Life of Anagarika Dharmapala

(17th of September 1864 – 29th of April 1933)

Anagarika Dharmapala

(From 1885-1931)

From the age of 21 years, the young Don David called himself the Angarika ("the homeless one") and began a new phase of his life as a renunciant, i.e. a life betwixt that of a lay individual and a monk. He took up residence at the Buddhist Theosophical Society in Colombo and worked tirelessly to promote the work for the betterment of society and the promulgation of Buddhism. As a commentator wrote after his death:

“Nothing was too small or too big for him. He would clean his own room, make his own bed, attend to office work, write all the letters and take them to the post himself, not as a matter of virtue but as a part of his daily routine, He would interpret for one, he would prepare a programme for another, he would translate a lecture for someone else, he would write original articles for the newspaper, he would discuss the policy of the paper with the Editor and would correct proofs for him, and he would interview those who visited the office. He wrote to people all over Ceylon inviting them to visit the Head Office and to contribute their ’good will’ towards the progress of the cause. All were alike to him, whether one was old or young or a school boy, learned or ignorant, rich or poor did not matter; he instinctively knew what each was able to contribute towards the common good. He spent well nigh fifteen to sixteen hours a day in intensive work.” (from Sangharakshita, B (1952), Angarika Dharmapala: A Biographical Sketch, Buddhist Publications Society, Kandy).


In 1886 when the American Theosophist, Henry Steel Olcott and Englishman Charles Webster Leadbeater (who went on to become the first principal of what would become the country's largest Buddhist secondary school, Ananda College) travelled around Ceylon to raise funds for their educational projects, it was the young Anagarika who went with them as their translator. During this long tour he learnt about the state of the lives of Ceylonese - mostly Sinhalese villagers: poor, indebted, illiterate, lacking in self-worth and living in constant fear of their colonial ruler.

From 1886 - 1890, working as the general manager and assistant secretary of the Society, the young Anagarika took on the name Hewavitarne Dharmapala. This name would later become abbreviated, first to H. Dharmapala and later to Anagarika Dharmapala (the renunciant guardian of the truth). Working with Olcott and Leadbeater, the young Anagarika was first introduced to printing and publication when they began the Sarasavi Sandaresa and in 1888, The Buddhist (funded mainly by his grandfather and friends).

Soon, Dharmapala’s life would be taken over by his ceaseless work for Buddhism, starting with a tour of Japan with Olcott in 1889. They traveled extensively around Japan delivering lectures and reading out the erudite Sri Lankan scholar-monk Ven HIKKADUWE SRI SUMANAGALA Thero’s letter of good wishes written in Sanskrit to the Buddhists of Japan. It was the first letter from a monk of the Southern Buddhist tradition (Theravada) to those of the Northern tradition (Mahayana) in such times.

However, the turning point of the young 26-year old Dharmapala’s life occurred after reading a famous poem at the time, Light of Asia, by the Englishman, Sir Edwin Arnold. Following the poem, Arnold also wrote to a British newspaper of his visit to the then neglected Bodh Gaya (Buddha Gaya) where the Sakyan Prince Gautama had attained enlightenment as the Buddha. There was also an article in the newspapers that British archeologists had discovered more sites in India sanctified by the touch of the feet of Gautama the Buddha. Dharmapala travelled to Buddha Gaya on the 22nd of January 1891 with a small group of companions, including the Japanese monk, Kozen Gunaratana. Anagarika Dharmapala says this about his moment of inspiration:

“After taking breakfast we went in the company of Durga Babu and Dr. Chatterjee to Bodhgaya—the most sacred spot to the Buddhists. After driving 6 miles (from Gaya) we arrived at the holy spot. Within a mile you could see lying scattered here and there broken statues etc. of our blessed Lord. At the entrance to the Mahānt’s temple on both sides of the portico there are statues of our Lord in the attitude of meditation and expounding the Law. How elevating! The sacred Vihāra—the Lord sitting on his throne and the great solemnity which pervades all round—makes the heart of the pious devotee weep. How delightful! As soon as I touched with my forehead the Vajrāsana a sudden impulse came to my mind. It prompted me to stop here and take care of this sacred spot—so sacred that nothing in the world is equal to this place where Prince Sakya Sinha gained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree … When the sudden impulse came to me I asked Kozen priest whether he would join me, and he joyously assented and more than this he had been thinking the same thing. We both solemnly promised that we would stop here until some Buddhist priests came to take charge of the place.” (from Sangharakshita, B (1952), Angarika Dharmapala: A Biographical Sketch, Buddhist Publications Society).

With that moment of inspiration began Dharmapala’s sacred mission of reclaiming Buddha Gaya (and also Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first discourse on his Doctrine of the 'Middle Path') as Buddhist sites of worship. For this purpose, he founded the Maha Bodhi Society in Colombo in 1891 with Ven., Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero as the Founder President and himself as the Secretary. Reclaiming Buddha Gaya became the primary mission of his life.

However, with his remarkable energy he also took on an unimaginable range of other work and causes. These included the mission of spreading the word of the Buddha to the world, of unifying the disparate sects of Buddhist traditions into one global community, educating the poor in India and Ceylon, and creating a cultural revival that would help the poor in Ceylon reclaim their sense of self-worth.

In 1893, Dharmapala received an invitation to attend the first World Parliament of Religions to be held in Chicago in September, by the Chairman of the Committee, Dr J. R. Burrows. Dharmapala was one of the most charismatic speakers at the assembly, and his lecture “The World’s Debt to Buddhism” made a notable impact on the audience and was reported in the media. Hearing this lecture, Mr C. T. Strauss, a New Yorker and lifelong student of Philosophy, converted to Buddhism by receiving the five precepts from Dharmapala. Strauss became the first person to become a Buddhist in the US.

On Dharmapala’s return journey he stopped in Honolulu on the invitation of the Theosophists in Honolulu, where he met Theosophist, Mrs Mary Robinson Foster, the lady who would become his chief benefactor after the death of his father.