Steven Kemper, Rescued From The Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World, Chicago, 2015.
“Whatever good thing I have done since my youth is due to the benefits I have received from my knowledge of English” (Dharmapala, cited on p.312)
This book is outside my specialisation; beyond my knowledge and competence, so what follows is not a review. I merely draw attention to the work, and to points which I found interesting. Kemper, a Professor of Anthropology, has carried out painstaking and thorough research, and quotes from the Anagarika’s own words and writings in substantiation of what he (Kemper) says.
The Anagarika (the homeless one) spent much of his life outside Lanka, mostly in India and in England. His main goal was to gain control of “Bodh Gaya” for Buddhism. He neither wished to die in Lanka nor to have his ashes returned to the Island (p. 37). His last will expressed the desire to be “born again in India in some noble Brahman family” (p. 421); become a Bhikku and preach the Dhamma to India’s millions. Vegetarianism seems to have meant abstaining from beef because he occasionally ate chicken, eggs, fish and mutton (footnote 127, p. 102). Some of the above about Dharmapala (1864-1933) may surprise – perhaps, disappoint – some readers.
He was for long a protégé of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) who, together with Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), founded the Theosophical Society which built several Buddhist schools in Lanka, among them Ananda College, Colombo; Mahinda College, Galle; Dharmaraja in Kandy and Maliyadeva in Kurunegala. The Buddhist flag, designed with the assistance of Olcott, was adopted as a universal Buddhist symbol. In 1884, Colonel Olcott succeeded in persuading the (British) government of Ceylon to declare the Buddha’s birthday a holiday. Several streets in Sri Lanka are named after Olcott and there are statues of him. Buddhists light candles to his memory on the anniversary of his death, and monks offer flowers to his statue. His image has appeared on Sri Lankan postage-stamps. Olcott’s A Buddhist Catechism, still in print and consulted, sees a link between the Buddha and science in that the Buddha thought about cause and effect. One could say the Buddha worked back from result to cause, that is, from the effect of suffering to its causes: false thought and values; false desires and conduct.
But Henry Olcott was not a Buddhist in the popular, Sri Lankan, sense of the term. As he wrote in his Catechism (the edition I read is dated 1886), “The word ‘religion’ is most inappropriate to apply to Buddhism; which is not a religion but a moral philosophy”. The Buddha was not a god, and Buddhist teaching is against idolatry, astrology and the consulting of omens: the monk Hikkaduve reacted strongly to Olcott describing most Buddhists as being “bigoted and ignorant” (p. 82). Olcott describes himself as “a philosophical Buddhist” – not as a religious Buddhist. There are several reasons why the alliance between Olcott and Dharmapala, two champions of Buddhism; between erstwhile “guru” and protégé, separated by about thirty years in age, broke up. Among the reasons is their very different attitude to relics. Dharmapala believed in, and venerated, relics while Olcott didn’t. The latter “dismissed the notion that the relic of the Buddha’s tooth, venerated at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy” was the tooth of a human being: to Olcott, it looked more like an animal’s incisor. However, Helena Blavatsky explained it was, of course, the Buddha’s tooth because in one of his previous lives the Buddha was incarnated as a tiger: see footnote 70, p. 82.
What surprised me in the above was that the tooth was actually exposed for Olcott to view but, then, we must remember this was in the 1800s when white people were granted now-unthinkable privileges. I took up the point with the author and Professor Kemper (personal message, dated 20 April 2017) wrote, inter alia:
“An exception was not made for Olcott to view the relic. A steady stream of British officials, including the Prince of Wales, had a chance to view the relic — both before and after Olcott’s visit. One’s religion was not a disqualification, and Western viewings were in fact a source of bad feeling on the part of Kandyan Buddhists. The relic was once shown to a visiting Australian cricket team, I believe. The Kandyan’s animus was not so much the presumed Christianity of these foreign visitors to the Dalada Maligawa, but the treatment of the relic as a curiosity, as opposed to an object of veneration.”
Yet another reason for the split between the Colonel and the Anagarika was that the latter feared theosophy would assimilate Buddhism in its universal truth. In Dharmapala’s opinion, all religions are not equal. The Dhamma, second gem of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, is supreme.
The Anagarika was a complex figure, and complexity includes contradiction. While the Buddhism he carried to India, other parts of Asia and the West was a world religion, a lofty and noble Buddhism which was not sectarian but broad and inclusive, within Lanka, Dharmapala’s Buddhism was ‘racist’, narrow and political. The following is indebted to Patrick Grant’s Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Dharmapala lauded Buddhist tolerance and inclusion but believed in Sinhalese hegemony. Unlike Buddhism, monotheistic religions maintain that God favours a particular group, the believers, yet contradictorily the Anagarika believed that the Soul of Highest Compassion had specially and specifically chosen Lanka and the Sinhalese. He preached that Buddhism was universal, breaking down boundaries and hierarchies of race, colour, caste, kinship but promoted a racist Sinhalese-Buddhist fundamentalism, one which even excluded Sinhalese Christians. The true Sinhalese was a Buddhist. He urged young Sinhalese, following the Western example, to be scientific but credited the myth of the Mahavamsa with literal truth. Evidently, the Anagarika was not troubled by cognitive dissonance.
“When he spoke to Sinhala audiences, he was usually contemptuous of the British, but his official letters were courteous and expressed loyalty to the empire” (Kemper, p. 19). He had strong links to Britain and the British Empire, and records a dream where the King of England and he were walking and talking together: “I showed incomparable affection” (p. 304). British rule, Dharmapala claimed, is the best form of foreign domination since the British were “the most enlightened, the most philanthropic, the most cultured of European races” (p. 320). When he built a place of rest in Gaya for pilgrims, he named it the Victoria Memorial Dharmasala (p. 323). So, Kemper argues, to describe Dharmapala as “an anti-imperialist freedom fighter” as the Island newspaper of 1992 did (quoted on p. 306) is incorrect. Imperialism offered Dharmapala membership in a larger community, with the potential of brotherhood (ibid). I repeat the Anagarika’s words: “Whatever good thing I have done since my youth is due to the benefits I have received from my knowledge of English”. (I wonder why it wasn’t, “from my knowledge of Sinhalese and English”.) Bringing the Dhamma to Britain would mean bringing it to the entire Empire. Perhaps, the Anagarika was thinking of the effect on Christianity when the Roman Empire officially converted to Christianity in 380 CE: imperial territories followed suit. One could argue that it was the West which set Dharmapala on the path of radical reform. For example, Professor H. L. Seneviratne states that Dharmapala’s model for the Buddhist monk was based on his observation of the Christian missionary: The Work of Kings: The New Buddhism in Sri Lanka, p. 27. The Anagarika read Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab’ as a youth and the work remained a favourite all his life. Among other things, the poem declares that wealth is the curse of human beings, making “Virtue and wisdom, truth and liberty” to flee.
It seems that what the Anagarika excoriated was the economic and the cultural damage of imperialism, not imperialism per se. Contrasting the wealth of the metropole and the destitution in the imperial territories, he asserted that the “selfish policy of British exploitation must be stopped to avoid the destruction of weaker races” (p. 322). Noting that the nature of their imperialism was hard for the British themselves to realize but very painful for the peoples ruled over, the Anagarika gave the analogy of a person flaying (peeling the skin off) eels while they were still alive. When asked whether it wasn’t painful for the creatures, the reply was, “Oh, they are used to it” (p. 319). With economic exploitation went a general, cultural, degradation. Dharmapala believed that a reinvigoration of Buddhism would revitalise the Sinhalese “race”, and vice versa. (Ironically, the last chapter of Seneviratne’s book, already cited, is titled ‘From Regeneration to Degeneration’.) Touring villages on his preaching-mission and seeing poverty and squalor were both shock and shame to him. Lanka, he felt, having lost the ancient and traditional, had not gained the new and modern. Not even Buddhist monks observe the Noble Eightfold Path, let alone the laity (‘Return to Righteousness, A Collection of Speeches, Essays and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala’, edited by Ananda Guruge, p. 495.) The urban centres had taken to corrupt Western ways while the rural areas were left with neither the old nor the new. The people had come to accept and internalise their inferiority: hence his urging fathers to make effigies of white men and get their children to beat them.
Among other elements, his mother losing an infant daughter when Dharmapala was seventeen was a factor which led to his celibacy: “I shall not be the cause of giving pain to a woman” (p. 102). But cleanliness is an adjunct of spirituality – and celibacy is the highest form of cleanliness. Therefore, to be celibate is to be highly spiritual. (I am wryly reminded of the Wife of Bath’s regretful exclamation in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Chaucer, 1343-1400. I paraphrase the words: Alas, alas, that ever sex was thought to be sinful.)
Not immune to the Zeitgeist (very few of us are) Dharmapala believed in the existence of different, biological, “races”. He had a particular animus against Lanka’s Muslims whom he saw as rapacious, derogatively referring to them as “Hambayas” – whatever that word means. His sense of racial superiority was based on the belief that the Sinhalese were Aryans. “Aryanism functioned as a racialized discourse in places as diverse as Argentina, Ireland, Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand. That discourse functioned to give colonized people pride of place among the very people who had colonized them” (Kemper, p. 325). Science has now totally discredited the notion of “race”, and the word ‘Aryan’ is recognised as having a linguistic and not a racial significance. (I discuss these aspects in the essay, ‘Reign of Anomy’, included in my Public Writings On Sri Lanka, Volume 11.)
The Anagarika was an irredentist, an irredentist who wanted to recover a paradise that had never existed, except in his ardent dreams. Lanka during the time of Dutugemmunu was a place of
“temples, tanks, parks, gardens, public baths, resting houses for man and beast, hospitals – also for man and beast – free almonries, schools, colleges for Bhikkhus and nuns, gymnasiums, public baths. The Sinhalese people lived a joyously cheerful life in those bygone times…the streets were crowded day and night by throngs of pilgrims…The atmosphere was saturated with the fragrance of sweet-smelling flowers and delicate perfumes (Dharmapala, cited on p. 324). There were “no slaughter houses, no pawnshops, no brothels, no prisons and law Courts and no arrack taverns and opium dens” (Dharmapala, quoted on p. 325).
Without adducing evidence, he makes claims which the people love to hear and (equally uncritical) accept. There exists no race on this earth that has a more glorious and triumphant record than the Sinhalese (Dharmapala cited by Guruge.) It is no surprise that, turning from this paradisiacal vision to the reality that he actually encountered and experienced in Lanka, Dharmapala was driven to impatience and hate, a hatred that made scapegoats of various non-Sinhalese Buddhist groups. As I have written elsewhere, the “dreams” of fanatics can result in tragedy and “nightmare” for others. Over the years, humanity has progressed in science, technology and medicine but has changed little in its moral nature. That being a fact, “Dharmapala’s ancestors were very likely no more free of envy and pride than anyone else’s” (Patrick Grant, p. 75).
The founder of ‘Modern Buddhism’, Anagarika Dharmapal is a complex, contradictory, figure. Though not dealt with by Kemper, he has had, and still exerts an unfortunate influence on Sinhalese Buddhist beliefs and attitudes vis-a-vis minority groups – at very painful cost to the latter. In the words of The Cage by Gordon Weiss, Dharmapala “exerted an overtly racist and exclusivist muscle that has become reflexive in much of the ordinary political and social discourse” of the Sinhalese. Rebelling, the Anagarika championed; embracing, he rejected. It seems to me his love was for abstractions (religion, race and an imagined idyllic Lanka of centuries past), and that his capacity to hate was greater than his ability to love.
No doubt, serious Sri Lankans will take the trouble to read and engage with Kemper’s book before quarrelling with it: as Milton says in his Areopagitica (1644), disagreement and resulting discussion can have positive effects.