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A universal character who influenced the lives of many The life and works of a patriotic leader

17 September 2013 05:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala’s 149th Birth Anniversary falls on September 17th 2013. Although he passed away 80 years ago, his benevolent thoughts, words and deeds still remain evergreen and tend to carry a strong impact on present and future Sri Lankans.

Many a great man has lived and passed away in this sacred land, but during the past one and a half centuries no other patriotic leader existed, to match Anagarika Dharmapala’s remarkable personality.

Anagarika was not only a National leader but also a Universal character who radiated tremendous influence on those around him. His speeches gave a psychological boost and inspiration to his listeners. His vibrant oratory, far- sighted vision and mission won him respect and admiration wherever he visited.

Initially, he was Don David Hewavitharana and inherited fortune and the option to lead a luxury life. Yet, with the blessings of his loving parents Muhandiram Don Carolis Hewavitharana and Srimathie Mallika Hewavitharana, at an early age, David resolved to lead a life of a homeless celibate and became popular as Anagarika Dharmapala.

He pursued his studies at Roman Catholic Schools and mastered the Holy Bible, but remained adherent to his noble faith and the oriental customs.







Young David was briefly employed in the Government clerical service. Despite obtaining a pass with distinctions at the General Clerical Service Examination conducted by the Colonial rulers, he resigned his post to serve the needs of the motherland and elevate the down-trodden masses.

In 1886, he volunteered to play an active role in the Buddhist Theosophical Society, founded by Col Henry Steel Olcott, C.W. Leadbeater and Lady Blavatsky, to establish a National Education system. The cluster of BTS schools islandwide and Sri Lanka’s three premier educational institutions namely Ananda, Dharmaraja and Mahinda are living monuments of that academic renaissance.

Sri Lankan heritage enriched under the royal patronage and benevolent ideologies of great monarchs of the calibre of King Devanampiyatissa, King Dutugamunu, Parakramabahu the Great and King Walagambahu emerged to be prosperous for over two millenniums. However, misfortune and disaster was forced on our nation when the three foreign intruders invaded the Island beginning in 1505.

During the four centuries of ruthless domination by the Portuguese, Dutch and English rulers, the nation lost its image and cultural values as well as the religious ways of life. Aspiring to regain the lost independence and sovereignty, many thousands of countrymen sacrificed their lives. If not for the emergence of a strong contingent of patriots and leaders of the calibre of Anagarika Dharmapala, we wouldn’t have preserved anything to be of national pride.


During the four centuries of ruthless domination by the Portuguese, Dutch and English rulers, the nation lost its image and cultural values as well as the religious ways of life.
Premier Dudley Senanayake, in his message to Anagarika’s centenary anniversary said,
“The Anagarika’s services to his country were many. But the two outstanding services he rendered were to resuscitate Buddhism and Sinhalese culture in Ceylon at a time when over 300 years of foreign domination had sapped their vitality. His other outstanding contribution was an unswerving loyalty to the nationalist movement and the nationalist cause. Anagarika Dharmapala worked and campaigned to further these great causes amidst many difficulties. It was a period when Buddhism and the national culture had perhaps reached their lowest ebb. Buddhist schools were almost non existent. Pirivena education had suffered from centuries of neglect. Buddhist temples and places of worship had fallen into disrepair whilst in many instances lands and other property endowed to them from ancient times had been taken away. In such an environment it was not surprising that the Buddhist clergy too, declined. All this was to have adverse and debilitating effects on the national life and national culture because of the close and inextricable link between Buddhism and Sinhalese culture. Added to this was the preponderance of western influence which was gradually weaning away the people from their national culture and, in the process, destroying their national identity. The great achievements of the Anagarika, have to be judged in this very difficult context in which he worked.”

Anagarika emerged to be a National hero and undisputedly the first among other recent patriots. The chronology of his autobiographical agenda published in the Maha Bodhi Journal 1927, itself is evidence of his indefatigable efforts and unparallel services. He also became a global Budhist missionary and traversed extensively throughout. India, San Francisco, Rangoon, London, Honolulu Japan, Shanghai, Bangkok, Holland, Denmark and Italy. The Western Media emphasised his great endeavours with much appreciation and admiration. Beginning in 1893 Western Media had published hundreds of his orations.Anagarika’s services had no boundaries. He did not differentiate caste, class or creed. His sole desire was to carry the noble message of the Enlightened One, to the Western world.

He first visited India, in 1884. Though he intended to learn occultism there, on the advice of Russian lady Blavatsky, he learnt Pali, the language of the Buddha and studied the noble doctrine.


Having addressed the World Parliament of Religions in San Francisco in 1893. The Anagarika proceeded to London where he was a guest of Sir Edwin Arnold. He revisited London, Liverpool and Holland to study the Industrial schools with a view to establish them in India and in Sri Lanka.
Secondly, Anagarika went on a pilgrimage to the sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in 1891. It became the turning point of his life. Being aggrieved by the gross discrimination and devastation done by Hindu Mahants, he strongly determined to rescue and restore this highest sacred place of worship. His life skills, determination and unshaken faith gave him courage to launch a victorious legal war. He established the Maha Bodhi Society and MB Journal to defend the cause.

Pandit Dipak Kumar Barua (M.A., Dip. Lib), in a special research states,

“During the eighteenth century in the realm of religion, India had entered the zone of uncreative habit, and of decadent tradition.” With the beginning of the nineteenth century she began to experience some striking changes in religion and on the eve of such a religious reformation in modern India, a Ceylonese Buddhist named David Hewavitarne, later popularly known as Anagarika Dharmapala (birth 1864, Sept. 17th- death 1933, April 29th) who appeared as “the herald of a new age,” had an opportunity to save Buddhism and Buddhist culture from the deadening influence of spiritual blindness and superstitions. With profound learning and high philosophical acumen, Dharmapala was really “the harbinger of the idea of Universal Humanism, the humanist” as he preached the noble doctrines of Buddhism about love, compassion and fraternity. His whole being was saturated with humanism. Although he became a staunch Buddhist in the orthodox sense of the term, yet he was neither a bigot nor a fanatic. The philosophy of Buddhism in its practical bearing on life and its sundry problems, became incentives to his complete identification with ideas of individual and social welfare. Like Asoka, the Mauryan Emperor, he promulgated the Buddhist culture in the form of humanised culture in the Parliament of Religions in 1893 at Chicago. He was, in the present era, probably the first Buddhist whose personality won demonstrative recognition in the western countries.

It was indeed a worthy scene to observe when in the first session of the Parliament in the Hall of Columbus, the vibrant voice of “Dharmapala” requested all to respond to “the good wishes of four hundred and seventy-five millions of Buddhists, the blessings and peace of the religious founder of that system which has prevailed in so many centuries in Asia, which has made Asia mild.” His own paper entitled “The World’s Debt to Buddha” which was read there on the 18th Sept. 1893, was bereft of either theology or anthropomorphism.

In the simplest possible manner he explained the Buddhist principles, supported by numerous quotations from the Canon. Yet his speech was so effective that many Americans instantaneously expressed their wish to adopt the noble religion of Lord Buddha. He, moreover, urged them to “learn, to think without prejudice, love all beings for love’s sake, express convictions fearlessly, lead a life of purity.”

As a result during the closing days of the Parliament he was heavily engaged with his lectures and tours. During his lecture, not a “Tremble in those lips that hindered the denunciations of Isaiah... against spiritual sloth nor any hint of exhaustion” was found, he preached his message of universal love “erect, composed, master of himself and his hearers, with the art of an orator and the dignity of a priest to whom the world is nothing when he sat down.As Dharmapala had many occasions to stay and work at Calcutta, he gradually became interested in Bengal.

He publicly appeared for the first time here at the Albert Hall, Calcutta, on October 25th 1891 and delivered an eloquent speech which brought tremendous change in the outlook of Bengalese as regards to religion and society. Accordingly Prof. Benoy Sakar had addressed Anagarika as the Maker of Modern Bengal. Despite ill-health he worked relentlessly to re-establish Buddhism in India and awaken the Western world with the message of loving kindness.

Dr Ananda Guruge, in his book on Anagarika has traced in the library of Congress Washington D.C. an account of our hero written by an Englishman.

“The Anagarika Dharmapala will create few eddies in the spiritual life of this country, for his teaching is too alien to our mental habits. But he should be heard by those interested in eastern faiths, for a teacher of them, he is as authentic as he is eloquent”.

Having addressed the World Parliament of Religions in San Francisco in 1893. The Anagarika proceeded to London where he was a guest of Sir Edwin Arnold. He revisited London, Liverpool and Holland to study the Industrial schools with a view to establish them in India and in Sri Lanka. During his visit to London in 1924, he founded the permanent Buddhist headquarters in Ealing, London.

His letter addressed to Fransis J. Payne shows his deep commitments to his religious mission.

“It seems that your vigorous activities in the arena of the Dhamma propaganda have come to a standstill. How did the collapse come? What have you done with regard to the publication of your Buddhist Bible? When activities cease people understand that life has left the body. While we are alive we have to do good Kamma? What are we here for? The answer is given in the Maha Mangala Sutta. There is nothing so evil as association with the muddle headed, and that is what 99 per cent of people do. Priests, theologians, political leaders, lawyers, statesmen are of one mind. The people are enslaved.

 They have to work for the benefit of those have created a god and elected a king. Jehovah told Samuel to warn the Hebrews not to elect a king. But he failed to convince the idiots and gave the tallest of the lot, a donkey - driver, to be made king.  The conflict arose between Jehovah and the people’s sovereign. Both parties went down when Nebuchadnezzar II captured Jerusalem. Jehovah went into a state of suspended animation. The Hebrews went into captivity.

The Dhamma of the Tathagato is little understood in the West. No two scholars agree with the ultimates of the Dhamma. The first requisite necessary to understand the Dhamma is Wisdom (Pragnna). To have pragnna, one should be armed with the adjuncts of the first two principles of the Noble Eightfold Path.

 The British people are imbued with the spirit of sensualism, which is a hindrance to enter the path. Absolute renunciation is too philosophic a requisite to be undertaken by the muddle headed who wish to be governed by the priest and the aristocrat, failing both, the wife.

Forty years of ceaseless activity has made me physically weak. For 34 years I have spent my life in India in voluntary exile. The name of the Lord Buddha was hardly known 37 years ago by the people of India. Today all India acknowledges him as their God. There was no Vihara in India, no Buddhist publication, no preaching until started by the Main Bodhi Society. There is a great harvest to be reaped if there are Buddhist workers. The number of untouchables waiting to be rescued from the Brahmanical despotism is 65 millions. The Brahmans don’t want them.

They are not allowed by the Brahmans to walk in the same road with them. Christians and Moslems wish to convert them and steps are being taken by both to have them converted. There are 70 million Moslems. If the untouchables are converted, the number of Moslems will increase to 135 millions.

Padres will be glad to have the number of Native Christians increased from 3 millions to 68 millions. When the untouchables become Moslems there will be a tough fight between Moslems and Hindus. Indian Christianity is synonymous with butchery and alcoholism.

I wish to start a propaganda to carry the Dhamma to the untouchables, but I am now so very weak that the doctors advise me to take complete rest in a German Sanitarium for 3 months, otherwise I shall completely break down and be of no use to the cause.

I propose leaving Calcutta next month about the 10th of May and go to Colombo, thereafter to take the steamer for Marseilles. After my arrival in Europe I shall let you know. Would it be helpful to the cause if I visit England.

The Buddha Dhamma is too sublime for the barbarian pagans. They do not want to give up alcohol and meat. They are satisfied with the low-caste gods and the fetish priests. During his 69-year life span, Anagarika accomplished an unimaginable gigantic task. His glorious final achievement was the establishment of Mulagandhakuti Vihara at Saranath in 1930. On July 13, 1931, he ordained as a true Buddhaputra as Sri Devamitta Dharmapala Thera, and received Higher Ordination on January 16, 1933.

As the Buddha did preach, “Subject to change are component things. Strive on with diligence” (Vayadhamma Sankhara Appamadena Sampadetha).
This noblest son of Mother Lanka shed his last breath on April 29, 1933 at Saranath Benares.

May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!
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