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The Mahavihara (Pali for "Great Monastery") was for several centuries the center of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It was founded by king Devanampiya Tissa (247–207 BCE) in his capital Anuradhapura. The Mahavihara was the place where Theravadin orthodoxy was established by monks such as Buddhaghosa. The monks living at the Mahavihara were referred to as mahaviharavasims.

The term Mahavihara was also applied to a number of the larger monasteries in India, among them Nalanda, Vikramashila, Odantipura, Somapura, Ratnagiri, and others.[1]

According to the Mahavamsa, the Mahavihara was destroyed during sectarian conflicts with the (Mahayana) monks of the Abhayagiri Vihara during the 4th century.[2] These Mahayana monks incited King Mahasena to destruct the Mahavihara. As a result of this, a later king expelled the Mahayana monks from Sri Lanka[citation needed].

However, the traditional Theravadin account provided by the Mahavamsa is contradicted by the writings of the Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian (Ch. 法顯), who journeyed to India and Sri Lanka in the early 5th century (between 399 and 414 CE). He first entered Sri Lanka around 406 CE and began writing about his experiences in detail. He recorded that the Mahavihara was not only intact, but housed 3000 monks. He also provides an account of a cremation at Mahavihara that he personally attended, of a highly respected śramaṇa who attained the arhat stage.[3] Faxian also recorded the concurrent existence of the Abhayagiri Vihara, and that this monastery housed 5000 monks.[4]

In the 7th century CE, Xuanzang also describes the concurrent existence of both monasteries in Sri Lanka. He refers to the monks of the Mahavihara as the "Hīnayāna Sthavira" (Pali: Thera), and the monks of the Abhayagiri Vihara as the "Mahāyāna Sthavira".[5]


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