The many cults and religions in pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka

By P.K. Balachandran

COLOMBO –  Before Sri Lanka became predominantly Buddhist following the conversion of the 3rd Century King Devanampiya Tissa (247 BC-207 BC), the island had an amazing assortment of religious cults, practices and faiths including animism, Jainism, Saivism, Brahminism and Buddhism. There were many gods, goddesses and deities of local and Indian origin.

According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicles such as the Mahavamsa and the Dīpavaṃsa, Buddhism was introduced to the island in the 3rd Century BC after the Third Buddhist Council by MahindaThera and Therini Sangamitta, son and daughter of the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka of India.

However, the Mahavamsa itself says Buddhism had its adherents in Sri Lanka even earlier, in the 5th Century BC, during the life time of the Buddha. He had visited Sri Lanka thrice. The first visit was made to Mahiyangana in the ninth month after he attained Enlightenment. During this visit, the Buddha subdued the Yakshas thereby setting the stage for the establishment of Buddhism later on.

His second visit was made to Nagadipa in north Sri Lanka in the fifth year after his Enlightenment. Here he settled a dispute between the Naga kings Chulodara and Mahodara. In the eighth year after Enlightenment, the Buddha made his third and final visit, this time to Keleniya with 500 Bhikkhus, at the invitation of a Naga King Maniakkika.

According to the author of the Mahavaṃsa, Prince Vijaya, the ancestor of the Sinhala people, arrived in Sri Lanka on the day the Buddha lay down between the two Sala trees to pass into Nibbaṇa (Nirvana). In the midst of the great assembly of the Gods, the Buddha told the Sakka around him: “Vijaya, son of King Sihabāhu, is coming to Laṅka from the country of Lāta, together with seven hundred followers. In Laṅka, O Lord of Gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Laṅka.”

According to the Mahavamsa, when the Lord of Gods heard the words of the Tathagata, he handed over the guardianship of Laṅka to the God Upulvan.

However, Buddhism took root in Sri Lanka only in the 3rd Century BC after the conversion of King Devanampiya Tissa. Prior to that, the religious scene in the island was a hodgepodge of faiths and practice. There was no one religion in the island, as Geethani Amaratunga and Nadeesha Gunawardana of the Departments of Sociology and History at the University of Kelaniya say in their 2019 paper in the International Journal of Research and Innovation in Social Science. Evidently no systematically organized national or State religion, existed in the island, they say.

People worshiped Yakshas, Devas, and snakes. There were Nigaṇṭhas (followers of Jainism, an Indian faith), Paribbajakas (wandering saints), Nagas (worshipers of snakes), Saivas (worshipers of Lord Siva), Ajivakas (those who believed only in destiny) and Brahmins practicing Brahminism with its rituals. King Paṇḍukābhaya (437 BC to 367 BC), the builder of the city of Anuradhapura, had built a monastery for Paribbajakas and a house for Ajivikas there.


According to the Ajivikas were an ascetic sect that grew in India around the same time as Buddhism and Jainism. The sect was founded by Gosala Makkhaliputta, a friend of Mhavira, the founder of Jainism. The Ajivikas believed  the affairs of the entire universe were ordered by a cosmic force called Niyati (rule or destiny), which could not be altered by human effort. The Ajivikas practiced austerities.


The Yakshas and Yakshinis were benevolent spirits which could also be mischievous, capricious, sexually rapacious, or even murderous. They were powerful magicians and were the custodians of treasures, cities and lakes. The Yaksha was a term used for believers in such spirits. The Yakshas were among the earliest of deities to be depicted in art and sculpture, preceding the depiction of the Bodhisattvas and Brahmanical deities, whose representation they influenced.


The Nagas were snake worshiping people of South Indian origin. H. Parker, a British historian and author of ‘Ancient Ceylon’ considers the Nagas to be an offshoot of the Nayars of Kerala. Cobra worship was later adopted by Buddhism. The Naga King Muchalinda had shielded the Buddha from getting wet in the rain by coiling round him and holding his large hood above his head. The Nagas were one of the four aboriginal people who ruled Nagadeepa or Naga Nadu in north Lanka from the 6th Century BC to 3rd Century AD. Several kings of Rajarata were from the Naga tribe. Many Buddhist temples in south Sri Lanka have made the divine form of Naga (Natha Deva) into a Bodhisattva.

Worship of Deities

God Sumana of Samantakuta is also a pre-Buddhist deity. According to Amaratunga and Gunawardana, the Buddha had gifted strands of his hair to the God Sumana during his first visit to Sri Lanka.


Brahmins or Brahmanas were a force in pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa mentions a Brahman named Paṇḍula, whose son, Chandra, was the priest in the court of King Paṇḍukābhaya. The Rasavahini sheds light on a Brahman called Sirinaga who ruled Anurādhapura for a short period.

Jainism and Saivism

Before the advent of Buddhism, Jainism was well entrenched in Sri Lanka during the reign of 21 Kings. Jainism crossed over to Sri Lanka from South India around 8th Century BC and became one of the most important religions of Lanka. According to the Mahavamsa, King Paṇḍukābhaya accommodated them in Anuradhapura. The Jains were called Niganthas and eventually lost influence due to actions taken by King Vattagamini (29 BC to 17 BC), but managed to survive up till the 14th Century AD. There is ample evidence of the existence of the Saivism in the island. The Mahavaṃsa sheds light on the Sivika Sāla built by king Paṇḍukābhaya.

Consolidation of Buddhism

As a result of the work of later South Indian Buddhist scholars who were associated with the Mahavihara, mainly Buddhaghosa (4th –5th  Century AD, Dhammapala and Buddhadatta, Sri Lankan Buddhists adopted Pali as their main scholastic language, which enabled them to go international and spread Theravada Buddhism. From the 5th  Century AD to the 11th Century, Sri Lanka came under periodic attacks by Tamil rulers from India who were staunchly Hindu. They had banished Buddhism from their land and attempted to crush it in Sri Lanka too. But the eventual triumph of the Sri Lankan Buddhist rulers over the invaders, ensured Buddhism’s survival and growth,  to be the religion of 70% of Sri Lankans.

However, as Amaratunga and Gunawardana say in conclusion, despite the overwhelming of power of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, pre-Buddhist cults and practices have survived, either after  incorporation into Sri Lankan Buddhism or independently as part of folk culture. The umbilical connection with India still remains an essential ingredient of Sri Lankan Buddhism.





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