Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by Arhat Mahinda Thero, on the Poson Full Moon Poya day by special envoy of King of India. One of the earliest messages on the rights of nature including Environment Conservation and Human rights was delivered by Arhat Mahinda to Sri Lankan King Devanampiyathissa. Protection of nature became a tradition after this incident in Sri Lanka.
Legend – arrival of Buddhism to Sri Lanka
The ancient chronicles state that when King Devanampiyathissa (about 246 BC) was on a hunting trip, the Arhat Mahinda, preached to him a sermon which converted him to Buddhism on a Poson Poya day, the basic precepts of which include simplicity in living, equilibrium moderation and the middle path.
The sermon includes the words:
“O’ great King! the birds of the air and the beasts on the earth have an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land as thou. The land belongs to the people and all other beings and thou art only the guardian of it.”
“Your Majesty, the birds that glide the skies and animals that roam the forests have an equal right to live and move anywhere in this country as you have. The land belongs to the people and all other living beings, you are only their trustee”
This ancient wisdom appears to encompass modern notions of public trust/ stewardship/ custodianship of the environment, as it informs the king that he is only the guardian of the land. If the King, the birds and the beasts have an equal right to live, it implies that human beings too have the same right.
As this occurred in third century BC this could be one of the oldest recorded messages on nature conservation. Prior to this day, it is likely that hunting was enjoyed by at least the elite of society, but this practice changed under the Buddhist philosophy of reverence for all forms of life – killing was forbidden.
After this incident King Devanampiyathissa declared world’s first wild life sanctuary, Mihintale Sanctuary. It is still a wild life sanctuary managed by Department of Wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka
The Riddle of the Mangoes
Wishing first to test the king’s intelligence to judge his ability to receive Lord Buddha’s teachings, Arhat Mahinda created the above “riddle of the mangoes”
“What name does this tree bear, mighty King?”
“This tree is called the mango.”
“Is there yet another mango besides this?”
“There are many mango trees.”
“And are there any other trees besides this mango and the other mangoes?”
“There are many trees, reverend; but those are not mango trees.”
“And are there besides the other mangoes, and those trees which are not mangoes, yet other trees?”
“It is this mango tree, reverend.”