Anagarika Dharmapala – 157th Birth Anniversary ( Date of Birth – September 17, 1864) The Life and Legacy of Anagarika Dharmapala
Posted on September 17th, 2021

By Senaka Weeraratna

In the modern history of Sri Lanka no one stands taller than Anagarika Dharmapala. In a country that had witnessed the overthrow of its last king in 1815, seen successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and British invasions sweeping away much of the traditional Buddhist culture of the country, the unsolicited entry of missionaries of every conceivable denomination from both Europe and USA descending on local children like a cloud of locusts with unconcealed plans to wean them away from their longstanding religious beliefs, and make them ashamed of everything that they stood for and lived by i.e. their religion, their culture, their language, their race, their food and their skin colour, it was a time that any ‘reasonable man’ using a well – known British test introduced into court jargon in 1837 would have thought Buddhism had no hope of survival in Sri Lanka.

The mid -19th century soon after the crushing of the 1848 Matale revolt for independence led to the consolidation of British colonial rule and putting into action a grandiose plan to weaken the Buddhist foundations of Sri Lanka. Children born of Buddhist parents were more or less forced to be registered in a church, resulting in biblical names being bestowed on them, and most people were ashamed or afraid to declare themselves Buddhists. It was the worst of times for the indigenous Sinhala Buddhists.  Nevertheless In the words of  Bhikkhu Sangharakshita, a biographer of Anagarika Dharmapala Low though the fortunes of the Dhamma had sunk, the great beam of the national karma was beginning to right itself, and gigantic forces were being set in motion which in the future would lift them to a position even higher than their present one was low”

Panadura Vadaya

The birth of a boy on September 17, 1864 later named as David Hewavitarana was indeed fortuitous for the long suffering indigenous people now beginning to dream of a Buddhist revival in a land that has been long plagued by western colonialism and repression of Indian civilizational religions.  The boy David Hewavitarana was only 9 years old when he witnessed what was to become known as the ‘ Panadura Vadaya’ in 1873. It was an epochal event in the Buddhist Revival movement.

Ven. Megettuvatte Gunananda Thera, the great orator and debater and star of the ‘Panadura Vadaya’ was the incumbent of the Kotahena Temple and was already known to young David as he used to pass the Kotahena Temple on his way to and from St. Thomas College, Mutual.

Ven. Gunananda Thera led the Buddhist side in debates that took place between the Buddhists and the Christians in Baddegama, Udanwita, Waragoda, Liyanagemulla, Gampola, and in the most famous of the debates in Panadura. These debates led to a Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka. It was after reading a pamphlet on the debates published in the United States, that Henry Steel Olcott arrived in Sri Lanka in 1880.

Cruelty to animals

The young David attended several schools including St. Thomas, St. Benedicts, Christian College, Kotte and Colombo Academy (later known as Royal College). The religious atmosphere in these schools was alien to him but nothing disturbed him more than to see the boarding master of the school in Kotte taking delight in shooting the small birds which alighted on the trees. These revolting practices were against the Buddhist teachings of Metta and Karuna (loving – kindness and compassion) and reverence for life of all sentient beings which he had learned in his own home and young David, now beginning to think independently, could not stomach or reconcile himself with such cruel and heartless behavior of his Christian teachers.

It is reported that an incident which occurred during this period must have made his sensitive mind more keenly aware than ever of the gulf which lay between Christian missionary fanaticism of his teachers on the one hand and Buddhist wisdom and tolerance that has been inculcated in him from his childhood on the other, and undoubtedly added fresh fuel to the already festering fires of revolt. It is said that one Sunday when young David was quietly reading a pamphlet on the Four Noble Truths the same master had come up to him and, true to missionary zeal, had demanded the offending work from him and had it thrown out of the room.     

Arrival of Henry Olcott

These incidents contributed heavily in influencing young David to walk on a path that was different to that of his peers and school mates. The arrival of Henry Steel Olcott in Colombo in 1880 had a pivotal impact on David’s life. He was one of those who attended Olcott’s first public lecture aged 16. His grandfather became the first President of the Buddhist Theosophical Society that Olcott founded and in 1884 at the age of 20 David himself became a member of the BTS.

It was around this time that he believed, like the majority of Sinhala Buddhists, that the interests of Buddhism and the interests of the Theosophical Society were identical or convergent.  He decided to devote all his time to the welfare of the Sasana, He renounced the name ‘ David’ and adopted the ‘ Dharmapala’. He accompanied Olcott and Madame Blavatsky on a trip to India where he saw the plight of the Maha Bodhi Temple at Buddha Gaya. His subsequent trips to Japan in the company of Olcott, the establishment of the Maha Bodhi Society in Colombo in 1891 dedicated towards re-gaining control of the Maha Bodhi Temple, attendance at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 constitute a inspiring life story that has become an integral part of the national story of Sri Lanka.

Buddhist Nationalism

Dharmapala’s  entry to public life was via the call to serve the cause of Buddhism pure and simple, But then he realized as wisdom and maturity dawned on him later in his life that Buddhism cannot and will not survive in any form unless there is a protective layer – Buddhist nationalism.  In espousing the cause of freedom from colonial yoke, and then calling on his people to awaken and lift themselves from slumber and moribund state ( ‘Sinhalayan Nagitiyaw’ – speech given in 1926)  he touched a chord lying deep in the collective sub – conscious of the Sinhala Buddhists.

Anagarika Dharmapala unleashed forces that to this day reverberate not only in his country of birth but offshore as well. He was born to an incipient Buddhist Revival movement in the middle of the 19th Century but then found himself championing it in the first half of the 20th Century to the great delight of Buddhists everywhere. The Buddhist Revival movements in India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand owe a great deal to the pioneering efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala. The Buddhist nationalist movements in Sri Lanka of Brahmachari Walisinghe Harischandra, Sinhala Maha Sabha of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the Buddhist Revolution of 1956 and the Bauddha Jathika Balavegaya (BJB) of L.H. Mettananda have their genesis in the foundation laid by Dharmapala.

World’s First Global Buddhist Missionary

The appellation that Anagarika Dharmapala was the world’s first global Buddhist Missionary is resoundingly valid. He was the first Buddhist in the Modern era to propagate Buddhism on three continents: Asia, Europe and North America. Between the years 1891 – 1933, Anagarika spent most of his time overseas, zealously engaged in Buddhist missionary work and only periodically returning to his motherland Sri Lanka.  

Anagarika was also involved in another gigantic project internationally; to offer Buddhism as an alternate civilizing force to counter the deceitful ‘ White Man’s burden ‘; the so called civilizing mission that was used to legitimize and even defend blatant wrong doing such as the genocides of native people on almost every continent, plunder, theft, holocausts that ravaged the world ever since European navigators like Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama ‘discovered’ new lands, on the ground of ‘ Manifest Destiny’. Europe based religions e.g. Christianity, were heavily compromised and their hands stained with blood by their close associations of a collaborative nature with the Conquistadors. Buddhism was not and Buddhist Civilizations had a relative intrinsic purity that none of the Abrahamic religions and inherently violent Christian and Islamic civilizations could match.      

Anagarika Dharmapala’s pioneering efforts to spread the Dhamma in both USA and UK have left magnificent edifices such as the London Vihara and inspired a number of other energetic Buddhist workers of succeeding generations such as Devapriya Valisinha, G.P. Malalasekera (founder of the World Fellowship of Buddhists) and Asoka Weeraratna (founder of the German Dharmaduta Society, Berlin Vihara (Das Buddhistische Haus), Germany, Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya) to follow suit.


 see also

Sri Lanka’s admirable Buddhist missionary achievements in the West: Anagarika & Asoka offer role models to emulate

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