Just over a century ago there was born a man destined to burn with a desire to spur the people of Sri Lanka with a deep sense of patriotism, nationalism and service. His enthusiasm and tireless efforts made him drive his human frame to lengths beyond common human endurance and in a noble life dedicated to national and religious causes, he has left inspiration for his compatriots who live today. That noble personality was none other than Anagarika Dharmapala, a distinguished son of Lanka, who saw the plight his people had fallen into – their religion neglected, their lives dispirited and drifting into something alien and unnatural.
Hewavitharnes were a wealthy business Buddhist family in Colombo. A child born to this family on 17 September 1864 was named Don David in keeping with the practice of the day when parents named their children with popular English names. While attending a Catholic school, young David fashioned his life according to Buddhist customs and traditions under the care of his mother Mrs Mallika Hewavitharne. He came under the influence of Colonel Steele Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, the two Americans who founded the Theosophical Society in New York and came over to India and Sri Lanka to play a leading role in the Buddhist revival at a time when Buddhists were suffering under Christian missionaries in a colonial setting. Teenager David got involved with the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) activities here.
Working as a junior clerk in the Department of Education, in the mid 1880s, his interest in Buddhist literature made him study Pali in addition to Sinhala and English. He soon abandoned the householder’s life, changed his name to Dharmapala, adopted the simple dress of a Buddhist devotee and became an Anagarika (homeless).
After a trip to India with Madame Blavatsky, with permission from his parents, he took residence at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. Having obtained leave for three months, he joined Colonel Olcott and C. W. Leadbeater, first Principal of Ananda College, in their campaign for setting up Buddhist schools.
While touring the country, he saw for the first time the plight of the poor villagers who suffered without proper roads, houses, hospitals or schools. He was convinced that a nation’s greatness did not depend on the wealth and prosperity of a few urban families. The masses in the rural areas had to feel happy and contented.
He realised the need for freedom from colonial masters who did not care for national heritage and values. He decided to serve the people and resigned from government service in January 1886 even though he had been successful at the General Clerical Service Examination – an extraordinary achievement for a Sinhala boy at the time. “I have to be active and activity means agitation according to constitutional methods”, he wrote to a high-ranking British official.
Working in the interest and welfare of the Buddhist people, he was general secretary of the Buddhist section of the BTS, manager of the ‘Sarasavi Sandaresa’, Sinhalese newspaper and the Buddhist Press, manager of Buddhist schools and assistant secretary of the Buddhist Defence Committee from March 1886 to December 1890.
On a visit to Buddha Gaya in 1891, he was appalled at the condition of the holy place and vowed to surrender his life to rescue it from neglect. In May 1891 he founded the Maha Bodhi Society to revive Buddhism in India and promote it in the West. To this day the Society remains an influential organization. Shortly after, he took four monks to Buddha Gaya.
He gave his first English lecture at the Calcutta Albert Hall in October 1891 on the kinship between Buddhism and Hinduism. The following year he started the Maha Bodhi Journal and attended the Chicago Parliament of Religions on invitation. This became a regular feature in later years.
Pilgrimages to places of Buddhist worship in India are now made regularly. It was Anagarika Dharmapala who organized the first pilgrimage in December 1894. Buddha Gaya was then under the Hindu Mahant who objected to Buddhist activities being done there. When the Mahant refused to allow Buddhist pilgrims to stay in the resthouse, Anagarika Dharmapala managed to get land from the government to build a sermon hall with funds from the Maha Bodhi Society. Freedom of worship at the temple was obtained and the monks stayed in the Dharmasala. He also purchased land at Isipatana (Sarnath), the place where the Buddha preached the first sermon after Enlightenment.
He started the weekly newspaper ‘Sinhala Bauddhaya’ in 1906 and the paper exists to this day. In 1912 he started touring the country telling the people not to eat beef, to avoid liquor and to follow Buddhist principles. He used strong language to impress on the people what he believed in. He stressed on the need to stand up to colonial officers, specially the European planters.
He was in Calcutta when the 1915 riots broke out in Sri Lanka. He was not permitted to leave Calcutta from June 1915 to 1920. He continued his missionary work and built Viharas in Calcutta and Sarnath and established the British Buddhist Mission in 1926 in a house purchased from the money from the firm H. Don Carolis, the Trustees of his father’s estate, and from Mrs. Mary Foster, an American lady who was giving a monthly donation.
He spent his last years in Sarnath having completed the Mulagandhakuti Vihara there. His last visit to Sri Lanka was in 1931 when he established the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust. On 31 July 1931, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk with the name Sri Devamitta Dhammapala and received higher ordination in January 1933. He died at Sarnath on 29 April 1933. The room he occupied and some of his belongings are being preserved. His last words were: “Let me be reborn……I would like to be born again twenty five times to spread Lord Buddha’s Dhamma”.