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DIPAVAMSA AND MAHAVAMSA - A comparative study

The Dipavamsa, the earliest extant chronicle of Sri Lanka, of unknown authorship, deals with the history of the island from earliest times up to the reign of Mahasena (325-352)


By Aryadasa Ratnasinghe [Source: The Island - 28 May, 1998]

The Dipavamsa, the earliest extant chronicle of Sri Lanka, of unknown authorship, deals with the history of the island from earliest times up to the reign of Mahasena (325-352). Erudite opinion holds that it is not the work of a single author but of several authors. Considering the nature of ancient chronicle of the island, we can believe that there is a certain element of truth in it, particularly calculated to be the vehicle of history in early times, when literary facilities were scanty. There is also the opinion that Dipavamsa was the work of two nuns Sivala and Maharuha from India.

As the title indicates, the Dipavamsa contains the history of the island. The preamble to the chronicle, (as translated into English by B. C. Law) reads: "Listen to me! I shall relate the chronicle of the Buddha's visits to the island, the arrival of the Tooth Relic and the Bodhi tree, the advent of the Buddha's doctrine, the rise of the teachers, the spread of Buddhism in the island and the coming of (Vijaya) the Chief of Men".

According to B. C. Law, "Dipavamsa contains many stages of development concluding at different important historical events. There is an apparent lack of uniformity, an unevenness of style, incorrectness of language and metre and numerous repetitions, apart from many other imperfections which indicate it to be the outcome of a series of traditions collected together as a first attempt to record a connected history of the island".

The chronicle embodies the oral tradition of the country handed down from the time of the advent of Buddhism to the island. With all its drawbacks, both literary and grammatical, it is a very useful source of information dealing with the ancient times, and written in Pali.

The Mahavamsa, similar to the Dipavamsa, is written in Pali. It deals with the history of the island, from legendary beginnings, also up to the reign of Mahasena. This great chronicle is said to have been written by Ven. Mahanama Maha Thera, an uncle of king Dhatusena (460-478), who lived in the Dighasanda Senapathi Pirivena, which belonged to the Maha-vihara Fraternity in Anuradhapura. His work ends with Ch. 37:50. The rest of the Mahavamsa is known as Culavamsa, especially after Prof. Wilhelm Geiger, who is said to have made the division.

The preamble to the Mahavamsa reads: "Having made obeisance to the Sam-buddha the Pure, sprung from a Pure Race, I will recite the Mahavamsa, of varied content and lacking nothing". (Rendered into English by Prof. Geiger). When Maha-vamsa appeared after the Dipavamsa, it assumed such popularity and importance that it not only superseded the earlier work, but also prompted authors to gradually produce supplementary work based on it.

The later chronicles of the island, written from time to time, are the Attana-galu Vihara Vamsa, the Dhatuvamsa, the Elu-Attanagaluvamsa, the Elu-Bodhivamsa, the Maha Bodhivamsa, the Thupavamsa, the Daladavamsa, the Viharavamsa etc.

In the Culavamsa, it is stated that king Dhatusena, ordered the Dipavamsa to be publicly recited at the annual Mihindu festival held in Anuradhapura (Ch. 38:58). This indicates that at time it was available in some coherent form. The authors of Culavamsa, who made additions to it from time to time, were Ven. Mugalan Maha Thera of Thupa-ramaya in Polon-naruwa, Ven. Dharma-kirti Maha Thera who lived during the Dambadeniya period (1220-1293), Ven. Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Buddha-rakshita Maha Thera, who lived during the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747 - 1780), and Ven. Panditha Yagirala Sri Pragnananda, the Chief Sangha Nayaka of Gonagala Sudharma-kara Pirivena.

Oriental scholars are of opinion that the Mahavamsa is more authoritative than the Dipavamsa, and when compared there are dissimilarities which are clearly evident. According to the Dipavamsa, the three visits of the Buddha to the island were in the 1st, 5th and 8th year after Englightenment. The Mahavamsa refers to the visits by the respective months, i.e. on the Duruthu fullmoon day, Bak newmoon day and Vesak fullmoon day. The Dipavamsa does not make any specific reference to the 'minipalanga' mentioned in the Mahavamsa.

The Mahavamsa says that the Buddha, during his third visit to the island, had visited nine places, i.e. "Kelaniya, Samanala-kanda (Sri Pada), Divaguhawa, Digha-vapiya, Maha Megha-vanaramaya, Sri Maha-bodhi Isthanaya, Swarnamali Chaitya Isthanaya, Thuparama Isthanaya, Sila chaitya Isthanaya." Dipavamsa mentions the places as Kelaniya, Digha-vapiya, the place where the Bo-sapling was later planted within the Maha Mewna-uyana and the Megha-vanaramaya. It does not make any mention of the Buddha's footmark atop the Sama-nalakanda. We cannot construe with assurance the reference to Maha Meghavana-ramaya, since it was a place later presented to Arahat Maha Mahinda, the great apostle of Buddhism, by king Devanampiyatissa (BC 247-207), after the demise of the Buddha in 543 BC.

According to tradition, it was an Aryan who first came over and settled down in Sri Lanka. The circumstances under which this first Aryan, prince Vijaya by name, happened to come to the island, are mentioned in the Mahavamsa. Aryan is a name given to a broad division of the human race who are supposed to have inhabited the vast stretch of country from Central Asia to Eastern Europe, and to have reached India about 3000 BC.

According to the story in the Maha-vamsa, the country of Vanga was ruled by the king of Vangas, whose queen was the daughter of Kalingas, when a daughter was born to them, it was predicted that, when she comes of age, a lion would cohabit with her. Fearing what was foretold, she left the palace one day in disguise and joined a caravan going from Vanga to Magadha. As the caravan was going through a forest in Lala country, it was attacked by a lion, and took the princess away. With their union, she gave birth to twins whom were named Sinhabahu and Sinhasivali. (Ch. 6:8).

The author of the Dipavamsa has, however, tried to be more factual in referring to the husband of the princess as a man named Sinha who was an outlaw that attacked caravans en route. In the meantime, Sinha-bahu and Sinhasivali, as king and queen of the kingdom of Lala, "gave birth to twin sons, sixteen times." The eldest was Vijaya and the second was Sumitta. As Vijaya was of cruel and unseemly conduct, the enraged people requested the king to kill his son. But the king caused him and his seven hundred followers to leave the kingdom, and they landed in Sri Lanka, at a place called Tamba-panni, on the exact day when the Buddha passed into Maha Parinibbana in 543 BC.

The Dipavamsa mentions that the children of king Panduvas-deva (BC 504-474) were Abhaya, Tissa, Uttiya, Asela, Vibha-taya, Rama, Siva, Matta, Mattakala and Ummadachitra. The Mahavamsa does not give weight to these names, as mentioned in the Dipavamsa. The children of king Mutasiva (BC 367-307), according to Mahavamsa, were Abhaya, Devanam-piyatissa, Mahanaga, Uttiya, Mattabhaya, Mitta, Mahasiva, Suratissa, Asela and Kira. But, the name of his daughters are simialr in both chronicles.

The union of prince Gamini and Umma-dachitra, the childhood days of prince Pandu-kabhaya, the building of the Mahamewna-uyana, the questions asked by the Arhat Maha Mahinda from king Devanampiya-tissa, the ordination of Anula and other women, the stone pillar erected within the precincts of the Ruvanweliseya etc., are not mentioned in the Dipavamsa, but the Mahavamsa describes them in detail. The Pirivenas Kalapasada, Lohapasada, Suna-hatha, Dighachan-kamana, Phalagga and Therapassa, built by king Devanampiya-tissa, are not mentioned in the Dipavamsa, but the Mahavamsa makes mention of them to prove the spiritual zeal of the king.

Sect Rivalry
The Dipavamsa does not mention the cause for the separation of the Abhayagiriya fraternity from that of the Mahavihara, and the formation of the Dhammaruchi sect of the Mahayana tradition. As regards the schism and rivalry that prevailed between these two sects, and the mischievous activities of Sona and Mitta in planning the destruction of the Hinayana bhikkus of the Mahavihara, are not properly accounted therein.

Although the Mahavamsa mentions the names of those who came to the island along with Arhat Maha Mahinda, it does not refer to those who came along with the Theri Sanghamitta carrying the Bo-sapling from India. Dipavamsa mentions them as Uttara, Hema, Masaragalla, Aggi-matta, Dasika, Pheggu, Pabbatamatta, Malla and Dhammadasi. Most of the bhikkunis who assisted Theri Sanghamitta in the propagation of the Dhamma and Vinaya are found in the Dipavamsa only. The planting in the soil of Sri Lanka the Bo-saplings of the three previous Buddhas is not mentioned in the Mahavamsa though Dipavamsa makes reference to them.

The Mahavamsa covers ten chapters pertaining to the activities of king Dutugemunu and his religious zeal, but Dipavamsa does not contain more than ten stanzas and makes the story short. The Sirisanghabo story is well described in the Mahavamsa, but the Dipavamsa says that the king ruled for two years only. The arrival of the heretical bhikku Sanghamitta, during the reign of Gotabhaya (302-315), and the establishment of the 'Vaitulya' doctrine in the island is not mentioned in the Dipavamsa.

The controversy that arose between the two Naga kings Mahodara and Chulodara, to possess the jewel-throne, and how the Buddha averted a serious offensive by reconciling the two contending factions, during his second visit to the island, is not clearly mentioned in the Dipavamsa, although Mahavamsa mentions about it (CH. 1:47).

Prof. Geiger is of the view that the "defects in the Dipavamsa, which, naturally, could neither nor should be disputed, concern the outer form and not the contents. But, that the author of the Dipavamsa, simply invented the contents of his chronicle, is a thing impossible to believe. The Dipavamsa is a sort of chronicle of the history of the island from the legendary beginning onwards and presents the first clumsy reaction in Pali. The Mahavamsa is a new treatment of the same thing distinguished by greater skill in the use of the Pali language by more artistic composition and literal use of the material contained in the original work."

When Sir Alexander Johnston (1811-1819), Chief Justice, desired to obtain the most authentic information that could be obtained relative to Buddhism, usages, manners, and feelings of the people who professed the faith, he was presented with the two books Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa as the main authority. These two chronicles, according to their considered opinion, "contained the most genuine account of the origin of Buddhism, its doctrine, its introduction into the island and of its effects, both moral and political. With the displacement of the Dipavamsa, as a result of the appearance of the Mahavamsa, the authority and the value of the latter chronicle has always remained the outstanding treatise."

Buddha Maitreya
According to the account found in the chronicles Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, the earliest period to which reference is made deals with the time of the Buddha Kakusanda, the first of the Buddhas belonging to the maha Bhadra Kalpa, during which five Buddhas appear to relieve mankind from the evils of suffering. The present Buddha Gautama is the fourth in lineage. The last is Buddha Maitreya who is supposed to come into the world in another 2500 years time. The chronicles also say that Sri Lanka, during the dispensation of Buddhas Kaku-sanda, Konagama, Kasyapa and Gautama, was respectively known as Ojadipa, Varadipa, Mandadipa and Lankadipa. The capital cities were Abhyapura, Vaddha-mana, Visala and Anuradhapura respectively.

In 1874, the then Governor, Sir William H. Gregory, having consulted the scholars of oriental studies in England, assigned the translation of the Mahavamsa, from Pali into Sinhala, to the reputed and erudite scholars who were Ven. Hikkaduwe Siri Sumangala Nayaka Thera of the Vidyodaya Pirivena, and Ven. Batuwantudawe Sri Devarakkhitha Maha Thera (later known as Panditha Batuwan-tudawe). Their work was highly commen-ded and honoured by those scholars who were not proficient in Pali. However, the initiative to have the chronicle translated into Sinhala came first from the Governor Sir William Henry Robinson. In the meantime, George Turner had translated the first 37 chapters of the Mahavamsa into English, having secured the required information from the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters in Kandy.

According to Mahavamsa, the monastic institution next in importance to the Mahavihara of the Theravada tradition is the Abhayagiri Vihara built by king Vatta-gamani Abhaya (AD 78-88). When he became the undisputed ruler of the country, he demolished a monastery belonging to the 'nighanta' Giri, and built in its place the Abhayagiri vihara, enjoining the names Abhaya and Giri.

Later, a faction of bhikkus broke away from the Mahavihara and formed themselves into a new sect known as the Dhammaruci Nikaya. The thera Mahatissa, who helped king Vattagamani Abhaya to recover the lost sovereignty, was given the incumbency of the newly built Abhayagiri Vihara. The Mahavihara, which assumed in no time a supreme place in the religious and educational life of the country, held its authority until the Abhayagiri Vihara entered into the scene.

The second famine known as 'beminitiya-says', lasting twelve years, is said to have occurred during the reign of Vattagamani Abhaya. The Maha-vamsa does not mention of such a famine, but says "in the fifth month after Vatta-gamani ascended the throne, a brahmin in Rohana named Tissa, encouraged by a prophecy of another brahmin, that he was destined to be the ruler of the country, revolted against the king. At the same time seven Tamils from India came to the island and marched against the king, who managed to escape with barely his life." The Rajavaliya mentions of the famine, said to have occurred" due to the curse of a brahmin woman whose husband was unjustly killed on the orders of king Milinda because he coveted his wife."