Impact of Buddhism on Sri Lanka: The Indian Influence

Impact of Buddhism on Sri Lanka: The Indian Influence

Sudha Jha Pathak
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2457-2.ch002
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This paper is a historical study of the mutual exchanges in the religious and cultural traditions, in the context of Buddhism between India and Sri Lanka. As a powerful medium of trans-acculturation, Buddhism enriched several countries especially of South and South-East Asia. Though Asoka used Buddhism as a unifying instrument of royal power, he was considered as the ruler par excellence who ruled as per dhamma and righteousness ensuring peace and harmony in the kingdom. He was emulated by several rulers in the Buddhist world including Sri Lanka. Royal patronage of the Buddhist Sangha in Sri Lanka was reciprocated by support for the institution of kingship. Kingship played an important role in the political unification of the country, whereas Buddhism provided the ground for ideological consolidation. The Indian impact is clearly visible in all aspects of Sri Lankan life and identity-religion (Buddhism), art architecture, literature, language. However the culture and civilization which developed in the island nation had its own distinctive variant despite retaining the Indian flavour.
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The belief, patterns and contours of culture or religious traditions of a society get their various dimensions from the sweep and course of history of the region. However, to understand the entire gamut of the historical, religious and cultural traditions of a nation, one has to not only look into the interplay of various local factors, such as its cultural moorings, prevailing religious beliefs and practices and different aspects of societal configurations, as manifested in the various constituents of its social fabric, but also the impact of extraneous factors, including the influence of cultural elements impacting from outside and the country’s interaction with other nations, especially those located in the immediate vicinity.

This paper attempts a historical study of the mutual exchanges and interface relating to the religious and cultural traditions, especially in the context of Buddhism, between India and Sri Lanka and the impact of the various strains of religious and cultural vicissitudes as emanating from India upon Sri Lanka. This paper will be looking into the role, influence and impact of the religious-cultural events and trends, primarily relating to Buddhism, in the context of contacts and interaction between the two neighbouring nations, in the history of the ancient period.

As a powerful medium of trans-acculturation, Buddhism enriched several countries, especially of the South and South-east Asian region. Buddhism is viewed as a philosophy and an ethical system with an emphasis on intellectual understanding. Buddhism includes within its purview not only religious doctrines and ethical teachings, but also a bevy of traditions, rituals, and religious practices. When it was taking roots in various nations, while it introduced new religious and philosophical ideas in these areas, but at the same time it also accommodated several elements of the local cultures and absorbed diverse practices and beliefs prevailing among the indigenous people, thereby forging a fine eclectic blend between the local and outside ethos of cultural and religious traditions. Buddhism thus not only became a transforming agent in various countries where it arrived, but simultaneously it also metamorphosed into an amalgamation of various ingredients rooted in diverse cultures and civilizations.

Though Buddhism originated and developed in India, it did not survive continuously or ceaselessly as a major religious sect in the country of its origin, having suffered a decline and virtual disappearance by the beginning of the 13th century A.D. and witnessing a revival only in the recent past. It nevertheless contributed immensely towards enriching the religious and cultural traditions of India during the period it thrived here (circa 6th century B.C.-12th century A.D.). The imprints and contribution of Buddhism are clearly discernible and epitomized in India’s National Flag and the State Insignia.

However, even though Buddhism suffered a decline in India, it saw its elevation to the status of a state religion in several countries in Asia, including Sri Lanka. Over a period of time, it acquired the status of a world religion, a trend discernible of late even in modern times in the wake of the avid interest being displayed in it by the Western world. Following the progressive spread of Buddhism in the various corners of the world, it has impacted and molded thoughts, ideas, literatures, and cultures in many regions of South, South East and Central Asia, especially in countries like Sri Lanka, Siam, Cambodia, Burma, China and Japan . Thus, the evolution of Buddhism as a major world religion has had a profound global impact and left a far-reaching effect on the life and patterns of beliefs of a vast population in many countries.

The spread of Buddhism in various countries also encouraged mutual contacts between diverse people, civilizations and cultures, stimulating wholesome exchange of ideas and leaving impacts on various strains of culture and ways of life of the people of these nations. In this context, it is pertinent to mention that Buddhism has not merely been a faith; it has inculcated ethical social behaviour, emphasized virtues essentials for harmony in social life, and also stood for peace, goodwill and co-operation in a world torn apart by violence and cruelty. Thus, any attempt to carry out a study relating to Buddhism would not only act as a means for understanding the paradigms and effects of cultural contacts between different countries, it would also facilitate better understanding, co-operation, and friendship among the people of various regions, especially those of the neighbouring nations.

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