Rescued from the NationAnagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World

Rescued from the NationAnagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World

Steven Kemper

Print publication date: 2015

ISBN: 9780226199078

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book locates Anagarika Dharmapala in the context of a historical moment where nationalisms pulled people in one direction and universalisms in another. Most accounts of his life emphasize the nationalist side, where he is portrayed as the man who revived Buddhism in the island, saved the Sinhala people from deracination, and invented a Buddhist modernity. The great majority of his adult life spent abroad and his feelings about home and exile are overlooked. The entrée to those self-understandings is the diaries and notebooks he maintained while traveling around the world several times and sojourning in Kolkata, London, and Colombo. Looking at Dharmapala’s life abroad does more than add a huge amount of material to what we know of his life. Drawing on 36 diaries and 50 odd notebooks provides a way to rethink Dharmapala’s life work, making older interpretations problematic. Instead of rationalizing behavior and making religion modern, Dharmapala sought to restore traditional institutions such as the Buddhist monkhood. He was much more interested in civilizing villagers than making Protestant Buddhists of them. The Buddhism that he himself practiced and explicated in his diaries and the Maha Bodhi was anything but Protestant, and influenced by both Theosophy and its appropriation of South Asian mysticism. On Kemper’s interpretation Dharmapala becomes less a social reformer and more a world renouncer, with implications for his role as the man said to have laicized the religion by elevating the role of the Buddhist laity and leading the monkhood into the public sphere.