Anagarika Dharmapala -Greatest Sri Lankan of the 19/20 centuries
Posted on August 26th, 2014

Chanaka Bandarage

Why Dharmapala is Great?

Adversaries may say Dharmapala only fought for the Sinhalese Buddhists. This is wrong. When Dharmapala fought against the British imperialists, he fought for all Sri Lankans.

True, Dharmapala spoke largely for the Sinhalese Buddhists.

Sri Lanka is a country where its base (foundation) is Sinhala Buddhist. The nation was founded soon after the demise of Lord Buddha, where Vijaya , a Prince from northern India (Sinhapura Village in Wanga Land of Lata Nation, located in Bengal ) landed in Sri Lanka (Thambapanni).

During his massive campaigns against meat and liquor consumption – ills that were introduced by the western imperialists, Dharmapala spoke to his fellow countrymen, sometimes in harsh language; people listened to him intently, acknowledged his views and refrained from eating meat and consuming alcohol. Prior to colonisation in 1505, Sinhalese did not slaughter animals for consumption nor did they drink methylated spirits.

Dharmapala also asked his fellow countrymen to refrain from killing living beings; he also asked people, including children to follow the 5 Buddhist precepts. People largely followed Dharmapala’s advice.

Dharmapala asked people to change their Portuguese and English names to Sinhala. He also advised them not to give western names to their offspring. A fine example was how he instantaneously changed the name of young Pedris Silva (then 14) to Piyadasa Sirisena, who became one of Sri Lanka’s literary giants. Owing to Dharmapala’s action, hundreds and thousands of Sri Lankans started to have Sinhala (Arya) names.

Another very successful campaign launched by Dharmapala was asking the Sinhalese (both men and women) to renounce western attire and wear traditional Sinhala Buddhist dresses. He started off the campaign from home, asking his mother, the meritorious lady, Mallika Hewawitharana, to wear ‘Kandian Osariya’.

When working with his mentor, HS Olcott, Dharmapala assisted Olcott’s campaign to establish many Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka (numbering about 50). This includes Ananda College.

A prolific writer, Dharmapala wrote to his fellow countrymen regularly through his then very popular newspapers, ‘The Buddhist’ and ‘Sinhala Bauddhaya’. He gave good counseling to people to lead a pious and meritorious life.

Being a Buddhist leader, Dharmapala stressed that Buddhist children must attend Sunday ‘Daham Pasal’ to learn Buddhism, and among such things like respecting elders. Parents and teachers positively responded to Dharmapala’s request, there was a massive revival of the Sunday Daham Pasal. The trend continues to this day.

Dharmapala was instrumental in translating Tripitaka from Pali to Sinhala. He entrusted this work to his brother.

The biggest and most notable contribution to Buddhism by Dharmapala was the saving of Buddhagaya for Buddhists from Hindu fundamentalists. Buddhagaya is the place where Buddha attained enlightenment. Dharmapala restored stupas there.

This was an achievement of unprecedented proportion.

Thanks to Dharmapala thousands of Buddhists from all over the world visit Buddhagaya today, one of the most sacred places for world’s Buddhists.

If not for Dharmapala, Buddhagaya today would have become a place of Hindu worship.

Dharmapala saved Mulagandha Kuti in Saranath for Buddhists. He built stupas there (opened by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1930). Mulagandha Kuti is the place where Buddha made his first sermon, to the 5 disciples. It is situated in close proximity to Baranes Nuwara Isipathanaramaya.

Dharmapala restored many important Buddhist sites in India. He built a massive temple in Calcutta – Dharmaraajika temple, then, pilgrims rests in major Indian cities including in Chennai and Calcutta. One of Dharmapala’s main ambitions was to re-introduce Buddhism in India (Dambadiva), a country that he genuinely loved. He laid the foundation for this, his follower Ambedkar very successfully carried forward the task.

Dharmapala achieved his tremendous successes in India, wholesomely a Hindu country, without causing any commotion there.   This is a remarkable achievement; in effect, a silent revolution. Rather than despising him, the Indians liked Dharmapala. Even today, there is admiration for him in India. It is reported that India will honor Dharmapala by issuing a postage stamp on his 150th Birth Anniversary. It is stated that even today one of the main streets of Calcutta – presumably,   the street where the Mahabodhi Society in Calcutta was then located, is named after Dharmapala. It has been stated that the famous US Golfer, Tiger Woods, is an admirer of Dharmapala, he had kept a portrait of Dharmapala in his room (Tiger’s mother is a Buddhist from Thailand).

Dharmapala propagated Buddhism in many parts of India and the West.

This shows Dharmapala was a man of truly international significance.

Wrongful Imprisonment

The British alleged that Dharmapala instigated Buddhists to riot during the 1915 Sinhala-Muslim riots. There was no documentary evidence to prove the charges against Dharmapala, he was totally innocent. When the riots happened, Dharmapala was in Calcutta, India. Being a good Buddhist, Dharmapala never instigated violence against anyone. Basically, he had absolutely nothing to do with the Sinhala – Muslim riots. Yet, the British incarcerated him for a long period of time (6 years). National leaders like DS Senanayake, FR Senanayake and several others were also incarcerated over the same incident (the Sinhala – Muslim riots -they were also innocent). William Pedris, a brave young man, was brutally executed at Welikada prison. EW Perera took a letter to the King of England concealed in his shoe sole to obtain the release of DS Senanayake and FR Senanayake and few others.   He was successful, but the British kept Dharmapala imprisoned (under house arrest in India). Fortunately, like Pedris, they did not kill Dharmapala, but, restrained him badly. Dharmapala was in his early 50s during that time. Dharmapala never recovered from the mental agony he suffered as a result of the unlawful imprisonment. He suffered because he did nothing wrong; it is alleged he was punished solely because of the British’s hatred towards him. It is alleged, it was a case where the British took revenge from Dharmapala who spoke against the British rule in Sri Lanka. There were some Sinhala leaders, loyal to the British, who worked against Dharmapala.

Dharmapala was not a racist

Adversaries of Dharmapala say he uttered statements that in today’s context can be categorised as racist. True, Dharmapala used language such as hambaya, demala, marakkalaya, padiliya, etc but, he did not use them to denigrate another race. Such was the language used at that time –the late 19th and early 20th century. He never used ‘para’, an offeensive adjective before referring to those communities, he used ‘para’ only against the British. Even to his fellow Sinhalese, Dharmapala sometimes spoke in harsh language. He called them gona, meeharaka, gon aliya etc.   It was his way of getting through the message to the masses and his method was effective. People accepted his counsel without protest. Dharmapala never used filthy language against any people.

True, sometimes Dharmapala used harsh vocabulary, but, as stated before, he used them without malice, in good faith/intention to uplift the morale of the Sinhalese. One can never find a statement by Dharmapala where he had denigrated/defamed other minority races or religions. Furthermore, he never propagated violence.

The vocabulary Dharmapala sometimes used may sound harsh, but, they are not racist.

What Dharmapala emphasised was that if minority races do so well in trade and commerce, why cannot the average Sinhalese do the same. Dharmapala motivated the Sinhalese to work hard and prosper just like their Muslim and Tamil counterparts. There is no harm in saying that. Thanks to his advice many Sinhalese emerged as successful businessmen (Dharmapala himself came from a successful business family – his father’s business, H Don Carolis & Sons, was a premier business establishment of the time).

Being a Sinhalese, Buddhist leader, true, Dharmapala primarily fought for the rights of the Sinhalese Buddhists, who were very badly suppressed by the British imperialists of the time.

Dharmapala never stated that only Sinhala Buddhists should live in Sri Lanka or that other races must leave Sri Lanka. He basically encouraged Sinhalese to come out of their closets and be successful like the ethnic minorities.

Fearless, brave Leader

During the 18th ad 19 the centuries Sri Lankans were subjected to harsh imperialistic rule and their morale was low. Dharmapala did everything to improve the self-confidence of his fellow countrymen. Dharmapala, who came from a ‘high society family’, possessed a pleasing personality – a dark man of almost six foot tall, Dharmapala wore a yellow coloured Sinhala garment. His presence caught the eye of everyone. He was a great communicator. Dharmapala spoke fluent English and his English writing skills were exceptionally good. He was well educated (an old boy of St Benedict’s College*, he was a civil servant before starting the Buddhist propagation work (*at St Benedict’s, he had an altercation with the school hierarchy when he saw a Catholic Priest shooting down a bird). Dharmapala was mentored by the American, HR Olcott. Dharmapala watched Panadura Vaadaya where the Buddhist priests won the debate over their Christian counterparts.

Oozing with confidence, Dharmapala was fearless; he never hesitated to fight against discrimination and injustice. He always fought for the downtrodden; he aspired equality and justice. The following incidents illustrate his fearlessness and bravery:

a). Robert Chalmers (the then Governor) allowed Dharmapala to attend his office, but, Dharmapala was kept waiting in the office for a long time –for nearly 2 hours. Dharmapala became angry; during the meeting he complained to Chalmers that he too was busy and that Chalmers should have stuck to the appointment. Dharmapala remonstrated that Chalmers deliberately wasted his valuable time, he had no confidence in Chalmers. Despite Chalmers’ request to stay, Dharmapala left the office early without completing the meeting. This was like a slap on Chalmers’ face, his staff witnessed what happened. Chalmers never expected that type of ‘bravery’ from a Sinhalese; at that time the whites sometimes considered the locals as a species of sub-human.   Note, when Dharmapala was imprisoned, Chalmers was still the Governor of Ceylon. Governor North released Dharmapala.

b). In late 1920s Mahatma Gandhi attended the function to open the Calcutta Mahabodhi Society. In his address, Gandhi stated he understood the Greatness of Lord Buddha after reading Sir Edwin Arnold’s ‘Light of Asia’. Dharmapala was the last speaker of the event (listed to give the ‘Thank You’ address). Dharmapala said that Lord Buddha was born more than 2,400 years ago in India (Dambadiva), he regretted that Mahatma Gandhi had to wait to read the Englishman’s book to realise the Greatness of Lord Buddha.   Dharmapala said that Lord Buddha was not just the Greatest person ever produced by India, he was the Greatest Person ever produced by the world. Gandhi was somewhat taken back by Dharmapala’s ‘rebuke’; he nodded and smilingly listened to Dharmapala. Gandhi was prepared to learn from Dharmapala. After the speech Rabindranath Tagore, a close friend of both Gandhi and Dharmapala, congratulated Dharmapala for his oratory skills. At that time no one would dare criticise Gandhi, who was the undisputed leader of India’s independence struggle, but brave Dharmapala did not hesitate to say what he had to about his acquaintance, Gandhi, inside Gandhi’s own India. The remarkable thing is that Dharmapala did this without antagonizing Gandhi. Dharmapala had a great respect and admiration for Gandhi; but on that occasion, he believed he had to make the utterance. This is due to his love for Lord Buddha and Buddhism which preceded everything else for him. It is stated that Gandhi was saddened to hear the death of Dharmapala in 1936.

c). Dharmapala who was HR Olcott’s private secretary (Olcott was Dharmapala’s mentor) saw a replica of the casket of the scared tooth relic lying on the floor of Olcott’s house. HS Olcott, a Buddhist, genuinely wanted to propagate Buddhism and worked tirelessly towards that end. He spent his own monies and raised other monies to propagate Buddhism. But, he did not follow Pancha Seela that most Buddhists follow. For Dharmapala, who most devotedly worshipped and venerated the Buddha every day, it was a sight unbearable (Olcott did not do this in any way to insult Buddhism, he did not understand the gravity of his act).   This incident (and other ideological differences in relation to Olcott’s Theosophical Society) led to the breakup of the relationship that existed between the two for over 20 years. Dharmapala continued to admire Olcott, but disassociated working with him.

d). When travelling by train in India and Sri Lanka on two separate occasions, Dharmapala was confronted by unruly white British men (in Sri Lanka, by a white planter), who demanded that Dharmapala leave the 1st class compartment that they were in.   They could not tolerate travelling in the same compartment with Dharmapala – a Buddhist preacher, who wore ‘strange’ yellow robes and demanded that they stop consuming alcohol (whiskey) on the train. Dharmapala, a brave man, did not bow down to his white opponents; he directly confronted them.   Dharmapala had a stronger personality than his white opponents, the whites ‘lost the battle’ – they fled the compartment allowing Dharmapala to travel freely.

Fine Diplomat

Dharmapala was an avid traveler. Those days the voyages were made by ship. Lots of Dharmapala’s time was spent on travelling to various countries to promote Buddhism. His speech at the Chicago conference in 1893 was exceptionally powerful and was of very high standard. Dharmapala became the ‘key person’ at the Chicago conference, most of the representatives were Christian. The 6,000 odd delegates flocked around Dharmapala as if he was a movie star. Dharmapala gave a mesmerising speech to the audience about Lord Buddha and Buddhism, even Swami Vivekananda who represented the Hindu faith of India had to openly embrace him. Chicago was a major watershed event in Dharmapala’s life.

Dharmapala supported Buddhist countries, for example,   Japan – at a time when most countries despised it.   He was clever to collect monetary donations from Japan. He had leading Japanese businessmen friends in Japan. When he visited Burma, sometimes he was invited to the king’s palace where he had audience with the Crown Prince. The Burmese Crown Prince made small financial contributions towards Dharmapala’s legal battles in India to save Buddhagaya.   Dharmapala had a deep gratitude for Burma for helping establish the Siam Nikaya in Sri Lanka. Dharmapala maintained a good relationship with the Thai Royalty. Dharmapala visited Shanghai in China few times, he also visited several Asian and European countries.

Dharmapala had a remarkable knowledge about international affairs and world religions.

A Great Business Mind

Dharmaplaa liked Western Capitalism, and impliedly encouraged it. He had a great ‘entrepreneurial mind’; he raised hundreds and thousands of dollars for his noble tasks. Dharmaplaa needed money for his many projects – the ’Save Buddhagaya’ project itself needed lots of money – the litigation in India was protracted and lots of money was required for legal fees, pay compensation etc. Expelling the illegal Hindu squatter (Mahantaya) from Buddhagaya, who had patronage from the Indian state, was a herculean task; only Dharmapala could do it and so he did. Not only Dharmapala started Buddhist philanthropy projects in Sri Lanka (there were many), he embarked on noble Buddhist projects in many countries, mainly in India, and the West – notably in the UK and US. He raised money well. We should not forget it was Dharmapala who founded the London Buddhist Vihara (Saddhatissa Centre of North London – the main Theravada Buddhist centre in the UK). He established Buddhist presences in San Francisco, Boston and New York. Dharmapala was clever in persuading his family to financially support his Buddhist ventures. The main donor for his projects was Mary Foster Robinson, the US philanthropist. Mrs Foster Robinson was impressed of Dharmapala after his historic speech in Chicago. She donated many thousands of dollars for Dharmapala’s various causes. Dharmapala ran a large farm type project in Hiniduma. He was instrumental in establishing Sri Lanka’s first handloom weaving school (Hewawitharana Weaving School). He started a Free Hospital in Colombo 10 in memory of Mrs Foster Robinson. Dharmapala’s diary notes show that though he dealt with lots of money, he spent them thriftily and very carefully. Dharmapala was 100% honest in financial affairs. Dharmapala valued the financial donations he received and accounted for every cent. This is why people like Mrs Foster Robinson continued to fund him. Obviously his opponents, who were jealous of his money raising and contact making ability and the enormous standing he had in the community; attacked him from left, right and centre.

A Great, Practising Buddhist

Dharmapala was a Great Practising Buddhist. He tried to follow the Buddha’s teachings to the letter. Dharmapala dedicated his life for Buddha, Buddha was in his mind and thoughts always. That is the reason why he became ‘Anagarika’. Most devotedly, Dharmapala tried his best to worship Buddha every day, each of his speeches and writings were laced with Buddha’s teachings.

Dharmapala venerated his mother, he predeceased her.

Dharmapala wished that he be born again and again in India (Dambadiva), not because he was disgusted with Sri Lanka. Dharmapala loved his native land, Sri Lanka and as pointed out in this article, he did so much for Sri Lanka. Being a follower of Buddha (Dharmapala became a monk in the last stages of his life – Ven Siri Devamitta Dhammapala), he wished that he be re-born in India. This is due to his eternal love for Lord Buddha – an Indian,- and also of his affinity with Buddhagaya, the place that he rescued for the world’s Buddhists. Ven Dhammapala passed away starring at the Mulagandha Kuti Stupas that he built. His fellow monks moved his bed outside of the building he was living; as it was the desire of Ven Dhammapala to view the Stupas upon his demise (when a portion of Dharmapala’s ashes were brought to Sri Lanka (Colombo) by a specially decorated ‘Buddhist train’ from India, hundreds and thousands of Sri Lankans lined along the railway track yelling ‘Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu’. They threw fragrant flowers at the train. It is stated that more than 50,000 people flocked inside the Fort Railway Station to receive the train. There were more people outside of the station. A massive Buddhist memorial service was held at Vidyodaya Pirivena in Maligakanda presided by the Mahanayakas).


The biggest gratitude we can show to Dharmapala is to follow his footsteps and follow the 5 Buddhist precepts preached by Buddha that Dharmapala so vehemently asked us to follow. It is our solemn duty to protect and safeguard the Buddhists sites both in this country and outside, especially in India that Dharmapala rescued/built.

We are duty bound to preserve and protect the Dharmapala Legacy – the Greatest Sri Lankan to live in the 19th and 20 centuries, Sri Lanka.

15 Responses to “Anagarika Dharmapala -Greatest Sri Lankan of the 19/20 centuries”

  1. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    “Prior to colonization in 1505, Sinhalese did not slaughter animals for consumption nor did they drink methylated spirits.”
    I would add that prior to Colonization neither was the consumption of Tobacco products that is a leading course for Cancer.

  2. Senevirath Says:

    gangodavila soma thera would have been another Dhrmapaala

  3. Nalliah Thayabharan Says:

    In 1912 Anagarika Dharmapala wrote:
    The Muhammedans, an alien people, … by shylockian methods become prosperous like Jews. The Sinhala sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free of alien invaders … are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds. The Alien South Indian Muhammedan come to Ceylon, sees the neglected villager, without any experience in trade … and the result is that the Muhammedan thrives and the sons of the soil go to the wall.

  4. Nanda Says:

    “gangodavila soma thera would have been another Dhrmapaala” – no where near.

    Any reason why ven . Dharmapala wished to be re born in India ?

  5. Chanaka B Says:

    Greatest Sri Lankan of the 18/19 centuries– only other Sri Lankan who will give a close fight to Dharmapala is DS Senanayaka, but I think Dharmapala is ahead of him

  6. Chanaka B Says:

    Sorry, I meant 19/20 centuries

  7. Lorenzo Says:

    Anagarika Dharmapala was NOT JUST a Buddhist. He was a Sinhalese.

    His prophetic statements DON’T ALWAYS GO ALONG Buddhism. But they are true.

    e.g. He LAMBASTED the peaceful tolerant nonsense of Sinhalese Buddhists when Tamils and Muslims build their kovils, mosques everywhere in the country, the SECULAR and PLURALISTIC BS, etc., etc..

    e.g. He NEVER hesitated to use words on people that are not considered words used by a true Buddhist by Buddhist standards.

    The best way to honor him is to follow HIS vision.

    I agree the GREATEST SL in 19/10 centuries was Anagarika Dharmapala and next DSS.

  8. Chanaka B Says:

    In the 30s and 40s as Minister for Agriculture, DS Senanayake carried out a major irrigation revolution in the North and East where he built tanks and opened up thousands of acres of land for paddy cultivation. He brought people from elsewhere and planted them in the so called ‘marginal villages’ – Padaviya, Sri Pura, Kanthale, Galoya etc. It is thanks to these efforts that the country was later saved from the attacks of the LTTE. If not for these villages, the southern boundary of the Elam would have been Anuradhapura, not current Kebithigollawa/Medawachchiya. Note, the Marxists like NM Perera , Colvin R De Silva etc vehemently opposed DSS’’ colonization’ program. A big drawback – he introduced nepotism in to Sri Lanka’s politics

  9. Chanaka B Says:

    Bernard, Dharmapala’s focus was meat and liquor; he did not attack tobacco

  10. Chanaka B Says:

    Soma Hamuduruwo does not belong to this category; he belongs to 20/21 century category. It is too premature to prepare this list

  11. Nalliah Thayabharan Says:

    As Minister of Agriculture from 1931 to 1947, Don Stephan focused on a policy of transforming to non-plantation agriculture and commenced land reforms and restoration of ancient irrigation systems and building new ones along with the establishment of colonization schemes to provide land for the landless farmers. He undertook improvements to dry zone beginning with Minneriya. Gal-Oya project – designed for better use of over 250,000 acres of irrigable and high land – contributed immensely to self-sufficiency in rice.

    But a third of Don Stephan’s cabinet comprised his close relatives.

  12. Lorenzo Says:

    “But a third of Don Stephan’s cabinet comprised his close relatives.”

    That does NOT matter. NO SL cares if he has relatives or not. What we care is the WORK they did.

    He should have gone further. He should have DEPORTED ENDIAN TAMILS who were in excess of requirement.

  13. Sirih Says:

    AD’s legacy is still here carried by his relatives.. Issue is we are fighting a lonely crusade due to the fact that, our own Sinhalese Buddhist’s have sold the country for foreign interest.

    Having races on most holiest city in Asia is one of the instances that bring many questions.. Who is in charge ? Is it the man of the house or the women in the house which is a christian..

  14. Lorenzo Says:

    Islamic terrorists have warned to bomb world’s largest Buddhist temple. There is a possibility ISIS + SLMC + SL JIHAD can attack SL places too.

    “There is a wider probability that the Islamic fundamentalist terrorism could attack Borobudur Temple in Indonesia, as how they attacked Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. We highly appreciate that the Indonesian authorities have taken prompt measures to tightened security in and around Borobudur temple. The BBS believe that the activities of the ISIS is not limited to middle east. Therefore, the relevant authorities should take immediate steps to tighten security in major Buddhist religious places here in Sri Lanka and in India as well.”

    – BBS

  15. Lorenzo Says:

    Sinhalese wake up! Save Borobudur from Islamic terror!

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