Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sri Lankan Buddhism: Mahindian hybrid of pre-Buddhist religion?

Reproduced below is an excerpt, from an article written by Professor M.M.J. Marasinghe, a former Head of the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies; Vice Chancellor, University of Kelaniya.

“It is difficult to understand why the Mahinda Thera introduced rituals to Sri Lankan Buddhists when such practices did not form part of the Pali canonical texts the teachings of which his tradition claimed it adhered to.

It is not difficult to find the answer to this question if we take a close look at the massive religeo-ritualistic syncretism which was taking place in and around the border regions of the Mauryan empire in India at the time.”

The learned professor suggests that Buddhism gifted to Sri Lankans by the Venerable Thera Mahinda is a hybrid of pre-Buddhist religion. This is a revelation, by an authority on the subject, that deserves serious attention of scholars and students of history of Buddhism, in Sri Lanka. I am a student of history of Buddhism. Can someone who is an authority on the subject enlighten us.

By rituals, the Professor means Bodhi poojas and offerings to relics of the Buddha. In Professor’s own admission, Bodhi pooja was introduced by a monk called Ariyadeva. When Venerable Thera Mahinda got down the sapling of the Bodhi tree from India, in all probability, he might have expected the Sri Lankan devotees to pay homage to the Buddha and not to treat the Bodhi tree itself as an object of veneration.

Perhaps he may have reckoned the Bodhi tree as a symbol that helps the devotee to kindle piety (Shraddha) in the triple gem. However, it does not necessarily mean that a symbol is a must for a devotee to gain confidence (shraddha) in the Triple gem.


It is true that the Bodhi poojas of the present day, at times are ritualistic in character, where devotees make offerings to the Bodhi tree and pray worldly benefits in return. Paying homage to the Buddha-the primary objective - is completely forgotten.

However, the presence of ritual practices should not be an obstacle for the diligent devotee to pursue the Noble Eightfold Path, in his quest for emancipation. In my view, it is difficult to surmise that Thera Mahinda recommended Bodhi poojas as an extension of the pre-Buddhist tree-worship practice, which is quite contrary to the teachings of the Buddha.

According to the Professor’s analysis, even paying homage to the Buddha at the Three Cetiyas Stupa (where Buddha’s relics are enshrined), Bodhi tree (under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment) and Vihara-Shrine room (where the Buddha’s statues are housed) - amounts to indulging in pre-Buddhist ritual practices, which did not form part of the canonical texts.

After introducing the Buddha’s doctrine, Thera Mahinda was instrumental in getting down the sapling of the Bodhi tree and the relics of the Buddha, says the learned Professor. In other words, it is Thera Mahinda who paved the way for the present day worship of the three Cetiyas, which is not found in the canonical texts, according to him.

That is perhaps why the Professor was prompted to label Mahindian Buddhism as a hybrid of pre-Buddhist religion. In my view, ‘hybrid’ is too harsh a word to describe the Mahindian gift of non-hybrid Theravada Buddhism, purely because of his initiative to get down the sapling of the Bodhi tree and the relics of the Buddha, to enable the Sri Lankan devotees to pay homage to the Buddha.


According to the scholarly analysis of the Professor, should the Buddhists interpret even the practice of ‘paying homage to the Buddha at the three ‘cetiyas’-stupa, Bodhi tree and shrine- as an indirect influence of the religeo-ritualistic syncretism, which the Professor claims, was taking place in and around the border regions of the Mauryan Empire in India, at the time of Mahindian expedition to Sri Lanka?

The three Cetiyas and their surroundings are ideal resorts for the devotees who practise meditation. Thera Mahinda has made a mistake by causing the Sapling of the Bodhi tree and the relics of the Buddha to be brought here for veneration by the Sri Lankan Buddhists, the would be followers of a hybrid religion, according to the learned Professor.

Academics are generally theorists and perfectionists. Perhaps they do not require serene surrounding for meditation. Even a room of the house is ideal for the purpose. Even disturbances around the place will not shake their gritty determination.

They are able to cultivate ‘saraddha’ in the triple gem without objects of veneration. Pristine pure Dhamma is there for their guidance. Perhaps Thera Mahinda, influenced by the religeo-ritualistic syncretism taking place in and around the border regions of the Mauryan empire, erred by not sticking to the canonical texts, according to the Professor.

The Professor sums up his view point thus:

“The hybrid version of the Sri Lankan Buddhism of today has to be thoroughly cleaned and purified if it is to be Buddhism, lest some country in the Western world will become the centre of pure Buddhism and we be labelled as holders on to a primitive form of the religion which it has become today.”

Coming from an authority on the subject, the view point cannot be discarded easily.

The lay society is keenly looking forward to the response of the very reverend Buddhist Prelates, the gurdians of the religion who have protected the religion over the centuries. Things are said easily than done.

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