, the Buddhist activities in South India could have easily influenced in some way or other the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, says Dr. Hikosaka.
Even though it is believed that Buddha had visited South India (Andhra) and Sri Lanka (three magical visits according to Mahavamsa, written around thousand years after Buddha’s passing away – Mahaparinibbana), Buddhism actually began to make a strong impact on South India and Sri Lanka only after the arrival of King Asoka’s missionary. After that period Buddhism had spread widely in Tamil Nadu and won the patronage of the rulers. The major urban centers of Kanchipuram, Kaveripattinam, Uragapura (Uraiyur), and Madurai were not only centers of Buddhism, but these were also important centers of Pali learning. The other minor towns of Tamil country where Buddhism was active were Buddhamangalam, Sanghamangalam, Kumbakonam, Mayurapattanam, Alamkudipatti, Kuvam, Sanghamangai, Tiruppadirippuliyur, and so on.

Tamil Buddhists contribute to Buddhist scriptures
It was at this time that Tamil Nadu gave some of its greatest scholars (both Theravada and Mahayana) to the Buddhist world. Tamil Nadu boasted of outstanding Buddhist monks, who had made remarkable contributions to Buddhist thought and learning. Three of the greatest Pali scholars of this period were Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala and all three of them were associated with Buddhist establishments in the Tamil kingdoms.
Tamil Buddhist monk Thera Buddhaatta lived during the time of Accyutarikkanta, the Kalabra ruler of the Cola-Nadu; was a senior contemporary of Buddhaghosa. He was born in the Cola kingdom and lived in the 5th Century AD. Under the patronage of this ruler, Buddhadatta wrote many books. Among his best known Pali writings are the Vinaya-Vinicchaya, the Uttara-Vinicchaya and the Jinalankara-Kavya. Among the commentaries written by him are the Madhurattha-Vilasini and the Abhidhammavatara. In the Abhidhammaratara he gives a glowing account at Kaveripattinum, Uragapuram, Bhutamangalam and Kanchipuram and the Mahavihara at Anuradapura, (Sri Lanka). While he was at Sri Lanka, he composed many Buddhist works such as Uttara-viniccaya Ruparupa Vibhaga Jinalankara etc. Buddhaghosha, contemporary of Buddhadatta also composed many Buddhist commentaries.
Buddhaghosha is a Tamil monk, who made a remarkable contribution to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He stayed and studied Buddhist precepts at Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. The Visuddhimagga was the first work of Buddhaghosha which was written while he was in Sri Lanka.
After Buddhaghosha, the important Theravada monk from the Tamil country was Dhammapala. Dhammapala lived in the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. He composed Paramathadipani which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha’s work on Khuddaka Nikaya and Paramathamanjusa, which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha’s Visuddhimagga. A close study of the three Buddhist monks viz Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosha and Dhammapala shows that Tamil Buddhists were closely associated with the Sri Lankan Buddhists around the 5th century AD.
The author of Nettipakarana is another Dhammapala who was a resident of a monastery in Nagapattinam, another important Buddhist centre from ancient times. One more example is the Cola monk Kassapa, in his Pali work, Vimatti-Vinodani, this Tamil monk provides interesting information about the rise of heretical views in the Cola Sangha and the consequent purification that took place. There are so many other Tamil monks who are attributed to the Pali works some of them were resident at Mayura-rupa-pattana (Mylapore, Madras) along with Buddhagosha.
The Tamil Buddhist monks used Pali languages in preference to Tamil in their writings. This is because the Buddha spoke in Magadi Prakrit (Pali). Sanskrit is the sacred language of the Hindus, and similarly Pali is considered as the sacred language of the Buddhists.
On the other hand, the well known Tamil Buddhist epics found were Manimekalai, Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi, and Jivaka Cintamani. The lost Tamil Buddhist works include the grammar Virasoliyam, the Abhidhamma work Siddhantattokai, the panegyric Tiruppadigam, and the biography Bimbisara Kada. Manimekalai, a purely Buddhist work of the 3rd Sangam period in Tamil literature is the most supreme and famous among the Buddhist work done in Tamil. It is a work expounding the doctrines and propagating the values of Buddhism.It also talks about the Tamil Buddhists in the island/Nagadipa even though Manimekalai and Silappathikaram were considered as Tamil literary work and not as historical work.
The Chinese traveller, Tsuan Tsang, wrote that there were around 300 Sri Lankan monks in the monastery at the Southern sector of Kanchipuram. Ancient Kanchipuram, the capital of Tondaimandalam, ruled by the Tamil Pallava dynasty, an offshoot of Chola rulers was the major seat of Tamil learning and is also known as the city of thousand temples. Even Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil couplets/aphorisms celebrated by Tamils is based on Buddhist principals. Although Buddhism has become almost extinct from Tamil Nadu, it has contributed a great deal to the enrichment of Tamil culture and has exerted a significant influence, both directly and indirectly, on the Tamil religious and spiritual consciousness, present as well as past.
It is also believed that Bodhidharma who lived during the 5th/6th century AD was a Tamil Buddhist monk and the son of a Pallava king from Kanchipuram. Bodhidharma had travelled from South India by sea to the Far East for the purpose of spreading the Mahayana doctrine, transmitting his knowledge of Buddhism and martial arts. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolinquan.
Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka
As Buddhism was one of the dominant religions in both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, naturally there were very close relations between the two regions. The monks from Sri Lanka, too, went across to the Tamil kingdom and stayed in the monasteries. As Dr. Leslie Gunawardana says, `The co-operation between the Buddhist Sangha of South India and Sri Lanka produced important results which are evident in the Pali works of this period`. He also says that the Tamil Buddhist monks were more orthodox than their counterparts in Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism shared the common places of worship with the Sinhalese, but there were also Tamil Buddhists who were following the Mahayana Buddhism and they had their own Mahayana temples. There are still some Tamil Mahayana Buddhist establishments (Palli) in the east and possibly in the Jaffna peninsula. The best known was Velgam Vehera (see details below), which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli after the Cola emperor. Another was the Vikkirama-calamekan-perumpalli.
It is a historical fact that among the many ancient Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka Velgam Vehera which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli, also called Natanar Kovil by the present day Tamils stands out as the only known example of a `Tamil Vihare or Buddhist Palli` or as the late Dr. Senerath Paranavithana described it in his book `Glimpses of Ceylon`s Past` as an `Ancient Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people`. Some of the Tamil inscriptions found at the site record donations to this shrine and are dated in the reigns of the Chola Kings, Rajaraja and Rajendradeva. It was his view that the date of the original foundation of the vihare was no doubt considerably earlier than the reign of King Bhatika Tissa II.
The situation in Tamil Nadu, however, began to change towards the beginning of the 7th Century AD when the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism posed a serious challenge to Buddhism and Jainism. There was a significant increase in Hindu/Brahmanical influence and soon the worship of Siva and Visnu began to gain prominence. The Buddhist and Jaina institutions in Tamil Nadu came under attack when they began to lose popular support and the patronage from the rulers.
Even though today there are no Tamil Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the majority of the early Tamils of Sri Lanka (before the 10th century Chola invasion) were Buddhists. The ancient Buddhist remains in the North and East of Sri Lanka are the remnants left by the Tamil Buddhists and not anybody else. They are part of the heritage of Sri Lankan Tamils. Only the Buddhist temples, statues and structures build in the recent past and present in the North and East can be considered as Sinhala-Buddhist.
Buddhism and Sinhala were two different things in the past
Why does the Sri Lankans believe that the Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka belong only to the Sinhalese (Sinhala heritage) and not to the Tamils? Why are the Sri Lankans ignorant about the early Tamil Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu? Why do the Sri Lankans think, in Sri Lanka a Buddhist should be a Sinhalese and a Hindu should be a Tamil even though the Sinhalese worship most of the Hindu/Brahmanical Gods?
Unfortunately, the majority of Sri Lankans are ignorant of their ancient past. They think of the ancient past in today’s context. Today, the Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolized by the Sinhalese and they call it Sinhala-Buddhism. The fusion of Sinhala and Buddhism into Sinhala-Buddhism took place only in the early 20th century by revivalists such as Anagarika Dharmapala. Unfortunately today the Sri Lankan Tamils also believe that Buddhism is a Sinhala religion and is alien to them, but this was not the case in the early past. Unlike today, the Ancient Buddhist/Hindu civilization in Sri Lanka and the ancient Pali/Sanskrit place names has nothing to do with the ethnicity.In otherwords, the Ancient Buddhist/Hindu heritage and the ancient Pali/Sanskrit place names in the North and East of Sri Lanka has nothing to do with Sinhala.
The Tamil politicians, scholars, intellects and the Tamil media should take every effort to educate the Sri Lankan Tamils to be aware and to understand that Buddhism was a part of Tamil civilization in the ancient past. The Tamil politicians should engage in preserving the `Tamil heritage’ of North & East of Sri Lanka. The most important part of the Tamil Heritage of North & East is its Buddhist and Hindu civilization. The lost Tamil Buddhism should be restored back in the North & East. The erection of new Buddha statues in the North & East should be welcomed and the Tamils should consider Buddha also as a part of their religion. (Just like in Sri Lanka where in every Buddhist temple you find Hindu Gods, if you go to India, especially the North, in every Hindu temple there is a Buddha statue). There is nothing wrong in having a Buddha statue in the Hindu temples. Also, Tamil Buddhist temples should come up; Tamils should embrace Buddhist monkhood; Buddhism must be taught in Tamil; preaching and worshipping Buddhism in Tamil; Tamil Buddhist monks and a Tamil Buddhist Maha Sangam should be formed. If there are Tamil speaking Hindus, Christians, and Muslims in Sri Lanka today, why cannot there be Tamil speaking Buddhists also? After all, we were all Buddhists once upon a time. It all depends on how the Tamil leaders and the Tamil media can enlighten the Sri Lankan Tamils to understand their ancient past and convince, inspire and persuade them to accept Buddhism and the Buddha statues with an open heart and make them a part of their belief system.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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