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Divine Kingship in Medieval Sri Lanka

Dynamics in Traditions of Power and Virtue in South Asia

Divine kingship was an influential and widespread trope across medieval southern Asia. My project examines literary representations of Sri Lankan Buddhist kings as godlike figures that reflect the dynamics of inter-religious contact between Buddhism and Hinduism in the medieval era or roughly the 10th-16th centuries CE.

By focusing on the development of divine kingship related to Sri Lankan Buddhist traditions, I shall explore and explain the extraordinary and superhuman representations of Buddhist kings. These eulogistic descriptions of kings frequently appear in both poetry and prose, and they reflect distinctive borrowings of Hindu mythology and notions of divine kings. The very idea of universal kingship enabled Sri Lankans to draw upon largely Hindu models of sovereignty and divinity to enhance the reputation and power of medieval Buddhist kings.

The resulting effect of these diverse religious contacts and influences was the adaptive, but transformative use of alien elements in the formation of an ideology of Buddhist kingship that was associated with the local Theravāda Buddhist tradition and yet resonated with visions of power from abroad. These images of divine kingship, moreover, seem to have been domesticated by Sri Lankan authors by rendering them chiefly as metaphors for royal identity and virtue, which allowed them to retain much of the traditional distinctions between humans and gods in Buddhist cosmology, while adopting elements of Hindu theology for specifically local purposes.