The 144th birth anniversary of the most illustrious son of Lanka of the 18th century falls today.
Dharmapala was born to a rich aristocratic family of Southern Lanka on 17 September 1864. His parents were Mudliyar Don Carolis Hewavitharana and Mallika.
A major portion of their family silver had to be spent for the upliftment of Dhamma education and the propagation of the Buddha Dhamma. It was because one of their sons, Don David trod the path of the Buddha Dhamma. Young David had his primary education in the Catholic Missionary School Pettah (St. Mary’s) and St. Benedict’s College, Kotahena and later at the Christian Missionary school Kotte (St. Thomas’).
He learnt the Sinhala language and Buddha Dhamma from erudite monks, Rev. Migettuwatte Gunananda and Rev. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala theras.
Dharmapala left school to join the public service as a clerk in 1883. His public service career was limited to three years as he left the service in 1886 to devote his full time for religious activities, joining the Theosophical Society, headed by an American, Col. Henry Steele Olcott. Later, he became the secretary of the society. By now, he changed his Biblical name Don David to Dharmapala Hewavitharana. The Buddhist Theosophical Society, under his guidance was able to establish Buddhist schools throughout the island which saw the birth of Ananda, Nalanda, Mahinda, Dharmaraja Colleges etc., for boys and Visahaka, Mahamaya, Sangamitta etc., for girls. He not only concentrated on education, but also contributed towards the upliftment of the rural economy by starting vocational training centres for carpentry, missionary, handloom textiles and other rural cottage industries. He traversed the entire length and breath of the country, propagating the doctrine of the Buddha in a specially improvised vehicle for this purpose. The families in the hill country associated with his ‘Dhamma Yatras’ were the late A. Ratnayake family, the late Prof. Tennakoon Wimalananda’s family, Beddewela and Dolapihilla families. The living members of these families remember with nostalgia the time spent with Dharmapala, who stayed with them on his ‘Dhamma’ missions in the hill country. The oldest living member of the Beddewela family is 96-year-old Dhatusena Beddewela and the oldest living lady of the Ratnayake family is the 90-year-old sister of the late A. Ratnayake, Mrs. Keppetipola of Matale.
The Landmark of his career began when he met a Russian lady, Mrs. Blavatsky with whom he went to Adayar, South India to study Theosophy.
Role in India
By this time, he had studied the facts from the book, ‘Light of Asia’ by Edwin Arnold which was featured in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ in London. The facts mentioned in the book relating to the atrocious situation of the Buddhists, moved Dharmapala to such an extent that he vowed to fight against such situations, forming a Buddhists Protection Committee and being its secretary from 1886 March to 1890. He participated in a ‘Dhamma’ convention in Adayar.
After this convention, he visited Isipatana in January 1891, accompanied by a Japanese Bhikku, Koshan Gunarathana. They came to Gaya on 22 January and he kept his forehead on the ground and made this strong commitment to clear the premises from foreign domination. The entry made in his personal diary states thus. "An soon as I touched with my forehead the ‘Vajirasana’ a sudden impulse came to my mind. It prompted me to stop here and take care of the sacred spot, so sacred that nothing in this world is equal to this place where prince Sakiyasingha gained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree."
This incident saw the birth of the ‘Maha Bodhi’ Society on 31 April 1891, under the patronage of Hikkaduwa Sri Sumangala thero. Dharmapala became the secretary of this organization. It is recorded that he donated Rs. 1000.00 to the then Governor, Sir William Manning for the supply of rations to the poor who were hit by a famine in Sri Lanka in 1919. This was the same Governor who was in India when Dharmapala was ordered to leave India by the Courts.
The Governor issued instructions to the Indian IGP not to provide any security to Dharmapala and to secretly observe his movements in India. Buddhism spread in the whole of Asia long before Christianity and Islam. The holy site at Isipatana was destroyed by Mohamad Ghori while Budhagaya, Nalanda and Wickramashila were razed by Bhaktiyar Kilni.
Buddhist places of worship in Kashmir were destroyed by Sikandar. When Dharmapala visited Saranath in January 1891, it was a place for hog breading. Only an area belonging to the Jains, where there was a shrine spared by the hog breeders. It was in January 1901 that Dharmapala was able to purchase a block of land from Isipatana. Today, there are eight schools here managed by the ‘Maha Bodi’ Society. One of these schools was funded by the mother of our hero, who was 85 years old at the time. The school started in June 1904 was funded by Lady Foster. This area was known as ‘Kasirata’ in the olden days.
The writer was able to enjoy the splendour of the area during a visit in March last year. This was possible only due to the untiring efforts of Dharmapala, who brought back the pristine glory of the area. He was not only be able to get the Vesak Poya of 24 May 1918 gazette as a public holiday but also was able to get a Vesak holiday for all the Buddhist children attending schools in Calcutta, Bengal and other cities. It was, Dharmapala who rescued Budhagaya from Saivite Mahanta.
He had to go to courts on many occasions to stop Mahanta from defacing the Buddha statues. He was also jailed as a result of his Buddhist activities. For a period of about 40 years, he lived in Calcutta Benaris Budhagaya and other places holy to Buddhists to protect and safeguard places of Buddhist worship. He corresponded frequently with the Governors of Bihar, Orissa, Patna and such other districts to look after the interests of the Buddhists the world over. Having lived in India for 44 years, he participated in the second anniversary of the ‘Moolagandakuti Vihara’ restoration held on 11 November 1932, with the participation of a distinguish gathering, including Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, his wife, daughter Indira and sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit on 16 January 1933. A ‘Seemamalaka’ area of 50x 50ft with eight stone pillars was built and Dharmapala was ordained as Rev. Siri Devamitta Dharmapala.
The then Anunayaka of the Malwatte Maha Vihara Ven. Madugalla Sidharta, the two Principals of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara and 10 other senior monks from Sri Lanka participated in this auspicious occasion held in Benaris, where Rev. Siri Devamitta Dharmapala obtained Higher Ordination. Rev. Devamitta Dharmapala lived hardly four months after this event and passed away on 29 April, 1933. The whole Buddhist world mourned the demise of this great son of Lanka.His name will be honoured and remembered by generations of Buddhists the world over. (Some facts of this article are from the book Anagarika Dharmapala by Rev. Kahawatte Siri Sumeda Thero.)The Island