Buddhagosa and Sri Lanka
The venerable scholar monk Buddhagosa was sent to Sri Lanka by the
Buddhist elders of India, to engage in the task of translating into Pali
the Sinhala commentaries held at the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura.
Buddhagosa came to Sri Lanka in the time of king Mahanama (406-428 AD).
According to the Mahavamsa (Culavamsa) Buddhagosa was told in India
that the Theravada texts available in India were inadequate. They lacked
The Sinhala commentaries (atthakatha) were ‘genuine and faultless.’
They were commentaries composed in the Sinhala language by Mahinda, who
had previously consulted the discourses of the Buddha confirmed at the
Third Buddhist Council in India. Sri Lanka had preserved these
Sri Lanka had also preserved the Buddhist canon, the Pitakas, in Pali.
Sinhala Buddhism therefore contained the authentic Theravada philosophy.
Buddhagosa was asked to go to Sri Lanka and ‘render the Sinhala texts
into Magadhi’ in order to make the Sinhala texts accessible to the whole
Buddhist world. ‘Magadhi’ is the correct word for the language we call ‘Pali’.
The word Pali simply means ‘canonical text’. Sri Lankan historians
have now started to use ‘Magadhi’ instead of ‘Pali’. I shall also use
the term Magadhi instead of Pali.
Ven. Nanamoli suggests that Sanskrit had probably displaced Magadhi (Pali)
as the medium of study in all the Buddhist schools in India by the first
Today all the schools of Buddhism, except Theravada, use Sanskrit.
The Theravada school decided that in order to remain distinct from the
many other schools of Buddhism which were in vogue in India at the time,
it was best to adopt a language other than Sanskrit.
They decided to use Magadhi as the official language. Magadhi was the
dialect spoken by Gautama Buddha.
This led to a drive to revive and rehabilitate Magadhi. I think that
Sri Lanka was also a party to this decision, though it meant the
displacement of Sinhala by Magadhi as the language of Buddhism. Sinhala
was perfectly capable of functioning as the medium for Theravada
Buddhism and in my view, should have made a claim to be considered the
official language of Theravada Buddhism.
Malalasekera (1928) noted that at the time of Mahinda, the Sinhala
language was able to accommodate the abstract Budddhist concepts that
Mahinda brought over. The sought-after Sri Lankan commentaries were also
However, in the 4th century, the Sinhala Sangha decided to give
preference to Magadhi. Though they did not know the language very well,
they wrote the Dipavamsa in their limited Magadhi (Pali) using the
Sihala atthakatha and the Sinhala script.
Buddhagosa was one of several South Indian commentators who were sent
here to translate the Sinhala commentaries to Pali. I think that they
all came from Andhra, where there were flourishing centres of Buddhism.
Buddhagosa is by far the most celebrated of these commentators, but
there were others as well.
The South Indian monk Buddhadatta was here before Buddhagosa.
Buddhadatta was attached to Mahavihara. The two monks had met and
Buddhadatta has asked Buddhagosa to complete the task of translating.
Since both used the same similes, they had probably used the same
sources. Buddhadatta wrote Jinalankara, Dhantadhatu Bodhi Vamsa and
Abhidhammavatara. Malalasekera says Buddhadatta’s exposition in
Abhidhammavatara is superior to that of Buddhagosa.
A. P. Budhadatta thera (1953) thinks that Buddhagosa came here with a
band of learned monks. Buddhagosa left Sri Lanka without completing the
translation project. Dhammapala, also from Andhra followed immediately
He also went to Mahavihara and stated in his writings that he
followed the interpretation of the Mahavihara. The arrival of so many
translators clearly indicates the size and complexity of the Sinhala
sources held in the Sri Lanka monasteries.
The atthakatha which these translators came for, were ‘talks’ (katha)
about the content, meaning or purpose of various parts of the doctrine.
They arose from a desire to understand the Buddha’s word accurately.
After listening to the Buddha’s preaching, the monks would go to one
of the chief disciples to get the issues explained in greater detail.
Monks would also gather at centers to discuss the views expressed by the
Buddha. Some of the interpretations that resulted were approved by the
These conclusions formed the nucleus of the commentaries. These
commentaries were the oldest available commentaries on Theravada
Buddhism. They were considered to be the orthodox interpretation of the
There were many collections of these commentaries in the monasteries
of ancient Sri Lanka. E.W. Adikaram gives a list of 28 of these sources
such as Vinaya atthakatha and Digha atthakatha, the poranas and the
traditions handed down by the bhanakas.
He noted that some of these were groups of works, not single items.
By the time Buddhagosa arrived in Sri Lanka, these Sinhala commentaries
had already been put together into treatises and written up as books.
These included the Maha atthakatha of the Mahavihara, the Uttara
vihara atthakatha, the Maha peccari which was composed on a raft and the
Kurundi atthakatha written at the Kurundavelu Vihara. In
Sumangalavilasini, Buddhagosa mentions some of these Sinhala
commentaries by name.
The Pali commentaries show that new elements were added to some of
the canonical texts by the Sinhala monks. Sumangalavilasini shows that
additions were made to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya.
The commentaries of Dhammapala show Mahayana influence.
Scholars point out that commentaries such as the Maha atthakatha
contained a large number of anecdotes based on the incidents that took
place in Sri Lanka. Buddhagosa included only a few of these in his
commentaries. Had they been preserved in their entirety these anecdotes
would have enlarged our knowledge of ancient Sri Lanka.
Very little is known about the personal history of Buddhagosa. One
source said he came from Burma and returned there, another said he was
cremated in Cambodia. Tamil scholars say he came from Tamil kingdom and
went back there.
Present day scholars have rejected these conclusions. Kiribamune says
that Buddhagosa was from the Andhra or Telegu kingdom. His home town,
Morandakhetaka has been located in Andhra Pradesh.
His writings show familiarity with the Godavari region. However he
seems to have also lived in other parts of India. His writings show that
he was familiar with the north Indian state of Vaisali and its Licchavi
rulers. He does not appear to have traveled south beyond the Godavari.
Buddhagosa arrived in Sri Lanka and went straight to the Mahavihara.
I think that the visit would have been pre-arranged and that Mahavihara
was cooperating in the project of preserving Theravada Buddhism in
Malalasekera suggests that the Mahavihara cooperated because it
thought that once the commentaries which contained the full exposition
of the Dhamma were available in India in an Indian language, a new
impetus would be given to the study of the orthodox teaching.
Malalasekera says that Buddhism was at this time on the wane in India.
When he got to Mahavihara, Buddhagosa had to submit to a test set by
the Mahavihara before he was permitted to examine the Sinhala texts.
Buddhagosa passed the test by composing the Visuddimagga. I think
that this fact indicates that the Mahavihara was well aware of its
leading position as the custodian of the Sinhala atthakatha and was
cautious about admitting foreign monks into their scholarly activities.
Buddhagosa had first to be accepted by the Mahavihara.
Mahavihara exerted a great influence on Buddhagosa. Buddhagosa made
it clear that his writings did not diverge from the standpoint of the
elders residing in the Maha Vihara. He laid great stress on the Maha
atthakatha of the Mahavihara.
The monks at whose instigation Buddhagosa commenced certain writings
were also from the Mahavihara. Buddhagosa learnt Sinhala. He said
Sinhala was a ‘manorama basa.’ Some of his writings were done at
Ganthakara Pirivena. He also speaks of Girikandaka Vihara, in the
village of Vatakalaka and Colomba tittha vihara where fifty monks used
to take abode in the rainy season.
Buddhagosa’s task was to edit and translate the original commentaries
back into Magadhi (Pali) as accurately as possible. He was not revising
the texts. Buddhagosa stated in his writings that he had extracted the
entire meaning of the texts, without distorting.
He had consulted different versions of the commentaries, held in
various monastic schools. He had also looked at the older material such
as the poranas. He recorded the variant readings found, including
different versions of the narrative passages.
He condensed detailed accounts and avoided repetition. He rarely
included his own ideas and when he did so, he clearly indicated the
fact. There is only one instance in Visuddimagga where he openly
advanced an opinion of his own.
Adikaram (1946) says that more than half the Pali (Magadhi)
commentaries are by Buddhagosa. He says that Buddhagosa wrote
commentaries on the seven texts belong to the Abhidamma Pitaka and they
are based on the original Sinhala commentaries as well as on the
accepted interpretations of the Maha Vihara.
A. P. Buddhadatta thera (1953) says that though numerous works have
been attributed to Buddhagosa, an examination of the texts shows that
Buddhagosa composed the Visuddimagga and the commentaries to the Vinaya
and the first four Nikayas, but not the commentaries on the Abhidhamma
and the books of the Khuddaka Nikaya.
The writings of Buddhagosa include the Samantapasadika, which deals
with the Vinaya texts. It was translated into Chinese soon after. The
Kankavitarani, which is on the Patimokka section of the Vinaya.
This was based on the Mahavihara tradition and was written at the
request of Sona thera. Sumangalavilasini, is a commentary on the Digha
Nikaya, written at the request of Dathanaga of the Sumangala Pirivena.
Papancasudani, a commentary on Majjhima Nikaya, was written at the
request of Buddhamitta thera, with whom Buddhagosa lived at Mayura
He also wrote Saratthapakasini, a commentary on Samyutta Nikaya and
Manorathapurani, a commentary on Anguttara Nikaya.
Visuddimagga has earned Buddhagosa everlasting fame. Visuddimagga is
a concise but complete encyclopedia of the Buddha’s teachings.
It is considered to be the only book in which the whole of the
Buddhist system is well depicted. It is a compendium of the whole
Buddhist system and contains the whole Buddhist philosophy in a
It has taken references from nearly every work in Buddhist literature
such as the three Pitakas, the Sinhala commentaries, the Milinda Panha
and Petakopadesa. Its vocabulary is very rich with long passages and big
words and the language is very difficult to understand.
Researchers have drawn attention to the great similarity between the
Visuddhimagga and a Chinese work called Vimuttimagga, translated by the
Cambodian monk, Sangapala in 505 AD. They suggest that both relied on
the same sources.
Buddhagosa’s fame spread far and wide after Visuddimagga. His works
were studied in India, Sri Lanka, Thaton and Myanmar in his lifetime.
Recently, the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka published Sinhala
translations of Kankavitarani, Visuddimagga and Samantapasadika as a
part of its Attakatha project.
Buddhist scholars, past and present are unanimous in their admiration
of Buddhagosa. Paranavitana says Buddhagosa’s commentarial work has
settled the doctrine of Sinhala Buddhism for the generations after him.
Buddhagosa is considered authoritative in all the lands of Theravada
Buddhism. Malalasekera said that Buddhagosa’s work is indispensable for
the correct understanding of Theravada Buddhism. Many points of Buddhist
teaching would be unintelligible if not for his expositions.
Malalasekera also says that Buddhagosa helped to improve the standard
of Magadhi (Pali) in Sri Lanka. Pali improved immensely after his time.
During the British occupation of Sri Lanka, Buddhagosa acquired the
status of a hero.
The Sinhala contribution was played down. Chalmers (1915) refers to
him as ‘this heroic scholar’. He said that Buddhagosa did not translate,
he rewrote the commentaries he found in Sri Lanka. Malalasekera (1928)
also took the same position. He said Buddhagosa had to plough through a
large mass of disorganised material, sort out, edit and reconcile the
material. He rewrote the material.
Chalmers said that Ceylon (Sri Lanka) owes a debt to its
distinguished visitor because Buddhagosa was clearly pre-eminent in the
history of Ceylon scholarship. Malalasekera said that Buddhagosa
‘established the pre-eminence of Sri Lanka over all other countries in
the genuineness of its tradition and justified her claim to be the home
of the orthodox Theravada of his day’. D.G.E. Hall (1955) refers to
Buddhagosha as ‘the father of Sinhalese Buddhism’.
This is nonsense. Sri Lanka did not need Buddhagosa’s assistance in
this regard. Of all the Buddhist states in Asia, only Sri Lanka remained
consistently Buddhist during the ancient period.
Buddhism fluctuated in India and China. Sri Lanka was well known as a
centre of Buddhist learning before and after Buddhagosa.
James Gray published in 1892, the ‘Buddhagosuppatti: a historical
romance of the life and career of Buddhagosa’. This is based on three
palm leaf copies obtained from Burma. According to the Buddhagosuppati
“Buddhagosa had the works written by the Mahinda thera put into a heap
in a sacred place near the great Pagoda and set on fire.
All the books written in the Sinhala language were equal in height to
seven elephants of middle size. After setting fire to all the works
compiled in Sinhalese he took leave of the assembly of priests and
departed to India”.
This outrageous statement has been rejected by all scholars. The
Sinhala commentaries did not go out of use as soon as the Pali version
was made. Buddhagosa’s successor Dhammapala had the Sinhala commentaries
before him. The Sinhala commentaries were in use until at least the 10th
century. Malalasekera however suggests that the Sinhala commentaries
disappeared because the Sinhala commentaries were completely superseded
by Buddhagosa’s compilations.
(The writings of E.W. Adikaram, A.P. Buddhadatta thera, R. Chalmers,
T. Endo, J.Gray D.G.E. Hall., N.A. Jayawickrema, S. Kiribamune, B.C.Law,
G.P. Malalasekera, Bhikku Nanamoli, S. Paranavitana were used for this