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I quailed when asked to review Sarath Amunugama’s 700-odd page work on Anagarika Dharmapala’s life and times. I wondered what else was there to write about this colossus who strode across the Buddhist scene in the ‘Ceylon’ of little more than a century ago. So many of his statues adorn our towns and so numerous are the books, pamphlets, learned articles, both in English and Sinhala, published in Sri Lanka, India, Britain and America that there seemed little new to say. But Sarath Amunugama — administrator, politician, art lover and, above all, a meticulous scholar — has overcome my reluctance with his comprehensive, yet eminently readable, study of the Anagarika’s life and times, aptly titled The Lion’s Roar- a singularly apt description of the reverberations that the Anagarika caused in Colonial Ceylon and India.
This is far more than a mere biography of Dharmapala. The life story of this complex personality is studied with deep psychological insight and situated in the context of the grass-root revival of Buddhism, the rise of the Sinhalese mercantile class, and anti-colonial sentiment in the late 19th century. The catalyst that ‘modernised’ these trends was the arrival of the Theosophists the American Colonel Olcott and his European companion, Madame Blavatsky. Young English educated David Hewavitarne [Dharmapala] travelled throughout Southern Ceylon as translator of Olcott’s Buddhist talks. He thus learnt the art of being a convincing public speaker that was the hallmark of his future success. Interestingly, Amunugama does not say whether Olcott’s American citizenship had any impact on the colonial authorities.
It is difficult to envisage how one man could influence the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon, in India and the Western world. This was Dharmapala’s magnificent achievement. After his initial apprenticeship with Olcott, he built up close relations with bhikkhus of all persuasions in his quest to weld them together in the great enterprise of rebuilding the Buddha Dhamma in a Christian dominated British colony. He was no ‘narrow nationalist’ and was well informed on developments in the ‘outside’ world where he travelled widely and had many contacts in his ideal of spreading the Buddha Dhamma far and wide.
Amunugama attributes Dharmapala’s outstanding achievements to two factors. The first is his family background. He was the scion of an exceptionally wealthy Sinhala business family. All through his life he was never short of funds thanks to his father who was most sympathetic to his son’s ideals. Coming from a business background he had financial acumen and insisted on the probity of all the organizations he established. He was a perfectionist and often misunderstood for his criticisms of the incompetent. His knowledge of English and Sinhala were of the highest order as displayed in his many talks, writings and incisive journalism. He had made a deep study of Pali, which stood him in good stead when interacting with bhikkhus. His meticulously kept diary, in English, to the very end is notable for its accuracy, stark honesty and as a mirror of that age.
The other factor was the rise of the Sinhala merchant class in the maritime provinces. They were staunch Buddhists and generous patrons of traditional temples as well as the newer ones now coming up in Colombo. They were, naturally, hostile to Indian, Tamil and Moor traders who monopolized trade. Their support was the bedrock on which Dharmapala built his edifice of Sinhala Buddhist revival.
Amunugama writes of how easily Dharmapala interacted with the many Americans and Europeans in Buddhist and Theosophist circles. His excellent English and handsome looks went a long way to the great impression he made at the World Congress of Religions in Chicago, Many were the converts he won over to Buddhism — none more so than the wealthy Hawaiian American Mary Foster who generously funded him to the end of her days. Quite a few English people came to Ceylon to help in Olcott’s Theosophist and Buddhist activities. Among these were Annie Besant, Bowes Daly and Leadbeater who became Principal of the fledgling Ananda College and Woodward who headed Mahinda College.
I believe that Amunugama is the only scholar who has given credit to the “Tower Hall” plays of John de Silva, eulogizing Sinhala Buddhist history, for bolstering Dharmapala’s message. These were rousing operatic sagas of heroic Sinhala kings and Jataka stories. Their impact was not only the Sinhala elite- – just beginning to attend theatrical performances — but also the thousands of Sinhala workers in the docks and factories. Tower Hall theatre was right in the centre of their world. The memorable songs from these plays were on everybody’s lips. I recall my father, a teacher at Nalanda, singing them with gusto in the 1930s. These plays were wonderful purveyors of Dharmapala’s message.
Dharmapala’s many years spent in India have been written about mainly in relation to his sad failure to win the Sacred Bodhi for Buddhists. But it is this very struggle that brought this sacred tree to the attention of Sinhala Buddhists and made it the pinnacle of pilgrimage to Dambadiva and its other Buddhist sites. Dharmapala spent many years in Calcutta, then India’s capital, where he built a Buddhist temple and was greatly influenced by the Bengali intellectuals leading the struggle for India;s independence. Dharmapala also dreamt of converting the millions of “Untouchables” to Buddhism. However, it was only a couple of decades after his death that Ambedkar, flanked by Sinhala b bhikkhus from Dharmapala’s Maha Bodhi, launched his massive campaign to turn the untouchables to Buddhists. Alas, this campaign sank out of sight, wrecked by the rock of Brahminical obscurantism. The extent of this failure was shown a few days ago when thousands of Dalits, demanding social and political equality, marched on India’s 70th Independence Day.
The Anagarika was well informed in international affairs, particularly as regards their relevance to Buddhist activities. He was in regular correspondence with the kings of Burma and Siam about securing the precincts of Buddha Gaya for Buddhists of the world. Japan he admired for its dramatic rise to modernity. Optimistically he sent Sinhala youth to study industries in Japan so that they could staff the industrial schools he hoped to establish in Ceylon. These activities were viewed with great suspicion by the colonial government that warily watched Japan’s interest in British colonies.
Meanwhile Dharmapala’s activities, and his intolerant attitudes, affected his popularity and stature in Ceylon. Other leaders such as D. B. Jayatilaka came to the fore with their criticisms. Dharmapala was heartbroken and retreated to India where he finally donned the robes of a bhikkhu as Devamitta and breathed his last at Mulagandha kuti before the magnificent Vihara he had built.
Amunugama is amazingly informative and thought provoking in this study of Anagarika Dharmapla. It will be the most comprehensive account for years to come.
- Hardcover: 728 pages
- Publisher: Vijitha Yapa Publications, Sri Lanka; 1st edition (July 31, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9556652876
- ISBN-13: 978-9556652871
- ASIN: B01JIDW5X4
- Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
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