Anagārika Dharmapāla

Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933)
Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933)

1. Anagārika Dharmapāla

Anagārika Dharmapāla (17 September 1864 – 29 April 1933) was a Śrī Lankan Buddhist revivalist and a writer.

Anagārika Dharmapāla is noted because he was:

  1. the first global Buddhist missionary
  2. one of the founding contributors of non-violent Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism
  3. a leading figure in the Śrī Lankan independence movement against British rule
  4. a pioneer in the revival of Buddhism in India after it had been virtually extinct for several centuries
  5. the 1st Buddhist in modern times to preach the Dhamma in 3 continents: Asia, North America, and Europe.

Along with Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, the creators of the Theosophical Society, he was a major reformer and revivalist of Sinhala Buddhism and an important figure in its Western transmission.

He also inspired a mass movement of South Indian Dalits including Tamils to embrace Buddhism, half a century before B. R. Ambedkar.

In his later life, he became a Buddhist monk with the name of Venerable Śrī Devamitta Dharmapāla.

2. Early life and education

Anagārika Dharmapāla was born on 17 September 1864 in Matara, Ceylon, in a rich family, to Don Carolis Hewavitharana and Mallikā Dharmagunawardhana, who were among the richest merchants of Ceylon at the time.

He was named Don David Hewavitharana.

His younger brothers were Dr Charles Alwis Hewavitharana and Edmund Hewavitharana.

He attended:

  1. Christian College, in Kotte;
  2. St Benedict's College, in Kotahena;
  3. S. Thomas' College, in Mutwal
  4. Colombo Academy (Royal College).

3. Buddhist revival

In 1875, during a period of Buddhist revival, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott had founded the Theosophical Society in New York City:

They were both very sympathetic to what they understood of Buddhism,

and in 1880 they arrived in Ceylon, declared themselves to be Buddhists, and publicly took the Refuges and Precepts from a prominent Sinhalese Bhikkhu.

Colonel Olcott kept coming back to Ceylon and devoted himself there to the cause of Buddhist education, eventually setting up more than 300 Buddhist schools, some of which are still in existence.

It was in this period that Hewavitharana changed his name to Anagārika Dharmapāla.

Dharmapāla means protector of the dharma.
Anagārika in Pāḷi means homeless one.

It is a midway status between monk and layperson:

As such, he took the 8 precepts (refrain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, wrong speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs, eating after noon, entertainments and fashionable attire, and luxurious beds) for life.

These 8 precepts were commonly taken by Ceylonese laypeople on observance days. But for a person to take them for life was highly unusual.

Dharmapāla was the first Anagārika – that is, a celibate, full-time worker for Buddhism – in modern times. It seems that he took a vow of celibacy at the age of 8 and remained faithful to it all his life.

Although he wore a yellow robe, it was not of the traditional Bhikkhu pattern, and he did not shave his head:

He felt that the observance of all the Vinaya rules would get in the way of his work, especially as he flew around the world.

Neither the title nor the office became popular, but in this role, he was the model for lay activism in modernist Buddhism. He is considered a Bodhisattva in Śrī Lanka.

His trip to Bodh Gayā was inspired by an 1885 visit there by Sir Edwin Arnold, author of The Light of Asia, who soon started advocating for the renovation of the site and its return to Buddhist care.

Arnold was directed towards this endeavour by Weligama Śrī Sumaṅgala Thera (1825-1905).

Dharmapāla eventually broke with Olcott and the Theosophists because of Olcott's stance on Universal Religion:

One of the important factors in his rejection of Theosophy centred on this issue of Universalism; the price of Buddhism being assimilated into a non-Buddhist model of truth was ultimately too high for him.

/McMahan, David L. (2009). The making of Buddhist modernism/

Dharmapāla stated that Theosophy was only consolidating Kṛṣṇa worship.

To say that all religions have a common foundation only shows the ignorance of the speaker; Dharma alone is supreme to the Buddhist.

/Prothero, Stephen R. (1996). The white Buddhist:/

At Sārnāth in 1933 he was ordained as a Bhikkhu, and he died at Sārnāth in April of that year, aged 68.

4. Religious work

Anagārika Dharmapāla stamp

Anagārika Dharmapāla
Postage Stamp, 150th Anniversary

The young Dharmapāla helped Colonel Olcott in his work, particularly by acting as his translator.

Dharmapāla also became quite close to Madame Blavatsky, who advised him to study Pāḷi and to work for the good of humanity – which is what he did.

It was at this time that he changed his name to Dharmapāla (meaning Guardian of the Dharma).

In 1891 Anagārika Dharmapāla was on a pilgrimage to the recently restored Mahābodhi Temple, where Siddhārtha Gautama – the Buddha – attained Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, India.

Here he experienced a shock to find the temple in the hands of a Śaivite priest, the Buddha image transformed into a Hindu icon and Buddhists barred from worship.

As a result, he began an agitation movement.

The Mahā Bodhi Society at Colombo was founded in 1891 but its offices were soon moved to Calcutta the following year in 1892.

One of its primary aims was the restoration to Buddhist control of the Mahābodhi Temple at Bodh Gayā, the chief of the 4 ancient Buddhist holy sites.

To accomplish this, Dharmapāla initiated a lawsuit against the Brahmin priests who had held control of the site for centuries.

After a protracted struggle, this was successful only after Indian independence (1947) and 16 years after Dharmapāla's own death (1933), with the partial restoration of the site to the management of the Mahā Bodhi Society in 1949.

It was then the temple management of Bodh Gaya was entrusted to a committee comprised in equal numbers of Hindus and Buddhists.

A statue of Anagārika Dharmapāla was established in College Square near Kolkata Mahā Bodhi Society.

Mahā Bodhi Society centres were set up in many Indian cities, and this had the effect of raising Indian consciousness about Buddhism.

Converts were made mostly among the educated, but also among some low caste Indians in the south.

Due to the efforts of Dharmapāla, the site of the Buddha's Parinibbāna (physical death) at Kuśīnagar has once again become a major attraction for Buddhists, as it was for many centuries previously.

Mahābodhi Movement in 1890s held the Muslim Rule in India responsible for the decay of Buddhism in India.

Anagārika Dharmapāla did not hesitate to lay the chief blame for the decline of Buddhism in India at the door of Muslim fanaticism.

Anagārika Dharmapāla & Swami Vivekananda

Anagārika Dharmapāla & Swami Vivekananda (centre)
World Parliament of Religions
(1993, Chicago)

In 1893 Dharmapāla was invited to attend the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago as a representative of Southern Buddhism – which was the term applied at that time to the Theravāda.

There he met Swāmi Vivekananda and got on very well with him. Like Swami Vivekananda, he was a great success at the Parliament and received a fair bit of media attention.

By his early 30-s he was already a global figure, continuing to travel and give lectures and establish Vihāras around the world during the next 40 years.

At the same time he concentrated on establishing schools and hospitals in Ceylon and building temples and Vihāras in India.

Among the most important of the temples he built was one at Sārnāth, where the Buddha first taught.

On returning to India via Hawaii, he met Mary E. Foster, a descendant of King Kamehameha who had emotional problems:

Dharmapāla consoled her using Buddhist techniques; in return, she granted him an enormous donation of over 1 million rupees (over $2.7 million in 2010 dollars, but worth much more due to low labour costs in India).

In 1897 he converted Miranda de Souza Canavarro (1849-1933) who as Sister Saṅghamittā came to establish a school in Ceylon:

Miranda de Souza Canavarro (1849-1933) was a wealthy American Theosophist notable as the 1st woman to convert to Buddhism in the United States, in 1897:

She later moved to Ceylon and became a Buddhist nun. She became known as Sister Saṅghamittā.

Dharmapāla's voluminous diaries have been published, and he also wrote some memoirs.

5. Dharmapāla, science, and Protestant Buddhism

The term Protestant Buddhism, coined by scholar Gananāth Obeyesekere, is often applied to Dharmapāla's form of Buddhism.

It is Protestant in 2 ways:

1) First, it is influenced by Protestant ideals such as freedom from religious institutions, freedom of conscience, and focus on individual interior experience.

2) Second, it is in itself a protest against claims of Christian superiority, colonialism, and Christian missionary work aimed at weakening Buddhism.

Its salient characteristic is the importance it assigns to the laity.

/Gombrich, Richard F. (1988). Theravāda Buddhism/

It arose among the new, literate, middle class centred in Colombo.

The term Buddhist modernism is used to describe forms of Buddhism that suited the Modern World, usually influenced by modern thinking, and often adapted by Buddhists as a counter to claims of European or Christian superiority.

Buddhist modernists emphasize certain aspects of traditional Buddhism, while de-emphasizing others.

Some of the characteristics of Buddhist modernism are:

importance of the laity as against the Saṅgha; rationality and de-emphasis of supernatural and mythological aspects; consistency with (and anticipation of) modern science;

emphasis on spontaneity, creativity, and intuition; democratic, anti-institutional character; emphasis on meditation over devotional and ceremonial actions.

Dharmapāla is an excellent example of a Buddhist modernist, and perhaps the paradigmatic example of Protestant Buddhism.

He was particularly concerned with presenting Buddhism as consistent with science, especially the theory of evolution.

6. Survey of writings

Most of Dharmapāla's works are collected in Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays, and Letters of the Anagārika Dharmapāla. (1965).

The World's Debt to the Buddha (1893)

This paper was read to a crowded session of the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, 18 September 1893.

At this early stage of his career, Dharmapāla was concerned with making Buddhism palatable to his Western audience.

This talk is full of references to science, the European Enlightenment, and Christianity.

While presenting Buddhism in these familiar terms, he also hints that it is superior to any philosophy of the West.

In addition, he spends considerable time discussing the ideal Buddhist polity under Aśoka and the Buddha's ethics for laypeople.

The Constructive Optimism of Buddhism (1915)

Buddhism was often portrayed in the West, especially by Christian missionaries, as pessimistic, nihilistic, and passive.

One of Dharmapāla's main concerns was to counter such claims, and this concern is especially evident in this essay.

Message of the Buddha (1925)

In the later stages of his career, Dharmapāla's vociferous anti-Christian tone is more evident.

Dharmapāla must be understood in the context of British colonisation of Ceylon and the presence of Christian missionaries there.

This work is a good example of Protestant Buddhism, as described above.

Evolution from the Standpoint of Buddhism (1926)

Darwin's theory of evolution was the cutting edge of science during Dharmapāla's life.

As part of his attempt to show that Buddhism is consistent with modern science, he was especially concerned with Evolution.

7. Contributions to Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism

Dharmapāla was one of the primary contributors to the Buddhist revival of the 19th century that led to the creation of Buddhist institutions to match those of the Christian colonial missionaries (schools, the YMBA, etc.), and to the Independence Movement of the 20th century.

Neil DeVotta characterizes his rhetoric as having 4 main points:

  1. Praise – for Buddhism and the Sinhalese culture;
  2. Blame – on the British imperialists, those who worked for them including Christians;
  3. Fear – that Buddhism in Śrī Lanka was threatened with extinction;
  4. Hope – for a rejuvenated Sinhalese Buddhist ascendancy.

He illustrated the 1-3 points in a public speech:

This bright, beautiful island was made into a Paradise by the Aryan-Sinhalese before its destruction was brought about by the barbaric vandals. Its people did not know irreligion ...

Christianity and polytheism [i.e. Hinduism] are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, licentiousness, lying and drunkenness ...

The ancient, historic, refined people, under the diabolism of vicious paganism, introduced by the British administrators, are now declining slowly away.

/Dharmapala, Anagārika (1965). Return to Righteousness/

8. Legacy

In 2014, India and Śrī Lanka issued postage stamps to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Dharmapāla.

In Colombo, a road has been named in his honour as Anagārika Dharmapāla Mawatha (Anagārika Dharmapāla Street).

The biographical film, Anagārika Dharmapāla Srimathano, on life history of Dharmapāla was released in 2014.