Every December, on the day of the full moon, an Indian ancestress is celebrated inSri Lanka. She is Sanghamitra, daughter of Emperor Ashoka, who along with her brother, Mahendra, helped establish the Buddha dharma here in the third century BC. She is also revered as the one who brought a branch of the original Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, and which continues to be a powerful sacred presence in ordinary people’s lives even today.
On Sanghamitra Poya (‘poya’ is a full moon day), on 10 December this year, there is a festive atmosphere inAnuradhapura. Multitudes dressed predominantly in white arrive from far and near. They camp in the lawns of the ancient city, circumambulate its magnificent stupas, and bathe in its manmade tanks. The high-point of the day is a visit to the Bodhi tree, reverentially called ‘Sri Mahabodhi’, as if it were a deity in its own right.
That feeling grows as one steps onto the path that leads up to the tree. People carry flowers, coconuts, incense, and lengths of cloth to offer to Sri Mahabodhi. The crowd intensifies as one enters the compound that houses the tree, and one spots people sitting on the ground, in groups or alone, reciting mantras or simply praying.
The tree itself is cordoned off from the ‘general public’, and officiating monks scurry up and down the steps leading to it with devotees’ offerings. The larger tree in the enclosure is an offshoot of Sanghamitra’s tree, which one can still spot behind, distinguished by its lighter bark, as if whitened by age. In popular culture, Sanghamitra is always shown holding the sacred branch and it is in this context she is referred to on this day dedicated to her, as the loudspeakers come on and eminent monks take to the microphone.
Another branch that Sanghamitra brought with her was that of the nuns’ sangha, and along with it the opportunity for women to step outside patriarchal roles designated for them and into the spiritual freedom of the renunciate’s life. This branch withered away, unlike the Bodhi tree, and disappeared for a thousand years until its revival in recent times. At the Sri Mahabodhi, this renaissance is evident in the presence of several women in robes. Though not full-fledged nuns, they have taken for themselves the option of an alternative to worldly life, one that can be as liberating as it can be difficult to pursue.
In their courage in choosing this solitary path, not supported in the same way as monks’ organisations in this predominantly Buddhist country, these women keep alive Sanghamitra’s pioneering spirit. In their attempt to forge their own spiritual destinies, they appear to be true inheritors of Sanghamitra’s legacy.