Anagarika Dharmapala’s vision for Asia
Posted on September 16th, 2012

Janaka Perera

 Much has been written on Anagarika Dharmapala’s contributions to the Buddhist cause but little attention has been paid to his perception of international politics vis-ƒÆ’†’ -vis Sri Lanka “”…” a view that is valid now as then although the global scene has undergone vast changes during the past 100 years. 

 As we commemorate his 148th birth anniversary that falls  on Monday September 17 it is worth recalling his  views at a time when European colonialism was at its peak.   During the Anagarika’s time the rise of Japan greatly disturbed European colonialists who called it the “yellow peril.” Around the beginning of the last Century Japan won the admiration of Sri Lanka and India for her industrial progress and the crushing defeat she inflicted on the Russian Navy in 1904 “”…” an Asian nation’s first ever military victory over a European power. The Anagarika visited Japan many times and the Hewavitharana family (to which he belonged) awarded scholarships to Sri Lankan students to study there. During an early visit to Japan in 1888 he eulogized the Japanese nation as “a sovereign star in a continent of servitude.”  

 In 1913 he wrote an article on ‘Japan’s Duty to the World’, stating, It is a political trick of the Europeans to keep harping about the yellow peril“¦ It is the white peril that Asiatic races have to guard against.

 He was echoing the sentiments of Japanese politicians like Nagai Ryutaro (1905-1944) who identified Japan’s national mission as a crusade against “white imperialism” because they found the British and the Americans did not honour in practice the ideals they preached to others – a Western double standard seen to this day in Asia.   Although Dharmapala did not live to see Japan making the tragic blunder of trying to copy Western colonialism he was prophetic in a different sense “”…” it is that the West would always demonize any power that challenges its might as seen now in their relations with China.  

 Today’s Western propagandists have replaced crude terms like ‘yellow peril’ with more sophisticated ones like ‘human rights violators’ and “suppressors of democratic freedoms.” Such accusations are however never made against autocracies (notably in the Middle East and Latin America), as long as they serve Western foreign policy interests.

On a visit to Beijing in 1991, British Prime Minister John Major aped U.S. leaders and raised the issue of human rights. In response Jiang Zemin, Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party, recalled the colonial era and reminded his guest that there used to be a sign at the entrance to the International Concession in Shanghai, “ƒ”¹…”No dogs or Chinese allowed.’  Nonplussed, Major changed the subject.”

 In the early 20th Century before Japan’s defeat in World War II,  Dharmapala – contrasting other Asian nations with the Japanese – wrote, “When a nation is politically dependent on another, the weaker loses its individuality.  Asia with the exception of Japan is in a state of moral, industrial and economic decay.”

 The pain of mind that Japan’s post-World War II commercialism caused to her literati was revealed  in the early 1990s at an international literary conference in San Francisco USA.  Several Japanese novelists and critics told the gathering that their country’s mistake after 1945 was to sell her soul to the West along with her cars and computers.

The Anagarika noted as early as 1892, Europeans and Americans trying to posses the soul of Asians through missionaries.   Drawing attention to a controversy in the columns of the Japan Mail dated March 26, 1892, he quotes a Western writer stating: ” “¦I hold that we are savages compared with the poor ignorant Japanese of any country town yet uncontaminated by foreign vice and prejudices”¦  To send missionaries to such communities is simply barbarism.” (RETURN TO RIGHTEOUSNESS)   

 The above is the context in which Dharmapala viewed the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom almost exactly 77 years before on March 2, 1815.  It is not necessarily the regime change that concerned him but rather the dissolution of a kingdom that had self-consciously preserved the identity of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist country “”…” a kingdom which “passed unsung and unwept into oblivion,” according to Professor Ananda Wickremeratne of Loyala University, Chicago, USA writing in the Buddhist Times of October 2002. 

 Among the Anagarika’s closest associates was the Japanese Buddhist monk Shaku Kozen (also known as Kozen Gunaratana) who hailed from Yokohama and lived in Sri Lanka till 1893.  The first Japanese to be ordained a Theravada bhikku  at Malwatte temple in 1890,  Kozen joined with Dharmapala in the restoration of Buddha Gaya and was a strong advocate of Asian unity.   

 Observes Prof. Wickremeratne:

 “He (Dharmapala) wanted Sri Lanka and her core element, the Buddhists to be strong to withstand the vicissitudes that assail a nation, To Anagarika Dharmapala, the model for emulation was Japan, adapting selectively to modernity, especially in technology but yet conspicuously preserving her identity.”

4 Responses to “Anagarika Dharmapala’s vision for Asia”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Modern Japan (not Imperial Japan) is a perfect role model for Sri Lanka.

    Economic development, economic policy, human rights, patriotism, innovation, retaining the culture, restrictions on outside religions and cultures are some of the good of modern Japan.

  2. Muhandiram Says:

    Japan too transformed by US and it’s western friends as same as South korea.both become Christian countries recently(Buddists Vihara,shrines are destroying by Koreans on daily basis).

  3. Naram Says:

    Mantion of Japapan reminds me of General McArthur who is said to have been the one drastically revised the national flag of Japan, thesun is a red circle but without the rays coming from it. Japan’s wartime forays to China and the infamous experiments [?] for mass extermination cannot be forgotten. THe ugly alliance with axis powers and all that it stood for with beliefs in master race can best be forgotten by both Japan and others who thought or think about themselves as ‘master races’.

    Leaving the Japaneses outlook nurtures by Western imperialism aside, we must remember Anagarika Dharmapala was greatly admired by folks of all races and he had to spend the last part of life n Culcutta against his wish as the British Governors were scared of him despite polite overtures.

    He was greatly helped by many Buddhists of all races, British jounalist, Edwin Arnold, Mary Jenner an aritocrat from Honolulu who was greatly helped by Buddhist meditation taughtby Anagarika Dharmapala. She was later to become one of the major benefactors to Mahabodhi Society and helped purchase of a building in London and also to start a technical school in Bihar.

  4. samurai Says:

    It is not correct to say Japan is a Christian country although there has been a Christian minority there since about the 17th century. And they still remain a minority despite the secular constitution General MacArthur introduced to Japan. The Japanese have not been religious minded in the same way we Sri Lankans or other South Asians are but they (including the Imperial Family) are rooted in their Shinto / Buddhist traditions. I experienced this during a visit to Japan five years ago. At the most, the number of Christians in Japan amounts to less than five percent. But some websites say it is not more than one percent. According to noted Japanese Christianity scholar Mark Mullins, “Christianity is probably the most documented and studied minority religion in Japan”.

    As for flags, Japan has two – one is the national flag (which has a red circle close to the middle signifying the sun) and the other the military flag (rising sun or sunburst pattern). Both flags are still in use with very slight modifications, The rising sun flag with 16 rays is today the ensign of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (which replaced the Imperial Japanese Navy) while the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force (which replaced the Imperial Japanese Army) uses the eight-ray version.

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