Rediscovery of Anagarika Dharmapala vs Relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism
Posted on August 22nd, 2018

By Rohana R. Wasala

The video uploaded under the title Relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism” in Lankaweb today (August 22, 2018) prompted me to write this.

What the learned interviewee is saying about the organic link between Hinduism and Buddhism is true. The inclusivity of Hinduism that allows it to peacefully coexist with other religions is also a fact. Jawaharlal Nehru mentions and explains this in his classic ‘Discovery of India’ (1946).  Buddhism, though, being doctrinally impervious to theistic ideas, is tolerant towards other faiths in a different way.

In our country Sri Lanka, the cooperation between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese is absolutely essential for it to remain a politically stable unitary state. Ordinary Sinhalese and Tamils, in terms of religious affiliation, remain 95% Buddhist and 95% Hindu respectively, after so many centuries of attempted proselytization by fanatical religions, which invariably used coercion rather than conviction to bring about conversions, though this may not be apparent when it is considered that as a whole the Lankan population is 70% Buddhist, 13% Hindu, 10% Muslim, and 7% Christian (i.e., Catholic 6% and the rest other Christian denominations) according to 2011 census figures. We may juxtapose these numbers with those that relate to our giant neighbour India: statistics available for India for 2011 show that almost 80% of Indians are Hindus; Muslims account for only 14%, and others including Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, etc form the remaining 6%. So, the relentless onslaught of faith based religions on the more intellect based traditional Indian spiritual traditions (that prioritize debate over dogma, rational analysis over blind faith, etc)  over many centuries has largely failed.

This demographic reality (dominance in the population of very tolerant, accommodating and peaceful Indian religious traditions) is very important for the future of our country as it is for India. Steps must be taken to put an end to the overt and covert cultural invasions (someone was heard calling it cultural genocide) that are being conducted against Sinhalese Buddhists (ancient Buddhist religious sites are vandalized or forcefully occupied, Sinhalese Buddhists repeatedly are asked to leave certain places in the north, the history of Buddhist sites is disputed and distorted by bogus historians, and so on); Tamil Hindus are also being subjected to the same thing, but this fact remains more effectively concealed than in the case of the former in the confused political status quo that tends to play it down temporarily.  Fundamentalist Christian and Islamic sects craftily exploit the the inclusivity of Hinduism and the tolerance of Buddhism to make inroads into their traditional spaces.

Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus must transcend politics and unite against aggression from non-Hindu, non-Buddhist religious fanatics. This is stated with no prejudice to the peaceful moderate majority of mainstream Christians and Muslims. In history, this country was known as Sinhale that was always a safe homeland for all communities to coexist harmoniously irrespective of their ethnic, cultural and religious differences.  Sri Lanka’s dominant Buddhist culture safeguards and guarantees such religious plurality. Tamils and Sinhalese did not fight religious wars between them; even king Dutugemunu had Tamil soldiers on his side (Velusumana, one of his ten commanding warriors, was a Tamil).

Swami Vivekananda that the speaker refers to participated in the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 where Anagarika Dharmapala represented Buddhism (what Dharmapala presented to the West as Buddhism was the Southern or Theravada Buddhism (which is eminently compatible with the West’s scientific outlook on the universe), but he believed in and worked for Buddhist ecumenism between the Theravada and Mahayana sects. Vivekananda and Dharmapala were young men of nearly the same age: Vivekananda was 30, and Dharmapala was 29 in 1893. At this historic symposium, each of them created a very favourable impression among Westerners about his religion (though perhaps both implicitly rejected the Western concept of ‘religion’). Both enjoyed the beneficial attention of the American theosophists led by enlightened people like Colonel Steel Olcott and Annie Besant who exerted some seminal influence on the revival of Hinduism and Buddhism and on the kindling of Western interest in both.  Reading accounts of this international conference, one gets the impression that the Anagarika far outshone the Swami as a religious savant. This was partly due to the fact that Buddhism had greater appeal for Western scholars and religious thinkers than Hinduism, and partly due to the Anagarika’s more striking personal charisma. Though Dharmapala naturally enjoyed less clout than Vivekananda with the officials of British India in promoting his activities because Buddhism was a minority religion compared to Hinduism, they had much in common as harbingers to the West of the rich Hindu and Buddhist spiritual legacies of the East.

Incidentally, the Anagarika is at present being re-discovered by both foreign and local scholars. It appears that his true significance and greatness primarily as an international Buddhist missionary and secondarily as a Sinhala Buddhist patriot have begun to be truly appreciated by the modern generation.

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