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Buddhism and Burma

D. Guha

Vol. IX, No.4 , 1963

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       Buddhism was officially adopted by the Burmans, the major racial unit of Burma, as early as the eleventh century. Indigenous tradition, however, takes back this introduction even to the life time of Buddha when, so it is said, the faith came to this country through the good offices of two Mon merchants, Tapussa and Bhallika. The Buddha, so says the tradition, graced them with some hair of his head which they carried and enshrined on the top of the Singuttara hill, at the place where now stands the famous Shwedagon. This pagoda, however, is not the only shrine of which Burma can boast. There are innumerable shrines scattered all over the country, quite a few of them fairly celebrated, the maximum number being clustered within a sixteen square mile area at Pagan, the nerve centre of ancient Burmese Buddhist culture.

        Leaving aside the tradition whose authenticity is yet to be proved, it can be said with some definiteness that Buddhism, particularly its Theravada form, was implanted at Pagan for the first time as early as the eleventh century by the Burmese monarch Anawrahta (1044—77). Urged by his spiritual adviser Shin Arahan, the king requested the Mon monarch Manuhal of Suvannabhumi (identified with Taikkala in the Bilin township of the Thaton district) to kindly send him a set of the Pali Buddhist scriptures. Unfortunately the request was rudely turned down whereon Anawrahta waged a fierce war against the Mon king, humbled him, ransacked his capital and brought back to Pagan some thirty huge sets of the Pali scriptures. Fitting honour was extended to the scriptures which were housed with all solemnity at Pagan in a library specially built for the purpose. The people envisaged a new order of life obsessed as they were by the faith of the Aris and other indigenous religious rites and practices, and with this great acquisition opened a new chapter in the religious life of the people.

        Incidentally, it is worth recalling that according to the Mahavamsa, a Pali chronicle of the fifth century Ceylon, Buddhism reached Suvannabhumi as early as the third century before Christ when emperor Asoka sent there two Buddhist monks, Sona and Uttara, to preach the teachings of the Master. Though it is somewhat difficult to determine the genuineness of this statement, yet the whole affair does not appear to be just a figment of imagination. It should further be mentioned that researches in archaeology have proved beyond doubt that as early as the sixth century, if not the fifth, of the Christian era, Sanskrit Buddhism had found a fair stronghold at Sriksetra, ancient Prome, which was then the cradle of the Pyu culture.

       After Anawrahta had brought over the Pali scriptures to Pagan, its study coupled with the pressure put forth by Shin Arahan, encouraged the king to make Theravada Buddhism the religion of the state. His enthusiasm ushered an era of religious reform. Pagodas rose, a new programme of education was adopted, and the cause of culture was strongly encouraged and advocated. After the death of Anawrahta, his son Kyanzittha (1084-1113) followed his father's programme of reform. According to the Shwesandaw inscription of the year 1093 he sent a mission to India to restore the temple at Buddhagaya, where Gautama had attained Enlightenment, an act which became the first official attempt on the part of a Burmese king at establishing cultural contacts with India. Shin Arahan continued to be spiritual adviser of the king, and it was to him more than to anybody else that Burma owes the establishment of Theravada Buddhism, and the era of pagoda building which he inaugurated was the most creative age in Burmese religious and cultural history. It should be mentioned here thit if Anawarahta and his successors were not able or did not care to exterminate all the other existing cults, they gradually weakened them by unwavering patronage to the Theravada. Having command over the seagirt coast of Burma, they were able to keep in touch with the reigning Buddhist monarchs of Ceylon, to check their Pali Texts with those of the latter and to receive and give help in matters religious.

        Towards the end of the thirteenth century, Pagan fell before the onrush of the invading Tartars, and Burma was left in a state of prolonged anarchy and confusion. Buddhism naturally shared in the general decline. Religion languished, the Samgha split up into sects, and though pagodas were built, none of them could rival even the lesser temples of Pagan. This state of confusion continued till the second half of the fifteenth century when Dhammazedi (1472—92) ascended the throne and a somewhat stable kingdom was set up. Reform in the Samgha was necessary and the monarch brought it about Schisms within the Samgha were healed, and once again the ideal of a unified church with the king as the guardian was attained. With these reforms Burma entered a new chapter in the history of Buddhism. Never again was the country so seriously concerned about its religious orthodoxy and Buddhism became self-sufficient.

       The early kings of the Toungoo dynasty (1531—1752) were too busy with political conquests to give much attention to the internal organization of the Samgha. As conquerors they also became missionaries and in the annals shines forth the name of at least one king, that of Bayinnaung (1551—81) who stopped animal sacrifice in the Shan States add distributed scriptures amongst the people.

        The most noteworthy achievements of the Naungyan dynasty, which ruled in the latter half of the Toungoo period, consisted in the steps taken by its kings towards delimitation of religious lands and the appointment of a supreme civil officer for the purpose.

       Coming to the Alaungpaya dynasty, the first point that attracts attention is a bitter controversy amongst the monks during the time of King Alaungpaya (1753—60) and his four immediate successors, with reference to the proper way of wearing the monastic rob whether it should cover both the shoulders or leave the right ones exposed. After a long struggle continuing for more than a century in which much of precious human blood was shed, at long later the controversy came to an end during the time of King Bodawpaya (1782—18 19) with the verdict in favour of those insisting on covering both the shoulders.

        Bodawpaya was a great builder. During his reign scores of pagodas rose. An ardent collector of books, he hand many treatises, particularly those written in Sanskrit, brought from India for the royal library, encouraged their study and even got a number of them translated into Burmese. His reign too saw great progress in the pursuit of secular knowledge, even amongst the members of the Samgha. Subjects like astronomy and astrology, massage and medicine, divination and soothsaying, archery and swordsmanship, boxing and wrestling, arts and crafts, music and dancing attracted the attention of both houseders and members of the Samgha. At first the king tolerated this, but when he found the monks getting more and more engrossed with the study and practice of the secular subjects, he apprehended danger for the future to avert which he took stern measures to put the Samgha in order. His mission was but partially successful, as there are references to the pursuit of secular knowledge by monks during the time of King Pagan (1846—52), and even during that of King Mindon (1852—78) though secretly.

        Bagyidaw (1819—37), Tharawaddy (1837— 46) and Pagan, all Bodawapaya's successors, were keen enthusiasts who contributed immensely to the welfare of the Samgha. But the real glorious period of the Burmese Buddhist ecclesiastical life is marked by the reign of the great king Mindon, the son and successor of king Pagan. With him we enter an era of peace, progress and prosperity for the religion. The period of his rule was indeed a golden age for the Samgha which enjoyed the sincere and vigorous patronage of the King. He infused new vigour into the order by taking pronouncedly keen interest in all its affairs. Religious studies were pursued by the monks with vigour and zeal, and some of the best pieces of Burmese Buddhist tracts were composed during this period. Enthusiasm even penetrated among the common people who started vying with one another in observing the precepts of the Master. It was Mindon's encouragement and leadership which gave new life to Burma which had not yet been much affected by the impact of Christianity imported by her British conquerors. It was under his patronage that the Fifth Buddhist Council was held at Mandalay, the last centre of Burmese monarchy, and the text adopted in the Council was incised on as many as 729 stone slabs. It is again this text which has formed the basis of the revision work of the Three Pitakas done under the auspices of the Sixth Buddhist Council held in Rangoon during 1954—56.

        A few words about the effects of the impact of Theravada Buddhism on Burmese life and culture will possibly not be out of place.

        With the advent of Buddhism, Burma under went major changes in various phases of her life. Formerly a Burman was either an animist or a votary of traditional gods. But when Buddhism presented a new form of religion, Burma discarded her old creed and embraced it. In the process of adoption of the new faith, she gradually gave up the old gods and took up the Theravada. The force of the new faith was so great that the Nat spirits, the powerful gods of primitive beliefs became gradually absorbed by the new faith.

        Buddhism brought Burma into the arena of culture and civilisation. The people who were much too imbued with rather primitive customs and habits, became steadily moulded into a progressive nation. It encouraged them in the pursuit of art and literature. It brought to them the power of systematic thinking and that is possibly why the abstruse philosophy of the Abhidhamma and dry treatises like the Pali grammar could attract Burmese attention so much. All that is beautiful and good in Burmese life and society today is indeed a gift of Buddhism.

       Buddhism has played an important role in unifying the peoples of Burma. Racial jealousy was rampant everywhere, but it was Buddhism that ultimately brought the discordant racial units into one unified whole under one religious banner. When the Samgha became well-established, we find its leaders taking an active part even in the political affairs of the country.

       The social life of Burma became greatly benefited under the influence of Buddhism. This discipline refuses to recognise any grading in society based either on birth or on material possessions. Thus, Burma saw the formation of a society based on the theory of equality. Democracy is the very essence of Buddhism, and very few countries enjoy such democratic social life as Burma does today.

        Buddhism has been instrumental in the educational progress of Burma. Since time immemorial, the Buddhist monks took upon themselves the task of imparting primary education to the people without any bias for the social unit to which they might have belonged. The toil and labour put forth by the monks in this direction consequently raised the level of literacy amongst the Burmese and this high rate of literacy is still now the subject of envy of most people of the East.

        To the growth of the Burmese language and literature too Buddhism made considerable contribution. Originally poor in ideas and vocabulary, the Burmese language became very much enriched and embellished by con tact with Pali language and literature. We now find many classical works in Burmese which derive their materials directly or indirectly from the rich storehouse that Pali literature provides. It may be said with confidence that it was through Pali that Burma found her way to intellectual development.


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