Distortion of History
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
A country’s heritage is always associated with concepts of inheritance of land and national identity and this is why a country’s heritage is targeted by certain groups for negative purposes. Some of these attacks are physical vandalism of archaeological sites. Once archaeological heritage is damaged it is not possible to restore it to its original state. However, the damage that can be done by changing the mindsets of the masses, and altering their beliefs, is always graver than vandalising physical objects. Once the majority of people lose the attachment and honour towards the country’s history and culture, the value of archaeological sites and monuments deteriorates naturally. This is why ‘distortion of history’ is a reason for concern.
We witnessed one such event last week at the Hiriwadunna Temple. We clearly saw a dispute has already begun among Buddhists regarding the history of the country as one group believes that Buddha was born in Sri Lanka. Supporting evidence for such fables is also fabricated to mislead the public.
Therefore, we contacted some of the experts in history, archaeology, Buddhism, and Pali literature to find out about this trend of ‘distortion of history’ and its grave consequences.
“Misrepresentations of history which is a recent trend, is a grave issue than it seems to be. We should be concerned about the story behind this,” Professor Emeritus T.G. Kulatunga, an eminent scholar and a senior archaeologist expressed his concern regarding this.
“If Buddha attained enlightenment at Hiriwadunna, why did our ancestors ignore the place for thousands of years? The time gap between the time of Buddha and Arhat Sanghamitta, is approximately 250 years, in other words only a few generations. As we are being told about events that happened during their lifetimes by our grandparents, why didn’t people who lived during the time of Buddha did not pass that knowledge to the next generation about Hiriwadunna?
“Look at the Bodhi culture at Anuradhapura. We have a large number of literature works woven around the sacred Bo tree at Anuradhapura and a complex intangible heritage. Do we have anything like that around Hiriwadunna? During the time of Anuradhapura, there were two main sects, the Abhayagiri Sect and the Mahavihara Sect. Why did not the Abhayagiri Sect step forward and venerate the Bo tree at Hiriwadunna?” questioned the professor.
Was Buddha born in Sri Lanka?
The belief that Buddha was born in Sri Lanka is mainly among Buddhist devotees. Therefore, we contacted Prof. Ven. Raluwe Padmasiri Thera of the Department of Buddhist Thought, Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya, who is an expert in Pali literature and Buddhist studies to find answers for this from the Dhamma.
“The idea that Buddha was born in Sri Lanka is something I see as an issue regarding identity and it is an arrogant belief that ‘ours is greater’. How can we say that without a base? Also, do we have to mess up things by following such an arrogant idea? The fact that Buddha was born in India is archaeologically proven not only by local scholars but also by international scholars.
“These thoughts are against what Buddha taught. If someone wants to learn the true message of Buddha, they must follow the Dhamma. There is no point in wasting time searching Buddha’s birthplace. We are wasting precious time we have to spend on fruitful things. According to Dhamma that thought is a mithya-drishti (wrong perspective). Buddha has taught his followers to be rational. These floating ideas are clearly myths. It is illogical and unintelligent.” explained the Thera.
Lecturer in History at the Department of History, University of Kelaniya Hasitha Chamikara Gunasinghe further clarified that there is no historical evidence to suggest that Buddha was born in Sri Lanka. “These groups say that Indian imperialism purposely veiled the fact that Buddha was born in Sri Lanka. They install an anti-Indian attitude in the minds of their followers. Then these groups quote from the Pali texts and use it to prove their beliefs. But if you study and analyse the complete texts it is clear that they have twisted the true meaning.”
Misinterpreting historical records
Prof. Kulatunga explained that it is incorrect how they interpret modern names and link them to the past. “Also, it must be noted that Sri Lanka and India, having been shaped by Buddhism and a similar culture, share similar names of places. Sometimes, these groups take recently composed books and present them as evidence. Some terms, especially measuring units, change with time.
“When studying history, we gather all evidence and compare them with each other. We cannot ignore or choose evidence based on our preferences.”
Prof. Kulatunga also said that it is vital to study and understand the background of the sources we use. “We have to study the political and religious background of those writers and their objectives.
“The scholar who is studying history and archaeology has to be like a lifeless computer. We cannot be attached to any religion, race, caste, or ethnicity. Based on the data we have, we process. Fantasies and emotions should be kept aside. These groups are not people who are trained in history or archaeology to know all these,” clarified the professor.
Is Mahavamsa being accused?
Answering our question, Prof. Kulatunga said that, “Mahavamsa is the biggest challenge for separatists. As long as its authenticity is accepted, it is difficult for them to achieve their narrow goals. It is the same about the thousands of inscriptions scattered all over the island. So, what is happening is that the trust and acceptance of Mahavamsa and ancient literature is being damaged by provoking the people who used to believe them. This is to divide the Buddhists. This leads towards the graver issue – separatism.”
Adding into this, Prof. Karunasena Hettiarachchi of the Department of History and Archaeology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura said that, “By saying that Mahavamsa is a lie, the concept of ‘national pride’ is being damaged. Damaging the roots of our history and culture is very negative. Those who want to divide us want to create a protest against Mahavamsa to arise within us.”
Prof. Hettiarachchi said that, “Mahavamsa is not a book that solely records history. It has history, Dhamma, and literature. We have to sort it out properly. As a professor in Archaeology, I can say that, each and every time we do excavations, Mahavamsa’s authenticity is proven.
“Mahavamsa was composed by monks of the Theravada tradition, to record the history of Theravada. Therefore, the goal was of course religious. But the author has included political, social, and cultural information staying within his main objective. We can clearly see that the writer was concerned about the authenticity of his writings. Mahavamsa is like a window to look into the past. We have to analyse what we see,” explained Gunasinghe.
“If someone is doubtful about Pali literature sources, they can study Jain literature sources. Jain literature sources clarify what is written in Pali sources. They can compare them with Vedic, Sanskrit, and all other ancient literature sources of Asia. Then compare them all with archaeological data. Without doing all these, you cannot believe fables,” explained Prof. Ven. Padmasiri Thera.
Inscriptions prior to the 3rd century BC
“We have to look at this from many angles,” said prof. Hettiarachchi, an expert in epigraphy.
“Technology – we need steel tools to write on stone. Iron is not strong enough. Dr. Deraniyagala in his research says that we used iron in the 9th century BCE. But we cannot work on stone with those iron tools. Our steel technology developed due to the north Indian migrations and the arrival of Arhat Mahinda. After the 3rd century BCE we can witness advanced steel technology in Sri Lanka. Therefore, to say that we have inscriptions prior to the 3rd century BCE is not scientific.
“Another point I would like to highlight is that if we had such technology prior to that time, why don’t we have masonry work such as moonstones, balustrades, and guardstones? These all were created after the 3rd century BCE.
“Language – the language and the style of our early inscriptions displays primitive characteristics. Asoka’s inscriptions are very neat, and finely done. The Rummindei inscription is one such example. The surface is well-polished and flattened. Words are written on straight lines and letters are symmetrical. Our early inscriptions are the opposite of this. Also the grammar of our early inscriptions are not advanced and tuned. It is because this technology as well as the script was new to us.
“What I believe is that we didn’t have a style of writing on stones before the 3rd century BCE.”
The Professor also explained that in our early inscriptions there is a flaw of not dividing words accurately. So it is easy to misinterpret these. “This mistake has happened because the stonemason was not aware of the script and language.”
“These groups talk about an ancient yaksha language in inscriptions and ola leaf books. I have read, interpreted, and copied thousands of inscriptions. But there is no evidence of yaksha inscriptions. Symbols in inscriptions are being misinterpreted as yaksha language, which is wrong. They are symbols of various gothras, kula, and symbols of good luck. Some are Mahayana and other religious symbols such as yantra and mantra.”
Ravana, a mythical king
“Ravana is a fantasy novel,” said Prof. Kulatunga. “Bali, Tharu, Ravana are all fantasies, not historical kings.”
“Ravana is only a fictional character. There is no evidence to say that Ravana existed in Sri Lanka’’ said Gunasinghe. “Ramayana was written to praise prince Rama and portray him as a hero. Therefore, considering the objective of writing Ramayana, it cannot be considered as a source to study ancient history.”
“This is not something to be taken lightly”, says Prof. Hettiarachchi, “Such things may lead to grave issues. These are done by organised groups. People follow them knowingly or unknowingly.
“These myths and distortions are harming the country’s history as well as the culture. They are damaging the image of historical figures and harming historical sites. Also people feel lost and confused about the country’s history,” explained Gunasinghe.
Buddhists are divided
“In Mahaparinibbanasutta, Buddha says, until his students (monks, nuns, and lay men and women) are well-learnt and trained in Dhamma and strong enough to face challenges, he won’t attain parinibbana. Buddha’s teachings emphasise on the unity of these four groups”, Prof. Ven. Padmasiri Thera enlightened us. “Buddha has said that the moment this unity is damaged, then will start the decline of the Sasana.
“These myths are straying devotees from the Dhamma. The message of Buddha is a noble one. Instead of teaching this message we shouldn’t encourage these myths. A true Buddhist will not support them,” the Thera further explained.
Think out of the box, but be rooted
“These myths are not examples of thinking out of the box or being free thinkers,” said Prof. Ven. Padmasiri Thera.
“Free thinking is great. That is what Buddha did too. But for us is it possible? Let me explain it in a philosophical perspective. If we are to move forward, break barriers, we have to possess a set of qualifications. If a person is breaking away from these traditions, where is he or she heading towards? Philosophically, no one is a free thinker. All thinking is conditioned. Even free thinking was conditioned by someone. Modern free thinking is a created movement. Once again, religious and philosophical ideologies are behind this free thinking movement. Which means, to remove a person from one belief system and move on to another thinking or belief system – this intermediate process is free thinking movement.
“Buddhist thought doesn’t confine people to cultures. The Dhamma says, ‘the next step you keep, think and evaluate how beneficial it is for you and others based on good and bad karma’. If you are rejecting and moving away from something good, then it is important to move towards a better one. Do not destroy yourself and walk into traps set by others,” the Thera enlightened us.
Responsibility of all…
The Director General of Archaeology, senior prof. Anura Manatunga said that, “We cannot restrict the media, it’s their freedom. However, it is crucial to be responsible about the context they publish or broadcast. What happens via these myths is the heritage of the country being harmed and mocked.
“It is the duty and responsibility of us to make people aware of the accurate history by educating school children and the public.” clarified the Director General.
1. Professor Raluwe Padmasiri thero, Department of Buddhist thought, Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya 2. Professor Emeritus T.G.Kulatunga, eminent scholar and a senior archaeologist 3. Senior Professor Anura Manatunga, Director General, Department of Archaeology 4. Professor Karunasena Hettiarachchi, Department of History and Archaeology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura 5. Hasitha Chamikara Gunasinghe, Lecture in History, Department of History, University of Kelaniya 6. Hiriwadunna bo tree 7. Buddha’s actual birthplace, Lumbini, Nepal.
The original article was first published on Ceylon Today Echo Newspaper on the 23rd January 2021. The link for the original article in attached below;
Uncategorized, Buddha born in India, Hiriwadunna, Mahavamsa, SINHALESE, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, Where was Buddha born
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