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The Mahavamsa (Sinhala: මහාවංසය [ˈmahavaŋʃəyə]; Pali: Mahāvaṃsa, trans. "Great Chronicle"; abbrev. Mhv. or Mhvs.) is a historical poem written in the Pali language, of the Kings of Sri Lanka. The first version of it covered the period from the coming of King Vijaya of the Rarh region of ancient Bengal in 543 BCE to the reign of King Mahasena (334–361).
The first printed edition and English translation of the Mahavamsa was published in 1837 by George Turnour, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service. A German translation of Mahavamsa was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912. This was then translated into English by Mabel Haynes Bode, and revised by Geiger.
While not considered a canonical religious text, the Mahavamsa is an important text in Theravada Buddhism. It covers the early history of religion in Sri Lanka, beginning with the time of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. It also briefly recounts the history of Buddhism in India, from the date of the Buddha's death to the various Buddhist councils where the Dharma was reviewed. Every chapter of the Mahavamsa ends by stating that it is written for the "serene joy of the pious". From the emphasis of its point-of-view, it can be said to have been compiled to record the good deeds of the kings who were patrons of the Mahavihara temple in Anuradhapura.
Structure and Content
Prelude: The Buddha visits Sri Lanka (pt. 1; 84 verses cover 8 years)
1. The Tathāgatha's Visits (to Sri Lanka)
First theme: Buddhism comes to Sri Lanka (pt. 2-20; 1398 verses cover 382 years, of which 235 are parallel in first and second motifs)
First motif: Buddhism in India (pt. 2-5; 423 verses cover 35 years)
2. Mahāsammata's Vaṃsa
3. The First Council
4. The Second Council
5. The Third Council
Second motif: Sri Lanka before Buddhism (pt. 6-11; 326 verses cover 310 years)
6. Vijaya's Arrival
7. The Coronation of Vijaya
8. The Coronation of Paṇḑuvāsudeva
9. The Coronation of Abhaya
10. The Coronation of Paṇḑukābhaya (Anurādhapura)
11. The Coronation of Devānaṃpiyatissa
First and second motifs combined: from Aśoka's missions to (one year after) the deaths of Mahinda and Saṃghamittā (pt. 12-20; 649 verses cover 69 years)
12. Buddhism Goes to Different Countries
13. Mahinda Arrives
14. (His) Entry into the City (of Anurādhapura)
15. The Acceptance of the Mahāvihāra
16. The Acceptance of the Cetiyapabbata-vihāra
17. The (Buddha's) Relics Arrive
18. Receiving the Great Bodhi-tree
19. The Coming of the Bodhi-tree
20. The Monk (Mahinda) Attains Nirvana
Interlude: The Five Kings (pt. 21; 34 verses cover 96 years)
Second theme: The Dutthagāmaṇī Epic (pt. 22-32; 863 verses cover 50 years)
22. The Birth of Prince Gāmaṇī
23. Acquiring Warriors
24. War between the Two Brothers
25. Dutthagāmaṇī's Victory
26. The Consecration of the Maricavatti-vihāra
27. The Consecration of the Lohapasāda
28. Acquiring the Resources to build the Great Stūpa
29. Beginning the Great Stūpa
30. Making the Relic Chamber
31. Enshrining the Relics
32. (Dutthagāmaṇī's) Entry into the Tusita-heaven
Coda: A Chronicle of Kings; Mahāsena (pt. 33-37; 507 verses cover 429 years)
33. Ten Kings
34. Eleven Kings
35. Twelve Kings
36. Thirteen Kings
37. King Mahāsena
Buddhist monks of the Mahavihara maintained chronicles of Sri Lankan history, starting from the 3rd century BCE. These annals were combined and compiled into a single document in the 5th century by the Buddhist monk Mahathera Mahanama. It was written based on prior ancient compilations known as Sinhala Atthakatha, which were commentaries written in Sinhala. Mahathera Mahanama relied on this text, as he mentions in Mahavamse tika, that is the preface to Mahavamse. Another, earlier document known as the Dipavamsa, which survives today, is much simpler and contains less information than the Mahavamsa, and was probably compiled using the Sinhala Mahavamse Atthakatha as well.
A companion volume, the Culavamsa ("lesser chronicle"), compiled by Sinhala Buddhist monks, covers the period from the 4th century to the British takeover of Sri Lanka in 1815. The Culavamsa was compiled by a number of authors of different time periods.
The combined work, sometimes referred to collectively as the Mahavamsa, provides a continuous historical record of over two millennia, and is considered one of the world's longest unbroken historical accounts. It is one of the few documents containing material relating to the Nāgas and Yakkhas, the dwellers of Lanka prior to the legendary arrival of Vijaya.
As it often refers to the royal dynasties of India, the Mahavamsa is also valuable for historians who wish to date and relate contemporary royal dynasties in the Indian subcontinent. It is very important in dating the consecration of the Maurya emperor Asoka, which is related to the synchronicity with the Seleucids and Alexander the Great.
Indian excavations in Sanchi and other locations, confirm the Mahavamsa account of the Empire of Asoka. The accounts given in the Mahavamsa are also amply supported by the numerous stone inscriptions, mostly in Sinhala, found in Sri Lanka. Karthigesu Indrapala  has also upheld the historical value of the Mahavamsa. If not for the Mahavamsa, the story behind the large stupas in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, such as Ruwanwelisaya, Jetavanaramaya, Abhayagiri, and other works of ancient engineering would never have been known.
Most important Pali epic poem
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (September 2008)|
Besides being an important historical source, the Mahavamsa is the most important epic poem in the Pali language. Its stories of battles and invasions, court intrigue, great constructions of stupas and water reservoirs, written in elegant verse suitable for memorization, caught the imagination of the Buddhist world of the time. Unlike many texts written in antiquity, it also discusses various aspects of the lives of ordinary people, how they joined the King's army or farmed. Thus the Mahavamsa was taken along the silk route to many Buddhist lands. Parts of it were translated, retold, and absorbed into other languages. An extended version of the Mahavamsa, which gives many more details, has also been found in Cambodia. The Mahavamsa gave rise to many other Pali chronicles, making Sri Lanka of that period probably the world's leading center in Pali literature.
The Mahavamsa has, especially in modern Sri Lanka, acquired a significance as a document with a political message. The Sinhalese majority often use Manavamsa as a proof of their claim that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation from historical time. The British historian Jane Russell has recounted how a process of "Mahavamsa bashing" began in the 1930s, especially from within the Tamil Nationalist movement. The Mahavamsa, being a history of the Sinhala Buddhists, presented itself to the Tamil Nationalists and the Sinhala Nationalists as the hegemonic epic of the Sinhala people. This view was attacked by G. G. Ponnambalam, the leader of the Nationalist Tamils in the 1930s. He claimed that most of the Sinhala kings, including Vijaya, Kasyapa, and Parakramabahu, were Tamils. Ponnambalam's 1939 speech in Navalpitiya, attacking the claim that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese, Buddhist nation was seen as an act against the notion of creating a Buddhist only nation. The Sinhala majority responded with a mob riot, which engulfed Navalapitiya, Passara, Maskeliya, and even Jaffna. The riots were rapidly put down by the British colonial government, but later this turned through various movements into the civil war in Sri Lanka which ended in 2009.
Various writers have called into question the morality of the account given in the Mahavamsa, where Duttugemunu regrets his actions in killing the Chola king Elara and his troops. The Mahavamsa equates the killing of the invaders as being on par with the killing of "sinners and wild beasts", and the King's sorrow and regret are assuaged. This is considered by some critics as an ethical error. However, Buddhism does recognize a hierarchy of actions as being more or less wholesome or skillful, although the intent is as much as or more important than the action itself. Thus the killing of an Arahant may be considered less wholesome and skillful than the killing of an ordinary human being. Buddhists may also assert that killing an elephant is less skillful and wholesome than killing an ant. In both cases, however, the intent must also be considered. An important thing to note is that Dutthagamani regretted his act, and this was also true of King Asoka, who became a pacifist after a series of bloody military campaigns.
An eminent historian who has come to the defense of the Mahavamsa is Karthigesu Indrapala. He has argued that the popular presentation of the Mahavamsa as a work of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism is incorrect, and that the Mahavansa writer was singularly fair in his presentation.
|This section's factual accuracy is disputed. (April 2010)|
The historical accuracy of the Mahavamsa, given the time when it was written, is considered to be astonishing, although the material prior to the death of Asoka is not considered to be trustworthy and is mostly legend.
This date of Vijaya's arrival is thought to have been artificially fixed to coincide with the Ceylonese date for the death of Buddha, that is 543 BCE. The story of Vijaya's arrival was also written much later after it had occurred, as the Mahavansa is thought to have been written in 6 CE to 1877 CE by Buddhist monks.
The historical accuracy of Mahinda converting the Sri Lankan king to Buddhism is also debated. Professor Hermann Oldenberg, a German scholar of Indology who has published studies on the Buddha and translated many Pali texts, considers this story a "pure invention". V. A. Smith (Author of Asoka and Early history of India) also refers to this story as "a tissue of absurdities". V. A. Smith and Professor Hermann came to this conclusion due to Ashoka not mentioning the handing over of his son, Mahinda, to the temple to become a Buddhist missionary and Mahinda's role in converting the Sri Lankan king to Buddhism, in his 13th year Rock Edicts. Particularly the Rock-Edict XIII.
There is also an inconsistency with the year on which Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka. According to the Mahavamsa the missionaries arrived in 255 BCE, but according to Ashoka's Rock-Edict XIII it was 5 years earlier in 260 BCE.
Editions and translations
- Turnour, George (C.C.S.): The Mahawanso in Roman Characters with the Translation Subjoined, and an Introductory Essay on Pali Buddhistical Literature. Vol. I containing the first thirty eight Chapters. Cotto 1837.
- Sumangala, H.; Silva Batuwantudawa, Don Andris de: The Mahawansha from first to thirty-sixth Chapter. Revised and edited, under Orders of the Ceylon Government by H. Sumangala, High Priest of Adam's Peak, and Don Andris de Silva Batuwantudawa, Pandit. Colombo 1883.
- Geiger, Wilhelm; Bode, Mabel Haynes (transl.); Frowde, H. (ed.): The Mahavamsa or, The great chronicle of Ceylon / translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger ... assisted by Mabel Haynes Bode...under the patronage of the government of Ceylon. London : Pali Text Society 1912 (Pali Text Society, London. Translation series ; no. 3).(Online text)
- Guruge, Ananda W.P.: Mahavamsa. Calcutta: M. P. Birla Foundation 1990 (Classics of the East).
- Ruwan Rajapakse, Concise Mahavamsa, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2001
- Guruge, Ananda W. P. Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, A New Annotated Translation with Prolegomena, ANCL Colombo 1989
- Early translation of a Sinhalese version of the text
- Upham, Edward (ed.): The Mahavansi, the Raja-ratnacari, and the Raja-vali : forming the sacred and historical books of Ceylon; also, a collection of tracts illustrative of the doctrines and literature of Buddhism: translated from the Singhalese. London : Parbury, Allen, and Co. 1833 (3 vol.). (Mahavansi)
- . Malalasekera Dictionary of Pali Proper Names: Pali-English, p. xvi, retrieved Sept. 19, 2010, from "Google Books".
- Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), Pali Text Society's Pali English Dictionary, "B. List of Abbreviations," retrieved Sept. 19, 2010, from "U. Chicago" at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/pali/frontmatter/abbreviations.html .
- Mahavamsa. Ceylon Government. 1912.
- Collins, Steve. 1998. Nirvana and other Buddhist felicities. Pp. 269-270
- Hermann Oldenberg, The Dipavaṃsa, an ancient Buddhist historical record
- Geiger's discussion of the historicity of the Mahavamsa;Paranavitana and Nicholas, A concise history of Ceylon (Ceylon University Press) 1961
- K. Indrapala, Evolution of an Ethnicity, 2005
- Dr. Hema Goonatilake, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. 2003
- H. Bechert, "The beginnings of Buddhist Historiography in Ceylon, Mahawamsa and Political Thinking", Ceylon Studies Seminar, Series 2, 1974
- Communal politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931–1947, Tissara Publishers, Colombo 1982
- Hindu Organ, June 1, 1939 issue (Newspaper archived at the Jaffna University Library)
- de Silva, K.M. (1981). A History of Sri Lanka. New York: Penguin.
- Insert The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Feb., 1957), pp. 181-200 Published by: Association for Asian Studies Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2941377
- E.J. Thomas. (1913). BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES. Available: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/busc/busc03.htm. Last accessed 26 03 10.
- Wilhelm Geiger (1912). Mahavamsa: Great Chronicle of Ceylon. New Dehli: Asian Educational Services. 16-20.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Mahāvansa.|
- Geiger/Bode Translation of the Mahavamsa
- The Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka
- "Concise Mahavamsa" on-line version of: Ruwan Rajapakse, P.E. (2003). Concise Mahavamsa: History of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Maplewood, NJ : Ruwan Rajapakse. ISBN 0-9728657-0-5.
- Online-Pali-Text on tipitaka.org.
- History of Sri Lanka