|Tuesday, 17 September 2002|
Versatile Anagarika Dharmapala - communicator par excellence
by Lakshman Jayawardene
This noble son of Sri Lanka, Anagarika Dharmapala is a rare personality undisputedly eminent among the greatest persons of prominence born during recent times in Sri Lanka by virtue of his versatility and the contribution to human welfare through his manifold talents which earned him a name not only in this country but abroad as well.
More than a century of his colourful life of sixty-nine years was devoted almost entirely to the progress and promotion of the nation and the Buddha sasana. His services in this cause are stupendous, indeed, and makes one wonder how one such individual did such a lot in such a brief span of life. This inevitable question is perhaps partly answered by the fact that he saw no difference between night and day when at work, nor sought the comfort of sleep. He could write at any time. In fact, one notes that he wrote most of his letters in the small hours of the morning, being awake and at work while others slept.
Ven. Pandit Ganegama Saranankara, Nayaka Thero, in writing a very illustrative and intimate biography of the Anagarika, titled 'Jathiye Piya' ('Father of the Nation') convincingly names his chapters to reveal the significant aspects of the Anagarika's talents and work: 1. Honest, candid leader, 2. A hero fighting courageously to safeguard Sinhala Culture. 3. A great Buddhist missionary, 4. A captain in the temperance campaign, 5. A supreme orator, 6. The one Sinhalese ever to taunt the white men, 7. The most courageous Sinhalese, 8. The gaint in the fight for Buddhagaya, 9. Father of the nation, 10. The internationally famous Sinhalese of the 19th century.
Ven. Madhihe Pannasiha Maha Thera makes an illuminating comment on this book: It is no exaggeration to say that these ten titles of Chapters describe the Anagarika so fully that more words are not necessary. If we examine Anagarika Dharmapala's life and work further, more significant facets may be seen, such as, "Anagarika Dharmapala as a courageous communicator. "There could be no dispute over this identification because his prolific writings display communicative talents of a very high order acclaimed here and overseas. No doubt, the success of his many ventures on behalf of the nation and the religion depended on his ability to communicate and to convince convincingly.
Dharmapala's entry to the media was when he was quite young, only twenty. His first stint was on the "Sarasavi-Sandaresa" to which his services were drawn when he joined the Theosophical Society of Colombo initiated by Col. Olcott, who saw immense possibilities in the young enthusiast.
The staff on the paper at that time was quite small and Dharmapala had to - of course, quite willingly - shoulder the entire burden of running the paper - writing the articles, helping in the printing and the distribution. Actually, he did the folding, wrapped, stamped, addressed, bundled, carried to the post office and handed over the papers. This almost single-handed effort and dedication made it feasible to issue two papers a week as against one when he joined. The paper became popular as a national newspaper. He worked on the paper for four years, and we may surmise that his success as a communicator was fashioned during these early years. Just as much as he enjoyed his successes, he would have realised what a powerful medium he was wielding.
In December 1888, Dharmapala was able to issue an English-paper called "The Buddhist" as a supplement to the "Sarasavi-Sandaresa". He enlisted the services of an educationist named Leadbeater as the editor. This is how he talks of his efforts in this regard: "I decided that the time was ripe for an English weekly for Buddhists in Sri Lanka. I asked my friends to send me ten rupees each, and no sooner I had collected three hundred rupees, I got down the types from Madras and began "The Buddhist".
A much more significant landmark day in Dharmapala's life undoubtedly is Vesak 1906 when he started the "Sinhala Bauddhaya" at his own Mahabodhi press, the financial aid for which was provided for him by his helper, the philanthropist Mrs. T. R. Foster.
From the very inception of the "Sinhala Bauddhaya", Dharmapala was its editor and manager. He was its live wire and he used it with great results in his islandwide campaign of national regeneration then called, "Sinhalayini Negitiv" (Awake, Oh Sinhalaese!). His noble and steadfast campaign, he conducted with extreme determination and malice to none and only to uplift a moribund populace. He was convinced, as his Diaries show, that a newspaper was a strong ally in his struggle to reach the masses.
The columns of the "Sinhala Bauddhaya" to which Dharmapala himself contributed profusely bear witness to the burning problems of the time. He castigated the British administration and White rule in no uncertain terms and most justifiably at a time when newspapers had their lips tight and were afraid to take on the colonial rulers. Whenever he was abroad, he wrote of his experiences frequently and regularly to keep the country informed and to educate the news-hungry public.
It will be most informative and educative for a study to be made of how Anagarika Dharmapala performed as a fearless media-man and how he used the rudimentary media at that time successfully in his national and religious upliftment. Media-men of today would stand to benefit, I suspect remarkably.
A national Sinhala newspaper was not the only organ resorted to by Dharmapala for national resurgence. He started the magazine "Maha-Bodhi Journal", to carry the message of the Maha-Bodhi Society on May 12, 1892. Here too, he had the main hand in editing and contributing to its pages. It's most surprising how much he wrote, how informative it was and what results he achieved. The contents of these Journals are most valuable, historically, religiously and socially. Long after this, in 1933, he started the "British Buddhist" in order to reach the British public who were keen to know about Buddhism and the land where it is assiduously practised.
Anagarika Dharmapala used his magazines and journals wisely to reach a large public, particularly English readers in the UK, USA and Europe. He kept enthusiastic readers satisfied by posting the Magazines direct to them. No better pointer to the power of the media need be south, for this practice brought him in touch with people who were keen to know about Buddhism and Sri Lanka and also enabled him to draw in their aid for his momentous work. Dharmapala was sought for; he was invited to meetings of scholars as the Congress of Faiths at Chicago; there were so many willing to help the Maha-Bodhi Society with funds and books. So, we have here an unprecedented instance of international co-operation through mass-communication.
To study it further, we may justifiably identify this as Dharmapala's communication network of the time: newspapers edited by him or directed by him with writings of his own adorning every issue whether in Sinhala or English; periodicals of the same character being posted to English-speaking and/or Buddhist countries; books written by him or other prestigious personalities; and lastly, his own personal letters now preserved in archives or published. The last should indicate his powers of inter-personal communication. Its success lay in how he won hearts and purses for his noble endeavours.
Another facet of his achievement was in his oratory - the power of the spoken word. With no electronic devices, perhaps not even a loudspeaker to assist him, he addressed large gatherings with conviction and persuasion. Notes of some of his addresses show his talents in this regard: hard-spoken, appealing, argumentative, plaintive, assertive as the case needed, he appealed to both heart and brain. It could not be otherwise because he had to address the tipsy ignorant villager in the remote villages of Sri Lanka in one breath and, in the other, either Buddhist monks or confirmed Christian audiences. In the last, he used the Bible - he always carried one with him - to evoke comparisons. He thus, obtained the highest clarity and conviction. Western audiences were ever so appreciative of his mastery of the spoken and written word.
So, Anagarika Dharmapala is deserving of additional admiration on an eleventh aspect of his personality - a master of communication, versatile, fearless and lively. This would have contributed immensely to his international success and appeal.
Produced by Lake House