When Gandhi meets Dharmapala

Anagarika Dharmapala’s interactions with Mahatma Gandhi during his struggle to restore India’s Buddhist heritage

by Rohana R. Wasala

It seems I was born to restore the Sasana in India. When I started Buddhist work in India, a lot of lay Buddhists as well as Bhikkhus in Ceylon started working against me. They did not accept my advice……… I left Ceylon and went to India to do the work for the Sasana because there was no one to do that work….. In February 1906, my father passed away. Mrs Mary Foster came to my rescue. Mrs Foster is the modern Vishaka. She is helping the Sasana through me……..The well-to-do Sinhalese have no patriotic love for the land. They run after the British. Our leaders are disunited in faith and nationality. I am leaving a country with a slave mentality due to the Missionary education which is unpatriotic, which is not eager to find modern technologies. Uncultured manners are regarded highly in the society………….. To improve the life of the foolish Sinhalese is a difficult task. Economically they cannot be uplifted. They are lazy. They do not have a vision for progress. They do not have an urge to safeguard the Buddha Sasana….. Even now, Buddhists who did not contribute a cent towards my work in India, questioned me about the details of the accounts. They know only to criticize me and question me about accounts. ~ Anagarika Dharmapala (‘My Life Story’, ed. Lakshman Jayawardane, Sarasavi Publishers, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka, 2013)

The 157th Anagarika Dharmapala birth anniversary fell on September 17, 2021. To mark this occasion, I thought it appropriate to write about the contribution he made to the revival of Buddhism in the land of its birth. 

My opinion is that it is important to interpret the Anagarika, his language and ideas, as reflected in the above extract, in relation to the historical context in which he lived and worked. We today realise how accurate he was in his observations about the moral and economic degeneration of a great nation that suffered under foreign rule for centuries and its lost genius that needed to be restored through its own efforts under a good leadership. Aren’t we still struggling to live down that national humiliation amidst predatory interferences from the descendents of those former colonisers? Contrary to the negative view that most modern Sri Lankans seem to have been brainwashed to entertain about him due to decades of anti-national propaganda, shouldn’t we appreciate how far ahead of his time Anagarika Dharmapala actually was? He is criticised for having been ‘hostile’ towards the ‘minorities’. But were the ‘minorities’ then comparable to the minorities that the majority Sinhala Buddhists coexist peacefully with today? Which minority then thought about the historical homeland of the Sinhalese with the same degree of self-denying love and devotion as they did? 

Anagarika Dharmapala contrived to closely interact with Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of the Indian independence movement such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Muslim leader Shaukat Ali, Madan Mohan Malaviya and poet, philosopher and writer Rabindranath Tagore in the early decades of the last (20th) century, and achieved what he could for his own cause in India. Dharmapala was active as a Buddhist missionary who was determined to revive Buddhism in the country where it originated, initiating his campaign by trying to reclaim Buddha Gaya to world Buddhists, among whom he considered the Sinhalese to be foremost as the Custodians of Theravada Buddhism, generally regarded as the pristine form of the Dharma preached by Gautama Buddha. He wanted to take the word of the Buddha to the Western world as well as to strengthen ties with the Buddhist countries of the East. Apart from being in the same boat in terms of their respective life missions, chronologically too they were close to each other: Dharmapala was the senior having been born on September 17, 1864. Gandhi was junior to him by five years, for he was born on October 2, 1869. Close contemporaneity and shared cultural affinity made interaction between the two easier and more natural. This was significant because, by then, Mahatma Gandhi was already a man on a pedestal for many in India. 

Having said that, it is essential to make an important distinction between Dharmapala and Gandhi as visionary men committed to great missions. Gandhi was more a political pragmatist than a spiritual visionary. Dharmapala kept to his chosen Buddhist missionary role and adopted an unwaveringly apolitical approach to his mission. But this was ignored by the British colonial government, which, during the 1915 Riot, for fear that Dharmapala’s potential presence in Sri Lanka in the years following would be problematic, quite arbitrarily subjected him to a five year long term of house arrest (1915-1920) in Calcutta where he was then engaged in his normal missionary activities. It was virtually, a punishing term of internment for a constantly active, mobile individual like Dharmapala. Gandhi, on the other hand,  in his failure to  work with Muslim leaders without compromising  legitimate Hindu interests, earned the murderous wrath of a group of Hindu nationalists.      

Passage of time and emerging new research studies about them enable us to put them into perspective, and make fresh assessments of their personalities, individual perceptions and achievements. To name just two examples  among many books concerning Gandhi, we have “The Gift of Anger: And Other Lessons from My Grandfather Mahatma Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi (2018) that provides evidence of a less admirable aspect of his personality which, if not suppressed by himself, would have been a stain on his nonviolent image (but Gandhi himself viewed anger as an empowering emotion that should not be abused), and “Gandhi in South Africa: A Racist or Liberator?” by Dr Siby K. Joseph (2019) which reveals that he was not initially free from a streak of racist prejudice against black Africans though, as a lawyer, he stood up for their independence and human rights. Regarding Anagarika Dharmapala, there is Dr Sarath Amunugama’s “Lion’s Roar” (2016), which, taking the facts of his life and times into consideration, seems to follow a more cautious, if unconvincing, middle course between passionate admirers of the iconic figure and his traditionally biased detractors, though the book repeats the unfounded eurocentric ‘protestant Buddhism’ thesis to describe the indigenous Buddhist revival movement which Dharmapala saw the beginning of, and which he enriched with his own epochal contribution. 

Such deconstructive literature about Dharmapala and Gandhi has by now exposed their feet of clay as well as their focal strengths, and made them credibly and acceptably more human in the public perception. Both were great men and played truly heroic roles in the national and international causes that they championed; Gandhi was the leading anti-colonial Indian nationalist of his time, and the model political ethicist; the non-violent resistance movement that he led ultimately won India its independence from Britain, but failed to prevent the partition of India on August 15, 1947 into two independent states that resulted in 2 million deaths and 14 million displaced, and in his own assassination  a few months later, on January 30, 1948. Dharmapala had to be satisfied with only partial success in his endeavour to acquire Buddha Gaya for Buddhists. But their monumental legacies have left indelible marks on the history of their nations and on that of the world at large, though these are hardly recognized, particularly in respect of Anagarika Dharmapala. 

In the 1940s Gandhi opposed the partition and worked with some Muslim leaders such as  the famous Ali brothers, the Maulanas Shaukat and Mohamed Ali, and his friend  Badhshah Khan  who shared his vision of an independent India based on religious multiculturalism. The Ali brothers were the leaders of the anti-British Khilafat Movement of Indian Muslims who demanded justice for the Sunni Islamic Turkey (Ottoman Empire). Gandhi’s actively supportive association with that organization made him temporarily popular among the Muslims. But with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after WWI and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, the Khilafat Movement also ended in 1924. Gandhi and Badhshah Khan had wanted Hindus and Muslims each to open their places of worship to the other for prayer. The Hindus offered their temples to Muslims for prayer, but the Muslims were not ready to reciprocate the conciliatory gesture. The Hindus’ tolerant and accommodating attitude, and the Muslims’ less liberal response are not surprising to anyone who has a basic comparative knowledge of Hinduism and Islam  in this respect. It was obvious that Gandhi did not know enough about the second to avoid such embarrassment among his own people, although he had claimed he had a good knowledge of Islam’s holy book. 

Dharmapala met and made friends with Shaukat Ali and tried to enlist Muslim support on his struggle to legally take possession of the Buddha Gaya holy place for Buddhists. When Ali visited Colombo in 1921, he spoke in support of Gandhi’s work in India for promoting Hindu-Muslim unity. Dharmapala wrote articles in Sinhala expressing solidarity with Indian Muslims engaged in the Khilafat agitation, but he was shrewd enough not to expect the impossible from Muslims unlike Gandhi. His love of  peaceful Hindu-Muslim co-existence was utilitarian: he wanted the assistance of both Hindu and Muslim leaders on his struggle at the Buddha’s birthplace. Though Dharmapala was able to gain only partial control of the place for Buddhists, he had better luck at Sarnath. He had founded his Mahabodhi Society with the idea of reclaiming Buddhist sites in India. He bought a plot of land at Sarnath and built the impressive Mulagandhakuti Vihara, which he was able to complete in 1930.  It became the main centre of Buddhist worship in India, which it remains even today, as Amunugama says.  It drew the admiration not only of Buddhists, but of the colonial government and that of Indian national leaders Nehru, Tagore, and Malaviya. Dharmapala’s remarkable success in causing India’s lost Buddhist cultural heritage to be brought to the forefront of Indian national consciousness was not confined to this.

Gandhi knew little about this heritage. When he confessed to Dharmapala that what little he knew about Buddhism, he learnt from Sir Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia”, he expressed his displeasure, implying that an Indian leader of Gandhi’s stature had been remiss in acquiring the best part of India’s spiritual knowledge. Dharmapala himself said that it was through the medium of English that he himself learnt the Dhamma, for at that time no decent education was available in the vernacular. People with the ability to do so sent their children to English medium schools as Dharmapala’s did. But Dharmapala did learn Sinhala and Pali as well from erudite Buddhist monks. 

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Gandhi’s work was a source of inspiration for Dharmapala. The latter quoted in his Diary of 1929 the following verse from the Mahatma’s Letter:

“Does the road wind uphill all the way?

Yes to the very end.

Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?

From morn to night, my friend.” ~ Reproduced here from Sarath Amunugama’s The Lion’s Roar

According to the 2011 census, there were 8.4 million Buddhists in India, mostly concentrated in Maharashtra. But they belong to different sects, not only to the Theravada tradition that Dharmapala represented. The Mahayana sect is the most prevalent form of Buddhism  in India today, as it is in the rest of the world. But the inspiration that Dharmapala left in India as a Buddhist revivalist is not small. He was largely responsible for getting the small village of Buddha Gaya in Bihar, where the Buddha attained Buddhahood, with its historic Mahabodhi Temple complex recognized as the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the Buddhist world. 

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