A Refreshing New Study of the Anagarika Dharmapala’s Endeavours

The unexamined life is not worth living.’ – Socrates.

Rarely has so much been written both in the West and in the East about the work of a ‘revivalist,’ that one would conclude there is nothing left to be revealed of the man or his work. That is until you read Bhadrajee Hewage’sAnagarika Dharmapala and Ceylonese Buddhist Revivalism.”

In his extensively researched and carefully crafted biography of the man whose mission was to make Buddhism a world religion, the author has presented the salient arguments of a plethora of writers who have dissected the vision and the mission of the complex man who was a nationalist but functioned in the international milieu. Dharmapala’s dual role in establishing cosmopolitan Buddhism abroad and nationalist Buddhism in Sri Lanka is apparent in the presentation of Hewage’s publication.

The author, however, tells us in his introduction that “I will take a different approach to understand who Dharmapala was and to explain the trajectory of his pursuits. Rather than throw him back into the global-versus-local debate, I believe that viewing the historical period from Dharmapala’s own vantage point and his shifting self-identifications grants us a clearer picture of what motivated him and further explains how his legacy has arrived at its current interpretation.”

Hewage chronicles the main events leading to Dharmapala’s enduring influence on the socio-political scene in Sri Lanka and his global mission to unite the Buddhist world primarily through the eyes of many who have written about this historical figure. It is replete with portraits of Dharmapala in action, invoking the spirit of patriotism among the Sinhala community at all levels of society and social groups across the country to the resulting exclusion of the minority communities of other faiths.

His work as an architect of the Buddhist revival movement in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was, in the eyes of some of the writers, a Sinhala Buddhist chauvinistic movement though considered as a nationalist movement. Others cited by the author “paint a picture, not of a nationalist zealot but a spiritual seeker earnest in his pursuit of salvation.” They saw his social work as the vehicle for his spiritual attainment as Bodhisattvas would do. The author notes how eventually “Dharmapala’s spiritual mission comes to the fore and his activist, nationalist, and universalist potential moves to the side” and makes that the “manageable” framework of his publication.

The book presents a vivid portrait of an exceptional man, the life, and times of Dharmapala. It chronicles Dharmapala’s journey chronologically in four chapters covering the four phases of his life, during which he used a different version of his name. The four versions form the title of the four chapters, and hence the title of the book A Name for Every Chapter.

He tells us that it was into an anglicised, Christianised Ceylon of the British colonialists, who encouraged the Christian missionaries to open schools throughout the Island to convert the Ceylonese people away from Buddhism, that Dharmapala was born in 1864. Named Don David Hewavitharane, he was the son of one of the wealthiest families in Colombo. He was educated in the best British Christian academies in Ceylon. However, he enjoyed spending time among Buddhist monks, with whom his parents had strong links. It is his Buddhist upbringing that, while he was still a teenager, made him come under the influence of Theosophists Col. Henry Olcott and Madame Blavatsky who visited the Island and began a movement to help the revival of Buddhist education and culture. During this time, he renounced his English name and began to call himself Dharmapala Hewavitharane.

Several years later, when he realized that the Theosophists were advocating a universal religion based on Transcendentalist ideals of Hinduism rather than Dharma that he believed in and propagated, that he broke away from them. He, thereafter, became a leader in his own right and carried out an anti-colonial anti-missionary campaign and worked to restore Buddhism to its central place in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, Dharmapala is revered as a national hero. His face still adorns currency notes, postage stamps and statues and streets continue to be named after him, but has he been reduced to a mere symbol? Do his values, message, and sacrifice have any meaning for us in the twenty-first century?

Why Dharmapala Still Matters is the focus of the book’s final section where Hewage explores Dharmapala’s life in retrospect and the implications of his legacy in the contemporary politics of Sri Lanka. He examines some of his most famous (and often most controversial) ideas, beliefs, actions, successes, and failures and analyses Dharmapala’s commitment to Buddhism, spirituality, nationalism, and pluralism. The author’s insights present a view of Dharmapala’s legacy that has endured to influence the dynamics of national socio-political evolution.

Indeed, the author contends that his influence remains relevant in our body politic even today and draws a thread from Dharmapala’s revival work that pervaded the populist revival movement to today’s communal politics. He closes with an explanation of how “Dharmapala’s legacy can today be seen through the emergence of the political monk, and the current implications of this emergence for both Sri Lanka’s ongoing Buddhist narrative and the lives of the island’s minority communities.”

By articulating in colloquial vernacular and focusing on the British Raj’s cruelty and indifference towards the majority Sinhalese Buddhists in Ceylon at the time, Dharmapala succeeded in attracting the Sinhalese-Buddhists. He even went to the extent of naming and shaming the so-called middle and upper-middle-class tiers of contemporary Ceylonese society, which may have sowed the original seeds of disenchantment towards the so-called middle-class values of contemporary Ceylonese society. Thus, his appeal attracted rural Ceylon more than those who dwelt in the big cities and towns.

His message was fundamentalist in mass appeal and generated a substantial synergy among those who think alike. Only time will tell the true value or non-value of the Dharmapala doctrine.

In many ways, Dharmapala is a biographer’s dream. Dharmapala made the smallest details of his life and actions available for public scrutiny by keeping extensive diaries that are now in Mahabodhi Society libraries in Sri Lanka and India.

Hewage (a Princeton and Cambridge scholar in South Asian Studies) has carefully combed Dharmapala’s original diaries and meticulously researched and presented with great care the views of his biographers, ranging from Steven Kemper (who made him an internationalist), Sarath Amunugama (who recounted his nationalist work as a revivalist), and Ananda Guruge (who published the collected works of Dharmapala), to the likes of Gananath Obeyesekere among a host of others who have written about him and his work from different perspectives.

Writing not as an anthropologist but as an avid reader of biographies, I believe that he has presented us a perspective of a historical legend that is both educational and thought provoking.

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