The present article focuses on Sri Lankan views of divine kingship to illustrate how the figure of the king was developed in ways that borrowed and were shaped by the transfer of Hindu notions of kings and gods around the period of intensive Hindu interventions into the island from the tenth to thirteenth centuries CE. After discussing the paradigmatic figure of King Aśoka, the virtuous king (dhammarāja) held to be the model for all subsequent monarchs in the tradition, we will examine inscriptional and poetic writings that conflated Sri Lankan kings with Hindu gods. The dynamics of comparing kings with gods has ancient roots in India, and these notions were adopted by Sri Lankan Buddhists during the long “medieval” period of roughly the tenth to the sixteenth centuries CE. The dynamic introduction of new strands of Buddhist kingship expanded upon the figure of the king. I argue that this development was primarily metaphorical in nature, and it was further enhanced by eulogizing kings as bodhisattvas, or future Buddhas. By incorporating much of the language and notions of divine kingship from the Hindu tradition, Sri Lankan Buddhism made kingship into the dynamic site for cultural borrowing. Yet it stabilized and reinforced its local traditions by comparing kings with gods and bodhisattvas, presenting them as being like extraordinary beings in the context of praise for their power and virtue.
Copyright 2019 Stephen C. Berkwitz. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.
Buddhism, kingship, Aśoka, gods, poetry, Bodhisattva, metaphor
Berkwitz, Stephen C. "Divine Kingship in Medieval Sri Lanka: Dynamics in Traditions of Power and Virtue in South Asia." Entangled Religions 8 (2019).