Intro:The Twentieth Century witnessed the reinterpretation and modernisation of Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka. The Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, led by Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), began as a sequel to the organisational momentum provided by the Theosophical Movement.
Two greatly interconnected ideas of Modernisation and Westernisation that found their way in to the Asian intellectual discourse in the colonial context have often been mentioned as a catalyst for massive social changes and path breaking reform movements in the last century in Asia in general and India and Sri Lanka in particular. The Theravada School of Thought played significant role in social transformation and socio-political achievements in the two countries.
In the Eastern thought process modernisation did not necessarily mean Westernisation as more prominently in the case of (Buddhist) Japan and India in the early part of the last century. The legacy of Greece and Rome shaped Christian traditions and the Renaissance and technological advances steered by the Industrial Revolution influenced Western ethos and ethics. The religious dictates of the Church became the social value system in the West which the colonial masters tried to superimpose on the Eastern societies without realising the fundamental differences in the approaches. This led to a great churning of ideas in the East, which rejected the religious doctrine but accepted the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution as signs of political and economic progress. The perception of a challenge to the sacredness and authority of indigenous socio-religious value system and cultural ethos posed by the Christian Missionary activities in non-Christian lands stimulated the emergence of religious reform, and spiritual nationalism in India and Sri Lanka. It is here that Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala sought to reaffirm and reinterpret the validity of Buddhist world-view even while accepting the need for progressive reforms in the social and religious sphere.
Born on September 17, 1864 to a rich, upper middle class family at a time like this, David Hewavitharana's father, Don Carolis, an accomplished furniture manufacturer, and his mother Mallika, a name synonymous with a celebrated queen in Buddhist tradition, sent him to a missionary school for formal Christian education. But the young David grew up with the knowledge of history, lamented the cultural, religious and national decline and firmly determined to resist the escalation of the foreign domination. David, later the venerable Anagarika Dharmapala, devoted to the study of the Buddha Dhamma at the feet of Hikkaduwe Sumangala Nayake Thero, Heiyantuduwe Siri Devamtta Nayake Thro, and Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero, renowned scholars of the Dharmapada. He took a new name, revered in Buddhist literature, with religious connotation and became known as Dharmapala, pledging to be an Anagarika, one who doesn't have a home.
The history of Maha Bodhi Society (MBS) goes back to 1891 when Anagarika Dharmapala visited Bodh Gaya. A renowned defender of reforms and a devout Buddhist dedicated to national and religious rejuvenation, Anagarika Dharmapala had not only visited many parts of Sri Lanka but also the religious places of India. Dharmapala's very first visit in January 22, 1891 to the ancient sacred Buddhist sites in Benares, then Isipatana, and Bodh Gaya, was very revealing, to say the least. Bodh Gaya was then a strong centre of Sahivism and the British had leased the District to the mahants, controlling the temple. In the background of religious differences bordering on acrimony, the Buddhists were treated with distrust.
On March 31, 1891, the Buddha Gaya Maha Bodhi Society was formally inaugurated at a well attended meeting held at the Maligakanda Pirivena, Maradana in Colombo. The meeting was presided over by Hikkaduwe Sumangala Maha Thera, while Olcott was elected as the Director, and Mudliar Weerasekera and Dharmapala as Joint Secretaries of the Society. A treasurer (W De Abrew) and twelve Committee Members were also elected. The name of the society was later abbreviated to MBS, and that name continued to be used without any association to India or Sri Lanka, as part of the Society's registered name, till the death of its founder, Anagarika, on April 29, 1933, in India. However the address of the society alternated between Colombo and Calcutta (now Kolkata), depending on the place of domicile of the General Secretary cum Chief Organiser, by which designations Dharmapala was known. In 1915, the MBS of India became a registered body. The Society continued its all-out efforts for the restoration of the Maha Bodhi Temple. Attempts were made to convince the national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Babu Rajendra Prasad, Deshbandhu CR Das, Rabindranath Tagore and other eminent persons about the legitimate claim of the Buddhists in this regard. The outstanding achievement of the Society and the last glorious monumental work of Anagarika Dharmapala was the completion of the Mulagandhakuti Vihara at Sarnath, where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon after his enlightenment. The homecoming of the relics of Sariputta and Moggallana, the two principal disciples of Lord Buddha was another historic event in the regeneration of Buddhism in India.
On the January 13, 1949 at a large and colourful gathering held at the Calcutta Maidan and attended by distinguished dignitaries and delegates, Prime Minister, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru ceremoniously handed over the sacred relics to Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, President of the Maha Bodhi Society of India from 1942 to 1953. Finally, the sacred relics of Sariputta and Moggallana were enshrined in the specially built Vihara of the MBS of in Sanchi.
By 1931, Dharmapala had chosen Calcutta as his permanent domicile, and had ceased to travel between Sri Lanka and India. Consequently after the middle of 1931 the address of the MBS remained unchanged in spite of the incorporation of the MBS of India in 1915, under Act No VII of 1913, with its head quarters at 4A Bankim Chatterjee Street, Calcutta – 73 (MBCV 308). Organisation wise the two societies of India and Sri Lanka, for a long time, had a single General Secretary, working from both Calcutta and Colombo, though now they work as two independent entities, with separate registration, Office Bearers and Boards of Management, with few Sri Lankans still remaining as life members of the Indian Society. While most of the Indian and international work is performed by the Indian Society, from its office in Calcutta, the Sri Lankan Society has limited role in India like overseeing Chennai and Sanchi Maha Bodhi centres.
One of the greatest reformers of his times, Anagarika faced the fate that any reformer would, jealousy, criticism and opposition from vested interests. He adopted the name Devamitta, so that Anagarika Dharmapala lives eternally, like his mentor, The Buddha. Both India and Sri Lanka owe it to this noble soul to remember him for his monumental work and observe his 150th birth anniversary in a manner befitting his colossus work. New Delhi should issue a postal stamp on Anagarika Dharmapala, contemporary of Swamiji.
Seshadri Chari (The writer is Director of Forum for Strategic and Security Studies and Secretary General of Forum for Integrated National Security(FINS).