header image
Home arrow Higher Education Policy arrow ANAGARIKA DHARMAPALA SPEECH


Text of the speech prepared by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala, Minister of Higher Education for the 143rd birth anniversary of the late Anagarika Dharmapala & read by Rev. T.Dhammarathana at Buddhagaya on 17th September 2007.
Any kind of use of the contents should be duly acknowledged.

I consider it a honour and a privilege to be here at this international gathering to speak a few words on one of the illustrious sons of Sri Lanka who made a noteworthy contribution to the cause of Buddhism, the Buddhist revival and the nationalist awakening in Sri Lanka. Anagarika Dharmapala made an equally important contribution in the international arena as well. I shall try my best, within the time available, to deal with certain aspects of Anagarika's religious and nationalist career, including his magnificent role in awakening a people who remained subjugated by colonialism.

It would be of special significance to this international audience to advert our attention first to the way in which Anagarika Dharmapala assisted in the revival of Buddhism. The most important event is the founding of the Mahabodhi Society of India by Anagarika Dharmapala in 1891 and it made an outstanding contribution to the revival of Buddhism. The Buddha Gaya Mahabodhi Society was founded in Sri Lanka and its purpose, as explained by Anagarika Dharmapala, was to restore the sacred shrine, and the formation of this society did not attract much attention as it was difficult to rouse the interest of the laity in such a worthwhile project. It was through such initiatives that he was able to rouse the interests of the Buddhists to lay the foundation for a great cultural and spiritual movement which, in course of time, became the main vehicle of the Buddhist revival.

Before we embark on a discussion of the impact of the Buddhist revival movement on the nationalist awakening in Sri Lanka, it would not be inappropriate to refer to Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 which gave him an international reputation. This conference has been hailed as an important event in the nineteenth century as it created international impulses for the revival of ancient religions of the world. It was at this international gathering that the religious leaders of the East met those of the West and Anagarika Dharmapala made used use of the occasion to plan a strategy for the revival of Buddhism on a world wide scale. In this way, he became the peerless missionary of Buddhism who carried the message of the Buddha to the four corners of the world. His vision and intellectual attainments were such that he soon became the most influential campaigner for the restoration of Buddhism and the rich culture associated with the teachings of the Lord Buddha. With a view to resuscitating Buddhism and the values associated with Buddhism for several thousands of years, he openly attacked the process of Westernization in the country and wanted the people, who were still under the yoke of colonialism, to break-away from those influences which destroyed their initiative and nationalist impulses. He was very critical of the people and leaders who were servile to Western ways, and the tirade against colonialism, in the end, gave birth to the process of nationalist awakening. The nationalist movement of Sri Lanka, which came to be developed in the first decade of the 20th century, was largely due to the impact of the Buddhist revivalist movement to which Anagarika Dharmapala provided leadership through his teachings and the condemnation of the process of Westernization- which had a debilitating effect on the general mass of the people. The Buddhist revival movement, apart from its impact on the growing trend of nationalism, rejected Christianity and the missionary organizations associated with it. One unique feature of this revivalist movement was that it, though took the form of religious nationalism which emerged in Sri Lanka in the post-1915 period, derived immense inspiration from the Buddhist revivalist movement. It needs to be mentioned that religious nationalism helped in the growth of political consciousness among the masses and this, coupled with other factors, helped in the awakening of the people to demand political freedom. In this context, one can come to the conclusion that Anagarika, through his mission to restore Buddhism, indirectly helped religious nationalism to get itself converted into political nationalism, with which a powerful Buddhist movement came into existence. During this period, there was an attempt to use Buddhism as a force against colonial domination, and the temperance movement, which came to be developed at the turn of the 20th century, became an integral part of the Buddhist revival. The national consciousness against colonial domination, therefore, developed around the temperance movement, which, by this time, had spread to all the Sinhalese Buddhist areas of the country. This movement had shown its potentiality to develop into a political movement, championing the cause of freedom. In other words, the Buddhist revivalist movement, which came to be spearheaded by Anagarika Dharmapala, laid the foundation for the political awakening of the masses. The nationalist movement, led by various political organizations of the period, came to be dominated by the English-educated elite; the mass base of the movement came to be strengthened by the impact of the Buddhist revivalist movement. Therefore it was Anagarika Dharmapala, who, through his Buddhist revivalist movement, activated the ordinary masses to play a role in the nationalist struggle for political freedom. Though this has not been highlighted by historians, the fact remains that it was Anagarika Dharmapala who, through indirect means, enthused the people to call for political emancipation. In a pamphlet published in 1922, Anagarika Dharmapala, referring to the young men of Sri Lanka, stated that ‘what we need in Sri Lanka is a body of men who, with enthusiasm, will go forward to awaken the sleeping people of Sri Lanka who are now having a moribund life'. In the eyes of the ordinary man, the Buddhist revivalist movement, though religious in character, remained a movement for political freedom. It could not be denied that the nationalist movement of Sri Lanka, as envisaged by Anagarika Dharmapala, came to be based on religious impulses; it was perhaps this character which prevented it from becoming a violent nationalist movement.

Anagarika Dharmapala, through his active involvement in the Buddhist revivalist movement, encouraged the emergence of cultural nationalism in the country, and it, though later came to be inter-mingled with political nationalism, surfaced several decades later as a major element of the political change of 1956. It was with the Buddhist revival that a call came for the restoration of the indigenous Sinhalese culture in the country. When we look at from the point of view of such historical factors, one could conveniently say that it was Anagarika Dharmapala who laid the foundation for the nationalist movement which, in the end, paved the way for the achievement of political independence. Anagarika Dharmapala, published Sinhala Bauddhaya, a newspaper devoted to the cause of the Sinhalese Buddhists - which, as intended by its founder, was to rouse the nationalist ideas of the Sinhalese Buddhists in the country. His preachings and the devastating criticisms of the trends of Westernization had an effect on the ordinary people who were influenced to change their Western names. It was he who reminded the Sinhalese of the need to maintain their national and cultural identity. The Western ways were criticized in a patriotic way, and this had an enormous impact on a society which was still under imperialism. His nationalist message, based on culture and religion, had a popular effect on the emerging nationalist movement and it, in an indirect way, penetrated the left wing politics of the period as well. Therefore it is correct to say that Anagarika Dharmapala, with his virulent campaign against colonial domination, provided a base for the emergence of a movement opposing both colonialism and imperialism. Though Anagarika Dharmapala was the foremost Buddhist missionary, he was equally a powerful Sinhala nationalist who kindled the flicker of Sinhala nationalism.

As mentioned earlier, the greatest contribution of Anagarika Dharmapala to the revival of Buddhism, was the formation of the Mahabodhi Society, and it, in course of time, became the organization which made a tremendous contribution to the propagation of Buddhism; in addition, it led the campaign for the restoration of the ancient places of Buddhist worship throughout India where the edifice of Buddhism was in a state of decline. The founding of the Mahabodhi Society and the establishment of its centres in different parts of the country laid the foundation for the revival of Buddhism in the land of its birth. The propagation of the Dhamma and the restoration of the ancient places of worship constituted the main function of the Mahabodhi Society which, in addition, to this task, became the forum for the discussion of all aspects of the teachings of the Buddha. It, in fact, was the oldest Buddhist periodical in English with a world wide circulation and this explains the nature of his mission to propagate Buddhism throughout the world.

Dharmapala was such an outstanding intellectual who could impress an audience with his ability to explain a philosophical issue with absolute clarity. Because of this special aptitude of his, he could attract a crowd too large for the venue; this was his reputation as a scholar with an international standing.

We know that Anagarika Dharmapala devoted all his energies and powers to restoring the holy sites of Buddhism in India to their former glory, and it was the Mahabodhi Society and his disciples like Davapriya Walisinha who played a significant role in this regard. Devapriya Walisinha, a boy from Atale, Kegalla came in contact with Anagarika Dharmapala in 1912 and he, in course of time, became the closest confidante of Anagarika Dharmapala. He played a key role in the restoration of the ancient Buddhist sites in India, and his contribution, due to some strange reason, has not been highlighted. Devapriya Walisinha functioned as the Secretary of the Mahabodhi Society for more than 35 years and it was he who, with both ability and commitment, ran the society with a view to realizing its main objectives. He played a crucial role on the issue of Buddha Gaya. He remained the loyal disciple of Anagarika Dharmapala till his death, and this relationship, which lasted for more than 45 years, gave added strength to the Mahabodhi Society. The letters, which Dharmapala sent him from different places, showed the extent of his confidence in Walisinha and the nature of work entrusted to him in respect of many a project relating to the restoration of Buddhist sites in India. I was able to examine these letters, which, in addition to the instructions given by Anagarika Dharmapala, explained the close relationship between these two great men who made a contribution to the cause of Buddhism. One fascinating thing, which I noticed in the course of my examination Dharmapala's letters to Walisinha, was the absolute confidence with which he gave instructions as well as admonitions; yet another striking fact was that Walisinha served Anagarika Dharmapala with absolute loyalty and in that sense, he was the true disciple of Anagarika Dharmapala.

Anagarika Dharmapala, throughout his career as the greatest revivalist of Buddhism, made yeoman service to the restoration of Buddha Gaya where we are meeting today. Buddha Gaya, which has now become the centre of attraction of Buddhists all over the world, would not have reached this position if not for the untiring efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala. The contribution made by Devapriya Walisinha could not be ignored; he, in the absence of Dharmapala, made an equally powerful contribution to make it internationally important. It was they who convinced the national leaders of the period, such men as Mahatma Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, C.R. Dias and Rabindranath Tagore, of the need to restore Buddha Gaya as a legitimate place of worship for the Buddhists. Lord Buddha reached enlightenment at this hallowed place, and it, therefore, belongs to the Buddhists who have a legitimate right to restore it to its pristine glory. There was a long struggle to obtain the lawful ownership of the place as a place of lawful worship for Buddhists and it was Dharmapala who faced the challenges of the period. The Mahabodhi Society which was at the forefront of this struggle to convert Buddhagaya into a place of worship of Buddhists. It would be interesting and useful to recount the history of this religious site as it had opened a new chapter in the history of religions. It was King Asoka who built a temple on the exact site of the present one and Buddhism reigned supreme for several centuries. Both Dharmapala and the Mahabodhi Society fought relentlessly to gain control of this ancient place of worship, and the achievement of Dharmapala, specially in respect of this matter, was remarkable. The entire world, including all Buddhists throughout the globe, are indebted to Anagarika Dharmapala for all what he did in respect of Buddhagaya.

In the pantheon of Sri Lanka heroes, Dharmapala was one such national hero who devoted his entire life to the progress of the nation and the Buddha Sasana, and he, though did yeoman service during a very brief period, is still remembered as the Father of the Sri Lanka Nation.