The Pāli word vaṃsa literally refers to "lineage" or "bamboo," but it acquired the technical meaning of a "chronicle" early in the first millennium c.e. among TheravĀda Buddhists on the island of Sri Lanka. While many historical texts authored by Theravāda Buddhists in the ancient and medieval periods include the word vaṃsa in their titles, not all narrative accounts of the past are referred to in this way, nor do all vaṃsas share the same style and content. The Mahāvaṃsa (Great Chronicle) is arguably the best-known vaṃsa in modern times, yet its open-ended narrative, which has been periodically extended since the fifth century c.e., deviates from many other Theravāda vaṃsas whose narratives follow a discernible plot and reach a point of closure.
Modern scholars deduce that the vaṃsa genre of Buddhist literature grew out of ancient commentaries written on the Pāli canon. The Theravāda tradition holds that these commentaries were brought to Sri Lanka by a monk named Mahinda in the third century b.c.e. Within a few centuries, excerpts dealing with the history of Buddhism in India and the events surrounding its establishment in Lanka were crafted into independent vaṃsas that recount events connected with the life of the Buddha and the historical instantiation of his teaching (śāsana; Pāli, sāsana). While Pāli vaṃsas appear well-suited to legitimate monastic lineages and inspire devotion in Buddhist communities, European scholars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries valued these texts for their detailed and fairly reliable accounts of South and Southeast Asian history. Still, many scholars point out that these texts mix historical facts with legendary embellishments.
Theravāda vaṃsas typically convey information about the life and death of the Buddha, the transmission of the dharma, and the establishment of the saṄgha (community of monks) and relics in other lands. Pious and sometimes heroic kings such as Duṭṭhagāmaṇī (161–137 b.c.e.) in Sri Lanka and Tilakapanattu (1495–1525 c.e.) in Thailand are regularly extolled, suggesting that the vaṃsas also provided images of virtuous and powerful Buddhist kings for later individuals to emulate. The oldest extant vaṃsas, the Mahāvaṃsa and its fourth-century predecessor the Dīpavaṃsa (Chronicle of the Island), recount the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Other Sri Lankan vaṃsas written between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, such as the Mahābodhivaṃsa (Chronicle of the Bodhi Tree) and the Thūpavaṃsa (Chronicle of the Relic Shrine), often focus their narratives on particular relics of the Buddha that were purportedly brought from India and enshrined in Sri Lanka. The Anāgatavaṃsa (Chronicle of the Future Buddha) is distinguished by the fact that it narrates future events connected with the coming of the next Buddha Maitreya (Pāli, Metteyya). Several of these vaṃsas were subsequently translated into a literary form of the vernacular Sinhala language, and their narratives were often substantially revised in the process.
The vaṃsa genre was passed along from Sri Lanka to the Buddhist lands of Southeast Asia, fulfilling many similar functions in legitimating Theravāda monastic lineages, deepening piety, and extolling kings. The sixteenth-century Pāli chronicle titled Jinakālamālī (Sheaf of Garlands of the Epochs of the Conqueror) details some of the historical events associated with the establishment of Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand. In Burma (Myanmar), the nineteenth-century Sāsanavaṃsa (Chronicle of the Dispensation) performs an analogous role, connecting Burmese Buddhist traditions with those found in India and Sri Lanka from an earlier age.
Berkwitz, Stephen C. "Emotions and Ethics in Buddhist History: The Sinhala Thūpavaṃsa and the Work of Virtue." Religion 31, no. 2 (2001): 155–173.
Geiger, Wilhelm, trans. The Mahāvaṃsa: Or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon (1912), assisted by Mabel Haynes Bode. Reprint, London: Pali Text Society, 1980.
Jayawickrama, N. A., trans. The Sheaf of Garlands of the Epochs of the Conqueror: Being a Translation of Jinakālamālīpakaraṇaṁ. London: Pali Text Society, 1968.
Smith, Bardwell L., ed. Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka. Chambersburg, PA: Anima Books, 1978.
Walters, Jonathan S. "Buddhist History: The Sri Lankan Pali Vaṃsas and Their Commentary." In Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practices in South Asia, ed. Ronald Inden, Jonathan Walters, and Daud Ali. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Stephen C. Berkwitz