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Point of view:

Another look at the Mahavamsa

Mahavamsa has come to the attention of laypersons interested in the history of ancient Sri Lanka. They have on several occasions, expressed their reservations about the Mahavamsa. These historians say Mahavamsa cannot be called the actual history of ancient Sri Lanka. They say that the Mahavamsa ‘is an imaginative and descriptive document of the adventures of monarchs. There are many missing pages’. The Tamil heroine in ‘Road to Elephant Pass’ says she is not prepared to accept the Mahavamsa because it is biased and unreliable on secular matters.

These commentators seem to have been briefed by the same source. They all sing the same song. They do not seem to know anything about the craft of history writing. They say that the Mahavamsa authors were recording events of which they had no direct knowledge.

That the Mahavamsa authors were not first hand witnesses to the events. That there was a time gap between the event and the written record and the records they used are not available for verification today. Also that the Mahavamsa authors were looking at the events from their own perspective. These ‘weaknesses’ are common to most historical documents. They are not unique to the Mahavamsa. They do not prevent historians from making use of historical documents.

Those opposing the Mahavamsa say the ‘accuracy of events in the Mahavamsa must remain a matter of conjecture.’ That is not so. The information in Mahavamsa is corroborated in inscriptions and foreign sources. For example Kaliyuga inscription of 1230 found in the Malay Peninsula in 1918, confirms that Chandrabanu was a Buddhist and that he came from Tambralinga.

Critics also say Mahavamsa is primarily based on myth preserved in oral tradition. Oral tradition is important when reconstructing history, but Mahavamsa is not based on oral tradition. It was prepared from earlier texts. Mahavamsa author says it is a revised account of earlier versions. The present Mahavamsa is composed of several layers of information added on by succeeding generations of recorders. Kiribamune says that it is possible to detect the earlier and later traditions.

The ‘post modern’ thinkers of the West criticized the Greek and Roman histories for talking only of great events and battles. They said that a written history should not stop at kings and wars. They would have liked the Mahavamsa. Mahavamsa did not limit itself to the ‘great doings of king and armies.’ It provides information on a wide range of events, including building and architecture.

It is now accepted that Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka in the time of the Buddha, in 6th Century BC. I think that the Mahavamsa focused on the entrenchment of Buddhism as the State religion in 3rd Century BC and the royal patronage it continued to receive after that. This made Mahavamsa an excellent source for political history.

Liyanagamage notes that the section from Saddhatissa to Jettatissa (Chapters 33-35) ‘bears the stamp of annalistic recording with hardly any exaggeration’. The Mahavamsa statement that Ajatasatru ruled after Bimbisara is supported by historical evidence.

There have been attempts to improve on the Mahavamsa. Mahavamsa account of Pandukabhaya was given a new interpretation in the film ‘Aba’. Mahawamsa clearly states that Digagamani, Citta’s cousin, was the father of Pandukabhaya. In the film ‘Aba’ it is suggested that Chittaraja and not Digagamini was the father of Pandukabhaya. The public flocked to the film. Historians, who usually run a mile from amateur history, moved swiftly to control the damage.

They held meetings and wrote to the newspapers. They pointed out that the Mahavamsa statement was sound. It was not used in the film because the film had a specific agenda. It wished to erase the Mahavamsa claim that Sinhala royalty was connected to the clan of Gautama Buddha.

Mahavamsa has been used by politically motivated persons to elevate Elara above Dutugemunu. They criticized Dutugemunu for killing the aging Elara and said that Elara was an exceptional king. That is not so. Bandu de Silva says the bell of justice story has nothing to do with Elara. It has been taken from the Persian legend about Anosharvan, Persia’s hero.

Dutugemunu had fought 32 Damila leaders to get to Anuradhapura and to finish the war, it was necessary to take the ruler in his capital. Elara, regardless of age had ideally, to be defeated by the incoming ruler, so Dutugemunu took on Elara. The reverence paid to Elara’s tomb also needs some examination. It strikes an odd note. There is no such tradition in Buddhism or in the Sinhala royal tradition.

Dutugemunu’s conscience came in for unnecessary discussion in the 20th Century. Mahavamsa presents Dutugemunu’s regret at the deaths caused by the war, in a perfectly acceptable manner. While resting on a soft couch, surrounded by dancing girls, Dutugemunu looked back on his glorious victory and observed that this victory came at the expense of many lives. Dutugemunu did not regret his victory. It is ridiculous to say he did. Sumangala Vilasini said Dutugemunu was in a triumphant mood after his victory.

Rohana Wasala has pointed out that Sri Jayawardenepura University had prescribed the chapters from Vijaya to Mahinda in the Mahavamsa to be studied under Mythology for the 2008 external degree General Arts Qualifying exam. The other texts are the Greek myths, Ovid and the Bible. Wasala noted that Greek texts are primarily on wars such as the Peloponnesian war. Herodotus included supernatural and popular beliefs whenever evidence was lacking.

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