A forgotten Buddhist leader

The Gunawardena Memorial

Colonel Henry Steele Olcott wrote in 1890 that: "One of our very best and most beloved Buddhist Colleagues, A. P. Dharma Gunawardene, Muhandiram, lay dying. He was in his 80th year, was President of the Colombo (Buddhist) T.S., chief Dyakaya (lay supporter) of the High Priest Sumangala’s College, and might be called the father of that institution.

Respected by the whole Buddhist public, honourable in all his doings, successful in business, simple as a child and generous in all works of philanthropy, the progress of his disease was watched with deep concern.

The foundation of our Sinhalese journal, the Sandaresa, and our flourishing printing works is due to his having headed the subscription-list with the sum of Rs, 500. He died while I was in the Island and two days later his body was cremated. Three thousand persons walked behind the hearse, and a sea of heads could be seen from the pyre,- a towering structure of sandal and other woods, 12x10 feet in size.

Sumangala Thero, with about seventy-five other monks, the chief mourners, Mr, Fawcett, Mr. Powell and I stood close to it. Sumangala deputed his pupil, Gnanissara Thero, a very eloquent young monk, to pronounce the funeral discourse on his behalf and to give Pansil; after which, standing on the pyre itself, I spoke on behalf of the Society, and then the son of the deceased set fire to the pile, according to immemorial custom."

(HS Olcott, ‘Old Diary Leaves’, 4th series, Chapter xii, Theosophist Vol XXII, October 1900, Madras 1901; p 2-3.)

Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky wrote in January 1890 (Lucifer: Theosophical Magazine, March-August 1890, p.67):

"By the death of the late Dharma Gunawardena Mohandiram, the Colombo branch has lost an excellent President and the Oriental College a munificent founder."

(HP Blavatsky, ‘From our Far East station’, Lucifer: a Theosophical Magazine, March-August 1890, p.67)

Lansage Andiris Perera Dharma Gunawardena (19 November 1809 - 24 January 1890), was one of the leading lay Buddhists in Sri Lanka at the time of the Buddhist revival. He served as founder President of the Buddhist Theosophical Society (the BTS mentioned by Olcott, above). He was also founder President of the Buddhist Defence Committee, which was formed to force the British to restore the Vesak holiday. He also served on the sub-committee of the BDC which designed the Buddhist flag, which is today accepted by Buddhists the world over.

Dharma gunawardena was the father-in-law of H. Don Carolis - who also served on the BTS, the BDC and the Flag sub-committee - and the grandfather of Anagarika Dharmapala.

The institution which Olcott refers to as "High Priest Sumangala’s College" and Madame Blavatsky as "the Oriental College" was a Buddhist seminary, the Vidyodaya Pirivena, which was built in 1872 on land belonging to Dharma gunawardena using funds provided by him. It later provided the basis for what is now the University of Sri Jayawardenepura.

This November sees the 200th anniversary of his birth, but he is virtually forgotten. In a corner of the compound of the Vidyodaya Pirivena, near the entrance is a memorial to him, which now forms part of the structure of a watcher’s hut. When I visited the Pirivena recently, I found that the watcher had tied a clothes line to it. When I questioned him, he told me he didn’t know whom it commemorated.

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