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DUHAGĀMAĪ ("Gāmaī the wicked"), prince of a minor Sinhala kingdom who unified Sri Lanka as a Buddhist polity and ruled the island as overlord for twenty-four years (c. 161137 bce). In a manner characteristic of the rulers of classical India, Duhagāmaī marked his position as overlord by constructing numerous religious monuments and with great donative ceremonies (mahādānas ) for the Buddhist monastic order.

Duhagāmaīestablished his polity through a series of military campaigns against the Sinhala and Tamil rulers of other minor kingdoms. His polity was fragile, however, maintained more by an ability to coerce than by administrative institutions; it collapsed soon after his death. The image of Duhagāmaī was more enduring. It provided a model of the ideal Buddhist king and the ideal layman, who have the responsibility to protect and promote Buddhist institutions materially, for which spiritual benefits accrue.

The image of Duhagāmaī was embellished in a folk epic tradition that extolled his virtues as a pious king and his exploits as a warrior. This epic tradition was the source for the many versions of the Duhagāmaī story found in the Sri Lankan monastic chronicles and in later Sinhala literature. The classic version is found in the Mahāvasa, the most important of the chronicles.

The qualities of piety and violenceantithetical in canonical Buddhist ethicsare woven together in the Mahāvasa's account of Duhagāmaī's military campaign to become overlord. He declares that his battles are "for the sake of the sāsana [i.e., Buddhism]" and "not for the pleasures of sovereignty." He goes into battle with monks in his army and a relic of the Buddha on his spear. The dramatic climax comes with Duhagāmaī's single combat with the Tamil king Eāra, who, while described as a just and righteous ruler, is judged by the Mahāvasa as unfit to be overlord because he was not a Buddhist.

All versions of the story give prominence to the pious deeds done by Duhagāmaī after he became overlord. The Mahāvasa says that, in addition to his construction of monuments (including the Great Stupa at Anuradhapura) and his many donations to the monastic order, he gifted sovereignty over the island to the relics of the Buddha, a sign of Sri Lanka's identity as a Buddhist polity. As a result of these meritorious deeds, we are told, he has been reborn in the Tusita (Skt., Tuita) heaven, and in the future will be reborn as a chief disciple of the next buddha, Metteyya.

A crucial element in the story is Duhagāmaī's remorse over the killing done in battle, a motif that recalls Aśoka, the first Buddhist imperial ruler. A delegation of enlightened monks (arahant s) counsels the king that he has no reason to feel remorse. In different versions of the story, various explanations for this counsel are suggested, an indication perhaps that the counsel itself troubled Buddhists: Duhagāmaī's victims were not Buddhist, and thus killing them was somehow not equivalent to taking human life; his intentions to protect the sāsana were good, and would outweigh the evil of his actions; there would be no opportunity for the fruits of these evil deeds to mature, since his rebirth in heaven was assured by his good deeds, and this counsel was given only to comfort his mind.

The folk epic tradition assumed a strong communalist characterspecifically anti-Tamilwhich became increasingly visible in the later literature. This communalist character has made the Duhagāmaī story a vitriolic element in the political and religious rhetoric of modern Sri Lanka.

The story was an important part of the dhammadīpa ("island of truth") tradition, which viewed Sri Lanka as the repository of the Buddha's teaching. It emphasized the necessity of political unity for the island to fulfill its religious destiny, as well as the special and exclusive relationship its rulers were to have with Buddhism.

The Duhagāmaī story has also had a continuing significance in Sinhala Buddhism as a background for interpretation. It has provided a context for resolving conflicts about ethical issues (e.g., whether violence is ever permissible), for elucidating points of Buddhist doctrine, and for legitimizing social and religious charters.


The Mahāvasa version of the Duhagāmaī story has been translated by Wilhelm Geiger in chapters 2232 of The Mahāvasa, or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon (London, 1912). This classic version should be compared with the later versions found in the Thūpavamsa, translated from Pali by N. A. Jayawickrama (London, 1971), and in the Saddharmālakaraya, a medieval Sinhala prose work, a translation of which is found in An Anthology of Sinhalese Literature up to 1815, edited by Christopher Reynolds (London, 1970). A classic discussion of the epic tradition is provided by Wilhelm Geiger in The Dīpavasa and Mahāvasa and Their Historical Development in Ceylon, translated by Ethel M. Coomaraswamy (Colombo, 1908). Many of the articles in the collection Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka, edited by Bardwell L. Smith (Chambersburg, Pa., 1978), consider the place of the Duhagāmaī story in Sinhala "religio-nationalism"; related folk traditions are discussed by Marguerite S. Robinson in "'The House of the Mighty Hero' or 'The House of Enough Paddy'? Some Implications of a Sinhalese Myth," in Dialectic in Practical Religion, edited by Edmund R. Leach (Cambridge, U.K., 1968), pp. 122152. An idea of how widely the story has functioned as a background for interpretation in Sinhala Buddhism can be gathered from the many references to Dutugämunu (the Sinhala cognate of Duhagāmaī) in Richard F. Gombrich's Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon (Oxford, 1971).

New Sources

Bartholomeusz, Tessa. "In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka." Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6 (1999). Available from

Bretfeld, Sven. Das singhalesische Nationalepos von König Dutthagamani Abhaya: Textkritische Bearbeitung und Übersetzung der Kapitel VII. 3-VIII. 3 der Rasavahini des Vedeha Thera und Vergleich mit den Paralleltexten Sahassavatthuppakarana und Saddharmalankaraya. Berlin, 2001.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. "Dutthagamani and the Buddhist Conscience." In Religion and Political Conflict in South Asia, edited by Douglas Allen, pp. 135160. Westport, Conn., 1992.

Charles Hallisey (1987)

Frank E. Reynolds (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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