When talking about national heroes, we can’t forget the name of Anagarika Dharmapala. He was a pioneer in the revival of Buddhism in India after it had been virtually extinct there for several centuries, and he was the first Buddhist in modern times to preach the Dharma in three continents: Asia, North America, and Europe. After 144 years of this great man’s birth let us think about his vision deeply.
He was born Don David Hewavitarne in Colombo, 17 September 1864, to Don Carolis Hewavitharana and Mallika Dharmagoonewardena. Sri Lanka was then a British colony known as Ceylon, so Hewavitarne’s state education was a Christian one. He attended Christian College, Kotte and the Colombo Academy. But from his young days David liked to conform according to the Buddhism and very soon he came under the influence of two Buddhist leaders of the time, Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera and Miggettuwatte Sri Gunananda Thera. Thus he developed a great attachment to the Buddhist monks. We can get an idea about how much he was attached to the Buddhist monks by one of his statements:
“In contrast to my wine-drinking, meat-eating and pleasure-loving missionary teachers, the Bhikkhus were meek and abstemious. I loved their company and would sit quietly in a corner and listen to their wise discourse, even when it was far above my head.”
The young Dharmapala helped Colonel Olcott in his work, particularly by acting as his translator. Dharmapala also became quite close to Madame Blavatsky, who advised him in the study of Pali and to work for the good of humanity - which is what he did. It was at this time that he changed his name to Dharmapala (meaning “Guardian of the Dharma”).
In 1891 Anagarika Dharmapala was on a pilgrimage to the recently restored Mahabodhi Temple, where Siddhartha Gautama - the Buddha - attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in India. Here he experienced a shock to find the temple in the hands of a Saivite priest, the Buddha image transformed into a Hindu icon and Buddhists barred from worship. As a result, he began an agitation movement.
The Mahabodhi society at Colombo was founded in 1891 but its offices were soon moved to Calcutta the following year in 1892.
One of it’s primary aims was the restoration to Buddhist control of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, the chief of the four ancient Buddhist holy sites. To accomplish this, Dharmapala initiated a lawsuit against the Brahmin priests who had held control of the site for centuries.
After a protracted struggle, this was successful, with the partial restoration of the site to the management of the Maha Bodhi Society in 1949.
Due to the efforts of Dharmapala, the site of the Buddha’s parinibbana (physical death) at Kushinagar has once again become a major attraction for Burmese Buddhists, as it was for many centuries previously. Mahabodhi Movements in 1890s held the Muslim rule in India responsible for the decay of Buddhism in India. Anagarika Dharmapala did not hesitate to lay the chief blame for the decline of Buddhism in India at the door of Muslim fanaticism.
In 1893 Dharmapala was invited to attend the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago as a representative of “Southern Buddhism” - which was the term applied at that time to the Theravada.
He was a great success and by his early thirties he was already a global figure, continuing to travel and give lectures and establish viharas around the world during the next forty years. At the same time he concentrated on establishing schools and hospitals in Ceylon and building temples and viharas in India.
Among the most important of the temples he built was one at Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught.
Anagarika Dharmapala’s service is of much historical significance both to India and Sri Lanka and even today we are guided by some of his mature views.
He died at Sarnath, 29 April 1933 and his last words were “Let me be reborn. I would like to be born again twenty-five times to spread Lord Buddha’s Dhamma.” His was a life of rich dedication which every human being should strive to emulate.
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