How  Anagarika Dharmapala expressed support for Indian Muslims against the English
Posted on February 13th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

Courtesy The Island

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) is arguably Sri Lanka’s greatest national hero that emerged between 1815 – the year that the kingdom of Sinhale was brought under foreign imperial rule in its entirety for the first and the last time in its more than two thousand years of unbroken existence – and now. He spoke and wrote with a view to promoting a long overdue social reformation of the Sinhalese based on their own ancient Buddhist cultural heritage of which they remained largely ignorant. Though his work seemed apolitical, his great passion for the emancipation of his country from the foreign yoke was unmistakably implicit in his words and deeds. Born into Colombo’s most privileged social stratum of those colonial times, he could have led a very comfortable and luxurious life if he had so wished. But he would have none of it. Probably the only advantage he enjoyed as a person born to wealth and privilege was an English medium school education, where he acquired a good knowledge of English and Christianity that was usually available under the missionary-led education system at the time. On completion of his schooling, he found employment as a clerk in the education department. A clerical job was the highest position in government service that an educated native could aspire to reach then. But soon dissatisfied with the colonial setup of the bureaucracy he gave up his job in order to engage in Buddhist social work. At the age of twenty-one (around 1886) he started drawing upon his substantial wealth (given him by his father) for the service of his people; he was absolutely free from any desire for earning money for his personal comfort or for attaining some powerful position in society. If he inquired into the earnings of his rubber estates at Hiniduma (part of his patrimony which was the source of his personal income), it was only to ensure the viable maintenance of those properties so that they could properly support the upkeep and welfare of the workers and their families, in addition to helping him with some money for his own  religious and social work. He took the vow of celibacy in order to devote all his time for his work and became an ‘anagarika’ (a homeless one).

Just as the Anagarika was dedicated to the cause of Sinhalese Buddhist revival and national independence within Sri Lanka, he was passionate about re-establishing Buddhism in India, the country of its birth, thereby settling an age-old cultural debt that we owed to that country. As a great humanitarian, he also wanted to disseminate Buddhism in the West. He took a special interest in taking Buddhism to England; he thought that it was a meritorious act to teach the English people this great doctrine, and he hoped that then the English who were in Sri Lanka would treat the Sinhalese with kindness and work to ensure their welfare. Further, his aim was to  spread Buddhism worldwide so that its message of compassion, wisdom and peace would heal the world that, in his opinion, was at war with itself through ignorance.

Anagarika Dharmapala was a master of at least three languages: Sinhala, Pali, and English. Because of the nature of his voluntary mission of championing the cause of Buddhism around the world in addition to being a nationalist social reformer focused on helping a supine people suppressed and demoralized by over four centuries of oppressive foreign domination back onto their feet, he had to speak and write in English most of the time. He was a great orator and writer both in Sinhala and English, but he had to use English more frequently. In fact, it might come to some as a surprise that 75% of all his writings were in English, only the rest 25% being in Sinhala. This is the conclusion of Dr Ananda W.P. Guruge who was commissioned by the government to make a compendium of Anagarika Dharmapala’s works to be published during state celebrations marking his birth centenary in 1964. Dr Guruge was able to gather only some of these after a difficult search. What he was able to collect he assorted into four groups: newspaper articles, books and articles published in English, their Sinhala translations, and English versions of articles written in Sinhala.

The conventional image of Anagarika Dharmapala that many of his admirers as well as detractors conjure up in their minds is that of a Sinhalese Buddhist zealot clad in flowing yellow robes haranguing his captive audience in harsh language. When we read his writings, however, we understand that this is a wrong picture of the person. He was not an intolerant fanatic. The Anagarika severely criticized his fellow Sinhalese for their laid-back attitude (as opposed to the industry of the minorities, in his opinion) in the face of relentless colonial oppression and exploitation. He spoke and wrote more out of displeasure with the lethargic Sinhalese Buddhist majority than out of malice towards the minorities who, he thought, exploited the weakness and naivety of the Sinhalese to their own undue advantage, for which he blamed none other than the Sinhalese themselves. As a Buddhist he did not wish anybody ill.

Anagarika Dharmapala was a unique product of that particular era. But he was a modernist and was way ahead of many of his contemporaries of comparable social standing and circumstances. To put it paradoxically, he was a forward moving traditionalist. He had an Ensteinian sense of tradition: Einstein thanked his stars for his birth into the Jewish tradition which inculcated in him a passionate love of knowledge, justice, and independence, something that the Anagarika found in his Buddhist heritage. He wrote about the importance of learning science and technology, and languages including Tamil and English (and Pali for Buddhists) for utilitarian purposes. But one had to give prominence to one’s own mother tongue. He thought it was a disgrace for a Sinhalese to relegate Sinhala to a secondary position. His insistence on a return to traditional Buddhist values in preference to slavish imitation of alien ways was in recognition of a perceived need to go back to our authentic national roots in order to move forward as a nation. But he was not against adopting European practices which were new to the Sinhalese, but which were useful and convenient. For example, he gave clear instructions about correct table etiquette to those who wanted to use forks and spoons for eating without using their fingers for the purpose (Ref. Article No. 8 in the collection of Dharmapala essays in Sinhala mentioned below, pp 31-46; the article is titled ‘Daily Routine’  and it was first published in 1898).

Following is my own English translation of Article No. 38 entitled ‘bauddhayangeth mahamath drushtikayangeth gathi’ (Attitudes of Buddhists and Mohammedans) in the anthology of Dharmapala’s Sinhala language newspaper articles edited by Dr Guruge and published by the Anagarika Dharmapala Birth Centenary Celebration Committee of the Ministry of Social Services and Culture in 1965. The essay is found on pages 203/204 of that volume.

(Note for the benefit of young readers who may be unfamiliar with the historical background of the Anagarika’s writings: what Dharmapala calls ‘maha yuddhaya’ (the Great War) in his article here, which he meant for the common reader, is an obvious reference to World War I (1914-18) as it came to be known in later times. ‘Jazrat-al-Arab’ (or Jazirat –al-Arab, the Arabian Peninsula) in the essay is the region that is today mostly covered by Saudi Arabia, where Mecca is.

Apart from this, something else to be noted here is that the Anagarika’s expression of moral support for Indian Muslims could not be purely altruistic. The altruism was there, but he also probably expected to win similar Muslim sympathy for his struggle to secure Bodhgaya for Buddhists as a quid pro quo.)

Attitudes of Buddhists and Mohammedans

Mecca is the holy city of Mohammedans. It is in Arabia, which is known as Jazrat-al-Arab in Arabic. Mohammed had ordered that this place should be ruled by a Mohammedan. At present it is being ruled by an Arab king appointed by the English. Until the Great War the territory was under the rule of the Sultan of Turkey. Based on the judgement of English military lawyers the English pledged all necessary support to the Arabs on condition that they helped the English to appoint an Arab as king. Accordingly, having removed the Turkish ruler the English declared the region an independent state, and Hussein, the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, was appointed king. On that day Arabia came under the English. King Hussein is an Arab. The Sultan of Turkey belongs to the Turkish race.

In India there are 70 million Mohammedans. These are all descendants of Buddhists and Hindus. About 700 years ago, Arabs came to India, captured the country and converted tens of millions by force. All the Buddhists in India embraced the Mohammedan faith. All the Buddhist temples were taken over, and the monks in those temples were massacred. Three hundred years before the arrival of Arabs in India, there were 260,000 bhikkhus in the main temples. Bodhgaya, Benares, Nalanda, Rajagaha, Pataliputra, Savathi, and Jetavanarama were burned down.

For ten years now Mecca has been ruled by king Hussein who was appointed by the English. Bodhgaya was handed over to the Saivite Mahant by the English in July 1870. The Mahabodhi Society has been trying to acquire it for the Buddhists since July 1891. But Buddhists show little interest in it. The opinion of Buddhists who are lacking in piety is that there is no harm in the place being in the hands of the Hindu Mahant.

The king of Mecca is a pious Mohammedan Arab. But, since he is loyal to the English, the Mohammedans of India have decided that the holy place should be entrusted to the Sultan. These Indian Mohammedans have started operating against the English. Recently, the poor Mohammedans of India collected two million rupees in support of the Turks. Shaukat Ali, his old mother, and Dr Kayulu have arrived in Lanka to collect funds for freeing the Jazrat-al-Arab region from the English. The piety of the Mohammedans will be demonstrated this time. It takes two or three weeks to travel from Lanka to Mecca. It is sandy desert where Mecca is. Every year hundreds of thousands of poor Mohammedans go there on pilgrimage, undergoing many hardships. Although the area where the Mahabodhi stands in Benares is an important holy place for Buddhists, only a handful of them go there.

Learning from the example of Mohammedans who are supporting Maulana Shaukat Ali’s effort, the Buddhists of Lanka should endeavour, with firm determination fired by piety, to save the Buddhist holy places of the Mahabodhi, and Isipatanarama in Benares from non-Buddhists. Amazing are the efforts made by Maulana Shaukat Ali, Maulana Mohammed Ali, and their 94 year old mother to liberate the Jazrat-al-Arab region. Our Sinhalese Buddhists must be inspired and be ready even to lay down their lives to save the Mahabodhi at Bodhgaya and Isipatanarama at Benares.

May the efforts of Maulana Shaukat Ali be successful! May the Buddhists of Lanka, inspired by this, make every effort to save the holy Bodhi Tree!

(Sinhala Bauddhaya, 12.01.1924)

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