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Has Modi found a Buddhist Vivekananda in Anagarika Dharmapala?

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 10 October 2015, 17:34 IST
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The occasion

  • The 150th anniversary of Angarika Dharmapala is being celebrated from 8-10 October
  • Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and the country\'s top Buddhist monks will attend
  • This coincides with China\'s fourth Global Buddhist Forum

The figure

  • Angarika Dharmapala is credited with the revival of Buddhism in the subcontinent
  • He led an agitation demanding that the Mahabodhi temple be handed over to Buddhists

More in the story

  • Who was Angarika Dharmapala?
  • Why is a pro-Hindutva Modi government invoking a Buddhist leader?
  • Is this an attempt to counter China\'s Buddhist card?

On 8 October, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena arrived in Delhi. But this wasn't a run-of-the- mill state visit. Sirisena was accompanied by 150 of Sri Lanka's top Buddhist monks to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the man credited with reviving Buddhism in the Indian sub-continent - Anagarika Dharmapala.

There's more to it than religion

The memorial event will begin in Delhi and culminate on 10 October when the delegation visits Bodh Gaya. While the event obviously has deeper religious overtones, it's also an Indian attempt to wrest Buddhism from the cultural claims of China.

China, after all, is home to the world's largest Buddhist population in addition to its control over Tibet. The Modi government though, since it has come to power, has made strident attempts to appropriate the Buddhist legacy from China. This has been evident in Modi's statements during state visits to India's South-east Asian neighbours. Recently, at a Buddhist-Hindu conference, organised partly by the Vivekananda International Foundation in Japan, Modi even went as far as to call Buddhism one of India's "crown jewels".

That Sirisena's visit coincides rather well with China's fourth consecutive Global Buddhist Forum, further indicates India's ulterior motives.

Even so, in today's age where India's religious legacy is being rewritten to promote the significance of Hinduism at the expense of other religions, the reemphasis on Dharmapala's legacy is one that we should seemingly welcome. But if we delve deeper into Dharmapala's story, the Modi government's affinity for him becomes a little less surprising.

How Don David became Dharmapala

Even though Dharmapala played a massive role in the re-popularisation of Buddhism in India, his journey began in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was called at that time. He was born in 1864 under the yoke of British colonisation and christened Don David Hewavitharane. But his life came to be a rejection of and battle against colonial rule.

At an early age, even as he was educated in Christian institutions, he found himself drawn towards Buddhism. This affinity to Buddhism was eventually cemented when Colonel Olcott and Madam Blavatsky, two of the founders of the Theosophical society in Britain began visiting Ceylon and declared themselves Buddhists. A 16-year-old Dharmapala grew close to the two, assisting Olcott as a translator as he travelled around Sri Lanka furthering Buddhist education.

Even though he eventually broke with the Theosophical Society, rejecting their beliefs of a universal religion in favour of Buddhism, it is this period that set him on his path. He took the name Dharmapala, which means 'guardian of the Dharma'. He also took the title Anagarika, a title that means "homeless one" and carries a status somewhere between a layperson and a monk.

The Indian connection

His tryst with India though, was yet to come. That began on a visit to the recently-renovated Mahabodhi temple where the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, had attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya. The year was 1891, and a 27-year-old Dharmapala was shocked to find the temple managed by a Hindu priest, with the image of Buddha replaced by Hindu gods. Buddhists were barred from worship at the temple, one of Buddhism's most sacred sites.

Dharmapala began an agitation to return control of the temple to Buddhists. It was a battle that was eventually won two years after India gained independence, 16 years after his death. But even as he fought a protracted legal battle for the Mahabodhi temple, Dharmapala was busy spreading Buddhism.

Dharmapala's views were often racist. He once described Africans as 'semi-savage half-animal people'

He set up the Maha Bodhi Society, initially in Sri Lanka before relocating it to Kolkata. Through the Society's many chapters he managed to spread the word and teachings of Buddhism. Incidentally, when the Mahabodhi temple committee did eventually get its first Buddhist head, it was the then-head of the Maha Bodhi Society. In fact, over 50 years before Ambedkar encouraged Dalits to embrace Buddhism, Dharmapala led many Tamil dalits to take up the religion.

Dharmapala gained acclaim for his teachings, even travelling with Swami Vivekananda to speak at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

Sinhalese nationalism and parallels with today's right-wing

But perhaps it is something other than the work he did in India which has made him so acceptable to India's unabashedly saffron ruling dispensation.

Like Vivekananda, Dharmapala had a strong nationalist bent. He is often credited with being one of the driving forces behind the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.

Dharmapala preached that Sinhalese culture and Buddhism were facing extinction due to colonialism. His vision was for a Sinhalese Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka. He believed that the Sinhalese were a pure Aryan race and that it was the influence of Christianity and other religions that was ruining them and by extension Sri Lanka. This mirrors a lot of the right-wing sentiments currently being spewed in India. Though the Indian right-wing is obsessed with Hinduism and Hindu culture, the discourse is essentially the same.

Dharmapala's views could often border on the racist. He once described Africans as "semi-savage half-animal people". Muslims were also on the receiving end of some of his diatribes - he considered them "alien people" who prospered at the expense of the Sinhalese. And long before the Indian right-wing was playing spoilsport to inter-religious coupling, Dharmapala was busy forbidding Sinhalese women from marrying non-Sinhalese men.

With such striking similarities to the current attitude of India's right-wing, perhaps it's not so surprising that the Modi government has chosen to project Dharmapala as the face of Buddhism in the country.

First published: 10 October 2015, 17:34 IST
 
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