Dharmapala, Anagarika

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Anagarika Dharmapala

BORN: September 9, 1864 • Colombo, Ceylon

DIED: April 29, 1933 • Sarnath, India

Ceylonese religious leader; writer

Anagarika Dharmapala was a religious leader who is credited with introducing Buddhism to the United States and Europe. He also helped to restore Buddhism in his native Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) after centuries of foreign invaders had forced their religions on its citizens. He gave new energy to the religion through a reform movement that emphasized its moral and ethical aspects. Anagarika Dharmapala preached his ideas in many countries and was the Buddhist representative to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893. He made several other trips to the United States and Europe and wrote widely on Buddhist topics before dying in India in 1933.

"The tendency of enlightened thought of the day all over the world is not toward theology, but philosophy and psychology. Indeed, the [ship] of theology drifts into danger."

The making of a Buddhist

Anagarika Dharmapala was born David Hewavitarne in Colombo, Ceylon, on September 17, 1864. His father, H. Don Carolis, was the wealthy founder of a furniture manufacturing business. His mother was Mallika Hewavitarne, whose surname comes from a famous queen in Buddhist literature. The family was of Sinhalese origin. The Sinhalese people arrived in Ceylon from northern India around the fifth century bce. They conquered the native forest-dwelling Veddas and quickly formed the majority of the nation's population. Buddhism was adopted as the national religion in the third century bce, and the island became one of its leading world centers.

Several centuries of foreign intervention began when the Tamil people of south India invaded Ceylon in the late third century. Then the Portuguese conquered much of the island by the late sixteenth century and introduced Roman Catholicism to the inhabitants. Slightly more than a century later, the Dutch overthrew the Portuguese and occupied Ceylon. They were in turn defeated by the British, who made most of Ceylon a crown colony in 1798 and installed the Anglican religion. In 1815 the entire country was brought under British rule, and the ancient line of Sinhalese kings ended. The British established rubber, tea, and coffee plantations and created an educational system in the form of missionary schools and a university. The native population attempted to regain its independence several times, but the British remained in power until 1948.

When Hewavitarne was born in 1864, the country had been under British control for many years. Christianity had replaced Buddhism as the religion of much of the population, and the Sinhalese culture was largely lost as a result of the three hundred years of foreign occupation. Most of the middle and upper-middle class population, especially in the coastal areas, had taken Christian names, including Hewavitarne's family. Young David was sent to missionary schools for primary and secondary education, as was the practice at the time. At Saint Benedict's Anglican School and then later at Saint Thomas's Collegiate School, Christian values were emphasized, and church attendance and Christian religious instruction were required.

Throughout his education, however, Hewavitarne did not lose his belief in Buddhism, his ancestors' faith. He became influenced by two of the most well-known Buddhist leaders of the period, Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera and Migettuwatte Sri Gunananda Thera. Hewavitarne found he much preferred the two Buddhists' simple lifestyles over those of the missionary teachers for whom he had little respect. After witnessing a riot that broke out after Christians attacked a peaceful Buddhist procession, Hewavitarne became disgusted with the hypocrisy (the claiming of beliefs one does not actually hold or follow) of the British and their religion. He dropped out of school to study on his own.

Around this time Ceylon received a pair of interesting guests. One of these, Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), was a founder of the Theosophical Society, a mystical religious and philosophical movement that combines Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. The society is aimed at helping a Western audience investigate the universe and humanity's place in it by becoming closer to the divine. Blavatsky was accompanied by the society's cofounder, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907). The two had come to Ceylon to learn more about Buddhist principles. Soon after their arrival they began studies with a bhikkhu, an ordained Buddhist monk, and declared themselves Buddhists. After he dropped out of school, Hewavitarne met Blavatsky and Olcott and joined the Theosophical Society. He acted as a translator to aid Olcott in his efforts to open Buddhist schools throughout the country and revitalize Buddhism. Hewavitarne also became a good friend of Blavatsky, who encouraged him to learn Pali, an early Indian language in which much of the Buddhist canon, or body of literature, is written. Blavatsky also inspired him to work for his people and religion.

Hewavitarne gave up his family wealth and changed his name to Dharmapala, which means "guardian of the dharma." The dharma are the teachings of the Buddha, an Indian philosopher and the founder of Buddhism who revealed the path to enlightenment and nirvana. For a first name he took Anagarika, which means "one who has no home." This choice reflected his pledge to dedicate himself to a life following the rules of Buddhism, including celibacy, or refraining from sexual intercourse. He wore a yellow robe similar to those of Buddhist monks, although he was not one himself. He also counseled others to exchange their Western names for traditional native names. Dharmapala assisted Olcott in opening more than three hundred schools in Ceylon. This helped revive Buddhism's traditional branch of Theravada, which means "the way of the elders."

When he was twenty years old, Dharmapala began writing for a weekly paper, the Saraasavi-Sandaresa. This was the first of many writing jobs he held throughout his lifetime. He eventually took over the paper's entire operation, writing, printing, and distributing it twice a week. He argued for a revival of native Sinhalese traditions and a return to the country's Buddhist roots. Together with Olcott he toured Ceylon's villages to see the religious conditions across the country for himself. In 1888 he founded an English-language newspaper, the Buddhist, and used it to communicate his thoughts about the Buddhist revival and Sinhalese nationalism to the English-speaking community.

Missions abroad

In 1888 Dharmapala traveled with Olcott to Japan to visit Buddhist sites and to attempt to encourage good relations among the different branches of Buddhism. Three years later Dharmapala and Blavatsky toured India, the country of Buddhism's origins. The religion had nearly died out there, however. Dharmapala was distressed to find Buddhist shrines, such as the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, in poor condition. When he returned to Ceylon, Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society in order to restore the temple, which honors the site of Buddha's enlightenment. The aims of the society soon broadened to include teaching and promoting Buddhism in Ceylon and India. In 1892 he founded the Maha Bodhi Journal to aid in this process.

Dharmapala became known outside Asia when he traveled to Chicago in 1893 as the Theravada Buddhist representative to the World Parliament of Religions. Though he was a young man of only twenty-nine among gray-haired elders, Dharmapala spoke emotionally and intelligently of his religion. He gained followers in the United States and opened a U.S. chapter of the Maha Bodhi Society.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

In the early twenty-first century, Sri Lanka was the home of the world's oldest ongoing Buddhist civilization. Though the religion began in India, it nearly ceased to exist there after it spread to other countries. The Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya, also called Asoka, who ruled from c. 273 to c. 232 bce, converted to Buddhism after a bloody struggle to gain power and was determined to devote himself to peace. He attempted to achieve this by sending missionaries outside of India to spread the faith. One of these, his son, Mahinda, is credited with bringing Buddhism to Ceylon in the third century bce.

The Sinhalese king accepted Buddhism, linking the religion with the line of Ceylon rulers. The civilization's magnificent central city of Anuradhapura became the center for Theraveda Buddhism. The city covered a relatively large amount of land, measuring about 30 square miles, and featured houses of two and three stories tall and temples up to nine stories tall. By the fifth century ce, eight thousand Buddhist monks lived there. A cutting from the bodhi tree, the sacred fig tree under which the Indian philosopher Buddha (563–483) was said to have been sitting when he gained enlightenment, was planted in the city. When the Tamil invaded in the eighth century, the Sinhalese moved farther south and the city was abandoned.

Despite occupations by three different foreign powers and the invasion of Christianity, Buddhism retained a hold on the people of Ceylon. The Sinhalese kings remained Buddhists until the British overthrew the last of their line in 1815. The efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala and other reformers helped to revive the religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, restoring a belief system with roots more than two thousand years old. Due to their efforts, Sri Lanka eventually became the primary center of Theravada Buddhism in the world.

A life of Buddhist service

Dharmapala continued to work for the revival of Buddhism in his native Ceylon and in India. He also spoke out for an independent Ceylon, free of British rule. When Blavatsky died Dharmapala stopped working with the Theosophical Society. A wealthy American patron, Mary E. Foster, helped finance further tours abroad for him. During an 1896 tour, Dharmapala was able to celebrate the first Wesak Festival in the United States. The Wesak Festival is held in honor of the Buddha's birthday and enlightenment. In 1906 he founded a weekly publication, the Sinhala Bauddhaya, with financial support from Foster. In this paper he discussed his twin passions of Buddhism and Sinhalese nationalism and criticized the British administration in Ceylon. His also continued to travel around the world. He opened new branches of the Maha Bodhi Society in cities such as London, England; New Delhi, India; and New York in the United States. On a trip to England in 1926, he founded a publication called the British Buddhist, and the following year he led that nation's first Wesak Festival.

His efforts to promote Sinhalese nationalism and an independent Ceylon gained him many enemies. Because of this, towards the end of his life he decided to leave Ceylon and settle in India. On January 13, 1933, he was ordained (authorized to have priestly authority) a bhikkhu, or Buddhist monk, by Sinhalese monks. He died three months later.

Dharmapala is credited with establishing a code of ethics directed at the Buddhist worshippers rather than at the monks and nuns. This code is in many respects similar to Protestant Christianity with its emphasis on worldly, ethical actions. For example, Dharmapala emphasized integrating basic Buddhist beliefs such as the Eightfold Path in one's daily life, similar to the way the Ten Commandments provide rules for everyday living for Christians. Some have described the result as a "Protestant Buddhism," which focuses on spiritual teachings in one's everyday life.

He is best known for three lasting achievements. First, he revitalized Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the home of the religion's oldest school, and in India, the religion's birthplace. Second, he introduced Buddhist teachings throughout Asia, North America, and Europe. Third, he awakened a Sinhalese nationalism which had been inactive due to so many centuries of foreign rule. Dharmapala left behind a large body of published work, including Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays, and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala, and many writings on Buddhism.

For More Information


Dharmapala, Anagarika. Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays, and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala. Edited by Ananda Guruge. Colombo, Ceylon: Government Press, 1965.

Sangharakshita, Bhikksu. Anagarika Dharmapala: A Biographical Sketch. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983.

Sangharakshita, Maha Sthavira. Flame in the Darkness: The Life and Sayings of Anagarika Dharmapala. Yerawada, India: Tiratna Grantha Mala for Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana, 1980.


Leithart, Peter J. "When East Is West." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life (May 2005): 11-12.

Roberts, Michael. "For Humanity. For the Sinhalese. Dharmapala as Crusading Bosat." Journal of Asian Studies (November 1997): 1006-32.

Scott, Andrew. "Anagarika Dharmapala." Maha Bodhi (April-June 1981): 129.


Jayawardene, Lakshman. "Versatile Anagarika Dharmapala—Communicator Par Excellence." Daily News Online (Sri Lanka). http://origin.dailynews.lk/2002/09/17/fea04.html (accessed on May 29, 2006).

Sangharakshita, Urgyen. "Anagarika Dharmapala's Achievement." Writings by Sangharakshita. http://www.sangharakshita.org/e-achievement.html (accessed on May 29, 2006).

Sangharakshita, Urgyen. "The Anniversaries of Anagarika Dharmapala and Mrs. Mary E. Foster." Writings by Sangharakshita. http://www.sangharakshita.org/e-anniversaries.html (accessed on May 29, 2006).

Sangharakshita, Urgyen. "Two Great Lives." Writings by Sangharakshita. http://www.sangharakshita.org/e-two.html