The Pali Literature of Ceylon is of great extent and importance and also of multifarious interest; it is of value alike to the historian and the student of folklore, to the philologist and the student of comparative religion. Broadly speaking, it may be classified under three main heads : First, the Buddhist Scriptures, or Tipitaka, which from the Pall Canon; second, the Commentaries (of Buddha- ghosa his contemporaries and successors), exegetical expositions of the text of the Tipitaka compiled as we have them now, only after the fifty century of the Christian era, but alleged to be based upon records of distincly greater antiquity; and third, historical, grammatical and other works on secular subjects, which have been produced by scholars at various times from about the fifth century to the present day.
The Pali Literature of Ceylon is of great extent and importance and also of multifarious interest; it is of value alike to the historian and the student of folklore, to the philologist and the student of comparative religion. Broadly speaking, it may be classified under three main heads: First, the Buddhist Scriptures, or Tipitaka, which from the Pali Canon; second, the Commentaries (of Buddhaghosa his contemporaries and successors), exegetical expositions of the text of the Tipitaka compiled as we have them now, only after the fifty century of the Christian era, but alleged to be based upon records of distincly greater antiquity; and third, historical, grammatical and other works on secular subjects, which have been produced by scholars at various times from about the fifth century to the present day.
Pali had probably ceased to be a spoken language by the time it was introduced into Ceylon; but that does not seem in any way to have lessened the interest which it evoked in the minds of the scholars of the island. To them it was of no pagan stock; they had no difficulty in assimilating the philosophic culture of a religion, which had come into birth and attained to power in a country which they themselves claimed as the motherland; they were orasa-jata (bosom-born) sopiritual children of India, their lives and minds nourished on her age-long, yet living and growing traditions. When Buddhism was introduced into the island, under the aegis of the Emperor Asoka, they found in its teachings the development of essentially their own genius. Pali was the language consecrated as the instrument of, as it is called, "the Buddha's word," and in order, therefore, to realize to the fullest extent the value of the heritage which the Master had bequeathed to them, they devoted their attention to the study of that language. To a nation little accustomed to traffic, and therefore free from the endless difficulties and anxieties which trade produces on society in general, the cultivation of letters was not only an indispensable pursuit, but a delight. In the Scripture of the religion which thence forward became the national faith Ceylon found material for endless contemplation; each succeeding sovereign, interest in the people's welfare and in the development of his own spiritual nature, rendered them essential service in this respect, extending his munificent patronage to all whose lives were engaged in the pursuit of literary study.
Within a moderate period men of the Sinhalese race had acquired proficiency in the use of the Pali tongue; its phraseology, at once soft and sonorous, smooth-flowing and capable of employment as a language of culture and science, appealed to their imagination and kindled their power of expression. Pali became their literary dialect, raised to a position of dignity which in spite of many vissitudes, it still retains. Quite soon afterwards scholars began to compose works in Pali, so that the knowledge which they had garnered in the course of their studies might be recorded for the benefit of generations yet unborn.
The earliest attempt at such writings that has come down to us is the Dipa-vamsa, a work generally assigned to the fourth or fifth century. From that time onwards there was a succession of authors of literary compilations, who wrote unremittingly, though there were periods of special activity. The Pali language continued to be assiduously cultivated; kings and princes, nobles and statemen vied with one another in Pali composition, and laymen and monks contributed Pali works, some of which can rank among the notable productions of the literature of the world. Books were written on all conceivable subjects: exegesis and law, medicine and poetry, religion and folklore, history and philosophy, prosody and rhetoric-an arrav of extensive volumes on all that in their day chiefly engaged the attention of mankind. The high degree of the intellectual attainments and the culture and refinment to which the Sinhalese had reached in the hey-day of their prosperity is fairly indicated by what now remains of the art displayed in the design and decoration of their religious edifices the science exhibited in the conception and execution of their stupendous irrigation works, and in the beautiful ideals of love and service and devotion which appears to have been the staple of their best poetry.
Unfortunately for us, however, a large part of this ancient literature has been irretrievably lost.
The Sinhalese have ever been a domestic, not a political people. Lulled by a sense of security in their island-home set in the silver sea, the people did not provide sufficient safeguards for the protection of their possessions and industries. Having but few needs of their own, they lavished their wealth upon their religious edifices, which they decorated with a profusion of precious metals and valuable gems, such as were highly prized and could easily be carried away. They thus attracted the attention of their rapacious neighbours, who from time to time swooped down upon their defenceless coasts, ravaging and plundering the wealth of the land. On several occasions these marauders succeeded in establishing themselves on the throne of the island and in exercising supreme power. Their rule was marked by much cruelty and oppression, and not the least of the damage they perpetrated was the systematic destruction of whatever literary records fell into their hands.
But the country's foes were not all from without. More than once in the course of its history the Sangha in Ceylon was rent asunder by violent schisms, resulting from the propagation of heresy within its ransk. Like a hydra-headed monster, the Vaituiya-vdda every now and then showed signs of vitality, until its final destruction by Parakrama-Bahu the Great, in A.D. 1165. And sometimes it came to pass that the heretics gained the confidence of the ruling monarchs who, to show their hatred of the recusant Theriya Nikaya, because of their obstinate adherence to the orthodox religion, commanded that their temples should be confiscated and demolished, and their books be collected and a bonfire made of them. Of the literature of the Vadulya-vadins themselves not a trace is left; for the kings of Ceylon, in the excess of their zeal for the preservation of the purity of the faith, born of their passionate attachment to the Thera-vada fraternity, saw to it that not a vestige of their heretical teachings should survive. And finally, towards the close of the sixteenth century, Raja Simha I of Sitavaka, embittered against Buddhism, because of the treachery of certain members of the Sangha, openly embraced a foreign faith, became virulently hostile to the Buddhist priesthood, drove them from their temples and destroyed their libraries.
Amidst all these ravages, however, a good deal of the Pali literature of Ceylon has survived, due mainly to the pious care of its loyal custodians. Regardless of personal danger and steadfast in their devotion to all learning, humble and ascetic in garb, the monks have preserved for us through the ages something of that heritage of wisdom which drew to Ceylon' s shores in ancient times men from Burma and Siam and distant China in search of her intellectual treasures far more valuable than her pearls and rubies, her elephants and peacocks. And it happened that these seekers of knowledge carried back with them into their native lands copies of the books which they had come across in their travels; and when Ceylon had lost many of her books of priceless value, the Sinhalese were able to restore them from copies collected elsewhere.
Your email address will not be published *
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend