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Buddhagosa and Sri Lanka

Kamalika PIERIS

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 commentaries.

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 commentaries.

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 century AD.

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 in Sinhala.

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 after.

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 Buddha.

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 Buddha’s teachings.

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 Magadhi (Pali).

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 pattana.

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 nutshell.

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.

Mahinda thera

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 essay).


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