BuddhaSasana Home Page English Section

Sanghamitta Theri - a liberated woman

Dr. Lorna Dewaraja

This fullmoon day of Unduvap the Buddhists of Sri Lanka honour the memory of Sanghamitta Theri who together with her brother Mahinda Thera was responsible for the establishing of Buddhism in this country 2300 years ago in the reign of Devanampiya Tissa. A significant feature is that when Mahinda Thera preached the Dhamma in Anuradhapura the most enthusiastic listeners were women; those of royal rank as well as the commoners. This remains so to this day for in any Buddhist event the women far outnumber the men.

Having listened to Mahinda Thera's sermon, Queen Anula, wife of the sub king Mahanaga, convinced of the truth of the Buddha word, informed the king of her desire to become a bhikkhuni. When this was conveyed to Mahinda Thera he pointed out that according to the rules of the Vinaya it was not permissable for him to bestow the pabbajja on women. Further he said that this could be accomplished if the king sent a message to king Asoka Maurya who ruled from Pataliputra (modern Patna) requesting him to send his daughter Sanghamitta Theri and also to bring with her a branch of the Bodhi Tree at Gaya under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

It should be mentioned that diplomatic relations had already been established between the Court of Anuradhapura and that of Pataliputra. Hence Devanampiya Tissa did not hesitate to send his minister Arittha to the Mauryan king with these two earnest requests.

The king was reluctant to send his daughter on an overseas mission but because of the insistence of Sanghamitta Theri he finally agreed. Several nuns accompanied the Theri who sailed to Sri Lanka carrying the Bo sapling, together with the Minister Arittha. This was a very courageous action on the part of Sanghamitta. In an age when rigid Brahmanic ideas regarding women were prevailing in society it was indeed an act of great courage for a woman of royal birth to embark on a hazardous voyage unaccompanied by any male member of her family. She was indeed a liberated woman to defy the challenges of a male-dominated society.

At Jambukolapattana (modern Point Pedro in Jaffna Peninsula), a multitude of devotees headed by the king and Mahinda Thera received the Theri and the Bodhi Tree. It was brought in procession to Anuradhapura, a journey which took 14 days on foot, and planted it in the Mahamegha park on a specially prepared terrace. In the words of Paul E Pieris who was not a Buddhist, "It is doubtful if any other single incident in the long story of their race has seized upon the history of the Sinhalese with such tenacity as this of the planting of the aged tree.

Like the pliant roots which find sustenance on the face of their bare rock and cleave their way through the stoutest fabric, the influence of what it represents has penetrated into the innermost being of the people till the tree itself has become almost human." The king and the people of Sri Lanka throughout 23 centuries have cherished this tree like a priceless treasure, the oldest historical tree in the world. Its hold on the people was so deep rooted that even the modern day terrorists thought that the best way to destroy the Sinhala psyche was to exterminate the Tree.

Historical evidence

Some scholars have expressed doubts on the Mahavamsa account of Sanghamitta and the historicity of the tree on the ground that there is no external evidence to corroborate the Sri Lanka tradition. Wilhelm Geiger, the german Orientalist who translated the Mahavansa into German firmly upholds the Mahavansa tradition.

The narrative of the transplanting of the Bodhi Tree finds interesting confirmation from archaeological evidence. He says that another scholar Grundewel has shown in a very convincing way that the sculptures of the gate of the Sanchi Stupa are representations of that event.

Sanchi, it should be remembered is the childhood home of Sanghamitta and Mahinda and it is reasonable to assume that Sanghamitta's memory was revered in the place of her birth. Since the Sanchi sculptures belong to the 2nd Century BC the representation is only about 100-150 years after the coming of Sanghamitta. Hence we have near contemporary evidence on stone to corroborate the Mahavansa story of the coming of Sanghamitta. Further there is a village called Kantarodai in the Jaffna Peninsula originally known as Kadurugoda Vihara.

The entire area was preserved as an archaeological site when I visited Jaffna in 1971 and the surrounding villagers informed me that there is a strong tradition prevailing up to that day saying that Sanghamitta rested on that spot on her way to Anuradhapura. I am not aware what has happened to the archaeological site now but at that time it was scattered with pre Christian ruins and also a number of small stupas resembling the stupa at Sanchi.

It is clear that Kadurugoda Vihara developed into a hallowed spot and because of the Sanghamitta connection had brisk intercourse with Sanchi. Paul E Pieris writing in 1919 to the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society said that Kantarodai is a miniature Anuradhapura.

Besides all this evidence there is the far famed tree itself still firmly rooted in Sri Lankan soil while literary works like the Bodhivamsa, Maha Bodhivamsa, Sulu Bodhivamsa bear witness to its antiquity and sacrosanctity.

The Bhikkhuni Sasana

Sanghamitta Theri then accomplished her most important mission by ordaining Anuladevi and her retinue and established the Bhikkhuni Sasana in Sri Lanka. The charisma and impact of the founder was such that the Sri Lanka Bhikkunis were illustrious and erudite women who were internationally renowned and emulated their founder by travelling overseas to spread the Dhamma.

According to Chinese sources, they sailed to China and began a Chinese Order of Nuns which lasts to this day. They specialised in different sections of the Pali Canon and taught their specialties all over the island.

Liberation of Sri Lankan women

The arrival of Sanghamitta had a significant impact on Sri Lankan womanhood. Many visitors to Sri Lanka long before the impact of the West was ever felt have commented on the social freedom that Sri Lankan women enjoyed that there was no segregation of the sexes and that they participated in the social, religious and economic life of the community.

This was Sanghamitta's legacy and the example of the bold and adventurous band of nuns she nurtured.

She was the first woman ambassador mentioned in recorded history, sent from one Head of State at the express invitation of another Head of State. Belonging to the ecclesiastical tradition of Maha Prajapati Gotami, the first Buddhist nun, she displayed the same qualities as the latter - courage and determination and not taking no for an answer.

She remained in Sri Lanka for the rest of the life working for the uplift of Sri Lankan women, far away from home, kith and kin. To Sanghamitta Theri, a woman liberated in every sense of the word, the women of Sri Lanka owe a deep debt of gratitude.


Source: Daily News, Sri Lanka, 29-December-2001

[Back to English Index]