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Thursday, 27 May 2010






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Aloka Vihara feat

The White who mastered it:

"Aluvihara must be always more impressive still as the scene of the fruitful labours of those 500 Bhikkhus - labours that mark an epoch in the history of the scholarship of the world." So wrote Lord Chalmers, the ill-fated governor who was recalled in the aftermath of the 1915 riots. Chalmers just adulated the indigenous culture and the feats that nourished it as the transmission into writing, the Pali Canon amidst the rocky boulders of Alu Vihara at Matale. Nearly 100 years later we have another from across the seas and almost from the same terrain who seems to have almost mastered this feat.

Impressive credentials

The Buddha with his disciples.

How shall we designate him, who unlike Chalmers has tried his hand and legs in varied areas? The profile of his career is almost startling. Army, drama school, London theatre, then on to globetrotting across Europe to Turkey, on to Iran and Iraq (four years during revolution), Afghanistan, Swat, India. Now planted in Sri Lanka. Perhaps permanently, imitating the famous Arthur C. Clarke. There are chains around him now as the librarian post of the Royal Asiatic Society (Sri Lankan branch) that he just seems to relish. His name, Russell Bowden.

His CV is long enough to be boring. So I give it up as the gales lash around my abode and flip through the latest RAS journal edited in elegant style by Prof. W. I. Siriweera. But there is no getting away from the Professor who simply dominates it with his essay on 'Writing down of the Pali Tripitaka at Aloka Vihara in Sri Lanka'. Never thought that I would get so much enlightened on the topic by a non-Buddhist: "No, Padma, you need not label me as a Buddhist." That's okay. Why worry about labels?

And calling that article an essay? That is also an understatement. It runs to 72 pages and if expanded could develop into one of the most recognized works on this feat achieved by our monks in the very eve of the pre-Christian epoch, 29-17 BC to be exact going by the writer's calculation. These are the years of King Vattagamani which relate with Geiger's precise dating.

He begins the mini-book by this sentence.

"Of all the events in the 2250 years of the history of the development of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.... was this commitment of the Pali Theravada canon for the first time ever onto written documentary records on ola leaves, the most significant in the processes of the journeys of the transmission of the Buddha's words after his Parinibbana."

Theories and speculations

The writer then goes on to examine the various theories and speculations that led to this stupendous assignment which whorl of facts substantiated by quotes from a host of scholars as Rhys Davids, Horner, Geiger, Malalasekara, Law, Adikaram, Norman, Rahula, Jinananda and Gunawardena would have provided heavy reading. But Bowden diminishes it all to a simple 11-point matrix even instilling some humour as in the instance of the Vamsas allotting little information to an activity maybe yet to be surpassed in the world of the intellect.

Paper controversy

A wealth of information is conveyed in this section on issues as the role of the Indian Bhanakas as couriers of the Dhamma, the role of the beminitisaya in precipitating events and the three or four councils that preceded the Matale redaction. The opinions of each scholar is weighed and evaluated except for that of Thakur a Thai who fantasizes not only about a large hall being erected for the event but also the king providing paper for writing the books. Bowden can be ruthless. Here he is.

"The idea that the king supplied paper for books is ludicrous. Firstly books had not been invented and were not to exist in Europe until after 1450 resulting from Gutenberg's invention of printing... They were not to be created in Sri Lanka until the Dutch established the first printing press. Paper had not been invented either and this occurred 75 years later in 105 AD and not in Sri Lanka but in China."

These facts lead one to boggle his or her mind on the difficulties faced at Alu Vihara. It is almost as if Bowden has retreated in time to the rocky boulders and surveyed the rugged pre-Christian scenario. There was no hall. No paper to write on. No pre-copy. But to recompense for all that there was an amazing wealth of canon learnt by heart by scholars.

"Each was a walking, living edition of a certain text." Then there were the technical difficulties involved in 'inscribing', delicate physical skills were called for to inscribe with a spatula onto a pre-prepared ola leaf, then the inking. There was the division of labour between those who dictated and those who inscribed. There was also the language problem. Canon was being written in Pali, the language of the canonical texts and not in Sinhala, currently used among the clergy. One can imagine the crop of problems that proliferated at Matale which Bowden elevates to those that ended up by orchestrating a revolution in Theravada Buddhist development.

Questioning scriptures

The writer does not fail to dwell on a reversal of Buddha's teachings that was an incidental outcome of the Aloka Vihara feat i.e. the victory of pariyatti (mere learning) over patipatti (practice of the Dhamma), an aspect developed by Gunawardena. He then goes on to trace the history of writing in the Buddhist world and unravels some very significant facts based on theories of other scholars. Why was writing not practised in Buddha's time and later in King Asoka's time though two scripts had been popular? Quote 'Probable explanation is that writing was not at first used for religious or literary purposes but exclusively for administration and trading.'

Anyway this is no review of Bowden's contribution to the recent RAS journal but I could not resist the temptation to focus on how Bowden has crept into all the nooks and corners of the topic. Many of those nooks I have left untouched as the resultant activities of the Aloka Vihara feat as the production of texts, the springing up of libraries and even book burnings! Bowden's dedicated activity on an alien soil raises some questions in a mundane creature like me. Would I ever have the courage or garner the interest to rake up issues on a significant topic in a foreign land? Would I be as selfless?

Russel Bowden is perhaps unique in that respect. He has committed himself to the topic. Though he is not interested in calling himself a Buddhist that he has imbibed the sorrow of the waning power of Buddha Dhamma (if so) transpires from the last passage in his 'long essay'. Dwelling on the relative little attention paid to the Alu Vihara feat he ends up thus, "Was the Buddha's prediction to Ananda and his disciples 'in this way, Bhikkhus, those discourses spoken by the Thathagatha that are deep in meaning, supramundane, dealing with emptiness, will disappear' (Nidana Vagga) correct? Could it be that by this period (as early as this period) the comprehension of their importance, in comparison with other tasks, was already beginning to wane?"

Even the Buddha's teachings do not seem to escape anithya.



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