This research paper by Dr.P.B.J.Hevawasam, then affiliated to
the University of Sri Lanka, was read at the Second International Conference
Seminar on Asian Archaeology, held in Colombo in 1969. It is a verifiable fact
that in the Sri Lankan island, quite a number of Buddhist religious practices
and mundane rituals have origins from Hinduism; but this fact is overtly denied
by the practitioners of Buddhism for political reasons.
Last year, I purchased a 15-page booklet entitled, ‘Our Heritage
of the North and East of Sri Lanka’ [an English translation of a Sinhalese
language tract published in 2003, and authored by Ven.Ellawala Medhananda Thero,
MP and the leader of Jathika Hela Urumaya]. In this partisan political tract,
Medhananda Thero has provided annotations to locations of Buddhist interests
within the Eelam territory. Assuming that Medhananda Thero may not be aware of
Dr.Hevawasam’s 1969 study, I felt that this study deserves transcription into
electronic medium in this year, when Sri Lankan air is filled with the
celebration of 2,550th year of Lord Buddha’s death.
In the Introduction to his book, ‘Hinduism in Ceylon’ (1957), Rev.James Cartman
had aptly paraphrased the the observations of C.H.S.Ward (‘Outline of Buddhism’,
London, 1934) on reality of Buddhist practices in the island. To quote, “Among
the Buddhists, only a small minority adheres strictly to the Hinayana teachings.
The religion of the majority is not so easily defined. They frequently visit the
Buddhist Vihares, especially during festivals and full moon days, and they
listen to Bana preaching (the exposition of the Buddhist teachings). But along
with this there is also, (a) Kapuism, the worship and propitiation of Hindu
deities and deified Sinhalese heroes, (b) Grahaism, the worship and propitiation
of the planets, and (c) Demonism, the belief in, and the propitiation of demonic
An in-depth study of personal names [onomatology or onomastics, as this
discipline is called], partly alluded to in his paper by Dr.Hevawasam, should
provide convincing proof on the pervasive influence of Hinduism among the
Sinhalese Buddhists. Just check the two popular first names among contemporary
Sinhalese; Lakshman or its variants (from the Hindu epic Ramayana) and Arjuna
(from the Hindu epic Mahabharatha). Janaka, the father of Ramayana’s heroine
Sita, is also a popular first name among the Sinhalese Buddhists. The current
Sri Lanka President Rajapakse’s first name ‘Mahendra’ is a distinctly Hindu name
(but for politically correct reasons, ‘Mahendra’ has been transmuted into
It may not be an exaggeration to deduce from anthropological, literary and
political evidences that almost 50 percent of the Sinhalese Buddhists living now
are descendants of Hindu immigrants (and Hindu converts) from Tamil Nadu and
Kerala states of India during the past eight centuries. The Sinhalese family
name with the prefix ‘Pandara’ or ‘Bandara’ derives from the medieval Hindu
migrants from the Tamil Nadu belonging to the Pandaram clan (non-Brahmanical
priests), who opted to perform religious duties at the Hindu temples. The
religious and political influence of this Pandaram clan in shaping the Sinhala
Buddhist society during the past five centuries and how this originally
Tamil-speaking clan merged themselves into the Sinhalese society as influence
peddlers deserve a separate commentary.
The text of Dr.Hevawasam’s 1969 Research Paper
[courtesy: Tribune (Colombo), Oct.22, 1977, pp.12-14]
It is congruous to find images of beings held sacred by the followers of one
religion, in the temples of the followers of another religion. But that is
exactly what one will find if one were to step into a Buddhist temple in the
Southern and Western coasts of Ceylon. There is at least the image of the Hindu
deity Visnu in almost every one of them. These images are very often housed in
the same building as the one set apart for the image of the Buddha. Sometimes
they are accomodated in smaller buildings in the temple premises close to the
Bodhi tree, so called because it represents the fig tree under which the Buddha
Gautama attained bodhi, realisation (of the truth). After making obeisance to
the Buddha it is customary for the Buddhists to transfer the merits thus gained
to other beings who are capable of benefiting by them.
The other Hindu deity who finds an abode in the Buddhist temple is Skanda
Kumara, popularly known as Kataragama, from the name of the place where the
chief temple dedicated to him is situated. He is also variously known as
Sanmukha, Kartikeya, Subrahmanya and Mahasena. In addition, Tamils use other
names such as Murugan and Kadiravelu.
In some Buddhist temples there is an image of Pattini too, venerated by Hindus.
There is even a painting of the God of love Kama, also known as Ananga, right
inside the Totagamuwa temple on the wall by the left-door post at the entrance
to the inner chamber where the Buddha reposes.
All these images and murals, however, cannot date from before the commencement
of the 19th century AD. The present image house at Totagamuwa temple was built
in the beginning of the 19th century. All the temples which existed prior to the
16th century, were destroyed by the Portuguese in their greed for wealth. Yet,
in most probability, such images were not found in the Buddhist temples prior to
the 16th century, for if there were any, the Sandesa poets who generally made it
a point to advise their messenger to worship at every important image in the
Buddhist temple, would not have failed to mention them. There are however
several references in Sandesa poems to images of Hindu gods housed in temples of
their own, such as Skanda, Siva, Ganesa and Kali, not far away from the Buddhist
In the past the images of deities, other than those of the Buddha and his
disciples, admitted into the Buddhist temples, were those of the guardian
deities of Ceylon, Saman or Sumana, Upulvan or Upalavanna, Vibisana or Bibhisana
and Kataragama. In the area selected for this inquiry the images commonly found
were those of Upulvan. There was an image of Vibhisana at Kelaniya temple.
There were also images of God Natha, Avalokitesvara or Buddha to be, of the
Mahayanists in some places. The most famous of them was at theTotagamuwa Temple.
The Avalokitesvara worship in Ceylon goes back to very early times. There are
references to it in the Triyay and Kuccaveli inscriptions.
It is not unlikely that even prior to the advent of Buddhism in Ceylon,
iconalatry was practised there, for primitive men all the world over were in the
habit of making offerings to the elements and the heavenly bodies, some of which
were later given a definite form by means of paintings and images.
Therefore even after the embracing of Buddhism by the vast majority of the
inhabitants of the island, in spite of the fact, that Buddhism denies the
existence of an immortal being, such as the deities of the Hindu pantheon, the
concept of such a being to whom offerings could be made for the grant of wishes
for one’s success and prosperity or for the failure and undoing of one’s
enemies, lurked in their minds. This idea was so ingrained that whenever the
people were in trouble, they sought their assistance in addition to that of the
Buddhist gods, between whom they saw no difference.
But there are fundamental differences between the two varieties, one of which
has already been mentioned. Hindu Gods are immortal while theBuddhist Gods are
not, though the latter too are called amara, ‘immortal’, in consideration of the
fact that they do not die in the sense that they leave behind a dead body. They
are supposed to disappear when the time determined by their previous Kamma
(‘actions’) expires, and to be born in some other place. Then the Hindu God is
both a benevolent and vindictive one, while the Buddhist God is only benevolent.
One could not appeal to the latter for the destruction of one’s enemies. This
may be one of the reasons why people went to the former in preference to the
latter. They were not satisfied with getting benefits for them and their dear
ones; they wanted their enemies to be visited with disease and destruction.
The guardian gods, Saman, Upulvan, Vibisana and Kataragama whilst being Buddhist
were similar in character to those of the Hindu pantheon, and being Ceylonese,
must have had a greater appeal to the people of Ceylon than any other category
As time passed there were many Hindus in the island, and considerable numbers of
them even along the Southern and Western coasts. They had come as counsellors or
soldiers on invitation or as mendicants or fortune-seekers and even as
conquerors right through the centuries, and settled down in various parts of the
country. That there were quite a few of them, in the Southern and Western coasts
permanently settled down is evidenced by the presence of a number of Hindu
temples there as late as the 15th century. In Kotte, the capital of
Parakramabahu VI (1412-1467 AD) there were at least a temple of Siva and another
of Mahasena or Skanda. At Panadura, there was another of Mahasena or Visnu. At
Bentota close to the Vanavasa Vihara, there was a temple of Kali, spouse of
Siva, and at Vallemadama not far from the Buddhist temple and at Kalutara South,
there were temples dedicated to Ganesa, brother of Skanda.
It is most likely that Buddhists too worshipped at these temples, for otherwise
the Sandesa poets would not have mentioned them in a complimentary manner, and
even if they had, would not have selected those places for their messengers to
There were Hindus employed in the court of Parakrama Bahu and there were quite a
few Hindu young men studying in some of the Pirivenas, where Hindu texts were
taught. And with their close association with Hindu Gods, the Buddhists visited
them much oftener than in the past. The Buddhist monks, a good many of whom were
themselves admirers of those Gods, must have given the abode in their temples.
Visnu could easily find accomodation there because Upulvan, the Ceylonese God,
and he were of the same complexion, blue. And as time passed, the two were
identified as one and the same, and in course of time the name Upulvan dropped
out altogether. Then Visnu monopolised the veneration of the devotees of
Upulvan, in addition to that of his own. All new Buddhist temples therefore had
images of Visnu and none of Upulvan. Today Upulvan is heard of only in books.
The Ceylonese God Kataragama to has become one with the Hindu God Skanda, and
thus has lost his identity altogether. The latter has thus ousted the former,
and is in complete mastery of the entire domain over which the local deity had
Today more and more people are being drawn to Skanda and in consequence many
Buddhist temples are making arrangements to admit him there. The greater the
number of devotees drawn to the image of a God, the greater the income received
by the temple, for people go to a God either to make a vow binding them to make
certain offerings to the God when their wish is fulfilled or to redeem a vow by
making an offering after the fulfilment of the wish. No such vows are made
before the image of a Buddha or that of a disciple of his.
There are a few Buddhist temples, however, which have scrupulously kept away the
Hindu Gods from their premises. They are such as belong to the Ramanna Nikaya
and the Amarapura Saddhammayuttika Nikaya, popularly called the Matara Nikkaya.
No image of any god, local or foreign, are found in them. In spite of the
clamour in some quarters for the abandonment by the Buddhists of the craze for
begging favours specially from Hindu Gods, who they aver are non-existent, or at
any rate are inferior to human beings in certain respects, and are incapable of
helping anybody, with modern facilities for travelling, more and more Buddhists
are being drawn to the shrines of Hindu Gods. Therefore the possibility is that
the authorities of the Buddhist temples may throw their doors open to more and
more Hindu Gods, e.g. Siva, Ganesa and Kali, in the near future.