Post-classical history

Chapter Sixteen

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Monks and Brahmans

Between 1150 and 1189, the king of Sri Lanka takes control of both his island and its monasteries, and a Hindu prophet tries to bring new power to the people

JUST OFF THE SOUTHERN TIP of the Indian subcontinent, a Buddhist hero was crowned king.

A century earlier, the island of Sri Lanka had been dominated by the empire of the Chola: the greatest southern Indian empire that had ever existed, a rich kingdom that stretched east all the way to the islands of Java and Sumatra and north as far as the Narmada river. The Chola king was a devotee of the Hindu god Shiva; temples to Shiva and lingams—seamless pillars with no features, representing the all-encompassing, transcendent essence of Shiva—dotted the massive expanses of Chola land.

That land had reached its greatest extent in the late eleventh century. And then, bits of it had begun to flake away. Off the southern coast, a rebel named Vijaya Bahu had declared himself king of the entire island; Chola troops, crossing the water, managed to retake the north, but Vijaya Bahu held on to the south until his death.

His sons and grandsons ruled after him, but the island remained splintered even after the Chola abandoned their claim. The ancient chronicle of Sri Lanka’s kings, The Mahavansa, laments that Vijaya Bahu’s descendants “divided the land among themselves and possessed it in portions.” The largest Sri Lankan kingdom was centered at Vijaya Bahu’s own capital city, Polonnaruwa; other royal cousins ruled in the Southern Country and in the smaller realm of Ruhuna.1

Around the middle of the century, a nephew of the ruling sovereign of Ruhuna began to grow restless. His name was Parakrama Bahu; he was also nephew to the Southern Country sovereign, and cousin of the king in Polonnaruwa. He could expect, eventually, to inherit one of these territories. But The Mahavansa tells us that Parakrama was more ambitious than this; the thought of ruling over a single principality made him restless, and he hoped “to make the whole island graceful by bringing it under the canopy of one dominion.”2

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16.1 The Island of Sri Lanka

He intrigued with one uncle, fought against the other, and convinced his cousin to make him heir. By 1153, he had gained the crowns of all three kingdoms, and for the first time in centuries Sri Lanka was united under a single ruler.

In over thirty years of reign, Parakrama managed to combine carefully targeted practical renovations with canny religious reform. He lowered taxes (a highly popular move) and channeled the remaining revenues into cleaning up and restoring the irrigation systems that made Sri Lanka fertile. (“In a country like this,” he is said to have remarked to his ministers, “not even the smallest bit of rain ought to be allowed to flow into the ocean without profiting man.”) Canals and causeways that had fallen into disrepair were cleaned out and rebricked. He ordered a small reservoir on the outskirts of the city enlarged and combined with other storage tanks, creating a massive new reservoir that became known as the Sea of Parakrama, and on an artificial island in its center he built a beautiful three-story palace that overlooked the new waters. Near the northern town of Mannar, he had an even larger reservoir built: the Giant’s Tank, an engineering feat that produced a massive artificial lake with completely man-made embankments on a sloping plain. The Giant’s Tank turned the dry, salty north of the island into an area so fertile that it is still known today as the Rice Bowl.3

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16.1 The Giant’s Tank.
Credit: © 2009 Dhammika Heenpella / Images of Sri Lanka

None of this work was cheap, but the resulting crops balanced out the expense:

He drained great marshes and bogs, and made the water discharge itself into rivers, and formed paddy fields, and gathered together a store of grain. . . . Thus did this wise ruler make the revenue that was obtained from the new paddy fields alone to be greater than the revenue which had been derived from the old paddy fields in the [entire] kingdom; and when he had accomplished this he made the country so prosperous that the inhabitants should never know the evils of famine.4

The sequel to The Mahavansa credits Parakrama Bahu with building (or rebuilding) 165 dams, nearly 4,000 canals, and nearly 2,500 reservoirs.5

His religious reforms were equally energetic.

Parakrama’s ancestor Vijaya Bahu, driving away the Hindu occupiers, had ruled his new kingdom as a Buddhist king. In the century since, Buddhist temples and monasteries had risen to replace the Shiva shrines. The most magnificent of these temples was the home of the Buddha’s Tooth; the tooth, said to be one of the seven unburned relics that survived the Buddha’s cremation, had been brought to the island in the fourth century and been kept safe from the Hindu regime. Parakrama himself had fought for the Buddha’s Tooth, taking it away from a rival ruler in his battle to unify the island and enshrining it in his capital city.6

But the Buddhism of the island was still interlaced with Hindu practice, and its monks and priests were divided and quarreling. Three nikayas, or monastic orders, struggled for dominance in the capital. They feuded over the rules of monasticism, the interpretation of Buddhist scriptures, and control of the temples. Parakrama’s kingdom had barely begun its existence as a single nation, and for the monks, who were the heart of the country’s religious practice, to remain divided into three parts would only serve to drive wedges into the barely joined fractures between the old three nations.

Seeking help, Parakrama Bahu turned to Mahakassapa, the senior monk at a nearby forest monastery. Forest monasteries had a character different from that of city or village monasteries; the monks tended to be more austere, less interested in political wrangling, stricter in practice. Forest monasteries were places of quiet meditation, not loud conflict; in the forest, removed from the centers of power, the monks were thought to gain a detachment and clarity that was missing from the bustling, wealthy monasteries of the cities.7

In 1165, acting on Mahakassapa’s advice, Parakrama Bahu summoned the leaders of all three nikayas to a council. There he declared that as king—his sacred right to rule proven by his victories over his enemies and by his protection of the Buddha’s Tooth—he would abolish all three monastic orders. Instead, there would be only two kinds of monks: gamavasin and arannavasin, village dwellers and forest dwellers. To prevent quarreling, he himself would act as head of the practice of Buddhism in his country. The monks would no longer debate the final interpretation of scriptures; instead, he himself, with Mahakassapa as his advisor, would decide on the correct ways of understanding the canonical laws. Together they would produce an official katikavata, a royal lawbook laying out exactly how Buddhism should be practiced; and this would have the same force as divine law.8

This marked an enormous departure from the past. Buddhist monarchs had always acted as the protectors and patrons of Buddhist monasteries, giving them grants of land and wealth, looking out for their survival. In Buddhist tradition, the monarch was both cakravartin (the king through whomdharma, all that is good and right, will spread across the universe) and bodhisattva (a manifestation of the Buddha himself, an enlightened one who had chosen to remain in the world in order to bring it salvation).

But Parakrama Bahu now claimed a much more pragmatic right. He removed many of the monks from the monasteries altogether and declared them laypeople. Then he ordered all ordinations to the Buddhist priesthood to take place in the capital city; that way, he could supervise them, and block any too-ambitious candidates from even entering the monasteries. And he himself would regulate their behavior.9

Divided and leaderless, the monastic orders could not resist the whirlwind reforms. Within the decade, Buddhist monasticism had been transformed into a powerful attractant force, inclined to pull the country together rather than throw it apart. And the practice of Buddhism itself had been made part of the framework of the new state: transformed, by its royal supervisor, into a secular force.

WHILE SRI LANKA coalesced into a single nation, the Chola empire was falling apart. For at least a thousand years, India had been a land of many minor kingdoms; for at least a thousand years, attempts to corral them into one fold had yielded temporary, illusory unity, followed by disintegration.

The enormous Chola realm of the twelfth century had been bordered, on the north and the east, by two related dynasties known as the Chalukya. The Eastern Chalukya had been conquered and forced into the empire two centuries before; their cousins, the Western Chalukya had been persuaded and bribed into alliance. But right around the time of Vijaya Bahu’s rebellion, the younger brother of the Western Chalukya king attacked his older sibling and took away his throne by force. Immediately, he broke the tradition of alliance and began to fight against the Chola instead.

A hundred years of warfare followed, and the constant drain of men and money opened gaps in the walls of both empires. A handful of vassals made successful bids for independence: the Hoysala and Seuna, Kakatiya and Kalachuri, all fighting for control of their own lands.

In 1157, the Kalachuri king Bijjala II scored a great victory, capturing the Western Chalukya capital Kalyani and forcing the Western Chalukya king himself to flee. Like Parakrama Bahu to the south, Bijjala II now governed a fragmented kingdom that encompassed more than one previous kingdom. Unlike Parakrama, he was unable to use religion to build a fence around it.

Not long after the conquest of Kalyani, Bijjala II’s trusted prime minister Baladeva died. Following the minister’s own dying recommendation, Bijjala II recruited Baladeva’s nephew as the new prime minister over the freshly expanded kingdom. This nephew, still only in his midtwenties, had already gained a reputation for both piety and intelligence. His name was Basava, and after considering the pros and cons of the appointment for some time, he decided to accept it and moved to Kalyani.10

Bijjala had no idea that he had recruited a zealot. According to Basava’s later biography, the Basava purano, Basava took the position only because it would give him the power to spread his own particular message. He was a devotee of Shiva; and not just a devotee, but a fanatic. To Basava, Shiva was the only deity, sustaining all the world, equally present with and gracious to all men and women. He had gathered around him a sect of like-minded worshippers, all of whom wore a tiny lingam suspended from a cord around their necks or left arms. Nicknamed lingayatslingamwearers, these disciples devoted themselves to finding a greater love for God; for them, all of their labor in the world was worship of Shiva, who had created the material world and was honored by their work within it. As one follower wrote,

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16.2 The Disintegration of the Chola

Let it be only a kare leaf,

If it come from dedicated work,

Is worthy to be offered to Linga . . .

For, as work is worship,

God is present in the work which we perform.11

Simple though it was, the philosophy of the lingayats clashed dangerously with the political realities of twelfth-century India.

Like the Buddhist monasteries of Sri Lanka, the Hindu temples of central India were supported by royal grants of cash and tax-free farmland. The Brahman priests who served in them accepted the king’s money and land; in return, they supported the king’s policies. They held themselves apart in their own caste, marrying within their own kind and keeping their priestly lands inside their own class. But the Brahmans were powerful not only through wealth but also through the temple service itself. They presided over a system of Hindu worship that was complicated and inflexible, and yet was the only way to reach the divine presence. Without Brahman guidance, the Hindu worshipper was lost.12

But the philosophy of Basava and the other lingayats did away with the Brahmans. For them, each worshipper came to Shiva alone, on his own terms, in a personal encounter that was inward and mysterious and needed no temples, no sacrifices, and no Brahmans. The only service Shiva required was dedicated manual labor—the very activity that Brahmans, by law, were to shun. Even more worrying, lingayatism did away with all sorts of other barriers and divisions within Hindu society. Women and men were equally welcome. In the worship of Shiva, there was no class privilege or shame. The lowest ranks of Indian society—those who worked with their hands—were honored rather than shunned. Lingayatism spread rapidly through Bijjala’s kingdom; and it threatened both the Brahman monopoly and the royal authority that the Brahmans spent their lives shoring up.13

Basava short-circuited his own success by getting reckless with the king’s treasury. He spent a good deal of Bijjala’s money on feeding, supporting, and entertaining his fellow lingayats. Around 1167, Bijjala II became aware of the theft. He retaliated by blinding two of the most prominent lingayats, an indirect and unproductive punishment that ultimately killed both the king and his minister. There are at least four different versions of what happened next, but it seems that Bijjala was assassinated by one (or more) indignant lingayats; Basava fled, but Bijjala’s son and successor, Someshvara, sent troops to pursue him. Basava was captured and executed (or, possibly, died accidentally while on the run).

The sect, however, survived. Its disciples became known as Virasaivas, and for centuries Virasaivas would challenge the traditional castes and classes of Hinduism.

RELIGIOUS REFORM NOTWITHSTANDING, neither kingdom lasted for long.

In 1186, Parakrama Bahu died after thirty-three gloriously successful years. A string of successors to his throne were, in fairly short order, assassinated, imprisoned, blinded, and exiled; the careful unity Parakrama had constructed fell apart again, and the island lay open to occupation and conquest once more.14

Bijjala’s sons Someshvara and Sankama, ruling his kingdom one after the other, kept their father’s dominion together a little longer. But after Sankama’s death, in 1181, two more young sons of Bijjala rose to the throne; and slowly, their inexperience weakened the country beyond repair. The Western Chalukya king Somesvara IV recaptured the old capital of Kalanyi, and the Kalachuri kingdom was reabsorbed into the Western Chalukya; but its days too were numbered. In 1187, Somesvara IV was killed in battle against the former vassal kingom of the Hoysala, and within two years the Seuna and Hoysala and Kakatiya had divided the corpse of the old Chalukya dominon among themselves.15

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