Anagārika Dharmapala’s Anti-Colonial Mission

Kamal Wickremasinghe, in Island, 19 September 2018, with this title “Anagarika Dharmapala needs no rescuing” … reproduced here with highlights by The Editor, Thuppahi

Social scientific study, for better or for worse, is the only available method of gaining insights into social structures including aspects of social organisation, governance and rituals, as an aid to solving problems in social relations. Social science, however, often yields erroneous results originating from prejudices associated with the frame of embedded cultural assumptions within which evaluations take place.

This is the context in which the current apparent excitement among social scientists with an interest on Sri Lanka about a book titled ‘Rescuing Dharmapala from the Nation’ needs to be looked at. It is claimed that the author Steven Kemper ‘resituates’ Dharmapala within the Buddhist world by focusing on his international activities in aid of Buddhist causes. Admirers assert that Kemper’s examination of the Anagarika’s diaries places his book above the previous, voluminous literature on the subject.

On the face of it, the description of Kemper’s book does not raise expectations of anything new because much has been written — with and without access to his diaries — about Dharmapala’s activities in spreading Buddhism to India, Britain, America and Japan. Two of the more detailed tomes, one by the Tibetan Buddhist monk Sangharakshita (born Dennis Lingwood in London) commissioned in 1952 by Brahmachari Walisinghe Harischandra in Calcutta, and the other, more recent Lions Roar by Dr Sarath Amunugama — both written with exceptional intensity and vividness — have virtually exhausted thirst for commentary on the Anagarika’s life and his significance as a Buddhist revivalist. These two authors have also examined diaries written by Dharmapala during overseas voyages (1925-1927 and 1890-1915).

The title of Kemper’s book suggests a working assumption that the world has never considered Dharmapala to be someone other than a bigoted zealot. So, the author seems to have set about elucidating his role in disseminating Buddhism internationally, with a view to ‘rescue’ him from this ideological ditch. Benevolent he may be, but Kemper’s assumption displays a prejudice not different from the almost universal view among anthropologists who studied Sri Lankan ethnic conflict during the 30-year war: their invariable conclusion was that Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis and the war was the result of what is glibly called ‘Sinhala chauvinism’, accompanied by a secondary conclusion that pointed the finger at Anagarika Dharmapala as the chief culprit who incited chauvinism by initiating a revival of what is ridiculously called Protestant Buddhism. But the more reasonable observers in Sri Lanka and India have always acknowledged the noteworthy role he played in reviving Buddhism in those two countries and his efforts to spread Buddhism to areas where it has the potential to be most beneficial. On the face of it, Kemper’s effort appears a ‘game not worth the candle’, and reading the book confirms that view. Perhaps, column space could be used for better purposes.

The habitual attribution of the root cause of Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis to Anagarika Dharmapala is a simpleton’s conclusion at one level, and an artefact of anger of those who still lament the end of colonialism, and find the irrepressibility of Sri Lanka’s cultural and religious heritage irritating, at another level.

Before getting on to a broader discussion of the issues raised by Kemper’s book, it must be pointed out that the blame for this simplistic, conspiratorial attribution of guilt to Dharmapala for ethnic ills lies squarely at the doors of the academic framework for the post-independence Sri Lanka, designed and instituted by often highly-praised Ivor Jennings and E.F.C. Ludowyk; Jennings, who played a pivotal role in the establishment of British institutions in colonised countries across the globe during the climactic era of decolonisation was helped in Ceylon by the local-born Ludowyk who, at the ‘ripe old age’ of 30 was made the first ‘Ceylonese’ Professor of English in the University of Sri Lanka in 1936, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts in 1940. His appointment as Dean of Arts put him in a position that allowed him to influence Sinhala studies, an area where he had no expertise, as he was forced to admit when Professor Sarachchandra threw down the gauntlet, albeit mildly, in the form of an ‘invitation’ to produce a play in Sinhala if he so desired.

Jennings and Ludowyk set about producing a coterie of academics and administrators trained to take newly independent Sri Lanka on a path that did not deviate from the colonial administrative and economic paths, and more importantly, entertain any notions of reviving the country’s pre-colonial glory. Denigrating national heroes and independence fighters as narrow-minded bigots was an essential component of the post-independence agenda the British colonisers wanted to leave us with.

There are certain distinguishing features about the early (prior to the 1956 opening of the system) graduates of Peradeniya: it contained a strong ‘Eurasian’ element that far outweighed their presence in the wider community, and the broadly ‘native’ component that came exclusively from the urban English educated class who had willingly surrendered their cultural identity and adopted a Westernised ethos that manifested itself in attitude and intellectual concerns.

Some, like Professors Sarachchandra and Siri Gunasinghe, and many others, managed to maintain a healthy distance from the colonial hold, while amicably living in it. But, some from that era of Peradeniya have dutifully followed the path, and still continue to denigrate Sri Lanka’s religion and culture, and anyone who refuses to concede that it is inferior to the barbarous, greedy system of values introduced by the colonisers; They continued to do it from academic chairs at places like Columbia, Harvard and Princeton universities, and continue to do it from Australian boondocks, more than six decades after Jennings and Ludowyk left the island, Jennings in preparation for, and Ludowyk following, the 1956 revolution.

Their cynical attempts at brainwashing the local intelligentsia were subtle: the placement of (Professor) K. N. Jayatilleke for his PhD studies at Cambridge on the subject ‘Epistemology of Early Buddhism’ under the supervision of the psychologically unstable ‘pop philosopher’ — and disciple of Sigmund Freud — Ludwig Wittgenstein serves as an example. Wittgenstein’s status as a philosopher can be gauged by Bertrand Russell’s reference to him in My Philosophical Development (1959). I have not found in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations anything that seemed to me interesting’. Jayatilleke’s most brilliant work on the subject shows that he succeeded ‘despite’ Wittgenstein, and it would have taken all Jayatilleke’s piercing intelligence not to be dragged down by such a mediocre PhD supervisor.

Focusing back on Kemper’s new book, Steven Kemper is an anthropologist teaching at Bates College in Maine, and he lists colonialism and its aftermath in South Asian society as his study area; But he lists ‘the way British rule created south Asian tradition as it now exists’ as his expressed academic interest, exhibiting a pattern of colonial posturing not different from his view on Dharmapala. Adding to the perception of his views as condescendingly colonial are his plans to take up the career of M.K. Gandhi, as an example of a man whose life embodies ‘colonial, and transnational influences’. They are simply unable to think of ‘unadulterated’ domestic versions of culture and personalities in the former colonies.

Such attitudes on the part of Kemper point to serious prejudices that are typical of the field of American anthropology, keenly adopted by Kemper’s local admirers too. Therefore, a critique of Kemper’s book essentially takes us to the wider field of anthropology and its historical errors in evaluating the life and work of Anagarika Dharmapala.

Anthropology and Authenticity

The historical origins of anthropology as a field of inquiry are rooted in the European colonial enterprise. Its practitioners, however, claim its antecedents to the predecessor of colonialism, the so-called European Enlightenment. Such claims have given rise to the satirical blurb that anthropology is ‘the bastard offspring of colonialism, trying to put on the clothes of Enlightenment’.

The expressed mission of anthropology has been to discover general laws about the nature of cultural variation, with particular attention to race, gender, ethnicity, social change, and human evolution, based on a close study of the ‘primitives’ discovered by colonialism. As described by the French Jewish anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. in a remark that personified arrogance and ignorance, in his book, The Savage Mind (1966): ‘anthropology is the science of culture as seen from the outside, it is only a representative of our civilisation who can, in adequate detail, document the difference and help create an idea of the primitive which would not ordinarily be constructed by primitives themselves’. The role of anthropologist as ‘objective outsider’ with its focus on professional exploitation of resultant subject matter can be viewed as an academic manifestation of colonialism.

This outlook in anthropology has not changed. Anthropologists continue to go about gathering information on traditional cultures and communities, and their value systems, to be used for building constructs of ‘primitives’ to be used for denigrating them. Western intelligence agencies CIA and the British MI6 hire anthropologists prior to military invasions for this specific purpose. The British Marxist anthropologist Kathleen Gough broke ranks in an article in Economic and Political Weekly (1968), when she noted that western anthropologists had neglected the study of imperialism as a world system, further suggesting that they had colluded in imperialism.

As an academic field of study, anthropology claims to adopt an ‘interdisciplinary approach’ to the study of human life in all its diversity. This claim usually earns the scorn of their colleagues in other areas of the social sciences. Many celebrated anthropologists engaged in studies of intricate social phenomena have had their training in the area of languages, partly explaining their non-conformity with the rules of science, logic, objectivity, and even good faith.

A striking feature of anthropology is the almost total disinterest of European and American anthropologists to study their own societies; This failure has caught them off guard in relation to momentous social events such as Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory and the Brexit referendum, proving the failure of attempts to explain political behaviour of Western societies on the basis of canonical gender and ethnic based constructs.

Authenticity has become the latest conceptual fad in anthropology. A notion borrowed from the largely California-based school of existentialist sociology, founded on the philosophies of the Danish national Søren Kierkegaard and others including Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre who have dealt with authenticity differently.

The concept of authenticity used in anthropological literature is the opposite version contained in religious teachings, as an authentic state of being that is corrupted by various temptations.

The Existentialists idea of authenticity on the other hand, denounces social relationships, cultural values, and norms as bonds that construct an inauthentic self, different from one’s own unique identity.

Anthropological mythologies on Anagarika Dharmapala

A critical assessment of anthropological studies on the life and role of Anagarika Dharmapala points to faulty assumptions that have given rise to a highly inaccurate and unjustified view of him as a Sinhala chauvinist, and to the clichéd oxymoron ‘Protestant Buddhism’.

To begin with, the social and religious environment to which he was born in 1864 is commonly described to as a period when Sinhalese culture was largely lost after centuries of foreign rule, and Christianity had replaced Buddhism as the religion of much of the population. Such a simplistic generalisation ignores the rather unique failure of all varieties of colonialism to take full cultural control of societies in South Asia, in contrast to countries in South East Asia such as the Philippines and Indonesia for example, where the Spanish conquistadors and Arab traders managed to completely overrun local societies with their value systems. The retention of a basically Hindu culture and traditions in India, unaffected by 1,000 years of Mughal, and 300 years of British East India Company vandalism is testimony to the resilience of deeply-rooted South Asian cultures. Sri Lanka was essentially similar. As is commonly known, the invaders’ influence was largely limited to the maritime provinces and the population affected was limited to a small community of the ‘willing’ that collaborated for personal gain. The underlying culture made up of the practices of the rural population of monks, Ayurveda physicians, teachers, peasants and artisans remained largely intact, offering stern resistance to colonial encroaches. The Anagarika’s easy identification with this culture, despite the colonial influences on his own family, gives the lie to the anthropological model that he was born in to a culturally desolate Ceylon.

Similarly, some of Dharmapala’s views such as his appreciation of ‘science’, espousing of a work ethic and objecting to shamanism, together with his directing of the code of ethics at lay people are used to draw parallels with Protestant Christianity. Dharmapala did not have to learn the importance of integrating basic Buddhist beliefs such as the Eightfold Path in daily life from foreign influences, and comparing this to the adoption of the Ten Commandments as a guide for everyday living for Christians is plain poppycock. So is the view that he ‘reformed’ Buddhism in a way reminiscent of the protestant reformation of Christianity, driving monks to increased political involvement and ethnic confrontation. The values he encouraged Sinhala Buddhists to adopt were not any different from the basic tenets of Theravada Buddhism in anyway, and he stridently castigated the ‘waste’ of such an advanced philosophy by people he called the ‘lazy’ Sinhalese.

He saw Buddhism, based on non-violence and pursuit of spiritual excellence as far superior to the greed for riches of the British evangelists and ruling class, referring to them as brutes, savages, demons, pagans and heathens. But he displayed respect for ordinary British people, as shown in a letter to Edwin Arnold in 1926: ‘There are thousands of liberal-minded, educated Englishmen to whom the Doctrine of the Aryans must be preached … The English are a great race, and as such they must not be allowed to die of spiritual inanition.’

Some modern day ‘reconciliation merchants’ also point to Dharmapala’s use of the label ‘Sinhalese’ to refer to the native inhabitants of the island, rather than ‘Ceylonese’. This is read as an attempt to make his own ethnic group equivalent to the whole, leading subsequently to a Tamil reaction by way of a military campaign. This again is nonsense. There are less sinister motivations for his use of the collective noun Sinhalese rather than Ceylonese. Firstly, it is an observed truism in linguistics that a collective noun used frequently becomes ‘stylised’ in people’s minds, and it is hard to see his use of the label in a conspiratorial way as suggested by anthropologists. Secondly, his audience did not include others than Sinhala Buddhists, and, therefore, it was the mode of address chosen by him.

Foreign anthropologists also allege that Dharmapala engaged in what is called ‘regressive inversion’ of Buddhism to boost passions of group loyalty. He did nothing of the sort: Anagarika Dharmapala simply contended that the Sinhalese Buddhists were the inheritors of an ancient civilization that had been destroyed by ‘barbaric [foreign] vandals’. As much as such frank observations might hurt the sentiments of descendants of those who perpetrated such vandalism, the underlying truth of the statement cannot be denied.

Admirers of Kemper’s work draw an extremely longbow in suggesting that Dharmapala’s use of family wealth and the financial support he received from Mary E. Foster as indications of the worth of capital formation and educational advancement in the English medium developed by the British colonialists in the 19th century. This is an extraordinary suggestion of the type Winston Churchill would have made: anthropologists need to note that neither of those acts was motivated by the remotest desire to benefit the natives, but to create the needs of capital and labour for the machine of colonialism.

Anagarika Dharmapala and Theosophy

Another area foreign anthropologists seem to take great delight in, is the Anagarika’s association with the Theosophists, often exaggerating the influence of Theosophists on his emergence as a national revivalist. They often overlook the fact that he was a youth of just 16 years of age at the time of first meeting with Helena Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott in 1880, and his introduction to Theosophy was more due to his maternal grandfather Andiris Perera Dharmagunawardena (1809–1890), the first president of the Theosophical Society branch in Colombo. A careful reading of Dharmapala’s life story shows that his decision to dissociate with the Theosophists in 1899 was based on his ‘waking up’ to the deviant and corrupt agenda of the cabal who had come to disrepute, as much as to disagreements with Olcott on making Buddhism a part of a world religion.

Theosophists vehemently attacked all religions, while affirming that all religions contained a core element of truth. Theosophy has had a particularly complex relationship with Christianity, with the great majority of Western Theosophists, embracing Theosophy through opposition to Christianity. Their particular interest in Buddhism was based on the presumption that it was an ‘occult science’ aligned with Theosophy.

By 1884, Helena Blavatsky — whose real interests were in the Jewish esoteric mysticism Kabbalah, and occultism — had come under scrutiny by the principal of Madras Christian College, Rev. George Patterson, triggering an inquiry by Richard Hodgson, an expert of the Society for Psychical Research in Britain. In his 1885 report, Hodgson declared ‘we regard her neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history.’ In 1886 she left India in failing health and died in London in 1897.

Under Annie Besant, who took control of the Theosophists following Blavatsky’s death, the Society undertook a dubious agenda that involved a close dalliance with Freemasonry, and forming the Indian National Congress to campaign for dominion status for India — as distinct from full independence along the lines of Subhash Chandra Bose. Alfred Percy Sinnett the Editor of The Pioneer, the leading English Daily of India at the time and Allan Octavian Hume, ornithologist and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress became prominent Theosophists. There were accusations of a paedophile ring operating within, headed by Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854 –1934), ‘the main ideologist’ of the Theosophical Society Adyar after Blavatsky’s death.

In 1889, Leadbeater had taken the 14-year-old Sri Lankan C. Jinarajadasa and borne the expenses of educating him and an English boy named George Arundale at Cambridge. In 1906, it emerged that he had advised some boys under his spiritual instruction to engage in sexual self-gratification, and he was forced to resign. With the express support of the then president of the society, Annie Besant, he was readmitted to the society in 1909. Leadbeater ‘discovered’ 14-year-old Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986), a poor boy who had been living on the grounds of the Theosophical Society headquarters at Adyar, and declared him the probable ‘vehicle’ for the expected ‘World Teacher’ Theosophists were expecting. Leadbeater went on to face accusations of improper relations with boys but never suffered any consequences.

Leadbeater’s protégé, George Arundale moved to India in 1902, and proclaimed 15-year-old Rukmini Devi Shastri, the daughter of a fellow Theosophist ‘World-Mother’ in much the same way Leadbeater chose Jiddu Krishnamurti to be the World Teacher. The 44-year-old Arundale married 16-year-old Rukmini in 1920, amid much controversy. It is no wonder the Anagarika had no interest in associating with such cads.

In conclusion, hundreds of thousands Sri Lankans who go on pilgrimage to the Buddhist sites in India, renovated and made accessible again to Buddhists due to the efforts of the Anagarika, and those who learn about his life and work at homes, temples and schools need no reminding of who Anagarika Dharmapala was in terms of his role in reviving Buddhism in India and beyond. They certainly won’t be reading his diaries, looking for snippets that might be helpful in deconstructing him.

As Dharmapala’s contemporary Oscar Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist (1891), ‘Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography.’ We have read enough of those now.

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Tissa Devendra: “Reading Amunugama’s Study of Anagarika Dharmapala in LION’S ROAR,” 31 August 2016,

Geedreck Usvatte-Aratchi: “Three Historical Journeys into the Past,” 4 October 2017,



Michael Roberts: “Anagārika Dharmapāla: In Search of a Rounded Evaluation,” 13 September 2018,

Sasanka Perera: Anagarika Dharmapala in Ceylon and the World: Missing Dimensions highlighted by Kemper,” 8 August 2018,

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

Michael Roberts: “For Humanity. For the Sinhalese. Dharmapala as Crusading Bosat,” Journal of Asian Studies, 1997, vol. 56, 1006-42.

Michael Roberts: “Emotion and the person in nationalist studies,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities,1998, vol.24: 65-86.

Michael Roberts: “Himself and Project. A Serial Autobiography. Our Journey with a Zealot, Anagarika Dharmapala,” Social Analysis, 2000, vol. 44(1), 113-141

Michael Roberts: “The Burden of History: Obstacles to Power Sharing in Sri Lanka,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 2001, vol. 35(1), 65-96.

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

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

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

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