ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 16
Front Page Plus

Anagarika Dharmapala and Sinhala Buddhist ideology

Today, September 17 is the 142nd birth anniversary of the late Anagarika Dharmapala. The following are extracts of a speech made by Home Affairs Minister Sarath Amunugama to a UNESCO conference in Paris and recently edited for publication in the 2550 Buddha Jayanti felicitation volume launched by the London Buddhist Vihara yesterday.

Dharmapala's rationale for the defence of the Sinhala nation lay precisely in its historical custodianship of the Buddha's teachings. His anti-imperialism did not spring basically from a political or economic critique of imperialism. To him imperialism had to be resisted since it threatened the survival and integrity of the traditional Sinhala way of life which had preserved the Buddha's teaching.

Anagarika Dharmapala, founder of the London Buddhist Vihara, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, was the outstanding ideologue of the Sinhala Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka. He provided the conceptual framework within which the Sinhala Buddhist movement found expression. Later revivalists like Harischandra Walisinghe, Piyadasa Sirisena and John de Silva adopted and worked within Dharmapala's ideological framework.

Dharmapala was a prolific writer and speaker and has left behind a clear record of his observations on the plight of the Sinhala Buddhists of his time and his vision of their historic role. In a life of fifty years of agitation and exhortation he fashioned a philosophy which, while drawing from traditional heritage, was contemporary in that it enabled the Sinhalese to confront existing realities.

In sum, Dharmapala attempted to redefine the new identity of the Sinhala Buddhists within a pluralistic, colonial society. From the middle of the nineteenth century, the Sinhala Buddhists had made tentative efforts (religious disputations, a "save the Bo tree" campaign, anti-Christian pamphleteering) at halting the missionary advance. It was Dharmapala who finally channelled these ad hoc responses into a powerful and effective oppositional platform, which was open to all Sinhala Buddhists, irrespective of their primary caste, class and regional affiliations. Indeed, this platform was open to everybody who identified himself with the interests of Sinhala Buddhists. Many of the earlier workers and benefactors of Dharmapala's missions were Westerners and Indians who sympathised with his philosophy.

A critique of colonial rule

Dharmapala began with an analysis of the realities of colonial rule: the Sinhala Buddhists were politically impotent. The Kandyan treaty of 1815, whereby the chieftains ceded their kingdom to the British on written guarantees, was a dead letter. In the economic sphere, Buddhist lands were expropriated, capital was mainly in the hands of non-Buddhists, and demographic changes induced by capitalism were to their disadvantage. The majority of the Sinhala Buddhists were reduced to the position of consumers of foreign trade goods. Culturally, their traditional institutions were threatened by the spread of missionary activity.

Central to Dharmapala's critique of colonialism was his refutation of the imperialist-missionary ideology. The sine qua non of colonial ideology in Ceylon was the rejection of the claims of the Sinhalese regarding the merits of their religion and culture. As the missionaries informed Dharmapala in his schooldays, Buddhists were worshippers of clay idols and false gods, while the ancient culture of the Sinhalese was symbolised by old-world customs and the ruins of temples.

Dharmapala launched a frontal attack on the concept of English superiority. He reversed the existing relationship and contrasted the past of English civilisation with that of the Sinhalese.

In place of the imperialist stereotype of the coloured man as a savage and heathen, Dharmapala, with a sense of mass psychology, substituted his own stereotype of the Englishman as a barbarian.

In contrast, the Sinhalese were portrayed as the heirs to a magnificent civilisation:

“What other nation on earth is there which could boast of a history of the island, a history of the great line of kings, a history of religion, a history of sacred architectural shrines, a history of the sacred tree, a history of the sacred relics?

“Under the influence of the Tathagatha's religion of righteousness, the people flourished. Kings spent all their wealth in building temples, public baths, dagobas, libraries, monasteries, rest houses, hospitals for man and beast, schools, tanks, seven-storied mansions, waterworks and beautified the city of Anuradhapura, whose fame reached Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India and other countries.” (Righteousness, p. 481)

This grandiose view of ancient Sri Lanka as the centre of a great Buddhist civilisation was made into an article of faith by the Buddhists -- as compensation for their impotence in colonial times. It reinforced the view that Sinhalese polity must essentially be Buddhist.

Dharmapala's rationale for the defence of the Sinhala nation lay precisely in its historical custodianship of the Buddha's teachings. His anti-imperialism did not spring basically from a political or economic critique of imperialism. To him imperialism had to be resisted since it threatened the survival and integrity of the traditional Sinhala way of life which had preserved the Buddha's teaching.

In doing so, Dharmapala gave contemporary meaning to two fundamental concerns which are evident in the history of the Sinhalese. The first is the fear that the Sinhalese are a "beleaguered nation"; a numerically small community surrounded by hostile alien races. The classic utterance of the youthful Dutugemunu -- the epic hero of the Sinhalese -- that he sleeps huddled up because he is constricted by the sea on one side and the Tamils on the other, which is part of a predominant Sinhalese myth, encapsulates this historic concern. The chronicles of the Sinhalese reinforce this view of isolation and vulnerability: the Aryan Sinhalese are threatened by the Dravidian Tamils. The other concern related to the first, is the need for the Sinhalese to overcome -- be it by the use of force -- these hostile and restrictive forces since theirs is a historic mission, the safeguarding of Buddhism.

These two concerns, which always predominated in the Sinhalese "psyche", were spelt out and brought into the open by Dharmapala:

“Two things are before us, whether to be slaves and allow ourselves to be effaced out of national existence, or make a constitutional struggle for the preservation of our nation from moral decay. We have a duty to perform to our religion, to our children and our children's children, and not allow this holy land of ours to be exploited by the liquor monopolist and the whisky dealer.” (Righteousness, p. 509)

Step towards a Buddhist identity

But what were the distinctive steps taken by the Sinhala Buddhists of this time to reinforce their identity? Here we find that scholars like Obeyesekere and Gombrich have tended to emphasise innovations on the part of the laity (Obeyesekere, 1979, Gombrich, 1982). However the fundamental problem regarding Buddhist polity does not rest with changes in lay organisation. Rather, it pertains more to the total Buddhist organisation which encompasses developments in the Sangha, their interrelationships with the laity, and the creation of a complex relationship in which the Sangha and its protectors -- be it kings or, as it now stands, lay leaders -- interact with and reinforce each other.

Viewed in this manner, developments in Sri Lankan Buddhism under colonial rule assume a certain coherence and continuity. The highlights of this development were:-

  • the growth of new Buddhist fraternities (nikaya), particularly on the southern seaboard
  • the segmentation of such sects
  • the isolation of the chief monasteries of Malwatte and Asgiriya
  • the rise of Buddhist scholarship and disputation among monks on points of Vinaya
  • the growth of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas as schools of instruction for monks and centres of learning and discussion
  • the proliferation of Pirivenas in other parts of the country
  • the renewal of Buddhist missionary activity
  • the growth of the Buddhist Theosophical Society
  • the founding of the Mahabodhi Society.

An early step in the revival movement was to bring monks into the city and endow them with temples, which were in many cases mansions of the new elite donated, as by the kings of the past, to the Sangha. This led to the creation in the cities of a crucial institution of the Buddhist revival, the Dayaka Sabha. These were committees of lay-supporters of temples who assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the temple, provided food and clothing for the monks and sponsored activities such as teaching of the Dhamma to schoolchildren, discussions on religious and cultural issues, and collection of money for religious activities. These Dayaka Sabhas were the main instrument of Sangha-laity co-operation and were eventually to become the basic tier of Sinhala Buddhist organisation. Activists of the Buddhist revival were all members of such Dayaka Sabhas spread throughout the country.

Transformation of the monk's role

With respect to the clergy, Dharmapala consistently emphasised its societal function. He spoke admiringly of the self-sacrifice and dedication of Christian missionaries who forsake their kith and kin and live under trying conditions in Africa and Australia. But "it is a tragedy that our monks think only of their convenience and do not try to spread the Sasana of the Buddha in surrounding lands" (Sarasavi Sandaresa, 6 March 1894). He therefore undertook to recruit a number of Sinhalese monks for missionary work in India and England, and undertook personally to pay for their travel, board and lodging (Sarasavi Sandaresa, 6 March 1894).

But this clerical involvement in the "good of the world" was at the expense of meditation and striving for salvation. The scale of sanctity in Buddhism is measured in terms of distance from mundane, societal activity.

In this paradigm, a Buddhist must progress from the 5 precepts observed by the layman to the 227 precepts (sanvara silaya) which are prescribed for the Upasampada Sangha. In real life Buddhists would, to greater or lesser extent, traverse a section of the continuum.

In modern times the observation of sila became a highly visible aspect of a monk's vocation. With the commitment of the monk to live in urban society this became a primary index to a Buddhist's prestige rather than meditation, which is the basic aspect of ascetic salvation-striving. Progressively, the Buddhist monk's role in society as a disciplined, benevolent activist was emphasised at the expense of salvation-striving.

The changing role of the layman

If the role of the monk was being transformed, so was the role of the Buddhist layman. According to pristine Buddhism, the layman plays only a peripheral role in the striving for nirvana. He is too weak to pursue the path of salvation as he is not willing to shed his societal attachments. For him, the Buddha propounded a social ethic which Weber characterised as "an insufficiency ethic of the weak" (Weber, 1962, p. 215).

In terms of popular religion, the layman looked on the observation of the lay ethic as a means of merit-making (pin) which enhanced his favourable kamma, preparing the way for a more rigorous salvation —striving in a future birth. Another object of such merit-making was to ensure rebirth at the time of Maitreya Buddha's appearance on earth so that his personal intervention could be obtained in salvation-seeking.

Dharmapala's objective at this point was to build a tightly knit, well-disciplined Buddhist congregation with a common corpus of belief and awareness of its strength as a politico-religious group. In this, he was continuing the work begun by the Theosophists. For this purpose several changes in traditional Buddhist lay practice and belief had to be effected. First, an effort was made to separate canonical teachings from popular religious practices. Many of these rituals which did not have a direct scriptural rationale were dismissed as "excrescences", survivals of Hindu practices which were antithetical, or at least irrelevant, to Buddhism. The best statement of such fundamentalist Buddhism was incorporated in the Buddhist catechism which was the joint product of Olcott, Sumanagala and Dharmapala, who may be considered the ideologues of this viewpoint (Olcott, 1967, vol. 4, pp. 468-9).

Secondly, there was an attempt to establish a fundamentalist, scriptural Buddhism which would have been inconceivable in the times of Sinhalese kings. The full resources of Dharmapala's propaganda skills — in newspapers, pamphlets, lectures — were used to this end. Indeed, the use of mass media technology was a crucial factor in the spread of this fundamentalist view of Buddhism. Access to Buddhist texts, particularly the Vinaya Pitaka (rules of discipline) previously restricted to a handful of monks, was now made available to many at little cost. These texts and commentaries on doctrine and practice were discussed, edited and published, providing a public measuring-stick whereby both lay and clerical behaviour could be evaluated.

Finally, if the Sinhala Buddhists were to be organised into a viable socio-political entity, it became necessary to enunciate for them a code of lay ethics. While the Vinaya Pitaka laid down a code of behaviour and discipline in great detail for the clergy, there was no parallel code for laymen, except for some injunctions of the Buddha such as the Sigalovada Sutta.

This lack of concern with lay ethics is perfectly congruent with the salvation-goals and methods of the Buddha. But in the political context of Dharmapala's time, such a unifying code was of paramount importance. Dharmapala, therefore, compiled and published a lay code which he entitled a Daily code for the laity, wherein he set out 200 rules for the lay Buddhist under the following headings:

1. The manner of eating food. (25 rules)
2. Chewing betel. (6 rules)
3. Wearing clean clothes. (5 rules)
4. How to use the lavatory. (4 rules)
5. How to behave while walking on the road. (10 rules)
6. How to behave in public gatherings. (19 rules)
7. How females should conduct themselves. (30 rules)
8. How children should conduct themselves. (18 rules)
9. How the laity should conduct themselves before the Sangha. (5 rules)
10. How to behave in buses and trains. (8 rules)
11. What village protection societies should do. (8 rules)
12. On going to see sick persons. (2 rules)
13. Funerals. (3 rules)
14. The carters' code. (6 rules)
15. Sinhalese clothes. (6 rules)
16. Sinhalese names. (2 rules)
17. What teachers should do. (2 rules)
18. How servants should behave. ( 9 rules)
19. How festivals should be conducted. (5 rules)
20. How lay devotees should conduct themselves at temple.
21. How children should treat their parents. (14 rules)
22. Domestic ceremonies. (1 rule)

In this lay charter was combined Dharmapala's fundamentalist interpretation of Buddhism and his view of corporate traditional Sinhala culture. What is significant is the attempt to reconcile Buddhists to living a "successful" life in society, liked by parents, relatives, friends and priests, capitalistic but generous and considerate. It was in essence a bourgeois world view, which takes for granted the prevailing social hierarchy. For example, one section of Dharmapala's lay code is devoted to the obligations of servants and carters. Servants are exhorted to work hard and promptly, be enthusiastic about the worldly success of their employer and avoid any hostility to the employer by word or thought, much less deed.

This charter performed two vital functions. First, it could unite the Sinhala Buddhists under the leadership of the native elite. It was a common platform cutting across caste and kin lines and eliminating village cultural practices which had a specific regional or caste focus. Secondly, it incorporated all those puritanical characteristics which were proclaimed as desirable by the missionaries. Thus the national bourgeoisie, upwardly mobile and anxious to drop its village affiliations, could easily approve of it and adopt it as their ideal life-style.

The modern Anagarika

The same functional requirements that were bringing subtle change in the monks' vocation were also creating new forms of religious commitment. The absence of a lay Buddhist authority, classically represented by the king, which had forced a change in the monks' role in contemporary Sinhala society, also led to the creation by Dharmapala of the role of the modern Anagarika.

The Anagarika (homeless) role which was central to Dharmapala's religious charisma was probably born, as I shall describe later, out of his own psychological needs. But he was able to adapt them to the functional needs of modern Buddhism. According to Buddhism,a monk is an Anagarika, homeless, celibate and dedicated to his personal salvation, as evidenced by his repudiation of all ties that bind him to society (Weber, 1962, p. 214). An important element of Buddhist religious authority is derived from renunciation, which finds its clearest expression in the life of the Buddha, a model for all Buddhists.

Dharmapala too was a renouncer coming from the richest of Colombo Sinhala families. He renounced all those symbols of affluence that his contemporaries sought and dedicated himself to the revival of Buddhism. Obeyesekere attributes this to an "identity crisis" caused by cultural marginality (Obeyesekere, 1979, p. 296).


In the final perspective, what can be said of the role played by Dharmapala? During the times of Sinhala royalty, the Buddhist church and its priests had been protected by the king. The extinction of Sinhala royalty deprived the church of a benefactor, and the church had lost all power to enforce its control over society. This was recognised by the Christian missionaries, who actively challenged the unprotected Buddhist church and made impressive gains in converts. Once the national religion, Buddhism became merely one of a number of competing churches.

Furthermore, the major institutions of Buddhism were linked with the feudal social structure at a time when the spread of capitalism was redefining social relationships. A readjustment, a charting of new directions was urgently needed if a Buddhist social fabric was to be maintained. It was Dharmapala who imposed his vision of the inseparability of Buddhism and Sinhala society, and promoted the emergence of a modern version of the historical relationship between religion and lay society that had existed in Sri Lanka since the third century BC when Buddhism was first introduced to the country.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.