A Review of Recent Thinking
by Sachi Sri Kantha, March 3, 2018
In my previous commentary on King Elala, I had provided the thoughts of few 19th and 20th century chroniclers of Ceylon. Here I continue to review the recent thinking of Sri Lanka’s five contemporary historians (two Tamils and three Sinhalese, one among them Ven. Dhammavihari Thera well versed in Pali language) on the King Elala (Elara) – Dutugemunu conflict that preoccupied the author of Mahavamsa chronicle. All five historians had held professor ranks in Sri Lankan universities and elsewhere.
Be reminded that the author of Mahavamsa chronicle is a Buddhist priest Mahanama, who probably lived during the reign of king Dhatusena (reigned AD 455 – 473). Whether, this name Mahanama belongs to that of one individual or a composite of more than one individuals who lived either in the 5th century or 6th century or even later, is a matter of dispute. To complicate the issue, there was in fact a king named Mahanama (reigned AD 406 – 428), who preceded king Dhatusena. In the brief period of 27 years, between Mahanama’s reign and that of Dhatsunena’s reign, there were six ‘Dravidian’ kings called Sad-Dravida – Pandu, Paarinda, Khudda Paarinda, Tiritara, Daathiya, and Pithiya, according to the chronology assigned by historian Kingsley de Silva (1981).
If memory serves, in one of his zany moments as the top dog of Sri Lanka, President J.R. Jayewardene (1906-1996) once challenged the then Tamil Leader of Opposition Appapillai Amirthalingam (1927-1989) for a boxing duel at the Galle Face Green (akin to Elara-Dutugemunu duel of 161 BC) to settle the festering ‘Sinhala-Tamil conflict’ once and for all! Better senses prevailed from Amirthalingam’s corner, and such a challenge was averted then. Considering the 20 years age difference between Jayewardene and Amirthalingam (a reversal of situation that prevailed between King Elara and prince Dutugemunu in 161 BC), few Tamil wags expressed dismay that Amirthalingam forfeited a best opportunity then to defeat Jayewardene inside the ring!
Views of Sivasubramaniam Padmanathan (1978)
“In the second century BC, Elara, a nobleman from the Cola country, subdued the Sinhalese rule Asela and administered a large part of the island from Anuradhapura for a period of forty four years. Early historical traditions of the Sinhalese represent him as a great and just ruler. He is said to have ruled righteously and with even justice towards friends and foes alike. Elara was held in high esteem even by his foes on account of the ideals of justice which he cherished. Several anecdotes have been invented to illustrate the supra-normal powers he is said to have gained through his benign rule.
Ironically Dutthagamani’s war against Elara is represented in the Mahavamsa as one of national liberation, a war against the Dravidian marauders under whom Buddhism had suffered. The transition from an attitude of admiration to one of hostility in respect of Elara in the historical tradition was the work of the politically motivated Mahanama, a monk of the Mahavihara who is said to have lived in the sixth century. Mahanama produced almost an epic on Dutthagamani basing his narrative on legends and folklore and as a result the epic of Dutthagamani became a major theme in traditional history. It served as a model for the authors of the later sections of that chronicle and has profoundly influenced historical thinking in Sri Lanka both ancient and modern. Consequently, Sinhalese-Tamil relations came to be passionately viewed as one of perpetual conflict and confrontation. Such a view is based on selected readings from traditional history and it ignores much of historical and archaeological evidence that weighs against it.
Views of Kingsley de Silva (1981)
Kingsley de Silva’s analysis of four vital facts (which I’ve numbered in sequence) deserve notice.
“The long – fifteen year – campaign waged by Dutthagamani against Elara, which culminated in a duel fought in accordance with ksatriya rules of chivalry and the latter’s death, is dramatized as the central theme of the later chapters of the Mahavamsa as an epoch-making confrontation between the Sinhalese and Tamils, and extolled as a holy war fought in the interests of Buddhism. Dutthagamani’s triumph was nothing less than the consummation of the island’s manifest destiny, its historic role as the bulwark of Buddhism: the Southern kingdom ruled by the Sinhalese Buddhist had prevailed over the northern kingdom ruled by a Dravidian usurper who, despite all his admirable qualitites as a man and ruler, was nevertheless a man of ‘false’ beliefs.
The Mahavamsa’s account of these events glosses over facts and events which were inconvenient to its prime consideration of immortalizing the honour and glory attaching to Dutthagamani. (1) Kavantissa’s shrewd statecraft, which laid the foundations for his son’s success, receives scant attention. [Note by Sachi: Kavantissa was the father of Dutthagamani.] (2) The Mahavamsa depicts Elara as the ruler of the whole of the northern plain and Dutthagamani’s family as kings of the whole of Rohana ever since Mahanaga established himself in Magama; this was not historically accurate, for Elara was not the ruler of the united northern kingdom, nor were Dutthagamani’s forbears kings of the whole of Rohana. (3) Besides, the facile equating of Sinhalese with Buddhist for this period is not borne out by the facts, for not all Sinhalese were Buddhists, while on the other hand there were many Tamil Buddhists. There were in fact large reserves of support for Elara among the Sinhalese, and Dutthagamani, as a prelude to his final momentous encounter with Elara, had to face the resistance of other Sinhalese rivals who appear to have been more apprehensive of his political ambitions than they were concerned about Elara’s continued domination of the northern plain. (4) Nor did Dutthagamani’s campaigns end with the capture of Anuradhapura after the defeat of Elara. He was bringing the northern plain under a single political authority for the first time, and Elara was only one if still the most formidable of his adversaries – there are references in the chrnonicles to Dutthagamani’s battles with as many as thirty-two rulers in the course of his campaigns – in this relentless quest for domination.”
Views of W.I. Siriweera (2004)
Compared to other historians, Professor Siriweera had provided a detailed coverage of Mahavamsa’s version of the Elara-Dutugemunu conflict. I provide five relevant paragraphs below.
“It seems that when the Mahavamsa was written, the element of conflict in the relations between the Sinhalese and Tamils had crystallized. The political threat posed by the Tamil feudal chiefs Pandu, Parinda etc. would have been fresh in the minds of the Sinhalese, and this background had some influence on bhikku Mahanama, the Sinhala-Buddhist author of the Mahavamsa. He was alive and sensitive to the occasional threats posed by Tamil chiefs on Sinhala sovereignty, and by heretical believers to the Mahavira tradition. For him, not merely non-Buddhists but even those who supported heterodox Buddhist establishments opposed to the orthodox Mahavira were heretics. A dominant purification theme that suggests Sri Lanka should be free from all heretics is found throughout in the Mahavamsa. It is no wonder then, that the author selected Dutthagamani, who unified the whole island under one banner for the first time in history and patronized the Mahavihara establishment tremendously, as the ideal king.
It is important to examine whether the Mahavamsa provides a clear picture of the historical situation. According to Mahavamsa, the Tamils were represented by Elara of noble descent (as opposed to Kshatriya descent in the Dipavamsa) who arrived here from the Cola country. There is no evidence as to the composition of his garrisons and the strength of his army. However, unless Elara had some support in Sri Lanka, it may not have been easy for him to occupy the throne at Anuradhapura for such a long period. As subsequent history shows, most of the foreigners who succeeded in wresting the throne and ruling the country for any considerable length of time have had some indigenous support or had been backed by a foreign power. Unfortunately the chroniclers do not reveal much about this aspect of Elara’s rule. Here is yet another instance of what Wilhelm Geiger observed when he stated that ‘not what is said but what is left unsaid is the besetting difficulty of Sinhalese history’.
However, reading between the lines in the Mahavamsa account, one gets the impression that both Elara and Dutthagamani were participants in a feudal power game and not in a racial war fought between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The Mahavamsa states that when Elara was on his way to the Cetiya Mountain in a chariot to invite the bhikkus, the nub of the yoke of his chariot struck a dagoba, thereby causing damage to the monument. On this occasion it is said that Elara’s ministers told him ‘Oh king! Our thupa has been damaged by you’. This clearly indicates that the ministers of Elara considered the thupa to be theirs, which means that at least the ministers who accompanied Elara in this mission were Buddhists, perhaps also Sinhalese. One of the generals of Elara was Mitta who was a Sinhalese. His sister’s son was Nandimitta, one of Duttagamani’s ten commanders, to whom superhuman exploits have been ascribed in the Mahavamsa.
Elara’s invitation to bhikkus of the Cetiya mountain, may have been for an almsgiving, for some form of religious function or to seek advice and to solicit support. The Mahavamsa itself states that Elara was pious and just and indicates that, though himself a non-Buddhist, had patronized Buddhism. Elara’s love of justice, even in the eyes of the chronicler, was stronger than the affection for his own son for he executed him for killing a calf.
Dutthagamani’s march northwards in his campaign against Elara was along the right bank of the Mahaveli river. In the process Dutthagamani had defeated Elara’s generals known as Chatta, Titthamba, Mahakottha, Gavara, Issariya, Nalika, Dighabhaya, Kapisisa, Kota, Halavabhanaka, Vahittha, Gamani, Kumbha, Nandika, Khanu, Tamba, Unna and Jambu. The Mahavamsa states that all these were Tamils but evidence for verification is limited. In the above list at least two names, Gamani and Dighabhaya, seem to be essentially Sinhala-Buddhist names. Dighabhaya was the stepbrother of Dutthagamani who had been sent to Kaccakatittha along the river Mahaveli by Kakavanna Tissa to guard the frontier buffer zone between Rajarata and southern Sri Lanka. It seems he subsequently went over to Elara’s camp. For this reason even he is called a damila, surely in a derogatory sense, by the chroniclers. In this connection it is relevant and significant to mention that at one stage in the battle the Sinhalese are said to have killed their compatriots because they had not been able to identify their foe. Such a situation could have occurred only if there had been a substantial number of Sinhalese in Elara’s army.”
Views of Karthigesu Indrapala (2005)
“The account of the Duttagamani-Elara conflict in the Mahavamsa has formed the basis of twentieth century perceptions of the relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in ancient Sri Lanka. Interested persons have been reading into it the ideas of their time. Even reputed scholars seem to have been carried away by the nationalistic feelings of their time when they used the Mahavamsa account of the above conflict in writing the history of ancient Sri Lanka. Perhaps the best example for this is Paranavitana’s chapter entitled ‘The Triumph of Dutthagamani’ in the University of Ceylon – History of Ceylon. This detailed account of Dutthagamani’s battles follows closely the account of the Mahavamsa. The vivid narrative in the Mahavamsa reads like an eyewitness account. It is not possible to assume that such eyewitness descriptions of the battles had been preserved from the time of Dutthagamani and that the author of the Mahavamsa, writing nearly six centuries later, made use of eyewitness accounts for his narration. Following the epic style of the Sanskrit kavya, the author of the Mahavamsa was only recreating the battles with his knowledge of contemporary warfare or epic wars. It would be hard to accept that Mahavamsa description of the campaigns of Duttagamani as historically reliable.
Further, Paranavitana describes the battles waged by Duttagamani as ‘a campaign of liberation’ aimed at ‘delivering the Sinhalese from foreign domination’. These are ideas that belong to a period closer to our time than to the early historic period in which Elara and Dutthagamani, like many other rulers in the island at that time, were waging battles for territorial power. The Mahavamsa author, far from portraying the reign of Elara as a period of foreign domination from which the Sinhalese were waiting to be liberated, expresses in unequivocal terms that it was time of just rule and that the king, though not a Buddhist himself, followed the tradition (caaritam anupaalayam) of patronizing the Buddhist Sangha and considered himself as deserving the death penalty when he had accidentally damanged a Buddhist monument. Mahanama is not to be blamed for the interpretations given by Paranavitana and others. Dutthagamani’s time was a period when chieftains in the whole region, in Sri Lanka and south India, were engaged in bloody battles against one another in a bid for territorial expansion and extension of power. The conquest and rule of Anuradhapura by a chieftain from some part of south India was no more foreign than that of a chieftain from Rohana.
It must not be forgotten that Mahanama presents both the victor and the vanquished as noble humans. Dutthagamani is portrayed as one who displayed great nobility in victory, not only through a deep feeling of remorse at the killing of many humans in battle but also through an act, unparalleled in Sri Lankan history, of honouring his enemy in death by building a cetiya (shrine) at the spot where he was cremated and ordaining worship. What is of even greater significance for the defence of Mahanama is the fact that this pious author deviates for a moment from the narration of historical events to tell the reader something that was happening even in his own time (more than six centuries later) in regard to Dutthagamani’s injunction to his people to worship the Elara monument. ‘And even to this day the princes of Lanka, when they draw near to this place, are wont to silence their music because of this worship’ are the words with which Mahanama ends his account of the conflict between Dutthagamani and Elara. Would the author of the Mahavamsa have gone out of his way to say this if he had considered Elara as an alien intruder whom the people were happy to see dead.”
Views of Venerable Dhammavihari Thera (1989)
One of the most sensible and elegant commentary which I had read on the treatment of prince Dutugemunu by the author of Mahavamsa chronicle was that of Ven. Dhammavihari Thera (1921-2010). He had delivered a lecture in 1987, at the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, which I happened to read from an anti-Eelam website sponsored by a group of Sinhalese who had settled in Australia. In his commentary, Ven. Dhammavihari faults the twisted interpretations offered by his senior Buddhist monk Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera (1907-1997) and even that of his university teacher Prof. Gunapala Malalasekara (1899-1973). What is also significant is that Ven. Dhammavihari Thera had asserted that “While speaking of Gamani’s war the Mahavamsa never uses the word Sinhala at any point.” Gamani here, refers to prince Dutugemunu. Rather than paraphrasing, I provide excerpts of Ven. Dhammavihari Thera’s text below.
“Let us ask ourselves as to what this great war of Duttagamani is that we are now talking about. There are several basic questions for which we have to find answers.
- Is the Duttagamani-Elara war an isolated event in Sri Lankan history?
- Are there historical circumstances and provocations leading up to it?
- Do those who speak of it from different angles have a correct and adequate record of evidence?
- How far do we test the correctness and authenticity of translations and their consequent interpretations?
To most of those who write and speak on this subject, the Mahavamsa is the primary source of information. But most of them cannot read and understand it in the original. The translations and interpretations of it in English which our researchers use are too full of pitfalls. At the same time the Mahavamsa is very much maligned by these self-same people…..
Now let us take a look at what historians and commentators on history say about Dutthagamani’s war. ‘History of Buddhism in Ceylon’ by Dr. Walpola Rahula Thera published in 1956 has been one of the major source books (a secondary source) to students writing on Sri Lankan history….He deserves an audition first because he has been quoted on this issue in recent times, more than any other, specially by those who have their guns aimed at Duttagamani. I crave your indulgence to listen to a reasonable portion of his learned assessment of a historical situation which antedates him at least by two thousand years.
‘Dutta Gamani…organized a great campaign to liberate Buddhism from foreign rule. His war cry was ‘Not for kingdom, but for Buddhism.’ The entire Sinhalese race was untied under the banner of the young Gamani. This was the beginning of nationalism among the Sinhalese. It was a new race with healthy young blood, organized under the new order of Buddhism. A kind of religio-nationalism, which almost amounted to fanaticism roused the whole Sinhalese people’ (p. 79)
You would recollect that we have already examined the circumstances leading to Dutthagamani’s war on which Rahula is here waxing eloquent. He is deliberately turning his back on the facts of history. Our first remark here would be that there is more speculation and wishful thinking than careful handling of authentic and reliable data. On p.63 of his learned thesis, he has already told that,
‘Even the Dravidians who ruled the island occasionally had to become Buddhists at least for the purpose of office, whether they in their heart of hearts liked it or not. For example, Elara, the Chola prince who ruled in Anuradhapura in the 2nd century BC (i.e. the ruler whom Dutthagamani had to fight till he fell in battle) is reported tohave gone to Cetiya pabbata (Mihintale) to pay homage to and invite the Sangha for alms…following custom (carittam anupalayam).’
….Our historical commentator Rahula, trafficking in dubious clichés like religio-nationalism, fanaticism, war cry etc. is obviously overreaching in many places in his learned thesis. He speaks of the Sri Lankans of Dutthagamani’s time as the Sinhalese: ‘a new race with healthy young blood.’ One is not sure whether Rahula ever consulted a medical laboratory for his blood tests, referred his case to psychiatrist or consulted an oracle. He further says: ‘The entire Sinhalese race was united under the banner of the young Gamani.” [bold font, used by Sachi, for emphasis.]
One should applaud Ven. Dhammavihari Thera’s strongest criticism of Ven. Walpola Rahula thera, while the latter was alive. Ven. Dhammavihari Thera continues further.
“But let it pointed out that while speaking of Gamani’s war, the Mahavamsa never uses the word Sinhala at any point. It was clear to the author that it was Sri Lanka’s integrity that was at stake and it was Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage that was being threatened. Rahula is indeed trying to use a high-powered magnifying glass to look for a bone to pick in our national historical records: a fanatic ruler, dishonest arahants and whoever else he could round up. Perhaps a real need, for more reasons that one, at the time he started on his research. Look how he gets his slogans and puts up his posters.
‘His war cry was not for kingdom, but for Buddhism’ This is a dangerously spiced translation. The plain statement of the Mahavamsa is ‘Not to bolster his position as a ruler for his glory and comfort, but to safeguard the religion (i.e. Buddhism) in the land: sasanassa thapanaya.’ (Mahavamsa, ch. xxv. Verse 17)
Ven. Dhmmavihari Thera’s pungent inference deserves notice. To quote, “You have now to see that it is the ill-use, or rather evil-use of basic source material by pioneering persons with ill-begotten certificates of clearance which made the Duttagamani episode in history unduly pathological. This consequently led to much maligning of a historical personality. Many Sri Lankan scholars, even before the time of Rahula, are to be held responsible for the creation of a situation like this. That a similar situation had been or is being created anew is beyond doubt. Whether this is the outcome of misguided enthusiasm, group interest, careless handling of research data, or blissful ignorance of the contents of documents written in an ancient language is a thing to be clearly sorted out. In the re-examination of the Dutugemunu episode, examples for each of these can be indicated. These are sins both of omission and commission.”
Subsequently, Ven. Dhammavihari Thera picks up an example of one particular Pali word ‘kunta’ and its translation into English by various commentators beginning from George Turnour and Wilhelm Geiger to the Sinhala natives Gunapala Malalasekara and N.A. Jayawickrama, and how the English translation of this Pali word slided from ‘spear’ (which was a Royal standard, always carried before the Prince, and a sceptre) into an aggressive war weapon ‘lance’.
I acknowledge that I don’t have a copy of Walpola Rahula Thera’s 1956 book, ‘History of Buddhism in Ceylon’ with me, to check the specific citations made by Ven. Dhammavihari Thera. It had been annotated by H.A.I. Goonetileke, as “An authoritative, well documented and objective study of the establishment of Buddhism in Ceylon, its adoption as the State religion and its development, the structure and administration of monasteries, and the activities of the monastic life. The social and economic background is considered all the time.” in his Bibliography of Ceylon (1970).
I’ll let Ven. Dhammavihari Thera to have the last word. To quote, “The most disastrous thing in history is when history relating to anything passes through a period of fermentation, when facts of history, particularly early history, get into what we could call brewer’s hands. It is as though early writers of history seem to have been perfectly trained in the art of brewing. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, two types of brewers seem to be clearly visible on the scene. There are those, both ancient and modern, who in the process of brewing add pride into their vats while the other group competitively adds prejudice to bring out an even more potent brew. It is not adequately realized that the pride of one group invariably turns out to be a cause of prejudice for the other.”
Though in his commentary, Ven. Dhammavihari Thera strongly critiqued the misrepresentations of Mahavamsa chronicle by his senior Walpola Rahula Thera in 1956, he had failed to offer proper context to the appearance of that work, on that particular year. It was the election year dominated by the elevation of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to the prime minister rank on his ‘Sinhala Only’ plank. What Walpola Rahula Thera used as dubious clichés such as ‘religio-nationalism, fanaticism and war-cry’ in his text found significant resonance in the then political context with his Sinhala Buddhist audience.
K.M. de Silva: A History of Sri Lanka, C. Hurst & Co, London, 1981, pp. 15-16.
Jothiya Dhirasekera (aka Ven. Dhammavihari Thera). Dutugemunu episode re-examined. Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, New Series, 1989; 32, 25-44. [Text of a lecture, delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society, in 1987. Material accessed on July 28, 2005 from the website http://www.spur.asn.au/dutu.htm ]
H.A.I. Goonetileke: A Bibliography of Ceylon, vol. II, 2nd ed., Inter Documentation Company, Zug, Switzerland, 1973. (originally published, 1970).
Indrapala: The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity – The Tamils in Sri Lanka c. 300 BCE to c. 1200 CE, MV Publications, Sydney, 2005, pp. 17-19.
Padmanathan: The Kingdom of Jaffna, Part 1 (circa AD 1250-1450), publisher Arul M. Rajendran, Colombo, 1978.
Walpola Rahula Thera. History of Buddhism in Ceylon: The Anuradhapura period, 3rd century BC – 10th century AD, M.D. Gunasena & Co, Colombo, 1956, 351 pp.
W.I. Siriweera: History of Sri Lanka – From earliest Times up to the Sixteenth Century, Dayawansa Jayakody & Co, Colombo, 2nd printing, 2004, pp. 31-34.