Influence of Indian Literature on Ceylon and Southeast Asia

In parts I had read about the influence of Indian literature on neighboring countries but never got hold of a book that gave me a comprehensive view. Luckily I came across the Cultural Heritage of India i.e. published by the Ramakrishna Mission. The article has content verbatim from the book. Credits and copyright lie with the publisher.

The article has three chapters, one covers Sri Lanka, two covers Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Malaysia and three covers Indonesia. It ends with Swami Vivekananda's thoughts on the globalization.  

The foregoing survey makes it abundantly clear that Pali and Sanskrit literatures not only inspired Sinhalese scholars and writers to compose excellent works in these languages, but also led the growth of a fairly extensive literature in the language of the land, which shone with multi-faceted brilliance. The contribution of South Indian languages particularly Tamil, in the evolution of Sinhalese language cannot be ignored.

Sri Lanka
Culturally Sri Lanka has always been very close to India from the dawn of history. Buddhism, introduced into the island during the reign of D Tissa (247 to 207 B.C.) by Asoka’s son and daughter, is the greatest link between the two countries. The earliest records of Ceylon are in the Brahmi script of Asoka’s time especially noticed in Western and Southern India. As there was no alternative system of writing in Sri Lanka in the ancient historic time, the earlier literature probably belonged to the domain of unwritten folk literature. The introduction of Buddhism gave the first impetus to usher the writing age in Sri Lanka and the Brahmi inscriptions bear testimony of this fact.

Pali Literature
The sacred texts of Buddhism in Sri Lanka are in Pali, which developed from the North Indian dialect known as Magadhi. There is hardly any doubt that the greater part of the canonical texts of the Theravada school was fashioned in India and possibly given final approval in the Third Buddhist Council held at Patna during the reign of Asoka and then transmitted to Ceylon. For the next two centuries the cannon circulated orally. Later it was realized that this way, knowledge of the cannon would reduce. Therefore, during the reign of Vattagamani in the 1st century BC it was put down in writing.

It seems reasonable to hold the view that the earliest canonical texts were brought to SL from India by Asoka’s children Mahinda and Sanghamitta but the atthakathas (commentaries) thereon, written in Old Sinhalese, was gradually drawn up locally and whenever necessary retranslated into Pali. It is widely believed that upon these commentaries were based the two famous Pali chronicles of Sri Lanka, the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, of which the former was composed at the close of the 4th century by an unknown author and the latter towards the end of the 5th century AD. by Thera Mahanama. The style of these two texts reminds us of Sanskrit kavyas.

The most outstanding author in the history of Pali literature is without a doubt Buddhahosa, an Indian Brahmin who became a Buddhist, came to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Mahanama (412 to 434 A.D.) One of his works Samantapasadika, a commentary on the Vinaya Pitaka was translated into Chinese in 489 A.D. By his many scholarly works in Pali he firmly established the language in the Buddhist world.

Pali and Sanskrit studies received great impetus during the Polun-naruva-Dambadeniya period 9th to 13th centuries. One of the earliest and best known authors of the time was Moggallana, whose Moggallana Vyakarana, Pali grammar, was very popular and led to the growth of a new school of Pali grammar in the island. The most versatile scholar of the period was Sariputta whose work in the field of Sanskrit grammar and linguistics was matched by his compositions in the field of Pali literature. His various Buddhist works bear the imprint of his knowledge of Sanskrit language and literature. The Bodhivamsa by Upatissa, which seems to have been composed in the last quarter of the 10th century bears the beginning of Sanskrit, is called Sanskritized Pali.

Sanskrit Literature
Sanskrit inscriptions and the existence of a fairly extensive Sanskrit literature attest to the importance of Sanskrit in Sri Lanka’s cultural and religious life. One of the earliest texts written in the 4th century was Sarartha-sangraha by King Buddhadasa. Sanskrit grammars and lexicographical texts were introduced from India to facilitate the study of Sanskrit and sometimes served as models of Sinhalese texts. Not only was Candragomin’s grammar Candra Vyakarana studied in Sri Lanka but was used by Moggallana as a model for his Pali grammar. Sariputta who lived between the 9-12th centuries composed a Sanskrit grammar - Padavatara. Another great scholar of the period 1153-86 A.D. was Dimbulagala Mahakasyapa who wrote the Sanskrit grammar Balavabodhana.

There were also Sanskrit treatise on Silpa-sastras, particularly on statuary art e.g. Sariputra. In about 1245 A.D., a Brahmin scholar from Gauda (Bengal) named R Kavibharati came to Sri Lanka, became a Buddhist, received the title of ‘Bauddhagama Cakravarti’ for writing a work titled Bhakti-sataka in glorifications of Buddha. It is essentially a Hindu poem as far as its idea and treatment is concerned. He is also credited with the composition of ‘Vritta-ratnakara-panjika,’ which is a commentary on the famous Indian Sanskrit texts on prosody called ‘Vrtta-ratnakara’ by Kedara Bhatta.  

There is hardly any doubt that Sinhalese monks of the Mahayana school used Sanskrit as a vehicle for their ideas and studied the language and its literature extensively.

India’s Contribution to Sinhalese Literature
The language and literary tradition of India made a great impact upon the Sinhalese language and literature. They fashioned their growth from the formative stage. Sinhalese emerged as any other Indian language like Bengali, Hindi, Marathi etc. The contribution of Sanskrit and Pali to the corpus of Sinhalese vocabulary and literature is immense. There was a strong Tamil influence too. Said W. F. Gunawardhana ”while in regard to its word equipment, Sinhalese is the child of Pali and Sanskrit, it is, with regard to its physical structure, essentially the daughter of Tamil.”  

In the matter of script there is also an influence of the Grantha script of South India, which is a form of Brahmi and can be noticed in the current script of Sri Lanka. Scholars believe that the latter is derived from the former. Of the extant Sinhalese works, the oldest is Siyabasalankara, a text on poetics composed in the 9th century, after the Kavyasarsa of Dandin. Works of Kalidasa were very popular in Ceylon. His masterpieces like Meghaduta, Raghuvamsa were regarded as models of poetic composition and were an inspiration to the Sinhalese writers and poets.

Although writers of the Polunnaruva period (9-12 century) showed greater inclination to promote the study of Sanskrit and Pali some important Sinhalese works were composed during this period. Such works include Sasa-davata, which is a versification of the Pali Sasa Jataka and was probably composed around 1197 AD. The famous work called the Amavatura is a sort of prose poem in 18 chapters written by Gurulugomi, dealing with the progress of Buddhism. There were numerous other works in the Sinhalese literature that contains innumerable references to and quotations from Buddhist – Sanskrit texts.

A novel feature in the late medieval Sinhalese literature was the introduction of the sandesa-kavyas after Kalidasa’s Meghaduta with a few changes though. The reign of Parakramabahu 1348-60 A.D. witnessed the appearance of the first sandesa-kavyas in Sinhalese literature.

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