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Earliest Vaishnava Tradition in BurmaEarliest Vaishnava Tradition in Burma

The Earliest Vaishnava Tradition in Burma is believed to have originated in Hmawza or old Prome in today’s Bago region, northwest of Yangon. It is one of Burma’s oldest seats of kingship and is one of the earliest Indo-Aryan settlements in ancient Burma. Written evidence as to when the Prome dynasty came into being is scant, but according to Burmese chronicles the legend related to the Prome dynasty is that it originated in Thare Kettara under the rule of Maha Thambawa in 483 BC. The dynasty came to an end with the passing of Thu Pinya in 95 AD. Shortly thereafter, a new dynasty was established in Pagan in 108 AD by Thamakdarit.

The Burmese text Maha Yazawin (Maha Yazawindawgyi), formerly romanized as the Maha-Radza Weng is the first national chronicle of Burma which was completed in 1724 by U Kala a historian at the Toungou Court. It describes the city-states, mentioning that the Rsi overseeing the event was assisted by six other divines – Gavampati, Indra, Nága, Garuda, Candi, and Parameshvara. The Mahayazawin tradition is thought to be derived from early Talaing records, retaining only the title “Rsi” for the city’s founder without mentioning the actual name. However, early Mon lithic records indicate that the founder was Visnu, as detailed in the stories of the foundation of Sisit or Sríksetra.

Earliest Vaishnava Tradition in Burma and The Gods

While Gavampati, Indra, and Nága have been frequently linked to Burmese legendary history in the context of city foundations or temple constructions, these connections lack historical validity. However, these legends suggest a strong Indian influence in town planning and temple construction, reflected in some historical monuments in Burma.

  • Gavampati, described in Mon records as the son of Lord Buddha, and is considered the patron saint of the Mons and Pagan.
  • Indra, the king of the devas, is believed to be present at all significant events.
  • The Naga mentioned in Mahayazwin is likely Katakarmmandgardja, who is said to have assisted in founding the city of Sisit or Srikselra (old Prome) in Mon records.
  • Garuda, the mythical bird and vehicle of Vishnu, and Candi, an epithet for Kali or the Devi, are also mentioned in the Mahayazawin.
  • Parameshvara is considered the supreme and most profound truth that continuously permeates all material existence in Hindu beliefs. Devotees view him as the embodiment of completeness, overseeing the three fundamental aspects of creation, preservation, and destruction.

Thäton, also known as Rammaññadesa, the prominent land of the Talaings, adopted the faith of Theraváda Buddhism, specifically the Hinayana form. Historical records present two potential scenarios for the spread of this faith in Thäton. One account, highlighted in Burmese sources, refers to the emissaries Sona and Uttara sent by the Indian Emporer Asoka to Suvarnabhumi in the 3rd century to teach Buddhism.

Conversely, another narrative suggests that Buddhaghosa, the esteemed Buddhist scholar, journeyed to Burma and disseminated the teachings of Buddhism there. Nevertheless, the lack of substantial evidence makes it difficult to conclusively ascertain the accurate version and scholarly investigations have raised doubts regarding both accounts. Additionally, the origins of Buddhism in Thäton, whether it was initially brought from Ceylon or another region, presents a significant challenge in historical research.

The general assertion is that the Buddhist doctrine was introduced in Burma no later than the 5th or 6th centuries AD. The earliest records found in Burma hail from Hmawza, or old Prome and are referred to as the  Maunggan plates written in Pali in Pyu script found in 1897, named so after the area where they were found. Other evidence is two fragments of a stone inscription found at the Bawbawgyi pagoda as well as a line of inscription around the rim of the top cover of a small votive stupa discovered at Hmawza as well as a manuscript containing twenty gold leaves each inscribed on one side placed within two covers of the same metal.

Maunggan Plates dated to the Pyu era 5th century
Maunggan Plates dated to the Pyu era 5th century

Ancient Burmese Maunggan gold plates

The Maunggan plates each begin with the well-known Buddhist formula: Ye dhamma, etc., followed by 19 categories from the Abhidhamma in numerical order, and lastly by the well-known praise of the Triratna. Louis Finot had already shared his views on the script’s origins from southwest India by 1912. Furthermore, Duroiselle, in his position as director of the Burma Archaeological Survey, contributed significantly to the understanding of the Pyü people. Additionally, Blagden had successfully deciphered their language almost ten years prior. The manuscript exhibits a highly antiquated appearance, evoking similarities to the Kadamba script from the 5th century A.D. It is plausible that the manuscript originates from the 6th or 7th century A.D.

It is interesting to find the Pali canon in use in Lower Burma at so ancient a period when the rest of India who practised Buddhism was acquainted with Mahayana Buddhism and its Sanskrit text. The fragmentary stone inscription contains an extract from the Vibhanga, part of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, and in the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the third of the three divisions of the Tripitaka, the other two parts are the Vinaya Pitaka and Sutta Pitaka.

The golden-leaf manuscript, however, contains extracts from the Abhidhamma and Vinaya Pitakas. The language of all these epigraphic records is Páli, and the writing is in all these instances, in the character of an early South Indian script of the Canara-Telegu type. They can thus safely be assigned to the 5th and 6th centuries of the Christian era. Hinayana Buddhism, thus, must have been known in Lower Burma at least four centuries before it came to be introduced to Pagan, at a time which marked the growth of a great Hinayana movement in India with its centre at Conjeeveram or ancient Kanchipuram on the Madras. coast.

To what extent did Brahmanism permeate Burma?

It is well-documented that in Southeast Asia, nearly all the nations that were either colonized by Indians or had close trade relations with India were deeply influenced by Brahmanical culture, including its elaborate rituals, deities, and myths. In Java, where the Sailendras of Srevijaya was a Buddhist dynasty practising Mahayana Buddhism held significant influence, Brahmanism occupied a relatively minor position with both religions coexisting and flourishing side by side. Whilst Buddhism became the dominant religion, Brahmanism remained popular.

In Champa and Cambodia, Brahmanism had a larger following, with royal dynasties predominantly Brahmanical with few followers of the Buddhist pantheon. Similarly, in Siam, like Burma, where Buddhism is the dominant religion, the discovery of Brahmanical deities in significant quantities suggests a substantial Brahmanical community in the region. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Burma was completely devoid of Brahmanical influence.

Indian influences are abundant in the early Món inscriptions of Burma, with some Sanskritic religious terms, royal names, and religious and social practices shared between Brahmanism and Sanskritic Buddhism. The use of Sanskrit language in Buddhism in Burma suggests its existence from ancient times. Despite these considerations, there is a strong indication that Brahmanism played a significant role in the early Món records. The references to Bráhmanas in these records highlight their influence in Buddhist courts, with rituals and ceremonies that resemble Brahmanical practices.

The worship of the god Náráyana-Visnu further emphasizes this connection. King Anawrahata of Pagans son King Kyanzittha, ruling between 1084 – 112 believed he was Visnu in a past life and later born into Ráma’s family, demonstrating a fusion of Buddhist rebirth theory with Brahmanical legends. The mention of four castes in these records underscores the importance of performing their respective duties. Brahmanical influence is evident in certain ancient place names found in both Upper and Lower Burma. For example, the name Bissunomyo, which translates to the city of Visnu, indicates a strong connection to Visnuite influences and historically the name was used when referring to old Prome or Hmawza, which was a hub of Hindu Visnuite practices.

The founding tradition of ancient Prome, as detailed in the Mahayazawin, a Burmese chronicle, is linked to Visnu and his companion, Garuda, and Paramegvara, equivalent to Durgá and Siva. While the Mahayazawin does not explicitly mention Visnu, it refers to a Zsi, whose name is provided in the Shwezigön inscription recounting the establishment of Sisit (or old Prome). Old Prome or Hmawza also known as Sri Ksetra, mentioned in early Món records as Sisit or Srikset, which holds a sacred significance similar to modern Puri across the Bay of Bengal, associated with a prominent Brahmanical tradition. Taungdwin, a town reportedly founded in 837 A.D., was named Rdmdvati after the name of the hero Bdma, recognised as one of the ten incarnations of Visnu.

The prevalence of Brahmanism in Burma is most convincingly demonstrated through the archaeological findings of Brahmanical gods and temples, one of the more famous is that of a life-size statue of Indra also referred to as Thagyamin. Although the number of such discoveries in Burma is not as extensive as in other parts of Southeast Asia, they provide an intriguing insight into the influence of Brahmanism in the region. Among the Hindu temples discovered in ancient Burma, the Nät-hlaung kyaung in Pagan stands out as a significant example. This temple is dedicated to Visnu, with four images of the deity positioned at the four sides of a square obelisk at the centre of the vaulted structure. The walls and niches of the temple are adorned with stone images depicting the ten principal incarnations of Visnu, as well as other subsidiary forms of the deity. A Tamil inscription found at Myinpagan in a small village near Pagan, dating back to the 12th century A.D., likely refers to this temple and provides further historical context.

Iconography with Hinduistic Elements Found in Burma

This black stone icon found in Burma is assumed to be that of the Loving couple (Mithuna) and the round metal disc that shows visnuite-related scenes depicting the three Hindu gods Visnu, Shiva and Brahma with Buddha and the naga and other scenes not yet interpreted.

Sources of information:
Brahmanical Gods in Burma written by Nihar-Ranjan Ray M. A. in 1932

Earliest Vaishnava Tradition in Burma
Burmese Black Stone Carving of Mithuna Couple
Burmese Metal Buddhist Disc
Earliest Vaishnava Tradition in Burma
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