South India boasted of outstanding
Buddhist monks, who had made remarkable contributions to Buddhist
thought and learning. Three of the greatest Pali scholars of this period
were Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala and all three of them
were associated with Buddhist establishments in South India..
South Indian Buddhist monk Thera Buddhaatta lived during the time of
Accyutarikkanta, the Kalabra ruler of the Cola-Nadu; was a senior
contemporary of Buddhaghosa. He was born in the Chola kingdom and lived
in the 5th Century AD. Under the patronage of this ruler, Buddhadatta
wrote many books. Among his best known Pali writings are the
Vinaya-Vinicchaya, the Uttara-Vinicchaya and the Jinalankara-Kavya.
Among the commentaries written by him are the Madhurattha-Vilasini and
the Abhidhammavatara. In the Abhidhammaratara he gives a glowing account
at Kaveripattinum, Uragapuram, Bhutamangalam and Kanchipuram and the
Mahavihara at Anuradapura, (Sri Lanka). While he was at Sri Lanka, he
composed many Buddhist works such as Uttara-viniccaya Ruparupa Vibhaga
Jinalankara etc. Buddhaghosha, contemporary of Buddhadatta also composed
many Buddhist commentaries.
Buddhaghosha is a South Indian monk, who made a remarkable
contribution to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He stayed and studied Buddhist
precepts at Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. The Visuddhimagga was the first
work of Buddhaghosha which was written while he was in Sri Lanka.
After Buddhaghosha, the important Theravada monk from South India was
Dhammapala. Dhammapala lived in the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. He
composed Paramathadipani which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha’s work
on Khuddaka Nikaya and Paramathamanjusa, which was a commentary on
Buddhaghosha’s Visuddhimagga. A close study of the three Buddhist monks
viz Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosha and Dhammapala shows that South Indian
Buddhists were closely associated with the Sri Lankan Buddhists around
the 5th century AD.
The author of Nettipakarana is another Dhammapala who was a resident
of a monastery in Nagapattinam, another important Buddhist centre from
ancient times. One more example is the Chola monk Kassapa, in his Pali
work, Vimatti-Vinodani, this South Indian monk provides interesting
information about the rise of heretical views in the Chola Sangha and
the consequent purification that took place. There are so many other
South Indian monks who are attributed to the Pali works some of them
were resident at Mayura-rupa-pattana (Mylapore, Madras) along with
The South Indian Buddhist monks used Pali languages because the
Buddha spoke in Magadi Prakrit (Pali). Sanskrit is the sacred language
of the Hindus, and similarly Pali is considered as the sacred language
of the Buddhists.
On the other hand, the well known Tamil Buddhist epics found were
Manimekalai, Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi, and Jivaka
Cintamani. The lost Tamil Buddhist works include the grammar
Virasoliyam, the Abhidhamma work Siddhantattokai, the panegyric
Tiruppadigam, and the biography Bimbisara Kada. Manimekalai, a purely
Buddhist work of the 3rd Sangam period in Tamil literature is the most
supreme and famous among the Buddhist work done in Tamil. It is a work
expounding the doctrines and propagating the values of Buddhism.It also
talks about the South Indian Buddhists in the island/Nagadipa even
though Manimekalai and Silappathikaram were considered as Tamil literary
work and not as historical work.
The Chinese traveller, Tsuan Tsang, wrote that there were around 300
Sri Lankan monks in the monastery at the Southern sector of Kanchipuram.
Ancient Kanchipuram, the capital of Tondaimandalam, ruled by the South
Indian Pallava dynasty, an offshoot of Chola rulers was the major seat
of Tamil learning and is also known as the city of thousand temples.
Even Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil couplets/aphorisms celebrated by
Tamils is based on Buddhist principals. Although Buddhism has become
almost extinct from South India, it has contributed a great deal to the
enrichment of South Indian culture and has exerted a significant
influence, both directly and indirectly, on the South Indian religious
and spiritual consciousness, present as well as past.
It is also believed that Bodhidharma who lived during the 5th/6th
century AD was a South Indian Buddhist monk and the son of a Pallava
king from Kanchipuram. Bodhidharma had travelled from South India by sea
to the Far East for the purpose of spreading the Mahayana doctrine,
transmitting his knowledge of Buddhism and martial arts. According to
Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks
that led to the creation of Shaolinquan.
As Buddhism was one of the dominant religions in both South India and
Sri Lanka, naturally there were very close relations between the two
regions. The monks from Sri Lanka, too, went across to the South India
and stayed in the monasteries. The co-operation between the Buddhist
Sangha of South India and Sri Lanka produced important results which are
evident in the Pali works of this period`.South Indian Buddhist monks
were more orthodox than their counterparts in Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism
shared the common places of worship with the Sinhalese, but there were
also Tamil Buddhists who were following the Mahayana Buddhism and they
had their own Mahayana temples. There are still some Tamil Mahayana
Buddhist establishments (Palli) in the east and possibly in the Jaffna
peninsula. The best known was Velgam Vehera which was renamed
Rajaraja-perumpalli after the Chola emperor. Another was the
It is a historical fact that among the many ancient Buddhist shrines
in Sri Lanka Velgam Vehera which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli, also
called Natanar Kovil by the present day Tamils stands out as the only
known example of a `Tamil Vihare or Buddhist Palli` or as an `Ancient
Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people`. Some of the Tamil inscriptions
found at the site record donations to this shrine and are dated in the
reigns of the Chola Kings, Rajaraja and Rajendradeva. The date of the
original foundation of the vihare was no doubt considerably earlier than
the reign of King Bhatika Tissa II.
The situation in South India, however, began to change towards the
beginning of the 7th Century AD when the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism
posed a serious challenge to Buddhism and Jainism. There was a
significant increase in Hindu/Brahmanical influence and soon the worship
of Siva and Visnu began to gain prominence. The Buddhist and Jaina
institutions in South India came under attack when they began to lose
popular support and the patronage from the rulers.
Even though today there are no Tamil Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the
majority of the early Tamils of Sri Lanka (before the 10th century Chola
invasion) were Buddhists. The ancient Buddhist remains in the North and
East of Sri Lanka are the remnants left by the Tamil Buddhists and not
anybody else. They are part of the heritage of Sri Lankan Tamils. Only
the Buddhist temples, statues and structures build in the recent past
and present in the North and East can be considered as Sinhala-Buddhist.
Why does the Sri Lankans believe that the Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka
belong only to the Sinhalese (Sinhala heritage) and not to the Tamils?
Why are the Sri Lankans ignorant about the early Tamil Buddhists of Sri
Lanka and South India? Why do the Sri Lankans think, in Sri Lanka a
Buddhist should be a Sinhalese and a Hindu should be a Tamil even though
the Sinhalese worship most of the Hindu/Brahmanical Gods
Unfortunately, the majority of Sri Lankans are ignorant of their
ancient past. They think of the ancient past in today’s context.
Today, the Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolized by the Sinhalese and
they call it Sinhala-Buddhism. The fusion of Sinhala and Buddhism into
Sinhala-Buddhism took place only in the early 20th century by
revivalists such as Anagarika Dharmapala. Unfortunately today the Sri
Lankan Tamils also believe that Buddhism is a Sinhala religion and is
alien to them, but this was not the case in the early past. Unlike
today, the Ancient Buddhist/Hindu civilization in Sri Lanka and the
ancient Pali/Sanskrit place names has nothing to do with the
ethnicity.In otherwords, the Ancient Buddhist/Hindu heritage and the
ancient Pali/Sanskrit place names in the North and East of Sri Lanka has
nothing to do with Sinhala.
The Tamil politicians, scholars, intellects and the Tamil media
should take every effort to educate the Sri Lankan Tamils to be aware
and to understand that Buddhism was a part of Tamil civilization in the
ancient past. The Tamil politicians should engage in preserving the
`Tamil heritage’ of North & East of Sri Lanka. The most important
part of the Tamil Heritage of North & East is its Buddhist and Hindu
The lost Tamil Buddhism should be restored back in the North &
East. The erection of new Buddha statues in the North & East should
be welcomed and the Tamils should consider Buddha also as a part of
their religion. Just like in Sri Lanka where in every Buddhist temple
you find Hindu Gods, if you go to India, especially the North, in every
Hindu temple there is a Buddha statue. There is nothing wrong in having a
Buddha statue in the Hindu temples. Also, Tamil Buddhist temples should
come up; Tamils should embrace Buddhist monkhood; Buddhism must be
taught in Tamil; preaching and worshipping Buddhism in Tamil; Tamil
Buddhist monks and a Tamil Buddhist Maha Sangam should be formed.
If there are Tamil speaking Hindus, Christians, and Muslims in Sri
Lanka today, why cannot there be Tamil speaking Buddhists also? After
all, we were all Buddhists once upon a time. It all depends on how the
Tamil leaders and the Tamil media can enlighten the Sri Lankan Tamils to
understand their ancient past and convince, inspire and persuade them
to accept Buddhism and the Buddha statues with an open heart and make
them a part of their belief system.