The Theosophical Society (TS) opened its new headquarters in Adyar, near Madras, in 1882. New buildings were constructed, a library containing valuable Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts was established and a translation and publication programme was launched. Another significant development was the institutionalisation of the TS’ annual convention which was attended by representatives of TS branches [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Anagarika’s efforts to foster Buddhism in Asia began in Adyar

The 151st birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala fell on September 17

The Theosophical Society (TS) opened its new headquarters in Adyar, near Madras, in 1882. New buildings were constructed, a library containing valuable Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts was established and a translation and publication programme was launched.

Another significant development was the institutionalisation of the TS’ annual convention which was attended by representatives of TS branches in India and Ceylon.

Though started in Bombay, it was in Adyar that the Theosophical Society convention became a well organised feature.

“The delegates to the convention now begin arriving, and the whole of our house-room was occupied. It is always a strange sight to European friends to see the place filled at night by camping Indian delegates. Each brings his sleeping mat and rug and his pillow, and makes his choice of his share of floor area to spread them on” (Olcott; 1975:34).

Dharmapala attended these conventions from his 20th year. Just out of school, he had been taken to Adyar by Madame Blavatsky for the 1884 TS convention.

It was during this week in Adyar that he was instructed by Blavatsky to study Pali. Impressed by the gathering in Adyar, Dharmapala vowed “that henceforth my life should be devoted to the good of humanity.”

In 1886, he accompanied the Ramanya Nikaya monk Ilukwatte Medhankara to Adyar. Medhankara was a favourite of the ‘Theosophical Twins’ Blavatsky and Olcott:

“A word must be said about this Medhankara. He was of the Ramanya Nikaya, a young man truly holy in his life and aims to a degree that I have never seen equaled among the Bhikkus of Ceylon.

A part of each year it was his custom to retire into the forest and spend the time in meditation, subsisting on berries and such other food as came his way. Almost alone among the monks, he believed in the existence of our masters, and his strongest yearning was to go to Tibet in search of them” (Olcott; 1972:400).

In 1887, together with Leadbeater, the Anglican padre turned Theosophist, who joined him from Colombo, Dharmapala was one of the 127 participants in the Adyar assembly. By now he was the General Secretary of the Buddhist section of the Ceylon Theosophical Society and manager of its schools and press.

He was looked upon by the TS leadership as a very promising “brother” on account of his strong commitment and social connections in Ceylon.
A contingent from Calcutta, led by Norendranath Sen, also attended these conventions. Sen had attended these meetings from 1882.

His paper, the Indian Mirror, had drawn on the TS experience to suggest to provincial political associations in Bengal, Bombay and Madras to hold “a national assembly for India.” It was such a national assembly which became the precursor of the Indian National Congress.

Visit to Buddhagaya
In December 1889 Dharmapala was back in Adyar. This year he was accompanied by Noguchi, a Japanese Buddhist who had arrived in Colombo en route to Adyar. Noguchi aimed to persuade Olcott to return with him to Japan.

As he described his mission “(Olcott) has helped the Buddhists of Ceylon to work a change for the better in their religion, so wonderful that no one could believe it without going to that island and talking with the priests and the people” (Olcott, 1975: 82).

He wanted Olcott to do the same for Japan. Acclaimed by the convention, the TS leader agreed. At the request of Noguchi he decided to take young Dharmapala with him.

Though ill for the better part of the tour, Dharmapala created a good impression in Japan and established links with Buddhist groups there. These contacts helped Dharmapala to draw Japanese monks to Sri Lanka, two of whom, accompanied him to Buddhagaya.

Thanks to this tour Dharmapala was able to study Olcott’s “technique” of approaching the highest personages in a country in the cause of Theosophy. They met with the Japanese Prime Minister, General Count Kuroda, Cabinet Ministers, the Imperial Chamberlain Viscount Sannomiya and the Governor of Tokyo.

In December 1890, Dharmapala, now acclaimed by Sinhala Buddhists as the “first Sinhalese to set foot in Japan,” returned to Adyar for the TS convention.

He was accompanied by Kozen Gunaratne and Tokuzawa, two Japanese monks who had come to Sri Lanka, as a result of Olcott’s tour of Japan, to study Southern Buddhism. After the convention the three Buddhists embarked on a pilgrimage to Saranath, Benares and Buddhagaya.

The need to reclaim Buddhagaya for the Buddhists had been emphasised by Sir Edwin Arnold who visited the site in 1886.

In a letter to a Lankan monk, Weligama Sumangala, Arnold claimed to be the pioneer of the Restoration; “I think there never was an idea which took root and spread so far and fast as that thrown out thus in the sunny temple court at Panadure.” Some Lankans including the chief priest of the Ramanya Nikaya, Ambagahawatte Indrasabha, had claimed to have visited this site earlier.

“Dharmapala wrote that while these Buddhist dignitaries had remained silent after their visit, he was moved to tears, even by reading Arnold’s description of the sacred site in India Revisited (Dharmapala 1963: 235).

From Madras the pilgrims went to Benares through Bombay. From there they reached Gaya and on 21st January 1891 arrived at the sacred shrine in Buddhagaya. This encounter changed Dharmapala’s life and had far reaching consequences for Sinhala Buddhists.

Though Dharmapala and the two Japanese Buddhists, decided to “stop here and take care of this sacred place,” it was not a feasible proposition. They moved into the Burmese Buddhist pilgrims resthouse in Buddhagaya which had been constructed on the orders of King Mindon of Burma in 1875.

After a month of privation Tokusawa left. Dharmapala, familiar with the methods of the Theosophists, vowed to set up an organisation for the reclaiming and preservation of Buddhist sacred sites in North India.

First visit to Calcutta
Leaving Kozen Gunaratne behind in Buddhagaya, Dharmapala left for Calcutta. When I came to Calcutta in March 1891 nothing was known of Buddhism and there was no place where a Buddhist could stay in Calcutta.

When I arrived in Calcutta an impulse led me to call on Babu Neel Comul Mookerjee, Secretary of the Bengal Theosophical Society, at 22 Baniapukur Road, and he received me kindly and offered me hospitality, and for a week I was his guest, and when again I returned to Calcutta to begin Mahabodhi work, I was welcomed by both Neel Comul Babu and his only son, Babu Neerodh Nath Mookerjee.

As examples of what Olcott called the “impulsive working of Dharmapala’s mind,” as well as his determination, we may take the latter’s immediate decision to build a Buddhist Vihara in Calcutta.

This dream was realised 29 years later, with the construction of the Dharmarajaika Vihar in College Square.

The Mahabodhi Society
From Calcutta Dharmapala went to Burma. He returned to Sri Lanka a month later and established the Mahabodhi Society (MBS).

The objectives of the society were described as “to revive Buddhism in India, to disseminate Pali Buddhist literature, to publish Buddhist tracts in the Indian vernaculars, to educate the illiterate millions of Indian people in scientific industrialism, to maintain teachers and Bhikkus at Buddhagaya, Benares, Kusinara, Svatthi, Madras and Calcutta etc., to build schools, Dharmasalas at these places, and to send Buddhist missionaries abroad” (Mahabodhi Society Journal, 1907).

Hikkaduwe Sumangala was appointed President of the MBS. At this time Dharmapala was very much a supporter of the TS and the membership of the new society was drawn largely from Theosophists in Ceylon and abroad.

The Mahabodians were really Theosophists in another guise. Dharmapala was appointed General Secretary of the Society while a special post of Director and General Advisor was created for Olcott.

At the inaugural meeting of the MBS an appeal for financial support was launched. Dharmapala managed to persuade four Ramanna Nikaya monks, led by Matale Sumangala, to travel to India and take up residence at the Burmese rest house in Buddhagaya.

He wrote triumphantly, “after 700 years we have raised the banner of Buddhism in India.”
(This article first appeared in
the Daily News of June 11, 1991)

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