Anagarika Dharmapala an excellent example of Asian Buddhist
Address by Urban Development Minister Rohana
Kumara Dissanayake at the celebration held at Buddhagaya, India on the
occasion of the birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala
Dharmapala was born to a rich aristocratic family of Southern Sri
Lanka on September 17, 1864. His parents were Mudliyar Don Carolis
Hewavitharana and Mallika Dharmagunawardhana.
Sri Lanka was then a British colony known as Ceylon, so
Hewavitarana’s state education was an English one: he attended Christian
College, Kotte and the Colombo Academy, now known as Royal College. A
major portion of their family riches had to be spent for the upliftment
of Buddhist Dhamma education and the propagation of the Buddha Dhamma
because one of their sons, Don David trod the path of the Buddha Dhamma.
Young David had his primary education in the Catholic Missionary
School Pettah (St. Mary’s) and St. Benedict’s College, Kotahena and
later at the Christian Missionary school Kotte (St. Thomas’).
He learnt the Sinhala language and Buddha Dhamma from erudite monks,
Venerable Migettuwatte Gunananda and Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala
Those were the British colonial days and it was considered a
prestigious thing to join the public service as a clerk, so in 1883
Dharmapala joined the public service as a clerk. His public service
career was limited to three years as he left the service in 1886 to
devote his full time for religious activities, joining the Theosophical
Society, headed by an American, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott. Later, he
became the secretary of the society. By now, he changed his Biblical
name Don David to Dharmapala Hewavitharana. The Buddhist Theosophical
Society, under his guidance was able to establish Buddhist schools
throughout the island which saw the birth of Ananda, Nalanda, Mahinda,
Dharmaraja Colleges for boys and Vishaka, Mahamaya and Sangamitta for
Dharmapala not only concentrated on education, but also contributed
towards the upliftment of the rural economy by starting vocational
training centres for carpentry, handloom textiles and other rural
cottage industries. He traversed the entire length and breadth of the
country, propagating the doctrine of the Buddha in a specially
improvised vehicle for this purpose. The living members of some Buddhist
families in the hill country still remember with nostalgia the time
spent with Dharmapala, who stayed with them on his ‘Dhamma’ missions in
the hill country.
The landmark of his career began when he met a Russian lady, Mrs.
Blavatsky with whom he went to Adayar, South India to study Theosophy.
He visited Isipatana in January 1891. He came to Buddhagaya on
January 22, 1891 and he kept his forehead on the ground and made this
strong commitment to clear the premises from foreign domination. The
entry made in his personal diary states thus. ‘As soon as I touched with
my forehead the ‘Vajirasana’ a sudden impulse came to my mind. It
prompted me to stop here and take care of the sacred spot, so sacred
that nothing in this world is equal to this place where prince
Sakiyasingha gained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
This incident saw the birth of the ‘Maha Bodhi’ Society on April 31,
1891, under the patronage of Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala thera. Dharmapala
became the Secretary of this organization. It is recorded that he
donated Rs. 100,000 to the then British Governor Sir William Manning for
the supply of rations to the poor who were hit by a famine in Sri Lanka
in 1919. This was the same Governor who was in India when Dharmapala was
ordered to leave India by the Courts.
Buddhist places of worship in Kashmir were destroyed by Sikandar.
When Dharmapala visited Saranath in January 1891, it was a place for hog
breading. Only an area belonging to the Jains, where there was a shrine
spared by the hog breeders. It was in January 1901 that Dharmapala was
able to purchase a block of land from Isipatana. Today, there are eight
schools here managed by the ‘Maha Bodhi’ Society. One of these schools
was funded by the mother of our hero, Mallika Hewavitharana who was 85
years old at the time. The school started in June 1904 was funded by
Lady Foster. This area was known as ‘Kasirata’ in the olden days.
The splendour of this area could be enjoyed today only due to the
untiring efforts of Dharmapala, who brought back the pristine glory of
the area. He was not only able to get a Vesak Poya of 24 May 1918
gazetted as a public holiday but also was able to get a Vesak holiday
for all the Buddhist children attending schools in Calcutta, Bengal and
other cities. It was, Dharmapala who rescued Budhagaya from Saivite
Dharmapala had to go to courts on many occasions to stop Mahanta from
defacing the Buddha statues. He was also jailed as a result of his
Buddhist activities. Having lived in India for 44 years, he participated
in the second anniversary of the ‘Moolagandakuti Vihara’ restoration
held on November 11, 1932, with the participation of a distinguished
gathering, including Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, his wife, daughter Indira and
sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit on January 16, 1933. A ‘Seemamalaka’ area of
50 ft x 50 ft with eight stone pillars was built and Dharmapala was
ordained as Venerable Siri Devamitta Dharmapala.
This was a time of Buddhist revival. In 1875 in New York, Madame
Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott had founded the Theosophical Society. They
were both very sympathetic to what they understood of Buddhism and in
1880 they arrived in Ceylon, declared themselves to be Buddhists.
Colonel Olcott kept coming back to Ceylon and devoted himself in Ceylon
to the cause of Buddhist education, eventually setting up more than 300
Buddhist schools, some of which are still in existence. It was in this
period that Hewavitarane changed his name to Anagarika Dharmapala.
‘Dharmapala’ means ‘protector of the dharma’. ‘Anagarika’, a term
coined by Dharmapala himself, means ‘homeless one.’ It is a midway
status between monk and layperson. Dharmapala was the first Anagarika -
that is, a celibate, full-time worker for Buddhism - in modern times. It
seems that he took a vow of celibacy at the age of eight and remained
faithful to it all his life. Although he wore a yellow robe, it was not
of the traditional Bhikkhu pattern, and he did not shave his head. He
felt that the observance of all the Vinaya rules would get in the way of
his work, especially as he flew around the world. Neither the title nor
the office became popular, but in this role, he was the model for lay
activism in modern Buddhism. In fact, he is widely considered a
Bodhisattva in Sri Lanka. His trip to Buddha Gaya was inspired by an
1885 visit there by Sir Edwin Arnold, author of The Light of Asia, who
soon started advocating for the renovation of the site and its return to
The young Dharmapala helped Colonel Olcott in his work, particularly
by acting as his translator. Dharmapala also became quite close to
Madame Blavatsky, who advised him to study Pali and to work for the good
of humanity - which is what he did. It was at this time that he changed
his name to Dharmapala (meaning ‘Guardian of the Dharma’).
In 1891, Anagarika Dharmapala was on a pilgrimage to the recently
restored Mahabodhi Temple, where Siddhartha Gautama - the Buddha -
attained Enlightenment at Buddha Gaya, India. Here he experienced a
shock to find the temple in the hands of a Saivite priest, the Buddha
image transformed into a Hindu icon and Buddhists barred from worship.
As a result, he began an agitation movement.
The Mahabodhi Society at Colombo was founded in 1891 but its offices
were soon moved to Calcutta the following year in 1892. One of its
primary aims was the restoration to Buddhist control of the Mahabodhi
Temple at Buddha Gaya, the chief of the four ancient Buddhist holy
To accomplish this, Dharmapala initiated a lawsuit against the
Brahmin priests who had held control of the site for centuries. After a
protracted struggle, this was successful, with the partial restoration
of the site to the management of the Maha Bodhi Society in 1949.
In 1893 Dharmapala was invited to attend the World Parliament of
Religions in Chicago as a representative of ‘Southern Buddhism’ - which
was the term applied at that time to Theravada Buddhism. He was a great
success and by his early thirties he was already a global figure,
continuing to travel and give lectures and establish Viharas around the
world during the next forty years. At the same time he concentrated on
establishing schools and hospitals in Ceylon and building temples and
Viharas in India. Among the most important of the temples he built was
one at Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught.
The term ‘Protestant Buddhism,’ coined by scholars Gananath
Obeyesekere, is often applied to Dharmapala’s form of Buddhism. It is
Protestant in two ways. First, it is influenced by Protestant ideals
such as freedom from religious institutions, freedom of conscience, and
focus on individual interior experience. Second, it is in itself a
protest against claims of Christian superiority, colonialism and
Christian missionary work aimed at weakening Buddhism. “Its salient
characteristic is the importance it assigns to the laity. It arose among
the new, literate, middle class cantered in Colombo.
Dharmapala is an excellent example of an Asian Buddhist modernist,
and perhaps the paradigm example of Protestant Buddhism. He is
particularly concerned with presenting Buddhism as consistent with
science, especially the theory of evolution. A paper titled ‘The World’s
debt to Buddha’, was read by Dharmapala to a crowded session of the
Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, on September 18, 1893. At this
early stage of his career, Dharmapala was concerned with making Buddhism
palatable to his Western audience.
In the later stages of his career, Dharmapala’s vociferous
anti-Christian tone is more evident. Dharmapala must be understood in
the context of British colonization of Sri Lanka and the presence of
Christian missionaries there. This work is a good example of ‘Protestant
Buddhism,’ as described above.
Several Sri Lankans participated in the auspicious occasion held in
Benares, where Ven. Siri Devamitta Dharmapala obtained Higher
Ordination. Ven. Devamitta Dharmapala lived hardly four months after
this event and passed away on April 29, 1933 at the age of 69. The whole
Buddhist world mourned the demise of this great son of Sri Lanka.
It is very important to realize that the strong sayings and work of
Dharmapala have to be understood in the context of the times, that era
of British colonialism when Buddhism was exploited by the colonial
Dharmapala’s name will be honoured and remembered by generations of
Buddhists the world over because he awoke Buddhists from their deep
slumber and infused a sense of patriotism to their hearts and minds.
Unlike during the British colonial era of the 19th Century, today the
order of the day is religious harmony and amity among people of
different religions. When the tsunami hit us in Sri Lanka, people of all
religious denominations, the Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus
joined hands in providing relief to those struck by the tsunami
disaster. Today in Sri Lanka and in many parts of Asia there is a lot of
dialogue between different religions unlike the days of British
Recently in Sri Lanka when the terrorist outfit of the LTTE was
completely routed by the humanitarian efforts of the Sri Lanka Armed
Forces and several thousands of Hindu Tamils were rendered homeless, the
people of all religions rallied round and helped to feed the Tamils who
were displaced from their homes.
Therefore unlike during the time of Anagarika Dharmapala there is no
religious confrontation. Today it is pleasing to see the Christian
clergy attending Buddhist functions, and the Muslim Lebbe and the Hindu
Poosari and the Buddhist monk participating mutually in the different
functions of their different religions. As a Minister of State of the
Sri Lanka Government I am happy to state that our Government of
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is giving top priority to rebuilding all the
Buddhist shrines which were destroyed by the ruthless LTTE in the
Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. In this work of restoration
of all Buddhist shrines, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa
is indeed following the example set by Anagarika Dharmapala.