The nun Sanghamitta and the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

- through Fabrice Groult

Published on

The second half of December is the occasion for a celebration which occupies a special place in the calendar of Sri Lankan Buddhist festivals. Indeed, we commemorate the memory of a woman, a nun who, associated with her brother, himself a religious, played a leading role in the expansion of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and gave the country some of its most important relics. precious.

Its history, as told to us by the Pali tradition, takes us back to the XNUMXrd century BC. The Maurya dynasty then reigned over a good part of India and the future king Ashoka, then a simple prince, is on his way to take up his post as viceroy in a remote region. He stops in the town of Vedisanagara, where he enters into a customary marriage with Vedisadevi, the daughter of a guild leader. A boy and a girl are born from this union. A few years later, informed of his father's death, Ashoka rushes back to the capital of the empire to seize power. He takes with him the two children about whose youth we know nothing.

Mahinda's Mission

Ashoka is now well installed on the throne. From the fourth year of his reign, he showed a growing interest in Buddhism and wished to pose as the privileged protector of the doctrine. He consults an eminent religious and is told that his membership in the Sangha remains incomplete as long as a member of his immediate family has not entered into orders. The two children born of his union with Vedisadevi then reappear in the texts. When they became adults, they both joined the monastic community and received the name under which they remained in the history of Buddhism: Mahinda and Sanghamitta.

During the 18e year of his reign, Ashoka supports the sending, decided by the Sangha, of nine missions in various regions of the empire, even beyond the borders. Particular attention is paid to the embassy destined for Sri Lanka, the sovereigns of the two countries already maintaining rather cordial relations. Mahinda, son of the king, then become a highly respected monk, therefore takes the lead in this spiritual as well as diplomatic mission.

The first contacts were excellent and Mahinda was offered by King Devanampiya Tissa land on which he laid the foundations of what would become the largest center of Theravada culture and teaching on the island: the Mahavihara.

Sanghamitta and the relics of the Buddha

A few months after his arrival, he is informed that the second queen, Anula and many women of her retinue wish to enter religion. However, only a nun can carry out their ordination and the embassy led by Mahinda has no women.

A small group of emissaries is then dispatched to India, to solicit from Ashoka the arrival of Sanghamitta. Anula and her companions take the ten precepts usually observed by novices and pious lay people, and settle in a monastic residence built for them some distance from the capital. As soon as he arrives, Sanghamitta joins them there.

Sanghamitta brings precious bodily relics of the Buddha – including his right collarbone, later enshrined in the Thuparama Dagaba – and one of his alms bowls which, placed in the royal residence, was to become a palladium of the kingdom.

The nun is received with the greatest respect. She indeed brought precious bodily relics of the Buddha – including his right clavicle, later enshrined in the Thuparama Dagaba – and one of his alms bowls which, placed in the royal residence, was to become a palladium of the kingdom. Sanghamitta also carries a cutting from the Tree of Awakening, chosen and taken by Ashoka himself in Bodh Gaya during a grand ceremony.

These relics, and the presence in the embassy of several princes of the Ashoka family as well as a brother of Vedisadevi, contribute to tightening closely the links - religious, but also cultural and political - between the India of the Mauryas and the Sri Lanka. Both Mahinda and Sanghamitta remain in Sri Lanka, where they will end their days.

The Anuradhapura tree, the Great Stupa and the tooth relic are the three major objects of veneration by the faithful in Sri Lanka. The first two are directly related to Ashoka and the nun Sanghamitta.

Under the leadership of Venerable Chandaratana, the Center Bouddhique International du Bourget has marked the memory of Sanghamitta for many years with a now well-established tradition. During a ceremony that sees a succession of prayers and speeches, the women present parade to lay flowers in front of an effigy of Sanghamitta, installed in the place of honor. Then, a cutting of the tree of Awakening, brought back from Sri Lanka and maintained with the greatest care, is solemnly offered each year to a Buddhist community established in France.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

Leave comments