September 17 marked the 151st Birth Anniversary of the Unbowed Nationalist
The British conquered the last Sinhalese Kingdom of Kandy by means of treachery, pretense and the folly on the part of the Kandyans in 1815. After having mercilessly and viciously put down both attempts at freedom in 1818 and 1848; the British Rule was absolute.
Dharmapala was, but a teenager when Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky set foot in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1880 May. He showed keen interest in becoming a member of the Theosophical Society
It is in this backdrop that Shrimath Anagarika Dharmapala was born on the 17th of September 1864 to Don Carolis Hewavitharana and Mallika Dharmagunawardhana. His family was one of the few influential Buddhist families that existed in Colombo at the time. During this time all Buddhist parents were forced to present their newborns to Church in order to obtain a birth certificate, and there he was given the Christian name “Don David”.
He loved his mother fiercely. Even during his playtime, often he thought to himself “May my mother attain Buddhahood”. Compassion and kindness are two of the qualities he learnt from his beloved mother. His father, an intelligent Buddhist, advised him that one’s own salvation should be provided by oneself and to eat whatever he wanted, not sleep too much, not to ask for things blindly, to think twice before accepting something and to study with his own exertion.
At the time there were no Buddhist schools. A governmental commission discovered that children educated in a Buddhist environment were loyal to traditional Lankan customs, values and thought-processes. Therefore, the colonial government took measures either to forcefully close down Buddhist schools or lead them towards that path. As a result, Missionaries filled the vacuum by aggressively opening Missionary schools all across the island. So Anagarika Dharmapala’s parents had little to no choice, but to send their son to missionary schools for education. He attended Christian College, Kotte; St Benedict’s College, Kotahena; S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia and the Colombo Academy (Royal College).
Dharmapala described his experience at one such Missionary school thusly;
“One day one of my priestly teachers went to a paddy field with a gun and shot a bird. I witnessed the innocent creature fall. I was afraid. I was shaken. Being 12 years old I read the Bible four times a day. Few days after this incident a small child from our class died. While we looked on at the dead body that was laid on a bed, we were instructed to pray by our teacher. Then it dawned on me how that innocent bird’s life was taken. For the first time my mind was free to think. I started to read the Bible more critically.”
Dharmapala was, but a teenager when Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky set foot in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1880 May. He showed keen interest in becoming a member of the Theosophical Society. He was made a member by his paternal grandfather who paid his membership fee of 10 rupees. He actively took part in writing articles for “The Theosophist” Magazine.
In 1886 he resigned from his government job and moved into the Theosophical Society head office committing himself fully to furtherance of Buddhism. He renounced his Christian name David and took on the Sinhala name Dharmapala and entered into Anagarika-hood (life of a celibate wanderer). He became the secretary of the Buddhist wing of the Theosophical society, becoming the editor of both the Buddhist Press and the “Sandaraasa” newspaper. He later became the manager of Buddhist schools and he served as the Deputy Secretary of the Committee for Protection of Buddhism from 1886 March to 1890 December.
Fight to protect Buddhagaya
It was he who brought four (4) Buddhist monks to India after Buddhism disappeared from the land. He visited Buddhagaya on 22nd January,1891 and his heart broke when he saw the appalling condition that it was in. Thus having thrice consecrated his own life to the Buddha at the Vajarasanaya (stone seat) he made it his life’s work to ensure that the most holy site of Buddhism was left in the hands of the Buddhists. He founded the Buddhagaya Maha Bodhi Society (later shortened to Maha Bodhi) Society with the express purpose of saving Buddhagaya.
A Hindu Saivite named Mahanta inconvenienced Buddhist pilgrims and tried to claim ownership of the Buddhagaya. The famous Buddhagaya lawsuit was filed against him. The legal battle was fiercely fought on both sides; the notoriety and interest that was generated from the proceedings led to a fund being established in 1894 to save Buddhagaya. This was to allow Buddhists across the world to donate money in order to buy a plot of land in Bodh Gaya.
World Parliament of Religions
The Maha Bodhi Magazine was created in 1892 and it was so successful that Dharmapala was invited to Chicago to participate in the World Parliament of Religions. In his speech he stated that 600 years before the birth of Christ, it was Buddha who first opened the gates of heaven and after the Parinibbana of the Buddha, Emperor Asoka held a Buddhist council and sent Buddhist missions across the world for the benefit of all living beings. His speech was well received and led to invitations that poured in for him to speak at major cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia. Americans offered to pay him just to hear him speak but he politely refused to accept money stating that it was immoral to preach Buddhism for money and that Dhamma is truly a gift; given freely.
Imprisoned without fault
1915 Buddhist-Muslims riots in Ceylon led to the arrest of Anagarika Dharmapala by the ndian government upon the request of the government of Ceylon. Though imprisoned without a just reason, he fostered Metta (loving-kindness) towards the British officials who held him captive. Due to lack of exercise and proper food his health deteriorated. Having spent 5 years under house arrest, by the time of his release he suffered from Anemia, Sciatica, Beriberi disease and Tachycardia. He enquired as to why he was arrested in his old age and not in his youth as he was consistent in his message throughout his years and his only intention was to herald the Sinhalese people to their previous state of spiritual and material prosperity.
In a letter to the Superintendent of the Maha Bodhi Estate he described his experience as:
“ …They are not letting me visit Lanka, they are keeping me imprisoned here. Since I worked for the betterment of the Sinhalese people I have received this suffering. I have done know wrong, but I am made to suffer. For five (5) years the government tried to rid me keeping me imprisoned, it is through the glory of Dhamma I survived death. There is no point in writing to the King. They do not deliver the letters to him. Therefore, I am made to live with this suffering. People in Lanka are afraid to write to me. Since I live according to Dhamma my mind is at peace. The Bodhisattva born as the Shanthivadi ascetic was subjected to severance of his arms and legs. I have not caused harm to anyone. And my heart does not let me beg for help through prayer. Having suffered innumerable times in Sansara I find it an insult to Dhamma to pray for help.”
Buddhist Mission in London
With the aid of Madame Mary Foster, he established the London Buddhist mission in July of 1926. Expenses were borne by both Madame Foster and Anagarika Dharmapala himself. Despite the cruel nature of the British Imperialists he engaged in loving-kindness towards them. He believed Buddhism, which was based on scientific principles, was just what the British people required in their pursuit of truth. In his old age he strived to teach the British people the Dhamma of the Thathagatha. Having established a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society in London he saw to it that a journal titled “The British Buddhist” was published monthly. In December of 1926 he established a fund to support the Buddhist Mission in London.
Leaving SL and monkhood
In the words of Dharmapala: “People spoke against me from the time I started my Buddhist work in India. If you are unable to adhere to my advice I am ever willing to leave Lanka and go live in another country. As a person who considers Sinhalese country, Sinhalese people and the Sinhala Language to be great, I cannot stand idly by as Sinhala Buddhists become non-believers. It is my nature to correct wrongs wherever I see them. It is evident that the Sinhalese are unwilling heed my advice borne of love. During the past 3 months I woke up 2 hours past the stroke midnight to write Dhamma advice for Sinhalese Buddhists. It is ill-suited for Samadhi Meditation to live among those who do not lend an ear to advise, those that are filled with hatred. The inheritance I received from my father I gave to my brothers to the furtherance of Buddhism. Not even two people with Metta and Karuna could be found here. Next month I leave for India; the country of Buddhas and Arahants leaving behind Lanka.”
Having spent a fortune and great deal of effort he saw to it that the Dharmarajika Vihara in Kolkata and the Mulagandhakuti Vihara in Varanasi Isipathana were built to their completion. He entered monkhood in July of 1931 as Siri Devamitta Dharmapala and attained Upasampada in January of 1934.
Way of the Bodhisattvas
His thoughts on advice given by the doctor:
“‘You should bed rest for six months without tiring yourself said the doctor. You should not speak. You should not exert yourself. You should not get upset. You should not talk shop’ thus he advised me. This shows I am very much similar to a dead body.”
“Now I am old. Stop spending money on my medications and donate it to Buddhist work.”
The last wish of the Great Bodhisattva:
“May my death be swift! May I be born twenty-five (25) times over for the propagation of the Blessed Buddha’s Dhamma.”