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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
Eventually, he discarded the name’ David Hewavitarana’ assuming
instead, the Sinhala name ‘Dharmapala’ which meant the ‘Guardian of
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.
It was at Buddha Gaya that Anagarika Dharmapala was inspired to bring
about drastic changes to restore the sanctity to hallowed Buddhist
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
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
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.
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
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
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.