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”
The birth of a boy on September 17, 1864 later named as Don 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 in what was to become known as the ‘ Panadura Vadaya’ in 1873. It was an epochal event in the Buddhist Revival movement.
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 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 name ‘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 an inspiring life story that has become an integral part of the national story of Sri Lanka.
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 National 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. His 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, Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera (founder of the World Fellowship of Buddhists) and Asoka Weeraratna (founder of the German Dharmaduta Society and Berlin Vihara, Germany) to follow suit.
Note:This article appears in today's 'Daily Mirror' (September 17, 2014) on Page A 13