Anagarika Dharmapala, a Missionary for Buddhism

Anagarika Dharmapala, a Missionary for Buddhism November 16, 2023

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was a pivotal figure in the modern history of Buddhism, both in Asia and the West.  Much of the way Buddhism is understood in popular western culture today is thanks to Dharmapala.

The story of Anagarika Dharmapala begins where an earlier post ends; see “Henry Steel Olcott: The White Buddhist.” Here’s a quick recap: Olcott and his spiritual partner Helena Petrovna Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, and in 1879 they established the Society’s headquarters in Adyar, India. In time, Olcott in particular became devoted to the cause of restoring Buddhism to Sri Lanka, then the British Crown Colony of Ceylon. Buddhism had been the dominant religion of Ceylon since the 3rd century BCE. However, by Olcott’s time three centuries of European colonization and armies of Christian missionaries had nearly driven Buddhism off the island. The British government explicitly encouraged Christian missions to open schools throughout the island to convert the people of Ceylon from Buddhism and teach them to speak English.

In the 1870s a young monk named Mohottivatte Gunananda (1823-1890) began a revival of Buddhism. This revival was ongoing when Blavatsky and Olcott first visited Ceylon in 1880. The pair became Buddhist folk heroes in Ceylon when they bowed to the Buddha and formally became lay Buddhists. On this trip they also met a teenaged boy named David Hewavitharane. Young Hewavitharane was from a devout Buddhist family. He grew up with daily recitations of the three refuges and five precepts. However, his middle-class family needed to do business with the British government, which made it necessary to send young David to a series of Christian mission schools. He learned to speak excellent English and memorized several books of the Bible. But he also was once caned by a headmaster for taking a day off to celebrate Wesak, the observance of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana.

Anagarika Dharmapala: Beyond Theosophy

Olcott and Blavatsky clearly supported Buddhism. Olcott even returned to Ceylon in 1881 and joined Mohottivatte Gunananda on a speaking tour on behalf of the Buddhist revival.  In 1884 Hewavitharane reconnected with Blavatsy and Olcott. He moved to India and became a protégé of the two Theosophists.  Blavatsky encouraged the young man to study the Pali scriptures.  Ironically, this was the beginning of Dharmapala’s break with Theosophy. Although Theosophy borrows quite a bit from Buddhism, it began more as an occult movement that also strived to be open to all religions. Hewavitharane decided to commit himself to Buddhism alone. During this period he changed his name to Anagarika Dharmapala. “Anagarika” is Sanskrit for “homeless one” and is more of a title than a name. It designates a person who has left worldliness behind to walk the Buddhist path but who has not taken monastic vows. “Dharmapala” means “protector of the dharma,” or the teachings of the Buddha. Dharmapala practiced celibacy and wore a yellow robe that would not be confused with a Buddhist monk’s robe. For the next few years Dharmapala continued to work with Henry Steel Olcott to restore Buddhism as the primary religion of Ceylon.

In 1891 Dharmapala made a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, the place in north eastern India where the Buddha is said to have realized enlightenment. The long-neglected Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya had been recently restored.  But Dharmapala was dismayed to find that the temple was entirely controlled by Hindu Brahmins who believed the Buddha to be an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Together with Sir Edwin Arnold he founded the Mahabodhi Society, in part to petition to allow Buddhists to control the Mahabodhi Temple. The Society also addressed conditions at the three other holy sites of Buddhism — Lumbini, Nepal, where the Buddha was born; Sarnath, where he gave his first sermon; and Kushinagara, where he died and attained final nirvana. Buddhism had effectively been eradicated in India late in the 12th century (see “Nalanda: The First University” for that part of the story), and these sites had long been lost and had only recently been rediscovered by archeologists.

Later in his life Dharmapala was instrumental in building the beautiful  Mulagandha Kuti Vihara in Sarnath.  He did not live to see Buddhist control of Mahabodhi Temple, however.  After India gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, the Mahabodhi Temple became the responsibility of the state government of Bihar. Bihar established a management committee, still in effect, to be made up of five Hindus (including the chair) and four Buddhists. This compromise has never been satisfactory to Buddhists.

A Mission to the West

In 1893 Dharmapala traveled to Chicago to take part in the World Parliament of Religions as one of the representatives of Buddhism.  Although there had been Buddhist priests and teachers in the West for a few decades, this was arguably the first time non-ethnic Asian Americans heard about Buddhism from Buddhists on western soil. The 29-year-old Dharmapala was a sensation. Press reports glowingly described his flowing robes and his gentle, refined face. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he spoke excellent English and had a good understanding of western culture, thanks to those British Christian academies.  “His peroration was as pretty a thing as a Chicago audience ever heard. Demosthenes never exceeded it,” raved a reporter from the Dubuque, Iowa, Times.

Dharmapala gave two talks to the Parliament that wrapped Buddhism in the highest ideals of Western humanistic philosophy, especially the ideals of tolerance and moral purity. Further, at a time when the new sciences of psychology and evolution were roiling conservative branches of Christianity, Dharmapala declared that Buddhism was entirely compatible with both. This was arguably a more modernist view of Buddhism than was generally true in Asia at the time. But it was a view of Buddhism that lingers in western culture to this day.  A reporter for the Chicago Daily Journal wrote after the Parliament that “Contempt and pity for the oriental religions have given way to respect and admiration.”

Philosopher and author Paul Carus invited Dharmapala back to America a few more times to present talks on Buddhism, and so his influence in the West lasted long after the Parliament. Some years later, in 1926, he founded the London Buddhist Vihara, considered the first Buddhist monastery to be established outside the continent of Asia.

From Ceylon to Sri Lanka

By the early 20th century the Buddhist revival in Ceylon had achieved considerable succcess. And this success fueled hopes of political independence from Britain. Dharmapala and other revivalists promoted the ideal of a pan-Sinhalese Buddhist national identity. These Sinhalese would throw off the shackles of colonialism and restore their own noble culture to their own land. Although Dharmapala preached nonviolence, riots broke out in 1915. The British response was heavy-handed and enflamed anti-British sentiments even more. In the course of all this Dharmapala found himself facing enemies and a vicious media campaign against him. He left Ceylon and spent the last years of his life in India. Three months before he died in 1933, he was ordained a Buddhist monk.

The independence movement continued. Ceylon officially became an independent nation in 1947. In 1972 it adopted the name Sri Lanka. Today one can find statues of Anagarika Dharmapala in prominent places in his native country. He is remembered as a leader of the independence movement as well as for his devotion to Buddhism.

Today Dharmapala’s “modernized” Buddhism is spometimes called “Protestant” Buddhism.  The form of Buddhism that dominates Sri Lanka, Theravda, for centuries was primarily reserved for the ordained monks (although see also “The Determined Buddhist Nuns of Sri Lanka“).  Laypeople were told only to keep the precepts and give alms to the monks, and in a future life they might be ordained and realize enlightenment also. But the “Protestantism” that took hold in Sri Lanka opened the teachings to laypeople. They also could meditate and learn the same teachings the monks learned.

On the negative side, the  pan-Sinhalese Buddhist national identity promoted by Dharmapala tended to leave out the island’s non-Buddhist minorities, especially the Tamils, who are mostly Hindu. Tamils are about 15 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. Government policies that favored Buddhism were partly responsible for a vicious civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese that was fought from 1983 to 2009.


Anagarika Dharmapala, about 1900. This is a hand-colored image, and the robes were probably more yellow than orange. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
About Barbara O'Brien
Barbara is the author of The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World (Shambhala, 2019) You can read more about the author here.
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