Anurādhapura Mahāvihāra

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Model of the Thuparama stupa, the first Sri Lankan stupa, which was part of the Mahavihara complex

The Anurādhapura Mahāvihāra was a large Buddhist monastery (mahavihara) in Sri Lanka that played a central role in the development of the Theravada tradition.

According to tradition, King Devānaṃpiyatissa (247–207 BCE) founded the monastery (vihara) in his capital city of Anuradhapura.[1] The monastery remained the most influential monastery in Sri Lanka for many centuries, becoming a center for study and practice. According to tradition, the texts of the Pali Canon were first put into written form at this monastery around 25 BCE.

In the 4th or 5th century CE, the Indian scholar-monk Buddhaghosa traveled to the monastery and there wrote his famous commentary The Path to Purification (Visuddhimagga), which became central to Theravada doctrine. Monks living at the Mahavihara were referred to as Mahaviharavasins.


Early history

The Anurādhapura Mahāvihāra tradition was one of three sects of Buddhist monks that existed for a period in ancient Sri Lanka, the other two being the Abhayagiri Vihāra and the Jetavana Vihāra.[2]

The Mahāvihāra was the first tradition established, whereas monks who had separated from the Mahāvihāra tradition established Abhayagiri Vihāra and Jetavana Vihāra.[2]

Both the Jetavana and Abhayagira traditions had some Mahayana elements; they followed both early scriptures and Mahayana scriptures. Whereas, the Mahāvihāra tradition rejected the Mahayana scriptures as inauthentic.[3]

According to the Mahavamsa, the Anurādhapura Mahāvihāra was destroyed during sectarian conflicts with the monks of the Abhayagiri Vihāra during the 4th century.[4]

The traditional Theravadin account provided by the Mahavamsa stands in contrast to the writings of the Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian, who journeyed to India and Sri Lanka in the early 5th century (between 399 and 414 CE). He first entered Sri Lanka around 406 CE and began writing about his experiences in detail. He recorded that the Mahavihara was not only intact, but housed 3000 monks. He also provides an account of a cremation at Mahavihara that he personally attended of a highly respected śramaṇa who attained the arhatship.[5] Faxian also recorded the concurrent existence of the Abhayagiri Vihara, and that this monastery housed 5000 monks.[6] In the 7th century CE, Xuanzang also describes the concurrent existence of both monasteries in Sri Lanka. Xuanzang wrote of two major divisions of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, referring to the Abhayagiri tradition as the "Mahāyāna Sthaviras," and the Mahāvihāra tradition as the "Hīnayāna Sthaviras."[7] Xuanzang further writes, "The Mahāvihāravāsins reject the Mahāyāna and practice the Hīnayāna, while the Abhayagirivihāravāsins study both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings and propagate the Tripiṭaka."[8]

Later history

1890 map of Anuradhapura by Harry Charles Purvis Bell showing the location of the Mahavihara

Prior to the 12th century CE, most rulers of Sri Lanka gave support and patronage to the Abhayagiri tradition, and travelers such as Faxian saw the Abhayagiri tradition as the main Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka.[9][10]

The trend of Abhayagiri Vihara being the dominant sect changed in the 12th century CE, when the Mahāvihāra gained the political support of King Parakkamabāhu I (1153-1186 CE), who abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavana traditions.[11][12] The monks of these two traditions were then defrocked and given the choice of either returning to the laity permanently, or attempting re-ordination under the Mahāvihāra tradition as "novices" (sāmaṇera).[12][13] Richard Gombrich writes that many monks from the Mahāvihāra were also defrocked:[14]

Though the chronicle says that he reunited the Sangha, this expression glosses over the fact that what he did was to abolish the Abhayagiri and Jetavana Nikāyas. He laicized many monks from the Mahā Vihāra Nikāya, all the monks in the other two – and then allowed the better ones among the latter to become novices in the now 'unified' Sangha, into which they would have in due course to be reordained.


  1. Johnston, William M; Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Sri Lanka: History
  2. 2.0 2.1 Warder 2000, p. 280.
  3. Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2017, Chapter 1.
  4. "King Mahasena". Mahavamsa. Ceylon Government. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  5. "Chapter XXXIX: The Cremation of an Arhat". A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms. Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  6. "Chapter XXXVIII: At Ceylon. Rise of the Kingdom. Feats of Buddha. Topes and Monasteries. Statue of Buddha in Jade. Bo Tree. Festival of Buddha's Tooth". A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms. Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  7. Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 53
  8. Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 121
  9. Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 125
  10. Sujato, Bhante (2012), Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools, Santipada, p. 59, ISBN 9781921842085 
  11. Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 126
  12. 12.0 12.1 Williams, Duncan. Queen, Christopher. American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. 1999. p. 134
  13. Gombrich, Richard. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History From Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 1988. p. 159
  14. Gombrich, Richard. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 1988. p. 159


External links

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