The Buddhist Visnu

The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation, Politics, and Culture

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 448
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Buddhist Visnu
    Book Description:

    John Holt's groundbreaking study examines the assimilation, transformation, and subordination of the Hindu deity Visnu within the contexts of Sri Lankan history and Sinhala Buddhist religious culture. Holt argues that political agendas and social forces, as much as doctrinal concerns, have shaped the shifting patterns of the veneration of Visnu in Sri Lanka.

    Holt begins with a comparative look at the assimilation of the Buddha in Hinduism. He then explores the role and rationale of medieval Sinhala kings in assimilating Visnu into Sinhala Buddhism. Offering analyses of texts, many of which have never before been translated into English, Holt considers the development of Visnu in Buddhist literature and the changing practices of deity veneration. Shifting to the present, Holt describes the efforts of contemporary Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka to discourage the veneration of Visnu, suggesting that many are motivated by a reactionary fear that their culture and society will soon be overrun by the influences and practices of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50814-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. PART I
      (pp. 3-7)

      In many chapters of the history of religions, there are clear and frequent instances in which the myths, rituals, ethics, gods, metaphysics, or symbolism of one religious culture are assimilated, transformed, and subordinated by the devotees of another. In a previous study published a decade ago, I sought to understand how and why the Mahayana Buddhist bodhisatva Avalokitesvara had been absorbed into the predominantly Theravadan Sinhala Buddhist religious culture of Sri Lanka. In that study, I found that many centuries after Avalokitesvara’s Mahayana cult had been introduced into Sri Lanka, the bodhisatva had come to be regarded by Sinhala Buddhists...

      (pp. 8-31)

      This chapter explores very briefly the problem of how Hindus have enfolded the Buddha into their changing religious culture in various historical contexts, as an especially relevant example of the theoretical problem I sketched in the introduction to part 1. The chapter also indicates how some Hindus have adopted a critical stance toward Buddhists and Buddhism. This discussion also provides an opportunity to outline some of the salient features of the cult of Visnu within Hindu religious culture, so that, in later chapters, the nature and significance of Visnu’s assimilation into the Buddhist religious culture of Sri Lanka can be...

    • 2 “UNCEASING WAVES”: Brahmanical and Hindu Influences on Medieval Sinhala Buddhist Culture in Sri Lanka
      (pp. 32-61)

      If Sri Lanka were to be identified on a contemporary world map depicting the geography and history of religions, it would no doubt be shaded categorically, along with Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, as a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country. Characterizing Sri Lanka’s religious culture exclusively in this way, however, would be quite inaccurate, even less appropriate than categorizing Indonesia, for instance, as a Muslim country. Although the majority (approximately two thirds) of Sri Lankans are indeed Buddhist, as the vast majority of Indonesians are now certainly Muslim, religious and cultural constructions in both countries are extraordinarily complex and multilayered. Deeper...

    • 3 THE SANDALWOOD IMAGE: Upulvan Deviyo and the Origins of the Visnu Cult in Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka
      (pp. 62-101)

      When Wilhelm Geiger published his German and then English translations of the Pali Mahavamsa in 1912, his accomplishment created a major and lasting contribution to the study of Buddhism in the West. It also produced, perhaps unwittingly, important effects on how many Theravada Buddhists in twentieth-century Sri Lanka would come to understand various aspects of the nature and legacy of their own religious culture.With Geiger’s translation published for the Pali Text Society in London, the Mahavamsa was not only available to interested readers in the West, but it also enjoyed an increased popularity among the English-reading Sinhala elite in twentieth-century...

    • 4 TRANSFORMED DEITY: The “Buddhist Visnu” in Sinhala Literature and Liturgy
      (pp. 102-154)

      In several tracts of late medieval Sinhala folk literature dating from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries C.E. and in the contemporary liturgical petitions (yatika) chanted by kapuralas (shrine priests) recorded recently at important Visnu devalayas,² Visnu is uniformly praised for his prowess in protecting the Buddhasasana (“dispensation”) for a period of 5,000 years following the enlightenment of the Buddha. It is his most telling and popular trait in Sinhala Buddhist religious culture. Almost as prevalent are references alluding to Visnu being present and protecting the Buddha from Mara (death personified) along with his forces of fear and seduction...

  5. PART II
      (pp. 157-159)

      The second part of this study, the fifth through ninth chapters, consists largely of an analysis of the religious and political significance of the cult of the “Buddhist Visnu” in contemporary Sri Lanka. The presentation, however, is not simply synchronic. I have found it necessary to provide a number of historical and literary discussions as well as various theoretical asides in order to frame adequately many of the contemporary expressions of the Visnu cult as they are articulated today.

      Much of what follows was initiated by months of fieldwork conducted from late 1999 through mid-2001, mainly at the Maha Devalaya...

    • 5 SEEKING PROTECTION: Cultic Life at the Udarata Visnu Devalayas
      (pp. 160-224)

      Robert Knox was a young Englishman who lived in and around Kandy, held hostage by the Kandyan king, Rajasimha II, in the 1660s and 1670s.His famous account of his capture by the king’s men after he was shipwrecked with the captain (his father) and crew off the east coast of the island near Trincomalee, his further account of imprisonment and gradual adjustment to life among the seventeenth-century up-country Sinhalas, and then the details of his dramatic escape through Anuradhapura to Dutch-controlled Mannar (an island off the northwest coast of Sri Lanka) almost twenty years later, are supplemented by his lengthy...

    • 6 THE VALIYAK MANGALYA: The Curative Powers of the Mala Raja
      (pp. 225-246)

      In contrast to the last chapter’s discussions centered on daily and weekly ritual life at Visnu’s Maha Devalaya in Kandy on kemmura days, this brief chapter will examine aspects of an annual rite that is now, it would appear, unique to the cult of Visnu in Sinhala Buddhist religious culture. Indeed, the annual valiyak mangalya or natuma, which commences each year on the second night after the concluding early-morning “water-cutting” ceremony of Kandy’s asala perahara pageant and continues for six nights with a concluding short afternoon ceremony on the seventh day, is performed only at the Maha Devalaya in Kandy...

    • 7 LEGACIES OF THE “BUDDHIST VISNU”: Myth and Cult at the Alutnuvara Devalaya
      (pp. 247-330)

      Sinhala religious culture has been assimilative historically. Its pliability and practicality has sustained its remarkable endurance for more than two millennia. Thus, change, or more specifically transformation, has been its ally or modus vivendi. I have argued that assimilations and transformations tend to occur through time if they are perceived as functionally efficacious and then determined to be teleologically or soteriologically relevant. In the case of Visnu, his incorporation was at first politically and socially expedient for Sinhala kingship. Since his mythic profile was then rationally linked to the soteriology of Buddhism, further abetted by means of his identification with...

    • 8 MINISTER OF DEFENSE?: The Politics of Deification in Contemporary Sri Lanka
      (pp. 331-350)

      Throughout the course of this study, it has become apparent that Hinduism has made an indelible impact on Sinhala Buddhist religious culture historically. In the process, patterns of Hindu religious culture have been transformed, or better, conformed to a different cultural regime rooted in Buddhist values.While it is evident from a study of the cult of the “Buddhist Visnu” that the Hindu presence and its transformation is now a historical legacy, it is also something of a continuously unfolding reality.

      In Sri Lanka today, about one in ten people are self-consciously Hindu in religious orientation. This general figure, of course,...

    • Conclusion
      (pp. 351-370)

      During the final days of my two years of field research in Sri Lanka, I returned to the southern tip of the island, to Devinuvara, to observe the Visnu devalaya’s annual perahara, the ritual descendant of what may have been the first perahara held for a deva in Sri Lanka. I had spent only a few days in Devinuvara during the first spring of my fieldwork in order to do an initial survey of the religio-cultural context of the its famous Visnu devalaya. At that time, I had engaged in some interesting conversations with the kapuralas at the many subsidiary...

  6. Notes
    (pp. 371-410)
  7. Bibliography
    (pp. 411-420)
  8. Index of Place Names
    (pp. 421-422)
  9. Index of Sinhala (snh), Pali (p), Sanskrit (skt) and Tamil (t) Texts (translated or cited)
    (pp. 423-424)
  10. Subject Index
    (pp. 425-441)
  11. MAP
    (pp. 442-442)