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Abhayagiri

A celebrated monastic establishment on the north side of Anurādhapura, consisting of a vihāra and a mighty thūpa. Only the thūpa now stands. It was built by King Vaṭṭagāmaṇī Abhaya on the site of the ancient Titthārāma, 217 years, 10 months and 10 days after the founding of the Mahāvihāra (Mhv.xxxvii.78‑83). Tradition states that when the king was fleeing from the Tamils he passed the Titthārāma on his way, and the Nigaṇṭha Giri, who then lived there, made insulting remarks about him. The king vowed, if he were returned to the throne, to build a vihāra on that spot (Mhv.xxxvii.43‑4); he fulfilled his vow, and the name of the vihāra was a combination of his own name and of that of the Nigaṇṭha. The monastery was given in charge of the Thera Mahātissa of Kuppikala and of two other monks, Kuppikala having befriended the king in his misfortunes.

The vihāra advanced rapidly in wealth and in power, but quite soon the monks seceded from the Mahāvihāra fraternity because, according to the Mahāvaṃsa (Mhv.xxxvii.95 ff), an incumbent of the Mahāvihāra, Mahātissa by name, was expelled from the monastery for frequenting lay families. His disciple, Bahalamassutissa, went in anger to Abhayagiri and formed a separate faction.

A Sinhalese chronicle, the Nikāya Sahgraha (pp.11, 12; also P.L.C.42), states that these dissentients were soon after joined by a body of Vajjiputtaka monks from the Pallārāma in India, under the leadership of a teacher called Dhammaruci, and the sect which they together founded in Sri Lanka became known as the Dhammaruci Nikāya, with headquarters in Abhayagiri.

For quite a long while the two fraternities, that of the Mahāvihāra and that of the Abhayagiri, seem to have lived in amity, alike enjoying the munificence of patrons (Ibid., 52 f; Mhv.xxxv.20, 57, 119‑22; xxxvi.7‑14). Thus, Gajabāhukagāmani raised the height of Abhayuttara-thūpa (as the thūpa at Abhayagiri seems to have been called) and made the Gāmanitissa-reservoir to be used for the cultivation of land for the maintenance of the vihāra (Ibid., xxxv.119‑22); Kanitthatissa built a splendid structure in the same vihāra for the Thera Mahānāga; it was called the Ratanapāsāda (xxxvi.7, 8.).

However, in the reign of Vohārakatissa, the Abhayagiri monks openly adopted the heretical Vaitulya Piṭaka (of the Mahāyānists see Mhv. trans. 259, n.2). An inquiry was held by the king with the help of his minister Kapila, the heretical books were burnt and the monks of Abhayagiri disgraced (Mhv.xxxvi.40‑1).

Soon afterwards, however, the heretics won over the king Mahāsena to their side and destroyed the establishment of the Mahāvihāra, carrying away all the materials to Abhayagiri (P.L.C. 53; Mhv.xxxvii.10‑16). Later, Mahāsena repented of his ways, burnt the books of the Abhayagiri monks and transferred his patronage to the Mahāvihāra. However, the Abhayagiri fraternity must soon have recovered its prestige, for we find Mahāsena’s successor, Sirimeghavaṇṇa, planting a bodhi tree (called Tissavasabha) (Cv.trans. i.9, n.3) in Abhayagiri and surrounding it with a stone terrace ((Cv.xxxvii.91)). A few years later both Mahānāma (409‑31) and his queen became active supporters of Abhaya Giri (Cv.xxxvii.212). Dhātusena is stated to have enlarged the Abhayuttara-vihāra (Cv.xxxviii.61), and Silākāla is credited with several benefactions to the vihāra and its bodhi tree (Cv.xli.31‑2); Mahānāga gave the weaver’s village of Jambela to the Uttaravihāra (another name for Abhayagiri; see Cv. trans. i.8, n.2; 61, n.6.); Aggabodhi I built a bathing-reservoir there (Cv.xlii.28), while his successor, Aggabodhi II, built the Dāṭhāggabodhi house, so called after himself and his queen (Cv.xlii.63‑5).

In the monastery at Abhayagiri there seems to have been a stone image of the Buddha, referred to under various names, Silāsambuddha, Kālasela, Kālasatthā, Silāsatthā and Silāmayamuninda. Cv.xxxix.7; xxxviii.65; 61.2; see also vv.51, 77, 87. There was also in Abhayagiri another image called the Abhiseka (q.v.)

It was evidently held peculiarly sacred. Buddhadāsa placed a nāgamani in its eye (Cv.xxxvii.123); this was soon lost, and we find Dhātusena replacing it, adorning and decorating the statue in various ways (For details see Cv.xxxviii.62 ff). Silāmeghavanna had it restored and redecorated and made provision for its maintenance (Cv.xliv.68). The same king, we are told, attempted to carry out a reform of the Abhayagiri monks, but this attempt ultimately brought disaster on him (Cv.xliv.75 ff). Jeṭṭhatissa gave to the vihāra the village of Mahādāragiri (Cv.xliv.96). Dāthopatissa built the Kappūra-pariveṇa attached to the vihāra, and also a monastery Tiputthulla, encroaching on the precincts of the Mahāvihāra, notwithstanding the protests of the monks belonging to the latter (Cv.xlv.29 ff). Aggabodhi VII, added the Sabhattudesabhoga (Cv.xlviii.64), and Mahinda II. the Mahālekha-pariveṇa as well as the many-storeyed Ratanapāsāda with its costly ornamentation (Cv.xlviii.135‑40; see also Geiger’s trans. 123, n.2).

Sena I built the Virankurārāma and gave it to the Mahāsanghikas (Cv.l.68‑9), while his consort, Saṅghā, erected a dwelling house, Mahindasena (Cv.l.79), and his courtier, Uttara, yet another dwelling house, called Uttarasena, for the maintenance of which he provided. Two other courtiers, Vajira and Rakkhasa, built two dwelling houses, called respectively Vajirasenaka and Rakkhasa (Cv.l.83).

In the reign of Sena II the Pamsukulika monks, who until then had evidently lived in Abhayagiri (Cv. trans. i.108, n.1), separated and formed special groups. Sanghā, queen of Udaya II, erected and endowed the building known as the Sanghasenapabbata (Cv.li.86‑7). Kassapa IV built a pāsāda bearing his name and assigned to it a village (Cv.lii.13; Cv.trs. i.162, n.4), while his successor, Kassapa V, erected the Bhandikā-pariveṇa and the Silāmeghapabbata, endowing each with a village (Cv.lii.58‑9).

Sena III spent 40,000 kahāpaṇas for a stone paving round the cetiya. The Abhayagiri monks befriended both Vijayabāhu I (then known as Kitti) and his brother, and out of gratitude Vijayabāhu built the Uttaramūla-pariveṇa, which was probably attached to the vihāra itself (Cv.lvii.18, 23).

In the reign of Parakkamabāhu I, when that monarch had established himself on the throne, it is said that he tried to reform the monks of the Abhayagiri, but he found the task hopeless (Cv.lxxviii.21 ff). He found that the Abhayagiri-thūpa had been destroyed by the vandalism of the Tamils, and he had it restored to a height of 160 cubits (Cv.lxxviii.98). When Anurādhapura was finally abandoned, Abhayagiri fell into ruin and decay, the monastery being completely destroyed.

It is clear that even at the outset there was considerable rivalry between the monks of Abhayagiri and those of the Mahāvihāra. The rivalry seems originally to have been mainly personal, but it later developed into differences in doctrinal opinion. Of the exact nature of these latter we have no information, owing, chiefly, to the book-burnings carried out by pious kings in the excess of their zeal for the purity of the Faith. For the same reason we are unable to ascertain what part, if any, the Abhayagiri fraternity played in literary activity. It has been suggested, however, that both the Jātakaṭṭhakathā (P.L.C.124, 125) and the Sahassavatthuppakaraṇa (P.L.C.128), another compilation of tales, were the work of the Abhayagiri monks.

Fa-Hsien evidently spent the two years of his stay in Sri Lanka with the Abhayagiri fraternity because the books he took away with him were those of the unorthodox schools. According to him, there were, at this time, 5,000 monks in Abhayagiri (Fa Hsien’s Travels, 67 ff).

In the chronicles Abhayagiri is referred to under several names Abhayuttara, Abhayavihāra, Abhayācala and Uttaravihāra.

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