Anuradhapura MahaVihara is an important and popular Mahavihara or Buddhist monastery for Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. This Buddhist monastery was founded by king Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura in his capital city of Anuradhapura. At this Mahavihara, eminent Buddhists monk such as Buddhaghosa and Dhammapala wrote commentaries on the Tipitaka and other texts like Visuddhimagga. At this place, the Theravada Mahaviharan orthodoxy was also established by the same Buddhist monks. Since the monastery was also used by the monks for the shelter, these monks were referred as Mahaviharavasins.
It is recorded that in the 5th century, this Mahavihara was the most sophisticated university in southern or eastern Asia. Therefore, many international scholars visited Anuradhapura Mahavihara and learned many disciplines under highly structured instruction.
Brief historical background of Anuradhapura Mahavihara
If we look at the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, there exist three subdivisions of Theravada Buddhism. These divisions were evolved through the establishment of three different viharas- Anuradhapura Mahavihara, Abhayagiri Vihara, and Jetavanaramaya Vihara. It is also recorded that the first Vihara established in Sri Lanka was Anuradhapura Mahavihara and other Vihara were established by the Buddhist monks who were separated from this Mahavihara tradition. As mentioned by A. K. Warder, the Indian Mahisasaka sect was also established in Sri Lanka along with the Theravada traditions. But this sect was later combined with the Theravada ones.
As mentioned by Mahavamsa, during the 4th century, the Anuradhapura Mahavihara was destroyed. The main cause of destruction was the sectarian conflicts with the monks of the Abhayagiri Vihara. These Mahayana monks encouraged Mahasena of Anuradhapura Mahavihara to destroy the Abhayagiri Vihara. Hence, after knowing the intention, the King expelled the Mahayanins from Sri Lanka.
But the information provided by Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian doesn't confirm with that of Mahavamsa. Faxian journeyed to India and Sri Lanka in the early 5th century. As he entered Sri Lanka, he began to write about his experiences in detail. He recorded that the Mahavihara also housed 3000 monks and also provides cremation. He attended the cremation function of a highly respected Sramana who attained the arhatship. Along with the Anuradhapura Mahavihara, he also recorded the existence of the Abhayagiri Vihara. He mentioned that Abhayagiri housed 5000 monks during that period.
In the 7th century CE, Xuanzang described the existence of both monasteries in Sri Lanka. He further wrote that there were two major divisions of Theravada in Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura Mahavihara follows Mahavihara tradition as the Hinayana Sthaviras and Abhayagiri Mahavihara follows the Abhayagiri traditions as Mahayana Sthaviras. He also mentioned that the Mahaviharavasins follows only Hinayana while Abhayagiri mahavirihara follows both of the traditions- Mahayana and Hinayana and propagate the Tripitaka.
Even though there are mixed views regarding the main Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka, the scholars like Faxian believes that Abhayagiri Theravadins were actually the main Buddhist traditions. Some of the scholars also expressed that the rulers before the 12th century CE gave more support to Abhayagiri Theravadins.
However, the support to Abhayagiri Vihara was changed after in the 12th century CE, when the Mahavihara gained the political support of King Parakkamabahu I. Then after it was believed that other traditions Abhayagiri and Jetavana Theravada traditions were completely abolished. Therefore, the Buddhist monks of these traditions were then defrocked. They were given the choice of either returning to layperson permanently or to re-ordinate under the Mahavihara tradition as a novice. Hence, this way the Mahavihara came to rise again.
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