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Anagarika Dharmapala

A religio-cultural hero:

(This article marks the 144th Birth Anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala-later Ven. Sri Devamittha Dharmapala which falls tomorrow)

“It was given to the lion-hearted Prince of the Sakyas to proclaim the religion of Truth (Dharma), breaking the barriers of cast, creed, race and territory. Territorialism was vanquished by the sunlight of Truth.

An imperial religion was for the first time, proclaimed by the Buddha, as King of Righteousness, whose territory extended to the uttermost limits of the earth”.

In a study of the dedicated lives of such luminaries in the history of Buddhist pilgrims - as Emperor Asoka, Chinese monk Fa-Hsien and Chinese monk Hsuan-Tsang we can contemplate with awe the vast debt humanity owes to these tremendous personalities for their immortal contribution to save Buddhism and Buddhist sites for the whole of mankind.

Anagarika Dharmapala belongs unerringly in the line of those stalwarts. Emperor Asoka ensured the stability of Buddhism and its sites, through his imperial Decrees leavened with compassion.

Appearing several centuries later, Fa-Hsien and Hsuan-Tsang, suffering untold privation, recorded the deterioration of Buddhism and Buddhism sites in India, especially due to vandalistic outrages that failed to recognise perennial values of human culture.

In our own day, another outstanding pilgrim, devastated by the levels to which hallowed sites associated with the immortal Buddha had deteriorated, resolved to restore veneration due to these Buddhist sites.

At first, he waged a lone battle, renouncing every iota of his personal well-being, and eschewing all selfishly motivated pursuits. Others joined him later, persuaded by his clear-sighted, altruistic vision. Today, the world, upholding perennial values of humanity and culture has joined him as world peace demands men of that ilk.

This unique personality is the product of a family that provided a backdrop of wholesome Buddhist culture for him to grow up in, esteeming positive human and religious values. He was born in the deep south of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the historical city of Matara. His father was Don Carolis Hevavitarana, a businessman in Colombo. His mother was Mallika Hevavitarana. To them was born David Hevavitarana, on September 17, 1864.

From his early childhood on, he imbibed the spirit of Sinhala Buddhist culture. To him, being Buddhist in outlook seemed just the natural thing to do.

It occurred to the child that the way of life advocated by the Buddha squared with positive natural laws. In Sri Lanka of that era an elitist education, it was assumed, could be ensured to more affluent classes only by Catholic or Christian institutions.

The doting parents had their son sent to choice schools, as their social status demanded. The child David Hewavitarana, contemplative and analytical by nature, could not quite assimilate the dogmatism he felt he was asked to accept.

Future career

The polemical forays of Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda and the subsequent influence of Col. Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky, contributed substantially towards the formulation of young David Hewavitarana’s future career.

He took a deep interest in the activities of the Theosophical society. All these activities culminated with young David Hewavitarana taking the vow of homelessness, opting to lead the life of an Anagarika.

He sacrificed his career in state services and joined Col. Olcott and C. W. Leadbeater to tour the island, raising funds for the development of Buddhist education in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known then). His style of addressing the people was so compelling that, soon he became a mass idol.

Eventually, he discarded the name’ David Hewavitarana’ assuming instead, the Sinhala name ‘Dharmapala’ which meant the ‘Guardian of Righteousness’.

His international presence commenced with his visit to Japan in 1889, in the company of Col. Olcott. The visit scored a remarkable success in strengthening the ties between Buddhist Japan and Buddhist Sri Lanka. Although an indefatigable activist in the field of propagating the work of the Buddha, and in the area of expanding Buddhist education, Anagarika Dharmapala was deeply concerned with meditation.

His visit to the holy sites of India turned out to be an epoch-making event. The state of decay and deterioration to which Saranath had fallen, shocked Anagarika. His first concern was to devise ways to restrain the hand of vandals.

Buddhist sites

It was at Buddha Gaya that Anagarika Dharmapala was inspired to bring about drastic changes to restore the sanctity to hallowed Buddhist sites.

His own words convey the sudden transformation that the ruins at Buddha Gaya brought about within him.

“As soon as I touched with my forehead the Vajrasara a sudden impulse came to my mind. It prompted me to stop here and take care of this sacred spot - so sacred that nothing in the world is equal to this place, where prince Sakya Siddhartha gained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.”

His mind unwaveringly made up, he started writing letters to all those he thought could extend a hand of assistance. Though hamstrung by the lack of funds even for his day-to-day existence, Anagarika Dharmapala stayed on. Eventually, by degrees, the world began to join him.

In May 1891, he founded the Buddha Gaya Maha Bodhi Society, which came to be known popularly as ‘Maha Bodhi Society’. The establishment of the Maha Bodhi Society formalised Anagarika Dharmapala’s noble mission.

It was the ‘World Parliament of Religions’ in Chicago that provided Anagarika Dharmapala the global platform he needed to promote the cause of Buddhism world-wide.

His presence and his speeches at the Chicago assembly became instantly hypnotic. To the sophisticated listeners of the West, he threshed the wisdom of the Buddha in simple but graphic terms.

Search of truth

“Learn to think without prejudice, love all beings for love’s sake express your convictions fearlessly, lead a life of purity and sunlight of truth will illuminate you. If theology and dogma stand in your way in the search of truth, put them aside. Be earnest and work out your salvation with diligence, and the fruits of holiness will be yours.”

On his way to India by boat through Japan and China, at Honolulu, Mrs. Mary E. Fostr came on board to greet him. From that meeting on, Mrs. Foster remained his life-long benefactress.

In Buddha Gaya threats were leveled against his life. Undaunted, he continued his mission to restore Buddha Gaya to the Buddhists. In his second tour of America he spent a year visiting places of interest, meeting persons of importance and lecturing on Buddhist philosophy. His travels were extensive.

In all these, spirit of pilgrimage was implicit. Wherever he went he made an impassioned plea for ‘pure life’, as was taught by the Buddha.

In Sri Lanka among other initiatives, he started a Sinhala weekly titled ‘Sinhala Bauddhaya’. When riots broke out in Sri Lanka in 1915, Anagarika Dharmapala was interned for 5 years in Calcutta. Though physically frail he did not, even for a moment, overlook his central mission. He founded centres for the dissemination of the Dhamma in various parts of Europe.

As his chequered and turbulent life was drawing to a close Anagarika Dharmapala obtained ordination as a Buddhist monk on July 13, 1931 assuming the spiritual name Sri Devamitta Dharmapala.

He was elevated to the next stage of monastic life by the conferment of Higher Ordinator on him on January 16, 1933. A few days later he passed away, thinking of Buddha Gaya, even to his last breath.

Buddhist activist

Anagarika Dharmapala, later Ven. Sri Devamitta Dharmapala, the distinguished pilgrim, fought throughout his long career as Buddhist activist, for the rights of Buddhist pilgrims visiting sites rendered sacred by their associations with the Buddha. His life-long spiritual partner, Mary E. Foster, who had been described by Anagarika Dharmapala by the fitting sobriquet,”Queen of the Empire of Righteousness” provides an eloquent testimony to the supreme selflessness of Anagarika Dharmapala.

In her letter dated May 22, 1923 she had this to say “I note what you state in regard to self-denial on your part. The money sent is for you to use for your comfort, as well as for the work you are accomplishing.... Live for your work, that is, by taking good care of your health and give yourself more comforts.

Have pleasant quarters such as your should have, in which to receive your friends.

Take the money for it for your deserve it, and I insist take good care of yourself for my sake”.

Each pilgrim to Buddhist sites in sacred India should be suffused by this spirit of pilgrim - Anagarika Dharmapala - who subordinated self-interest to the holy obligations to the Supreme Buddha.

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