The success of venerable Mahinda’s mission in establishing Buddhism in Sri Lanka
Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka (SL) in 247 BCE. Buddhism remained SL’s national religion from that date.
King Asoka and Spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka
At the 3rd Buddhist Council sponsored by King Asoka, missionaries were sent to different regions to preach Buddhism and established the sasana (religion) there. He sent his own son Ven Mahinda with 4 other theras to Sri Lanka.
King Devanampiya was the 2nd son of Mutasiva. He was on friendly terms with King Asoka even before he became king but the two had not met each other.
The honorific title of “Devanampiya” [Beloved of the Gods] was conferred by Asoka onto King Devanimpiya Tissa. Hence King Tissa would be more inclined to be receptive to the religious mission sent by King Asoka. More so that it was headed by none other but Asoka’s son, Venerable Mahinda.
Before Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka, the residents worship gods of nature, tree spirits, supernatural beings and cult of astrology.
The Mission to Sri Lanka
Mahinda was 32 years old when he undertook the mission to SL. He was 20 when he was ordained and studied under Thera Moggaliputta Tissa. He was a master of the doctrines and an arahant when he went to SL. When the 3rd Buddhist Council was held, Ven Mahinda had been a monk for 12 years and a leader of 1000 monks. Before he started his mission, Ven Mahinda pondered on the fitting time to go to SL. He perceived that Mutasiva, the ruler at that time, was in his old age and hence it was better to start preaching when his son became the ruler.
He stayed for 6 months at Dakkhinagiri to visit relatives and 1 month at Vedisagiri to visit his mother before he perceived the time to be right to start his mission. At that time, the old ruler had died and his son Devanampiya Tissa had become king.
Arrival of Mahinda
One month after Vesak (full-moon day of the month of Jettha) in the year 247 BCE, Ven Mahinda planned his arrival in Sri Lanka. Ven Mahinda was accompanied by 4 theras (Itthiya, Uttiya, Sambala and Bhaddasala) and 2 of his close relations, Sumana Samanera (Sanghamitta’s son) and Bhaduka (a cousin’s son). 5 sangha members were needed for ordination to be carried out.
This day was a day of national festival in SL. The king was on hunting expedition at Mihintale hills where he saw the monks. In reply to the king’s inquiry as to who they were & where they came from, Mahinda said: “We are the disciples of the Lord of the Dhamma. In compassion towards you, Maharaja, we have come here from India.”
Realising that the king was intelligent enough to comprehend the Dhamma after an IQ test, Mahinda preached the Culahatthipadopama Sutta. Culahatthipadopama Sutta gave the king a clear idea of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. It describes the simple and holy life of a bhikkhu, what he practices and abstains from, the various stages of enlightenment. It contains all the principal teachings of the Buddha. This was to allow the King to know how to treat his new guests. At the end of the discourse, the king and his 40,000 entourage embraced the new faith.
Entry into the Capital
On the invitation of the king, Mahinda and other monks arrived at Anuradhapura the next day. The king met them and led them into the palace where after a royal meal Mahinda preached the Petavatthu, the Vimanavatthu and the Sacca-samyutta to the royal household.
These discourses were on suffering spirits and heavenly beings, and how these beings arrived at such states. Mahinda chose to deliver these discourses as he was aware of the existing religious beliefs of the people at that time.
He also preached the Devaduta Sutta which persuades beings to desist from wrong doings for fear of evil consequences. (MN 130). It was followed by the Balapandita Sutta which teaches how through folly, men suffer here and hereafter. At the end of the Mahinda’s sermons, King Devanampiya Tissa and his royal family converted to Buddhism.
Offering of Mahameghavana to the Sangha
When the town people desired to see and hear the Ven Mahinda, the King saw that there was no room within the premises of the palace, ordered the hall of the State Elephant to be cleaned and arranged for the purpose. As Mahinda’s audience grew larger, the venue had to be shifted from the Elephant Hall to the Nandana Garden outside the southern gate of the city, where open air meetings were held in the royal park.
When the sangha expressed desire to go back to the Mihintale hills, the king who wished them to stay at his capital offered the Sangha the royal park Mahamegha for their residence. To mark the boundaries, the king himself marked them by ploughing a furrow. Thus was established the Mahavihara which became the earliest celebrated monastic institution of Buddhism in SL.
King Devanimpiya-Tissa could not find a suitable house as residence for Ven Mahinda and his followers. He had to hurriedly build a house of mud and dried it with “torch fire”. Hence the name Kalapasada parivena. The King would never have offered such a residence to the great royal missionary if he had been in a position to provide more suitable accommodation.
Setting Up Of Sima
Devanampiya Tissa asked Thera Mahinda whether Buddhism was established in Sri: Mahinda’s reply was that Buddhism would be established only if a sima for the uposatha and other acts of sangha was established.
King Devanampiya Tissa expressed that his capital city of Anuradhapura should be included in the Sima. Mahinda set about planning for the Mahavihara which would become the great centre of Buddhist culture and learning in SL.
Monasteries became centers of national cultures and monks were teachers for generations of people, counselors to kings and at times even helped to govern the state.
Kings look after the monks’ welfare and monks used their influence over masses to support the kings, there was a mutual understanding that was never explicitly stated
Setting Up of the Bhikkhu Order
When Thera Mahinda spent the vassa at Missaka pabbata, King Devanampiya asked Ven Mahinda whether the Sasana had been firmly established in SL. Ven Mahinda replied that the seed had only been planted but would take firm root when a person born in Sri Lanka, of Singhalese parents, studied the Vinaya in Sri Lanka and expounded the Dhamma in Sri Lanka.
The king had 68 rock cells built in the mountain and gave them to the theras on the full moon day. On the same day, Mahinda ordained 62 monks. Maha-Arittha, the king’s nephew was selected for reciting the Vinaya in the ordination ceremony. Arittha Thera’s exposition was so correct and pleasing that there was great rejoicing as the condition required for the firm establishment of the Sasana was fulfilled by him.
Sanghamitta and Women Disciples
Many women of Sri Lanka, headed by Queen Anula, desired to enter the Sangha. King Devanampiya sent his nephew Maha- Arittha to Asoka to obtain the help of nuns to enable the women of SL to obtain ordination. Sanghamitta Theri, daughter of Asoka & Devi, sister of Mahinda ordained at age 18 was sent on this mission. King Asoka decided to send a significant symbol of Buddhism to SL with Sanghamitta. He prepared a branch of the Bodhi Tree from Bodhi Gaya, planted it in a golden vessel.
When it had taken root, King Asoka sent members of 18 families of devakula and 8 families each from ministers, Brahmins and farmers together with the number of guardians, weavers and potters too look after the Bodhi tree. Sangahmitta with 11 nuns and set sail for SL for 7 days. The king planted the Bodhi tree in the Mahamegha garden with great festivities. Up to today, the tree still flourishes as one of the most sacred objects of veneration and worship for millions of Buddhists.
With the ordination of Queen Anula and other 500 women, both the monks and nuns’ order were established on the island of SL. Separate residences for monks and nuns were built. The King built 12 buildings at Upasika-vihara to house Sanghamitta and the newly ordained nuns. He later built the Hatthalhaka nunnery for the nuns where sanghamitta lived till age 59.
In 5th century AD, Sinhala Bhikkhunis are said to have gone to Nanking in China to start the Bhikkuni order. Bhikkhuni Tisara was the leader and conferred higher ordination upon over 300 Chinese nuns in 434 AD. The bhikkunis living in Chendu in Sichuan province are convinced that they belong to the same Bhikkhuni order introduced to SL in the 3rd century BC by Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta. This proved that Buddhism was not only well-established in sri Lanka but also flourished in other countries.
Request for Buddha’s Relics
After the vassa, Thera Mahinda in consultation with Devanampiya Tissa, sent sumanasamanera (Asoka’s Grandson) to King Asoka and asked for relics of Buddha. The Buddha relics were placed at Cetiyagiri and the collarbone from among the relics was deposited in Thuparama built for that purpose.
Building of viharas
Devanampiya Tissa, during his reign built numerous viharas, like Issarasamanaka and Vessagiri.
Translation of the Tipitaka to Sinhalese
Ven Mahinda was said to have taught the commentaries to the Tipitaka in the Sinhalese language, after translating them from Pali.
Lifetime Contribution by Ven Mahinda and Sanghamitta
Ven Mahinda lived the rest of his life in Sri Lanka and contributed to the firm establishment of Buddhism there. He lived till age 60 when he passed away at Ceitiya-giri where he was spending the rain retreat. When he died a cetiya was erected on that spot called Isibhumangana. His contributions included the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, translation of tipitaka, the start-up of Bhikku and Bhikkuni orders in Sri Lanka, introduced the Bhrami scripts and also helped in the architecture buildings.
Their Sanghamitta lived till 59, contributing to the growth of the Bhikkhuni order in SL. When she passed away, she was cremated at Cittasala. King Uttiya erected a stupa over her ashes. The engineers and craftsmen that Sanghamitta brought along to Sri Lanka helped in the development of agriculture, irrigation and other society progression.
Both Venerable Mahinda and Sanghamitta were regarded as heroes of Sri Lanka as they contributed a lot to establish Buddhism, introduced Asokan indian culture and know-how in Sri lanka.
Impact of Buddhism on Sri Lanka society
1.Art & Architecture
There seemed to be few buildings in Anuradhapura during Devanampiya Tissa’s time. May be there was a lack of building materials as well as experienced architects. After Ven Mahinda’s arrival, people began to construct higher storied houses, stupas and monasteries. Massive buildings like the Lohapasada began to rise in Sri Lanka.
2.Writing and Scripts
Before Ven Mahinda, there is no reference of any literary activities, nor have any inscriptions before the 3rd BCE been discovered so far. Ven Mahinda introduced a system of writing called the Brahmi scripts. With the help of these scripts, Ven Mahinda wrote the Sihalattha Katha (language of Sinhalese commentary). This was meant probably to explain doctrines and suttas. The modern Sinhalese script was evolved from that.
3.Agriculture & Irrigation
The engineers who arrived with Their Sanghamitta to SL introduced the system of irrigation to Anuradhapura. Huge tanks were constructed to contain irrigational water.
18 types of craftmen accompanied Their Sanghamitta to SL. This helped SL’s progress as a society.
Notes with courtesy from Sister Jean Lau from Pali College