Anagārika Dharmapāla: In Search of a Rounded Evaluation

Michael Roberts, courtesy of The Sunday Island 16 September 2018

Recently an anonymous hand writing as “A Dharmapala Devotee” presented a sarcastic opinion piece in the Island of the 5th September targeting myself, Gananath Obeyesekere and HL Seneviratne. My immediate response was short and rushed. This essay is a more considered set of comments.

Reflecting on “A Dharmapala Devotee’s” letter to the Island can be a fruitful exercise, even though the full benefits cannot be reaped because he has not revealed his name – thereby shutting off the path for analysts to place him in sociological space constituted by class, education and geographical location.

This “Devotee” is simple-minded: it is deemed impossible for Anagārika Dharmapāla to be both an earnest missionary seeking to spread the Dhamma and Buddhist philosophy in the big wide world and a staunch Sinhala chauvinist protagonist in the circuits within British Ceylon. Such a reading is simply ridiculous and is directed by a rigid either/or modality of assessment.

The evidence for the latter-day assessment of Dharmapala as a chauvinist voiced by Obeyesekere, Seneviratne and myself comes from his public interventions in word and deed. Thus, for instance, in an article entitled “Kocci Demala” in the Sinhala Bauddhaya on 14th January 1910 Dharmapala indulges in a diatribe against the kocci demala (the Malayalam Tamils). Within his diary entries too one sees an uncompromising language of rebuke with some frequency, rebuke directed at the Sinhalese themselves (for their slothfulness for example). This was the vocabulary and intent of a teacher attempting to reform his charges –namely, the Sinhala Buddhists (for he could not comprehend how “Christian Sinhalese could love their country” – see diary/entry 24 Feb 1898).

The confrontation with the prominent Christian dispensation in British Ceylon is highlighted in a diary entry from 26th January 1902 when he spotted a Christian street preacher in the Pettah market area. He immediately got down from his rickshaw. He listened for a while. He then intervened thus: “Then I began the lion’s roar and called the para sudda dogs, asses, etc. Exhorted the Sinhalese to be good Buddhists.” As the metaphor of the “lion’s roar” suggests, he saw himself as a preacher-enforcer pursuing the path of the Great Teacher.[1]

Furthermore, as Dharmapala understood the Buddha’s message, religious syncretism of the type that had taken root in Asia over the centuries was also anathema – something to be exorcised. When he discovered that a party of music-making Muslim Malayālis were regular participants in the annual religious pageant (perahära) of the Kelaniya temple, he intervened forcibly and drove them out: “The pagan Mohammedan should not be allowed to enter the Buddhist temple; nor should the Christian (diary entry: 10 August 1905).

These Moor musicians were not a threat to the Buddhist order and were but one sign of the vibrant inter-faith exchanges one has seen over the decades and still witnesses in such spots as Kataragama and the Hindu temples at Munneswaram. Lunawa and Dematagoda. So, what we see here is Dharmapala’s Buddhist fundamentalism.

These examples have been presented in some of my essays in the 1990s and 2000s. They emerged from my studies of Dharmapala as well as the political climate that fostered the marakkala kolahālaya of 1915.[2] However, well before this detailed work, I had addressed the significance of Dharmapala’s line of thinking during the anti-colonial movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and, thereafter, during the Sinhala Buddhist upsurge by popular electoral process during the 1950s.

Anagarika Dharmapala’s line of thinking and his legacy was an influential current in that political upsurge. As one hand among the forces generating this political thrust, in 1965 the public servant and scholar Ananda Guruge (1928-2014) produced a large tome Return to Righteousness devoted to Dharmapala’s legacy — an expression of the significance attached to Dharmapala’s ideological input by activists of that time.

As a student at Peradeniya University in the late 1950s and as a Lecturer in History thereafter (1960-62 & 1966-76), I was exposed to the intellectual ferment associated with what has been sometimes called “The Revolution of 1956.” Return to Righteousness was part of the fare that I studied once my attention turned – as it did in the early 1970s – to the various strands of nationalist challenge directed against the British.

Around 1972/73, ferment within Peradeniya campus, my conversations with Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe[3] and a range of political developments raised concerns in my mind about the ferment prevailing among the SL Tamil intelligentsia and youth. A few of us in the Ceylon Studies Seminar circle at Peradeniya went so far as to organise a whole-day conference in Colombo on “The Sinhala-Tamil Problem” in early October 1973. That discussion only deepened my pessimism – pessimism that had also been nurtured by the political analyses provided by such individuals as Howard Wriggins, Robert N. Kearney, BH Farmer, S. Arasaratnam, Ananda Wickremeratne and Donald E. Smith in the 1960s and early 1970s.[4]

In my reading then, an ideological transformation had taken place as the result of the political transformation via ballot and parliamentary action in 1956-and-therafter. Prior to that, and especially in the first four decades of the 20th century, the concept of a single-nationality nation nourished by the prevailing tendencies in Western Europe held sway in vocal English-speaking circles among the Ceylonese middle classes. In the result, political thinking which we can call “Ceylonese nationalism” held centre-stage and pinnacle position. This meant that the forms of subjectivity centred on the Sinhala people or the SL Tamil people were deemed “communalist” and inferior, if not abhorrent.

However, from 1956 the democratic foundations associated with the Sinhala collective identity embodied in Bandaranaike and the SLFP provided “Sinhaleseness” with legitimacy.[5] From 1956 it was dubbed a “nationalism” and thereby vested with sanctity in many quarters. This was a major line of argument in an article that I composed in 1976 and which appeared in print in 1978 in Modern Asian Studies as “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhala Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation.”[6]

Deploying an article by Ananda Wickremeratne as well as my own work on the Sarasavi Sandaräsa and other newspapers of the early 20th century, I referred to the expressions of economic nationalism that prevailed in British Ceylon then. These currents railed against the European interests as well as the non-Sinhalese who dominated the import trade.[7] Dharmapala was a prominent figure in this campaign. I noted that “Dharmapala’s inclination to use ‘Ceylon’ and ‘Sinhala’ synonymously comes through clearly. At one point in 1922 he even tilted at people who used the word “Ceylonese” rather than “Sinhalese.” Perhaps the most significant document that reveals his thinking is the English pamphlet he produced in 1922 entitled A Message to the Young Men of Ceylon.”

Here, he is speaking in pontifical tones to the Sinhalese. The concepts “Ceylonese” and “Sinhalese” are merged in seamless fashion.[8] My interpretation of this text – reproduced in Guruge’s Return to Righteousness (1965: 501-18) – was a critical element in the argument spelt out in that essay in 1976/78. I foresaw danger for the polity in the emerging Tamil backlash.[9]

That problem remains as potent as ever today because of the continuing merging of the collective identity “Sri Lankan” within the collective identity “Sinhalese.” I have recently pinpointed its insidious thread within the Victory Speech of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2009.[10] It is my suspicion that the confusion and cross-fertilization in the way in which the English terms “nation” and race” are rendered in Sinhala[11] deepens the impact of this act of subsummation. Indeed, I speculate that the earnest efforts to promote reconciliation in Sri Lanka today will be hindered if this ‘hidden problem’ is not addressed.

***  ***

 A CORRECTION: I did havea question mark about the bespectacled Dharmapala photograph which I came across in my files (source unknown) …and HL Seneviratne has indicated it is probably one Dharmapriya. So I have now removed it and placed it here 


Arasaratnam, S. 1967 “Nationalism, Communalism and National Unity in Ceylon,” in Philip Mason (ed.) India and Ceylon. Unity and Diversity, Oxford University Press, pp. 260-78.

De Silva, K. M. 1973 “The Reform and Nationalist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century,” in History of Ceylon Volume III, Colombo, University of Sri Lanka, pp. 381-407.

De Silva, Mervyn 1967 “1956: The Cultural Revolution that shook the Left,” The Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, 16 May 1967.

Farmer B. H.  1964 “The Social Basis of Nationalism in Ceylon,” Journal of Asian Studies, vol 24, pp. 431-39

Kearney, Robert N. 1964 “Sinhalese Nationalism and Social Conflict in Ceylon,” Pacific Affairs, vol 37, pp. 126-36.

Kearney, Robert N. 1967 Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Kearney, Robert N. 1974 The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Roberts, Michael 1978 “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies, vol 12, pp 353-76.

Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Roberts, Michael 1994 “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assaialanst, Historians and the Pogrom against the Moors,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 183-212

Roberts, Michael 1994 “The 1956 Generations: After and Before,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 297-314.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “Some Pillars for Sri Lanka’s Future,” Frontline, vol. 26/12, June 06-19 …… also reproduced now at

Roberts, Michael 2012 “Mahinda Rajapaksa as a Modern Mahāvāsala and Font of Clemency? The Roots of Populist Authoritarianism,” 25 January 2012,

Roberts, Michael 2012 “A Man inspired, A Man who inspired: Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe,” 18 April 2012,

Smith, Donald E. 1966 “The Sinhalese Buddhist revolution,” in Donald E. Smith (ed.) South Asian Politics and Religion, Princeton University Press, pp. 453-88

Wickremeratne, L A 1969 ‘Religion, nationalism and social change in Ceylon, 1865-1885’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, GB & I, LVI: 123-50.

Wriggins, W. Howard 1960 Ceylon. Dilemmas of a New Nation, Princeton University Press.


[1] These details are mong a whole array taken from my Journal of Asian Studies article of 1998 –an essay which is perhaps more easily accessible in its Sri Lankan printing in Roberts, Confrontations in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009, pp. 237-74.

[2] These “disturbances” or “riots” have been deemed a “pogrom” in my presentations. I adhered to this verdict in 1994 against KM de Silva’s deployment (1988: 87). of the archaic definition in the Oxford Dictionary. I see no reason to change the stance taken then with reasons specified (Roberts, 1994: 185). 

[3] Bishop Lakshman was the Protestant Chaplain at Peradeniya University in my time as student and one of my mentors. We continued to meet in the 1950s and 1970s and he was among the keynote speakers at a seminar on the !972 Constitution held at Peradeniya Campus in 1972 as well as the conference on “The Sinhala-Tamil Problem” held in Colombo in October 1973. He had inside information on the concerns of the SL Tamil leaders and the negotiations leading to the Republican Constitution. Note my article “A Man inspired, A Man who inspired: Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe,”

[4] See the bibliography in this article.

[5] Note especially Mervyn de Silva 1967; but also the assessments of Kearney, Smith et al.

[6] The essay was composed while I was a Humboldt Fellow at the Sud-Asien Institute, Heidelberg University and was presented in Heidelberg and at an international conference in Holland and at SOAS in London. Article commonly took one-two years before they negotiated the refereeing process and reached print.

[7]  Wickremeratne 1969: 135-39.

[8] See Guruge 1965: 501-19.

[9] The factors that had promoted the SL Tamil identity and its political expressions were many  and have to be dissected separately.

[10] See Roberts, “Some Pillars for Sri Lanka’s Future,” 2009.

[11] This is a complex issue. A few years back I collected a range of Sinhala definitions from several friends from diverse generational cohorts. The variation in answers is striking. A few were (are) unaware of the diversity and seem to think their answer is the cat’s whiskers.


Filed under accountability, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, cultural transmission, democratic measures, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, fundamentalism, governance, historical interpretation, Indian traditions, island economy, language policies, Left politics, nationalism, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, unusual people, working class conditions, world events & processes

5 responses to “Anagārika Dharmapāla: In Search of a Rounded Evaluation

  1. San (Sanath) De Silva

    Great write up, Michael!
    Am very fortunate to be introduced to your wealth of reliable knowledge of the Sri Lankan Culture (unbiased to any local ethnic groups)!

  2. H.L. Seneviratne

    Hi Mike,


    Are you sure the picture on the left is that of Dharmapala? There was another, active in the 1940s, named Anagarika Dharmapriya, who, in 1947, stood for election for the Horana electorate as the Communist Party candidate, and spoilt the chances of the LSSP candidate M T Pieris. Because, the then UNP candidate A P Jayasuriya (who was to later join Bandaranaike in his dramatic cross over in Parliament), polled some 15,000 votes and won by a slim majority of about 600 votes. Whereas Dharmapriya polled some 3000 votes. If not for this splitting of the anti UNP/Jayasuriya vote, the LSSP candidate would have won comfortably, with a majority of 2000-3000. This same thing happened at several other electorates at this election.

    I was a school kid then but interested in politics, and knew Dharmapriya as a kind of a hero. Along with other school kids interested in politics, I have visited him at his office in the Horana town to learn about his mission. I remember him saying that under communism, even the morality of the people will improve for the better.

    This picture looks very much like one of him, rather than the original Anagarika, whose youthful looks, as far as pictures I have encountered are concerned, are very different.


  3. Pingback: Anagārika Dharmapala’s Anti-Colonial Mission | Thuppahi's Blog

  4. Pingback: Charting Anagarika Dharmapala’s Many Pursuits | Thuppahi's Blog

  5. N Goonewardena

    This fanatic, Michael Roberts, sees things only the way he wants and, therefore, ends up writing exactly what his fanatic mind wants. Is this research? Not at all. Proper researchers collect evidence from all sides, analyse them, and make impartial judgments, based on what they have assessed. This fanatic does none of that. As a strong realization of that, look at the bibliographies of his works? More than 50 percent of the articles cited, on average, are his own writings. The others are all like minded peoples works. For example, Gananath Obeysekera, a hugely overated researcher, who went in search of dollars to the US, and always tried to be sensational in his writings, because otherwise no one would have even read a paragraph of the utter crap he wrote, often based only on his personal beliefs and personal interpretations. He engaged in this paranoid sensationalism while being attached to US university, and frequently ridiculing his country of birth, its people, and culture.

    People like Roberts and Obeysekera have a kink against Sri Lanka. They also have a kink against the very university that they began their academic life. This is because at Peradeniya, no one took these two jokers, and the likes of a mediocre Ananda Wickrearatne (who amused us in teaching economic history by drawing on the blackboard the English manor house, and its surrounding areas in order to “teach” us the landlord and peasant relationships in medieval England. While we were giggling while he was illustrating all this on the board, a student commented “he will have to also draw a few cows to complete the picture.” We burst out in to laughter, and Wickremaratne turned towards us in anger). It is mediocre people like Roberts, Obeysekera, and Wickremaratne who were able to self-advertise themselves, or get others to advertise on behalf of them, and ended up in greener pastures. Of course, they were ably assisted by some green coloured academics/political beneficiaries of the then
    JR Jayawardena government. So much so, that Michael Roberts was invited to a Conference on Post-war Economic Development in Sri Lanka by these green stooges, and he presented a paper on the Asoka Persona. Post-war Economic Development in Sri Lanka and the Asoka Persona? Everybody in the audience was perplexed. But the greens in the university had performed a “revolution” to bring their Asoka historian all the way from Adelaide, Australia to Peradeniya. These are the shammers who held sway then.
    People like Roberts and Obeysekera should be happy to note that in this country which is predominantly Sinhala Buddhists, they are not only welcome to Sri Lanka, they are even allowed to spit their venom against their Sinhala Buddhist fFriends in local journals and newspapers.

    Our role is to try and integrate races, and religions in the country, and not to polarize them like Roberts, Siilva’s, and Obeysekera and Wickremaratne.

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