Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka during the 3rd century BCE with the arrival of King Aśoka’s son, the Arahant Mahinda, from India. According to the Sri Lankan chronicles, the king of Sri Lanka at the time, Devanāṃpiya Tissa, converted to Buddhism shortly after Mahinda’s arrival. The king’s patronage of Buddhism resulted in the construction of numerous Buddhist sites and centers of learning around the ancient capital of Anurādhapura, as well as in the formation of a very important relationship between Buddhism and the state. Although that relationship contributed to the growth and development of the Buddhist religion on the island, it also led to ethnic tensions, a more recent one being the conflict between Sinhalese Buddhists and Sri Lankan Tamils that resulted in a civil war lasting more than twenty years. Sri Lanka is considered to have the oldest continuing Buddhist civilization, but the religion on the island went through several periods of decline, during which the number of fully ordained monks drastically reduced, and new ordination lineages had to be “imported” from abroad. More recent examples of this occurred in 1753, when a group of Thai monks were brought to Kandy to perform a higher ordination ceremony for Sri Lankans. That lineage, or fraternity—the Siyam Nikāya—soon became restricted to people belonging to Sri Lanka’s highest caste group. As a result, other groups of monastics and laypeople, seeking to open the monastic order to their own kind, imported additional ordination lineages from Burma. These became known as the Amarapura Nikāya and the Rāmañña Nikāya. The importing of these three lineages occurred during the colonial period. Increased Christian missionary activities and the waning prestige and power of Buddhist monks and traditional centers of learning during this time were followed by a Buddhist resurgence during the 18th and 19th centuries, which was led by such figures as Ven. Mohottivatte Gunananda, Ven. Hikkaḍuve Sumangala, Anagārika Dharmapāla, and Henry Steel Olcott. Along with seeking to restore Buddhism’s place on the island, leaders of the resurgence sought to oust the British. Independence, which came in 1948, was followed by an important event that commemorated the 2,500-year anniversary of the Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama’s death. The religious fervor that preceded and followed the event—the Buddha Jayanti—led to the creation of new Buddhist institutions and centers of learning as well as the further entanglement of Buddhism and the state.
There are a number of excellent historical studies of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Whereas Gombrich 2006 and Perera 1988 provide a history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka over the longue durée, most studies focus on a particular period: the Anurādhapura period (Adikaram 1994, Rahula 1993), the Polonnaruva period (Panditha 1973), the medieval period (Ilangasinha 1992), and the colonial period (Holt 1996, Mirando 1985).
Adikaram, E. W. Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon. Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Cultural Centre, 1994.
Originally published in 1946. Turning to the Pali commentaries (rather than to the Sri Lankan chronicles), this book attempts to weave together scattered material in order to provide a connected history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, from its introduction in the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE.
Gombrich, Richard F. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 2d ed. Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.
Originally published in 1988. As the title suggests, this general history presents a historical overview of Theravada Buddhism, from the time before the Buddha’s birth to the development of Theravada monasticism in contemporary Sri Lanka.
Holt, John Clifford. The Religious World of Kīrti Śrī: Buddhism, Art, and Politics in Late Medieval Sri Lanka. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Holt explores King Kīrti Śrī Rājasinha’s classical understanding of Buddhism and his efforts at reviving the waning tradition during his reign (c. 1747–1782 CE). Holt argues that the king’s support of Buddhism was partially based on his desire to garner support from his largely Buddhist population in order to overcome Christian colonial powers and to respond to threats from Sinhalese aristocrats questioning his ability to rule.
Ilangasinha, H. B. M. Buddhism in Medieval Sri Lanka. Bibliotheca Indo-Buddhica. New Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1992.
Focusing on Pali and Sinhalese chronicles, medieval Sri Lankan literature, epigraphical material, and foreign accounts, Ilangasinha examines the Buddhist monastic order, the education of monastics, the relation between the sangha and the state, and relations between the Sri Lankan sangha and other Theravada countries during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Mirando, A. H. Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 17th and 18th Centuries, with Special Reference to Sinhalese Literary Sources. Ceylon Historical Journal Monograph. Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Tisara Prakasakayo, 1985.
Situating his study within earlier periods of decline and revival, Mirando seeks to make sense of the Buddhist monastic revival of the 17th and 18th centuries, by examining the growth of Buddhist devotional literature as well as developments within the monastic order.
Panditha, V. “Buddhism during the Polonnaruva Period.” In The Polonnaruva Period. 3d ed. Edited by S. D. Saparamadu, 127–145. Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Tisara Prakasakayo, 1973.
As the title suggests, this essay provides an account of Buddhism during the Polonnaruva period, by focusing on the last phases of the Anurādhapura period and the period of two Sinhalese kings who sought to return the country from foreign rule: Vijayabāhu I (r. 1056–1111 CE) and Parākramabāhu I (r. 1153–1186 CE).
Perera, H. R. Buddhism in Sri Lanka: A Short History. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1988.
In his overview, Perera examines the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, from the period just before the introduction of Buddhism to the Buddha Jayanti celebrations that took place in 1956. Available online.
Rahula, Walpola. History of Buddhism in Ceylon: The Anuradhapura Period (3rd Century BC–10th Century AC). 3d ed. Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Cultural Centre, 1993.
Originally published in 1965. This important study focuses on the period in which Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka to the time when the capital was shifted from Anurādhapura to Polonnaruva. Detailed attention is given to the establishment and development of Buddhist monasticism, including the three major monastic lineages: Abhayagiri Vihāra, Jetavana Vihāra, and Mahā Vihāra.
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