Buddhism in Sri Lanka


State of Sri Lanka before the Introduction of Buddhism

Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in 236 b.e. (cir. 250 BCE)[1] and became the national religion of the Sinhalese from that date. It is, however, necessary for a proper study of the history of Buddhism in the island to consider the state of the island and its social and political developments and the culture and character of the people immediately preceding this period. This will enable us to get a clear understanding of the manner in which such a far-reaching revolution in the beliefs, manners, customs and character of a people was effected by the introduction of this new religion and the progress in literature, art and culture that has been manifested through its influence.

Early Traditions

According to the early chronicles relating the historical traditions of Sri Lanka, a prince named Vijaya and his followers who came from India and landed in Lanka on the day of the Parinibbana of the Buddha were the first human inhabitants of this island. When they came the island was occupied by “yakkhas” (sprites, demons). “Yakkhas” and “nagas” are also said to have inhabited Lanka in the time of the Buddha. A legend relating the existence of a great civilization before this time, under a king named Ravana, is also current though the early chronicles make no mention of it.

The Vijaya legend of these chronicles is taken by modern historians as a poetic expression of the actual aryanization of Sri Lanka in about the sixth century BCE The term “yakkhas and nagas” may refer to the aborigines who occupied the island before their arrival. No traces of an advanced civilization, however, have yet been discovered to support the Ravana legend. Archaeologists have discovered chert and quartz implements and tools at various sites, believed to have been used by aborigines of Sri Lanka, and they indicate that these people were a primitive tribe who lived by hunting. These aborigines have not left traces of a strong political organization or an advanced culture. The present Veddas are believed to be their descendants.

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