The Mahavamsa, ("Great Chronicle") is a historical poem written in the Pali language, of the kings of Sri Lanka. It covers the period from the coming of King Vijaya of Kalinga (ancient Orissa) in 543 BCE to the reign of King Mahasena (334–361).
The first printed edition and English translation of the Mahavamsa was published in 1837 by George Turnour, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service. A German translation of Mahavamsa was completed by Wilhelm Geiger in 1912. This was then translated into the English by Mabel Haynes Bode, and the English translation was revised by Geiger.
While not considered a canonical religious text, the Mahavamsa is an important text in Theravada Buddhism. It covers the early history of religion in Sri Lanka, beginning with the time of the Buddha. It also briefly recounts the history of Buddhism in India, from the date of the Buddha's death to the various Buddhist councils where the Dhamma was reviewed. Every chapter of the Mahavamsa ends by stating that it is written for the "serene joy of the pious". From the emphasis of its point-of-view, it can be said to have been compiled to record the good deeds of the kings who were patrons of the Mahavihara temple in Anuradhapura.
Buddhist monks of the Mahavihara maintained chronicles of Sri Lankan history, starting from the 3rd century BCE. These annals were combined and compiled into a single document in the 5th century CE by the Buddhist monk Mahathera Mahanama. According to Wilhelm Geiger, rhere is evidence that there was a prior compilation known as Mahavamsa Atthakatha, and that Mahathera Mahanama relied on this text. Another, earlier document known as the Dipavamsa, which survives today, is much simpler and contains less information than the Mahavamsa, and was probably compiled using the Mahavamsa Atthakatha as well.
A companion volume, the Culavamsa ("lesser chronicle"), compiled by Sinhala Buddhist monks, covers the period from the 4th century to the British takeover of Sri Lanka in 1815. The Culavamsa was compiled by a number of authors of different time periods.
The combined work, sometimes referred to collectively as the Mahavamsa, provides a continuous historical record of over two millennia, and is considered one of the world's longest unbroken historical accounts. The historical accuracy of the document, given the time when it was written, is considered to be astonishing, although the material prior to the death of Ashoka is not trustworthy and mostly legend. However, that part of the Mahavamsa is one of the few documents containing material relating to the Nagas and Yakkhas, the dwellers of Lanka prior to the legendary arrival of Vijaya.
As it often refers to the royal dynasties of India, the Mahavamsa is also valuable for historians who wish to date and relate contemporary royal dynasties in the Indian subcontinent. It is very important in dating the consecration of the Maurya emperor Asoka, which is related to the synchronicity with the Seleucids and Alexander the Great.
Indian excavations in Sanchi and other locations, confirm the Mahavamsa account of the Empire of Asoka. The accounts given in the Mahavamsa are also amply supported by the numerous stone inscriptions, mostly in Sinhala, found in Sri Lanka. Karthigesu Indrapala has also upheld the historical value of the Mahavamsa. It is in this sense that the Mahavamsa differs from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and other epics that have no direct historiographic value. If not for the Mahavamsa, the story behind the large stupas in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, such as Ruwanwelisaya, Jetavanaramaya, Abhayagiri, and other works of ancient engineering would never have been known.
Besides being an important historical source, the Mahavamsa is the most important epic poem in the Pali language. Its stories of battles and invasions, court intrigue, great constructions of stupas and water reservoirs, written in elegant verse suitable for memorization, caught the imagination of the Buddhist world of the time. The Ruvanwelisaya was the tallest edifice in the world in that age. The engineering works of King Parakramabahu were the greatest hydraulic works in the world in those times. Unlike many texts written in antiquity, it also discusses various aspects of the lives of ordinary people, how they joined the King's army or farmed. Thus the Mahavamsa was taken along the silk route to many Buddhist lands. Parts of it were translated, retold, and absorbed into other languages. An extended version of the Mahavamsa, which gives many more details, has also been found in Cambodia. The Mahavamsa gave rise to many other Pali chronicles, making Sri Lanka of that period probably the world's leading center in Pali literature.
The Mahavamsa has, especially in modern Sri Lanka, acquired a significance as a document with a political message. The Sinhalese majority often use Manavamsa as a proof of their claim that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation from historical time. The British historian Jane Russell has recounted how a process of "Mahavamsa bashing" began in the 1930s, especially from within the Tamil Nationalist movement. The Mahavamsa, being a history of the Sinhala Buddhists, presented itself to the Tamil Nationalists and the Sinhala Nationalists as the hegemonic epic of the Sinhala people. This view was attacked by G.G. Ponnambalam, the leader of the Nationalist Tamils in the 1930s. He claimed that most of the Sinhala kings, including Vijaya, Kasyapa, and Parakramabahu, were Tamils. Ponnambalam's 1939 speech in Navalpitiya, attacking the claim that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese, Buddhist nation was seen as an act against the notion of creating a Biddhist only nation. The Sinhala majority responded with a mob riot, which engulfed Navalapitiya, Passara, Maskeliya, and even Jaffna. The riots were rapidly put down by the British colonial government and did not lead to the terrible magnitude of the post-independence conflicts.
Various writers have called into question the morality of the account given in the Mahavamsa, where Dutugamunu regrets his actions in killing the Chola king Elara and his troops. The Mahavamsa equates the killing of the invaders as being on par with the killing of "sinners and wild beasts", and the King's sorrow and regret are assuaged. This is considered by some critics as an ethical error. However, Buddhism does recognize a hierarchy of actions as being more or less wholesome or skillful, although the intent is as much as or more important than the action itself. Thus the killing of an Arahant may be considered less wholesome and skillful than the killing of an ordinary human being. Buddhists may also assert that killing an elephant is less skillful and wholesome than killing an ant. In both cases, however, the intent must also be considered. An important thing to note is that Dutugamunu regretted his act, and this was also true of King Asoka who became a pacifist after a series of bloody military campaigns.
An eminent historian who has come to the defence of the Mahavamsa is Karthigesu Indrapala. He has argued that the popular presentation of the Mahavamsa as a work of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism is incorrect, and that the Mahavansa writer was singularly fair in his presentation.