Anagarika Dharmapala - Great Buddhist Leader par excellence

P.D. Padmasiri By P.D. Padmasiri, 30th Aug 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
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Anagarika Dharmapala was a great national leader par excellence and his enthusiasm and tireless efforts made him drive his human frame to lengths beyond common human endurance and in a noble life dedicated to national and religious causes, he has left inspiration for his compatriots who live today.

Ceylon Buddhism and maltreatment

Born in September 17, 1864, Anagarika Dharmapala rendered great service for the revival of Buddhism. He was named Don David Hewawitharana. His parents were Midliyar Don Carolis Hewawitharana and Lady Mallika Hewawitharana. During his days, the times were not good in Ceylon then and people were living under the British rule and adopting European ways. The Sinhala Buddhist culture which was thousands of years old was subject to maltreatment and was dying out gradually. The prospects of Ceylon Buddhism in the sixties of the last century were dark indeed. Successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch, and British invasion had swept away much of the traditional culture of the country.
Missionaries had descended upon the copper-coloured island like a cloud of
locusts; Christian schools of every conceivable denomination had been opened,
where Buddhist boys and girls were crammed with Bible texts and taught to be
ashamed of their religion, their culture, their language, their race, and their
colour. Firstly, his life and work represent, so far as the Buddhist world is concerned,
the first reaction of the age-old spiritual traditions of the East against the
industrial civilization of the modern West. This civilization, if it can truly be
called such, was imposed mainly by force, the trader, the Christian missionary,
and the political adventurer each playing a part. In some places, such as
Ceylon, where Dharmapala was born, the indigenous religion and culture had
been crushed for centuries, and when Portuguese ferocity, Dutch brutality, and
British indifference had done their worst, precious few traces of them were left.
Against conditions such as these Dharmapala protested with the whole force of
his being and at every level of existence.

Dutch occupation

Throughout the territories under Dutch occupation Buddhists had been
compelled to declare themselves as Christians, and during the period of British
rule this law was enforced for seventy years, being abrogated only in 1884,
when on behalf of the Buddhists of Ceylon Col. Olcott made representations to
the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. Children born of Buddhist
parents had to be taken for registration to a church, where some Biblical name
would be bestowed on them, with the result that most Sinhalese bore either an
English Christian name and a Portuguese surname, if they were Catholic
‘converts’, or an English Christian name and a Sinhalese surname if they were

His younger days with Col. Henry Steel Olcott and Madam Blavatsky

Young David attended St. Benedict's and S. Thomas' College under the missionary education system, which were both Christian schools at that time. He finished his schooling in 1883. Meanwhile, young David learnt Buddhism, Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit under Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera. His great love for his religion and the nation was a result of his association with Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera who instilled in him patriotic values of nation building on Buddhist religious background. Inspired by a lecture given one day by Col. Henry Steel Olcott who came to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) with Madam Blavatsky on May 17, 1880, David Hewawitharana wanted to be of some service to his country. This event has resulted in his joining with the Theosophical Society which had been founded by Col. Olcott. When a mob of Sri Lankan Catholics attacked a Buddhist procession in 1883, Dharmapala left school and turned his intellectual pursuits to Buddhism instead. Soon afterwards Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, founders of the Theosophical Society in New York, arrived in Sri Lanka and filed suit on behalf of the Buddhists who were injured in the attack. Dharmapala, who felt that the Society’s aims were identical to those of a Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, became a member. Madame Blavatsky took the young man under her tutelage, and he remained her loyal supporter for the rest of his life.

"Sobana Maligawa"

At the same time, he decided to change his name to Dharmapala, a Sinhala Buddhist name and chose an Anagarika (celebate) lifestyle. He had to play a leading role with Col. Olcott as a member of the Theosophical Society in translating his speeches into Sinhala wherever he traveled. A versatile speaker he was able to kindle in his audience a love for the country and religion. He travelled all over the island in a special vehicle called the "Sobana Maligawa". His Buddhist Missionary movement was not limited to Sri Lanka and He traveled all over the world. He was fearless in manner, independent in spirit and his dynamic personality beamed forth radiant energy which permeated through both national and international audiences. Wherever he went large crowds assembled and listened to him with wrapt attention. His vibrant voice resonated throughout the country and inspired the listeners with its magical effect. His silver-tongued oratory transcended throughout the country calling for Buddhist resurgence, Buddhist unity and national awareness.

Sense of common purpose

Secondly, he stood not merely for the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon, where it
had been weakened for centuries, but for its renaissance in India, where it had
been dead for a millennium. This was indeed an astounding idea, and one
which could have occurred only to a man of exceptional spiritual vision and
outstanding courage. To revive in the land of its birth a religion that had been
dead there a thousand years! ‘The impracticable dream of a young idealist!’
scoffed his contemporaries. But undeterred Dharmapala set to work, fought
vigorously to rescue Buddha Gaya, reclaimed the sacred places, established
centres, and kept up a continuous stream of propaganda with the result that
before his death he was able to plant, and see beginning to sprout, the seed that
is now fast growing into a noble tree.
Thirdly, Dharmapala sought to focus on the renaissance of Buddhism in India,
and particularly on the legally complicated but morally simple question of theMaha Bodhi Temple at Buddha Gaya, the attention of the entire Buddhist
world. In other words, he tried to foster a sense of common purpose – and as
the corollary thereof to formulate a plan of united action – among all followers
of the Buddha. Thus he was the father of the various movements which, since
his passing away, have insisted on the oneness of the Buddhist world and
fought to promote mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation between
its various parts.

World Parliament of Religions in Chicago

Fourthly, Dharmapala’s interests and activities were not limited to the
Buddhist countries of Asia and to India but overspread the whole earth. As far
as we know he was the first who, in his own words, girdled the globe with the
Message of the Master. His historic appearance at the World’s Parliament of
Religions, Chicago, in 1893 is described elsewhere in this issue. He traversed
the greater part of Europe and the USA preaching the Dharma. The journal he
started found, and continues to find, its way to every continent. He was the
first Buddhist missionary ever to take the whole world for his parish.

"Amadyapa Viyaparaya" - his drive to eradicate consumption of liquor

Oh his trips aboroad, Anagarika Dharmapala visited factories in those countries and his idea was to use knowledge gained from these trips to develop small industries in Sri Lanka. Among other achievements, he came forward to eradicate liquor menace and has his best to eradicate consumption of liquor from Sri Lanka. If not for the relentless effort and formidable courage of Anagarika Dharmapala, the Buddhist all over the world would not have visited Buddha Gaya in India today because he sought the help of the law and was successful in 1895.

Last days and his final message to world Buddhists

Anagarika Dharmapala worked tirelessly to create many charitable institutions, maintaining hospitals, schools and foundations for spreading Buddhism and helping all in need. He started publishing the splendid Buddhist journal "The Mahabodhi" in1891. To continue his mission for future generations he established the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust in 1930. During that year he ordained as monk.

Anagarika Dharmapala's service is of much historical significance both to India and Sri Lanka and even today we are guided by some of his mature views. He died at Sarnath in 1933 and his last words were "Let me be reborn. I would like to be born again twenty-five times to spread Lord Buddha's Dhamma." His was a life of rich dedication which every human being should strive to emulate.


Association, Buddhism, Buddhist Thought, Ceylon, Christian, Christian Values, Christianity, Education, Eradication, Great, Great Virtue, Greatness, Leader, Leadership, Liquor, Mission, New Era, Theosophy

Meet the author

author avatar P.D. Padmasiri
I am from Weedagama, Bandaragama, SRI LANKA, HR Manager by profession and have 17 years of experience in my chosen field. I am interested in writing on Buddhism, Spiritual advancement, Nature etc.

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author avatar Delicia Powers
1st Sep 2011 (#)

Wonderful history, thank you P.D....

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author avatar P.D. Padmasiri
1st Sep 2011 (#)

Thank you Delicia for supportive comments and interest to read. Best regards

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author avatar Sheila Newton
1st Sep 2011 (#)

Another great article from you. You've opened my eyes to so much information since I started reading your pages. Thank you, friend.

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author avatar P.D. Padmasiri
4th Sep 2011 (#)

Thank you immensely for all encouraging and supportive comments in reading the page. I specially thank you Sheila for great interest because knowledge is a lifetime treasure. Best regards and good luck !

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