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.
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
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.
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
"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
"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.
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.