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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 111

"The myth of 'Lion ancestry' & adults-only tales of the Lala land."

By Dr. Mithra Fernando.

Over the years, Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic politicians and closely linked Buddhist clergy have been successful in implanting the belief that the Sinhala Buddhists are the ‘chosen people’ and the real custodians of Sri Lanka and of Theravada Buddhism. This, many Sinhala Buddhists believe, is their ‘birth right’ by virtue of the origin of their ethnicity as depicted by the Mahavamsa. According to many Sinhala speaking Buddhists, their birthright to the ‘custodianship’ of the island and Buddhism is sacred and unquestionably legitimised for eternity by the Mahavamsa.

Any discussion based on facts against the Sinhala Buddhist birthrights argument is often condemned as an anti-Sinhala Buddhist conspiracy or Tamil terrorist propaganda. It is often the one who raises the questions who becomes the target of wrath and condemnation, sometimes leading to dangerous consequences.

It is therefore quite important, at the beginning, to clarify my ‘partiality’ to the scientific facts and also to reveal my ethnic religious background. I hail from a very pious Sinhala Buddhist family and was brought up in an environment of strict Sinhala Buddhist traditions. The extent of my family’s Sinhala Buddhist credentials was vast, so much so that my father’s uncle used to be a custodian of one of Buddha’s disciple’s relics, which he kept in a gold casket in a shrine room in his house in Colpetty. He and the whole family used to pay regular homage to the sacred relics, placing offerings and carrying out religious rituals three times a day, without fail.

My own father’s father was a native doctor and I was under pressure from my young age to learn the art of native medicine, which is usually associated with Buddhist rituals, and I was expected to memorise prescriptions written in Pali on ola leaves. Sunday classes in Budhhism at the temple, observing sil (adhering to the set of eight rules of conduct), Buddhist pilgrimages during school holidays and numerous other regular rituals were compulsory for all of us and I, along with my two elder sisters and two younger brothers, excelled in our religious studies by achieving distinctions of Baudhyacharya (teacher of Buddhism) and also in the mandatory subject of Buddhism at the secondary school exams.

This background, I believe, should clear any doubts of me having a vested interest in peddling conspiracy theories against Sinhala Buddhist beliefs and arguments.


The main problem with the widespread claims of Sinhala Buddhist genealogy is that they are often based on the obvious embellishments and out of this world fantasies written in the Mahavamsa. This longest and the oldest chronological, but mythical, record of Sri Lanka seems to be the main source of all Sinhala Buddhist claims. The Mahavamsa is only an historical poem, originally written in Pali, over centuries and spiced up with epic and with fascinating things the authors could imagine. The believers of Sinhala Buddhist birth rights to the island and Theravada Buddhism, are oblivious to the great academic studies of the original Mahavamsa, published by eminent academics of history who also were experts in Pali.

Some of the great historians - such as Prof. Wilhelm Geiger, who completed the first translation of the Mahavamsa from Pali to German in 1912; Prof. V.A. Smith, who published a number of studies on the history of India, Emperor Asoka and the conversion of Lanka to Buddhism, including The early History of India, in 1957; Prof. Herman Oldenberg (1854-1920) German scholar of Indology, whose 1881 study on the Buddha based on Pali texts, contributed immensely to popularise Buddhism; Prof. Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843-1922) , a British academic of Pali and the founder and first President of the Pali Text Society - deserve the highest acclaims for their outstanding academic studies on the original Mahavamsa.

The greatest irony is neither the names of these academics nor their studies on the history of Sri Lanka are known to the majority of the Sinhala Buddhists, who base their ‘birthrights’ and ‘custodianship’ arguments on the very text of the Mahavamsa!

The Sinhala Buddhist mindset has been nurtured in isolation, far away from the scientific historical facts. The mythical stories of the Mahavamsa have implanted in a large portion of the Sinhala Buddhist population a strong, deeply rooted and unreserved belief in their origin – exactly as it is depicted in the chronicle.

Casting doubts on the mythological stories narrated in the Mahavamsa is condemned as an act of treason. In the context of the ongoing ethnic war such doubts will automatically qualify as LTTE or Tamil nationalistic propaganda, and the person raising the doubts as a Tamil Eelam supporter. The Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic argument of the custodianship is simple:“If you are a Sinhala speaking Sri Lankan, you either have to believe in the mythical Lion ancestry -your ‘blood relation’ to a lion as depicted in the Mahavamsa - or consider yourself a traitor – an ‘outcast’!’”

It is sometimes amusing, surprising and saddening at the same time to see the enormous pride that some Sinhala nationalists take in the belief that they have ‘lion blood’ running in their veins. I wonder which group of blood this would be? One wonders how on earth sane people of one of the most literate countries in the world, could still continue to base all their arguments of ‘birth rights’ of the Sinhala race on the mythological imagination of the Mahavamsa?

For the Sinhala Buddhists nationalists, who have become myopic over the years of misinformation or lack of information, the Mahavamsa constitutes a sacred unquestionably legitimate proof of their original Sinhala Buddhist heritage and ownership of the island. According to the Sinhala nationalism the Mahavamsa mythology provides proof beyond doubt that the Sinhala race was the chosen people, the predestined custodian of the island and the guardian of Buddhism. Take this platform away, and the Sinhala nationalistic politicians will have no ground to stand on, as they know no other means to secure their leadership.


An objective glimpse of the narratives in the Mahavamsa is therefore pertinent to separate the myths from the facts, the nationalistic interpretation of the history from the factual scientific historical events and chronology.

The original Mahavamsa, or Mahawansha, is an historical poem written in Pali, which covers a period starting from the arrival of Vijaya (543 BC) to the time of Mahasena’s rule (334-361 BC). This section of the Mahavamsa was written in Pali by the Venerable Mahanama Thero, an uncle of King Dhatusena in the 6th century AD. Mahanama Thero compiled the first part of the Mahavamsa from a collection of historical records (diaries) of Sri Lanka, starting from 300 BC, kept by the Buddhists monks of the Mahavihara. The Mahavihara is the Buddhist monastery that King Devanampiya Tissa built for Mahinda Thero, who is believed to have brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka from India in 300 BC. In compiling the Mahavamsa, Mahanama Thero relied also on an earlier set of documents known as the Mahavamsa Atthakatha and another earlier compilation of chronological records of Lanka known as the Dipavamsa.

Later, Sinhalese Buddhist monks added a sequel to the Mahavamsa, which is known as Culawamsa (Lesser Chronicle), to cover the period from 4th century AD until the military occupation of Lanka by the British in 1815.

Thus the combined full volume of the Mahavamsa constitutes a continuous historical record, spanning a period of over two millennia of Sri Lankan history. This is why the collective volumes of the Mahavamsa are treasured as the world’s longest unbroken historical record.

Mahanama Thero’s writing of the first part of the Mahavamsa was, as we wrote, greatly influenced by the Dipavamsa (Chronicle of the Island) – the earliest extant chronicle of Sri Lanka. It is believed that the was the work of two authors, bhikkunis (nuns) Sivala and Maharuha from India, and was written a century earlier. As translated into English by B.C. Law the Dipavamsa at the beginning states:

“Listen to me ! I shall relate the chronicle of the Buddha’s visit to the island, the arrival of the Tooth Relic and Bodhi Tree , the advent of the Buddha’s doctrine, the rise of the teachers , the spread of Buddhism in the Island and the coming of [Vijaya] the Chief of Men”

This is what the English translator had to say about the accuracy of the chronicle:

"The Dipavamsa contains many stages of development concluding at different important historical events. There is an apparent lack of uniformity, an unevenness of style, incorrectness of language and metre and numerous repetitions, apart from many other imperfections which indicate it to be the outcome of a series of traditions collected together as a first attempt to record a connected history of the island".

In his work titled On the Chronicles of Ceylon, B.C. Law states that the ‘happy coincidence’ of the date of the Buddha’s demise and the date of arrival of Vijaya, and the miraculously accurate prediction of this event by the Buddha prior to his demise, is nothing but a fabrication:

"The chronology must begin from a certain definite date, which in the case of the Ceylon chronicles is the year of Buddha's demise, marking the starting point of the Buddha era." […] A happy coincidence is imagined and availed to build a systematic chronology of the kings of Ceylon, the coincidence of the day of Buddha's demise with that of the landing of the exiled prince Vijaya on the island of Lanka. A prediction is put into the mouth of the Buddha to raise the importance of his appearance on the island as the founder of the first Aryan race."

The original Mahavamsa was first translated into German from Pali by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912, and then into English by Mabel Haynes Bode, and revised by Geiger. The first revised edition of the English translation of the Mahavamsa was published in 1837 by George Turnour, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service. Wilhelm Geiger, whose German translation of the Mahavamsa contained more than 1500 pages, summed up his opinion about the trustworthiness of the Mahavamsa as follows:

“We must not forget that the Mahavamsa is not a dry chronicle in the modern sense of the word, but a poem. In a poem embellishments and sometimes also exaggerations may occur. But within these limits I have the strong impression and whoever reads the Mahavamsa without prejudice will have the same---that the author at least wished to tell the truth. He is perhaps sometimes misled by his education and by his conviction, on account of his priestly mode of viewing things, but he never tells a falsehood intentionally”


According to the Mahavamsa, Lord Buddha visited the island three times during his life, nine months, five years and eight years after his Enlightenment. The sole purpose of his each visit, as narrated in the Mahavamsa, was to cleanse evil spirits from the island of Lanka, where he foresaw his teachings were destined to flourish under the custodianship of the ‘chosen people’ the Sinhala race.

The genesis of this Sinhala race – the ‘chosen’ custodians of the Buddha’s teaching, according to the Mahavamsa - starts with the sexual union between a lion and a very pretty princess called Suppadevi, who was the daughter of the King of Vanga (modern Bangladesh) and his consort the Queen of Kalinga (a region in Orissa). In the Dipavamsa, the same princess was given the name Susima.

One day when Suppadevi was travelling to Magadha country, the country where Lord Buddha lived, she fell in love with a lion. The union between princess Suppadevi/ Susima and the lion bore twins, a daughter Sinhasivali and a son Sinhabahu. Given below is the mythical episode in the Mahavamsa:

“In the Lala country a lion attacked the caravan in the forest, the other folk fled this way and that, but she fled along the way by which the lion had come. When the lion had taken his prey and was leaving the spot he beheld her from afar, love (for her) laid hold on him, and he came towards her with waving tail and ears laid back. Seeing him she bethought her of that prophecy of the soothsayers which she had heard, and without fear she caressed him stroking his limbs.

The lion, roused to fiercest passion by her touch, took her upon his back and bore her with all speed to his cave, and there he was united with her, and from this union with him the princess in time bore twin-children, a son and a daughter.

The son's hands and feet were formed like a lion's and therefore she named him Sinhabahu, but the daughter (she named) Sinhasivali.”

(Mahavamsa, Chapter VI The Coming of Vijaya) The highlights of the text are mine. Online access to complete Mahavamsa is available at

Obviously, the idea of Suppadevi becoming pregnant by a lion is purely mythical. So are the many other legends and events described in the Mahavamsa. There have been no shortages of attempts to interpret this story as the princess actually becoming pregnant by a rebel with the name Sinha, meaning lion. However, the exact English translation of the original Pali text of the Mahavamsa –‘waving tail and ears laid back’- leaves no doubt about the lion’s non-human identity.

When he reached sixteen years, Sinhabahu killed his father the lion for a reward and was offered the throne of Vanga. He declined the offer and built his own city Sinhapura in his native country Lala (modern Gujarat). Then he made his own twin sister Sinhasivali his consort – this is an act of incest, a crime punishable by law in a civilised society. It is out of this act of incest that the originator of the Sinhala race and the custodian of Buddhism, prince Vijaya, was born as the eldest of 32 children (16 twins). His younger twin brother was Sumitta.

The story of a lion mating with a human female to produce human twins, a son and a daughter and then the act of incest between the twins to produce 16 twins is not only mind-boggling but also defies wildest fantasies. This material of the Mahavamsa no doubt deserves an adults-only rating. One can only marvel at the extent of the imagination of the authors, the celibate bhikkus of the Mahavihara, who wrote these lines for the consumption of the pious general populace.


Then the Mahavamsa story continues with Vijaya’s banishment by his father King Sinhabahu and Vijaya’s arrival in Sri Lanka with 700 of his men, on the day of Gautama Buddha’s passing away.

The arrival of Vijaya in Sri Lanka is narrated in the Mahavamsa as follows:

“Vijaya was of evil conduct and his followers were like himself, and many intolerable deeds of violence were done by them. Angered by this the people told the matter to the king; the king, speaking persuasively to them, severely blamed. his son. But all fell out again as before, the second and yet the third time; and the angered people said to the king: `Kill thy son.'

Then did the king cause Vijaya and his followers, seven hundred men, to be shaven over half the head and put them on a ship and sent them forth upon the sea, and their wives and children also. The men, women, and children sent forth separately landed separately, each [company] upon an island, and they dwelt even there. The island where the children landed was called Nagadipa and the island where the women landed Mahiladipaka. But Vijaya landed at the haven called Suppäraka, but being there in danger by reason of the violence of his followers be embarked again.

The prince named VIJAYA, the valiant, landed in Lanka, in the region called Tambapanni on the day that the Tathagata lay down between the two twinlike sala-trees to pass into Nibbana.

Here ends the sixth chapter, called The Coming of Vijay of the Mahavamsa, compiled for the serene joy and emotion of the pious.“

(Mahavamsa Chapter VI The Coming of Vijaya)

Vijaya was the first king of Sri Lanka and ruled for 38 years from 543 BC to 504 BC. The Sinhala race is believed to have originated from King Vijaya, who first produced two children with Kuveni - a pretty witch or yakkini and who was Queen of Yakkas, whom he met on his arrival. Later Vijaya chased Kuveni and his children from the kingdom and married a princess from South India, the daughter of a Pandu King.

The Kuveni-Vijaya myth has its parallel in the encounter of Odysseus with Circe. Odysseus or Ulysses is a hero and Circe is a pretty goddess from the island of Aeaea, according to the Greek mythological poem written by the great epic poet Homer, who lived in Ionia (present day Turkey) in the 8th century BC.


There is archaeological and scientific evidence that humans have existed in various parts of India during the past million years. During this period Sri Lanka’s land mass was connected to India from time to time. Separation of this connection had taken place owing to the rise and fall of sea levels resulting perhaps also from global climatic changes. Sri Lanka’s last land separation from India has occurred at 7000 BP (BP stands for Before Present, which is a unit of uncalibrated time, determined by the radiocarbon dating method, according to which time is counted in years backwards from the year 1950 AD). As BP dates are based on the level of atmospheric radiocarbon 14C or Carbon 14, which is not consistent for a given duration of time, the dates in BP are not equivalent to the dates of the Gregorian calendar, which we use. However, raw BP dates can be converted to calendar dates by using other independent methods of dating such as dendrochronology (examination of tree growth-rings).

It is evident that Sri Lanka had her first settlers from India at least as early as one million years ago. Human remains dating back to 36,000 BC were found in Sri Lanka in the Fa-Hien Cave in Balangoda, which are known as of Balangoda people, who colonised the island. Further evidence of pre-historic settlements in Sri Lanka has been discovered in two other caves, Botadomba Lena and Kitulgala Beli Lena. The human remains discovered in these caves date back to 28,500 years and 12,000 years respectively. Numerous anthropological and archaeological similarities as shown by similarities of certain burial rites, and numerous decorative artefacts, which were discovered at historical sites in Sri Lanka, provide proof of continuous close links between the first inhabitants of the island and the early Dravidian inhabitants of Southern India.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, based on mythical narrations covering mere hundreds of years, has locked up and enslaved hundreds of thousands of years of island’s multicultural, multilingual and even international history. The time has come to provide our younger generation with the knowledge of the true history based on scientific facts, so that the cycle of nationalistic hatred and enslavement could be stopped, hopefully with the next generation.

It is the lack of scientific knowledge of our true history that has made generation after generation of Sinhala Buddhists myopic due to an over-strong sense of superiority and illusive legitimacy of their birthrights to the custodianship of the Island.

Yet Sri Lankans do not have to search far to find wisdom to guide them to peace, harmony and prosperity!

The great Bengali poet, philosopher, novelist, playwright, visual artist and composer Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore is just one of many who can provide this wisdom. He has written in his famous 1912 Nobel Prize winning work Gitanjali about his dreams of a free India to be. The time has been long overdue in Sri Lanka too, for people of all breeds and creeds, to free themselves from the chains of nationalistic enslavement!

Rabindranath Tagore’s own English translation reads:

Where the Mind is Without Fear (Chiito Jetha Bhayshunyo).

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action--

Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.”

(Gitanjali, Gurudev Rabindranat Tagore , 1912)

Gurudev Tagore’s words of wisdom have made the lyrics of the popular old Sinhala song that was written and sung by that most prominent Sinhala Buddhist singer, musician and maestro, Pandit W.D. Amaradeva. Indeed the people of Sri Lanka need to be awoken to that Haven of Freedom, where the mind will be free of nationalistic slavery and hatred.


The indigenous history of the Island thus dates back to many thousands of years into pre-Vijaya time. Vijaya arrived on the Island to find it inhabited by not only Kuveni and the Yakkas, but also by many other various mythical inhabitants, the Nagas, the Rakshas and the Devas. Sri Lanka has a written history of over 2500 years and archaeological evidence has shown that her unwritten history dates back to 125,000 years. Historical records on Sri Lanka are found in the two great Indian chronicles: Mahabharata, the major Sanskrit epic of ancient India and the longest epic poem in the world containing 90,000 verses, and the other Sanskrit epic, Ramayana , with 24,000 verses dating back to a period of 500 BC–100 BC.

The ship carrying the exiled prince Vijaya and his 700 men is believed to have been swept ashore near a place called Mahanthitha (also known as, Mahavoti , Mahaputtu, Mahappattana, Lankapattana, , Mahanthota, Mataottam, Mantota, Man-ara – meaning ‘the river flowing to Mantota’ – that may have finally given the name Mannaram.) Mannaram (or Mahanthitha) has been an important ancient port, long before prince Vijaya’s arrival. It linked the Indian coast with the Persian Gulf. This ancient port has served as the Island’s window to the outside world and vice versa.

The Babylonians (people from the ancient civilization of Babylon, in 2300 BC, in the south of Mesopotamia, in modern day Iraq), the Phoenicians (ancient civilization from 1200 BC, having an enterprising maritime trading culture, in modern day Lebanon, Syria and northern Israel) and the Sumerians (the Ancient Near East or otherwise known as Ancient Orient civilization of 4000 BC, in modern day Iraq, Turkey and Egypt), and other civilizations have used the ancient port of Mannaram. Many evidence of ancient ties of the island with the outside world make many historians believe that any one of the ancient civilizations - the Babylonians, Phoenicians or Sumerians - could have been ancestors of Kuveni and also of the Nagas, Yakshas, Rakshas and Devas, who lived on the Island long before Vijaya’s arrival.

Therefore the Sinhala race, its originator the Aryan prince Vijaya, his first wife the Yakka Queen Kuveni, and their descendants, their language that later came to be known as Sinhala, from the very start had multicultural, multilingual, multiethnic and even international backgrounds. This is not the genealogy of the ‘Arya-Sinhala Race’ that Sinhala Buddhist nationalists want to hear. Unfortunately for them these are the facts, and they are supported by scientific, historical, archaeological and anthropological studies.

Like the Sinhalese people, their language is also a cross breed of the languages that were in use on the island long before Vijaya’s arrival, and also of the Indo-Aryan language that Vijaya and his 700 companions used and brought with them. Sinhala has many words of Sumerian, Prakrit, Pali, Maghada, Sanskrit, Dravidian, Dutch, Portuguese and English origin. The family of Dravidian languages alone consists of 70 languages, 30 -70% of which consist of Sanskrit words. The impact of Dravidian grammar on the Indo-Aryan languages is considered to be far greater than the Indo-Aryan grammatical impact on the Dravidian languages.

Similarly the written Sinhala has its origins in Brahmin script, an ancient writing system known as Abugida. More than 50% of the writing systems in the world are Abugidas - which are alpha-syllabic or syllabic writing systems in which a consonant is always followed by a vowel. The Brahmin script which provided the base for Sinhala written language was used in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuriya.

The concepts of a ‘thoroughbred Sinhalese race’ and a ‘thoroughbred spoken and written Sinhalese language’ are therefore nothing but myths, as obvious as the Mahavamsa myths of the lion ancestry.


As the originalMahavamsa was written in Pali, only a few Sinhalese who knew Pali had access to it until its Sinhala translation appeared in 1877. The Sinhala translation of the original Mahavamsa was later updated and edited in 1935 and then in 1978. The use of the Mahavamsa as a tool for rallying Sinhala Buddhist nationalism started to become widespread as it was interpreted as a true historical chronicle of Sri Lanka and the origin of the Sinhala ethnicity.

Historians use the Mahavamsa with caution and do not use its narrations as facts of history. Alongside with many myths such as the adults-only tale of princess Suppadevi’s union with a lion and the Indian Emperor Asoka’s son (or relative, according to other records) arriving in Sri Lanka by zooming through the air, obviously were fantasies to glorify Buddhism and, as Wilhelm Geiger thought, due to the author’s Buddhist convictions ‘on account of his priestly mode of viewing things.’

However, alongside fantasies the Mahavamsa also contains some elements of facts i.e accurate details of the kings of ancient Anuradhapura. With the spread of the Sinhala translation came a dangerous escalation of the Sinhala nationalistic fervour that was built on the blind belief in the legendary mythical accounts and narrations about the heroes and kings in ancient Sri Lanka. This lead to the strong feelings of nationalism that are still widely prevalent among the misinformed Sinhala Buddhists, who genuinely believe that the only true Sri Lankans are the Sinhala Buddhists. This means the Tamils, Muslims, Malays,Burghers, Sinhala Christians and other minorities can never be considered as true full-fledged Sri Lankans.

Lawrence J. Zwier has written a number of books as part of a series called World in Conflict. In his 96 page book titled Sri Lanka: War-Torn Island he explains how the Mahavamsa has been used by the Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic politicians to implant the idea of justification of their birth right to rule the Island.

“Even in translation, the chronicles were difficult to use as historical sources. The Mahavamsa was written hundreds of years after some of the events it describes. Alongside passages that seemed factual – the name of the king or location of his court – were such obviously nonfactual accounts as the story of a person zooming through the air. The Mahavamsa and other chronicles sometimes contradicted one another, with different accounts of Vijaya and his origins, for example. The biggest problem was that the chronicles were written mainly to glorify Buddhism in Sri Lanka, not to record objectively what happened.

The greatest importance of the Mahavamsa is not as history but as a symbol.- and as a motivating force behind Sinhala Nationalism. A Sinhalese politician speaking in public is likely to mention incidents from Mahavamsa as evidence of the long and distinguished history the Sinhalese have in Sri Lanka. But Sinhalese political and religious leaders also use Mahavamsa stories as evidence that the whole island should be ruled by Sinhalese Buddhists.”

There are quite a number of discrepancies in the Mahavamsa compared to other historical, archaeological and scientific records. Thus Dr. G.C. Mendis, Lecturer in History, University of Ceylon, in his foreword to the 1950 edition of The Mahavamsa (The Great Chronicle of Ceylon), translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger, assisted by Mable Haynes Bode Ph.D, discusses at length these discrepancies as quoted below. Defrayed by the Ceylon Government Information Department, this edition of the Mahavamsa was published in 1950 (and is available on line at: )

On the trustworthiness of the Sri Lankan chronicles Dr. Mendis writes:

“A very trenchant verdict is pronounced by V.A. Smith in his “Asoka”, on the Ceylonese Chronicles. He says in the plainest fashion: ‘in this work ( i.e. in the Asoka) the Ceylonese chronology prior to B.C. 160 is absolutely and completely rejected, as being not merely of doubtful authority but positively false in its principal propositions.’ (V.A. Smith: Asoka the Buddhist Emperor of India, page 57) […]

“These Sinhalese stories the value of which has been sometimes overestimated, demand cautious criticism at least as much as do other records of popular and ecclesiastical tradition” ( Dr. V.A. Smith: Early history of India, 2nd edition 1908, page 9)

Dr. Mendis agrees:

“The warning to handle critically, which the excellent historian considers necessary with regard to the Ceylonese Chronicles, is certainly justified. It applies to all historical documents, and I have no intention at all disputing the justice of it.” ( page XIII , Introduction, Mahavamsa 1950 edition published by the Ceylon Government Information Department)

According to the Mahavamsa and the Dipavansa, the son (Mahinda) and the daughter (Sangamitta) of the Indian Emperor Asoka were responsible for converting the King of Lanka and his people to Buddhism. However, Dr. V.A. Smith names the story in the Mahavamsa, related to this conversion as nothing but a ‘tissue of absurdities’ (V.A. Smith, Asoka page 45)”.

Prof. Herman Oldenberg (1854-1920), the great German scholar of Indology and professor, studied and researched the Buddha and his teachings in Pali. His study on the Buddha, published in 1881, helped popularize Buddhism and still remains continuously in print. In association with Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843 -1922), the British scholar of the Pali language, he founded the Pali Text Society in 1881. Professor Oldenberg translated three volumes of Vinaya Pitakaya texts and many other Pali texts and sutras into English. Thus the contributions made by these German and British scholars in providing broader access to the Buddhist scriptures written originally in Pali, (the language in which the texts of the Theravada school of Buddhism is preserved) are enormous.

In Herman Oldenberg’s assessment the stories related to the conversion of Sri Lanka to Buddhism by Mahinda and Sangamitta are pure inventions. As referred to by G.C. Mendis in The Mahavamsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon (1950 edition, page xvi and xvii) there are doubts as to why Asoka in his 13th century Rock Edicts, in the Rock-Edict XIII in particular, has failed to mention his own son Mahinda and daughter Sangamitta being handed over to the temple, and also their role in converting the Sri Lankan king to Buddhism.

Asoka, the Mayura emperor, whose imperial name was Devanampriya Priyadarsi, ruled from 273 to 232 BC. His Rock Edicts belong to the 13th year (260 BC) of his rule and the conversion of the Sri Lankan King to Buddhism took place - according to Sri Lankan chronicles - in the 18th year (255 BC) of Asoka’s rule. The contradiction is that there is a five year discrepancy between Asoka’s edict entries about the missionaries having already been dispatched to Sri Lanka, and the Mahavamsa records of the actual arrival of the missionaries in Sri Lanka. This is beyond comprehension.

Although the Mahavamsa says that Asoka handed over his own children to the temple and sent them to Sri Lanka to convert the King of Sri Lanka to Buddhism, Asoka has made no mention of this in his own Edicts.

The question that begs an answer is: if Mahinda and Sangamitta were really handed over to the temple to become Buddhist missionaries, and if they did really convert the Sri Lankan King Devanampiya Tissa to Buddhism, why would Asoka their father have neglected to record these important events in his own edicts? The name Sangamitta is, as V.A. Smith thinks, suspicious from its very meaning.


As long as the mythical stories of Mahavamsa are being elevated to reverence as historical proof of the origins of the Sinhala race and their historical mission as custodians of Buddhism, there will be no true understanding of our common true history.

The teaching of our history should not be twisted and turned to inspire illusive nationalistic superiority of one ethnicity against the other. All those who are born in Sri Lanka, who live and breathe on the paradise island of Sri Lanka today, do descend from shared common origins and are entwined together with one common history, common dreams, hopes for a peaceful prosperous future. We all have collective ownership of our common heritage. We all, with no exception!, should have equal birth rights to get inspiration from our common history and common heritage.

The Mahavamsa with all its historical importance, enormity and glory, should be only treated as the oldest and longest mythical chronicle, a historical poem written by great creative authors.

The wild fantasies of ‘Lion Ancestry’ and the myths about the origin of the Sinhala race as pre-destined, true custodians of the island of Sri Lanka and guardians of Buddhism - should be put to rest among the other mythical fairy tales. This needs courage and wisdom from grass root level, as it takes a lot to stand against the nationalistic agenda and the divisive nationalistic culture driven by Sinhala political leadership at the top.

The sooner we gather courage to start this process, the better it would be for this generation and many generations to come, as this is the only way to save Sri Lanka from the strangling stronghold of the evil twins of nationalism and terrorism on each side of the ethnic divide, and their profiteers.

Dr. Mithra Fernando is the General Manager of Science & Technology Workshop Services in the University of Sydney. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Technical Sciences and have a number of patents registered with Intellectual Property Australia.

- Asian Tribune -

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