Dipavamsa (study)

by Sibani Barman | 2017 | 55,946 words

This page relates ‘Introduction’ of the study on the Dipavamsa conducted by S. Barman in 2017. The Dipavamsa is the base material of the Vamsa literatures of Ceylon (Srilanka or Sri-Lanka) writtin the Pali language.


The Dīpavaṃsa is the oldest known chronicle of Ceylon written in Pāli by an unknown author. It deals with the history of the island from very early times up to the reign of King Mahāsena. This text has been edited and translated by Oldenberg. George Turnour first declared that this text is identical with a version of the Mahāvaṃsa which is again occasionally identical with a version of the Mahāvaṃsa Tikā that preserved in the Uttaravihāra monastery. Collective scholarly opinions hold that it is not the work of a single author but is the literary production of a school or community of several authors. It appears after a long research work on the character of ancient chronicles of the Island, that there are certain element of truth in it beneath the miracles and super natural activities. It was the time when literary facilities were insufficient. The chronicles of Ceylon were mostly written by the Buddhist monks who were motivated mainly by religious thoughts as well as patriotic.

As the title suggests, the Dīpavaṃsa contains the history of the island. The opening verses of the Dīpavaṃsa say that—(as translated into English by B. C. Law): -‘The chronicle of Buddha’s coming to the Island, the arrival of the relic and the Bo-(Tree), the collection of the teacher’s words (made at the councils), the rise of the schools of teachers, the propagation of the religion in the Island and the coming of Vijaya, the chief of men, I am going to narrate, listen to me”.

According to B. C. Law, ‘the Dīpavaṃsa grew into its present form in many stages concluding at different important historical events.

It is quite probable that the first stage closed with chapter VIII, with the establishment of Buddhist Sangha in the Island by Mahinda of which the concluding verse is:

laṅkādīpavaraṃ gantvā Mahindo attapañcamo |
sāsanam thāvaraṃ katvā mocesi bandhanā bahu ||

i.e.—‘Mahinda had been to the most excellent Island of Laṅkā with a group of five including him, firmly established the Buddha Sāsana and released many people from their fetters.’

This verse shows the primary stage of establishment of Buddhism in the Island with the end of eight bhāṇavāras. B.C.Law drew our attention in the fact that, the first stage did not extend beyond the advent of Mahinda, when King Dhātusena caused it to be recited in public year after year during the Mahinda festival.

The following Chapters from IX-XVII end as sattarasamaṃ bhāṇavāras is just a later elaboration of the Buddhist mission.

The Dīpavaṃsa concluded in the second stage with an account of the death of Mahinda and the concluding verse is:

kataṃ sarīranikkhepaṃ Mahindaṃ dīpajotakaṃ
isibhumīti taṃ nāmaṃ samaññā paṭhamaṃ ahū.

i.e.—‘After the funeral ceremonies for Mahinda, the enlightener of the Island, had been performed, that place first received the name of Isibhumi’.

In the next stage, the Dīpavaṃsa closed with the first half of the chapter XVIII, and with the verse 44 which was:

idāni atthi aññāyo therikā majjhimā navā
vibhajjavādī vinayādharā sāsane paveṇipālakā
bahussutā sīlasampannā obhāsenti mahiṃ iman ti

i.e.—‘Now, there are aged, middle aged, and young Bhikkhuṇīs who are Vibhajjavādī, holders of the Vinaya and preserver of the tradion, learned, virtuous and thereby illuminate the earth.’

The Dīpavaṃsa in its first stage describes the rise of early Buddhist sects. Each sect formed with some textual modifcations and took up some new rules and regulations. The first off-shoot of the Theravādins was the Mahāsaṅghikas. It is stated in the Dīpavaṃsa that the protesting Bhikkhus rejected the old form of the Vinaya, five collections of the Suttas, together with the Parivāra which is an abstract of the Vinaya, the six sections of the Abhidhamma, the Paṭisambhidā, the Niddesa, and some portions of the Jātaka, and composed new ones. The Dīpavamsa represents a succession of Vinaya teachers in India and rising of eighteen sects. Dīpavaṃsa mentions six later Buddhist sects, viz, Hemavatikā, Rājagirikā, Siddhatthā, Pubbaseliyā, Aparaseliyā and Apara-Rājagirikā. We do not find mention of the Pubbaseliyās and Aparaseliyās in any Indian inscription earlier than those of Amarāvatī and Nāgārjunikoṇḍā. But the earlier eighteen sects together with the later six existed in Katthāvatthu Aṭṭhakathā of Buddhaghosa.

According to B.C.Law, the Samantapāsādikā offers a succession of the Vinaya teachers in the Island from Mahinda and Ariṭṭha to the date of composition of the Vinaya commentary, while that cited from the Parivāra and presumably also from the Dīpavaṃsa. It leads us to think of nineteen eminent successors of Mahinda upto first or second century A.D.

Thus there is an earlier form of Dīpavaṃsa which was concluded in the reign of Bhātika-Abhaya.

The Dīpavaṃsa gives a genealogy of the Khattiyas from Mahāsammata to Suddhodana, which is now contained in Chapter III. The introduction to the Samantapāsādikā throws no light on the fact that, in what stage of the growth this portion was included in the Dīpavaṃsa......... The Parivāra speaks of twenty-nine generations traced from Mahinda, but the later teachers are not connected with the reign of any king. Allowing twenty years for the interval between any two successive generations, it is possible to think that the list brings us down to the first quarter of the 4th century A.D.The kings of Ceylon who are referred in the writings of the great Buddhaghosa and in the Samantapāsādikā are none later than Mahānāga or Coranāga, Bhātika, Vāsabha and Sirināga. An eminent Thera named Deva is referred in the Dīpavaṃsa during the reign of Tissa, the second son of Sirināga-I.If this Thera be the same Vinaya teacher who is the last member of the aforesaid list, we may think that the Dīpavaṃsa as known to Buddhaghosa closed with the reign of Sirināga-I and his two successors.Its final form concluded with the reign of Mahāsena, was probably reached in the reign of Dhātusena during which it was caused to be publicly recited. The Dīpavaṃsa speaks of the well known Therīs headed by Mahāpajāpati Gotamī who acquired high stage of santification in the Buddha’s lifetime. In the second stage it mentions the Theris, under the leadership of Saṅghamittā, who went to the Island of Ceylon in Devānāmpiya-Tissa’s time and taught the five Vinaya books and the seven Abhidhamma treatises in Anurādhapura. Then it offers a list of eminent Therīs of the Island of Ceylon who were ordained by the Therīs from India and became noted for their special attainments.The Theris of Ceylon are connected with the reign of Kākavaṇña-Tissa and those of the next stage with that of his son Duṭṭha-Gāmaṇī Abhaya. The Theris of the next stage are connected to the period after the death of Duṭṭha-Gāmaṇi, while those of the sixth stage are referred to the time of Vaṭṭagāmaṇi-Abhaya.It also lists the leading Therīs of the Island during the reign of Kuṭikaṇṇa Abhaya and those of the reign of his son and successor Bhatiya Abhaya.

The Dīpavamsa portrays three slightly different narrations regarding Saṅghamittā and the therīs who went to Ceylon like her. According to one Saṅghamittā, Ruchānandā, Kanakdattā and Sudhammā were the nuns, each of whom carried a branch of Bo-tree to the Island of Sri-Lanka.

According to another Saṅghamittā was accompanied by ten other nuns, viz, Uttarā, Hemā, Pasādapālā, Aggimittā, Dāsikā, Pheggu, Pabbatā, Mattā, Mallā and Dhammadāsiyā.

According to the third the leading Theris, Mahādevī, Padumā, Hemāsā, Unnalā, Añjali and Sumā, accompanied Saṅghamittā together with sixteen thousand nuns. According to Oldenberg, the closing date of the Dīpavaṃsa in its existing form is between the begining of the fourth and the first third of the fifth century A.D.According to G.P.Malalasekera,—“It could not have been closed before the beginnig of the fourth century, because its narrative extends till about A.D. 302. Buddhaghosa quote several times from the Dīpavaṃsa, but his quotations differ in some details from our version. In the Mahāvaṃsa we are told that Dhātusena (459-477 A.D.) ordered the Dīpavaṃsa to be recited in public at the annual Mahinda festival, so that by that time the Dīpavaṃsa had been completed. After that date it fell in disuse, its glory outdone by the more brilliant work of Mahānāma; but it seems to have been studied still much later, because Dhammakitti III of the Āraṇyakavāsi sect quotes it in his Saddhammasaṅgaha (v, 7, p. 47; vv, 8, p. 49 ff) with great respect as a work of much merit and immense importance”.

There is a noticeable lack of uniformity, a roughness of style, unsuitability of language and metre and numerous repetitions, apart from many other imperfections. Geiger points to the fact that, the Dīpavaṃsa is the outcome of a series of traditions collected together out of already exixting material, as a first attempt to record a linked history of the island.He also thinks that the Dīpavaṃsa is a metrical work like the ancient Ākhyāna poetry of India. But the entire story is not metrically formed. It was the production of an age when the oral tradition weakened; the same story came to show many variations, together with many examples of identity of language.

With all its drawbacks, both literary and grammatical, the Dīpavaṃsa represents the oral tradition of the country starting from the time of the advent of Buddhism to the Island and is a very useful source of information dealing with the ancient times, and written in Pāli.

There is a controversy regarding the acceptance of the Dīpavamsa as an epic. An epic must have a story of highly appealing subject matter of heroic character, interweaving several chapters of differnt affairs into a unity, showing the dramatic moments and conveying a central idea or moral, and above all, there must be a hero whose exploits it must relate in an effective style. In the Dīpavaṃsa, the narrative is more of historical nature than poetical. There is more than one hero. Its main theme at the first stage is Laṅkā-vijaya, the conquest of Laṅkā, both culturally and politically. The Island of Laṅkā was first conquered by the Buddha, second by prince Vijaya, and thirdly by the Thera Mahinda. King Devānāmpiya-Tissa and King Duṭṭhagāmaṇi, two great national heroes of Ceylon dedicated their lives to unite and strengthen the territory conquered for Buddhism.Thus we may say that the narrative of the Dīpavaṃsa is a combination of as many as five epics.The Mahāvaṃsa closes each of its chapters describing the short-lived merit of the kingly career and dynastic rule and emphasizing the value of the meritorious deeds that only endure. This kind of expression representing the central idea or moral of the Mahāvaṃsa is met with once at the end of the Dīpavaṃsa forming the epic kernel at the end of the concluding chapter.

Criticising the poetic character of the Dīpavaṃsa, the Mahāvaṃsa author says, it fails to arouse faith and to call up emotion in right places. Whereas, the author of the earlier form of the Dīpavaṃsa openly claims that his performance is capable of awakening emotional interest, pleasing and delighting the heart of the reader, and what is more, the narrative of his epic is well supplied with various forms and modes.

The Dīpavaṃsa being a vaṃsa literature or chronicle presents the succession of events in two fold ways, the succession of the rulers and ruling dynasties (rāja-paramparā) and the succession of the eminent monks (thera-paramparā). The fundamental nature of historical narratives needs a structure of chronology which begins from a certain definite date. In the case of the Ceylon chronicles, the year of the parinibbāna of the Buddha is taken as the starting point of the Buddha Era (Buddhavassa).

B.C.Law says that,

“the year of the Buddha’s demise as known nowadays in Ceylon, Burma, and Siam is 543 B.C. But the Buddha era of 483 B.C. was current in Ceylon uptill the fifteenth century at the close of which a reformed calender was made. B.C. agrees very nearly with 486 B.C., which is fixed on the strength of the Chinese dotted record maintained at Canton till the end of the year A.D. 489 and 487 B.C.which may be fixed on the strength of the contemporaneity of Devānāmpiya Aśoka with the five Greek kings”.

The narrative in the Dīpavaṃsa can broadly be classified into pre-historic period, and historic period.

The Dīpavaṃsa describes a pre-historic period during which the Island of Ceylon had undergone many changes. We learn from it, that at the time of the rise of Buddhism in India, the Island of Laṅkā was covered with great forests and full of horors. It was claimed that the Buddha went there to make the Island habitable for the higher races of men. It proves that the Island was then stood in such a position that a help from outer world was highly needed to prepare the path of developed civilization. Existing races in the Island were described in this stage. It is stated that the best habitable part of the Island was kept separated for the men of higher race.

The historic period begins with episode of Vijaya. A coincidence of the day of the Buddha’s demise with that of the landing of the exiled prince Vijaya on the island of Laṅkā is envisaged to build up a systamatic chronology of the kings of Ceylon. This event is regarded a blessing for future history of the Island.

From which part of India did the banished crown prince Vijaya, the son of King Sīhabāhu come, is a matter of dispute.The Dīpavaṃsa says that Vijaya was the grandson of the king of Vaṅga on his maternal side. But it throws no light about the location of Sīhapura, the capital of Sīhabāhu, of the kingdom of Lāḍha. According to the Mahāvaṃsa and other Chronicles, the kingdom of Lāḍha was situated between Kaliṅga and Vaṅga and to the east of Magadha. The records of Hiuen-Tsang mentions South-India as the place of action of the lion and the princess.That the people of Ceylon prefer the name Siṃhapura as the homeland of Vijaya is clear from the fact that even in later time two Indian princes, Nissankamalla and Sāhassamalla, from the royal house of this place, were successively offered the throne of Ceylon.

B.C.Law holds the opinion that,

‘if Simhapura was situated in western Bengal or southern India, then why the ship which carried Vijaya and his companions reached the western coast of India at the ports of Bharukaccha (Broach) and Suppāraka (Sopārā) and carried by the prevailing ocean current to the western coast of Ceylon. Another ship, carrying the female companions of Vijaya and his friends reached Mahilā-rājya, which was situated according to Megasthenes and Hiuen Tsang, below Persia and near the mouth of the Indus. It suggests that Siṃhapura should not be situated in western Bengal or southern India.The identification of Lāḷa by Geiger with Lāṭa on the western coast of India above Gujrat does not wholly meet the situation. The oldest form of the Sinhalese language, as found in the early Brāhmī inscriptions, appears as an Indo-Aryan dialect, which is very closely allied to the language of the Manshera version of Asoka’s Rock Edicts.Accounting all these facts the historians think of Siṃhapura in the Lower eastern Punjab’.

The Dīpavaṃsa then explains the origin of the two names of the Island.It is Sinhal or Sīhala because of the epithet Sīhala earned by Vijaya’s father Sīhabāhū since he had slain the lion, and it is Tambapaṇṇi because of the fact that on their first landing on the Island the hands of Vijaya’s companions became coloured red with the dust. Tambapaṇṇi is also a Pāli word, the Sanskrit name of which is Tāmraparṇī or Tāmravarṇī, meaning copper-coloured or red–coloured.

Dīpavaṃsa then set up Vijaya as the eponymous king of Ceylon. The matrimonial relations between the royal house of the Pāṇḍyas and the nobles of Ceylon and the services of the experienced eighteen guilds from Pāṇḍya were needed by the Island at that period of time for her development.The building of the towns of Tambapaṇṇi surrounded by suburbs, Vijita, Uruvela, Anurādhapura, Ujjenī and Upatissanagara with well arranged markets by Vijaya and his followers were accomplished gradually and not in a day suddenly. After that the Dīpavaṃsa gives a rājaparamparā parallel to that of Magadha: from Vijaya to Devānāmpiya-Tissa, from Ajāsatru to Dhammāśoka. Thereafter the thread of synchronism is lost.

The immediate successor of King Vijaya was Paṇḍuvāsa, the youngest brother of Vijaya and reigned for thirty years. This name is changed in the Mahāvaṃsa as Paṇḍuvāsudeva. The Dīpavaṃsa is also silent about the territory from which Kaccānā, the daughter of Paṇḍusakka came. Seven Sakka princes, all grandsons of Amitodana, a brother of Suddhodana, came into the Island.

The parallelism between the two rājaparamparās is shown in the Dīpavaṃsa.In the ninth year of Ajāsattu’s reign Vijaya came to Ceylon. In the sixteenth year of Udaya’s reign Paṇḍuvāsa was cowned. In the interval between the two kings, Vijaya and Paṇḍuvāsa, the Island had no king for one year.In the twenty-first year of Nāgadāsa Paṇḍuvāsa was died and Abhaya was crowned. In the fourteenth year of Candagutta King Pakuṇḍaka died and his son Muṭasiva was consecrated. In the eighteenth year of Aśoka, King Muṭasiva died and was succeeded by his son Devānampiya-Tissa. Pakuṇḍaka of the Dīpavaṃsa is the same king as Paṇḍuka Abhaya of the Mahāvaṃsa, father of Muṭasiva and grand father of Devānāmpiya-Tissa.

Actually, the Dīpavaṃsa presented three lines of chronological succession, namely, the rājaparamparā of Magadha and Ceylon and the theraparamparā of the Theravāda Buddhist Saṅgha. Thus it is important from three corners of the early political histories of India and Ceylon and the early history of Buddhism. The three milestones of the early history of Buddhism from the parinibbana of the Buddha are the three Maha-Saṃgitīs, each happened by a general meeting of the monks, out of which the members were elected. Three royal patrons in association with these councils are equally important, namely, Ajātasattu, Kālāśoka, and Dhammāśoka. It refers the rise of eighteen Buddhist sects or schools of thoughts during the century which elapsed between the reigns of Kālāśoka and Aśoka and that of the heterodox views upheld by others.

According to B.C.Law,

‘the Dīpavaṃsa shows the succession of four ruling dynasties in presenting the rājaparamparā of Magadha: i) the dynasty traced out from Bhātiya, father of Bimbisāra, and a friend and contemporary of Suddhodana, the father of Gautama Buddha; ii) the Śusunāga (Śaisunāga); iii) the Nanda; iv) the Moriya (Maurya)’.

The Dipavamsa says nothing about the Nandas. It refers to the reign of Candagutta of the Morya-kula. The gap between the Susunāgas and the Moryas is filled up by the Mahāvaṃsawith the reign of nine Nandas.

B.C.Law draw our attention pointing to the fact that,

‘the chronicles of Ceylon speak of two coronations of Devānāmpiya-Tissa; the second took place six months after the first in honour of the presents from Aśoka. But the Dīpavamsa alone make us known of two consecration of Prince Piyadassana, the first under the title of Aśoka, four years after his accession to the throne of Bindusāra, and the second under the title of Piyadassi, six years after the first. The Dīpavaṃsa refers Aśoka as a person who assumed the royal title Piyadassi but Divyāvadāna represents the same as a personal name given to him by his father at the instance of his mother’.

The Dīpavaṃsa says; Aśoka killed his hundred brothers, in Mahinda’s fourteenth year. The Dīpavaṃsa and other Ceylon chronicles claim Mahinda and Saṅghamittā to be beloved children of Aśoka by his Vaisya wife Devī of Vidisā.

B.C.Law says,

‘until the thirteenth or fourteenth year of Aśoka his children were completely out of the picture (R.E. V). None can think of Aśoka having grown up sons before his twenty-seventh regnal year (P.E. VII)’.

The mystery of the personal relationship of Mahinda and Saṅghamittā with Aśoka cannot be solved in the light of Aśoka’s own records, but the fact is that both of them went to Ceylon for the propagation of Buddhism during the reign of King Devānāmpiaya-Tissa.

The Dīpavaṃsa presents a bare outline of the political history of Ceylon from Muṭaśiva to Mahāsena. The whole chapter of XVII is devoted to the career of Mahinda which extended over two reigns, namely that of Devānāmpiya-Tissa and that of Uttiya, his brother and successor.Nothing of architectural importance and beauty was built in the time of Devanampiya-Tissa. The vigorous creative activity of the art and architecture of Ceylon began during the reign of Duṭṭhagāmaṇi and was continued through subsequent reigns. Duṭṭhagāmaṇi attained the paramount position in the history of development of Buddhism in Ceylon.

The Dīpavaṃsa names fourteen Theras who came from India at the time of foundation of Mahāthūpa by Duṭṭhagāmaṇi without mentioning the centres of the Theravāda Buddhism represented by them.The list of places is supplied by the Mahavamsa.

The disturbed reign of Vaṭṭagāmani, the son and successor of Saddhā-Tissa is memorable for three facts: i) For defeating the Tamil usurpers; ii) For causing the Pāli canonical texts to be committed to writing; iii) For building the Abhayagiri monastery.

From Vaṭṭagamaṇi’s son down to Mahāsena a smooth course of political history is noticed in the Dīpavaṃsa. The chief event in the following religious history of Ceylon was the rivalry between Mahāvihāra and the Abhayagiri-vihāra. The earlier chronicle is unaware of the six later Buddhist sects that arose in India and the two sects, the Dhammaruci and the Sāgaliya that arose in Ceylon. Actually the Dīpavaṃsa said nothing regarding the cause which arose for the separation of the monks of the Abhayagiri from the Mahāvihāra and the formation of the Dhammaruci sect under the persuation of an Indian teacher, Dhammaruci, of the Vajjiputtaka community. During the reign of Vohāra-Tissa, the Dhammarucikas of Abhayagiri adopted the Vetulla or Vedalla Piṭaka. The Dīpavaṃsa makes mention of this as Vitaṇḍavāda.

Thus we see that in the fields of Pāli and Sinhalese literature, the Dīpavaṃsa holds a pride place in throwing light on the political, religious, cultural and literary history of the Island of Sri-Lankā.In spite of clumsy and sometimes not sensible narration, the Dīpavaṃsa created the base of the Vaṃsa-Literature in Sri-Laṅkā and obviously touches our mind deeply with the magical power of its inherent meaning.

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