The Mihindu influence

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Twenty-three centuries ago, a bhikkhu from the Mauryan Empire visited Sri Lanka and met the King of the island; this fateful encounter changed the fate of this little island. He, known as Arhat Mahinda, was the son of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka the Great. Arhat Mahinda taught the teachings of the Gautama Buddha to the Sinhalese king Devanampiyatissa (250 – 210 BCE). Soon the king was convinced by the teachings of the Buddha and ensured rooting of the teachings of Gautama Buddha on this island. 

According to literature sources, Sri Lanka was following various religious beliefs before the arrival of Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE. However, the acts of Arhat Mahinda were so sustainable and practical that he was able to convince the king and his subjects to learn the teachings of the Buddha. If we look at the history of religions in the world, in almost all cases, they were spread by force, by brutal bloodshed, and by destroying pagan beliefs forcefully and mercilessly. Pagan temples and idols were demolished, practices were banned and devotees were tortured or killed. However, nothing of that sort is seen in the way the teachings of the Buddha were introduced and then successfully established in Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka was not only religiously and culturally refreshed due to the arrival of Arhat Mahinda, but also in many other aspects. According to ancient literature sources and archaeological evidence, Arhat Mahinda and the group of Mauryan monks and laymen introduced many industries and crafts to Sri Lanka, including the art of writing, which created drastic changes in the Sri Lankan culture and civilisation. This does not mean that our ancestors were not doing anything or were just idling before the 3rd century BCE. Archaeology and literature sources reveal that a rich culture and civilisation was developing in Sri Lanka centring on Anuradhapura by this time since the 9th century BCE. 

Therefore, if one says that it was during the 3rd century BCE, that Arhat Mahinda introduced all crafts and industries to Sri Lanka that statement is slightly misleading. What happened during the arrival of Arhant Mahinda was a more advanced Mauryan-Buddhist culture was introduced to Sri Lanka, along with more advanced crafts and industries of the Mauryans. This led to great cultural and technological advancement in Sri Lanka. 

Before we understand the changes Sri Lanka went through or the impact created by Arahat Mahinda on Sri Lanka, let us briefly understand the situation of the Mauryan Empire of that time.

Industrial development of Mauryan Empire during Asoka’s time

By this time the Mauryan Empire was one of the largest empires in the contemporary world and Asoka was known as one of the most visionary rulers of world politics. The Mauryan Empire under Asoka the Great was a period of significant industrial and economic development. Efficient administration, state support for agriculture and industry, thriving trade, and the promotion of Buddhism; all contributed to a prosperous economy. The industrial advancements made during this era not only strengthened the Mauryan Empire but also laid the groundwork for future economic progress in the Indian subcontinent.

Asoka’s vision of a morally and economically prosperous society, as reflected in his policies and projects, remains a remarkable example of ancient industrial development. The Mauryans were enjoying the peak of their development, success, and prosperity during the time of Asoka, in every aspect. The Mauryan Empire was rich, skilled, and politically and militarily strong. Therefore, the influence of the Mauryan Empire uplifted Sri Lanka in many aspects. 

The Mauryan Empire, founded by Chandragupta Maurya in 322 BCE, marked a significant chapter in the history of ancient India. Under the reign of Asoka the Great (268 – 232 BCE), the empire witnessed substantial industrial and economic development. 

Economic policies and administration

Asoka’s administration was characterised by a well-structured bureaucracy and a focused on economic prosperity. The Arthashastra – attributed to Kautilya (Chanakya), the chief advisor to Chandragupta – laid the groundwork for economic policies that were later refined during Asoka’s rule. Asoka’s inscriptions – particularly the edicts – reflect his concern for economic welfare and social justice.

The empire’s administration was divided into various departments, each responsible for specific aspects of economic life. The Samaharta was in charge of revenue collection, while the Sannidhata oversaw the treasury. These officials ensured efficient tax collection and resource management, facilitating industrial growth.

Agriculture and irrigation

Agriculture was the backbone of the Mauryan economy. Asoka’s administration undertook extensive irrigation projects to support agricultural productivity. Canals, wells, and reservoirs were constructed, and land reclamation projects were initiated to bring more arable land under cultivation. The state provided support to farmers in the form of seeds and tools and established agricultural colleges to educate them on advanced farming techniques.

Mining and metallurgy

Mining and metallurgy were crucial industries in the Mauryan Empire. The empire was rich in natural resources, including iron, copper, gold, and silver. State-controlled mines were operated to extract these minerals, which were then used for various purposes, including coinage, weaponry, and construction.

Iron played a significant role in the development of tools and weapons. The Mauryan blacksmiths were skilled in the production of iron implements, which contributed to agricultural efficiency and military prowess. The empire’s ability to produce high-quality iron and steel was noted by contemporary observers and played a crucial role in its economic and military strength.

Textile industry

The textile industry was another major contributor to the Mauryan economy. The empire was known for its production of fine cotton and wool fabrics. Textiles were produced in various regions, with centres of production specialising in different types of fabrics. For instance, Varanasi was renowned for its muslin, while other regions produced woollen goods and silk.

Textile production was a significant source of employment, engaging a large portion of the population in spinning, weaving, and dyeing. The products were not only consumed domestically but also exported to other regions, contributing to the empire’s wealth.

Trade and commerce

Trade and commerce thrived under Asoka’s reign, both within the empire and with foreign lands. The Mauryan Empire had a well-developed network of roads and trade routes, facilitating the movement of goods and people. The Grand Trunk Road, one of the most important trade routes, connected the eastern and western parts of the empire, promoting economic integration.

Ports along the eastern and western coasts facilitated maritime trade with Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean world. The exchange of goods such as spices, textiles, and precious stones boosted the empire’s economy. The state imposed taxes on trade, which were an important source of revenue. 

Urbanisation and infrastructure

The Mauryan Empire saw significant urbanisation, with cities such as Pataliputra (modern Patna), Taxila, and Ujjain emerging as major urban centres. These cities were well-planned, with advanced infrastructure; including roads, drainage systems, and public buildings.

Asoka’s emphasis on Dhamma (moral law) extended to urban planning, with efforts to improve the quality of life for his subjects. Public facilities such as hospitals for humans, as well as for animals, rest houses, and gardens, were constructed, reflecting a focus on welfare and public health. These urban centres became hubs of economic activity, fostering industries and trade.

Crafts and artisanship

Crafts and artisanship flourished during the Mauryan Period. Skilled artisans produced a variety of goods, including pottery, jewellery, and ivory carvings. The state patronised artisans, and many crafts were organised into guilds, which regulated quality and production standards.

The art and architecture of the Mauryan Period, especially under Asoka, reached new heights. The construction of stupas, pillars, and rock-cut caves showcased the expertise of Mauryan artisans. The famous Ashoka Pillars, with their exquisite carvings and inscriptions, stand as testimony to the high level of craftsmanship achieved during this period.

Arahat Mahinda introducing industries and cultural transformation

As the son of Emperor Asoka, Arahat Mahinda played a crucial role in the introduction and establishment of Buddhism on the island. His mission to Sri Lanka not only had profound religious implications but also influenced the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the country. 

Religious and cultural influence

Arahat Mahinda’s introduction of Buddhism had a transformative effect on Sri Lankan society. The establishment of Buddhism provided a new philosophical framework and ethical code that influenced various aspects of life, including governance, education, and social conduct. King Devanampiyatissa embraced Buddhism and provided royal patronage, leading to the construction of monasteries, stupas, and other religious structures.

The introduction of Buddhism also promoted literacy and learning, as the new religion emphasised the study of scriptures and the dissemination of knowledge. This intellectual movement contributed to the development of a literate and educated society, fostering advancements in various fields. Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera writes that Arahat Mahinda was “The father of Sinhalese literature,” as he had translated and written commentary for the Tripitaka in Sinhala, turning it into a literary language. 

Agriculture and irrigation

One of the significant contributions of Arahat Mahinda was the introduction and enhancement of advanced agricultural practices in Sri Lanka. Buddhism encouraged sustainable living and the efficient use of natural resources. Arahat Mahinda, through his teachings, emphasised the importance of agriculture as a means of sustenance and economic stability.

Under the influence of Buddhist principles, large-scale irrigation projects were initiated to support agriculture. The construction of tanks (reservoirs) and canals helped in the effective management of water resources, ensuring a steady supply of water for farming. These irrigation systems not only increased agricultural productivity but also supported the growth of communities around these water bodies, which resulted in giving birth to a unique Vapi (man-made tank, Wewa) civilisation in Sri Lanka. 

Development of handicrafts and artisanal industries

The spread of Buddhism under Arahat Mahinda’s guidance also stimulated the development of various handicrafts and artisanal industries. The construction of religious structures such as stupas, viharas (monasteries), and temples required skilled labour and craftsmanship. This demand led to the growth of artisanal communities specialising in stone carving, metalwork, woodwork, and painting.

Buddhist art and architecture, characterised by intricate carvings and sculptures, became a significant aspect of Sri Lankan culture. Artisans and craftsmen were encouraged to create beautiful and meaningful works, often depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha and other Buddhist motifs. This artistic tradition not only enriched the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka but also provided livelihoods for many people.

Development of native herbal medicine and healthcare

Arahat Mahinda also contributed to the development of healthcare practices in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist emphasis on compassion and care for all living beings extended to the promotion of herbal medicine and natural remedies. Monasteries often served as centres for the study and practice of herbal medicine, and monks were involved in collecting medicinal plants and preparing remedies.

This focus on healthcare led to the establishment of herbal gardens and the documentation of medicinal knowledge, which played a crucial role in the development of traditional Sri Lankan medicine. The integration of healthcare practices with religious and cultural life ensured the wellbeing of the population and laid the foundation for a holistic approach to health. Hence, ancient Buddhist monasteries in Sri Lanka consist of hospitals, spas (Janthaghara), baths (ponds, herbal baths, steam baths, and so on), and large toilet complexes. 

Influence on trade and commerce

The introduction of Buddhism by Arahat Mahinda also had indirect effects on trade and commerce. The establishment of monasteries and the influx of pilgrims and monks created a demand for goods and services, stimulating local economies. Trade routes were developed to facilitate the movement of people and goods, contributing to economic growth.

Buddhism’s emphasis on ethical trade practices and fair dealings helped in the establishment of a moral economy. Merchants and traders were encouraged to conduct business in ways that were honest and beneficial to society. This ethical framework supported the development of a stable and prosperous economic environment.

Arahat Mahinda’s mission to Sri Lanka was a turning point in the island’s history, bringing about profound religious, cultural, and economic changes. The introduction of Buddhism not only transformed the spiritual landscape but also had far-reaching effects on agriculture, handicrafts, healthcare, and trade. Arahat Mahinda’s influence extended beyond religion, fostering a holistic development that integrated ethical principles with practical advancements.

The legacy of Arahat Mahinda continues to be felt in Sri Lanka today, with Buddhism remaining a central aspect of the nation’s identity and culture. His contributions to the introduction and development of various industries laid the foundation for a thriving and sustainable society, making Arahat Mahinda a revered figure in Sri Lankan history.

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