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The Tamils’ dalliance with Buddhism and how it ended

Rise Of Saivism In Tamil Nadu And North Sri Lanka Led To Buddhism’s Decline Among The Tamils


Colombo: Both the Sinhalese and the Tamils were into Buddhism in ancient times. But while the religion survived and went from strength to strength among the Sinhalese, it declined among the Tamils both in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, to the point of extinction.

In both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, Buddhism became politically contentious. Political support or the lack of it, became a key determinant of its status in the two areas. In Tamil Nadu, Buddhism declined because it did not have the support of the Pallava and Chola dynasties that promoted Saivism, Vaishavism and the Bhakti cult. And in Sri Lanka, the extension of Chola hegemony over the Tamils of the North, led to their abandoning Buddhism in favor of Saivism.

The story of Buddhism’s growth and decline among the Tamils in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu is told by historians Peter Schalk of Uppsala University in Sweden and G.P.V. Somaratna of Colombo University.

Dr. Gintota P.V. Somaratna, former Head of the Department of History and Political Science, Colombo University, says in his paper entitled: Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka, that Buddhism existed in Tamil Nadu in three phases: (1) between the 3rd and the 7th centuries; (2) during Pallava rule (400 to 650 AD), (3) in the Chola period (mid 9th. to early 14th century AD).

According to the Uppsala University’s Peter Schalk (author of Buddhism among Tamils: An Introduction) Buddhism faced many challenges in Tamil Nadu and virtually disappeared by the 16th century, while it went from strength to strength in Sri Lanka.

Schalk attributes the decline in Tamil Nadu to the loss of political (Kingly) patronage and the rise of the Saiva, Vaishnava and Bhakti movements led by great saints. Historian Burton Stein notes in his Peasant, State and Society in Medieval South India that the Bhakti movement was a social reaction to the town-based and mercantile society of Jains and Buddhists. It may be seen as an expression of the largely rural population with emphasis on agriculture. It is more rooted in Tamil culture.

Be that as it may, Buddhism had been in Tamil Nadu from very early times. Somaratna says that the Asokan Rock Edicts II, V and XIII mention Kerala, Chola, Pandya and Chera kingdoms in Tamil-speaking South India apart from Tambapanni in Sri Lanka. These were places to which Emperor Asoka had sent his Buddhist missionaries. A number of caves with Buddhist inscriptions in Brahmi have been found in Madurai, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli, Tanjaur and several other districts of Tamil Nadu, he points out. The Brahmi script had come to South India through Asoka’s missionaries.

There is evidence that Mahinda Thera, the son of Emperor Asoka, had taught the Dhamma in Tamil Nadu before his arrival in Sri Lanka. He had travelled by sea from North India and called at Kaveripattinam on the Tamil Nadu coast, before heading for Dambakolapatuna aka Jambukolapatuna (the modern Sambuthurai) in Jaffna.

Buddhism had spread in Tamil Nadu by winning the patronage of its rulers. It appears that State patronage is the sine qua non for the wide acceptance of any religion. During the heyday of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu, there were many great Pali scholars there like Bodhidharma, Buddhadatta, and Dharmapala. At that time, Buddhism was recognized as a separate religion (Samayam).

The 7 th. century Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar-traveler, Hiuen Tsang (or Xuanzang) had described Kanchipuram, the Pallava Empire’s capital, as a flourishing city of Buddhists with over 100 Buddhist monasteries and over a thousand monks. But Schalk says that the Pallava ruler deliberately marginalized Buddhism and had given primacy to Hinduism. 

Be that as it may, the Buddhist Tamil poet Sathanar's epic Manimekalai written in the late 2nd century AD or early 3rd century, broke new ground by giving the teachings of the Buddha in Tamil. The epic’s protagonist, Manimekalai, was an epitome of Buddhist ideals. She requested the Chola king to convert prisons to a place of piety with Buddhist monks in it. Sathanar disapproved the caste system and ugly rituals.

Among other Tamil literary epics which show the influence of Buddhism are the Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi and  Jivaka Cintamani. Tolkappiyam , the earliest Tamil grammar (3rd century BC), was written by a Buddhist, Somaratna says. He points out that Hiuen Tsang had recorded instances of Tamil Buddhist monks fleeing to Sri Lanka when they were worsted in religious debates or feared the repercussions of the rulers’ change of religion. The Chulavamsa states that in the 13th century, King Parakramabahu VI of Dambadeniya (in the North Western Province) brought down Buddhist monks and scriptures from the Chola country to resuscitate Buddhism in his kingdom.

The Mahavamsa is cited to show that several Buddhist Viharas existed in the Jaffna peninsula. Devanampiya Tissa himself built two Viharas close to Jambukolapatuna – the Tissamaha Vihara and Pachina Vihara. Monks from Piyangudipa (Pungudutivu) participated in the meritorious acts of Dutthagamani. King Dhatusena (455-473 AD) restored the Maha Naga Vihara.

There are remains of Buddhist establishments datable to the early centuries of the Christian Era in Kandarodai, Vallipuram, Ponnalia, Makiyapini, Nilavarai, Uduvil, Nainativu, Punkuditivu, and Neduntivu in Jaffna. Both Manimekalai  and the Mahavamsa  describe the Buddha settling a dispute between two Naga princes over a gem-set throne in Nainativu. Kandarodai has very rich archaeological remains that point to early settlements. It was probably an emporium in the first centuries AD, Somaratna says.

According to Peter Schalk, there was a Tamil monk known as Choḷika Saṃghamitta in the reign of King Goṭhābaya (309–322 or  249– 262). The monk’s story is told in the Mahāvaṃsa also. Schalk also refers to inscriptions in Prakrit which were written in the Brahmi script by Tamil speakers. They date from the 2nd century BC to the 3rd century AD, a period known as the “early Anuradhapura period.” These Tamil speakers were Buddhists whose Buddhism cannot be distinguished in content from the Buddhism of contemporary inscriptions by Prakrit speakers, he says. These inscriptions are all about donations to a Vihara made by Tamil merchants apparently to gain merit and make money. These merit-earning Buddhists were active in the political, administrative, and religious center, Anuradhapura. These inscriptions show the existence of early settlements by Tamil speakers confirming the record of the Mahavaṃsa.

According to Mahāvaṃsa, Tamil mercenaries, merchants and settlers became Buddhists and were accepted in the military and civil administration. These Tamil speakers were dedicated to the “Ila Chola Bauddham” (Eela Chola Buddhism or Tamil Buddhism). These were loyal to the political center in Anuradhapura. Some were mercenaries in the service of the King who could only survive by keeping to the oath of allegiance to the King of the Sinhala speakers. To these was entrusted the guard of the most holy relic, the tooth of the Buddha. These mercenaries’ Tamil Bauddhism could be studied in inscriptions from Mayilankuḷam, Morakakavelai, Vijayarājapuram and Poloṉnaṟuwa.

Others were merchants organized in guilds with strong connections to Tamil Nadu.

Mercenaries and merchants could live in the same city as Sinhala speakers, albeit in different parts of the city. Schalk further notes that “the Buddhists were organizationally and linguistically integrated through Prakrit with the insular Maha Sangha. There was concord and co-operation between Tamil speakers and non-Tamil speakers with the common aim to establish monumental Buddhism on the island.”

Schalk point out that the Mahawamsa did not rile against all Tamils. It only considered non-Buddhists among the Tamils as ‘beasts’. Conversion to Buddhism made them acceptable to Sinhala-Buddhists.  They promoted Buddhism and contributed to the building and maintenance of the classical showpieces of monumental architecture, like for example the buildings in the vicinity of the Abhayagiri Vihara in Anuradhapura.

Switch to Tamil

Schalk notes that Prakrit Buddhism, which for ritual and teaching purposes was based on the Pali canon and on its Pali commentaries, was discontinued among Tamil speakers both in Sri Lanka and in Tamil Nadu. The religious language of Buddhism shifted to Tamil in the 8th century. The linguistic change from Pali (Prakrit) to Tamil, loosened the links between Tamil and Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka. When Saivism and Bhakti movement ascended to an unassailable position in Tamil Nadu under the Cholas (300 BC to 1279 AD), they pushed Buddhism to the periphery there. And with the Cholas repeatedly invading Sri Lanka, Tamil Buddhism in the island also got marginalized - to the point of extinction.