Pre Buddhist religious beliefs in Sri Lanka

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There was evidently no national or state religion systematically organized in the island before Buddhism introduce to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C.E. The Hiuen Tsiang says the kingdom of Sinhala formerly was addicted to immoral religious worship. Divyāvadana shed light to prove the visit of traders during the time of Lord Buddha. The worshiping of ancestors, worshiping of Yakśas, worshiping of gods or Dēvās, Nigaṇṭas, Ṡaivaism can be identified. Paribbājakas and Ājīvakas, Pāsaṇḍas and Pabbajitās and many other ascetics, known as Samaṇas seem to have been found in fair numbers in the island. Almost all the important deities who survived after the introduction of Buddhism became Buddhist sooner or later. This paper proposes to discuss the significance of all these above mentioned factors.


Before Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C.E, there was evidently no national or state religion systematically organized in the island (Rahula Walpola 1956: 34). We can categorized the pre Buddhist beliefs in ancient Sri Lanka as follows

  • The worship of yakśas
  • The worship of yakśanis (female yakśas)
  • The worship of Nāgās
  • The Ancestor worship
  • The worship of deities
  • The worship of female deities
  • The worship of trees
  • Brahmanism
  • Nigaṇthas
  • Śaivisam
  • Paribbrājakas and Ᾱjīvakas

The worship of yakśas

The worship of the yakśas seems to have been a popular and prevalent cult in ancient Sri Lanka¡ As recorded in the chronicles in Sri Lanka the Lord Buddha has visited three times to Sri Lanka, in his life time. In the ninth month of his Buddhahood, at the full moon day Buddha himself set forth for the island of Lanka, to settle a dispute of yakśa who lived near Mahānāga garden (M.V. 1950, 1:19-20). The king Paṇḍkābhaya (5th B.C.E) has constructed houses for the yakśas such as Chitrarāja and the Kālavēla. The mention is made in Mahāvaṃsa as follows “he settled the yakkha Kāḷvēla on the east side of the city, the Yakkha Cittarāja at the lower end of the Abhaya tank” (M.V. 1912, 10:84).

The worship of yakśanis (female yakśas)

The same king has housed the yakśani Valavāmukhī within the royal precincts and made early sacrificial offerings them and to other yakśas (M.V. 1950, 10:86).

Ancestor worship

The mention is made that the slave woman who had helped the king Paṇḍkābhaya in time past and was re born of yakśhini, to thankful to her the king has made a house at the South gate of the city. (M.V. 1950, 10:85).

The worship of Nāgās

Although the worship of Nāgās is not mentioned in the chronicles of Sri Lanka but there are many evidences about the people of Nāgās who dwelled in ancient Sri Lanka. The Mahāvaṃsa mentions in the fifth year of his Buddhahood, a war caused by a gem set throne, was like to come to pass between the nāgas Mahōdara and Cūlōdara, uncle and nephew, and their followers (M.V. 1950, 10:86). Dīpavaṃsa says that the mountain serpents and the sea serpents fought a battle in the island, having arranged their arrays on both sides an awful struggle (1992, 2:4). The worshiping is nāgās is a famous cult in South India in the later period of time, the symbols of Nāgās has been used to protect of the Buddhism. The unusually respectful treatment of the cobra among the Sinhlase villagers even today indicates the place that serpents had occupied among the cults in ancient Sri Lanka (Rahula walpola 1956: 41).

The worship of deities

The god Sumana of Samatakūta is also a pre Buddhist deity. The lord Buddha has gifted handful of hairs to the god of Sumana in his first visit to Sri Lanka (M.V. 1950, 1:33).

The worship of female deities

There is a female deity named pachchimarājinī “western queen” whom Paṇḍukābhaya installed a house near the western gate of the city.

The worship of trees

The trees are called as chetiyas. It is believed that the Bo tree was worshipped in Mohanjodaro (Marshall John, vol . i: 63). The king Paṇḍukābhaya settled Vyādha dēva the god of huntsmen in Palmyra tree near the Western gate of the city (M.V. 1950, 1:89). The Mahāvaṃsa further mentions banyan tree was dedicated to the yakśa king Vaiśravaṇa (1950, 1:89). There is no other evidence to prove that the Palmyra palm was included in the category of sacred trees.


Brahmanas must have live in pre Buddhist Sri Lanka. The king Paṇḍukābhya is reported to have also put up a building called sotthisālā (M.V. 1950, 10:102). The Mahāvaṃsaṭīkā gives two interpretations to the term, one is that, it means a hall where Brahmanas utter sotthivacana and the other is that it is a hospital (2001: 223).


There were three famous Nigṇthans called Jotiya, Giri and Kumbaṇḍa. The king Paṇḍukābhaya built a house for the nigaṇtha Jōtiya east ward of the lower cemetery (M.V. 1950, 10:97).


The many Indian traders have visited Sri Lanka at the time of the Lord Buddha. Divyāvadāna mentions the construction of the prāsada call Chandanamala by using the Sandalwood of Sri Lanka to dwell the Lord Buddha (Senevirathna Ariyadasa 1999: 59). A trader called Poorna has visited six times to Sri Lanka and later he listened the doctrine of Buddha and became a monk under the Buddha (Senevirathna Ariyadasa 1999: 48).


The evidence is also available for the existence of the śaivisam. The Mahāvaṃsa shed light on the Sivika Sāla build by king Paṇḍukābhaya. The Mahāvaṃsaṭīkā gives two interpretation as hall where the śivalinga was deposited and a lying in home (2001: 223).

Paribbrājakas and Ᾱjīvakas

The king Paṇḍukābhaya has built a monastery for praibbrājakas and a house for ājivakas (M.V 1950, 10:101-102). The various Pāsaṇḍas and samanas also live during this period. These two categories were known in this island as Paṇḍuvāsdeve disembarked here in the guise of Praibbarājakas and princess Bhaddakachchyanā disembarked as nuns. Tāpasa were also lived during this period (M.V 1950, 10:96). It further gives details that the five hundred families of various beliefs also lived (M.V. 1950, 10:100).

Sri Lanka was so closely and intimately connected with India that every great change that took place in the main continent whether political, social, economic or religious influenced considerably the life of the people of Sri Lanka. The many of these pre Buddhist religious beliefs were prevailed in the Indian sub-continent. On the other hand, Buddhism offered to the people of Sri Lanka a new order of life which was far superior to that which they had known and followed so far.



Additional Bibliography

  • Dīpavaṃsa 1959 Ncāṇavimala Thēra, Kiriellē., M. D. Gunasēna Publishers, Colombo.
  • The Dīpavaṃsa 1992 H. Oldernberg., Asian Education Services, New Delhi, Madras.
  • Divyavadana 1999 Nagoda Ariyadasa senevirathan (trans.), S. Godage publishers, Maradana, Colombo 10.
  • Divyāvadāna 1980 Andre and Filliozat., London.
  • Divyāvadāna 1886 (ed.), E. B. Cowell and R. A. Nei., London.
  • Mahāvaṃsa part I & II 1967 (trans.), Sumangala Tera and Devarakshitha Batuwanthudāwe.,
  • Rathanākara bookshop, Wella Avenue, Colombo.
  • The Mahāvaṃsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon 1950 W. Geiger., Ceylon Government Information Department, Colombo.
  • The Mahāvaṃsa the Great Chronicle of Ceylon, 1912 (trans.), W. Geiger., Oxford.
  • Mahāvaṃsaṭīkā 2001 Akuratiye Amaravamsa thera and Hemachandra Disanayaka (edit), S. Godage publishers, Maradana, Colombo, 10.
  • Dāṭhāvaṃsa 1883 ed. M. Asbhatissa, published in Colombo.
  • Thūpavaṃsa 1994 translated into English by S. Gamlath and published by the Godage publishers in Colombo.
  • Rāhula Walpola 1956 History of Buddhism in Ceylon, M.D Gunasēna and, Colombo


M.phil and Ph.D


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