The name of Anagrika Dharmapala is today revered and synonymous with Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, at a time when more than three centuries of European occupation was eroding the values of the Sinhala Buddhists.
He is also credited as being in the forefront of the re-awakening and preservation of Buddhism as a religion in the international arena, of its values and customs and of its ancient sites in India. Undoubtedly, we as Sri Lankans, owe Anagarika Dharmapala immensely for his yeomen service to Buddhism.
Born on September 17, 1864, to one of the wealthiest upper middle class families at the time, he was named Don David Hewavitharana according to the customs prevalent in those days.
His father H. Don Carolis was a reputed furniture manufacturer and his mother was Mallika Dharmagunawardhana.
Don David had two younger brothers, Dr. Charles Alwis Hewavitharana and Edmund Hewavitharana.
He received his education at missionary schools as was usual at the time, but his mother exerted a salutary influence on him in his childhood to mould him into the Buddhist of conviction, strength and determination, as we know today.
As a child and teenager, he grew up lamenting the cultural, social and national decline in the then Ceylon and vowed to fight against the colonial administration to re-establish these Sinhala Buddhist values.
This was more so, as he was able to be acquainted with Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero and Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero through his parents. The young Don David was fortunate to attend the highly successful Panadura Vaadaya, a philosophical debate that saw the truth about Buddhism emerge against the fallacies floated by the Christian missionaries, with his father.
The debate had a profound impact on him. He turned to reading widely about Buddhism and associating more closely with the likes of the above mentioned two theros getting stronger in his convictions about the religion.
In the meantime, elsewhere in the world, it was turning to be a time of Buddhist revival. In 1875, in New York, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, an American, and Madame Helena Blavatsky, a Russian national, had formed the Buddhist Theosophical Society. They were very sympathetic to what they understood in Buddhism and, in 1880 they visited Sri Lanka where they publicly took the Refuges and Precepts from a prominent bhikku to become Buddhists.
Col. Olcott returned to the island periodically during the years that followed and spearheaded the establishment of more than 300 Buddhist schools. Young Don David had the good fortune to be closely associated with them and was instrumental in helping them in their quest for reviving Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
He acted as Col. Olcott's translator and travelled from village to village speaking about the virtues of Buddhism and the importance of adhering to Buddhist values in life. He was especially close to Madame Blavatsky who in the meantime suggested that he adopt a local name.
Don David Hewavitharana then became Anagarika Dharmapala; a name with a religious connotation, one that was revered in Buddhism. Anagarika meant Homelessness (from Na Agaram Yassa So = Anagariko) devoted to a celibate life and to Buddhist revival; Dharmapala meant the Guardian of the Dhamma.
The young Anagarika Dharmapala travelled far and wide in the island giving speeches. He invited other laymen to follow his example in adopting Sinhala names and renouncing the alien Western way of life.
He deplored the bourgeoisie that espoused such societal values. He was adamant that the Sinhalese lived by the Five Precepts and that they should live a meritorious life. Soon, many parents were heeding his advice and naming their children with Sinhalese names.
Among the notable persons to change their names was Uparis Silva who became Piyadasa Sirisena, the famous novelist. Another was George Peiris who became Gunapala Piyasena (Malalasekera), the erudite Buddhist scholar of repute. Anagarika Dharmapala was vocal in that Buddhists should abstain from eating beef and that they denounce alcohol. He even took on the government of the day, the British Raj, to achieve what he perceived as righteous and against what he saw was leading to the cultural degeneration.
He stood apart as an intellectual who could easily explain complex philosophical issues with absolute clarity to a lay audience. As such he became an orator on Buddhism that many sought after. D. B. Dhanapala, in his teenage years, walked eagerly for 12 miles in Tissamaharama to hear one of Anagarika Dharmapala's speeches.
The young man, inspired by what he heard, toiled against the odds to become the colossus of journalism in his adulthood.
The establishment of Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka was a significant milestone in the effort to revive and protect Buddhism in the island during the Colonial Era. The order of the day was that children of the elite were beckoned to Christian Missionary Schools through rewards such as future lucrative employment or government posts, whilst those of the poorer sections of the society were left hapless without a proper education and thereby with meagre means in the future.
The corollary was that Buddhist values and morals were found to be prohibitive to success in life and hence left to decline serving the agenda of the Christian Missionaries. Anagarika Dharmapala assisted the efforts of Col. Olcott, Madame Blavatsky and Lead Beater of the Theosophical Society to establish and develop leading Buddhist Colleges such as Ananda, Nalanda and Dharmaraja, creating a huge dent in the said agendas and thus serving to preserve Buddhism.
Anagarika Dharmapala was also instrumental in promoting Buddhism in the world arena. The repertoire of his oratory skills and of his profound knowledge on Buddhism spread well beyond the shores of Sri Lanka to such countries as India and the British Isles and even to the US, Europe and Japan. In 1893, as a young man, he was invited to speak on Thervada Buddhism at the World Parliament of Religions in San Francisco. He made such a lasting impact on the audience that he later became much sought after as an authority on Buddhism across the world.
He was invited to return to the U.S. in 1896, and again in 1902-04, where he travelled widely and taught many an audience.
But the most important contribution that Anagarika Dharmapala made to Buddhism the world over, would arguably be the re-taking and preservation of the Holy Sites of Buddhism in India. Moved by what he saw at Bodhgaya during a visit there in 1891, he resolved to fight till the very end to restore this Temple to Buddhist control from that of the Brahmin Hindu priests.
He led a campaign of agitation and founded the Mahabodhi Society in Colombo in 1891; the offices were then shifted to Calcutta in 1892. He came up against the Saivite Mahant of Bodhgaya who rejected his initial friendly overtures and who even had three monks who were stationed there assaulted. Anagarika Dharmapala led a legal battle against the Mahant but it was only in 1947, 16 years after his death, that the protracted struggle became successful.
However, he succeeded in restoring Kushinara, where the Enlightened One attained Parinibbana, to its centuries old glory. He was also successful in building viharas and Mahabodhi centres in many an Indian city to raise awareness about Buddhism in its citizens.
His prized vihara may well be the Mulagandhikuti Vihara erected in Saranath where the Buddha taught the Dhamma to His first disciples.
Although Anagarika Dharmapala was preeminent in Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, his contribution to this country was not confined to it. Though historians usually make no mention of it and there is a lack of evidence of Anagarika Dharmapala involving directly in political activity, some argue that the direction of Sri Lanka's politics towards agendas of national pride was rooted in the ardent patriotism of Anagarika Dharmapala. This was especially so with political agendas that took hold strongly in the early 1900s and in the years following independence.
However, it is well agreed that he called on his countrymen to espouse social and economic practices that would make Sri Lanka a self-sufficient country. He promoted the development of the agricultural economy and that of indigenous industries. He floated the idea that Sri Lankans should equip themselves with new industrial and technological knowledge and even went to the extent of sending two youths to China on a scholarship to learn about textiles and paper manufacturing.
However, during his later life, in spite of his strenuous endeavours to revive and preserve Buddhism in Sri Lanka and abroad, Anagarika Dharmapala felt ill-treated by those sceptics in his homeland. He resorted to living mainly in India and maintained contact with his closest confidante, Devapriya Walisinghe. He gave instructions to Walisinghe who carried them out loyally till the very end.
It was Walisinghe who carried on the administration of the Mahabodhi Society in his absence and was also instrumental in the successful re-taking of Bodhgaya. In 1933, Anagarika Dharmapala was ordained a bhikku by the name of Devamitta and he died at Saranath on April 29 of the same year, aged 68.
I leave you with a one of the great sayings of this hallowed personality. It would best be contemplated well upon, for it is very relevant to your life and mine. But it may well be that this sheds light on an indelible fact of the life of this magnanimous person; a saying that he preached and practiced well right throughout.