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Mahavamsa, Mahavihara and Mahayana

The D. T. Devendra Memorial Lecture -1998 by Dr. Raja de Silva, Retired Archaeological Commissioner

The gateway of the Mahavamsa stands at the apex of our triangle. From its name which means Great Lineage, everyone here knows that it is a history of this island, a chronicle. Let us take a closer look at it.

The most important work of Sinhala origin but written in Pali verse is the Mahavamsa. This compilation was in several parts written in different centuries by various authors who had as their sources the ancient commentaries known as the atthakatha. There were many atthakathas prepared by the dwellers of the Mahavihara (Great Monastery) in Anuradhapura. There existed an earlier Mahavamsa in Sinhala known as the Sinhala-attakatha-Mahavamsa, which was the source of the Pali Mahavamsa written by the thera Mahanama in the 6th century AC, in the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura.

The atthakatha, the general term used to refer to these ancient commentaries, were compilations maintained through the centuries till they took their final form containing material of historical interest up to the time of Kind Mahasena (4th century AC.) It may be taken that the atthakatha were compiled almost contemporaneously with the events they relate and handed down orally in the Mahavihara till the 1st century BC, when they were first placed on record together with the Pali Buddhist canonical works at Aluvihara.

From then on, the various atthakatha would have been recorded in the Mahavihara, and in other viharas too such as the Abhayagiri vihara. The Mahavamsa is largely a historical record of Buddhism and the relationships of our kings with the Buddha sasana or Buddhist church maintained by the Mahavihara.

There are several parts to Mahavamsa, the first of which ended with chapter 37 and King Mahasena. The second part continues the chronicle up to and including the rule of Parakkamabahu 1. (1153 - 1186) and was reputed to have been written at the beginning of the 13th century AC, by the monk known as Dhammakitti probably in Polonnaruwa. This part ends with chapter 79. The next part of the Mahavamsa takes up from chapter 80 to chapter 90 concluding with the story of King Parakkamabahu IV in 1333 or thereabouts.

This short description of the Mahavamsa would not be complete for our purposes without a reference to an important Pali text which is the commentary on the Mahavamsa and known as the Mahavamsa-Atthakatha. It is titled the Vamsathappakasini and popularly known as the Tika of the Mahavamsa. The work is datable from internal evidence to a period after 7th century AC (Dathopatisssa 11, 659-667) and more particularly to the time of the Chola occupation of the early 11th century.  (Read More - Visit LankaLibrary.com)

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