Anti-Buddhist propaganda with an academic veneer – II
Posted on June 8th, 2018

By Rohana R. Wasala

Just as Andreas Johansson is mistaken about the cause of the recent communal unrest between some Sinhalese Buddhist and Muslim groups in the Kundasale Teldeniya area near Kandy, he is mistaken about the genesis of the more serious and the longer persisting separatist problem. What he so simplistically asserts is that the making of Sinhala the official language (in 1956) after independence from Britain in 1948, and the later constitutional assignment of ‘the foremost place’ to Buddhism

…..angered Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking minority. Militant student organisations were soon formed with the aim of forming a new Tamil homeland. In July 1983, also known as Black July, Tamil rebels killed a number of soldiers from the Sri Lankan army. During subsequent riots, various Sinhala mobs killed many Tamil civilians. The civil war was now a fact.”

He has no idea about the real complexity of the Tamil separatist issue and the Sinhalese response to it. There is much literature he should have consulted that probably he hasn’t cared to. But an informal non-academic piece of writing like this newspaper article is not the place  to educate him regarding the subject. Instead, let us now turn to the more serious aspect of his foray into the no man’s land of anti-Buddhist propaganda .

Yet, something that is very clear to the average Sri Lankan reader who is familiar with what he is writing about is that, as an academic, Andreas Johansson harbours absurd notions about the nationalist or the (Sinhalese) Buddhist revival of the late 19th and early 20th century championed by Anagarika Dharmapala (who, as a young man, drew succour from theosophist Colonel Steel Olcott from America). It is an undisputed fact that the Anagarika was the pioneer of the modern Sri Lankan Buddhist Renaissance and the general national revival that finally led to the end of British occupation in 1948. Olcott’s own contribution to that epochal process was made possible by the young Don David Hewavitharne (later Anagarika Dharmapala). It was he who prevented Olcott from leaving Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known then) for the latter thought that his further stay in the island was a waste of his time as he did not get the support he expected from the locals for his work. Dharmapala offered to help him, and began doing so by going around the country as his translator.

As far as the occupying British were concerned, the perennial problem they had was that the Sinhalese Buddhists never willingly accepted subjection to foreign rule; for this the Sinhalese Buddhists were made to suffer discrimination under the British to the end of their rule and even beyond. In a sense, Anagarika Dharmapala was in the tradition of national heroes like Keppetipola, Gongalegoda Banda, Puran Appu, and many other hardly known or remembered rebel leaders of the 19th century who resisted colonial domination; the major difference between the Anagarika and those heroes of the past was that his approach was peaceful non-military and non-confrontational, and almost entirely intellectual.

The following words of the Anagarika about himself in Chapter 9 of his short autobiography in English entitled ‘My Life Story’ (ed. Lakshman Jayawardane, Sarasavi Publishers, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka, 2013), something he wrote at age 50 (in 1914), may be of interest to Johansson, who seems to accept the popular myth among  misinformed European academics that he (Anagarika Dharmapala) was an eccentric communalist and an uninformed  religious fanatic:

The great moral teachers of the world, from the Lord Buddha, the oldest of all, down to Schopenhauer, have been my examples. Philosophy, General science, Comparative Religion, History and Travel have been the subjects of my study, and my time had been spent in philanthropic achievements in many parts of Asia. I have spent my inheritance in meritorious work, because I believe that the life of renunciation is the most meritorious of lives.

Force, aggression, assassination, murder, do not come under the great moral law of the Lord Buddha. Mercy, kindness, gentleness, patience, self-sacrifice, truthfulness, forgiveness, charity, purity of life, resoluteness in doing good are the active ethics enunciated by the great Lord Buddha.”   (p.67)

The Anagarika was well versed in the Tripitaka. He had mastered the English language in addition to the three languages of Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit closely related to the Buddhist religion, the dissemination of which across the world was the major interest of his life. He was spoke and wrote impeccable English as a Buddhist missionary and a social reformer according to available evidence.  However, the English of the above extract, naturally, sounds dated. The vocabulary reflects the dominant Biblical literary bias, which was stronger then than now. Johansson probably knows that the phrase ‘the great moral law of the Lord …..’ would suit a reference to Christ than it does an allusion to the Buddha. In Christian literature, ‘Lord’ usually refers to God or Christ. The use of that term by Dharmapala as an honorific for the Buddha (this was common practice then) only shows his deep veneration towards the Buddha; but no divinity is attributed to him. Persons unfamiliar with Buddhism could misunderstand the real meaning of the phrase ‘Lord Buddha’. Similarly potentially misleading could be the phrase ‘moral law’. There are no moral or other ‘laws’ to be obeyed in the Buddhist teaching, but only ‘precepts’ for persons to choose voluntarily and follow out personal conviction and self-commitment.

Well known Buddhist scholar the late Dr Ananda  W.P. Guruge estimated that Anagarika Dharmapala had used English in 75% of his lecturing and writing.  Incidentally, Dr Guruge was adjunct professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Fullerton, and once the dean of academic affairs at the non-profit academic institution at Rosemead, California known as the University of the West. There is a You Tube video of a short lecture (of approximately 20 minutes) delivered by Dr Guruge on the 150th birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala in 2014, the link for which is: (Johansson might watch this, and if interested, he might explore his subject further with the help of this true Buddhist intellectual, Dr Guruge, through his books, lectures, and articles produced over a period of over fifty years. Among them the book ‘Return to Righteousness’ will be especially interesting and useful. Apparently, what the Eurocentric anthropologists misinterpreted as a protestant Buddhist revival broadly identified with Dharmapala, Dr Guruge correctly characterized as an indigenous movement that embodied a ‘Return to Righteousness.’)

While it is true that Anagarika Dharmapala found in Colonel Olcott a source of inspiration in his youth for his work, he had no special regard for him as a representative of the race of the colonial occupiers of the time. This was different from the attitude of servile apishness that the local English speaking Christian converted elite adopted towards the British and were rewarded for with a privileged status. The Anagarika characterized this comprador class as ‘Kalu Suddas” (Black Whites). Even as a schoolboy at St Thomas, he was known for his rebellious spirit in the school’s strict Christian setting. When Colonel  Henry Steel Olcott (48 years of age then) arrived in Colombo in the company of fellow theosophist Madame Blavatsky  in May 1880, Anagarika Dharmapala (then known, as mentioned above, by his birth name Don David Hewavitharne) was barely 16. But the youngster had a strong independent personality. He initially helped Olcott as his translator while touring the country on his mission of helping awaken the Sinhalese to their Buddhist religious heritage, and in the process, became Olcott’s collaborator in his Buddhist revivalist work. (They eventually parted ways on ideological grounds.) Though this movement of the later 19th century is traditionally attributed to their shared initiative (the major share of the credit was attributed to the older man), and though some later foreign based anthropologists described it  as a brand of Buddhist ‘Protestantism’, both these ideas (the notion that the Buddhist revivalist movement began with the arrival of Colonel Olcott  and that it owed so much to the Western Christian Protestantism that he was alleged to have brought) have long been debunked. The truth is that the Buddhist revivalism had already started before Olcott’s advent in Sri Lanka. The great debates of the third quarter of the 19th century between Buddhist monks and Christian priests in which the monks bested the missionaries took place before the arrival of the theosophists, the alleged harbingers of protestantism. It was in fact the news of the Buddhist victory at the most famous one of these debates, namely, the Panaduraa Vaadaya of 1873 that had attracted the theosophists (Olcott and others) to Sri Lanka.  No doubt, the young boy David had a precocious awareness of the importance and meaning of these debates. Thus the foundation for the Buddhist revivalist movement had already been laid by the time of the theosophists’ advent in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

In further confirmation of what is asserted above, the following words are quoted from ‘THE LION’S ROAR  –  Anagarika Dharmapala & the Making of Modern Buddhism’ (Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2016) written by social anthropologist Dr Sarath Amunugama  senior civil servant turned politician and currently the minister for special assignments:

It must be emphasized here, that the Southern Buddhists had already started setting up Sunday Schools, printing pamphlets on modern printing machines, establishing pirivenas and most importantly, engaging the evangelists in open debate even before the arrival of the Theosophists” (p.641).

This is something that he well substantiates in the book. Amunugama’s description of the Theosophical Movement as ‘an important catalyst of the Hindu and Buddhist revival of the 19th and early 20th centuries’ (rather than as its cause) is not likely to be disputed today. (Amunugama makes some sensible observations on the shakiness of the Buddhist Protestantism theory on pages 637 to 643 of his book. A central point he elaborates on is that Mere organisational changes … do not represent a radical shift in practical religion. The theorists of ‘Protestant Buddhism’ do not examine the more fundamental aspect of doctrinal change”. Equally important, on p.644, he points to a glaring defect in the studies of Dharmapala by western oriented social scientists: it is their failure to situate him in his proper historical context, before hastening to portray him as a Buddhist fanatic and to psycho-analyse him as a maverick and the progenitor of alleged Sinhalese Buddhist racism.)

Unlike those earlier Eurocentric  proponents of the Buddhist Protestantism  fallacy that Johansson draws on with absolute faith, Amunugama presents the Anagarika and his achievements in a generally positive light. He claims that ‘THE LION’S ROAR’ establishes Dharmapala as an important historical figure of our time”.  This is despite the apparently obligatory deconstructionist/deconstructive approach that he adopts in the investigation of his subject, perhaps out of loyalty to those of his teachers or immediate predecessors in the university, who seemed to believe, in good faith, that the political and cultural legacy left by the former  British imperial rulers was compatible with the national resurgence that the common people aspired for; but those anthropologists, internationally renowned in their field though they were, missed the whole point about their own people. (The word ‘deconstructive’or its alternative ‘deconstructionist’ in the above sentence is being arbitrarily used  in the informal sense of dismantling or at least discounting the established heroic image of Dharmapala.)  The Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists might still consider Amunugama’s  assessment of the Anagarika as ‘an important historical figure of our time’ to be an unjust understatement of the real importance of the great Dharmapala as a national hero.

To be concluded

One Response to “Anti-Buddhist propaganda with an academic veneer – II”

  1. Charles Says:

    What do these foreigners really know about Sri Lanka and its past. They go by what they know about the Tamil and Sinhala conflict resulting from the terrorism. Even Canadian government is openly supporting the Tamils and for them it is the Sinhala who are at fault. In the mean time the Tamils are consolidating their separatist ideology, by moving laws in their provincial councils against sale of any land to any one or taking over land by the government without obtaining the permission from the Council. They have called for the removal of 162 Buddhists Statues and temples in the North which they call are unlawful constructions and proposes to remmove them. They are also passing laws to stop settlement of Sinhala in the North and East. And the stupid Yahapalanaya Government to please the Foreign Governments give back the lands held by the Government, back to Tamils and call for reconciliation. Can there be a reconciliation when it is only the Sinhala make the sacrifices and the Tamils clearliy separate themselves from the Sinhala Majority ?

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