Many Hindus claim that Buddha is the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, yet they often overlook the fact that Vishnu is revered as a guardian deity in the Buddhist faith practiced in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lankan Buddhist mythology, numerous Buddhas, including Gautama Buddha, have visited the island nation in the past, making it a significant center of Buddhist culture known as Buddha-shasan. In this cultural context, Gautama Buddha is considered the primary source of dhamma (teachings) and liberation (nibbana) for all beings.
The defense of Buddha’s culture in Sri Lanka is entrusted to four divine beings: Natha, Pattini, Kataragama, and Vishnu. These guardians fulfill the material needs of the local populace by offering protection from diseases, demons, and bestowing prosperity. Interestingly, these guardians originate from rival faiths, but they are incorporated into Buddhism while remaining subservient to it. This inclusion of diverse religious elements helped maintain peace among the diverse communities in Sri Lanka. It is believed that these guardians will become Buddhas in the future.
One of these guardians, Natha Deva, is connected to Avalokiteshvara, the primary Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, which once flourished in Sri Lanka but eventually gave way to Theravada Buddhism. Pattini, on the other hand, originates from the Shakti cult of Hinduism, where she is revered as a folk deity known for her fidelity to her husband, which granted her magical powers. Her story is depicted in the famous Tamil classic, Silappadikaram.
Kataragama represents the local manifestation of the Tamil god Murugan, stemming from Shaivite traditions. Vishnu Devale, derived from the Vaishnav tradition, amalgamates a local deity named Upulvan, the Hindu god Vishnu, and his avatars Ram and Krishna. Vishnu Devale wields a “golden bow” with which he drives away Mara, the demon of desire and eternal enemy of the Buddha.
Upalvan, an ancient Sri Lankan folk god mentioned in the oldest Sri Lankan lore, welcomed Vijaya, an Indian migrant who arrived in Sri Lanka 2,500 years ago. Over time, Upalvan’s worship merged with the concept of Vishnu since both deities were associated with the blue color of the blue lily. This Buddhist interpretation of Vishnu is linked to the Ocean of Milk, where he raised the earth like Varaha, the mighty boar. Vishnu churned the ocean to obtain the golden bow, which he used to cure his sister of a disease inflicted upon her by the vengeful Mara. Within the ocean, Vishnu planted a lotus on whose petals the robes for different Buddhas from various eras were placed. In a reference to Krishna, Vishnu once encountered seven goddesses bathing in a pond and fell in love with one of them named Sita. He stole her clothes, compelling her to become his consort. It is worth noting that, unlike the Hindu Vishnu, this Buddhist interpretation portrays him as clever and wise rather than sensual or sexual, reflecting the strong Buddhist influence.
In artistic depictions, Upalvan-Vishnu closely resembles the Hindu Vishnu, with four arms holding the disc, conch, wheel, and mace. However, the mace is often replaced with the golden bow. As part of the ceremony, “sandesha” or message hymns are sent to Vishnu to seek his protection for those safeguarding Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The stories of Buddha in Hindu mythology and Vishnu in Buddhist mythology shed light on how Hinduism displaced Buddhism in India, while Buddhism in Sri Lanka managed to keep Hinduism at bay.