The role of Bengali Bhadralok in the Buddhist revival of Sri Lanka


The name of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) is deeply engraved in the history of Buddhism as a man who passionately and resolutely (if not alone) strove to liberate the Buddhist shrine of Buddhagaya in the north of India, from the clutches of a Hindu priest.

Unfortunately, Dharmapala could not achieve his cherished goal during his lifetime. This was partly due to the rise of Hindu consciousness in India in the last decades of the 19th century, and partly to the reluctance of the British authorities to challenge the Hindu majority (see: Light of Asia by Jairam Ramesh, Penguin).

But the shrine was handed over to Buddhists in 1949 by India’s pro-Buddhist post-independence government led by Jawaharlal Nehru.

Playing a huge role in Dharmapala’s struggle against Buddhagaya, the Bengali elite of Calcutta called the “Bhadralok” (respectable people). The elite Dharmapala-Bengali relationship is described with precision and commitment by Dr. Sarath Amunugama in his book: “The Lion’s Roar: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Creation of Modern Buddhism (Vijitha Yapa, 2016).

The book also highlights Bengali Bhadralok’s contribution to shaping Dharmapala’s aggressive political style, which he displayed on his return to Ceylon. He proved to be a scathing critic of the highly westernized Ceylonese elite of the day, British rulers and Christian missionaries. The British banned his newspaper Sinhalese Bauddhaya.

From 1891, when he first visited Calcutta, until his death in Sarnath in 1933, Dharmapala spent most of his life in India, Dr. Amunugama points out. “India became the object of my love in January 1884,” Dharmapala said. He was only 16 when he met Theosophists Colonel Henry Olcott and Madame Helena Blavatsky in Colombo.

And it was as a theosophist that he went to Calcutta in 1891 and established a fruitful and lasting friendship with Babu Norendranath Sen, a wealthy theosophist who edited Indian mirror. Soon this journal would become the voice of Dharmapala on the question of Buddhagaya.

Having heard from Sri Edwin Arnold that the Buddhagaya shrine was in very poor condition, Dharmapala went there on January 21, 1891 and was moved to tears by what he saw. “This encounter changed Dharmapala’s life and had profound consequences for Sinhalese Buddhists,” notes Dr Amunugama. Inspired by the institution-building work of Theosophists, Dharmapala vowed to establish an organization for “the recovery and preservation of sacred Buddhist sites in northern India.” This would soon be the famous Mahabodhi Society (MBS).

Dharmapala headed for Calcutta and met Babu Neel Comul Mukherjee, secretary of the Theosophical Society of Bengal. Upon his return to Ceylon, Dharmapala established the MBS. Its aims were ambitious and related to India, namely, “to revive Buddhism in India, to disseminate Pali Buddhist literature, to publish Buddhist treatises in Indian vernaculars, to educate the millions of illiterate Indians in scientific industrialism , to maintain teachers and Bhikkus in Buddhagaya, Benaras, Kusinara, Savaththi, Madras and Calcutta, to build schools and Dhamashalas in these places and to send Buddhist missionaries abroad.

The famous Ceylonese monk, Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera, has been appointed president of MBS. Dharmapala also asked four Ramanna Nikaya monks to go to Buddhagaya and live there. It was an important step for him. “After 700 years, we have raised the banner of Buddhism in India,” he proclaimed.

But the new priest of the Hindu shrine of Buddhagaya, Krishna Dayal Giri, was not up to the task. He objected to the presence of Buddhists in Ceylon and expelled them. Dharmapala enlisted the help of Neel Comul Mukherjee who hosted the MBS in his house.

But helping Dharmapala secure Buddhagaya was no easy task for people like Mukherjee, as the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, saw a surge in Hindu national consciousness, this had been compounded by the partition of Bengal along Hindu-Muslim lines in 1905 and through state-supported Christian evangelism.

The Dharmapala who never says die saw openings as well as obstacles in the developing situation. He sensed the possibility of harnessing the heightened energies of at least the secular section of the Bengali elite to further his cause.

The politico-religious-cultural mix in Bengal had spawned two rival associations – the British India Association, representing the conservative Bhadralok who pushed Hindu interests, and the Indian Association, representing the dynamic, modernist but not very communal Bhadralok of Calcutta. Surendranath Banerjea was the head of the Indian Association.

Dharmapala clung to the group led by Banerjea. Fortunately, the Indian Association ‘reigned the roost’ in Bengal and was also Bengal’s link to the nascent Indian National Congress, fighting for Indian rights on an all-India level. Through Surendranath Banerjea, Dharmapala came to know India’s major political and renaissance leaders like Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda intimately.

Regardless, Dharmapala was uncomfortable with the growing Hindu sentiment that any quarter given to other religions, including Buddhism, would harm the Hindu revivalist cause. In a bid to allay any fears regarding conversions to Buddhism, Dharmapala delivered a lecture at the Albert Hall in Calcutta where he stressed the “non-threatening character” of the Buddhagaya movement.

His line was applauded by liberal Bhadralok including Norendranath Sen Indian mirror which called for a place for Buddhists in Buddhagaya on the grounds that there had been no historical animosity between Hinduism and Buddhism in India.

Some other prominent members of the Calcutta Bhadralok also spoke openly in support of Dharmapala’s mission. Raja Jotindro Mohan Tagore declared that “the movement to place in the hands of the Buddhists, the Buddhagaya temple is so in accordance with justice, that no reasonable man can oppose it”. But to accommodate Hindu sentiment, he suggested that images of Hindu gods and goddesses be housed in the shrine.

Dharmapala also had the support of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore praised the establishment of a Buddha Vihara at College Square in Calcutta. He included Buddhism in his poems and songs, and counted among his friends such national Buddhist leaders in Ceylon as DB Jayatillaka, WA Silva and FR Senanayake.

But Dharmapala took no risks. As Dr. Amunugama said, he “rolled the heaviest gun,” Theosophist Colonel Henry Olcott. The American helped turn the tide in his favor with his speeches.

But unfortunately for Dharmapala, Olcott thought it would be politically prudent to be soft on Hinduism in India, while supporting Buddhism in Ceylon. Olcott left the Mahabodhi Society. And Dharmapala left the Theosophical Society.

Meanwhile, there was bad news regarding the Buddhagaya movement. Against the advice of Edwin Arnold and Olcott, Dharmapala had gone to court on the Buddhagaya issue. But the Hindu priest obtained a favorable decision from the High Court in Calcutta. Dharmapala was heartbroken, especially when the Buddha statue donated by the Japanese that he had installed at the shrine was to be moved to the museum in Calcutta.

But two Indian newspapers, Behar Times and Indian Mirror, came to Dharmapala’s aid by campaigning hard for his cause. They said that it would be wrong to reject the Buddhists who, like the Hindus, consider India their holy land. To reach non-English speaking scholars, Dharmapala appealed to the popular Bengali newspaper Hitavadi.

Simultaneously, he reached out to Hindu nationalists and had Swami Vivekananda say that if “the Buddha has provided Hinduism with its heart, the Brahmin has provided its head”.

Having seen first-hand the Hindu revival and radicalism on the rise in Bengal, Dharmapala applied his thoughts and campaigning style on his return to Ceylon. While other Ceylonese nationalists were soft and constitutional in their stance against British and Christian missionaries, Dharmapala attacked both hammer and pincer.

He derided the Westernized Ceylonese elite and asked them to follow the ways of Indian nationalists. He became an advocate for vegetarianism and drove around in a motor vehicle asking people not to eat beef.

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