1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mahāvaṃsa

MAHĀVAṂSA, the Great Chronicle, a history of Ceylon from the 5th century B.C. to the middle of the 5th century A.D., written in Pali verse by Mahānāma of the Dīghasanda Hermitage, shortly after the close of the period with which it deals. In point of historical value it compares well with early European chronicles. In India proper the decipherment of early Indian inscriptions was facilitated to a very great extent by the data found only in the Mahāvaṃsa. It was composed on the basis of earlier works written in Sinhalese, which are now lost, having been supplanted by the chronicles and commentaries in which their contents were restated in Pali in the course of the 5th century. The particular one on which our Mahāvaṃsa was mainly based was also called the Mahāvaṃsa, and was written in Sinhalese prose with Pali memorial verse interspersed. The extant Pali work gives legends of the Buddha and the genealogy of his family; a sketch of the history of India down to Asoka; an account of Buddhism in India down to the same date; a description of the sending out of missionaries after Asoka’s council, and especially of the mission of Mahinda to Ceylon; a sketch of the previous history of Ceylon; a long account of the reign of Devānam-piya Tissa, the king of Ceylon who received Mahinda, and established Buddhism in the island; short accounts of the kings succeeding him down to Duṭṭha Gāmīin (Dadagamana or Dutegemunu); then a long account, amounting to an epic poem, of the adventures and reign of that prince, a popular hero, born in adversity, who roused the people, and drove the Tamil invaders out of the island. Finally we have short notices of the subsequent kings down to the author’s time. The Mahāvaṃsa was the first Pali book made known to Europe. It was edited in 1837, with English translation and an elaborate introduction, by George Turnour, then colonial secretary in Ceylon. Its vocabulary was an important part of the material utilized in Childer’s Pali Dictionary. Its relation to the sources from which it drew has been carefully discussed by various scholars and in especial detail by Geiger. It is agreed that it gives a reasonably fair and correct presentation of the tradition preserved in the lost Sinhalese Mahāvaṃsa; that, except in the earliest period, its list of kings, with the years of each reign, is complete and trustworthy; and that it gives throughout the view, as to events in Ceylon, of a resident in the Great Minster at Anurādhapura.

See The Mahāvaṃsa, ed. by Geo. Turnour (Colombo, 1837); ed. by W. Geiger (London, 1908); H. Oldenberg, in the introduction to his edition of the Dīpavamsa (London, 1879); O. Franke, in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes (1907); W. Geiger, Dīpavamsa und Mahāvamsa (Leipzig, 1905, trans. by Ethel M. Coomaraswamy, Colombo, 1908).  (T. W. R. D.)