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Anagarika Dharmapala : biography

17 September 1864 - 29 April 1933

Anagarika Dharmapala ( 17 September 1864 - 29 April 1933) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist and writer. He was one of the founding contributors of non-violent Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism and Buddhism. He was also 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. Along with Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, the creators of the Theosophical Society, he was a major reformer and revivalist of Ceylonese Buddhism and very crucial figure in its Western transmission. Dharmapala is one of the most revered Buddhists in the 20th century.

Dharmapala, science, and Protestant Buddhism

The term 'Protestant Buddhism,' coined by scholar Gananath Obeyesekere,Gombrich, Richard F. 1988. Theravada Buddhism; A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 174 is often applied to Dharmapala's form of Buddhism. It is Protestant in two ways. First, it is influenced by Protestant ideals such as freedom from religious institutions, freedom of conscience, and focus on individual interior experience. Second, it is in itself a protest against claims of Christian superiority, colonialism, and Christian missionary work aimed at weakening Buddhism. "Its salient characteristic is the importance it assigns to the laity."Gombrich 174 It arose among the new, literate, middle class centered in Colombo.

The term 'Buddhist modernism' is used to describe forms of Buddhism that suited the modern world, usually influenced by European enlightenment thinking, and often adapted by Asian Buddhists as a counter to claims of European or Christian superiority. Buddhist modernists emphasize certain aspects of traditional Buddhism, while de-emphasizing others.McMahan 4-5 Some of the characteristics of Buddhist modernism are: importance of the laity as against the sangha; rationality and de-emphasis of supernatural and mythological aspects; consistency with (and anticipation of) modern science; emphasis on spontaneity, creativity, and intuition; democratic, anti-institutional character; emphasis on meditation over devotional and ceremonial actions.McMahan 4-5

Dharmapala is an excellent example of an Asian Buddhist modernist, and perhaps the paradigmatic example of Protestant Buddhism. He was particularly concerned with presenting Buddhism as consistent with science, especially the theory of evolution.McMahan 91-97

Early life

Born September 17, 1864 in Colombo, Ceylon to Don Carolis Hewavitharana and Mallika Dharmagunawardhana (the daughter of Andiris Perera Dharmagunawardhana), who were among the richest merchants of Ceylon at the time. He was named Don David Hewavitharane. His younger brothers were Dr Charles Alwis Hewavitharana and Edmund Hewavitarne.


Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was a British colony, so Hewavitarne's state education was an English one: he attended Christian College, Kotte; St Benedict's College, Kotahene; S. Thomas' College, Mutwal and the Colombo Academy.

Buddhist revival

This was a time of Buddhist revival. In 1875 in New York, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott had founded the Theosophical Society. They were both very sympathetic to what they understood of Buddhism, and in 1880 they arrived in Ceylon, declared themselves to be Buddhists, and publicly took the Refuges and Precepts from a prominent Sinhalese bhikkhu. Colonel Olcott kept coming back to Ceylon and devoted himself there to the cause of Buddhist education, eventually setting up more than 300 Buddhist schools, some of which are still in existence. It was in this period that Hewavitarne changed his name to Anagarika Dharmapala.

'Dharmapala' means 'protector of the dharma'. 'Anagarika' means "homeless one". It is a midway status between monk and layperson. As such, he took the eight precepts (refrain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, wrong speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs, eating after noon, entertainments and fashionable attire, and luxurious beds) for life. These eight precepts were commonly taken by Ceylonese laypeople on observance days.Harvey, Peter. 1990. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 208. But for a person to take them for life was highly unusual. Dharmapala was the first anagarika - that is, a celibate, full-time worker for Buddhism - in modern times. It seems that he took a vow of celibacy at the age of eight and remained faithful to it all his life. Although he wore a yellow robe, it was not of the traditional bhikkhu pattern, and he did not shave his head. He felt that the observance of all the vinaya rules would get in the way of his work, especially as he flew around the world. Neither the title nor the office became popular, but in this role, he "was the model for lay activism in modernist Buddhism."Harvey 205 He is considered a bodhisattva in Sri Lanka.McMahan, David L. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 291.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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