© Barbara Crossette
© Barbara Crossette

Motionless in the midday heat, the old nuns sat watching a stranger cross the dusty courtyard toward a small temple. The altar was heaped with flowers. They were lay women who had donned robes and found refuge at this holy place as they neared the end of their lives. They showed no expression until asked about the platform that rises in stages behind the temple, capped by a golden fence that guards the holiest of trees. “Sanghamitta’s tree!” they said, breaking into smiles. Sanghamitta was their patron saint, and though she may be forgotten elsewhere, this place—the ancient Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura—remembers her.

In the early history of Buddhism’s southeastward advance across Asia, there were few disciples as important as Sanghamitta, daughter of the Indian emperor Ashoka. Feeling remorse after his bloody campaign on the battlefield of Kalinga—one of the fiercest of a series of battles that he fought to enlarge and consolidate his empire—Ashoka commenced a “reign of dharma.”

Sanghamitta, a nun of barely eighteen, and others from her order set sail from India in the third century B.C.E., carrying to the sultry green island of Sri Lanka a branch of the sacred Maha Bodhi tree, under which Siddhartha, the Buddha Shakyamuni, had attained enlightenment. Sanghamitta and her brother, Mahinda, soon established the first center of Theravada Buddhism outside India. And from here, amid the glassy reservoirs and fertile fields of a sophisticated ancient civilization, Theravada Buddhism made the leap to Burma and Siam, now Thailand, and on into Indochina.

The miraculous branch of the Buddha’s Bodhi tree, which legend says jumped of its own volition into a vase waiting to take it on its journey, was planted with great ceremony and still lives in the holy city of Anuradhapura. Over the years, a grove of bo trees formed around the original tree, and offshoots rose up throughout the island. Although frailer than some of its offspring, Sanghamitta’s bo is hailed not only as the oldest tree in the world but also as the symbol of the rooting and flowering of Buddhism on Sri Lanka.

Monks and a clan of hereditary guardians through the centuries ritually cared for the tree, bathing it, and feeding it. To see how far the canopy of this species of ficus can reach, walk beneath the bo in Sri Lanka’s botanical gardens at Peradeniya, near Kandy, or beneath one of South India’s mammoth banyans. The long, heavy branches of the Sri Maha Bodhi are propped up with metal crutches and adorned with monks’ robes. Presidents, prime ministers, and other Sri Lankan government officials all make pilgrimages to the sacred tree.

Combing the oldest Sri Lankan chronicles, including the famous Mahavamsa, written in Pali in the sixth century C.E., scholars have settled at least on the outlines of Sanghamitta’s story and her place in history.

Sanghamitta’s brother, Mahinda, preceded her to Sri Lanka—the Lanka of the Ramayana, the Indian epic tale of the god-king Rama and his queen, Sita. Once in Sri Lanka, Mahinda converted King Devanampiya Tissa to Buddhism. Builder of cities, and something of a philosopher, Devanampiya Tissa ruled from about 250 to 210 B.C.E. Mahinda also preached to the royal court. The women of the palace, led by Anula, the queen, demanded to study Buddhism also, but were told they could not be instructed by men or admitted to their holy orders. Mahinda proposed sending for his sister, Sanghamitta, so that together they could carry on with their father’s missionary work and complete the conversion of Devanampiya Tissa’s realm.

In about 240 B.C.E. an emissary was dispatched to Emperor Ashoka, who reluctantly agreed to Sanghamitta’s trip. Legend has it that Ashoka, who also presented to his daughter an alms bowl and a bone fragment from the Buddha’s cremation site, was in tears as he saw her leave. In preparation for Sanghamitta’s voyage, Ashoka had gone to Bodhgaya to obtain a branch from the Buddha’s sacred bo. (When this tree was destroyed, in the seventh century by a Bengali king, tradition has it that Indians traveled to Sri Lanka to obtain a sapling from the tree at Anuradhapura, and then planted it in place of the original.) Chroniclers say there was a grand procession along the Ganges, from Bodhgaya to the Bay of Bengal coast. The ship bearing Sanghamitta sailed away to the sounds of heavenly music.

© Barbara Crossette
© Barbara Crossette

“The waves of the great ocean smoothed down before it,” according to theMahavamsa, as retold in The Maha Bodhi Tree by Dipak Kumar Barua, a leading Pali scholar. “Flowers of five different colors blossomed around it.” Nonetheless, Sanghamitta, guarding her treasure, had to fight off scheming nagas—semi-divine snake-like creatures that govern the water—which she did by the sheer power of her sanctity.

Sanghamitta’s story was well known in ancient times; the voyage and the sacred branch are depicted on the eastern gate of the temple at Sanchi in India. The miraculous details of the tale, whether true or not, seem to signal its importance, even nine centuries later. Legend says that the Lord Buddha himself had been to Lanka, maybe more than once, and had foretold the event.

King Devanampiya Tissa, waiting on Lanka’s northern coast when Sanghamitta arrived, “rushed into the sea and, advancing until the water was up to his neck, began a joyful and pious chant in honor of the Buddha,” Professor Barua writes. After three days and nights of worshiping the bo branch and giving it costly gifts, King Devanampiya Tissa sent it in stately procession to Anuradhapura, where more miracles occurred. “The branch, breaking loose from the hands of men, suddenly rose in the air, where it remained before the astonished eyes of the crowd, lit up by a halo of six luminous rays.” At sundown, the tree came back down to earth and “planted itself in the soil.” For seven days, the story goes, “a protecting cloud shaded it and watered it with salutary rain.”

But the story of Anuradhapura, and even to some extent that of Sanghamitta, retreated into obscurity as dynasties changed and invaders came and went. In later centuries the royal capital moved to Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, and ultimately to Kandy, the last bastion of an independent, Buddhist Sri Lanka. When I asked curators about Sanghamitta at the national museum in Kandy, there was some head-scratching before the subject of the bo tree came up. No, they said, apart from the bo, there is not much else to her story.

Though Sanghamitta lived the rest of her life in Sri Lanka, engaged in perhaps as many as sixty years of religious work, her order of nuns dwindled and vanished within a few centuries of her death, near the end of the first millennium B.C.E., a sad reminder of the downgrading or disappearance of Theravada Buddhist orders for women everywhere.

Sanghamitta, as far as anyone knows, never left Sri Lanka, and perhaps not even Anuradhapura. She never saw India or her father again. Over time, the great monasteries and centers of Theravadin practice in Anuradhapura were destroyed by invaders, and the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis scattered. Historians believe that by 1000 C.E., orders of monks and nuns had all but ceased to exist. It was not until Sri Lankan nationalist, anticolonial movements began to take root eight hundred years later that monasteries were revived. Sanghamitta’s order was never restored, however. Ironically, the best-known attempt to bring women back to the temples, at least as lay nuns in an order bearing Sanghamitta’s name, was led by a Portuguese Christian, the Countess Miranda de Souza Canavarro.

There are still nuns, however, in Sri Lanka. They are mostly older women, though some younger women are drawn to a religious life in order to avoid daily oppressions, according to H. L. Seneviratne, an anthropologist at the University of Virginia. They have a noble history to rediscover, he added.

Every year there is a full moon festival day (poya) named after Sanghamitta. According to some accounts, she died at the age of 77, a year after the death of her brother. Although no one knows for sure when she died, accounts agree that she was cremated with royal pomp and ceremony, and a dagoba, a large memorial, was built over her ashes. “Thus closes the generation of the saints,” wrote an English naturalist who visited Anuradhapura at the close of the twentieth century.

Richard Gombrich of Balliol College, Oxford, perhaps the West’s leading expert on Theravada Buddhism and its place in Sri Lanka, is not surprised by the dearth of historical information about Sanghamitta. “There is no great tradition of biography in ancient Buddhism,” he said in an interview. Apart from stories about the life of the Buddha and his immediate disciples, some of which are also myths, he said, “there is no individual after that for many centuries about whom we know very much. The fact that we don’t know very much about Sanghamitta is totally unremarkable, given how little we know about anything.

“She has been picked up as a sort of emblem by the modern world’s nuns’ movement, and I’m sure the ladies in Sri Lanka who lead nun-like lives, although they can’t be fully ordained, also take an interest in her,” Professor Gombrich said. “But they haven’t got much, factually, to go on.”

Sanghamitta’s name is found here and there in Sri Lanka, mostly on a few buildings connected with the education of women and girls. Her image appears in religious art, including on paintings of the bo tree’s arrival at Anuradhapura, displayed in glass cases below the tree itself.

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