Introducing Book on Buddhist Poetry in Portuguese Ceilao

University Press: Oxford, 2013, xv + 308pp. ISBN-13: 978 019 993578 5, US $99.00 (hardback); ISBN-13: 978 019993578 9, US$45.00 (paperback)

BUDDHIST Many researchers have explored the impact of British and French Orientalism in the reinterpretations of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Less noticed, however, and infrequently discussed is the impact of Portuguese colonialists and missionaries upon Buddhist communities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries across Asia. Stephen C. Berkwitz addresses this theme by examining five poetic works by Alagiyavanna Mukaveti (b.1552), a renowned Sinhala poet who participated directly in the convergence of local and trans-local cultures in early modern Sri Lanka. Berkwitz follows the written works of the poet from his position in the court of a Sinhala king, through the cultural upheavals of warfare and the expansion of colonial rule, and finally to his eventual conversion to Catholicism and employment under the Portuguese Crown. In so doing, Berkwitz explores the transformations in religion and literature rendered by what was arguably the earliest sustained encounter between Asian Buddhists and European colonialists in world history.

Alagiyavanna’s poetic works give expression to both a discourse of nostalgia for the local religious and cultural order in the late sixteenth century, and a discourse of cultural assimilation with the new colonial order during its ascendancy in the early seventeenth century. Employing an interdisciplinary approach that combines Buddhist Studies, History, Literary Criticism, and Postcolonial Studies, this book yields important insights into how the colonial experience contributed to the transformation of Buddhist culture in early modernity.



Preface ix
Timeline xiii

Map xv

Chapter 1 – Buddhist Literary Culture in Early Modern Ceilão 1

Chapter 2 – The Aesthetics of Power and The Cock’s Message 32

Chapter 3 – Longing for the Dharma in Poem of King Dhammasonda 64

Chapter 4 – On Love and Kingship in Poem of the Birth-story of King Kusa 97

Chapter 5 – Admonishing the World with Well-Spoken Words 131

Chapter 6 –Power and Religion in The War of General Constantino 163

Conclusion – Poetry, Power, and the Dawning of Modern Buddhism 202

Bibliography 281

Index 297

Buddha statue

A REVIEW by Silke K. Yasmin Fischer in the journal Religion, 44: 2, 329-333

So far, poetry has been a neglected source when dealing with the interplay of colonial and Buddhist culture, and wrongly so, since poems are a meaningful expression of political, social and religious ideas. Stephen C. Berkwitz provides us with a new way of studying the impact of colonialism on Buddhist culture, analysing poems of the outgoing 16th and beginning 17th century in Sri Lanka, a period shaped by and through interactions of Buddhist agents with the Portuguese Christians. His research is based on five extensive literary works attributed to Alagiyavanna Mukaveṭi (1552–c.1625), a poet first employed at the court of a Sinhala king and, after his conversion from Buddhism to Catholicism, under the Portuguese Crown. Presenting us with one of the earliest Buddhist voices reacting to the presence of European colonialists in South Asia, Berkwitz brings a precious perspective to the study of Buddhism as well as the history and particularly literary history of South Asia, not only because work on the early-modern epoch of Sri Lanka has hitherto focused mostly on politics, but also because the poet was a Buddhist layman, and not a monk.

The investigation of the life and work of a single Buddhist can lead us to a better understanding of the social logic and intellectual creativity in the period of colonialism since it minimises the risk of over-intellectualising materials selected from a wide range of resources, as Anne Blackburn’s book Locations of Buddhism: Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka (2010) has already shown. Her research, which focuses on Sri Lankan Buddhism of the late 19th and early 20th century, qualified the statement of former studies which emphasised the power of colonialism in transforming Buddhist thinking and social patterns – known as ‘Buddhist modernism’, ‘Buddhist Revival’ and ‘Protestant Buddhism’. Following a similar approach, Berkwitz provides a study about an individual agent at the beginning of Sri Lanka’s colonial history, thus being the first in the field of Buddhist studies that deals with this period. Alagiyavanna is a well-chosen figure since he presents us with a variety of literary expressions of Buddhism.

After outlining the aims of his book, in Chapter one Berkwitz gives information about the poet’s life and work as well as the socio-cultural context. He provides us with the development of Buddhist Sinhala literary culture from the 10th to the 16th century as well as Portuguese colonial history, including the work of the Catholic missionaries. Berkwitz mentions in footnotes important studies about Sri Lankan Buddhism and works about political history, especially under Portuguese rule, but references to Sinhala literary history are lacking. Instead Berkwitz shows the impact of classical Sanskrit poetry on Sinhala literature by focusing on Sheldon Pollock’s concepts, including those of ‘literary culture’ and ‘cosmopolitan vernaculars’. Establishing the connection of Alagiyavanna’s poems with the Sanskrit-inspired mahākāvya tradition, in the following chapters Berkwitz draws on Sri Lankan histories of Sinhala literature, but mentions no European studies such as Heinz Bechert’s posthumously published book Eine regionale hochsprachliche Tradition in Südasien. Sanskrit-Literatur bei den buddhistischen Singhalesen (2005). Berkwitz’ comparative analysis of the poems with reference to further Sinhala as well as Pali and Indian poetry and his contextualisation of aesthetic conventions, political and religious concerns bring up questions about the manuscripts of Alagiyavanna’s poems. It would have been helpful to know how many manuscripts of the particular poems exist, from which year they date and in what way they deviate from each other. This could have clarified why Berkwitz has given only approximate total numbers of verses for the five poems analysed in the next chapters.

Alagiyavanna’s first poem, The Cock’s Message, composed in the eḷu-style of literary Sinhala, dates from the early 1580s. Berkwitz plausibly portrays the poem as expressing a fusion of political power and literary culture at the royal court. It reflects a poet–king relationship in which the poet receives prestige and wealth while his royal patron, King Rājasiṃha I, is presented with eulogising verses about the beauty of his kingdom and his own fame. While retelling the story of the poem, Berkwitz alternates between paraphrases and his own English translation of well-chosen verses of the 207 quatrains of the poem, quoting in footnotes the original Sinhala text from an edition published in Sri Lanka in 1995. He also employs this strategy for the analysis of the four remaining poems. After discussing symbols of power used by the poet and the aesthetic excellence of the poem, Berkwitz deals with the religious pluralism to be found in several verses. For this he gives background information from Sinhala literature of the 15th century, showing the veneration of both Hindu gods and the Buddha as a common practice of Buddhists in this period. Berkwitz concludes that the fact that the poem encourages the audience to worship at Buddhist as well as Hindu temples suggests a Buddhist identity that is open for Hindu practices. The term ‘Buddhist identity’ as used by Berkwitz implies a conscious attitude – this might be little over-interpreted, considering that members of a religious community often perform rituals without reflection, i.e., they are not aware of something being ‘Buddhist’ or ‘Hindu’.

In the late 1580s Alagiyavanna composed the Poem of King Dhammasoṇḍa. Quoting information from a Sri Lankan chronicle, Berkwitz illustrates political and religious changes in the 1580s at the court of King Rājasiṃha I, who battled the Portuguese several times and eventually converted from Buddhism to Hinduism; after this the king had Buddhist monks killed and their monasteries destroyed. Berkwitz portrays Alagiyavanna’s second poem as an answer to these upheavals. In about 160 four-line stanzas it deals with a non-canonical Jātaka story; previous births of the Buddha are a popular subject of Sinhala poetry. The key issue of this poem is no longer the praise of a royal patron but rather the moral character of the Boddhisattva in the shape of King Dhammasoṇḍa. After focusing on the poem’s literary conventions as well as its innovations, Berkwitz focuses on Alagiyavanna’s dedication to the dhamma. Although the poem still mentions Hindu deities, its chief aim is to encourage the audience to listen to the words of the Buddha and to develop moral skills. Finally, Berkwitz traces Alagiyavanna’s representation of righteous kings with Buddhist virtues, implicating the author’s subtle critique of Rājasiṃha I.

Around ten years after the death of King Rājasiṃha I, in 1610, Alagiyavanna completed his approximately 680-verse-long poem on the Birth Story of King Kusa. Based on a popular canonical Jātaka story, one central theme of the poem is love lost and regained between King Kusa and his wife Prabhāvatī. Alagiyavanna uses the story to incorporate moral admonitions, such as the impermanence of the body, the fruits of deeds or the problems associated with love, exhibiting a negative view of women in comparison to a more romantic outlook in the 13th century. Berkwitz persuasively states that Alagiyavanna – by idealising the Buddha, the Bodhisattva and righteous kingship – positions moral features above traditional Sinhala poetic norms as a reaction to the fall of the Sinhala kingdom to the Portuguese and consequently the loss of the former poet–king symbiosis. He convincingly shows that the poem with its multiple literary styles addresses an audience encompassing both royal court members and villagers, thus expanding the literary horizon of classical Sinhala poetry which by now was bound by the culture-power formation at the royal court.

Alagiyavanna’s polemical poem Well-Spoken Words gives short moralistic admonitions and thereby shows the poet’s move away from primarily aesthetic interests to ethical ones. Berkwitz follows the assumption that the poem dates from 1611, one year before Alagiyavanna’s conversion to Catholicism. Delineating the historical setting, he emphasises Alagiyavanna’s cultural location outside the two remaining centres of power; Koṭṭe was under Portuguese rule and Kandy under that of a Sinhala King, both hostile to Alagiyavanna’s former patron Rājasiṃha I. Since the poem contrasts traditional Buddhist teachings (supplemented by wise sayings drawn from the pan-Indic stock) with the deplorable condition of society, Berkwitz reads the poem as an aesthetic and ethical response to the historical challenges. He emphasises that Alagiyavanna uses the poem for cultural criticism of ignorance, immorality and kings lacking virtues as well as the veneration of Hindu deities and offerings to Brahmins – in an era marked by the expansion of Portuguese influence, warfare and hostility against Buddhism. The last passage persuasively highlights the verses which celebrate the Buddha’s virtues, teachings and practices, while condemning other religious forms, thus advocating a Buddhist identity grounded on its opposition to other religions and on ethical reasoning.

Around 1619, some years after his conversion to Catholicism, Alagiyavanna composed The War of Constantino which praises in approximately 190 quatrains the Portuguese captain-general Constantino de Sá de Noronha. To contextualise it historically Berkwitz deals with the relationship between Alagiyavanna and the Portuguese and also sketches the debates about the authorship as well as the sincerity of the author’s Christian sentiments. Berkwitz sees the poem as an example of cultural and religious hybridity: he shows that the eulogies of the Portuguese captain-general are modelled after those of Buddhist kings; furthermore some new poetic topics are described, such as countries and cities never before mentioned in Sinhala poetry. Finally Berkwitz convincingly points out the hybrid religious views, as the poem offers Buddhist, Hindu and Christian concepts – for example, the Buddhist ideas of karma and merit, reference to Hindu gods or the Christian Trinity, using traditional attributes of the Buddha for the characterisation of Jesus Christ.

In the last chapter Berkwitz summarises Alagiyavanna’s different conceptions of power and identity that reflect the transformative early-modern period characterised by the encounter of Sri Lankan with European people and cultures. He also criticises selected scholarly dichotomies such as the opposition of resistive agency and passive subjectivity of the colonialised, the disparity of local and translocal, the difference of the world of a text and everyday reality as well as the drawing of distinct boundaries between different religions. Looking at Alagiyavanna’s life and literary work, according to Berkwitz these dichotomies are not tenable – it would be worthwhile for future studies to further pursue this line of thought. Berkwitz persuasively emphasises Alagiyavanna’s role as a constructor of modern Buddhist ideas by strengthening the reasonable and ethical aspects of Buddhism, by divorcing Buddhism from traditional practices like the veneration of Hindu deities, by contrasting the validity of Buddhism in comparison with other religions and by showing engagement with the world. This is a landmark outcome of his research since to date the 19th century has been considered the period in which such ideas were shaped, implying that the transformations of Buddhist thought and practice have been modelled after Protestant Christian forms of religion. Finally Berkwitz summarises the characteristics of each of the five poems, coming to the conclusion that Alagiyavanna may be seen not only as the ‘last classical Sinhala poet’, but also as ‘the first modern Buddhist’ (p. 220).

With his close focus on a single native voice Berkwitz provides an excellent and fruitful study which uses approaches from Buddhist Studies, History, Literary Criticism and Postcolonial Studies to depict stabilities as well as transformations of Buddhist self-conception and literary culture in Sri Lanka. The fact that Berkwitz presents all sources – originally written in Sinhala, Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil or Portuguese – in English (only some key words are also given in Sinhala or Sanskrit) makes the book a good read for students and scholars who are not familiar with these languages.


  1. Bechert, Heinz. 2005. Eine regionale hochsprachliche Tradition in Südasien. Sanskrit-Literatur bei den buddhistischen Singhalesen. Wien: Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
  2. Blackburn, Anne M. 2010. Locations of Buddhism: Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. [CrossRef]

Silke K. Yasmin Fischer

Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (Germany)

© 2013, Silke K. Yasmin Fischer



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