Anagarika Dharmapala : Shedding away the invective

15 June 2018 01:01 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



Dharmapala claimed  anyone could participate in the religious life


Anagarika Dharmapala is the worst thing that happened to Sri Lankan history. He was a racist, a political pamphleteer, a propagandist who, at the end of the day, served the interests of the bourgeoisie by providing an antidote to the proletariat. He was a betrayer, a peddler of myths, and a demagogue. He was hence the definitive ancestor to S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa. He might have been a German or Japanese collaborationist or spy and his comments on the vileness of non-Sinhalese people are enough to rank him alongside Hitler and Mussolini. He did not present a nation-building project, rather a half-baked project that favoured the Sinhala Buddhist businessman, whose interests brought him more into conflict with his Muslim and Tamil competitors than with imperialism per se. Ostensibly anti-imperialist, he was less concerned with combating the exploitative structures of colonialism than with constructing a grand unifying myth for the Sinhalese, of course to the exclusion of every other race.   

That’s one way of looking at it.   


Very few people have attracted revulsion, censure, and praise the way Dharmapala has. Not even Mahinda Rajapaksa comes close


Dharmapala was the sole saviour of the nation. He rose up against the establishment and became the first member from the bourgeoisie to combat the British. He was the closest to a Mahatma Gandhi or, more relevantly, a Subash Chandrabose that we could have had. At a time when people were compelled to be cowards in the face of the British, he had the guts to get up and, despite the cost to his family business and fortunes, rant against imperialism. More than anything, however, he was a unifier, in that he recognised the Number One problem which was ailing our society; the absence of a proper industrial sector. He visited Japan, understood the importance of building up such a sector, and returned to call upon the members of the Sinhala Buddhist business class to build up an economy which would lead the way towards independence. He was greater than most of those hailed as national heroes today. He was a hero on his own right.   

That’s another way of looking at it.   

Facts that escaped historians 

Very few people have attracted revulsion, censure, and praise the way Dharmapala has. Not even Mahinda Rajapaksa comes close. I don’t think he was a saint. People tend to depict human beings as the angels and the saints they are not, and the popular culture, particularly in a country as small as Sri Lanka, has a tendency of turning individuals into icons and legends. When you take away the rhetoric of legend, you see those individuals for who they are. I believe the same can be said of the Dharmapala and I believe that there are aspects to his life which have escaped the historian and the compiler. In this respect, I also believe that Sarath Amunugama’s attempt at sketching out this ambivalent figure deserves more than a cursory newspaper review. Such an attempt was called for. Clearly. Not because he was not a racist, not because he was not someone who tried to bring together the country in a bid to industrialise it, but because he was both and because human beings are hardly the monuments we worship. This is not a review, therefore.   

There were certainly two sides to Dharmapala’s campaign; the ethno-religious, and the economic. But as with William Blake, the mystic and the social revolutionary, and Ananda Coomaraswamy, the cultural renovator and the believer in the caste system, it is impossible to isolate the two and consider them separately (which is what scholars do). Rather, as historians have pointed out, it is the intermingling of these seemingly opposed sides and aspects to his character which reveal the true face of his national project. To understand Dharmapala’s economic stances, one must therefore understand the brand (if you may) of his faith which he propagated in the 19th and 20th centuries. George D. Bond’s insightful, exhaustive account The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka (1988) distinguishes between two Buddhisms: this-worldly and other-wordly. It was Dharmapala’s overwhelming belief that Arahantship was possible in one’s present life and that it need not be deferred to a future life. It was a strongly rational interpretation of the faith, which meant that he frankly deplored the worship of gods: “No enlightened Buddhist... would ever care to invoke a god.” (notice the use of a simple G). 


Path of the Sotapannas 

While being rational, it was also reformist, just like his reformism when it came to the economic and social sphere. Traditional Buddhism argued that the supramundane path, or the path of the sotapannas, the once-returners, and the non-returners, was not possible for laymen. Dharmapala effectively wiped away this distinction by claiming that everyone and anyone could participate in the religious life. While this is tentatively comparable to the efforts made by Calvin and Luther in Europe during the Protestant Reformation, as Regi Siriwardena has argued, there was no real radicalism underpinning this new and revolutionary variant of Buddhism; it still thrived on a fundamentally conservative base. Be as it may, one can’t really discount Dharmapala’s attempts at opening the path to the lay devotee. He emancipated that devotee by arguing, controversially at times, that there was no real need to defer the achievement of Nirvana to a future birth. Naturally, this was on the other extreme of the traditional monastic elite, who preferred a more otherworldly interpretation of their faith in which higher states of consciousness were reserved for those who had donned the robes and passed through several stages in Arahantship.   


It was Dharmapala’s overwhelming belief that Arahantship was possible in one’s present life and that it need not be deferred to a future life


The traditional monastic elite had as their patrons the traditional elite, the Nobodies who had become Somebodies through capitalist accumulation. They too subscribed to the a more mundane interpretation, arguing (perhaps to protect their own vested interests in this birth) that the chief aim of a Buddhist was to procure enough merit to enjoy a happier, more meritorious next birth. While this interpretation had not been birthed by the Theosophists, it grew out of those who followed Theosophy (which even Dharmapala subscribed to, until differences between him and Henry Steel Olcott made them part ways). D. B. Jayatilake, for instance, in an essay titled “Practical Buddhism”, contended that the efforts of one life were not enough to attain complete renunciation. It required a preliminary course, the preparation for a future life. The chief aim of one’s present life, on the other hand, was to observe precepts, support one’s family through right livelihood, and do good in this world. Herein lies the subtle but fatal rupture between Dharmapala (the reformist) and his opposing group (the neo-traditionalist): the former was fiercely advocating the shattering of distinctions between the present and the future, while the latter conversely advocated the maintenance of those distinctions, and of various other distinctions which approximated to the views of those in the group who believed, inter alia, in the liberal ideal of a secular state, with a separation between the government and the temple, between faith and personal life: in short, between precept and practice.  


It is difficult, then, to draw up imaginary lines dividing Dharmapala the national figure from Dharmapala the lay preacher


It doesn’t take one much time to ascertain that the overwhelming support for this school of thought came from the new bourgeoisie, because in part at least, they were seeking ways to rationalise their business interests through a new interpretation of Buddhism. Dharmapala too was an entrepreneur, but was hardly of the sort that the new bourgeoisie were. One can contend that it was his line of family businesses, which involved manual labour and the transformation of material into industrial products, which spurred him into his nationalist crusade. One can also contend that it was the nature of those businesses which compelled him to strike out on his own when it came to a radical re-evaluation of Buddhism. Years later, when Kumari Jayawardena’s father, A. P. de Zoysa, would join that battle against the new bourgeoisie, who by then would become leaders of the independence movement, the political landscape had bifurcated between a left movement which sought to industrialise this nation and a rightwing movement which remained complacent with the petty, primitive nature of their form of capitalist accumulation.   

It is difficult, then, to draw up imaginary lines dividing Dharmapala the national figure from Dharmapala the lay preacher. In an essay on Buddhism, published at the turn of the 20th century, for instance, he implores the British to “let industrial and technical schools be started in populous schools and villages.” Perhaps more than anything else, if we are to chart Dharmapala’s ascendancy as a crusader and a radical wielder of his faith, we need to consider that it is the intermingling of these two strands, rather than the separate analysis of each of them, which can best help us understand the man beneath the robe, and the robe and the enigma which made up the man. Free from all those invectives. 

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