150th Birth Anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala
(A past pupil of St. Benedict’s College)
Anagarika Dharmapala (17 September 1864 – 29 April 1933) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist and writer. He was one of the founding contributors of non-violent Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism and Buddhism. He was also a pioneer in the revival of Buddhism in India after it had been virtually extinct there for several centuries, and he was the first Buddhist in modern times to preach the Dharma in three continents: Asia, North America, and Europe. Along with Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, the creators of the Theosophical Society, he was a major reformer and revivalist of Ceylonese Buddhism and very crucial figure in its Western transmission. Dharmapala is one of the most revered Buddhists in the 20th century.
Born 17 September 1864 at Hittetiya in Matara to Don Carolis Hewavitharana and Mallika Dharmagunawardhana (the daughter of Andiris Perera Dharmagunawardhana), who were among the richest merchants of Ceylon at the time. He was named Don David Hewavitharane.
David had his early education at S. Thomas College, Mutwal which was later shifted to Mount Lavinia, St. Benedict’s College, Kotahena and Royal College, Colombo 7. He learned the Bible and sang hymns. His mother, Mallika Hewavitharana, sent him to Vidyodaya Pirivena, Maligakanda, the great seat of Buddhist learning, where he learned Sinhala, Pali and Buddhism. This changed his entire lifestyle.
This was a time of Buddhist revival. In 1875 in New York, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott had founded the Theosophical Society. They were both very sympathetic to what they understood of Buddhism, and in 1880 they arrived in Ceylon, declared themselves to be Buddhists, and publicly took the Refuges and Precepts from a prominent Sinhalese bhikkhu. Colonel Olcott kept coming back to Ceylon and devoted himself there to the cause of Buddhist education, eventually setting up more than 300 Buddhist schools, some of which are still in existence. It was in this period that David Hewavitarne changed his name to Anagarika Dharmapala.
‘Dharmapala’ means ‘protector of the dharma’. ‘Anagarika’ means “homeless one”. It is a midway status between monk and layperson. As such, he took the eight precepts (refrain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, wrong speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs, eating after noon, entertainments and fashionable attire, and luxurious beds) for life. These eight precepts were commonly taken by Ceylonese laypeople on observance days. But for a person to take them for life was highly unusual. Dharmapala was the first anagarika – that is, a celibate, full-time worker for Buddhism – in modern times. It seems that he took a vow of celibacy at the age of eight and remained faithful to it all his life. Although he wore a yellow robe, it was not of the traditional bhikkhu pattern, and he did not shave his head. He felt that the observance of all the vinaya rules would get in the way of his work, especially as he flew around the world. Neither the title nor the office became popular, but in this role, he “was the model for lay activism in modernist Buddhism. He is considered a bodhisattva in Sri Lanka.
His trip to Bodh-Gaya was inspired by an 1885 visit there by Sir Edwin Arnold, author of The Light of Asia, who soon started advocating for the renovation of the site and its return to Buddhist care. Arnold was directed towards this endeavour by Weligama Sri Sumangala Thera.
At the invitation of Paul Carus, he returned to the U.S. in 1896, and again in 1902-04, where he traveled and taught widely.
Dharmapala is an excellent example of an Asian Buddhist modernist, and perhaps the paradigmatic example of Protestant Buddhism. He was particularly concerned with presenting Buddhism as consistent with science, especially the theory of evolution.
Grateful Buddhists in India, honoured Anagarika Dharmapala.
If not for the great sacrifice, commitment and the efforts on the part of Anagarika Dharmapala, Buddhist in Sri Lanka or abroad would have been denied an opportunity of visiting important places of Buddhists worship in India.
Anagarika Dharmapala was ordained Ven. Sri Devamitta Dharmapala in 1933 and died on 29 April the same year, aged 68.