Back to the Future
“Peace and love, peace and love!” Ringo Starr
Gathabhaya, the third of the three Lambakarna family plotters, seized the kingdom in 253 or 254 CE. For 14 years he ruled it with the proverbial rod of iron.
A man of deeply conservative religious beliefs, he was unimpressed by the Vajrayana movement, a form of tantric Buddhism that was making slim but noticeable appearances into his kingdom. The movement was closely aligned with Mahayana Buddhism and seen by many as incompatible with the Theravāda Buddishm that had been practiced on the island since the 3rd century BCE. The king did all he could to thwart it, even banishing 60 monks for such beliefs.
But what he kept out with one door slammed shut, he inadvertently let in with another. For he entrusted his sons education to an Indian monk named Sanghamitta, a follower of Vaitulya Buddhism. This doctrinal strand was even more radical than the Vajrayana doctrine he was so busy trying to eradicate. Like a time bomb, the impact of this private religious education on his successor, was timed to go off the moment Gathabhaya died.
His death, in 267 CE, left behind a divided country. Several ministers refused to participate in his funeral rites and his son and heir, Jetta Tissa I, a chip off the monstrous old block, had sixty of them rounded up, staking their impaled heads in a mournful circle around the old king’s body.
This display of strong-armed governance under yet another king was probably precisely what was needed to help keep at bay the lurking regicidal tendencies inherent in the dynasty. Jetta Tissa’s decade long rule is unlike to have been an easy ride for those around him. Indeed, states the Mahavamsa Chronicle “he came by the surname: the Cruel” It then elaborates with evident dismay the steps he took to move patronage and resource from the orbit of Theravāda Buddhism to Vaitulya Buddhism.
From the perspective of the majority Theravāda Buddhists, life got still worse when Mahasen, the king’s brother, took the throne in 277 CE, a succession notable for being natural. Like his brother, Mahasen had been educated by the radical monk Sanghamitta.
A twenty seven year reign lay ahead of the new king, who got off to a good start commissioning what would include sixteen massive reservoirs (the largest covering an area of nearly twenty square kilometres) and two big irrigation canals. But this did little to defray the resentment his pro-Mahayana religious policies caused, which prompted a rash of insurrections opposing his own opposition to Theravada Buddhism.
Mahasen set about building what would become the country’s largest stupa, the Jethavanaramaya – which was, until the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the 2nd tallest building in the world. To help, he ordered the plundering of the Mahavihara, the greatest Theravada Buddhist monastery in the land. Monks that resisted his Mahayana policies were pressured by many means, including attempted starvation.
Soon enough the trickle of monks fleeing to the safely of Ruhuna in the south became a flood. Ominously they were also joined by Meghavannabaya, the king’s chief minister, who raised an army in their defence. With surprising wisdom, the king drew back from the confrontation, saving his throne, making peace with the disgruntled Theravada Buddhists, and enabling him to settle down to enjoy a long and apparently properous reign. This came to a natural end in 303 CE.
His son Sirimeghavanna continued the policies of appeasement, going out of his way to make good any damage done to Theravada Buddhism, building, or repairing stupas and temples. He was also to benefit from the unexpected arrival into his Kingdom of the sacred relic of the tooth of Lord Buddha which was brought to Sri Lanka when a series of wars broke out in India. It was enshrined in the Isurumuniya Temple in Anuradhapura.
The calming waters of his reign may have ended with his death in 332 CE, but they continued into the reign of his brother, Jetta Tissa II who ruled till 341 CE. Jetta Tissa II was followed in good order by his own son, Buddhadasa in 341 CE; and another twenty eight-year reign beckoned. The Mahavamsa has nothing but praise for this king, characterized as a "Mind of Virtue and an Ocean of Gems." Unusually though, the new king preferred medicine to wars, stupas, temples, monasteries and plotting, and his reign was noted for the exceptional medical care he extended to his subjects.
He wrote a medical handbook, the "Sarartha Sangraha,” built hospitals appointed Medical Officers, and established infirmaries and asylums for the benefit of the blind, and the lame. Stories abound of his role as doctor to various ailing subjects who he came across. He even took care of animals, including, it is said, a snake with a stomach ache. Perhaps his interest in medicine can also help explain the eighty sons The Mahavamsa credits him with creating, each one, the chronicle approvingly states, named after a disciple of Buddha. Two were to reign after his death in 370 CE.
For 116 years the Lambakarna dynasty, recovering from its subversive bout of regicide, had settled down to govern well, fostering a prosperous and growing state. They had, in the words of John Lennon, given peace a chance. It was, alas, now time again for blood-letting.
The illustration is from a painting by Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, one of leading members of Sri Lanka’s Group of 43.