Friday, 17 September 2004  
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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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Anagarika Dharmapala - trail-blazing servant of the Buddha

by Daya Sirisena
President, Board of Trustees, Sirisena Dharamamandiraya Meditation Centre.

The 140th birth anniversary falls today of Bhikkhu Sri Devamitta Dharmapala, known in the annals of Buddhist history as Anagarika Dharmapala. His life and character had been a source of inspiration for Buddhists throughout the world for the last 140 years.

The prospects for Buddhism in the sixties of the 18th century were bleaks indeed. Successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and British invasions had swept away much of the traditional culture of the country.

Throughout the territories under Dutch occupation, Buddhists had been compelled to declare themselves Christians and during the period of British rule this law was enforced for seventy years, being abrogated only in 1884 when on behalf of the Buddhist of Ceylon, Col. Olcott made representations to Secretary of State for the Colonies in London.

The era was dark indeed for Sinhalese Buddhists. Among the few well-to-do families which through all vicissitudes stood firmly and fearlessly on the side of their ancestral faith was the Hewavitharana family of Matara in South of Ceylon.

Hewavitharana Dingiri Appuhamy, the first member of this family, with whom we are concerned, had two sons, both of whom exhibited the same devotion to the Dharma as their faith. One of them became a bhikkhu, known as Hittatiye Atthadassi Thera and occupied the incumbency of Hittatiya Raja Maha Vihara. His teacher was Mirrise Revatha.

The other son, Don Carolis Hewavitharana, migrated to Colombo and started there a furniture manufacturing business and married the daughter of a Colombo businessman. Both Don Carolis and his young wife, Mallika, ardently desired a son but although they both desired a son the reasons for they desired were by no means the same.

Mudaliyar Hewavitharana thought of a successor to the family business, while his young wife dreamed of a bhikkhu who would guide the erring footsteps of the Sinhala people, back to the Noble Eightfold Path from which they had so long been led astray.

Every morning before sunrise, the young bride who was not yet out of her teens would gather a tray full of sweet smelling Sandalwood flowers, and offer them together with coconut oil lamps, and incense at the Buddha image at the family shrine.

Praying to devas that she might bear a son who would rekindle the lamp of the Dharma in a darkened land. As her time drew near bhikkhus were invited to the home. They chanted pirith. Air was filled with vibrations of the Pali texts.

The night of September 17th in the Pettah district of Colombo, where the national religion and culture had fallen to the lowest pitch of degeneration, there came as though to strike the evil at its very heart, the birth of Dharmapala like a vivid flash of lightning from a black and stormy sky.

Young David Hewavitharana, as he was named, grew up in an atmosphere of traditional Sinhala piety. Everyday morning and evening he would kneel in the shrine with his father and mother and take refuge in Buddha Dharma, and Sangha and promised to observe the Five Precepts.

1884, when he was in his twentieth year, he believed the time had come for him to guide the majority of the Sinhalese-Buddhists and wanted permission from his father to lead a Brahmachari life as he wished to devote all his time for the welfare of Buddha Sasana.

Father wanted him to carry on with the family business as his two brothers were young. Mother encouraged the young and enthusiastic son to take the lead to protect the Buddha Sasana. The mother went on to say if not for two young children, "I will come along with you, son."

During his first visit to Buddhagaya in 1891 in his 28th year, he was astonish to witness its plight. This inspired him to start the battle. Which was to change not only his own life but the whole course of modern Buddhist history.

The crucial moment of his career had come at last. He stood face to face with destiny. He saw that the most sacred spot in the Buddhist world was being shamefully neglected. Its sculptures carted away, the image desecrated and he assured that as a Buddhist he had not only the duty but also the right to stay there and protect the holy place.

Establishment of the Mahabodi Society, 1891 May 31st in Colombo, was the new beginning for the neglected place. His journey was throughout hazardous, painful, indeed. His grit and desire to protect the most sacred place for the Buddhist was very clear in his mind.

His travelling to USA, United Kingdom, and getting the help from devoted buddhists was a remarkable victory. For 48 years he toiled. He knew that his days were numbered. The year 1932 was the most memorable year for Anagarika Dharmapala and the work which he had nobly begun.

The memorable day dawned. A golden casket containing Sacred Relics of Lord Buddha were presented by the Director General of Archaeology to the Maha Bodhi Society, on behalf of the Government of India. This was a great victory for Anagarika Dharmapala.

After the colourful processing, in his address at the opening ceremony at the vihara, Ven. Dharmapala recalled his first visit to Saranath in January 1891. The vast audience was silent as he recounted some of the difficulties he had faced.

The old warrior who had been wheeled in an invalid-chair, declared: "After eight-hundred years the Buddhists have returned to their own dear Holy Isipatana in Baranesa. It is the wish of the Maha Bodhi Society, he said, "To give to the people of India without distinction of caste and creed, the compassionate doctrine of the Samma Sambuddha, I trust that you would come forward to disseminate the Arya Dharma of the Tathagatha through India."

Today thousands of Buddhists, non Buddhists visit Buddhagaya, Saranath, and Kusinara, Buddhists need to remember Ven, Devamitta Dharmapala with gratitude and with veneration for restoring the most sacred places, devoting his entire life to protecting the Sasana.

"We remember you with gratitude today. I remember your saying, never rest until Buddha Gaya is restored to Buddhist hands. May you be born again and again to protect and propagate Dhamma to the world.


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