The Role of Bengali Bhadralok in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist revival
Support for revivalist Anagarika Dhamapala
The name of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) is deeply etched in the history of Buddhism as the man who passionately and single-mindedly (if not single-handedly), strove to liberate the Buddhist shrine at Buddhagaya in North India from the clutches of a Hindu priest.
Sadly, Dharmapala could not achieve his cherished objective during his lifetime. This was partly due to rising Hindu consciousness in India in the closing decades of the 19 th.Century, and partly due to the British authorities’ reluctance to challenge the Hindu majority (see: Light of Asia by Jairam Ramesh, Penguin).
But the shrine was handed over to Buddhists in 1949 by the Buddhist-friendly post-independence Indian government led by Jawaharlal Nehru.
Playing a huge part in Dharmapala’ struggle over Buddhagaya were the Bengali elite of Calcutta called the “Bhadralok” (Respectable People). The Dharmapala-Bengali elite relationship is finely and engagingly delineated by Dr.Sarath Amunugama in his book: “The Lion’s Roar: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Making of Modern Buddhism (Vijitha Yapa, 2016).
The book also brings out the contribution of the Bengali Bhadralok to shaping Dharmapala’s aggressive political style, which he displayed on his return to Ceylon. He turned out to be a trenchant critic of the highly Westernized Ceylonese elite of that time, the British rulers and the Christian missionaries. The British banned his newspaper Sinhala Bauddhaya.
From 1891, when he first visited Calcutta, till his death at Sarnath in 1933, Dharmapala spent the better part of his life in India, Dr.Amunugama points out. “India became the object of my love in January 1884,” Dharmapala stated. He was only 16 when he met Theosophists Col. Henry Olcott and Madam Helena Blavatsky in Colombo.
And it was as a Theosophist that he went to Calcutta in 1891 and struck a fruitful and lasting friendship with Babu Norendranath Sen, a rich Theosophist who edited Indian Mirror. Soon, this paper would become Dharmapala’s voice on the Buddhagaya issue.
Having heard from Sri Edwin Arnold that the Buddhagaya shrine was in an extremely bad state, Dharmapala went there on January 21, 1891 and was moved to tears by what he saw. “This encounter changed Dharmapala’s life and had far-reaching consequences for Sinhala-Buddhists,” Dr.Amunugama notes. Inspired by the institution-building work of the Theosophists, Dharmapala vowed to set up an organization for the “reclaiming and preservation of Buddhist sacred sites in North India.” This would soon be the celebrated Mahabodhi Society (MBS).
Dharmapala headed for Calcutta and met Babu Neel Comul Mukherjee, Secretary of the Bengal Theosophical Society. On his return to Ceylon, Dharmapala established the MBS. Its aims were ambitious and India-related, namely, “to revive Buddhism in India, to disseminate Pali Buddhist literature, to publish Buddhist tracts in the Indian vernaculars, to educate the illiterate millions of Indian people in scientific industrialism, to maintain teachers and Bhikkus at Buddhagaya, Benaras, Kusinara, Savaththi, Madras and Calcutta, to build schools and Dhamashalas at these places and to send Buddhist missionaries abroad.”
The renowned Ceylonese monk, Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera, was made President of MBS. Dharmapala also got four Ramanna Nikaya monks to go to Buddhagaya and live there. This was a significant move for him. “After 700 years we have raised the banner of Buddhism in India,” he proclaimed.
But the new priest at the Buddhagaya Hindu shrine, Krishna Dayal Giri, was no push over. He opposed the Ceylon Buddhists’ presence and evicted them. Dharmapala sought the help of Neel Comul Mukherjee who accommodated the MBS in his house.
But helping Dharmapala secure Buddhagaya was no easy task for the likes of Mukherjee as the last two decades of the 19 th.Century and the first decades of the 20 th., saw a sharp rise in Hinduistic national consciousness, This had been aggravated by the partition of Bengal on Hindu-Muslim lines in 1905 and by State-backed Christian evangelism.
The never-say-die Dharmapala saw openings as well as hurdles in the developing situation. He sensed the possibility of harnessing the heightened energies of at least the secular section of the Bengali elite to push his cause.
The politico-religious-cultural churning in Bengal had spawned two rival associations – the British India Association, representing the conservative Bhadralok which was pushing Hindu interests, and the Indian Association, representing the dynamic, modernistic but not pronouncedly communal Bhadralok of Calcutta. Surendranath Banerjea was the leader of the Indian Association.
Dharmapala latched on to the Banerjea-led group. Fortunately, the Indian Association “ruled the roost” in Bengal and was also Bengal’s link with the nascent Indian National Congress, fighting for Indians’ rights at the all-India level. Through Surendranath Banerjea, Dharmapala came to know top Indian political and renaissance leaders like Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda intimately.
Be that as it may, Dharmapala was uncomfortable with the rising Hindu sentiment according to which, any quarter given to other religions, including Buddhism, would injure the Hindu revivalist cause. With a view to allaying any fear about conversions to Buddhism, Dharmapala delivered a lecture at Albert Hall in Calcutta where he stressed the “non-threatening character” of the Buddhagaya movement.
His line was applauded by the liberal Bhadralok including Norendranath Sen’s Indian Mirror which called for a place for Buddhists in Buddhagaya on the plea that there had been no historical animosity between Hinduism and Buddhism in India.
Some other leading members of Calcutta’s Bhadralok also openly spoke in favor of Dharmapala’s mission. Raja Jotindro Mohan Tagore declared that “the movement for placing in the hands of the Buddhists, the Buddhagaya Temple is so consistent with justice, that no reasonable man can take exception to it.” But to accommodate the Hindu sentiment he suggested that images of Hindu Gods and Goddesses be accommodated in the shrine.
Dharmapala had the support of Rabindranath Tagore also. Tagore lauded the establishment of a Buddha Vihara at College Square in Calcutta He included Buddhism in his poems and songs, and counted among his friends Buddhist-national leaders in Ceylon like D.B.Jayatillaka, W.A. Silva and F.R. Senanayake.
But Dharmapala took no chances. As Dr.Amunugama put it, he “wheeled in the heavier gun”, the Theosophist Col. Henry Olcott. The American helped turn the tide in his favor through his speeches.
But unfortunately for Dharmapala, Olcott thought it would be politically prudent to go soft on Hinduism in India, while supporting Buddhism in Ceylon. Olcott left the Mahabodhi Society. And Dharmapala quit the Theosophical Society.
Meanwhile, there was bad news about the Buddhagaya movement. Against the advice of Edwin Arnold and Olcott, Dharmapala had gone to court on the Buddhagaya issue. But the Hindu priest got a favorable ruling from the Calcutta High Court. Dharmapala was heart-broken especially when the Japanese-donated Buddha statue he had installed at the shrine was to be moved to the Calcutta Museum.
But two Indian newspapers Behar Times and Indian Mirror came to Dharmapala’s help by carrying out a strong campaign for his cause. They said that it would be wrong to turn away Buddhists, who, like the Hindus, consider India as their holy land. To reach the non-English speaking literati, Dharmapala tapped the popular Bengali paper Hitavadi.
Simultaneously, he reached out to the Hindu nationalists and got Swami Vivekananda to say that while “the Buddha provided Hinduism its heart, the Brahmin provided its head.”
Having seen first-hand, Hindu revival and radicalism on the rise in Bengal, Dharmapala applied its thoughts and campaign style on return to Ceylon. While other Ceylonese nationalists were soft and constitutional in their stance against the British and Christian missionaries, Dharmapala went hammer and tongs at both.
He derided the Westernized Ceylonese elite and asked them to take to the ways of the Indian nationalists. He became an advocate of vegetarianism and went around in a motor vehicle asking people not to eat beef.