In the course of his study of myths and legends, Bruce Kapferer observes that those who attempt to rationalise myths are as much in error as those who believe in their literal meaning. There are several points in his book with which I beg to differ, but I agree with this specific point.
Myths have a logic and a life of their own, and any external compulsion to alter or rationalise them will be met with hostility. Kapferer’s other contention, that myths are continually being renewed and reborn, is also tenable. The narrative around which these myths revolve may stay the same, but the implications of such stories change from era to era. Millenarian platitudes about glorious pasts and histories, of utopic Edens before the Fall, whether in Buddhist or Christian societies, fall into that category.
I reflected on Kapferer when I reread Sarath Amunugama’s impressive book on Anagarika Dharmapala, The Lion’s Roar, the other day. Dharmapala has gone down as perhaps the most misunderstood national figure or figurehead in our history. For close to two centuries if not more, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe got a bad press as well, but thanks to recent forays by Gananath Obeyesekere, we have come to understand and, as a nation, identify with the tragic figure that he was. Dharmapala, however, is more complex, because his writings and speeches lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations: out of necessity,he made it a point to speak differently to different people. Ultimately, I believe all national figures end up being misunderstood. Dharmapala was no different.
What Amunugama tries to do in The Lion’s Roar is to present Dharmapala in a new light. As one reads through his book, one realises how predictably he has been presented until now. Most contemporary assessments of Anagarika Dharmapala place him at the forefront of the Buddhist Revival of the late 19th Century. Though, in later years, he broke ranks with the organisation which gave the revival its impetus, the Theosophical Society, he nevertheless maintained contacts with it. Sociologists and anthropologists have presented the Revival as having been led by an emergent, nascent Buddhist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. The latter were constantly frustrated in their efforts to join the ranks of the former, a point which more or less pitted them against foreign traders and minority groups.
Until now, social scientists have been content in casting Dharmapala as a messiah, of sorts, of this petty bourgeoisie. Dharmapala’s actions certainly did not endear him to the up-and-coming Sinhala bourgeoisie.Unlike his brother, Edmund Hewavitarne, he was alienated from the many elite and bourgeois groups which formed the basis of later political associations, of which the most prominent would have to be the Ceylon National Congress. That may have been because of Dharmapala’s own background, which stood a tier or two below that of the Senanayakes and the Attygalles. Sarath Amunugama goes as far as to contend that the death of F. R. Senanayake in India closed the possibility of an open conflict between Dharmapala and these families. Yet even F. R.’s death did not foreclose the possibility of such conflict, as the manyestablishment press campaigns against Dharmapala shows.
Is it accurate, then, to locate Dharmapala at that crucial juncture between the formation of the Theosophical Society, the beginning of the Buddhist Revival in the late 19th Century, and the ascendancy of a weak but aspirant Buddhist petty bourgeoisie in the early 20th? This is how social scientists have generally viewed him so far. Dharmapala himself may not have been conscious of his role here. Yet as Regi Siriwardena eloquently put it once, “[t]o say that any thinker or leader served the interests of a particular class is not necessarily to say that he was conscious of doing so, still less that he was hired or commanded by that class.” The ultimatum of social scientists and anthropologists, hence, seems to be that he became the ideological vehicle of these groups, that as the latter’s attitudes to foreigners and minorities hardened, they saw in him a definitive “ancestor from antiquity.”
Amunugama attempts to shed new light on Dharmapala’s followers and acolytes by bringing to the foreground groups which have been excluded from most contemporary assessments of Dharmapala’s life. Prime among them are what Amunugamasees as “subaltern” groups, among whom he includes the Sinhala working class.
This working class, he contends rather convincingly, were swept away from their roots into the cities, where they confronted a new and different social order. As they became more aware of the conditions of their existence and sought to transform them, they began to encounter foreign traders and minority groups, hired by the colonial government to counter the growing tide of trade unionism and Sinhala proletarian discontent. It is against this backdrop that they saw Dharmapala as a saviour, and not just a saviour, but someone they could call their own.
Fulfilling a role
This is, to be sure, an intriguing point. Yet how “subaltern” were these classes Amunugama associates with Dharmapala? Without splitting hairs too much, I think we must bear two points in mind. The first is that, until the formation of a Left movement in the 1930s, no political association, however radical, envisioned a Ceylon falling outside of the orbit of the British Empire. This was as true of bourgeois reformists associations as it was of nationalist ideologues. Whatever “subaltern group” in Sri Lanka at this juncture saw things differently, in contrast to their mobilisation by the Left after 1935. In that sense Dharmapala fulfilled a role, however limited, for these groups.
The Marxists could not have been more different to his ideology, as their struggles on behalf of Indian Tamil plantation workers showed. But then Dharmapala was no Marxist, even if a scion of his family – Anil Moonesinghe – made a seminal contribution to the Left movement of the country.
The second point recalls an observation Gananath Obeyesekere once made in relation to Dharmapala and his disciples: namely, that their attitudes to the Other – which Amunugama dwells on at considerable length in his remarkable study – were paradoxically activated by their alienation from their social and kinship groups.
In their quest for “identity affirmation”, the Dharmapalists sought a negative identity for themselves, in relation to the Other. I think that more or less explains the Sinhala working class’s affinity for Dharmapala, at a time of rising anger against foreign traders and minority groups, including the Malayalis. Such anger cannot be condoned, especially when it transforms into racialist feelings. But it helps explain why, in the absence of an anti-imperialist Left movement in the country, these groups could gravitate to nationalist figures – and why even as key a representative of the Sinhala working class movement as A. E. Gunasinha could invoke him in his struggles.
Does this necessarily mean Dharmapala’s politics were not anti-imperialist, or in the least radical? I think the jury is still out there, though I believe that Dharmapala’s emphasis on industrialisation has been missed out by those who see only his ranting against other social groups and ethnicities. Dharmapala once counted among his defenders a highly unlikely figure: Yohan Devananda. Writing in the Lanka Guardian, in response to Regi Siriwardena, Devananda contended that Dharmapala “did perform an essential historical function in rousing the national consciousness against the foreigner.” I do not know what to make of this assertion, given that for Dharmapala’s followers, “the foreigner” has come to include all groups deemed “alien” in the country. But there is no doubt that he did, at the end of the day, serve a function. The question that countless scholars have raised, which Amunugama tries to answer, is exactly in whose interests he served that function.
The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and freelance columnist who can be reached at [email protected].