Dharmapala and Sinhala Buddhist ideology
Today, September 17 is the 142nd birth
anniversary of the late Anagarika Dharmapala. The following
are extracts of a speech made by Home Affairs Minister
Sarath Amunugama to a UNESCO conference in Paris and
recently edited for publication in the 2550 Buddha Jayanti
felicitation volume launched by the London Buddhist
|Dharmapala's rationale for the
defence of the Sinhala nation lay precisely in its
historical custodianship of the Buddha's teachings.
His anti-imperialism did not spring basically from
a political or economic critique of imperialism.
To him imperialism had to be resisted since it threatened
the survival and integrity of the traditional Sinhala
way of life which had preserved the Buddha's teaching.
Anagarika Dharmapala, founder of the
London Buddhist Vihara, which celebrates its 80th anniversary
this year, was the outstanding ideologue of the Sinhala
Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka. He provided the conceptual
framework within which the Sinhala Buddhist movement
found expression. Later revivalists like Harischandra
Walisinghe, Piyadasa Sirisena and John de Silva adopted
and worked within Dharmapala's ideological framework.
Dharmapala was a prolific writer and
speaker and has left behind a clear record of his observations
on the plight of the Sinhala Buddhists of his time and
his vision of their historic role. In a life of fifty
years of agitation and exhortation he fashioned a philosophy
which, while drawing from traditional heritage, was
contemporary in that it enabled the Sinhalese to confront
In sum, Dharmapala attempted to redefine
the new identity of the Sinhala Buddhists within a pluralistic,
colonial society. From the middle of the nineteenth
century, the Sinhala Buddhists had made tentative efforts
(religious disputations, a "save the Bo tree"
campaign, anti-Christian pamphleteering) at halting
the missionary advance. It was Dharmapala who finally
channelled these ad hoc responses into a powerful and
effective oppositional platform, which was open to all
Sinhala Buddhists, irrespective of their primary caste,
class and regional affiliations. Indeed, this platform
was open to everybody who identified himself with the
interests of Sinhala Buddhists. Many of the earlier
workers and benefactors of Dharmapala's missions were
Westerners and Indians who sympathised with his philosophy.
A critique of colonial rule
Dharmapala began with an analysis
of the realities of colonial rule: the Sinhala Buddhists
were politically impotent. The Kandyan treaty of 1815,
whereby the chieftains ceded their kingdom to the British
on written guarantees, was a dead letter. In the economic
sphere, Buddhist lands were expropriated, capital was
mainly in the hands of non-Buddhists, and demographic
changes induced by capitalism were to their disadvantage.
The majority of the Sinhala Buddhists were reduced to
the position of consumers of foreign trade goods. Culturally,
their traditional institutions were threatened by the
spread of missionary activity.
Central to Dharmapala's critique of
colonialism was his refutation of the imperialist-missionary
ideology. The sine qua non of colonial ideology in Ceylon
was the rejection of the claims of the Sinhalese regarding
the merits of their religion and culture. As the missionaries
informed Dharmapala in his schooldays, Buddhists were
worshippers of clay idols and false gods, while the
ancient culture of the Sinhalese was symbolised by old-world
customs and the ruins of temples.
Dharmapala launched a frontal attack
on the concept of English superiority. He reversed the
existing relationship and contrasted the past of English
civilisation with that of the Sinhalese.
In place of the imperialist stereotype
of the coloured man as a savage and heathen, Dharmapala,
with a sense of mass psychology, substituted his own
stereotype of the Englishman as a barbarian.
In contrast, the Sinhalese were portrayed
as the heirs to a magnificent civilisation:
“What other nation on earth
is there which could boast of a history of the island,
a history of the great line of kings, a history of religion,
a history of sacred architectural shrines, a history
of the sacred tree, a history of the sacred relics?
“Under the influence of the
Tathagatha's religion of righteousness, the people flourished.
Kings spent all their wealth in building temples, public
baths, dagobas, libraries, monasteries, rest houses,
hospitals for man and beast, schools, tanks, seven-storied
mansions, waterworks and beautified the city of Anuradhapura,
whose fame reached Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India
and other countries.” (Righteousness, p. 481)
This grandiose view of ancient Sri
Lanka as the centre of a great Buddhist civilisation
was made into an article of faith by the Buddhists --
as compensation for their impotence in colonial times.
It reinforced the view that Sinhalese polity must essentially
Dharmapala's rationale for the defence
of the Sinhala nation lay precisely in its historical
custodianship of the Buddha's teachings. His anti-imperialism
did not spring basically from a political or economic
critique of imperialism. To him imperialism had to be
resisted since it threatened the survival and integrity
of the traditional Sinhala way of life which had preserved
the Buddha's teaching.
In doing so, Dharmapala gave contemporary
meaning to two fundamental concerns which are evident
in the history of the Sinhalese. The first is the fear
that the Sinhalese are a "beleaguered nation";
a numerically small community surrounded by hostile
alien races. The classic utterance of the youthful Dutugemunu
-- the epic hero of the Sinhalese -- that he sleeps
huddled up because he is constricted by the sea on one
side and the Tamils on the other, which is part of a
predominant Sinhalese myth, encapsulates this historic
concern. The chronicles of the Sinhalese reinforce this
view of isolation and vulnerability: the Aryan Sinhalese
are threatened by the Dravidian Tamils. The other concern
related to the first, is the need for the Sinhalese
to overcome -- be it by the use of force -- these hostile
and restrictive forces since theirs is a historic mission,
the safeguarding of Buddhism.
These two concerns, which always predominated
in the Sinhalese "psyche", were spelt out
and brought into the open by Dharmapala:
“Two things are before us, whether
to be slaves and allow ourselves to be effaced out of
national existence, or make a constitutional struggle
for the preservation of our nation from moral decay.
We have a duty to perform to our religion, to our children
and our children's children, and not allow this holy
land of ours to be exploited by the liquor monopolist
and the whisky dealer.” (Righteousness, p. 509)
Step towards a Buddhist identity
But what were the distinctive steps
taken by the Sinhala Buddhists of this time to reinforce
their identity? Here we find that scholars like Obeyesekere
and Gombrich have tended to emphasise innovations on
the part of the laity (Obeyesekere, 1979, Gombrich,
1982). However the fundamental problem regarding Buddhist
polity does not rest with changes in lay organisation.
Rather, it pertains more to the total Buddhist organisation
which encompasses developments in the Sangha, their
interrelationships with the laity, and the creation
of a complex relationship in which the Sangha and its
protectors -- be it kings or, as it now stands, lay
leaders -- interact with and reinforce each other.
Viewed in this manner, developments
in Sri Lankan Buddhism under colonial rule assume a
certain coherence and continuity. The highlights of
this development were:-
- the growth of new Buddhist fraternities (nikaya),
particularly on the southern seaboard
- the segmentation of such sects
- the isolation of the chief monasteries of Malwatte
- the rise of Buddhist scholarship and disputation
among monks on points of Vinaya
- the growth of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas
as schools of instruction for monks and centres of
learning and discussion
- the proliferation of Pirivenas in other parts of
- the renewal of Buddhist missionary activity
- the growth of the Buddhist Theosophical Society
- the founding of the Mahabodhi Society.
An early step in the revival movement
was to bring monks into the city and endow them with
temples, which were in many cases mansions of the new
elite donated, as by the kings of the past, to the Sangha.
This led to the creation in the cities of a crucial
institution of the Buddhist revival, the Dayaka Sabha.
These were committees of lay-supporters of temples who
assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the temple,
provided food and clothing for the monks and sponsored
activities such as teaching of the Dhamma to schoolchildren,
discussions on religious and cultural issues, and collection
of money for religious activities. These Dayaka Sabhas
were the main instrument of Sangha-laity co-operation
and were eventually to become the basic tier of Sinhala
Buddhist organisation. Activists of the Buddhist revival
were all members of such Dayaka Sabhas spread throughout
Transformation of the monk's
With respect to the clergy, Dharmapala
consistently emphasised its societal function. He spoke
admiringly of the self-sacrifice and dedication of Christian
missionaries who forsake their kith and kin and live
under trying conditions in Africa and Australia. But
"it is a tragedy that our monks think only of their
convenience and do not try to spread the Sasana of the
Buddha in surrounding lands" (Sarasavi Sandaresa,
6 March 1894). He therefore undertook to recruit a number
of Sinhalese monks for missionary work in India and
England, and undertook personally to pay for their travel,
board and lodging (Sarasavi Sandaresa, 6 March 1894).
But this clerical involvement in the
"good of the world" was at the expense of
meditation and striving for salvation. The scale of
sanctity in Buddhism is measured in terms of distance
from mundane, societal activity.
In this paradigm, a Buddhist must
progress from the 5 precepts observed by the layman
to the 227 precepts (sanvara silaya) which are prescribed
for the Upasampada Sangha. In real life Buddhists would,
to greater or lesser extent, traverse a section of the
In modern times the observation of
sila became a highly visible aspect of a monk's vocation.
With the commitment of the monk to live in urban society
this became a primary index to a Buddhist's prestige
rather than meditation, which is the basic aspect of
ascetic salvation-striving. Progressively, the Buddhist
monk's role in society as a disciplined, benevolent
activist was emphasised at the expense of salvation-striving.
The changing role of the layman
If the role of the monk was being
transformed, so was the role of the Buddhist layman.
According to pristine Buddhism, the layman plays only
a peripheral role in the striving for nirvana. He is
too weak to pursue the path of salvation as he is not
willing to shed his societal attachments. For him, the
Buddha propounded a social ethic which Weber characterised
as "an insufficiency ethic of the weak" (Weber,
1962, p. 215).
In terms of popular religion, the
layman looked on the observation of the lay ethic as
a means of merit-making (pin) which enhanced his favourable
kamma, preparing the way for a more rigorous salvation
—striving in a future birth. Another object of
such merit-making was to ensure rebirth at the time
of Maitreya Buddha's appearance on earth so that his
personal intervention could be obtained in salvation-seeking.
Dharmapala's objective at this point
was to build a tightly knit, well-disciplined Buddhist
congregation with a common corpus of belief and awareness
of its strength as a politico-religious group. In this,
he was continuing the work begun by the Theosophists.
For this purpose several changes in traditional Buddhist
lay practice and belief had to be effected. First, an
effort was made to separate canonical teachings from
popular religious practices. Many of these rituals which
did not have a direct scriptural rationale were dismissed
as "excrescences", survivals of Hindu practices
which were antithetical, or at least irrelevant, to
Buddhism. The best statement of such fundamentalist
Buddhism was incorporated in the Buddhist catechism
which was the joint product of Olcott, Sumanagala and
Dharmapala, who may be considered the ideologues of
this viewpoint (Olcott, 1967, vol. 4, pp. 468-9).
Secondly, there was an attempt to
establish a fundamentalist, scriptural Buddhism which
would have been inconceivable in the times of Sinhalese
kings. The full resources of Dharmapala's propaganda
skills — in newspapers, pamphlets, lectures —
were used to this end. Indeed, the use of mass media
technology was a crucial factor in the spread of this
fundamentalist view of Buddhism. Access to Buddhist
texts, particularly the Vinaya Pitaka (rules of discipline)
previously restricted to a handful of monks, was now
made available to many at little cost. These texts and
commentaries on doctrine and practice were discussed,
edited and published, providing a public measuring-stick
whereby both lay and clerical behaviour could be evaluated.
Finally, if the Sinhala Buddhists
were to be organised into a viable socio-political entity,
it became necessary to enunciate for them a code of
lay ethics. While the Vinaya Pitaka laid down a code
of behaviour and discipline in great detail for the
clergy, there was no parallel code for laymen, except
for some injunctions of the Buddha such as the Sigalovada
This lack of concern with lay ethics
is perfectly congruent with the salvation-goals and
methods of the Buddha. But in the political context
of Dharmapala's time, such a unifying code was of paramount
importance. Dharmapala, therefore, compiled and published
a lay code which he entitled a Daily code for the laity,
wherein he set out 200 rules for the lay Buddhist under
the following headings:
1. The manner of eating food. (25
2. Chewing betel. (6 rules)
3. Wearing clean clothes. (5 rules)
4. How to use the lavatory. (4 rules)
5. How to behave while walking on the road. (10 rules)
6. How to behave in public gatherings. (19 rules)
7. How females should conduct themselves. (30 rules)
8. How children should conduct themselves. (18 rules)
9. How the laity should conduct themselves before the
Sangha. (5 rules)
10. How to behave in buses and trains. (8 rules)
11. What village protection societies should do. (8
12. On going to see sick persons. (2 rules)
13. Funerals. (3 rules)
14. The carters' code. (6 rules)
15. Sinhalese clothes. (6 rules)
16. Sinhalese names. (2 rules)
17. What teachers should do. (2 rules)
18. How servants should behave. ( 9 rules)
19. How festivals should be conducted. (5 rules)
20. How lay devotees should conduct themselves at temple.
21. How children should treat their parents. (14 rules)
22. Domestic ceremonies. (1 rule)
In this lay charter was combined Dharmapala's
fundamentalist interpretation of Buddhism and his view
of corporate traditional Sinhala culture. What is significant
is the attempt to reconcile Buddhists to living a "successful"
life in society, liked by parents, relatives, friends
and priests, capitalistic but generous and considerate.
It was in essence a bourgeois world view, which takes
for granted the prevailing social hierarchy. For example,
one section of Dharmapala's lay code is devoted to the
obligations of servants and carters. Servants are exhorted
to work hard and promptly, be enthusiastic about the
worldly success of their employer and avoid any hostility
to the employer by word or thought, much less deed.
This charter performed two vital functions.
First, it could unite the Sinhala Buddhists under the
leadership of the native elite. It was a common platform
cutting across caste and kin lines and eliminating village
cultural practices which had a specific regional or
caste focus. Secondly, it incorporated all those puritanical
characteristics which were proclaimed as desirable by
the missionaries. Thus the national bourgeoisie, upwardly
mobile and anxious to drop its village affiliations,
could easily approve of it and adopt it as their ideal
The modern Anagarika
The same functional requirements that
were bringing subtle change in the monks' vocation were
also creating new forms of religious commitment. The
absence of a lay Buddhist authority, classically represented
by the king, which had forced a change in the monks'
role in contemporary Sinhala society, also led to the
creation by Dharmapala of the role of the modern Anagarika.
The Anagarika (homeless) role which
was central to Dharmapala's religious charisma was probably
born, as I shall describe later, out of his own psychological
needs. But he was able to adapt them to the functional
needs of modern Buddhism. According to Buddhism,a monk
is an Anagarika, homeless, celibate and dedicated to
his personal salvation, as evidenced by his repudiation
of all ties that bind him to society (Weber, 1962, p.
214). An important element of Buddhist religious authority
is derived from renunciation, which finds its clearest
expression in the life of the Buddha, a model for all
Dharmapala too was a renouncer coming
from the richest of Colombo Sinhala families. He renounced
all those symbols of affluence that his contemporaries
sought and dedicated himself to the revival of Buddhism.
Obeyesekere attributes this to an "identity crisis"
caused by cultural marginality (Obeyesekere, 1979, p.
In the final perspective, what can
be said of the role played by Dharmapala? During the
times of Sinhala royalty, the Buddhist church and its
priests had been protected by the king. The extinction
of Sinhala royalty deprived the church of a benefactor,
and the church had lost all power to enforce its control
over society. This was recognised by the Christian missionaries,
who actively challenged the unprotected Buddhist church
and made impressive gains in converts. Once the national
religion, Buddhism became merely one of a number of
Furthermore, the major institutions
of Buddhism were linked with the feudal social structure
at a time when the spread of capitalism was redefining
social relationships. A readjustment, a charting of
new directions was urgently needed if a Buddhist social
fabric was to be maintained. It was Dharmapala who imposed
his vision of the inseparability of Buddhism and Sinhala
society, and promoted the emergence of a modern version
of the historical relationship between religion and
lay society that had existed in Sri Lanka since the
third century BC when Buddhism was first introduced
to the country.