Sri Lankan Buddhism: Mahindian hybrid
of pre-Buddhist religion?
Reproduced below is an excerpt, from an
article written by Professor M.M.J. Marasinghe, a former
Head of the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies;
Vice Chancellor, University of Kelaniya.
“It is difficult to understand why the Mahinda Thera
introduced rituals to Sri Lankan Buddhists when such
practices did not form part of the Pali canonical texts
the teachings of which his tradition claimed it adhered
It is not difficult to find the answer to this question
if we take a close look at the massive religeo-ritualistic
syncretism which was taking place in and around the
border regions of the Mauryan empire in India at the
The learned professor suggests that Buddhism gifted to
Sri Lankans by the Venerable Thera Mahinda is a hybrid
of pre-Buddhist religion. This is a revelation, by an
authority on the subject, that deserves serious
attention of scholars and students of history of
Buddhism, in Sri Lanka. I am a student of history of
Buddhism. Can someone who is an authority on the subject
By rituals, the Professor means Bodhi poojas and
offerings to relics of the Buddha. In Professor’s own
admission, Bodhi pooja was introduced by a monk called
Ariyadeva. When Venerable Thera Mahinda got down the
sapling of the Bodhi tree from India, in all
probability, he might have expected the Sri Lankan
devotees to pay homage to the Buddha and not to treat
the Bodhi tree itself as an object of veneration.
Perhaps he may have reckoned the Bodhi tree as a symbol
that helps the devotee to kindle piety (Shraddha) in the
triple gem. However, it does not necessarily mean that a
symbol is a must for a devotee to gain confidence (shraddha)
in the Triple gem.
It is true that the Bodhi poojas of the present day, at
times are ritualistic in character, where devotees make
offerings to the Bodhi tree and pray worldly benefits in
return. Paying homage to the Buddha-the primary
objective - is completely forgotten.
However, the presence of ritual practices should not be
an obstacle for the diligent devotee to pursue the Noble
Eightfold Path, in his quest for emancipation. In my
view, it is difficult to surmise that Thera Mahinda
recommended Bodhi poojas as an extension of the
pre-Buddhist tree-worship practice, which is quite
contrary to the teachings of the Buddha.
According to the Professor’s analysis, even paying
homage to the Buddha at the Three Cetiyas Stupa (where
Buddha’s relics are enshrined), Bodhi tree (under which
the Buddha attained Enlightenment) and Vihara-Shrine
room (where the Buddha’s statues are housed) - amounts
to indulging in pre-Buddhist ritual practices, which did
not form part of the canonical texts.
After introducing the Buddha’s doctrine, Thera Mahinda
was instrumental in getting down the sapling of the
Bodhi tree and the relics of the Buddha, says the
learned Professor. In other words, it is Thera Mahinda
who paved the way for the present day worship of the
three Cetiyas, which is not found in the canonical
texts, according to him.
That is perhaps why the Professor was prompted to label
Mahindian Buddhism as a hybrid of pre-Buddhist religion.
In my view, ‘hybrid’ is too harsh a word to describe the
Mahindian gift of non-hybrid Theravada Buddhism, purely
because of his initiative to get down the sapling of the
Bodhi tree and the relics of the Buddha, to enable the
Sri Lankan devotees to pay homage to the Buddha.
According to the scholarly analysis of the Professor,
should the Buddhists interpret even the practice of
‘paying homage to the Buddha at the three
‘cetiyas’-stupa, Bodhi tree and shrine- as an indirect
influence of the religeo-ritualistic syncretism, which
the Professor claims, was taking place in and around the
border regions of the Mauryan Empire in India, at the
time of Mahindian expedition to Sri Lanka?
The three Cetiyas and their surroundings are ideal
resorts for the devotees who practise meditation. Thera
Mahinda has made a mistake by causing the Sapling of the
Bodhi tree and the relics of the Buddha to be brought
here for veneration by the Sri Lankan Buddhists, the
would be followers of a hybrid religion, according to
the learned Professor.
Academics are generally theorists and perfectionists.
Perhaps they do not require serene surrounding for
meditation. Even a room of the house is ideal for the
purpose. Even disturbances around the place will not
shake their gritty determination.
They are able to cultivate ‘saraddha’ in the triple gem
without objects of veneration. Pristine pure Dhamma is
there for their guidance. Perhaps Thera Mahinda,
influenced by the religeo-ritualistic syncretism taking
place in and around the border regions of the Mauryan
empire, erred by not sticking to the canonical texts,
according to the Professor.
The Professor sums up his view point thus:
“The hybrid version of the Sri Lankan Buddhism of today
has to be thoroughly cleaned and purified if it is to be
Buddhism, lest some country in the Western world will
become the centre of pure Buddhism and we be labelled as
holders on to a primitive form of the religion which it
has become today.”
Coming from an authority on the subject, the view point
cannot be discarded easily.
The lay society is keenly looking forward to the
response of the very reverend Buddhist Prelates, the
gurdians of the religion who have protected the religion
over the centuries. Things are said easily than done.