Anagarika Dharmapala, a spiritual odyssey
This is adapted from the oration presented by the writer at the
public meeting at Buddhagaya Centre, India, to celebrate the 150th
anniversary of the birth of Ven. Anagarika Dharmapala. The meeting took
place on September 17 with the participation of Ven. K. Medhankara Thera,
prelate in-charge of the Buddhagaya Centre, guest of honour R.K.
Khandelwal, Commissioner, Magadha Division, India and the chief guest,
M.R.K. Lenagala, Deputy High Commissioner, Sri Lanka High Commission, in
India. Prasanna Jayasuriya, president Maha Bodhi Society, India, Chaired
the session. Dr. Winston de Silva, Founder Saviya Development
Foundation, Sri Lanka, sponsored the program.
The key and crucial concept of this celebration is gratitude. This
assembly takes place, under the overarching shadow of the
universally-renowned Sacred Bodhi Tree.
The life-story of the Buddha forms part of the human cultural
heritage of our day. His early youth was spent in an ambience of ultra
royal luxury, provided by a fond father, who doted upon his crown -
prince son. Instead of sleep-walking through the fabulous world, created
for his distraction, the reflective young prince, launched upon a quest
to unsnarl the quintessential truths of the recurrent cycle of human
Leaving a life of lavish luxury, the ascetic prince took to the
dreaded and forbidding wilderness, in his great renunciation.
After six years of self-torture, he was fully convinced that the
right way was the middle path.
His mind made up, ascetic Siddhartha, sat under the Bodhi Tree,
totally resolved, that he will rise from this seat only after the
attainment of Supreme Enlightenment, whatever may be the forces arrayed
against him. Exactly in terms of his unshaken determination, ascetic
Siddhartha rose from his seat, spiritually transformed into the
Supremely Enlightened Buddha.
In his transcendental sense of gratitude, the Buddha kept on gazing
at the Sacred Bodhi Tree, for a prolonged period of time.
This is where we return to the central theme of gratitude.
This enlightened gesture has, converted Buddhagaya into a universal
symbol of gratitude. Where else in the whole of human history, can you
find such a noble individual displaying his gratitude to an inanimate
Anagarika Dharmapala, increased that sense of gratitude multi-fold.
Through his excruciating suffering, he, once again turned over this holy
site of Buddhagaya, as a sacred site to the whole of mankind.
He put an end to the brutal and inhuman cruelty, that had overwhelmed
this supreme venue of compassion.
When we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala,
we must become fully and totally aware, that he is a noble human being,
who restored the fountain and origin of Buddhism, to the totality of the
We can retrace the stages of the Anagarika's life, to take a proper
perspective of his evolution, as an exceptionally influential modern
missionary. To begin with, let us ask an intriguing question. Was he
mysteriously inspired by some divine or a similar force! It occurs to me
that it could very well be.
The greatest Buddhist missionary in the whole of history is Emperor
Dharmasoka. Anagarika's name is Dharmapala.
Many are not aware that Emperor Dharmasoka had another name. It went
this way, "Devanapiya Piyadasino Raja" (King Piyadasa beloved of gods).
Consider the second name of Anagarika. As a Bhikkhu he had the name "Devamitta".
This too implies "Beloved of gods".
As Buddhists, we cannot help but wonder, whether these
name-similarities, may imply that Dharmasoka's missionary urges,
re-incarnated in Anagarika in some mysterious way.
Emperor Dharmasoka criss-crossed Buddhist India in a holy tour. The
Emperor established edicts to identify the sites associated with the
Buddha and Buddhism.
Anagarika was born into a Sri Lankan family, deeply entrenched in
Sinhala and Buddhist cultural values. His ancestry is from a class of
rural, aristocrats in the deep south. His father Don Carolis
Hewavitarana migrated to Colombo to set himself up in business.
(Incidentally, the migration of southerners to the city seeking a
fortune is somewhat of a classic in the social tradition of low country
Don Carolis, eventuality married the daughter of a Colombo
Anagarika (born Don David Hewavitharana) was their first child. From
early on an internal contradiction troubled this young person. At home
the domestic environment was fervently Buddhistic.
But, the elitist institutions he was sent to for his formal education
troubled him to the very depth of his little soul as they attempted to
inculcate an alien ethos within him.
This disillusionment about the direction taken by some social forces
that seemed propelled by a hidden motive to de-stabilise the perennial
values of the traditional Sri Lankan community stirred him into a state
It is quite apt at this stage to focus on a character-trait of the
Anagarika, that some people considered to be fairly undisciplined. In
his tours of the villages, riding his favourite cart, he displayed most
of the time a proclivity to use harsh expressions when addressing the
To me there is a perfectly tenable explanation to this aspect of his
behaviour. A parallel instance will perhaps make the situation clear.
You travel along with a companion. Suddenly you see that a venomous
cobra is poised to sting your companion. In such a context you would
never say, "My dear friend, could you please be a little careful. A
poisonous snake is quite likely to strike you."
No reasonable person will resort to such verbal finesses in such an
alarming context. The average man will scream: "You fool, get away
quickly a serpent is about to kill you." Anagarika was fully aware of
the danger towards which the masses were sliding fast. In such a moment
of imminent danger, the would-be victim's attention must be grabbed
quickly. That's why he used unsettling language to set off an alarm.
Early in life - at 20 - he took the vow of celibacy. Unburdened, with
no worldly encumbrances to weigh him down he engrossed himself fully in
his missionary life.
His stirring words at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893,
ushered in the age of Buddhist missionary activism. Anagarika's profound
commitment to truth and his spirited advocacy of the compassionate
dispensation of the Buddha, earned him accolades and won the attention
of many in the West towards the healing doctrine of the Buddha.
His adoration of his benefactress Elizabeth Forster, was a strange
spin-off of his address at Chicago. She extended this inspired spiritual
activist, her fullest cooperation and unstinted patronage. She was keen
that he should utilise the funds to make his life better, while
promoting the cause of endangered Buddhist establishments in the birth
place of that universal faith.
Anagarika paid her a heart-felt tribute describing her as the "Queen
of Righteousness." Anagarika Dharmapala's strenuous mission bore fruit.
But he was not alive to witness the final redemption of his pledge and
Buddhagaya been declared officially a Buddhist shrine.
We are all dedicated witnesses, to the holy path he opened to men and
women of all faiths to visit and worship, Buddhagaya unhindered.
When we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Anagarika, India has
turned out to be a destination par excellence, for multitudes of
visitors from all parts of the world. While we make the 150th birth
anniversary of Anagarika, I am surprised no end by yet another seeming
Incidentally, as great good fortune would have it, today is also the
birthday of Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, India. The Anagarika was born
in 1864. Today, Narendra Modi is 64.
That's not all. Narendra Modi, in his first official visit to Japan,
spent quality time in Kyoto, the Buddhist spiritual city of Japan.
The two PMs, signed the Kyoto-Varanasi partnership agreement to
strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the fields of culture, arts,
academics, heritage, conservation and city modernisation.
The news said: "Kyoto, is a world class heritage city of the kind
Prime Minister Modi wants to replicate in Varanasi." Isn't it
miraculous, that the Indian PM, born on the same day as the Anagarika,
emphasising the development of Benares - a supreme centre of Buddhist
We may or may not believe in miracles. But couldn't it very well be
that PM Modi, a devout Hindu is an incarnation of the Anagarika, who
wished to be born in India even 25 times, if needed?
Besides, Benares - (Saranath) was a centre that the Anagarika
lavished so much attention on.