Historical Bagan, King Anawrahta and Shin Arahan
King Anawrahta also known as Anawrahtaminsaw, Anoratha or Aniruddha reigned between 1044 – 1077 AD., he was the first of a succession of kings who ruled the northern part of Burma from the 1st century AD., and the first to unify upper and lower Burma.
Historical records relating to the beginnings of Buddhism in Myanmar are scant, and for this reason it has presented a challenge to many scholars on the subject. Some scholars, mostly those of Myanmar ethnicity are of the opinion that Buddhism was known in Myanmar since the time of the Buddha’s Enlightenment.
Western scholars however with regard to the introduction of Buddhism into Myanmar have formed other opinions, based on archaeological evidence dating to the Pyu Period between the 1st and 10th century.
According to the Burmese version regarding the introduction of the Pali Tipitaka (Tripitaka), it has been recorded that during the reign of the seventh king of Bagan, King Thinligyaung (344 AD – 387 AD), there was an Indian philosopher known as Maha Thera Ashin Buddhaghosa, who after his encounter with a Buddhist monk named Maha Thera Revata traveled throughout India debating and discussing the Buddhist Vedic doctrine and eventually became a Buddhist monk.
Maha Thera Ashin Buddhaghosa, on invitation by his guru Maha Thera Revata traveled to Sri Lanka where he resided and studied the Tipitaka in Sri Lanka’s second monastery Maha Viharaya, located in the city of Anuradhapura in the capitol of Sri Lanka.
Whilst there he translated the Tripitaka from the Sri Lankan language into the Magahi language, also referred to as Magadhi, a language spoken in Bihar, West Bengal, East India and Jharkhand. Buddhaghosa also visited the South Indian Buddhist centres of Kanciipura and Uragapuram which had close connections with Thato and Prome (R. Bischoff, 1995)
Whilst Buddhism in India became less popular, it flourished in Sri Lanka, eventually spreading throughout other parts of S. E. Asia, China and Japan by Buddhist missionaries. Whilst the root of Buddhism started in India it would be fair to say that Sri Lanka became the epicenter of its survival and up until Buddhism took hold in China and Asia was the guardian of the true teachings of the Lord Buddha.
It is not clear about the exact date or year regarding Maha Thera Ashin Buddhaghosa’s visit to Myanmar, or his presentation of the Tipitaka to a barely the mentioned Thaton King, but considering the history of Thaton and its early contacts with Buddhists from India before and up until 1st century, it would make sense for Buddhaghosa to visit the stronghold of Buddhism at that time.
Some historical records state that this visit took place in the fourth century and others state in the fifth century. As with most historical accounts related to Burmese Buddhist history, give or take a century seems to be the norm, so regardless of the actual date, somewhere between the 4th and 5th century. During Buddhaghosa’s visit to Thaton he presented to the Thaton King Dhammapala his translation of the Pali Tripitaka, which was recorded as the fifth arrival of the Buddha Sasana to Myanmar in the form of a written Tipitaka.
Before Anawrahta – Samahti Ari Monks of Burma
From the reign of King Thaik Taing (516 – 523 AD.), up until the reign of King Anawrahta, the Vinaya, a set of rules and regulations relating to the teachings of the Buddha set down for monks became lax and was not strictly adhered to. Throughout this period grew a sect known as the Samahti Aris, a lawless sect of several thousand monks who rejected the teachings of the Buddha and instead adopted a combination of Nat, Tantric and spirit worship, rarely mentioning the Buddhist teachings.
Many of King Anawrahta’s predecessors since the 4th Century adhered to the doctrines adopted by the Ari monks. Between 931 -964 AD during the reign of King Nyaung U Sawrahan, the 38th king of the Bagan dynasty, built under the guidance of the Ari monk, five stupas were erected. Inside these stupas a combination of images were placed which were neither Buddhist nor Nat, these images were worshiped by the kings and the people with offerings of food and liquor.
The headquarters of the Ari monks was located just a few miles south east of Bagan. The monks resembled nothing of the monks in present day Myanmar. The Ari monks garments were blue, black or brown, their heads were unshaven, their hair was about three inches long and they wore a long moustache with beards.
They were an exuberant lot who rode elephants, went into battle, played games, killed and drank liquor. According to the chronicles there were around thirty Ari priests and sixty thousand followers.
King Anawrahta disenchanted by the debased practices of the Ari monks longed to bring change to his people by denouncing their practices and adopting the true Buddhist religious doctrine of earlier times. Arawrahta on hearing about a pious monkcalled Shin Arahan living in a cave nearby, who practiced the pure doctrine introduced in the 4th century by the monk Buddhaghosa from Sri Lanka asked for his help in the reformation.
With the help of the Royal patronage Shin Arahan requested 36 sets of the Tipitaka to be brought from Thaton along with a number of monks who adhered to the pure doctrine of the Buddha. Over time Buddhism eventually spread into the countryside and weakened the powers of the Aris.
Anawrahta banished the leading Aris who refused to comply with the Buddha’s teachings and their followers were forced into the service of the king as laborers and soldiers. The Aris were eventually eradicated but not in the lifetime of King Anarwrahta.
Shin Arahan continued his missionary work throughout the reigns of four successive Kings and died at the age of 81 years.
Since this commitment between a King and a monk to restore the teachings of the Buddha to the people of Burma, Therevada Buddhism flourished. Today it is considered to be the purest form of Therevada Buddhism practiced in Asia.
Statues abound throughout Myanmar of this famous monk, Maha Thera Shin Arahan, the most famous in the Ananda Temple in Bagan.
Information sourced from various articles on this subject we found to be contradictory to each other, and the subject matter just as diverse, this article is merely a brief overview. The “Glass Palace Chronicles of the Kings of Burma” is one of the recommended books on this subject, although that can be daunting.