Reading the Mahavamsa

The Literary Aims of a Theravada Buddhist History

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Kristin Scheible
South Asia Across the Disciplines
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reading the Mahāvaṃsa: The Literary Aims of a Theravāda Buddhist History is the latest in a long series of works on the seminal Buddhist text entitled Mahāvaṃsa or "Great History." This text, written in Pāli in Sri Lanka in the fifth century ce, narrates the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the lineage of kings that ruled the island.

Beginning with the first scholarly edition and translation by George Turnour in the 1830s, the Mahāvaṃsa has attracted interest due, in part, to its perceived wealth of historically accurate information about Sri Lankan history. During a time when the colonial rulers of South Asia believed there was no historical consciousness among native populations—a tool in their arsenal of colonial legitimation—Turnour and his successors, colonial officials themselves, argued forcefully for the historical value of the Mahāvaṃsa and other similar works in the vaṃsa genre. The recognition that the Mahāvaṃsa was properly historical, according to the standards of the time, represented a turning point in its scholarship at this early date, and not only set the course for future scholarship, but also paved the way for a dominant historicist reading that continues to the present day.

In this excellent and timely book author Kristin Scheible reorients the reader away from this longstanding historicist reading and towards a literary reading that accounts for the ways in which the Mahāvaṃsa provokes emotional and ethical transformations. As such, her study participates in the well-established literary turn, and more recent affective turn, in textual scholarship. Drawing on the work of Umberto Eco, Hayden White, and other literary critics, Scheible undermines the easy division between "fact" and "fiction," "history" and "myth," in order to reveal the literary aims of the Mahāvaṃsa. This frees the Mahāvaṃsa to speak as literature, and serves as a critical intervention in the field of Theravāda Studies.

Scheible not only advocates a new reading—as one among others in a plurality of interpretations—but also argues that a historicist reading "misses the point" of the Mahāvaṃsa, whose "true intention … is to effect a transformation in the reader-hearer through the cultivation of the highly prized Buddhist emotions of saṃvega (anxious thrill) and pasāda (serene satisfaction)" (6). This is the literary aim for the Mahāvaṃsa's "textual community" of Buddhist monastics: an ethical transformation of the reader brought about through emotional engagement with rhetoric, metaphor, and character.

Scheible identifies two primary problems with historicist readings. First, such readings result in demythologization, dismissing aspects of the text that are not explicitly concerned with chronology and historical fact. A new reading is necessary in order to reintegrate the mythical aspects of the text, in particular the central role of nāgas (snake-like gods), and show how these aspects work on the reader. The idea of a text "working" on the imagination of a reader is taken from Dominick LaCapra's 1983 Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Languages (Cornell University Press, 1983), and used fruitfully by Scheible to differentiate "worklike" aspects from the "documentary" aspects favored by historicist readings.

Second, historicist readings have resulted in the Mahāvaṃsa being interpreted primarily as a "political charter" for "Sinhala Buddhist nationalism" (123–131). This political reading has been connected to the civil war with the Tamil minority, and chauvinistic majoritarian politics—interested readers can find a wealth of recent studies on this topic, many discussed by Scheible. Reading the Mahāvaṃsa displaces the political in favor of the religious.

Chapters 1–3 focus on the "worklike" aspects of the Mahāvaṃsa in its introductory section. Chapter 1 explores the introductory proem, which contains instructions for the reader on how to read and respond to the text. Above all, the text should lead the reader to cultivate the emotions of saṃvega and pasāda. Chapter 2 analyzes metaphors of light and darkness in relation to the story of the Buddha’s visits to Sri Lanka, and his work to transform the island in preparation for the transmission of his teachings (or sāsana). The import of this narrative—usually dismissed in historicist readings as myth—is the ethical transformation of the reader in the direction of self-awareness and gratitude. Chapter 3 expands upon this narrative by focusing on the character of the nāgas, snake-like gods that were the "original" inhabitants of the island. The nāgas, Scheible argues, are not symbols for chaos or aboriginal inhabitants—as historicist readings claim—but rather ideal models of religious attitudes held out for appropriation by the reader.

Chapter 4 then moves beyond the introductory section of the Mahāvaṃsa to narratives of the transmission of relics to Sri Lanka. Relics are central to Buddhist identity and practice, and they play an important role in the stories of kings that form the bulk of the "historical" narratives, especially the Duṭṭhagāmaṇī epic. Scheible dwells on the important role of nāgas in relic transmission: the relics are shown to pass through the hands/bodies of nāgas in ways that work on the reader's ethical perception of the "presence" of the absent Buddha. Scheible demonstrates that narratives of relic transmission cannot be properly understood if the key role of nāgas is dismissed as fantasy or mythical accretion on a germ of historical fact.

Chapter 5 then returns to the central thesis that the Mahāvaṃsa has primarily literary and ethical aims in relation to a religious textual community. Scheible here makes her case forcefully and at length, engaging with a range of previous studies, both old and new, in a way that demonstrates her mastery of the sources. Drawing on the work of Stephen Berkwitz, Steven Collins, and Jonathan Walters, Scheible argues that historical narratives are never fully documentary; they are always aimed at present communities with future aspirations. Here she even includes academic historians, foreclosing the possibility of deriving an objective history from the Mahāvaṃsa. Although the historically minded reader may find this argument goes too far against the possibility of historiography, all future research in this area must grapple with Scheible's powerful argument for paying attention to the "worklike" over the "documentary."

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin Fifield is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kristin Scheible is Associate Professor of religion and humanities at Reed College.


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