Anagarika Dharmapala: Buddhist revivalist, global missionary, Sinhalese nationalist

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Anagarika Dharmapala, circular 1900. From

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was the founder of the Mahabodhi Society of India and a monk who made a name for himself mainly in India, although he was originally from Sri Lanka. He is commonly described as a Buddhist missionary, but this epithet is better understood as a facet of who he really was, which is far grander: one of the greatest figures of Buddhist nationalism, one of many indigenous figures who united religious faith with patriotism. and anti-imperialism, and one of many thinkers who laid the foundations not only for postcolonial Asia, but also, for better or worse, for Sinhalese nationalism.

While Dharmapala's fame was surpassed in India by non-Buddhist titans such as Gandhi, Nehru and many others, he was to become a hero in his own country, Sri Lanka. There was even a national holiday bearing his name in the 1960s, later being incorporated into National Heroes Day, celebrated on January 1. Many Sri Lankans respect him as a bodhisattva.

Anagarika Dharmapala was born on the island in 1864 as Don David Hewavitarne. In the 1700th century, what was then known as Ceylon was dominated by Christianity, especially among the educated classes. It is difficult to overestimate the length and rigor of this process. By the late 1798s, the Portuguese had taken over much of Ceylon and converted the inhabitants to Roman Catholicism. A little over a century later, the Dutch overthrew the Portuguese. Then the British took control of most of Ceylon and declared it a crown colony in 1815. The entire nation came under British control in 1948 and remained so until XNUMX. Until Dharmapala, Buddhism had long been displaced, relegated to the humble status of a local country. faith with little influence or prestige.

As a member of the upper classes of the local Ceylonese living on the coast, David was one of many boys and girls who were given a first name. He was educated in Catholic and Episcopal mission schools, but in the 1880s became involved with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and Madame Blavatksy (1831-1891), themselves pioneers of a syncretic movement called Theosophy. On May 17, 1880, the two men arrived in Ceylon and later took refuge with the lay precepts. Olcott would found hundreds of Buddhist schools. His example prompted David to change his name to Anagarika Dharmapala.

Dharmapala joined the Theosophical Society after meeting Blavatsky and Olcott. He served as a translator to assist Olcott in his initiatives to establish Buddhist institutions nationwide and revive Buddhism. At the time, Dharmapala was practically Olcott's protege, and they advocated an inclusive interpretation of Buddhism that fused Eastern and Western ideas (mainly secularism and egalitarian thought imported from the Scientific Revolution and the French and American Revolutions), thus forming a school of thought that has become sometimes called Buddhist modernism.

This modernism not only assimilated Western philosophy, but also Western methods of institutional development, public communication and technology. Buddhist modernism is characterized by rationalism and openness to science. It downplays mythological and supernatural elements and favors meditation over ritual and devotional practices. It was seen by local elites in Sri Lanka and India as appropriate to the modern world, frequently influenced by Western thought, and adopted by Buddhists to refute claims of superiority made by Christians or European rulers.

In 1888, Dharmapala and Olcott traveled to Japan to explore Buddhist monuments and to strive to promote harmony among the different schools of Buddhism. In 1891 he founded the Mahabodhi Society of India in Colombo, the aim of which was the revival of Buddhism in India. Earlier in the year, he and Blavatsky had visited the subcontinent, and Dharmapala was distraught over the deplorable conditions of Buddhist temples, such as the Mahabodhi Temple. As he writes: “The bhikkhus are indolent, they have lost the spirit of heroism and selflessness of their former examples” (Guruge 1965, 337). Dharmapala established the Maha Bodhi Society in Colombo, before it moved to Calcutta and began expanding its branches. He would then found his new branches of the Maha Bodhi Society in London, New Delhi and New York.

Dharmapala was influenced by two of the highest Buddhist personalities: Migettuwatte Sri Gunananda Thera and the Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera. He was a prolific writer. He has written articles for the Sarasavi-Sandaresa, a weekly. This was the first of many writing positions he would hold during his lifetime. He later took over full operation of the newspaper, producing, publishing and delivering it twice a week. In 1888 he founded the Buddhist, an English language newspaper. He used both newspapers to inform the Sinhalese and English-speaking populace of his views on Buddhist revivalism and Sinhalese nationalism.

The aims of the Mahabodhi Society eventually expanded to include the spread of Buddhism in Ceylon and India, a more proactive and 'assertive' view as opposed to the 'defensive' aim of saving Buddhism from extinction. To facilitate this process, he founded the Maha Bodhi newspaper in 1892. When Dharmapala traveled to Chicago in 1893 to represent Theravada Buddhism in the World Parliament of Religions, he became a well-known figure outside of Asia. Mary E. Foster, an affluent American patron, would help fund further international travel for him.

Ironically, it was the perenniality of Victorian-style theosophy that ultimately forced Dharmapala to part ways with Olcott, as Dharmapala viewed Buddhism as the ideological and spiritual antidote to Western ideological domination, rather than a faith to be encompassed. in a vague universalism. Dharmapala was also highly unusual as he had not been formally ordained under a senior officer. bhikkhus throughout his life. The meaning of the name Dharmapala is "Protector of Dharma". The title Anagarika means "homeless". Anagarika Dharmapala is committed to living a life in accordance with Buddhist principles, which include celibacy or abstention from sexual activity. He was therefore not a Buddhist monk, but he was dressed in a yellow robe which resembled that of monks.

He will not order until the year of his death, 1933, at Sarnath. Here he died at age 68.

Revivalist. The first committed Buddhist. A nationalist in religious costume. Modernist Buddhist, even “Buddhist Protestant”. Some contemporary Buddhist revival scholars, such as Heinz Bechert, have insisted that "Buddhist modernism" is more appropriate, while others, such as Gananath Obeyesekere, prefer "Protestant Buddhism". So there are many ways to understand the complex figure of Dharmapala. He is best remembered for three notable accomplishments. First, he revived Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka. Second, he spread Buddhist teachings to Asia, North America and Europe. Third, it revived a Sinhalese nationalism that had lain dormant for so many centuries under foreign occupation.

But he was, for all his political turmoil, a serious Buddhist teacher. Dharmapala emphasized moral behavior in the world and, through his Western influence, was considered the first committed Buddhist. For example, he stressed the importance of incorporating fundamental Buddhist principles such as the Eightfold Path into daily life. Dharmapala wrote:

“The ideal of the Buddhist faith consists in realizing, through spiritual experience and moral acts, the continuity of life in man and in nature and the communion of all beings. (Guruge 1965, 748) He added: “To build a rest house for the public good, to build a bridge,…. . . help the poor, take care of parents and holy men, . . . create free hospitals. . . all this produces good karma. (Guruge 1965, 737)

What is certain is that Buddhism was the indigenous heritage of Ceylon despite the invasions of maritime empires and the spread of Christianity. In the 2th and 500th centuries, Anagarika Dharmapala and other reformers worked to restore Buddhism, bringing back a philosophy with roots over XNUMX years old. Through their efforts, Sri Lanka eventually became, or more correctly, returned to being the world's leading Theravada Buddhist center.


Ananda Guruge (ed.). 1965. Return to Justice: A Collection of Discourses, Essays and Letters from the Anagarika Dharmapala. Ceylon: Government Press.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

Leave comments