Sanghamitta Theri forged the liberation of Lankan women

Unduwap full moon poya day fell on Saturday
By Rajitha Weerakoon

No other historical event impacted on the status of Lankan women as the establishment of the Bhikkuni order by Sanghamitta Theri. Her arrival in Sri Lanka on a Unduwap full moon Poya day 2245 years ago gave new directions to Lankan women taking them out from a cultural wilderness and bringing them into the socio-cultural mainstream as literate persons and leading them to play a role in matters of significance.

The Kuveni episode in early history reveals the acceptance of a woman as a political leader by the indigenous Lankan society. But there are no clues that shed light on the kind of position occupied by the ordinary woman at that time.

Religionwise, there may have been varied faiths of Indian origin floating around as well as indigenous beliefs practised by an agricultural community, a scenario which Mahinda Thera may have studied prior to his mission to Sri Lanka.

If Mahinda Thera who had made preparations for his visit to Sri Lanka however had an idea that Lankan women would be keen followers of Buddhism and that some of them would desire even to be bhikkunis, he may have arrived in preparation for such an event. But it appears that it had not occurred to him that Lankan women would be eager students of the doctrine and that they had the capacity to absorb the complexities of the Dhamma until King Devanampiyatissa conveyed to him Queen Anula Devi’s desire to be a bhikkuni.

By this time, Mahinda Thera’s preaching was having a tremendous impact on the people and with the King at the helm, the new religion was fast taking root. Many as a result were entering the Bhikku Sasana. Being enthusiastic listeners of Mahinda Thero’s sermons, Queen Anula Devi, wife of Devanampiyatissa’s brother Mahanaga, being convinced of the Teachings, informed King Devanampiyatissa of her desire to enter the Bhikkuni Order which in turn was conveyed to Mahinda Thera.

As Vinaya ( the rules that govern the conduct of Bhikkus) permits only a Bhikkuni to ordain a woman, Mahinda Thera pointed out to the king the need to send the request to Emperor Asoka to send his daughter Sanghamitta Theri, the twin sister of Mahinda Thera to fulfil the task. This was followed by sending Devanampiyatissa’s nephew and minister Arittha to the Mauryan capital along with the request to bring a Bo sapling from the Bodhi Tree in Buddhagaya under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

Emperor Asoka was prepared for the departure of his son Mahinda Thera to Sri Lanka which was a result of a decision to send out dharmadutha missions to states outside India. The decision was made at the third Dharmasangayanaya (The Buddhist Council) held after the Parinirvana of the Buddha.

He was however, reluctant to send his only daughter on an overseas mission. Besides the emotional reasons, it was an arduous journey going down the Ganges and sailing overseas from the Thamralipta port to Dambakolapatuna, which few women at the time would have dared to undertake. Sanghamitta Theri prevailed. But neither the theri nor the emperor may have realized at the time as to how her visit would be a turning-point in the history of Lankan women.

Sanghamitta Theri – a woman liberator in every sense of the word, on the conclusion of the planting ceremony of the Bo Sapling which took place in 288 BC in the picturesque Mahamevuna Park setting off a tradition of Bodhi worship, proceeded to accomplish her mission of ordaining Queen Anula Devi. The Queen had already reached Sothapanna – a higher spiritual status after listening to the sermons of Mahinda Thera. Five hundred upasikas from all levels of society joined the Bhikkuni order along with her.

These bhikkunis were accommodated at Upasika Viharaya - a specially built monastery in a park at Anuradhapura while Mahinda Thera and the bhikkus were staying at an Aramaya built in Mahamevuna Park – a monastery-complex which later developed as the Mahavihara. The sacred Bo sapling was planted in close proximity to the Aramaya.

Apart from the performance of religious customs on the Sacred Bodhi Tree by those sent by emperor Asoka especially assigned to the task and construction, arts and crafts taking place there followed tremendous activity initiated by Mahinda Thera and Sanghamitta Theri, Anuradhapura came alive with discourses on Buddhism conducted in the respective monasteries. Discussions and debates on the Buddhist doctrine brought interaction and participation of Bhikkus and Bhikkunis.

These activities were of such high calibre that the two monasteries according to ancient literary works had reached the level of renowned places of higher learning with scholars and observers from India arriving to follow them.

This was yet the era when oral tradition was practised and Mahinda Thera - the great communicator was preaching in Sinhala. But, the Dhamma was in Pali, the language used by the clergy including Sanghamitta Theri and the international literati. Bhikkunis in their quest to learn the Dhamma, learnt Pali which helped them to understand the Dhamma and interact with scholars. This was the first step taken by women to the elevation of literacy which led them to be equal partners.

Learning Pali had continued into the mid millennium as with documentation commenced, the first Pali chronicle on the island’s history – the Dipavamsa, was written by a group of Bhikkunis in the 4th century AD – a fact endorsed by professors G.P. Malalasekera, Sirima Kiribamuna and Wilhelm Geiger. Written essentially to propagate the Dhamma, Dipavamsa, mostly in Pali verse, signifies the impact Buddhism had on the literacy level of women where women first mastered the then elite Pali language and proceeded to edit a 22-chapter chronicle. Besides historical events, it has given a detailed account of the Bhikkuni Order from the inception of Maha Prajapathi Gothami Theri through Sanghamitta Theri with names mentioned of every missionary who accompanied Sanghamitta Theri to Sri Lanka.

Dipavamsa which was not an individual effort but written by a generation of bhikkunis over a period of time also served as the chief source of information to post Dipavamsa documentations such as Mahavamsa. What is significant however is that Dipavamsa is a literary exercise of Sri Lanka’s earliest literary period and is an illustration as to what extent Buddhism had impacted on Sri Lankan women.
Emulating Sanghamitta Theri - the founder of the Bhikkuni Order, bhikkunis in the fifth century AD, according to Mahavamsa, sailed the seas taking the Buddhist doctrine with them. In 426 AD eleven bhikkunis, under Davasara Thisarana Theri went to China on board a Lankan ship captained by Nandi and ordained over 300 bhikkunis in Nanking – the capital in the Sung Dynasty. Chandramali Theri led the second group to Tibet to spread Buddhim in 429 AD.

The Bhikkuni Sasana begun by Sanghamitta Theri disappeared with the fall of Anuradhapura in 1017AD. It took almost another millennium to re-establish the Order - in the year 2000 when assistance was sought from the descendents of the bhikkunis of China who were ordained by Lankan bhikkunis in 426 AD.

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