Lankan leader sought India’s return to Buddhism

by PK Balachandran, The Hindustan Times, May 1, 2006

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Anagarika Dharmapala, the famous Sri Lankan Buddhist leader who spearheaded a successful movement to revive Buddhism and Buddhist culture in his island country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had also urged the Hindus of India to return to Buddhism.

<< Anagarika Dharmapala

He fought hard, against great odds, to secure for the Buddhists, spread across Asia, control over the main Buddhist shrines in India like Bodh Gaya.

He helped restore these shrines to their past glory, and founded the Maha Bodhi Society to sustain his mission.

While this was a great achievement, he would have been immeasurably happier if Buddhism was restored in India, its birth place.

That would not only be in the interest of Buddhism, but in the interest of India itself, for its social, intellectual, political and economic progress, he argued.

Dharmapala deeply lamented that Buddhism had vanished from its land of birth, where it was a principal religion for many centuries, spawning a great civilisation.

He wondered how powerful Buddhism would be in the world, and how wonderful relations between India and Sri Lanka would be, if only India, with its teeming millions, were to go back to Buddhism.

Dharmapala was by no means an enemy of Hinduism. He did not desire the annihilation of Hinduism.

He recognised the basic differences between the two systems of beliefs and practices, and yet he saw a basic commonality, which made co-existence possible and desirable.

To him, Hinduism and Buddhism were part of a continuum, with Buddhism being a higher stage of development in a long series.

Dharmapala set out his thoughts on this very lucidly, in a lecture he delivered at the Albert Hall in Calcutta on October 25, 1891.

Giving his view of Buddhism in contrast to all other religions, Dharmapala said that the Buddha had preached to Indians, "a realistic doctrine" and not an abstract principle.

He promulgated a religion "free from all super human agencies and devoid of all anthropomorphic conceptions."

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human form or human attributes to God or the Gods.

The Buddha had acquired the stored wisdom of ages. After studying them and the limits of asceticism for six long years, he "discovered the law of Truth for the attainment of beatitude by liberating the human being from his own acts."

The Truth was revealed to five ascetic Brahmins at the Deer Park in Rishipatana near Benaras (Varanasi) more than 2,500 years ago.

"The day on which this grand discovery was made, opened a new era in the history of men and thought," Dharmapala noted.

"The doctrine of supreme purification and intelligence, the panacea which was revealed to the world has given relief to hundreds of millions of human beings, converted many of them into sages and saints, and has given a thorough moral tone to the religions of the world," Dharmapala asserted.

Buddhist rule was India's golden age

Arguing for a return to Buddhism, he recalled that Buddhism had moulded the destiny of the Indian nation in its "brightest, palmiest and most glorious days."

"The best historians and the most impartial writers of India have admitted that at no time was India more in her glory than when the Buddhist system was prevailing."

Quoting Hunter he said that it was to Buddhist impulses that Indian architecture owed its development.

It was in Buddhist institutions that the science of medicine flourished. Public hospitals came up for the first time during Buddhist rule.

In his History of the Civilisation of Ancient India RC Dutt said: "It was in the Buddhist age that the most brilliant results were achieved in astronomy. For six centuries after 1200 AD the history of the Hindus is blank."

Dharmapala attributed the decline of Buddhism and Buddhist rule to Muslim invasions from the North West.

"The darkest days of India were during the Mohomedan period, and the religion of enlightenment (Buddhism) was nowhere to be found," he said.

And describing the decline, he said that with the loss of Buddhism, "a reign of inanition (emptiness) set in."

"Bigotry, intolerance, persecution, worked heavily during this period," he said.

But British rule, which supplanted Muslim rule, brought about a tangible difference, he noted.

"The past one hundred years had been a kind of filing off the rust which had accumulated during the dark period. We see now a spirit of tolerance setting in."

"Education is spreading and with it, expansion of intellect. With the progress of thought, man aspires to independence to grapple with the mighty problems to which theology gives no consistent and satisfactory answer," Dharmapala observed.

This augured well for the wide acceptance of an advanced and progressive philosophy like Buddhism, he proposed.

Evolution of thought

Dharmapala said that Buddhism represented the high point of thought in an evolutionary process.

"Looking back, we find that in the unprogressive and undeveloped state of mind of man, he always looks for extraneous help."

"The powers of nature are so grand and awe inspiring that in his poverty of intellect to solve them, he apotheosises and commences adoring them."

"Hence we find polytheism (worship of many Gods) in the early days."

Rituals, sacrifices, the development of a priesthood and hierarchies appeared during the effort to appease the Gods as seen as in the forces of nature. Worship also began to be directed towards worldly gains.

When the intellect grew, new ideas came into existence, as seen in the celebrated Upanishads, Dharmapala pointed out.

On the Upanishads, he could do no better than quote the well-known German Indologist, Max Muller.

In his Hibbert Memorial Lectures on the Upanishads, Max Muller had said: "The object of the Upanishads was to show the utter uselessness, nay the mischievousness of all ritual performances; to condemn every sacrificial act which has for its motive a desire or hope of reward; to deny, if not the existence, at least the exceptional and exalted character of the Devas; and to teach that there is no hope of salvation and deliverance except by the individual self recognising the true and universal self."

Dharmapala said that the Bhagawat Gita was but a development of the Upanishads. Further, he saw links between the ideas expressed in the Gita and Buddhism.

"It is almost generally admitted that the Bhagawat Gita contains a Philosophy more comprehensive and compact than the Philosophy of the Upanishads."

"Now it will appear strange to those who take Buddhism as a system of materialism to be pointed out the remarkable identity of doctrines in the Buddhist Books and the Gita," he said.

Dharmapala went a step further and said that Buddhism went deeper into the mysteries of life than either the Gita or the Upanishads.

To underscore this point, Dharmapala quoted a well-known contemporary authority on comparative religions, Justice Telang of the Bombay High Court, to say that Buddhism had concepts, which had appeared in "less thorough-going manifestations" in the Upanishads and the Gita.

"The Upanishads, with the Gita and the Precepts of the Buddha, appear to be the successive embodiments of the spiritual thought of the age," Telang had said.

Buddhism is not nastika

Dharmapala corrected the widespread impression that Buddhism had no God and that it was materialistic.

It was Prof HH Wilson who first propagated the notion that Buddhism was materialistic.

And he might have done this because his Sanskrit teachers had confused the Charvakas, the sensual materialists in the Gita, with the Buddhists.

Dharmapala pointed out that the Charavakas were not Buddhists.

"If there ever was a teacher who systematically combated the views of materialists it was the Buddha," he asserted.

"Even today, Brahmin scholars have put down in the most careless way that Buddhism is a nastika system. They may as well condemn the Upanishads and the Gita, wherein the uselessness of ritual performances is demonstrated," Dharmapala quipped.

"Buddhism is the highest -- expression of philosophical thought. The highest spirituals conceptions have been found therein," he asserted.

And in support, he quoted Max Muller again, who said that the moral code of Buddhism was "one of the most perfect the world has ever known."

According to Prof Kunte, "The Buddhist Yoga Philosophy is more transcendental than the yoga system of Patanjali. In its comprehensiveness in ethics, transcendental metaphysics and yoga, no system can compare with the Buddhistic one, because it is the highest aspect or rather the climax of Aryan philosophy."

Prof Rhys Davids had called the Buddha an agnostic. Others had said that his was a pessimistic doctrine, only because he had said that existence was a misery.

But Dharmapala argued that the Buddha was never an agnostic. As far as pessimism went, he said that there was no place for pessimism in the Buddhist system, which rested on "realistic idealism".

Nirvana too had been wrongly interpreted as "annihilation". But Dharmapala, following Max Muller, asked: "Where is the pessimism of the Nirvanee swimming in the sea of calmness and delight exemplified in the life of the Buddha and the Arahants?"

The Buddha asked his followers, the Bhikkhus, to avoid the extremes and stick to the Middle Path, a very practical and yet noble way to live and be happy in this world, Dharmapala pointed out.

The Buddha had said that there are two extremes: (1) sensuality (2) asceticism. The former was low, ignoble, sensual, unworthy and unprofitable for the attainment of spiritual happiness; and the latter was painful, unworthy and unprofitable.

There was the Middle Path discovered by the Buddha, a path which would lead to peace of mind, higher wisdom and full enlightenment, "Nirvana".

Dharmapala said that these ideas would be acceptable as the society progressed in terms of education and intellect.

"With the progress of education and development of intellect, the barriers raised by priestcraft and selfishness, between man and man, will be removed; and man breathing pure air of love, will see that it is far better that a spirit of brotherhood should be fostered for the elevation of humanity.

Then and then alone Buddhism will be appreciated," he said.

Challenges theory that Sankara drove Buddhism out of India

Dharmapala challenged the popular theory that Adi Sankara (8th century AD) drove Buddhism out of India with his Advaita philosophy and relentless India-wide debating campaign.

Quoting Prof HH Wilson, Dharmapala said that Adi Sankara did not engage in any particular controversy with Buddhists. He had no quarrel with the Buddhists.

Wilson had said: " The most prominent objects of his opposition are the Mimansakas, as represented by Madana Misra, with whom he holds a long and acrimonious discussion, and the Nyayakas and Sankhyas; and the vulgar sects of Vaishnavas and Saivas; he is especially hostile to the latter and particularly to the Kapalikas, a class of Saiva worshippers, who again are his most active enemies, and on occasion assail his existence."

Dharmapala also exploded the myth that Adi Sankara headed a movement to persecute the Buddhists.

Quoting from Orissa Antiquities by Dr RL Mitter he said: " The belief is pretty common that a general persecution headed by Sankaracharya was the main cause of its (Buddhism's) disappearance, and that a long and protracted war was carried on to effect that object.

There is nothing, however, in the records of the Buddhists and Hindus to support it."

Dharmapala said that during the lifetime of Adi Sankara in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, and till the 11th.century, Buddhism was flourishing in North-West India, Kashmir, Magadha and other parts of India.

Blamed Muslims

Dharmapala pointed that if any force destroyed Buddhism in India, it was the Muslim invader from West Asia, who pillaged and plundered Buddhist and Hindu temples and persecuted Brahmins and massacred Buddhist monks.

"The last massacre took place in 1202 AC at Odentapuri where two thousand Buddhist monks were put to death by Bakhtiyar Khilji. After that event Buddhism disappeared from the land of its birth."

"Though efforts were made one or two centuries later to plant colonies of Buddhist Bhikshus at the central shrine of Buddha Gaya, all of them failed.You will, therefore, see that it was the iconoclastic Mohomedan that destroyed Buddhism in India," Dharmapala said.

In his view, "the civilisation that India enjoyed before Mohamedan conquest was suited to her nature."

Dharmapala also argued that India would be united into a "compact whole" only if the polity was based on Buddhism.

The Sri Lankan revivalist concluded his oration with a quote from The Hindu of June 16, 1891: "If there is anything in the intellectual and moral legacies of our ancient forefathers, of which we can feel proud, it is that sublime, pure and simple conception of a religious and moral system which the world owes to Buddha."

"Educated Indians need not hesitate in helping Buddhism to find a commanding and permanent footing once more in their midst, and to live in invigorating and mutually purifying amity with Hinduism itself."

PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka