Anagarika Dharmapala was a leading figure in initiating two outstanding features of Buddhism in the twentieth century. He was 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.
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.
Born David Hewavitarne in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was then a British colony known as Ceylon
, so Hewavitarne`s state education was a Christian one: he attended Christian College, Kotte and the Colombo Academy. But the historical tide in Ceylon was beginning to turn in Buddhism`s favour. 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.
The young Dharmapala helped Colonel Olcott in his work, particularly by acting as his translator. Dharmapala also became quite close to Madame Blavatsky, who advised him to study Pā li and to work for the good of humanity - which is what he did. It was at this time that he changed his name to Dharmapala (meaning `Guardian of the Dharma`).
In 1891 Anagarika Dharmapala was on a pilgrimage to the recently restored Mahabodhi Temple, where Siddhartha Gautama - the Buddha - attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, India. Here he experienced a shock to find the temple in the hands of a Saivite priest, the Buddha image transformed into a Hindu icon and Buddhists barred from worship. As a result, he began an agitation movement.
The Mahabodhi society at Colombo was founded in 1891 but its offices were soon moved to Calcutta the following year in 1892. One of its primary aims was the restoration to Buddhist control of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, the chief of the four ancient Buddhist holy sites. To accomplish this, Dharmapala initiated a lawsuit against the Brahmin priests who had held control of the site for centuries. After a protracted struggle, this was successful, with the partial restoration of the site to the management of the Maha Bodhi Society in 1949.
Due to the efforts of Dharmapala, the site of the Buddha`s parinibbana (physical death) at Kushinagar has once again become a major attraction for Burmese Buddhists, as it was for many centuries previously. Mahabodhi Movement in 1890s held the Muslim Rule in India responsible for the decay of Buddhism in India. Anagarika Dharmapala did not hesitate to lay the chief blame for the decline of Buddhism in India at the door of Muslim fanaticism.
In 1893 Dharmapala was invited to attend the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago as a representative of `Southern Buddhism` - which was the term applied at that time to the Theravada. He was a great success and by his early thirties he was already a global figure, continuing to travel and give lectures and establish viharas around the world during the next forty years. At the same time he concentrated on establishing schools and hospitals in Ceylon and building temples and viharas in India. Among the most important of the temples he built was one at Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught. Here in 1933 he was ordained a bhikkhu, and he died at Sarnath in December of the same year, aged sixty-nine.
Dharmapala`s voluminous diaries have been published, and he also wrote some memoirs.
The above was adapted from Sangharakshita, Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century, Windhorse Publications 1996, with permission.
Contributions to Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism:
Dharmapala was one of the primary contributors to the Buddhist revival of the 19th century that led to the creation of Buddhist institutions to match those of the missionaries (schools, the YMBA, etc), and to the independence movement of the 20th century. DeVotta characterizes his rhetoric as having four main points: `(i) Praise for Buddhism and the Sinhalese culture (ii) Blame on the British imperialists, those who worked for them including Christians (iii) Fear that Buddhism in Sri Lanka was threatened with extinction and (iv) Hope for a rejuvenated Sinhalese Buddhist ascendancy` (78). He illustrated the first three points in a public speech:
`This bright, beautiful island was made into a Paradise by the Aryan Sinhalese before its destruction was brought about by the barbaric vandals. Its people did not know irreligion... Christianity and polytheism [i.e. Hinduism] are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, prostitution, licentiousness, lying and drunkenness... The ancient, historic, refined people, under the diabolism of vicious paganism, introduced by the British administrators, are now declining slowly away.`
He once praised the normal Tamil vadai seller for his courage and blamed the Sinhalese people who were lazy and called upon them to rise. He strongly protested against the killing of cattle and eating of beef.