Alan Strathern of Brasenose College, Oxford, with emphasis in colour being an imposition by The Editor Thuppahi
In the present article, I look at other ways of explaining the narrative of Sīhabāhu, Vijaya, and Paṇḍukābhaya. First I break down the narrative into four different origin stories and consider their distribution in a range of texts from South Asia in order to reflect on possible textual inspirations for them (and even consider parallels with the Greek tale of Odysseus and Circe). Second, I consider the possibility that the narrative concerning relations with Pāṇḍu royalty reflects immediate political imperatives of the fifth century ce. Do such interpretations negate the assumption that an organic communal process of mythogenesis has been at work? In the final section this methodological dilemma is approached through comparisons with the way in which scholars have looked at the origin myths of ancient Greek and particularly Roman society. Lastly, these reflections add further weight to the global comparative model of the stranger king, for the stories of Romulus and Vijaya share an emphasis on alien and transgressive beginnings.
In 2009 the Sri Lankan government finally destroyed the conventional forces of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) as the civil war that had afflicted the island since 1983 was brought to a violent denouement in the north-east of the Vanni region. From some of the subsequent celebrations by the Sinhalese majority, it seemed that the President Mahinda Rajapaksa was hailed not only for having rid Sri Lanka of a violent menace, but for having, in one sense, re-created the island. The country could now attain the kind of genuine independence and wholeness that had been lacking for much of the period following decolonisation in 1948. After the victory, Rajapaksa was hailed as a ‘great king’ and his admirers were not slow to draw historical analogies with kings and founder-heroes of the past. Such heroes typically have to wade through blood to obtain political mastery; the Lankan chronicles imply that such is the price that must be paid for the re-establishment of society or civilisation itself.
1 Gunawardana, R. A. L. H., “The people of the lion: The Sinhala identity and ideology in history and historiography”, in Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict, Spencer, Jonathan, ed. (London, 1990), p. 47, which also provides evidence to suggest that the term was in use possibly as early as the first or second centuries ce.
2 Mahāvaṃsa, The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, trans. Ananda W. P. Guruge (Colombo, 1989), Chapters 6–7, hereafter Mhv; The Dīpavaṃsa, trans. Hermann Oldenburg (1879; reissued New Delhi, 2004), hereafter Dpv Chapter 9.
3 Strathern, Alan, “The Vijaya origin myth of Sri Lanka and the strangeness of kingship”, Past and Present, 203 (May 2009), pp. 3–28.
4 See also Gunawardana, R. A. L. H., “People of the lion” p. 52. The explanations given in A. L. Basham, “Prince Vijaya and the Aryanization of Ceylon”, Ceylon Historical Journal 1 (1952), pp.163–171, of the lion element (that it reflects a Western Indian origin where lions were anciently quite common) and of Vijaya’s criminality (as a type of muscular Aryan pioneer) now seem very weak.
5 Kapferer, Bruce, Legends of People, Myths of State. Violence, Intolerance and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia (Washington and London, 1988), p. 11.
6 Obeyesekere, Gananath, “Myth models of the parricide: Oedipus in Sri Lanka” in The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology (Chicago, 1990), pp.146–147.
7 Other approaches are possible, such as the ‘theological’, which would focus on the didactic and doctrinal motives behind the text, and is the only explicitly stated purpose of the Mahāvaṃsa (see the translator’s “Prolegomena” in Mhv, p. 67).
8 What follows in this section, apart from the passage on Paṇḍukābhaya, is something of a summary of my “Vijaya Origin Myth”. See Sahlins, Marshall, “The Stranger-king: or, Dumézil among the Fijians’, in Islands of History (Chicago, 1985), and “The Stranger-king: or, elementary forms of the political life”, in, Stranger-Kings in Indonesia and Beyond, Ian Caldwell and David Henley (eds.), a special issue of Indonesia and the Malay World, 36, (2008), pp. 177–199.
9 And it seems such stories arise even when no such migration has occurred.
10 Somewhat to my surprise, I have recently discovered that Jacques Derrida had been working on the apparently rather consistent associations between “beasts” and “sovereigns”; see Derrida, Jacques, The Beast and the Sovereign (Chicago, 2009). The work of de Heusch, Luc, Le Roi de Kongo et le Monstres Sacrés (Paris, 2000) and other scholars of Central Africa plays an important role in recent explorations of the transgressive symbolism of kingship. See also Graeber, David, ‘The divine kingship of the Shilluk: on violence, utopia, and the human condition, or, elements for an archaeology of sovereignty’ HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1 (2011), pp. 1–62.
11 Mhv 9–10.
12 Mhv 10.59–61. Weerakoon, R., Mythology and the early Asian state (Sri Lanka, 1998), p.60, sees shades of Demeter’s assumption of the form of a mare, and refers to later commentaries in which the sexual connotations of Paṇḍukābhaya’s encounter with Cetiyā are drawn out more strongly.
13 Mhv 10.84–88, 104. Dpv 11.4 explicitly says that he was “enjoying sovereignty over men and Yakkhas”.
14 Mhv 10.69–72. The ever-terse Dpv 11.2, has none of this, except to say that before he was king he “lived as a robber” (reminiscent of Vijaya’s delinquency), and then killed his seven uncles.
15 “Vijaya Origin Myth”, pp.17–18.
16 In Anurādhapura itself during this time, it is unlikely that kings were accorded divine associations. Note that my treatment of the connections between such existing outsider hero stories and particular types of kingship is much more complex than this summary suggests – as anyone negotiating the relevant passages of the “Vijaya Origin Myth’” (pp. 17–21) will know.
17 It is likely that the Dīpavaṃsa was the primary source of the Mahāvaṃsa but equally that both drew upon a common stock of records. See Guruge’s Introduction to Mhv, pp. 175–191.
18 Mendis, G. C., ‘The Vijaya Legend’ in Paranavaitana Felicitation Volume, (ed.) Jayawickrama, N. A. (Colombo, 1965) 264–5; and see: Perera, L. S., ‘The Early Kings of Ceylon up to Mutasiva’ in Paranavitana, S. (ed.) University of Ceylon History of Ceylon (Colombo, 1959–60), i, even if he thinks that the authors have woven this material into a ‘consistent whole’ (p. 105).
19 S. Paranavitana, “Aryan settlements: the Sinhalese”, in Paranavitana, History of Ceylon, p.95; Mishra, D.P.Search for Lanka (Delhi, 1985).
20 See Mendis, “Vijaya Legend”, for a translation of Valahāssa Jātaka.
21 Holt, John Clifford, Buddha in the Crown: Avalokiteśvara in the Buddhist Tradition of Sri Lanka (Oxford, 1991), p.50; Peris, Merlin, Mahāvaṃsa Studies: Greek Myth in the Ancient Tradition (Colombo, 2004), p.74.
22 Walters, Jonathan, “Buddhist history: The Sri Lankan Pāli Vaṃsas and their community”, in Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practices in South Asia, (eds), Inden, Ronald, Walters, Jonathan and Ali, Daud, (New York, 2000), pp. 99–164.
23 Beal, Samuel, Si-Yu-Ki or the Buddhist Records of the Western World, translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (AD 629) (Delhi, 1994), p. lxxvii. I do not discuss Faxian in this article because the reference is brief and uninformative.
24 Avalokiteśvara-guṇa-kāraṇḍa-vyūha sutra.
25 Gunawardana, “People of the lion”, p.50, prefers the fourth century; Divyāvadāna, (eds,) E. B. Cowell and R. A. Neil (Cambridge, 1886), pp. 523–529. The island here is ‘Tamradvipa’.
26 Beal, Si-Yu-Ki, p.240.
27 Holt, Buddha, p.51.
28 L.S. Perera, “Early kings”, p.101; Mendis, “Vijaya”, p. 276.
29 Thapar, Romila, “Origin myths and the early Indian historical tradition” in Thapar, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations (New Delhi, 1978), from which Gunawardana may have taken some inspiration.
30 See also Thapar, Romila, “A historical perspective on the story of Rāma’, Thatched Patio, 5 (1992), 1–23, p.9, on versions of the Rāmāyaṇa in which Rāma and Sītā are brother and sister, and relating this to brother–sister marriages in Buddhist origin myths.
31 See Peris, Mahāvaṃsa Studies, p. 47, on narrative inconsistencies resulting from the inclusion of the Vijaya–Kuveṇī romance.
32 Ibid. pp.55–59, lists twelve but these are four I find arresting.
33 Peris, Mahāvaṃsa Studies, argues for transmission from the Odyssey to the Vaṃsa authors both directly and through the Jātakas. For example, the detail of the imprisonment of men in a pool, discovered by the reading of one-way footprints, has been connected to the Devadhamma Jātaka (Perera, “Early kings”, p.101), but Peris, p.50, argues that it can be traced back to Aesop’s fable of The Lion and the Fox. As Peris’s book proceeds, and more and more Mahāvaṃsa material is attributed to Greek sources, skepticism of his method mounts. Nevertheless, contact with the post-Alexander Indo-Greek states or even with Greek traders is certainly possible (see, for example. Basham, “Prince Vijaya”, pp.169–170), so the question of the early material must remain open. Pollock, Sheldon, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley, 2007), p. 265, remarks on the possibility of a Greek stimulus to Indian literary production in general. It is also possible, of course, that these story motifs travelled via contact with the Roman world. See Fynes, R. C. C. “Isis and Pattinī: The Transmission of a Religious Idea from Roman Egypt to India’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Nov., 1993), pp. 377–391, which argues that important elements of the Pattinī cult were introduced, in the first three centuries CE by traders from Roman Egypt who brought with them a cult of Isis.
34 L. S. Perera, “Early Kings”, p.101 (for the mare-faced yakkhiṇī) and p.109; Peris, Mahāvaṃsa Studies, pp. 85–114; Mendis, “Vijaya”, Gunawardana, R. A. L. H., “The kinsmen of the Buddha: myth as political charter in the ancient and early medieval kingdom of Sri Lanka”, in Religion and the Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka, (ed.), Smith, Bardwell L.. (Chambersburg, 1978). The story of Gilgamesh seems archetypal in some ways, Cavendish (ed.), Legends, p.91. It is even possible that textual records about the campaigns of an actual King Paṇḍukābhaya had survived
35 Gunasegaram, S. J., The Vijayan Legend and the Aryan Myth. A Commentary on Dr. G. C. Mendis’ Mahabharata Legends in the Mahāvaṃsa (Jaffna, 1963) for arguments about the location of ‘Madhurā.
36 W. A. Jayawardana, “Sucessors of Mahasena: Srimeghavanna to Upatissa II”, in Paranavitana, History of Ceylon, I, pp. 292.
37 Mhv, 7.73.
38 Gunawardana, “People of the lion”, p 53, points out that the Pallavas used the bull as their emblem, and sometimes perhaps a lion. The lion was also used by some minor Cōḻa ruling houses, others used the Tiger. Pāṇḍyans used the fish. To my mind, this comparative point represents Gunawardana’s strongest argument for the dynastic origins or associations of Sinhalaness.
39 Pollock, Sheldon, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley, 2007), p. 120.
41 I should here rectify an error in the companion article “Vijaya origin myth”, p. 26, where I refer to the “thousand service castes”. I should have referred to “the one thousand families” (which Gunawardana refers to as service castes). Indeed, I also erred (p. 21, footnote 56) in suggesting that the ‘expanding rug motif’ used by the Dīpavaṃsa, was later deployed by the Cūlavaṃsa.
42 See “Vijaya origin myth”, p. 27, footnote 77.
43 To compare with the era of Parākramabāhu I (1153–1186), see Strathern, Alan, “Sri Lanka in the long early modern period: Its place in a comparative theory of second millennium Eurasian history”, Modern Asian Studies (2009), 43, Part 4 (July 2009), pp. 809–864.
44 Basham, “Vijaya”, p.166.
45 Thapar, “Origin myths”, p.272.
46 Gunawardana, “Kinsmen of the Buddha”, p.101. In the Mahāvaṃsa, Paṇḍuvāsudeva becomes and Kaccānā becomes Bhaddakaccānā.
47 The epic quality and patriotic potential of this story are both reflected in a recent feature film by Jackson Anthony, ABĀ, released in 2008.
48 Dpv, 9.35; Mhv, 7.43–45.
49 Guruge (note 9 to Mhv 9): “evidently we have to do here with a different tradition as to the foundation of the same cities”. The Dpv 10. 6, refers to the seven brothers, but they don’t do any founding.
50 The only piece of smoothing over might be that the Mhv (7.43) has Vijaya’s minister founding Anurādhagama rather than Anurādhapura, the former connoting a village rather than a city. Indeed the ministers are all described as founding villages, whereas the Dīpavaṃsa (9.35) has it that both Vijaya and the ministers found nagaram.
51 Mhv, 10.73–104, Dpv, 11.2–3.
52 Mhv, 22.60–64, and see Kapferer, Legends, pp.57–65.
53 And pertinent to the legitimacy of Moggallāna. On the question of the Mhv’s date, I follow the reasoning of Walters, (p.c. 30/10/2007, 1/11/2007), and “Buddhist History”, pp. 120–121.
54 Kapferer, Legends, pp.57–65
55 Geiger, W., (ed.), trans, Cūlavaṃsa Being the More Recent Part of the Mahāvaṃsa, trans. from German by Rickmers, C. M.. (Colombo, 1952) pp. ii, 38.29–34.
56 Regina T. Clifford, “The Dhammadīpa tradition of Sri Lanka: Three models within the Sinhalese chronicles”, in Smith, Legitimation, p. 42, comments: “Curiously, the blatant transgression of filial piety by Duṭṭhagāmaṇi poses no problem for sixth century Lanka, nor does it for subsequent generations”. Compare, of course, with the filial piety of Romulus. . .
57 I should say that Sahlins’ various papers on the stranger-king make use of classical material in a somewhat different way. In “Stranger king”, p. 179, he refers to Apollodorus’s account of the story of Pelops, who appears in the Peloponnese as a stranger and wins the hand of Hippodamia, daughter of the native king Oenomaus. The king would only concede his daughter to whoever managed to speed away from his chariot in murderous pursuit. The chariot is tampered with, Oenomaus dies and Pelops succeeds to his kingdom. He thereby founds Greek kingship and provides the deed which is commemorated by that most Greek-defining of institutions, the Olympic Games. See Davidson, James, The Greeks and Greek Love (London, 2007), pp. 276, 286, plates 19, 20, for two image of Pelops where his foreignness is emphasised by oriental apparel, from fourth century bce Amphorae. Although, Davidson (p.c. 20/7/2009) points out that there were also some thoroughly Greek representations of Pelops, including one on the Temple of Zeus in Olympia itself.
58 Cornell, T. J., The Beginnings of Rome. Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000–264 BC) (London, 1995), p.58. A great number of different origin stories associated with Rome have been preserved, which were combined and recombined in various ways: Wiseman, T. P., Remus: a Roman myth (Cambridge, 1995), p.44, lists more than sixty versions which differ from a ‘standard’ story of Romulus and Remus. Important among these is the story of a stranger-king from Greece, the Arcadian Evander; see James Davidson, “Polybius” in Cambridge Companion to Roman Historiography,(ed.) A. Feldherr (2009).
59 Malkin, Irad, The Returns of Odysseus: Colonization and Ethnicity, (Berkeley, 1998), p. 187; Wiseman, Remus, pp. 49 and 62. Wiseman, T. P., The Myths of Rome (Exeter, 2004), pp 17–18: “Rome’s neighbour and early rival Tusculum was founded by Telegonus, the eponymous hero of Eugammon’s sixth-century sequel to the Odyssey. He was a son of Circe and Odysseus, as were Rhomos, Anteias and Ardeias, eponyms of Rome, Antium and Ardea who evidently presuppose a sixth- or fifth-century Latium in which those cities were of equal status.” Indeed, Telegonus (which means, wonderfully for our theme here, ‘born from afar’) is an excellent figure for comparison, given that his story is also replete with parricide and incest.
60 Malkin, Odysseus, p.172.
61 Gunawardana, “People of the lion”, pp. 51–52.
62 Dench, Compare Emma, Romulus’ Asylum. Roman Identities from the Age of Alexander to the Age of Hadrian (Oxford, 2005), p.14: Mediterranean descent myths “regularly feature the arrival of individuals from elsewhere and unions of locals and new arrivals; such stories articulate the connection of colonies with mother cities, the ethnic and cultural encounters. . .” See also p. 103.
63 The extent to which this nonetheless reflects the logic of the stranger-hero is discussed in “Vijaya origin myth”, pp.14–15.
64 On the problem with diffusionism, see Levi-Strauss, Claude, “Split representation in the art of Asia and America”,in Structural Anthropology (New York 1963), pp. 245–268, and Doniger, Wendy, Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (New York, 1999), p. 141.
65 Aeneas is more unambiguously a stranger-figure than Vijaya and Odysseus. The latter are from foreign parts but meet non-human indigenes, whereas the Romans imagined a more substantial continuity with the Latins.
66 See Jan N. Bremmer, “Romulus, Remus and the foundation of Rome”, in Bremmer and Horsfall, N., Roman Myth and Mythography (London, 1987), and also the comparative survey in Cavendish, Legends, pp. 399–401, which gathers far-flung examples of heroes abandoned in the wild at birth, parented or nourished by animals and growing up in exile, the effect of the latter being “that the hero comes to his adult sphere of action from the outside, as a stranger”. This comparative analysis of the hero figure has a long history from Edward Tylor to Von Hahn, to Otto Rank (for example, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, (New York 1914)), to Fitzroy Raglan and James Campbell. See Segal, Robert A., Theorizing About Myth (Amherst, 1999), Chapter 8.
67 Cornell, Beginnings of Rome, pp. 62–63.
68 See also Sahlins, “Stranger-King”, 1985, pp. 84 and 91.
69 West, M. L., Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford, 2007), p. 427, discusses the motifs of exposure and rescue by animal in hero stories, but says, “I do not dwell on these familiar themes, which are neither confined to Indo-European traditions nor especially characteristic of the warrior hero as here defined.” West (p. 417) does consider the recurring theme of union between a king and a horse more significant, which brings to mind Paṇḍukābhaya and Cetiyā. It is striking that while the modern pursuers of the proto-Indo-Europeans (besides West, see Mallory, J. P. and Adams, D. Q., The Oxford Introduction to Proto Indo-European (Oxford, 2006) p.33) seem to include the Sinhalese as part of Indo-European geography, they make no attempt to use or analyse Sinhalese material.
70 Cornell, Beginnings of Rome, p.148.
71 Cornell, Beginnings of Rome, p.58; Wiseman, Remus, p.15, on the propaganda opportunity for Rome’s enemies.
72 Beal, Si-Yu-Ki, and he leaves out the incest element. It may also be significant that, as Gunawardana, ‘People of the Lion’, p. 52, points out, the later Vaṃsatthappakāsinī states that Sīhabāhu was called Sīhala because he had caught the lion, not by descent from him, which goes for the Dhampiya aṭuvā gätapadaya (tenth century) too. This may suggest that a more ‘rational’ and less bestial origin was considered appropriate by this time.
73 Because it continues to help describe some magical or divine attributes of kingship or simply that the stories contained enough plot features that resonated with more universal dilemmas of kingship.
74 Equally, when Forsythe, G., A Critical History of Early Rome. From Prehistory to the First Punic War (Berkeley, 2005), p.95, comments on the “striking similarities between the tale of Romulus and Remus and the plots of Greek tragedies involving similar stories” (which is analogous to Lankanists presenting parallels between the Vaṃsas and the Jātakas), this is not to insist on textual transmission per se.
75 West, M. L., The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth (Oxford, 1999), p.405. Indeed, Peris’s correspondences seem do not seem any weaker than West’s.
76 What Obeyesekere, Work of Culture, p.202, says of the Sīhabāhu story over the centuries is of equal relevance to the whole section of the Mahāvaṃsa we have been considering at its moment of composition: “it is constitutive of a variety of ‘domains’ and straddles different, even contradictory, universes of meaning and experience such as those born of psyche, bios, cosmos, and polis”.
77 Cornell, Beginnings of Rome, p.119.
78 Wiseman, Remus, pp. 118 and 158.
79 Wiseman, Remus, p. 45.
80 Kapferer, Legends, pp. 44–45. Kapferer hailed the “contribution of structuralist and semiotic analyses of myth [which is] to have examined myth as a whole and to have pointed to the inner significance of the logical structure of the myth”.
81 Obeyesekere’s work in general is methodologically closer to the one taken here, being suffused by an awareness of the interplay between the textual and mythic worlds and alive to the influence of two different civilisational modes split by the advent of ethics, the pre-Buddhist and the Buddhist.
82 See footnote 65.
83 I use the term ‘collective subconscious’ in the loosest sense.
84 Obeyesekere, Work of Culture, p.147.
85 Holt, John Clifford, The Buddhist Viṣnu: Religious Transformation, Politics and Culture (New York, 2004), p.136. However, there are scattered references in literary works from at least the tenth century onwards. See Vitharana, V., “The Rāmāyaṇa in the Sinhala Buddhist tradition”, in Lanka and the Rāmāyaṇa, (ed.) Somakandhan, N. (Chinmaya Mission, Sri Lanka, 1996), pp. 33–52.
86 Holt, The Buddhist Visnu, p.138; Rajavaliya, (ed.) A. Suraweera (Ratmalana, Sri Lanka, 2000), pp.14–19.
87 Strathern, Alan, Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth Century Sri Lanka (Cambridge, 2007), p.238.
88 Seneviratne, Anuradha, “Rāma and Rāvaṇa: history, legend, and belief in Sri Lanka”, Ancient Ceylon 5 (1981) pp. 221–236.
89 Particularly associated with Munidasa Kumaratunga (1887–1944), and more recently with Arisen Ahubudu. In 1987, the latter wrote a play, Sakviti Rāvaṇa, in which the invasion of Lankāpura by Rāma was implicitly compared to the present day armed Indian intervention. When the text of the play was published, M. Kaliṅga Obeywansa was quoted on the back cover: “The neighbouring India for more than 2000 years made large effort to make Sri Lanka a colony. It is now clear that the Rāmāyaṇa, which was compiled to tarnish the image of the great monarch Rāvaṇa, is a part of this conspiracy” Translated by Nirmal Dewasiri, in “Ideological power of popular history writings and Sinhala nationalism” (MS in progress).
90 Dharmadasa, K. N. O., Language, Religion and Ethnic Awareness: The Growth of Sinhalese Nationalism in Sri Lanka (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1995). It is rather pertinent to our theme here that Vitharana “Rāmāyaṇa”, p.51, should comment: “It might surprise the great poet [Valmiki] (if he lived) to be awakened to the fact that all the evil that he infused into the character of Rāvaṇa, has been interpreted by the Sinhalas to be the marks of his heroic prowess capable of inspiring them to collective achievement during a period of the anticipated national resurgence.”
91 See P. K. Balachandran, Hindustan Times, 23 September 2007 First Published:17:39 IST (23/9/2007), on Arisen Ahubudu and the Hela movement; and Nalin de Silva, “Vijaya came much later”, Sri Lanka Guardian, 29 February 2008. The author’s trips to Sri Lanka in summer 2007 and 2009 also gave rise to this observation. See also Nirmal Dewasiri, ibid., on the popular television series, “Mahāsinhalē Vanśakatāva” ((the chronicle of the great Sinhale).
92 Holt, Buddhist Viṣnu, pp. 332–333.
Thanks to James Davidson, Jonathan Walters and Carole Newlands for reading parts of this or fielding questions. None of them, of course, can be held responsible for errors or infelicities advanced here.