According to tradition, King Devānaṃpiyatissa (247–207 BCE) founded the monastery (vihara) in his capital city of Anuradhapura. 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.
In the 5th century, the "Mahavihara" was possibly the most sophisticated university in southern or eastern Asia. Many international scholars visited and learned many disciplines under highly structured instruction.
Theravada monastic groups
Three subdivisions of Theravāda existed in Sri Lanka during much of Buddhism's early history there:
Mahāvihāra was the first tradition established, whereas monks who had separated from the Mahāvihāra tradition established Abhayagiri vihāra and Jetavana vihāra. According to A.K. Warder, the Indian Mahīśāsaka sect also established itself in Sri Lanka concurrently with Theravāda, into which it was later absorbed. Northern regions of Sri Lanka also seem to have been ceded to sects from India at certain times.
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. Faxian also recorded the concurrent existence of the Abhayagiri Vihara, and that this monastery housed 5000 monks. In the 7th century CE, Xuanzang also describes the concurrent existence of both monasteries in Sri Lanka. Xuanzang wrote of two major divisions of Theravāda in Sri Lanka, referring to the Abhayagiri tradition as the "Mahāyāna Sthaviras," and the Mahāvihāra tradition as the "Hīnayāna Sthaviras." 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."
Some scholars have held that the rulers of Sri Lanka ensured that Theravāda remained traditional, and that this characteristic contrasts with Indian Buddhism. However, before the 12th century CE, more rulers of Sri Lanka gave support and patronage to the Abhayagiri Theravādins, and travelers such as Faxian saw the Abhayagiri Theravādins as the main Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka.
The trend of Abhayagiri Vihara being the dominant Theravāda sect changed in the 12th century CE, when the Mahāvihāra gained the political support of King Parakkamabāhu I (1153-1186 CE), and completely abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavana Theravāda traditions. The Theravāda 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). Richard Gombrich writes that many monks from the Mahāvihāra were also defrocked:
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.
- Johnston, William M; Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Sri Lanka: History
- Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. p. 280
- "King Mahasena". Mahavamsa. Ceylon Government. Retrieved 2008-09-12.
- "Chapter XXXIX: The Cremation of an Arhat". A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms. Retrieved 2010-04-30.
- "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.
- Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 53
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- Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, page 187.
- Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 125
- Sujato, Bhante (2012), Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools, Santipada, p. 59, ISBN 9781921842085
- Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 126
- Williams, Duncan. Queen, Christopher. American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. 1999. p. 134
- Gombrich, Richard. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History From Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 1988. p. 159
- Gombrich, Richard. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 1988. p. 159
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