Phases of early Buddhism in South India and Sri Lanka

By Rajitha Weerakoon, The Sunday Times, May 29, 2011

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka, having preserved Buddhism in its purest form since its introduction in 236 BC, was undisputedly the key player in the 2600th Sambuddhathva Jayanthi celebrations. But what caused Buddhism to flourish in Sri Lanka as opposed to the country of the Buddha’s birth where Buddhism has little relevance today?

The cause for this contrasting outcome was traced by Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne, the Head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Peradeniya and former Director-General of the Central Cultural Fund during a lecture tour in Chennai some years back when he spoke on “The social base of early Buddhism in South India and Sri Lanka”. During a subsequent interview, he spoke about the shared historical legacy of Sri Lanka and Southern India when he identified the social formations in the two countries at the time of the early spread of Buddhism and the period prior to this era. His study was based on historical and archaeological research.

Tracing the technological, cultural and subsistence patterns between Sri Lanka and South India, Professor Seneviratne travelled back to prehistoric times, long before the birth of ideologies so the picture of the gradual development was clear. He stated that some very early sites from the Middle Stone Age of the Megalithic Period discovered in Sri Lanka dating to around 30,000BC (which have been extensively cross-dated) suggest that the settlers may have descended from India. Sites discovered had been identified as similar to those in Tirunaveli District and elsewhere in the southern most parts of India.

The next is the period around 1000 BC when the intrusions took place in the early Iron Age at the time the Protohistoric Megalithic black and redware culture existed. But the critical elements that kicked off the beginnings of history in Sri Lanka Professor Seneviratne stated was the commencement of the use of metal and ceramics, the introduction of domesticated varieties of animals and plants especially paddy and the initiation of the earliest village culture with small crafts like bead and pottery-making taking place.

The most interesting aspects of this culture he pointed out were the introduction of burial cults or the memorials. The associated ceramic ware called black and redware bear the postfiring graffitti marks. This phase continued into the early historical period, chronologically identified as the 4th and the 3rd centuries BC when North Indian ideologies like Buddhism and Jainism entered South India and Sri Lanka.

Trade routes

Archaeological evidence from Amaravati, an ancient city which was situated in Southern India, where luxury items such as Northern black polishedware were discovered reveal that there were intrusions from Northern India to the South prior to the Mauryan period. These movements had taken place between the 6th century BC – the time of the Buddha and the 3rd century BC through the Southern trade routes. The Dhakshinapatha or the Southern trade routes mentioned even in Kautilya’s Arthsastra were functioning along the east coast of India’s looping trade network. The long-distance trade network was coming from the Gangetic delta to the South touching Sri Lanka. Ideologies were travelling along these trade routes. The episode of the trading brothers – Thapassu and Bhalluka, documented as the first to be converted by Buddha during His Lifetime who after the conversion and their trade deals arrived in Sri Lanka and built the first sthupa – Thiriyaya, illustrates this point.

According to Professor Seneviratne, either specialized traders were carrying trading items or there was a down-the-line exchange where items were moving on their own from community to community and from one centre to another. The chank (conch) shell, a specific luxury item found in the Gulf of Mannar was found in the Northern Indian excavated sites. The trade of pearls, again from the Gulf of Mannar is mentioned in early Indian Pali texts. Later, the Jataka stories make mention of the long distance trade network. By the 3rd century BC which was the Mauryan Period in India, inscriptions of Settis – the merchant bankers were found in Amaravati.

Professor Seneviratne attributes the flow of ideologies from Northern India to the trade network. What perhaps the Mauryan Empire did however was to become a catalyst and provide a greater fillip for the more organised expansion of Buddhism. Monks were travelling as missionaries or groups of people were taking the message of the Buddha with the clout of the Mauryan Empire. The adoption of the title of Devanampiya (Beloved of the Gods) by the then rulers – the epithet given to Asoka, suggests this.
There were suggestions that some of the Kerala chieftains took titles that translated as Devanampiya. In the inscriptions of the Adiyamans in the Northern areas of Tamilnadu, the Adiyamans called themselves as Sathyaputhra, which was the name given in Asokan inscriptions to “southern neighbours.”

The intrusion of Buddhism in the 4th and the 3rd centuries BC from Northern India brought not only a doctrine but also a whole new culture – a new language medium, may be even a script, a new way of living, architectural constructions and technology.

During the Mauryan Era in the meantime, there was a shift of human settlements in South India from the peripheral hills towards the plains and the river valleys of Krishna, the Cauvery and the Tamirapani in the East. This may have happened probably for greater agricultural production to a kind of demand situation with specialisation of products coming in.

Spread of ideologies

With the southern expansion of the Mauryan Empire, the long-distance trade routes expanded. The Northern Indian ideologies thus flowed out to the South with the Jains, the Ajivakas and the Buddhist clergy moving along the trade-routes, some along with merchants mingling with the people. They had to preach to a settled agricultural society as the teachings would not have had any relevance to a hunting-gathering society. Professor Seneviratne stated that in South India however, Buddhist practices changed over the years from those practised in Sri Lanka due to the emergence of Mahayanism and the resurgence of Brahminic practices. Mahayanism had a social appeal at a personal level. But unlike Mahayanism, Brahmanism incorporated the pre-Buddhist cults and deities into its fold more effectively, particularly during the time of land grants of the feudal period. Under Brahminism, it is suggested that priests may have started the process of land reclamation for agriculture. With tribal areas having all kinds of cult practices, the Brahmin priests may have moved into such socially backward areas as these were locations where they were able to practise their doctrine.

The Buddhist clergy on the other hand who were countering such practices could not move into these areas, away from their main base – the urban centres. And with more and more South Indian rulers opting for a Brahminic identity, state patronage to Buddhism gradually decreased. Thus along with the shift of trade patterns, Buddhism in South India came to an end.

Whereas in Sri Lanka, Professor Seneviratne stated, the picture totally differed as Theravada Buddhism was faithfully practised by the more orthodox Sri Lankans. Mahayanism introduced much later found it difficult to compete with the Theravada Buddhism. And unlike in South India, Sri Lanka did not have a strong tradition of pre-Buddhist cults and practices and what existed was incorporated successfully into Buddhism. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka not only visited urban areas but also ventured into remote areas and hills along trade routes.

The monasteries by the first to the 3rd centuries AD which had expanded in Sri Lanka incorporated all the areas into their network and thus ran huge establishments even carrying on trade in order that these provided the sustenance while the state continued to be their chief patron.

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