At the time of Don David Hewavitharne (Anagarika Dharmapala)’s birth 150 years ago, there were no Buddhist places of worship in Colombo. Devout Buddhists had to go to the Kelaniya Viharaya 10 miles north of the city on full-moon poya days for their religious observances; the only other viharaya was at Ratmalana, 7 miles south of Colombo, where the learned Buddhist monk Walane Nahimi (Chief Monk) lived. Neither were there any schools for the education of Buddhist children; there were only a few schools even for the secular education of the Sinhala speaking children; Buddhists’ attempts to establish schools for their children were discouraged on various pretexts. This is mentioned in the Anagarika’s short autobiography in English My Life Story (edited and completed from the author’s diaries and other writings by Lakshman Jayawardane, Media Advisor, Maha Bodhi Society of Sri Lanka, in 2013). The deplorable situation of the Buddhist Sinhalese in the capital city of their native land was indicative of the almost total sweeping away of the traditional Sinhalese Buddhist culture of the country by the successive tsunamis of Portuguese, Dutch and British invasions. Fortunately today this is not more than a bitter memory in our national consciousness, which, however, will remain indelible for a long time to come.
Let bygones be bygones, some people may murmur. True, generally we must. But certain past injustices in the form of racial and religious discrimination that we suffered under foreign occupation are worth remembering for properly appreciating the freedom we Sri Lankans of diverse ethnicities, religions, and cultures enjoy today without discrimination in this common homeland of ours; recalling the sordid iniquities we were subjected to by foreign intruders, and the commemoration of the visionary leaders who made emancipation from them a reality, are as cogently necessary for preventing new forms of barbarism from destroying our freedom and wellbeing again.
Under the earlier Dutch rulers, Buddhists had been compelled to declare themselves as Christians. The British enforced the same law for 70 years until they were compelled to abrogate it in 1884.The American colonel Henry Steel Olcott had it repealed by making representations to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London on behalf of the Buddhists of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Children born of Buddhist parents in Colombo at that time had to be taken to a Christian church for the minister there to record the names of the parents, and the dates of birth of the babies who were given Christian names by him. In territories under European occupation including Colombo most Sinhalese were given an English Christian name and a Portuguese surname if they were Catholic ‘converts’ or an English Christian name and a Sinhalese surname if they were converted to Anglican ‘converts’. The majority of the Sinhalese in these areas were ashamed or afraid to own themselves to be Buddhists. Only those in the interior villages were relatively free to observe the religion of their forefathers without hindrance. Even there they were not free from the attacks of thousands of catechists who went about disparaging and disgracing the Buddhist faith for twenty rupees a month. Buddhist boys and girls were peremptorily taught bible tracts and subliminally influenced to turn against their own religion.
In these bleak circumstances, the members of the Sangha also degenerated spiritually and intellectually. But there were a few notable exceptions who were devout, disciplined, and learned and who somehow managed to keep the weakly flickering flame of the Buddha Dhamma alive. It was some of these bhikkhus who did much to save the day for the Buddhists. In 1873, in response to hostile Christian activism against Buddhists in the form of proselytizing activities through the school system and the publication and distribution of books and pamphlets in the vernaculars among the non-Christians, one of these monks, Ven. Mohottiwatte/Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, challenged the Christians to defend their faith at a debate. This challenge was accepted by the Christian clergy. The debate took place as arranged by mutual consent. It concluded with a decisive victory to the Buddhist monk. The debate received wide coverage in the press, and it was news of this that attracted here theosophists Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavtsky who were instrumental in initiating a long overdue re-awakening of Buddhist education in the country. The young Dharmapala was a lad of 15 when they arrived in Colombo in 1880, and he accompanied them as their translator on their travels across the island.
The imperialists made every attempt to teach the children to be ashamed of and disown their own race, religion, language, culture, and the colour of their skin. In the case of Don Hewavitharne, he had to be admitted to the Pettah Roman Catholic School (also known as St Mary’s School), where he remained from age 6 to 10 years. The reason for this was that around 1870 the government closed all Buddhist Temple schools in the country because children attending these places of instruction were found by a government-appointed commission "to be too loyal to the traditions of old Ceylon" (which most probably meant that they were difficult to convert). After 1870, therefore, Sinhalese Buddhist children were denied an opportunity to receive any religious instruction in a school unless they got it at home. Chances of their getting any secular education were also few, because the government said that they had not enough money to establish schools for Sinhalese children. Meanwhile the Christian missionaries opened their schools throughout the island. Their real motives were candidly revealed later to David by Warden Miller of S Thomas College in Colombo which he attended after receiving his primary education in the Roman Catholic school mentioned above, when he told him: "We don’t come to teach you English, but we come to Ceylon to convert you".
His parents, meanwhile, saw to it that he had a normal Buddhist training at home. Even as a child he knew that he owed no allegiance to the Christian religion. When the Catholic Bishop Hilarian Sillani visited the school, the young David was asked to kneel to kiss the ring on the clergyman’s finger as the other children were required to do; but he refused to obey.
Buddhist parents in Colombo at that time had no choice but to be content with either a government or a missionary school for their children. David’s parents chose the second for him. It was as a result of this that he was admitted, at age six, to the Pettah Roman Catholic School (St Mary’s School). At this school he became a favourite with the padres (fathers) because of his good behaviour and his studious disposition. He used to take flowers from his father’s garden to the school to decorate the altars on feast days and he also took part in the church services. The padres treated the Buddhist children kindly, but they also constantly ridiculed and insulted the Buddhist religion which was their proud heritage, saying such things as "Look at your mud image. You are worshipping clay". Some impressionable young boys, thus humiliated, got converted to Christianity, but David never turned away from the Buddhist training he had at home. After leaving St Mary’s School at ten, he passed through a number of other schools, first in a Sinhalese medium school learning Sinhalese and then in St Benedict’s Institute, submitting himself to further instruction in Christianity. In 1879, when he was 15, he found admission to S Thomas College, where he remained until 1883. It was during this time that David Hewavitharne came in touch with Buddhist bhikkhus (there were not many in Colombo then) and eventually with theosophists Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky mentioned above.
David Hewavitharne had to leave S Thomas’ College in 1883, even before passing the London Matriculation examination because his father didn’t want his son to go to a Christian school after the Catholic riots of March 1883: some fanatical Catholics attacked a peaceful Buddhist procession that was passing St Lucia’s Church in Kotahena. Ven. Migettuwatte Thera who had taken part in the Panadura Debate was living at a temple in Kotahena at that time, but this had no connection with the incident.
Anagarika Dharmapala began his career of selfless service to his people and religion in these circumstances. He was not a Buddhist fanatic or a Sinhalese racist, but a patriot who bravely stood up to defend his people and their religion from religious fanatics and foreign racists.