Abhayagiriya: The centre of Knowledge Economy in 5-11th century?

Posted on December 27, 2009  /  5 Comments

Abhayagiriya before restoration, 19th century. Photographer unknown

Observed few things fresh on my day at the Abhayagiri monastery complex. One was a rock inscription in ancient devanagari. It was not about a donation made by a king or a minister, as usual, or even a notification of a new regulation. The Sanskrit stanza was meant for Buddhist monks. Not a rule; but more a guide.

Why in Sanskrit? The local language could have been more appropriate if not for the sizable foreign student population at this ancient university. An academy as famous as Takshila, Vikramashila and Nalanda in the ancient Buddhist world, the Abhyagiriya University was said to have hosted 5,000 student monks in its hey days according to Fa Xian, a Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled to Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka to acquire Buddhist scriptures in 5th CAD. The complex would have been larger than any of the present Sri Lankan university premises and of the same size of the ancient Anuradhapura city centre.

The cost of construction and maintenance couldn’t have come only from the government. No matter how pious the kings and the subjects were, they couldn’t have made such colossal allocations from the treasury for no return. The only modes of survival were by levying tuition fees or producing outcomes of not religious, but true economic value. Probably the institution did both. Unlike Theravada, Mahayana doctrine did not prevent monks from studying non-religious ‘lay’ subjects. Couldn’t it be here they designed the sophisticated irrigation system in ancient Lanka? Couldn’t this be the place where they did Ayurvedic medical research?

Couldn’t this have been the independent economic centre for knowledge in the latter Anuradhapura period?

Not a surprise if we have no records, because all chronicles were done by the Theravada monks at Mahavihara, the arch rivals of Abhayagiri.


  1. Mahayanaism was the first attempt at marrying the extant scientific knowledge with Buddhism and, therefore, Abhayagiriya would have been a centre of learning for Buddhists, both lay and robed. The use of Sanskrit as the medium of instruction was due to the fact that Sanskrit was the language of the intellect in ancient India.
    The destruction of Abhayagiriya was in fact the death knell for the development of scientific knowledge in Lanka.

  2. I cannot remember the exact number, but at the peak the Anuradhapura Civilization, about one third of the working population were monks, pure knowledge workers.

    The materialistic interpretation is that this indicated an extremely productive economy, in that two thirds of the working population were able to support the other third who produced no wealth. Dr Ariyaratne’s interpretation is that the activities of the one third, especially the meditation, created the peaceful conditions for the two thirds to produce. The middle ground is that they made a major contribution to social cohesion that made it possible for the Anuradhapura civilization to last for a whole millennium, amidst war, intrigue, invasion, and such.

    But all this begs a larger question. Is the knowledge economy of the Anuradhapura era the same as the knowledge economy today? And what is the relation of the Anuradhapura era knowledge economy to the knowledge-based economies we talk about?

    First definitional issues. I understand knowledge economy as constituting the subset of economic activities where the end product is knowledge: teaching for example, or entertainment industries. Knowledge-based means something else. It is the increased use of knowledge in all economic activities. All economic activities involve some knowledge; what we mean by KBE is where hitherto tacit knowledge is codified (using IT) and there is greater use of knowledge across time and space (using ICT). The weakness is that we cannot easily demarcate the line between KBE and non KBE because both codification and use over time and space is a continuum.

    So Chanuka is correct in describing Abhayagiri as an element of the Anuradhapura era knowledge economy. But does it have anything in common with the subject matter of a present-day study of KBE?

  3. Ancient monasteries had been given vast endowment lands by monarchs for their upkeep as confirmed by the famous Thonigala Inscription (4th century AD). While these lands were cultivated by tenant farmers who had also been assigned to the monasteries as compulsory workers, it is plausible to think that the Bhikkus managed the affairs of the enterprises to maximise the return for the monastery
    Hence the ancient knowledge economy would not have been that unproductive as we may tend to think of it in today’s context.

  4. @Dr.Rohan, missing part between the then and now Knowledge Based Economy is the inter-dependency. Then the Country was a fabric which was inter-dependent of all the fraction of the society. Now it is a dependent culture promoted by Govt, Pvt companies and NGOs of this country. People at ground not empowered to make decisions, rather they are dependent on forces they do not understand.

  5. @Idiot

    Do you not take decisions affecting your life? Isn’t every small businessperson taking decisions about his/her life? Why is there this desire to always blame some external force?


    Dr AT Ariyaratne’s claim is about “rahatun vahanses,” or vanavasi monks. Unlikely that they would be supervising labor. This would be a subset of the total population of monks. Being away from my books, I cannot find these numbers. What would be truly interesting is if the agricultural lands belonging to the temples were more productive than those that were not. That would indeed constitute a knowledge-based economy.