Anagarika Dharmapala

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Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864–1933) was the leading figure in the Sri Lankan Buddhist renaissance that sought to restore Buddhism during the late colonial period. Born Don David Hēvāvitarana into an elite Sinhala Buddhist family, he met Colonel Henry Olcott and Madame Elena Petrovna Blavatsky and joined their newly formed Buddhist Theosophical Society in 1884 in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Seeing the depressed condition of Buddhism in both Sri Lanka and India, Dharmapala took it as his mission to revive Buddhism. In his work he sought to enable Buddhists to address the twofold task of recovering their identity and finding ways to respond to modernity. Creating a new role for himself in Buddhism, he became an anagārika (homeless one), who was neither a monk nor a layperson, and he took the name Dharmapāla (protector of the dharma).

A tireless activist, Dharmapāla worked in India, where he founded the Maha Bodhi Society and sought to restore the Buddhist shrine of the sacred bodhi tree at the site of the Buddha's enlightenment in Bodh GayĀ. Through his writings and his brilliant oratory, he critiqued the colonial and Christian suppression of Buddhism and Buddhists. Relying on Buddhist texts such as the Mahāvaṃsa, he linked Buddhism and Sinhala nationalism and challenged Sinhala Buddhists to reclaim their true identity and abandon their attachment to colonial values. Dharmapāla popularized a reformed Buddhism that was characterized by a lay orientation, a this-worldly asceticism, an activist and moralist focus, and a strong social consciousness. Dharmapāla traveled widely in Asia preaching these ideas, and he introduced the West to his reformist vision when he represented Buddhism at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.


Bond, George D. The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka: Religious Tradition, Reinterpretation, and Response. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Gombrich, Richard, and Obeysekere, Gananath. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

George D. Bond