Buddhism Established in Sri Lanka Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The legendary king Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa received a Buddhist mission from the Indian king Aśoka and afterward established the Buddhist religion as a central part of Sri Lankan society.

Summary of Event

The life and rule of King Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa are recorded in the chronicles of Sri Lanka. The most important of these chronicles is the Māhavamsa (fifth century c.e.; The Mahāvamsa, 1837, 1909). Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa is reported to have been the second son of King Mutasiva, who had nine other sons and two daughters. Despite having an older brother, Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa inherited the throne on his father’s death because of his reputation for virtue and intelligence. Tissa, Dēvānaṃpiya Aśoka Mahinda Sanghamitta

So great was Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa’s merit that his consecration as ruler was accompanied by miracles, according to the Māhavamsa. Precious jewels that had been buried in the earth or lost in the sea rose to the surface. Strange bamboo stems in many colors and in the shapes of living creatures grew up at the foot of the mountains. Pearls washed up from the sea. The new king was delighted to see these treasures. Because generosity counted among his many virtues, he decided to send them to a king to the north in India, called “Dhammaśoka” in the chronicles. King Tissa appointed his nephew, Arittha, to lead envoys north to bring the treasures to the Indian king. Aśoka, as the Indian ruler is more commonly known, was a convert to Buddhism and was in the process of holding the Third Buddhist Council, which is credited with producing the Tipiṭaka (compiled c. 250 b.c.e.; English translation in Buddhist Scriptures, 1913), a work containing three of the most sacred Buddhist texts, and with preparing missionaries to spread Buddhism to other lands.

This Buddhist statue in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, demonstrates the religion’s lasting influence in the region.


Aśoka sent back to Sri Lanka his son Mahinda (Mahendra, in Sanskrit). After arriving in the southern island kingdom, Mahinda and six companions met Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa at Mihintale Hill, near the Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura. The son of Aśoka preached a sermon that immediately converted Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa, and settlements for the missionaries were established at a royal pavilion in Mahamegha Park. From their encampment, Mahinda and his fellow missionaries preached continually, and Buddhism spread rapidly, so that many Sri Lankans became Buddhist monks.

King Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa proceeded to build the monastery of Mahāvihāra (literally, great temple) at Mahamegha. The prestige of this Buddhist center was enhanced even further when Mahinda’s sister, Sanghamitta, arrived with a branch of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had attained his enlightenment. Sanghamitta planted the shoot, symbolically planting Buddhism in the Sri Lankan soil, and founded an order of nuns. With the backing of the king, missionaries spread out through the villages of Sri Lanka.

The chronicles clearly mix historical event and legend. No one knows whether Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa was the model of virtue presented in the Sri Lankan records. Although the stone inscriptions left by Aśoka make it evident that the Indian king did convert to Buddhism and that he did support his new religion, some historians have questioned how much of a part the Indian king actually played in the Third Buddhist Council. However, a number of important points can be accepted. Aśoka and Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa did reign in their respective kingdoms at the same time, and they would have been in contact with each other. Buddhist missionary activities to lands outside of India did take place immediately after the years of the Third Buddhist Council. Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa became the most important patron of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the religion was established as a central feature of Sri Lankan society during and immediately after his reign.

The form of Buddhism planted in Sri Lanka during King Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa’s time is known as Theravāda Buddhism. The word “Theravāda” literally means “the way of the elders” in the Pāli language of ancient India, and it is generally regarded as a more conservative form of Buddhism than the Mahāyāna Buddhism that came to predominate in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Within Sri Lanka, Theravāda Buddhism gradually split into three schools, but the school of the Mahāvihāra monastery established by Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa was the most powerful and influential for centuries.


The adoption of Buddhism became the basis of political and social identity for Sri Lanka, and the idea of the Buddhist monarchy helped give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan kings. Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa, as the legendary founder of Buddhism in the land, became the model for rulers who were seen as protectors and patrons of the faith. In modern times, the religion established during Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa’s reign has become a point of conflict. Religious differences have intensified conflicts between the Buddhist Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group, and the Hindu Tamils, who settled in northern Sri Lanka from southern India centuries ago.

The Indian missionary movement that brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka also took the religion to Southeast Asia, which later received Buddhist influences from both India and Sri Lanka along trade routes. Theravāda Buddhism became the dominant form in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. These Southeast Asian nations were therefore linked to Sri Lanka by religion, and Sri Lankan Buddhism was influential throughout the region.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fa-hsien. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-hsien of His Travels in India and Ceylon (a.d. 399-414) in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. Translated by James Legge. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. A new edition of a translation originally published in 1886. Although Faxian made his travels several centuries after Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa, the book is a firsthand account of the rituals, practices, and folklore of ancient Sri Lankan Buddhism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mahanama. The Mahāvamsa: The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka. Translated by Douglas Bullis. Fremont, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press, 1999. A new translation of the chronicle of Sri Lanka. Readers concerned chiefly with the establishment of Buddhism by Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa will find this subject in chapter eleven. The translator has included his own historical commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A good general introduction to Buddhism that has chapters on its origins in India and on Mahāyāna and Theravāda Buddhism. Particularly recommended for those seeking to understand the distinctions between those two major approaches to Buddhism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rahula, Wapola. History of Buddhism in Ceylon: The Anuradhapura Period, Third Century b.c. to Tenth Century a.d. London: Taylor & Francis, 1966. An older history, but one of the most detailed on this topic and a volume that can be found in many large libraries.
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Categories: History