Rescuing Dharmapala from the ‘Nation’



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I was intrigued to see the worlds of knowledge of the past that were opened up when reading Steven Kemper’s 2015 book, ‘Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World’ published by the University of Chicago Press. Growing up Sinhala Buddhist in Sri Lanka, Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) would easily be one of the most important historical characters from the recent past, we had become familiar with early in our lives. This was certainly so for my generation. As we know from that experience, Dharmapala was closely and intimately linked to the country’s Buddhist revivalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Precisely due to this reason, he was the most iconic culture hero of the Sinhala Buddhists in the modern period.


But when situated in the context of the Sinhala-Tamil conflagration that dominated the country’s post-colonial politics and the civil war that viciously consumed the country for three decades, Dharmapala emerged with a split personality in so far as public perception was concerned. So, while he is revered by the Sinhalese, he is seen as a divisive and chauvinist figure by ethno-religious others. Moreover, he is seen in the latter sense by much of the formal social science scholarship on him as well. Without a doubt, numerous manifestations of the way he engaged with local politics and his often caustic rhetoric supports this view. However, this politico-cultural popular understanding of Dharmapala is evident within the Sinhala society and formal scholarship focusing on his local rhetoric can only be understood as a very partial and thoroughly incomplete biographical mapping of the life of a complex character. As Kemper quite rightly points out, in these local cultural understandings overtly supportive of Dharmapala and in the core scholarly writings of Gananath Obyesekere, Richard Gombrich, S.J. Tambiah, H.L. Seneviratne and others, which are generally critical of Dharmapala, much about his personal passions and politics are missed (pp. 5-6). The reason for this obvious lapse is located primarily in the way these discourses have associated Dharmapala too closely with the politics of the ‘nation.’ It is in this context that Kemper has argued, "seeing Dharmapala only in a Sri Lankan context has led his life’s being misconstrued by scholars and nationalists alike (pp. 9-10).


Seen in this sense, Kemper’s aim, as referred to in the title of the book itself is to ‘rescue’ Dharmapala from the ‘nation,’ and re-situate him within the Buddhist world of his time. This would necessarily caste Dharmapala’s intellectual and personal shadow much beyond the country’s national and cultural borders. A significant portion of the material used by Kemper to weave his narrative comes from Dharmapala’s unpublished notes and diaries collecting dust and disintegrating in neglected archives in India, which many Sri Lankan researchers hardly know of.


When one reads Kemper’s book, what comes to life is quite a different Dharmapala, many of us in Lanka would hardly be able to recognize. This Dharmapala’s primary effort was to help create a ‘united Buddhist world’ as he imagined it. This world incorporated predominantly Buddhist societies in East Asia dominated by Mahayana versions of Buddhism; India from whose shores Buddhism had nearly disappeared; and the ‘West’ where Buddhism had acquired a specific intellectual interest amongst groups of intellectual elite. This latter community came into being as a consequence of two interrelated processes. One, translated Pali Buddhist texts that reached these places created an intellectual curiosity about Buddhism. Second, the publication of texts like ‘The Light of Asia’ by Edwin Arnold further added to this atmosphere. What manifests in Kemper’s descriptions of Dharmapala’s relentless travels and consistent speeches and writings are the dynamics of a tireless and almost singlehanded universalizing mission undertaken by an obstinately passionate man. His universalizing mission had to be undertaken while other similar universalizing forces were in operation at that time with which Dharmapala’s mission had to compete. These included the powerful force of colonialism within which Dharmapala was making his presence felt, and Christianity, that had been energized by the successes of colonialism.


Dharmapala became a constantly mobile pilgrim-activist to advance his causes. He lived much of his adult life not in Sri Lanka, but mostly in Calcutta and London, a fact that most Sri Lankans hardly consider. In 1889, 1896, 1902, and 1913 and between 1925 and 1926 he travelled to many parts of the world in search of like-minded people and to set up networks (pp. 6). He visited Japan four times and travelled to Akyab in Burma in 1892. He went to Shanghai in 1894, to Siam in 1894, and North India in 1899 and 1923. In 1904, he went to London, and to Hawaii in 1913. This was followed by trips to China, Korea and Boro Budhur in 1913 itself (pp. 6). In 1925 and 1926, he toured Europe and the United States. After this bout of travel, he established himself in London for a considerable period of time. As a result of his sojourn in the colonial metropolis, he established the first Buddhist temple in Europe (pp. 6). In addition to the personal stamina of Dharmapala, these travels indicated an important consideration in understating his overall enterprise. That is, the enormous power vested in private capital in spearheading his religio-political mission. This was not funded by states. There were no NGOs of the type we are now familiar with at the time finance these activities. Instead, funding for such efforts came from individuals, which often meant himself.


Besides his travels, Dharmapala’s large-scale global institution-building programmes were focused on the larger project of realizing his dream of a united Buddhist world. In this scheme, he clearly privileged Theravada Buddhism, known at the time as Southern Buddhism. But he also acknowledged the existence of many other versions of Buddhism. His activities, which were both intellectual and physical, belong to two distinct forms. In the first of these he focused on building intellectual infrastructure to specifically promote his ideas. He did this by establishing journals, discussion forums, etc. In the second, his attention was on the physical creation of institutions. The latter includes the Mahabodhi Society of India, which functions even now. With regard to the former, the time in which Dharmapala lived also had an empowering impact.


To be precise, the easy access to print technology and the development of an international postal system meant that his ideas could circulate widely relatively quickly, in the same way the technological advances that helped expand train and steamship services also ensured his ability to engage in the kind of relentless travel he undertook to personally build his network (pp. 7). Dharmapala initially published the Journal of the Maha Bodhi Society and the United Buddhist World in 1911 in Calcutta (pp. 7, 8). Its title affectively flags his hopes "for drawing Buddhists into a pan-Asian community linked to supporters in Europe and America" (pp. 8).


To be clear, Kemper’s effort is not a reformist intellectual project to erase Dharmapala’s divisive politics in Sri Lanka. Instead, it is an effort to bring to the surface his other more global, lesser-known and passionately universalizing self. That self has so far remained relatively invisible in Sri Lanka’s public discourse on Dharmapala. Kemper helps complicate Dharmapala’s life and work by placing two seemingly contradictory personalities of a single man, together. As Kemper notes, his work does not offer a "different Dharmapala." Instead, he simply presents this enigmatic historical character in the complexity he deserves (pp. 10). As far as I am concerned, Kemper’s book is undoubtedly the most important contribution to date in understanding this enigmatic modernist social reformer and ideologue who is hardly known outside of Sri Lanka. It is a very carefully crafted and sophisticated intellectual effort compared to the recent sloppy compilation on Dharmapala by Sarath Amunugama. Also, by bringing this work into global circulation, Kemper has successfully helped complicate and diversify albeit marginally, the otherwise mostly India-centric scholarship on South Asia.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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