By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan –May 11, 2017
Steven Kemper, Rescued From The Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World, Chicago, 2015.
“Whatever good thing I have done since my youth is due to the benefits I have received from my knowledge of English” (Dharmapala, cited on p.312)
This book is outside my specialisation; beyond my knowledge and competence, so what follows is not a review. I merely draw attention to the work, and to points which I found interesting. Kemper, a Professor of Anthropology, has carried out painstaking and thorough research, and quotes from the Anagarika’s own words and writings in substantiation of what he (Kemper) says.
The Anagarika (the homeless one) spent much of his life outside Lanka, mostly in India and in England. His main goal was to gain control of “Bodh Gaya” for Buddhism. He neither wished to die in Lanka nor to have his ashes returned to the Island (p. 37). His last will expressed the desire to be “born again in India in some noble Brahman family” (p. 421); become a Bhikku and preach the Dhamma to India’s millions. Vegetarianism seems to have meant abstaining from beef because he occasionally ate chicken, eggs, fish and mutton (footnote 127, p. 102). Some of the above about Dharmapala (1864-1933) may surprise – perhaps, disappoint – some readers.
He was for long a protégé of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) who, together with Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), founded the Theosophical Society which built several Buddhist schools in Lanka, among them Ananda College, Colombo; Mahinda College, Galle; Dharmaraja in Kandy and Maliyadeva in Kurunegala. The Buddhist flag, designed with the assistance of Olcott, was adopted as a universal Buddhist symbol. In 1884, Colonel Olcott succeeded in persuading the (British) government of Ceylon to declare the Buddha’s birthday a holiday. Several streets in Sri Lanka are named after Olcott and there are statues of him. Buddhists light candles to his memory on the anniversary of his death, and monks offer flowers to his statue. His image has appeared on Sri Lankan postage-stamps. Olcott’s A Buddhist Catechism, still in print and consulted, sees a link between the Buddha and science in that the Buddha thought about cause and effect. One could say the Buddha worked back from result to cause, that is, from the effect of suffering to its causes: false thought and values; false desires and conduct.
But Henry Olcott was not a Buddhist in the popular, Sri Lankan, sense of the term. As he wrote in his Catechism (the edition I read is dated 1886), “The word ‘religion’ is most inappropriate to apply to Buddhism; which is not a religion but a moral philosophy”. The Buddha was not a god, and Buddhist teaching is against idolatry, astrology and the consulting of omens: the monk Hikkaduve reacted strongly to Olcott describing most Buddhists as being “bigoted and ignorant” (p. 82). Olcott describes himself as “a philosophical Buddhist” – not as a religious Buddhist. There are several reasons why the alliance between Olcott and Dharmapala, two champions of Buddhism; between erstwhile “guru” and protégé, separated by about thirty years in age, broke up. Among the reasons is their very different attitude to relics. Dharmapala believed in, and venerated, relics while Olcott didn’t. The latter “dismissed the notion that the relic of the Buddha’s tooth, venerated at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy” was the tooth of a human being: to Olcott, it looked more like an animal’s incisor. However, Helena Blavatsky explained it was, of course, the Buddha’s tooth because in one of his previous lives the Buddha was incarnated as a tiger: see footnote 70, p. 82.