Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Root Cause of the Conflict: The 'Mahavamsa Mindset'

By R Shanmugananthan

The international community is becoming increasingly aware of the impact the Pali chronicle, the Mahavamsa, has on Sinhala Buddhist ethnic nationalism. The Mahavamsa covers events from the supposed arrival of prince Vijaya up to 300 AD. It was written in the fifth century AD by a Buddhist Monk named Mahanama whose aim was  to glorify Buddhism and the Buddhist kings who ruled in Anuradhapura. It was translated into Sinhalese with updates  in 1877 by the British colonial rulers. The Sinhalese language version is called the Chulavamsa. Historians are cautious about using the Mahavamsa as a source of history because it has stories that are obvious mythology such as Prince Vijaya's father being born from the union between a lion and a princess. It also claims that Emperor Asoka's son was carried through the air to Ceylon. The Mahavamsa contains many other similar myths, but it seems to have some elements of fact about the ancient kings of Anuradhapura. 

The Mahavamsa encouraged the renewed belief that Ceylon has a special Buddhist destiny. In the nineteenth century, after the Mahavamsa was translated into English and Sinhalese, it became much more widely known. The Mahavamsa's legends about the  ancient heroes and kings  encouraged a feeling among the Sinhala Buddhists that 'to be truly Sri Lankan was to be a Sinhalese and to be true Sinhalese was to be a Buddhist.'  This led to the belief that Tamils, Muslims, Sinhala Christians and others could never be fully Sri Lankan.

This belief is the essence of Sinhala Nationalism today.

In the book titled Sri Lanka: War-Torn Island, published as part of a ‘World in Conflict’ series, the author Lawrence J Swie,r when discussing the root cause of the conflict in Sri Lanka, had this to say about the Mahavamsa:

‘British officials in the early 1800s discovered that Sri Lanka has a written history going back to nearly 500 BC recorded by Buddhist monks in various chronicles. The most important of these works is Mahavamsa, the first installment of  which was written in the fifth century AD by a monk called Mahanama. This first part of the Mahavamsa, written in Pali, covers events from the supposed arrival of Prince Vijaya up to about 300 A.D. In 1877 came the Culavamsa, a Sinhalese language translation of the original Mahavamsa plus updates that brought the account up to 1815, the beginning of the British era. The narrative would later be updated in 1935 and again in 1978.

Because the Mahavamsa was written in Pali, few Sinhalese could read it until its translation. It was the British who made the Mahavamsa a widely distributed work, publishing an English translation of the first part of the Mahavamsa in 1837. The British governor also commissioned the Sinhalese translation of the original and its updates.

Even in translation, the chronicles were difficult to use as historical sources. The Mahavamsa was written hundreds of years after some of the events it describes. Alongside passages that seemed factual – the name of the king or location of his court – were such obviously nonfactual accounts as the story of a person zooming through the air. The Mahavamsa and other chronicles sometimes contradicted one another, with different accounts of Vijaya and his origins, for example. The biggest problem was that the chronicles were written mainly to glorify Buddhism in Sri Lanka, not to record objectively what happened.

The greatest importance of the Mahavamsa is not as history but as a symbol.- and as a motivating force behind Sinhala Nationalism. A Sinhalese politician speaking in public is likely to mention incidents from Mahavamsa as evidence of the long and distinguished history the Sinhalese have in Sri Lanka. But Sinhalese political and religious leaders also use Mahavamsa stories as evidence that the whole island should be ruled by Sinhalese Buddhists.'

Professor Indrapala in his recently published scholarly book titled The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity – The Tamils of Sri Lanka C.300 BCE to C.1200 CE has this to say about the Mahavamsa:

'The Mahavamsa may be described as a chronicle of that famous Buddhist Institution Mahavihara. It tells us about its foundation and the rulers who patronized this institution. It chronicles some of the main events in the kingdom of these patrons, the domain they controlled from Anuradhapura. The domain was, in the period covered by the Mahavamsa never the whole country now known as Sri Lanka. Whatever we glean about the other matters from the Mahavamsa is incidental -  about other Buddhist and non-Buddhist institutions, other religions ( like Jainism)and other kingdoms in the island.

Using the Mahavamsa as their main source, most historians of Sri Lanka tend to consider this work as chronicle of the whole island. That they do this is not the fault of Mahanama. The author is quite clear as to his purpose and audience He wrote the chronicle for “the serene joy and emotion of the pious”. He was not an official scribe recording the monarch's reign for the benefit of posterity.'

At the turn of the century British colonial rulers and people like Colonel Henry Olcott encouraged the revival of Sinhala Buddhism. But the most outspoken and influential champion of the Buddhist revival and Sinhala Nationalism at the turn of the century was  Anagarika Dharmapala. Born in 1864, as Don David Carolis, he later changed his name to Anagarika Dharmapala.  By the time he died in 1933 he has caused considerable harm to any possible harmonious relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. He popularized the belief that the Sinhalese and the Tamils had been at each other's throats throughout our history.

Lawrence J Swier, in his book Sri Lanka: War-Torn Island, had this to say about the damage done by him:

'Perhaps more than any other person, Dharmapala was responsible for popularizing the faulty impression that Tamils and Sinhalese had been deadly enemies in Sri Lanka for nearly 2000 years. He often quoted Mahavamsa as if it were a completely factual account, and his favourite passages were those that made the Tamils sound like pagan invaders who were running the island. Much of his preaching and writing was racist. Dharmapala insisted that the Sinhalese were racially pure Aryans – by which he meant that they had racial ties with the North Indians, Iranians and Europeans, He contrasted the Sinhalese racial line with that of the Dravidian Tamils, which he claimed was inferior.'

Attempts by British rulers to write the history of Ceylon largely based on the uncritical acceptance of the local chronicles, and school textbooks on Ceylon history that are based on the Mahavamsa are now cited as the main reasons for the continuation of the Sinhala belief that they are the 'proper inhabitants of the island.' Professor Indrapala has argued that Paranavithana's chapter on Aryan settlements in History of Ceylon by the University of Ceylon has prevented young academics from critically examining the theory of Aryan migration and settlements.

In his 2005 Hero's Day speech, the national leader of Tamil Eelam referred to this attitude of the Sinhalese as 'ideological blindness' and a 'Mahavamsa mental structure' which is unable to provide the space required for any solution. An English translation of that section of the speech is appended below:

“The Sinhala nation continues to be entrapped in the Mahavamsa mindset, in that mythical ideology. The Sinhalese people are still caught up in the legendary fiction that the island of Sri Lanka is a divine gift to Theravada Buddhism, a holy land entitled to the Sinhala race. The Sinhala nation has not redeemed itself from this mythological idea that is buried deep and has become fossilized in their collective unconscious. It is because of this ideological blindness the Sinhalese people and their political and religious leaders are unable to grasp the authentic history of the island and the social realities prevailing here. They are unable to comprehend and accept the very existence of a historically constituted nation of Tamil people living in their traditional homeland in north-eastern Sri Lanka, entitled to fundamental political rights and freedoms. It is because of the refusal by the Sinhala nation to perceive the existential reality of the Tamils and their political aspirations the Tamil national question persists as an unresolved complex issue. We do not expect a radical transformation in the social consciousness, in the political ideology, in the Mahavamsa mental structure of the Sinhalese people.”

There is undeniable historical evidence that Tamil people have lived in Sri Lanka from ancient times. As the Tamil Leader said, Sinhala nationalism does not want to accept this. The voting patterns of the last presidential election do not give any hope for a change in the Sinhala Buddhist psyche.


  • Hero's Day speech 2005  - By Tamil Eelam National Leader Velupillai Prabaharan
  • Sri Lanka: War Torn Island  By Lawrence J Zwier  World in conflict series.
  • The Evolution Of An Ethnic Identity  The Tamils in Sri Lanka  C.300 BCE To C.1200 CE.   By Professor Indrapala
  • The Mahavamsa Translated from Pali by Wilhelm Geiger