Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World

Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World

by Steven Kemper

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Anagarika Dharmapala is one of the most galvanizing figures in Sri Lanka’s recent turbulent history. He is widely regarded as the nationalist hero who saved the Sinhala people from cultural collapse and whose “protestant” reformation of Buddhism drove monks toward increased political involvement and ethnic confrontation. Yet as tied to Sri Lankan nationalism as Dharmapala is in popular memory, he spent the vast majority of his life abroad, engaging other concerns. In Rescued from the Nation, Steven Kemper reevaluates this important figure in the light of an unprecedented number of his writings, ones that paint a picture not of a nationalist zealot but of a spiritual seeker earnest in his pursuit of salvation.  
Drawing on huge stores of source materials—nearly one hundred diaries and notebooks—Kemper reconfigures Dharmapala as a world-renouncer first and a political activist second. Following Dharmapala on his travels between East Asia, South Asia, Europe, and the United States, he traces his lifelong project of creating a unified Buddhist world, recovering the place of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and imitating the Buddha’s life course. The result is a needed corrective to Dharmapala’s embattled legacy, one that resituates Sri Lanka’s political awakening within the religious one that was Dharmapala’s life project. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226199108
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/13/2015
Series: Buddhism and Modernity
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 480
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Steven Kemper is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology at Bates College and the author of The Presence of the Past and Buying and Believing, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Rescued from the Nation

Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World

By Steven Kemper

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19910-8


Dharmapala as Theosophist

Who will be the agent between the world and the Masters? —Anagarika Dharmapala, at Madame Blavatsky's death

Dharmapala was much more deeply influenced by Theosophy than scholarly accounts have allowed. Neglecting those Theosophical influences derives from the allure of a national subjectivity—specifically Buddhist and Sinhala—as a tool for interpreting postcolonial Sri Lanka. Such accounts reduce Theosophy to a vehicle for Buddhist reform or limit Theosophy's influence on Dharmapala's life to the period between 1891 and 1905, when he left Theosophy behind and became a Buddhist pure and simple. Often they mark the turn at the point when Blavatsky told him to fix his mind on learning Pali or when he fell out with Olcott. For many of the Sinhala Buddhists who joined the Theosophical Society after Olcott's arrival, what recommended Theosophy was the society's Western associations and willingness to help the Buddhist cause. For Dharmapala, Theosophy was quite a lot more. He learned how to embody the brahmacarya role by reading Sinnett's Occult World. The mahatmas (advanced spiritual beings) gave him a compelling example of selfless service. Right up to the end of his diary keeping, he continued to invoke the mahatmas who watched over humanity from their Himalayan retreats. They provided him with examples that advanced spiritual states were possible, and they modeled the service to humankind that he pursued throughout his life.

Theosophy served as an instrument for his own high aspirations and idealism: the content remained largely Buddhist, but the notion that one could aspire to higher states of consciousness came from the mahatmas, who had themselves achieved those states. In contrast with the low spiritual aspirations of local monks, the mahatmas gave him a paradigm for his perfectionism. Theosophy gave him a rationale for carrying Buddhism to the West. Theosophy taught him that doing so was an act of the highest wisdom (parama vijnana). Summing up his life just before his death, he focused on people who had shaped his career; two were his parents and two Theosophists:

Sadhu! Sadhu! Buddhists of Japan, China, Tibet, Siam, Cambodia, Ceylon & Burma are dead. The germ of Bodhi was impregnated in my heart by my father. The germ of renunciation was impregnated by my Mother, and the Devas induced Mrs. Mary Foster of Honolulu to help me. The path of perfection was shown to me by Mme. Blavatsky in my 21st year. (Diary, December 20, 1930)

Even someone as peripheral to his life as C. F. Powell played a part. When they worked together at Theosophical headquarters, Dharmapala found a real-world example of service to humanity and realized that he could do it himself.

Giving proper balance to Buddhism and Theosophy in Dharmapala's life confronts challenges unlike comparable analytical tasks—sorting out, let's say, the ways Gandhi was influenced by Christianity although never ceasing to think of himself as a Hindu. What makes the present task complicated derives from the same virtues that made Theosophy successful as a social movement. Two of those virtues reinforce one another. Theosophy thought about itself as something other than a religion. It was rationalistic and scientific. Its self-description emphasized that the group was devoted to discussion and exploration. Joining the group did not entail abandoning the religion the new Theosophist had practiced previously. Membership in a Theosophical society was additive, and the society exercised authority that was softer than soft. The group that Olcott established in Colombo got the name Buddhist Theosophical Society. The specifically Theosophical content was negligible, but the group retained the name long after Olcott died and any need remained for reliance on Theosophy.

Leela Gandhi characterizes Theosophy as an "affective community" in which people of one sort mixed freely with others in the spirit of equality and solidarity. In her account imperialism did not itself foster human solidarity, but the imperial condition—in places as diverse as London and Calcutta—gave rise to cosmopolitanism, which had an elective affinity for intercultural friendship. That cosmopolitanism produced "affective communities," each marked by belonging without uniformity. Those communities provided an alternative to self-identical communities where an actor encounters others in "relation to himself, perpetually repeated." The emphasis on equality and solidarity duly noted, the situation among Theosophists was more complicated. The movement produced its own variety of self-identical communities. In Burma there were three Theosophical societies—a Buddhist one for Burmese, a Hindu one for Indians, and one made up of Europeans and "half-castes," specifically occupying themselves with the study of mesmerism. Members of the Philadelphia Theosophical Society requested permission to form a branch to admit only Germans to membership, leading to the establishment of Die Deutsche Theosophische Gesellschaft. Whether bringing members of different sorts into one circle of inquiry or providing separate Theosophical venues for self-identical groups of people, Theosophy offered its members the invidious pleasures of investigating traditional religious truths at a depth that ordinary Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians did not know.

A second virtue was more semiotic than organizational. Blavatsky began by appropriating ancient Egyptian categories and practices, but she hit her stride after turning her attention to South Asia, a turn that was initiated by the putative trip she made to Tibet to learn the "ancient wisdom" from a group of adepts who lived in ashrams scattered across the Himalayas. These mahatmas made up what Blavatsky called a Great White Brotherhood, and their wisdom could be found in diminished form in all religions. At full strength, that wisdom was delivered in letters that Blavatsky and others received from the mahatmas. The language was English or French; the concepts were Hindu or Buddhist. Shifting between registers gave Theosophical talk a kind of transidiomaticity that it shared with South Asian figures such as Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and Mahatma Gandhi. Transidiomatic South Asian talk spread to people as diverse as Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, and Robert J. Oppenheimer. As this discourse traveled from its first occupational niche, it mutated, and its rhetorical force was transformed. When J. Robert Oppenheimer said the first nuclear explosion reminded him of a passage from the Bhagavad Gita —"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"—he put the Hindu text to new purposes, acquiring new meanings and losing old ones. What was originally a discourse framed in a particular register could speak to new audiences without having to "posit the particular medium of communication as a coherent foundation," bypassing the necessity for a "more conscious or full-fledged translation." In this context, Theosophical discourse profited from an advantage it did not earn—it borrowed the authority of older ones without continually having to provide context and explication, and that authority enabled it to become "a material phenomenon with corresponding effects within social networks of power."

Blavatsky was no South Asian, but she outstripped her Indian peers by the volume and audacity of her appropriations, taking Sanskrit expressions and fitting them to her own purposes. Her teachings took their rhetorical force from head-to-head exchanges she had with the Tibetan adepts she had met in the Himalayas, although the first conversation came when an exceptionally tall Indian prince—whom she immediately recognized as her "Protector"—approached her in Hyde Park and told her that she had great work to do for humankind. If she accepted, he told her, she would have to spend years in Tibet learning the knowledge to be transmitted. The knowledge that ended up in Isis Unveiled derived from some one hundred books on the occult and cited some fourteen hundred works in various languages. To her followers, what the mahatmas told her was explicated by scholarly citations; to the cynical, what the mahatmas told her came directly from those sources. In this context Hindu and Buddhist religious terms had already entered a transidiomatic environment before Blavatsky appropriated them—the index to Isis Unveiled runs from akasa and arhat to yama and yuga, but there are hundreds of terms in between. That vocabulary in hand, she managed to create a world of intimacy, brotherhood, spiritual growth, and humanitarian purpose, and that world naturally meshed with Western knowledge of South Asian religion that was de facto authoritative. Texts were everywhere—not Sanskrit or Pali but English and German—and the messages themselves appeared in either book or letter form, their allure coming from their having been communicated to Blavatsky directly. She alone had actually encountered a mahatma, and she controlled access to them.

Gombrich and Obeyesekere find theoretical leverage in a notion that parallels Srinivas Aravamudan's "transidiomaticity." When Sinhalas today say that Buddhism is not itself a "religion," they "overcode" other religions. By claiming that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion, they gain a familiar advantage: "If Buddhism is not a religion like Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam, that leaves open the possibility that it moves on a higher plane of generality, a more exalted plane." Buddhists gain another advantage in the bargain, subsuming mere religions under their wing. Gombrich and Obeyesekere write that Buddhism may have learned this trick from Theosophy. The present chapter confirms their speculation by tracing the Buddhist "not a religion" argument to Theosophy. There are other discourses and practices that modern Buddhism owes to Theosophy. The additive nature and transidiomatic diction of Theosophy allowed Dharmapala to move casually between subject positions that could be Buddhist, Theosophist, or both. To the extent that Dharmapala was a Buddhist universalist, he was so because he was first a Theosophical universalist.

In Japan, Bodh Gaya, Calcutta, and the West, Dharmapala negotiated forces well beyond his control and encountered people who spoke different languages and entertained different objectives even as they cooperated with him. He made his own decision about renouncing the world, invented a role for himself, and made, broke, and remade a relationship with the Theosophical Society on his own terms. All of these turns engaged issues of identity and difference, universalism and particularism by way of Dharmapala's own self-understanding, and after the fact, he could see just how fateful was the decision to push his Buddhist identity to the fore:

Had I remained in the T.S. [Theosophical Society] I don't know what I would have been today. I would have studied Theosophical literature and become half Vedantin, half Buddhist, or become a chela and [line buried in crease of page] ... and work in the Theosophical Society carrying out the wishes of the Theosophical leaders, or become the general Secretary of the Buddhist Section. I would have had a larger field to work with friends all over the Theosophical world. But my impulse and wisdom carried me towards the Path of Samma sambodhi. (Sarnath Notebook no. 53)

The problem here is that after his turn back to Buddhism, he continued to speak regularly in a Theosophical idiom and hold to a set of Theosophical practices. Phrases such as "samma sambodhi" resonate with both Buddhism and Theosophy.

Scholars have found Theosophical influence in a variety of modernist contexts, from W. B. Yeats to linguistic theory, from James Joyce to abstract art. Gauri Visvanathan argues that Annie Besant's conversion to Theosophy from socialism and atheism "prepares the ground for the emergence of the relational model of the commonwealth," replacing rule by force with the idea that the empire realized the Theosophical notion of universal brotherhood. Laurie Sears finds more unlikely effects. In her account Javanese shadow puppetry was less a long-standing indigenous tradition than a tradition remade under Theosophical inspiration. Wayang under Theosophical interpretation had other applications. It became a way of imagining a nation that transcended Java and incorporated the rest of Indonesia. Joy Dixon has shown how Theosophy informed fin-de-siècle feminism in both Britain and India. There is little news in asserting that a religious movement committed to universal brotherhood would appeal to other social formations, but the connections embody the spirit of an extraordinary historical moment.

The conventional treatment of Dharmapala's Theosophy suffers from two misreadings. The first—that he gave up his commitment to Theosophy sometime between 1891 and 1905—simply ignores the facts. It is true that he sometimes said things that support the two-part model. Usually he attributed the transition to Blavatsky's counsel, but sometimes he took the arrival at Bodh Gaya as critical, as when he noted, "I came to India first because I was a Theosophist, and I came to Buddha Gaya as a Buddhist" (Memorandum to Diary of 1919). In other places he attributed the break to Olcott's disrespect for the relic that he had given him. In any case, what he abandoned was the Theosophical Society; he did not abandon Theosophy as a philosophy of spiritual advancement but held on to a belief in the mahatmas, dhyana meditation, and Blavatsky's teachings till the end of his life. His alienation was alienation not from Blavatsky's Theosophical Society but from Annie Besant's. She took Theosophy in a Hinduized direction, but Dharmapala never left the Blavatsky's Theosophy. Besant's Theosophy left him. To complicate things, he was reconciled with Besant in 1911 and rejoined the Indian Theosophical Society in 1913, even while railing against her betrayal of the society's commitment to Buddhism.

The second misreading is more consequential. It bears on Obeyesekere's argument that Dharmapala invented a "Protestant Buddhism," leading to a contemporary Buddhism in Sri Lanka shaped by Protestant characteristics—internalization, rationalization, and the elevation of the laity, or laicization. As productive as the idea has been for Obeyesekere as well as other scholars working on Buddhist modernity, Dharmapala's life was more influenced by the exposed hand of Theosophy than the hidden hand of Protestantism. Olcott led him toward a universalism of the "affective community" variety. Seeking a united Buddhist world held together by "general principles of belief universally recognized by the entire Buddhist world," Olcott traveled across Asia for the sake of Buddhist unity. Where Olcott called his journal The Theosophist or Universal Brotherhood, Dharmapala called his the Journal of the Maha Bodhi Society and the United Buddhist World. But Theosophy, as Olcott told Sinhala Buddhists, was quite a lot more than Buddhism:

You see ... gentlemen that the Theosophical Society is not a Buddhist, any more than it is a Parsee, a Hindu, a Jain, a Jew, or a Christian Propaganda. If it were, then there would no room in its membership for any but Buddhists, whereas, here before your very eyes, you see that its Hindu and Parsee fellows are thoroughly devoted to its interests. The salutation of brotherhood has smoothed all the common asperities that keep man and man asunder, and a responsive thrill from every heart attests the tie of common humanity that links us all together beneath our varied complexions, costumes, and creeds.

Local Buddhists had little interest in what Leela Gandhi calls a "co-belonging of non-identical singularities." They had great interest in Olcott's hostility to Christianity.

Dharmapala had scant interest in brotherhood that transcended Buddhism, and even his interest in building a Buddhist world did not seek that unity as an end in itself. He wanted Buddhist unity for one purpose: recovering a site of importance to all Buddhists, Bodh Gaya. But his belief in the mahatmas made him a universalist in another sense that transcended Buddhism. Like the mahatmas, who work for the good of all humanity, Dharmapala pledged himself to the same cause:

[Blavatsky] gave me the key to open the door of my spiritual nature and Col. Olcott taught me to work forgetting myself. I left home, parents, Govt: service and everything for the sake of this blessed life.... My aspirations are towards the highest goal of perfection to become Buddha and save Humanity, and this I will do. (Diary, March 10, 1897)

One could say that he became a Buddhist working to save humanity by way of a Theosophical intervention or that his being a Buddhist led him to a Theosophy that confirmed what he believed and reinvigorated his childhood religion. The less segmentary way of putting it is to say that he devoted his life to universalizing goals that were transidiomatic and overcoded.


Excerpted from Rescued from the Nation by Steven Kemper. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: World Renunciation in a Nineteenth-Century World

1. Dharmapala as Theosophist
2. Buddhists in Japan
3. Universalists Abroad
4. Dharmapala, the British, and the Bengalis
5. Dharmapala and the British Empire
6. World Wanderer Returns Home
Appendix 1. The Diaries and Notebooks Explained
Appendix 2. A Chronology of the Life of Anagarika Dharmapala

What People are Saying About This

Tansen Sen

“Kemper’s book is a pleasure. Dharmapala was one of the key figures in the pan-Asian movements to revive Buddhism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Kemper offers intriguing details about his contributions that complicate our understanding of the Sinhalese native as he engaged with the Theosophists, British colonial officers, Bengali intellectuals, and even Japanese clergy. His book is a major contribution and will surely become the most-referenced work on Dharmapala.”

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