It is well known that in 1891, Anagarika Dharmapala initiated the first revival of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth where most of the people who were attracted to him belonged to the upper strata of society. What is less known is that Anagarika Dharmapala inspired a mass movement of South Indian Dalits [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Taking the Dhamma to the Dalits

As we commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of the Anagarika Dharmapala on September 17, the following articles look at his pioneering work in South India and his mission to free Lankans from the colonial yoke

It is well known that in 1891, Anagarika Dharmapala initiated the first revival of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth where most of the people who were attracted to him belonged to the upper strata of society. What is less known is that Anagarika Dharmapala inspired a mass movement of South Indian Dalits including Tamils to embrace Buddhism, half a century before Ambedkar.

Anagarika’s earliest connection with India had been with South India. In fact, it was to the Theosophical Society in Adyar in Madras that he made not only his first Indian visit at the age of 20 in the company of Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott, but it was also the place from where he began his great career of dharmaduta activities.

Dharmapala built on contributions made by Thass. Even before Dharmapala visited Sarnath, Benares and Buddha Gaya, Pandit Iyothee Thass (Das) (1845–1914), born to a Dalit “pariah” family in Madras initiated a social transformation of the down-trodden in South India.

In 1886, Thass had issued a revolutionary declaration that untouchables were not Hindus. Following this declaration, he established the Dravida Mahajana Sabha in 1891. During the 1891 census, he urged Dalits to register themselves as “casteless Dravidians” instead of identifying themselves as Hindus. Thass argued that Tamil Dalits were originally Buddhists.

In the meantime, Anagarika Dharmapala had formed the Maha Bodhi Society on May 31, 1891 first in Colombo, and later established its headquarters in Calcutta with the intention of restoring Buddhist shrines in Buddha Gaya. This became the single most important event in the history of the Buddhist revival in India. Two months later, he took four Ramanna Nikaya monks to Buddhagaya. They were the first modern Dharmaduta monks from Sri Lanka to propagate the dhamma in India.

In January 1892, the Maha Bodhi journal was established. Although it was a demi-quarter size journal of 8 pages, it attracted worldwide attention. In fact, it was this journal that led to the invitation for Dharmapala to attend the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, USA in 1893.

A hundred years later, this writer got the opportunity to make a 10 minute presentation at the Parliament of World Religions.

In October 1892, a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society was formed in Akyab (presently known as Sittwe in the island of Arakan (presently known as Rakhine in Myanmar) when Dharmapala visited Akyab with Col. Olcott. The donations given by Arakan Buddhists at the Maha Bodhi Society there helped Dharmapala to hire a house in Calcutta where the Maha Bodhi Society work was carried out until May 1904 and then closed for a

Young Dharmapala

time. In February 1894, Dharmapala visited Bangkok as the guest of Prince Rajaski, and a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society was formed with the help of Prince Vivit and other Princes.

Iyothee Thass who established several schools for the panchama caste in Madras came into contact with Col. H.S. Olcott, President of the International Theosophical Society who had also started free schools for panchama children in Madras. Thass now requested Olcott’s assistance for the re-establishment of ‘Tamil Buddhism’. Olcott then wrote to the Venerable Hikkaduwe Sumangala Nayaka Thera, the Principal of Vidyodaya Pirivena and a leading figure of the Sri Lanka Buddhist revival. In the presence of Dharmapala and another Buddhist monk who had arrived from Sri Lanka, a public meeting to form a Dravidian Buddhist Society for the ‘lower’ castes was held in Madras.

Thass then proceeded to Sri Lanka with a delegation of prominent Dalits, and met Hikkaduwe Sumangala Nayaka Thera at a large gathering of Buddhists. The delegates from Madras observed the Five Precepts at the Vidyodaya Pirivena. With the blessings from Sumangala Nayaka Thera, Thass returned to Madras and started the “Sakya Buddhist Society” (also known as the Indian Buddhist Association).

The Sakya Buddhist Society began its activities in 1898 with religious meetings on Sundays, lectures on religious and social issues and the members taking the Five Precepts. Dharmapala received in 1898 an invitation to attend a meeting held on 8th August 1898 in Royapettah in Madras convened by Col. Olcott and Dr. Ayothee Thass. He attended the meeting which paved the way for many from South India to turn to Buddhism.

A year later, Dharmapala received another invitation to come to Madras to open a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society in South India. A Buddhist Young Men’s Association was now formed with Anagarika Dharmapala and Thass as joint secretaries. The Sakya Buddhist Society monks conducted Buddhist rituals for the large numbers of pilgrims who visited the Maha Bodhi Society; thus it soon became an international Buddhist centre.

A small Vihara was built in Perambur in Madras with Rs. 3,000 sent by Dharmapala out of the funds donated to him by Mrs. Mary Foster. The Maha Bodi Society office was located there. Earlier, Dharmapala had encouraged the Sinhalese monk Ven. Nilwakke Somananada Thera to learn

Dharmapala (seated-centre) with representatives from different countries at a meeting at the Mahabodhi Society Headquarters in Calcutta. Pix courtesy-- recently launched coffee table book on the life of Anagarika Dharmapala

Tamil with the intention of bringing him to South India to propagate the Dhamma. Somananda Thera became the first resident monk of the Perambur Vihara, and was the first resident dharmaduta monk in Tamil Nadu. He also excelled as a Buddhist scholar. He translated the Dhammapada into Tamil which is known to be the first translation of the Dhammapada into Tamil. He also translated several other Buddhist books and many pamphlets into Tamil. These books and pamphlets were published by the Perambur Vihara. Within a short period of time, the Perambur Vihara became a very active Buddhist centre in Tamil Nadu.

Soon after starting the Perambur Vihara, Vesak was celebrated in 1900 for the first time in South India – just four years after Vesak was celebrated in Calcutta. A Tamil booklet on the ‘Life and Teaching of Bhagavan Buddha’ was released on this historic day. By this time, a large number of Tamils in South India had developed an interest in Buddhism, so that 2,000 copies of its second edition were printed, soon after its first release.

Thass established a weekly magazine called Oru Paisa Tamizhan (‘One Paisa Tamilian’) in Madras in 1907, which served as a newsletter linking all the new branches of the Sakya Buddhist Society. The magazine discussed issues relating to his new “Tamil Buddhism”, and Indian history from a Buddhist point of view. The new Tamil Buddhist community in South India thus identified themselves as being the original Indian Buddhists who had been put down by the Brahmin caste and were now only making a return to their earlier Buddhist heritage. According to Thass, the pariahs were originally Buddhists and owned the land which had later been robbed from them by Aryan invaders.

Thass was thus, the pioneer of a new Tamil Buddhist movement in South India. He gave Buddhism a mass base, not only in Tamil Nadu, but also in parts of Burma and South Africa where Untouchable migrant labourers from South India were settled.

An active member of the Mahabodhi Society Prof. P. Lakshmi Narasu, a Tamil who became a Buddhist founded the Madras Buddhist Association. Prof. Narasu wrote the book ‘The Essence of Buddhism’ in 1907. The introduction to the book was written by Anagarika Dharmapala and the book went into several editions and was also translated into Japanese and Czechoslovakian.

It was later the basis for a popular Tamil book by Appaduraiyar Putharathu Aru­laram (“Buddha’s Compassionate Reli­gion”).

When the Buddhist delegation from Sri Lanka attended the Annual Conference of the Indian National Congress in 1923, Appaduraiyar joined the Sri Lanka delegation to press for a resolution to transfer Bodh Gaya to the Buddhists. In the 1920s, a “Ceylon Tamil Buddhist Association” inspired by the South Indian Tamil Buddhist revival and in close collaboration with Sinhalese Buddhists was sponsoring the propagation of Tamil Buddhist literature.

It was Dharmapala who ‘kindled the fire’ and attracted at the beginning, a large number of intellectuals to turn to Buddhism and inspired the continuation of the mass movement in South India although Thass pioneered the Tamil Buddhist movement in South India. Activities initiated by Dharmapala were often carried out even without Dharmapala’s physical presence while he was engaged in diverse activities and campaigns in different parts of Asia including Japan, and in Europe and the US.

He stood for all Lankans; not just for the Sinhala-Buddhists

There is, sometimes, an erroneous conception among non-Buddhists that Anagarika Dharmapala spoke only for the Sinhala Buddhists. After 150 years, the socio-cultural change that occurred involving all races and religions inhabiting this island is taken for granted. Truly, no one thinks about it.

As we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the man who turned the tide, the ethnic and religiously different citizens here feel this celebration is only for the Sinhala Buddhists. They are not a part of this celebration.

It is true that Dharmapala took up the lost reins of Emperor Ashoka and brought Buddhism back into circulation, especially in India. It was a stupendous effort and takes pride of place in Dharmapala’s c.v. Yet, let us ask ourselves, what did he do for us here in this island? For all the people who call themselves Sri Lankans? Ceylonese 150 years ago; for the Christians, Hindus, Muslims and others?
As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said in her beautiful poem ‘How do we love thee – let me count the ways’, let us count some ways in which we changed, recollecting that we were then ruled by the all-powerful British with methods that would make all in her colonies English – except in the colour of their skin.

All Lankans (Ceylonese) no longer had to register their children’s birth in a church and be given English names. With one powerful stroke, they had penetrated the deepest village, exchanging English names for ethnic ones.

Dharmapala gave a start by changing his own. David Hewavitarne became H. Dharmapala. The next generation of Lankans had one English name and one local name, and now they all have traditional names – Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims. Only a few preferred to remain with English names.

All races abandoned dressing like the British, especially womenfolk and took up their own Asian wear. Dharmapala introduced the low country women to an early version of the saree.

All, except a very few abandoned calling their parents Mummy, Daddy and began calling their parents according to old traditions.

It was no longer a shame to eat rice and curry, hoppers, string hoppers, dosai, buriyani and wattalappam in elite homes and public places .Otherwise it was English courses starting with soup and ending with English puddings.

These and more are now considered so normal that no one thinks who made the servile Lankans (Ceylonese) change en masse? Famous journalist of yesteryear D.B. Dhanapala in his book ’10 Patriots’ described the impact Dharmapala had on him even as a little child. On hearing of the lion roaring, he felt ashamed, he wrote, to bear an English name; he asked his father to immediately give him a Sinhala name as he was Sinhala. Not that only Sinhala counted.

So we celebrate the services of one man who made the changes with fearless wrathful oratory which was directed at his own Sinhala race constituting over 80 per cent of the population. A change resisted with all the power of the British whose sun, they felt, would never set. And for which Dharmapala was punished, with the judicial murder of his brother Edmund under the guise of Martial Law, and house arrest and exile for him in India for five long years.

Today, the non Sinhala Buddhists too are what they are, here in Sri Lanka, due to his efforts.
- M.P.

A clarion call in danger of being used for racial disharmony

By Mala Hewavitarne Weerasekera

As we remember the Anagarika Dharmapala on his 150th birth anniversary, a true understanding of the man and his message to the people must be conveyed. His clarion call to the Sinhala people is in grave danger of being misinterpreted and misused by elements out to cause religious and racial disharmony.

The period in which the Anagarika emerged as a stalwart and nationalist was a time of martial law. Though highly involved in the revival of Buddhism especially at Buddha Gaya, he moved very closely with other religious leaders in a joint struggle on behalf of all people of this country.
Renowned writer Gunadasa Amarasekera has written that Anagarika Dharmapala’s national political action was mainly two-fold: firstly, his struggle to liberate the Sinhalese people from the weak mindset of aping the foreign rulers and embracing Western values and culture; secondly, a socialist struggle to rebuild a society with high values. This, Amarasekera named as an economic struggle.

His famous call to the people “Sinhalaini Nagitive” (Sinhalese wake up!) often taken out of context as a racial instigation was really to shake the Sinhala community out of their lethargy to join forces with the other communities. He often held the Tamil and Muslim communities as examples of a more energetic people. He called for unity of action with a view to self-rule and freedom from colonial dictates.

The Anagarika held Tamil Leader Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan in very high esteem. He said, “The day you are taken away from Ceylon, from that day there will be no one to defend the poor, neglected Sinhalese. They are a doomed people with no one to guide and protect them.” These were his comments after listening to Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s speech at the Legislative Assembly of 1915.

The harshness of colonial rule and how it affected his near and dear ones is further illustrated in the stories of the 1915 riots.

As the Anagarika Dharmapala was in India, the colonial rulers arrested his brother Edmund on a false pretext and sent him to jail in Jaffna. There he contracted enteric fever. He had been on a mat on the floor with no treatment. Five days before his death the colonial rulers permitted his younger brother Dr. C. A. Hewavitarne to attend to his dying brother – but it was too late!

Edmund Hewavitarne died in November 1915, five months after he was sentenced to a life of “Rigorous Imprisonment”.

A large gathering honoured Edmund Hewavitarne as a patriot at his funeral. A 13-page petition was sent to the British authorities by his widow Sujatha Hewavitarne together with petitions and affidavits of leading monks and lay persons of different communities and by Mallika Hewavitarne (mother of Edmund and the Anagarika). Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan carried the petition addressed to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Andrew Bonar Law asking that Edmund Hewavitarne’s name be cleared, to London. It was upheld.

Governor Sir Robert Chalmers, KCB, was recalled to Britain for his mishandling of the riots. The new Governor Henry William Manning apologized on behalf of the British Empire to Mrs Edmund Hewavitarne for the miscarriage of justice. He and Lady Manning later became personal friends of the Hewavitarne family.

When he was 29, the Anagarika participated in the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893 “representing diverse religions”. His was a vision against colonial rule for the development of his country.

(The writer is a grand-niece of the Anagarika)

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