Don David Hewavitarana – the future Anagarika Dharmapala – was born on the 17th of September 1864, a year, memorable in the annuals of the Ceylon Legislatures, on account of all the unofficial members resigning in a body on the question of the military expenditure vote. This was the first open conflict between the Planters and the Bureaucracy, both British and Christian. Although it was in one sense a kind of “Home and Home Match”, the ultimate consequences were far reaching; for the Ceylon League, to which this conflict gave birth under the leadership of George Wall and Charles Ambrose Lorenz, was reborn, of Ceylonese, parenthood, nearly five decades later with the name of the Ceylon National Association. In the Constitutional agitation of 1864, the leaders of the Buddhist people, who formed the preponderating majority of Ceylon’s population, were passive spectators; in that of 1909-1912 they were active participants. To this change, long delayed but quite phenomenal, Ceylon owes a great deal to Anagarika Dharmapala; for the reforms he promoted, in the realms of religion, culture and education and the social consciousness he roused among the Buddhists of Ceylon, had the effect of exorcising the inferiority complex that possessed the people and thereby inevitably accelerated the political advancement of the Country.
He was born of parents belonging to a wealthy and influential family of the Sinhalese aristocracy well known for its pious and fearless adherence to the Buddhist Faith, which was so out of fashion then, that there were not many of such families in the whole of Ceylon. To flout the fashions of the day requires always and everywhere such conviction and courage that it may be rightly concluded and courage that it may be rightly concluded that young Anagarika Dharmapal did not merely inherit money and property from his forebears but also their faith and fortitude.
He entered a Convent for studies at the age of 5 and ended up at St. Thomas’ at the age of 14 via three or four other Christian Schools. In every one of them he was a good student of the Christian Scriptures, but the piety of his mother, who was the benefactoress of many Buddhist causes and his early acquaintance with the Bhikku friends of his father made him keep the Buddhist Path. He did not remain long at St. Thomas’ for his father removed him from there at the age of 19. During the latter part of his school career, Anagarika Dharmapala became interested in the Theosophical Movement and the visit of Col. Olcott in 1880 left a deep impression on his mind.
Through his own autobiographical note, contributed to the Maha Bodhi, Vol. XL: No. 2, we have a glimpse of the beliefs that moved him about this time and the strong language he was impelled to use for the expression of them which he held passionately:
“I left the school in 1878, and after two months’ rest at home I was put in the St. Thomas’ Collegiate school in the month of September. Daily when attending the St. Thomas’ School I had to pass the Temple known as Megettuvatte’s Hamuduruwo’s temple, and in the afternoon of Saturdays I began attending the Temple. It was there that I came to hear of the Theosophical Society and Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky. The monk had received ….. letter from Colonel Olcott that they are Buddhists and expect to visit Ceylon on their way to India, that they had heard of the Pandure controversy ….. and they conveyed their sentiments of pleasure in the expectation of standing shoulder to shoulder to fight against Christianity in Ceylon… My delight in hearing the news of Olcott and Blavatsky was great, and from that time onwards I began to take interest in the T.S., although I was then only 14 years old… There was a wave of enthusiasm throughout Ceylon about the proposed visit of the Founders who were coming to preach the sublime Dhamma. Never before had there been any such visit to Ceylon from European Buddhists, and every European who had visited Ceylon knew only to attack Buddhism. Since 1515 Ceylon had been the hunting ground of the buccaneering pirates of Ceylon, Holland, and the British Isles. Since 1818 C.M.S. missionaries have been working in Ceylon with the object of destroying Buddhsim. Thousands of Sinhalese after learning English had become Christians in order to gain their livelihood. It was the belly religion of the Sinhalese Christian. A Sinhalese villager could be trained to attack Buddhism within a year, and in those days a salary of Rupees twenty a month was enough to make him offer his services as a Catechist to go preaching in the villages against the venerable religion of the Sinhalese people … In 1872 at Panadure the great historic controversy between the Christian missionaries and the Buddhist yellow-robed monks took place, and in the arena the Christian party was ignominiously defeated. That was the first moral conquest which the Buddhists had gained against the Christians since the latter came to Ceylon, first as plundering pirates and buccaneering brigands and later on as conquistadors who destroyed the ancient aesthetic Aryan civilization which had existed for so many centuries …. Col. Olcott and Mme. H. P. Blavatsky…. when they arrived in Colombo in June I walked all the way from school to the place where the first lecture was to be delivered by Colonel Olcott. When all had left only my uncle and father remained behind, and I was with them… Ever since June 1880 I felt myself drawn towards the Founders, and I would never miss reading the ‘Theosophist’……. From school I would walk about a mile to the house of the Agent to get a loan of the copy. The Warden of the College was Revd. E.F. Miller,who loved me affectionately, because he said one day that he admired my truthfulness. He once told me that “we don’t come to Ceylon to teach you English, but we come to Ceylon to convert you,’’ and in reply I said that I can’t believe the Old Testament although I like the New. He liked me much and when I left school in April 1883 gave me an excellent certificate.”
At this time, Anagarika Dharmapala was a frequent visitor to the Vidyodaya Privena and under he inspiring guidance of the Bhikkus there his life began to take a new shape. The ambitions nurtured on his behalf by his parents for a worldly life of status and security had no appeal for him, although he was till 1886 working as a Junior Clerk in the Education Department.
Meanwhile Col. Olcott accompanied by Mme. Blavatsky paid his second visit to Ceylon, on this occasion at the special invitation of the Buddhists to help them in their litigation connected with the Riots of 1883. When the Theosophist leaders were returning to India Anagarika Dharmapala prevailed upon his parents to give him their reluctant permission to spend a few days at Adyar.
“And I was handed over to Mme, Blavatsky, and she took me with her to Adyar, where I stayed several days. One day calling me to her room, she made me sit by her and said that I need not take up the study of occultism, but that I should study Pali where all that is needed is found, and that I should work for the good of Humanity, and gave me her blessings. There and then I decided that henceforth my life should be devoted to the good of Humanity……’’
Thus Anagarika Dharmapala returned, transformed, ready to forsake all for service’s sake. He was able to persuade his parents in 1885, at the age of 21, to grant him permission to leave them and reside at the Theosophical Society Headquarters where he could devote all his free hours to the cause of Buddhism. To his remonstrating father, who eventually consented, he wrote a letter:
“…. asking his permission to leave home to lead the brahmachari life as I wished to devote all my time to the welfare of the Sasana, and that as the Theosophical Society was working for the good of Buddhism I would stay at their headquarters, but I should like if he would allow me at the rate of five rupees a month…..”
Col. Olcott returned to Colombo in 1886, on this occasion with Leadbeater, to augment the financial resources of the Buddhist Educational Fund. Many volunteers were not forthcoming to go round the villages explain the cause and collect the necessary funds. Anagarika Dharmapala readily responded obtaining leave from the Education Department and unconcerned about the results of the Clerical Examination he had taken up a few weeks earlier.
“Col. Olcott and Leadbeater and myself went on tour using his travelling cart, which had two storeys. On the top storey the two slept and I slept in the lower berth. We led a gipsy life for nearly two months,…. In the interior I received a letter from the Colonial Secretary stating that I was appointed to a post and that I had passed my examination but I did not wait for a minute to reply saying that I was going to work for my religion and asking to accept my resignation from Government service. After we returned to Colombo my father said that I had better accept the post and give over the whole of my salary to the Theosophical Society.He took me to the Colonial Secretary who asked me to withdraw my letter of resignation but I declined. With delight I left….. "
During this tour, Anagarika Dharmapala came to know intimately his Buddhist co-religionists belonging to rural Ceylon. They were no doubt less sophisticated than the townsmen and held more tenaciously to their traditions. Yet they were tending to succumb to the seductive influences of Western manners and morals, due to the false prestige they had acquired as a result of the patronage afforded by the wealthy and influential, whose deferential attitude to everything Western and White was indeed galling to Anagarika Dharmapala. He was particularly distressed by the increasing popularity among the rural folk of the drink habit once considered abominable, because of the specific prohibition inculated by Buddhism, but now becoming fashionable. He felt that the only method available of weaning his people from the Worship of the White Man was through a religious revival, genuine and forward-looking. His appraisal of the West was by no means complimentary or undetached. This is clear from one of his diary entries made after his first travel to the West.
"Controlled by the lower senses, wallowing in sensuality, these so called Christians live in killing each other, hating each other, swindling each other, introducing liquor and vice where they had not existed. Themselves slaves of passion, they enslave others to themselves and their vices."
One is reminded of Lord Acton’s historical dictum, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’’. When he had just completed his 21st year, Anagarika Dharmapala with his indomitable will made an irrevocable decision – to promote Buddhist revival in Ceylon, although at this time many careers were open to him, with his brilliance and background, all of them alluring to a high degree and all of them equally promising. He could have gone to London and returned a Barrister, married an heiresss and settled down to a life of ease and influence, or he could have become a partner with his father in business and amassed a fortune; he could have aspied to a place in the Legislative Council of Ceylon and membership in the Establishment; or the could have selected a life of calm and quiet, or one of expensive hobbies or immoderate reading. Yet he did not choose any of them; instead became wedded to the life of a bramachari – anagarika – willfully forsaking the patrimony that was his.
At this time many of the leaders in Ceylon were becoming dimly conscious that education was the instrument, par excellence, of success for any religious revival, but only a few were prepared to take the practical steps that would usher in a Buddhist revival. In Col. Olcott the Buddhists found a leader of initiative and energy who gave them a dynamic programme of Modern Education in a Buddhist environment, even though he was the President of the Theosophical Society which had as its motto, “There is no religion higher than Truth” and its avowed policy was to “encourage the revival of religion in all the religions of the World”. His official status as President did not in any way diminish the ardour of his personal conviction of Buddhism.
That a White Man of his calibre should so personally associate himself with the uplift of an alien people captivated the heart of Anagarika Dharmapala so much that he decided to devote his entire time and all energy to the programme chalked out by Col. Olcott. Anagarika Dharmapala travelled from village to village and addressed meetings everywhere, in Sinhalese and in a new style, vigorous and appealing, quite intelligible to the common people, replete with homely illustrations and apt anecdotes, without pedantries and sophistications and without any sacrifice of truth for policy or politeness. In these meetings he reminded the audience of the grandeur that was Anuradhapura and the splendor that was Polonnaruwa. He exhorted them to feel proud and become worthy of their precious heritage, of their Faith and Language and the Culture that is embodied in them, reviling those who aped the Westerners in dress and demeanour, names and meals and endeavoured to resemble them in everything else except their complexion.
At this period of Anagarika Dharmapala’s life Col. Olcott, the Alien Patriot of Ceylon was his hero and the Theosophical Society Headquarters his home. He prepared a Shorter Catechism for the Buddhist schools that were being established and put the Buddhist Press established by Col. Olcott in a firm financial footing. He desired that the educational movement so well inaugurated should not become a kind of a social service league but evoke the active cooperation of the entire Buddhist population. In these activities was disclosed that the most dominant characteristic of his was viriya-paramita – energy. His energy was indefatigable and his courage indomitable. He was indifferent to personal attacks but would not tolerate any disparaging remarks about his faith or his People. He was also gifted with a sense of charity and spirit of sacrifice.
But this educational activity was interrupted by his visit to Japan in 1889 in the company of Col. Olcott. When he proceeded to Buddha Gaya in December 1890 and there “seeing the holy site abandoned and desecrated my heart was moved and I resolved and pledged my life that I will not leave the spot until I see the place restored to the Buddhists.” This became his life-mission. He also shared the hopes of Col. Olcott to bring about some understanding between the Southern and the Northern Buddhist Sanghas and thereby paved the ‘way for the unity of Buddhist Asia.’ Thereafter the activities of Angarika Dharmapala were more concerned with the International mission of Buddhism. He therefore organized the International Buddhist Conference at Buddha Gaya in 1892 in which all Asian Buddhist countries participated. In the year 1893 he represented Buddhism at the Chicago Parliament of Religions. His addresses, created quite an impression and the ‘Chicago Tribune’ wrote “For amidst all these millions from all parts of the world, the humble votary of the Dharma maintained himself with dignity and became marked out from thousands by the very absence of ostentation, by that mild unobtrusive manner which was so distinctly his own”.
He was not enamoured of the theology and anthropomorphism contained in many of the papers that were presented at the Chicago Parliament. With an image of Lord Buddha by his side, he read a paper on “The World’s Debt to Buddha’’, in which he endeavoured to give a plain and simple statement, a lucid exposition of the Buddhist principles supported by authoritative citations. He expounded the Buddhist psychology and extolled ‘the life of holiness, perfect and pure’. Another impression about him appeared in the columns of the St. Louis Observer of September 21, 1893:
“With his black, curly locks thrown back from his broad brow, his keen, clear eye fixed upon the audience, his long brown fingers emphasizing the utterances of his vibrant  voice, he looked the very image of a propagandist, and one trembled to know that such a figure stood at the head of the movement to consolidate all the disciples of Buddha and to spread the light of Asia throughout the civilized world”.
Angarika Dharmapala was at this time keen on returning to America and wean the Americans from the soul corrupting influences they were subject to as well as from the pseudo oriental mystical cults that were being adroitly commercialized by their quack practitioners.
In later years he initiated Buddhist Missions in various parts of the World and kept up a sustained agitation for the restoration of Buddha Gaya.
His sojourns in Ceylon thereafter were therefore of not long duration. In 1904 he travelled by bullock cart as of old from village to village exhorting his hearers to develop in themselves the quality of self-respect and eschew cheap imitations. He even asked them ‘to fill up an old sack with hay, paint it white and hang it up. The youngsters of the household were to punch it daily saying, ‘I am not afraid of the white man’. He also advocated the promotion of cottage industries for the economic regeneration of the land and held up Japan as the model. In 1911 and 1912 he contributed articles to the Sinhala Bauddhaya which effectively promoted patriotism and the revival of Buddhism among the Sinhalese. The following extracts from his “Message to the Young Men of Ceylon” would enable us to guage the extent to which he was responsible for the discarding by the Sinhalese of “the anglicized habits so utterly unsuited to the Aryan spirit and their return to the ‘path of the Middle Doctrine dissociating ourselves from the demoralizing influences’ under which we are now suffering’’:
‘‘… When the ancestors of the present holders of our beloved Island were running naked in the forests of Britain with their bodies painted, and later on when their ancestors had gone under the imperial rule of Rome, and some of them were being sold as slaves in the market place of Rome, our ancestors were already enjoying the fruits of the glorious and peaceful civilization whose seeds were sown by the scions of the Sakya house 540 B.C.
… Two things are before us, either to be slaves and allow ourselves to be effaced out of national existence or make a constitutional struggle for the preservation of our nation from moral decay. We have a duty to perform to our Religion, to our children, and our children’s children, and not allow this most holy land of ours to be exploited by the liquor monopolist and the whisky dealer.
We are blindly following the white man who has come here to demoralize us for his own gain. He asks us to buy his whisky, and we allow him to bamboozle us. He tells that we should drink toddy and arrack separately, that we should teach our children Latin and Greek and keep them in ignorance of our own beautiful literature and that we should think like the Yorkshire man and not like our own Dutugemunu and Parakrama Bahu and Sirisangabodhi,and that we should discard our own national dress which was good for our noble and spirited ancestors, and dress according to the dictates of the fashion makers of London and Paris.
We purchase Pears soap, and eat coconut biscuits manufactured by Huntley and Palmer, and sit in chairs made in Austria, drink the putrefied liquid known as tinned Milk, manufactured somewhere near the South Pole, while our own cows are dying for want of fodder, and grazing grounds and our own pottery we have given up for enamel goods manufactured in distant Austria, and our own brass lamps we have melted, and are paying to purchase Hinks lamps which require a supply of fragile chimneys manufactured in Belgium! Our own weavers are starving and we are purchasing cloth manufactured elsewhere!
.. and learn to love your starving, poor, neglected Sinhalese brother, the village goiya, for after all, it is the agricultural and the labouring class that form the backbone of the Sinhalese nation. A few barristers, and doctors with British qualifications do not go to make the Sinhalese nation!”
In January 1931 he became a Buddhist monk and was admitted into the Sangha with the name of Devamitta Dharmapala. He died a few months after. Though Ceylon was not the chief centre of his activities during the latter part or the major portion of his life the Buddhist revival he promoted at the international level did shed lustre on Ceylon and enhanced her prestige among the Comity of Asian Nations. Thus did he gain for Ceylon a new status as the Land of Buddhist Glory and the Island-Home of the Dhamma.

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