This article is published to mark the 159th birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala, who rendered a yeoman service for the uplift of Buddhism and Buddhist education in Sri Lanka. He spearheaded a Buddhist revival in both India and Sri Lanka.
Some time ago, during a visit to Sri Lanka, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a speech at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, where he expressed the following sentiments.
“Arahat Mahinda, the son of Emperor Ashoka from India, played a pivotal role in introducing Buddhism to Sri Lanka. After millennia, the task of reintroducing Buddhism to India was accomplished by Anagarika Dharmapala. Buddhists hold a deep appreciation for the invaluable contributions made by Anagarika Dharmapala in India, particularly in the preservation of Bodhgaya and the construction of sacred sites such as the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara and other temples.”
On this occasion of his 159th birth anniversary, I feel compelled to discuss Anagarika Dharmapala’s mission as a Buddhist leader, despite the numerous books, articles, and research papers that have been written about it over the years by local and foreign scholars.
As a former Minister of Education and Minister of Higher Education, my extensive studies have led me to the conclusion that while C.W.W Kannangara is rightly considered the “father of free education”, Anagarika Dharmapala can be credited as the “father of national education”.
This is an incomplete account of my opinion on this premise and a more complete account will be contained in a book I am writing now. At the time of Anagarika Dharmapala’s birth, Sri Lanka was a British colony, and the prevailing education system was often referred to as “missionary education.” The majority of Sinhalese and Tamil students received their education in English-medium schools, many of which were associated with churches.
In these church schools, the primary focus was on teaching Christianity and the English language. Anagarika Dharmapala, like C.W.W. Kannangara, received his primary education from these Catholic schools.
There are numerous textbooks and research books available that describe the education system of that era. Anagarika Dharmapala referred to this education system as a non-national system. His comprehensive perspective on education is encapsulated in the following note:
In this brief summary, it is evident that he held progressive views on education. Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, Henry Steel Olcott, and Anagarika Dharmapala played pivotal roles in shaping national education as a consortium of intellectuals.
Following his involvement with the Panadurawadaya (Panadura Discourse), Henry Steel Olcott converted to Buddhism at Vijayananda Pirivena in Galle and established the Parama Vijnartha Samiti Company. A young Anagarika Dharmapala played a significant role in translating Olcott’s writings into Sinhala.
A Buddhist Education Fund was established with the objective of promoting Buddhist education as an alternative to missionary education. As Henry Steel Olcott travelled from village to village giving lectures to support this fund, Anagarika Dharmapala delivered speeches on the importance of utilising education for the nation’s development.
Anagarika Dharmapala served as a significant and singular source of inspiration for fellow scholars in advancing the Buddhist Education Fund and founding Buddhist schools. During his time in India, Anagarika Dharmapala contributed articles to the Sinhala Bauddhaya newspaper, which extensively discussed education and his visionary ideas in this regard.
I have gathered numerous documents on this topic in the past, and I kindly request that both local and international scholars provide any relevant information they may possess for my research.
As indicated in the statement above, he was among the first to emphasise the importance of shifting from an exam-centred education system to one that is student-centred, focusing on nurturing students’ talents and skills. Additionally, he recognised the significance of utilising foreign languages and technology in various sectors such as agriculture, irrigation, industry, and commerce for the development of the nation.
In line with his three-fold vision, he advocated the absorption of modern knowledge that had evolved after the Industrial Revolution in nations like the United States, England, Japan, and Germany. He emphasised the importance of offering scholarships to individuals from our country, enabling them to study in these countries and gain expertise. India pursued a similar approach.
He established a teacher training school for the handloom textile industry within his residence. Up until recently, the training for operating handloom machines took place at the Hewavitharana residence.
One hundred and twenty seven Buddhist schools were constructed across Sri Lanka under the leadership of Dharmapala. He initiated the development of national industries and advocated for commercial education. He was also an early proponent of teaching foreign languages. My experience building 1,000 Mahindodaya schools as the Minister of Education was influenced by Dharmapala’s writings and ideas.
Hence, the 1000 Mahindodaya schools incorporated several successful elements, such as computer labs equipped with 40 computers, modern foreign language labs featuring 20 computers, mathematics labs, a distance education unit utilising advanced technology, and the provision of 62 computers for the Mahindodaya Technology Lab. Additionally, the introduction of the technology stream marked a historic first for Sri Lanka.
Mahindodaya established 251 technology laboratories, each with its unique focus. The ground floor featured engineering technology machinery, the second floor housed the Biosystems technology laboratory, and the third floor accommodated four classrooms for students studying technology.
The inspiration for these advancements drew from the visionary thoughts of Dharmapala and the concept of Central Colleges advocated by Kannangara. During my time at Hanwella Rajasinghe College, I observed various creative activities such as carpentry, pottery, dance, and music being integrated into the school curriculum. These activities created an environment that encouraged students to think creatively and explore their talents.
C. W. W. Kannangara’s educational philosophy was heavily influenced by the ideas of Anagarika Dharmapala. However, it’s important to note that Dharmapala faced significant criticism and attacks from certain media and conspiratorial forces in Sri Lanka, which ultimately led him to leave the country and work in India under the pseudonym Devamitta. Despite not returning his physical remains to Sri Lanka, his legacy continued through the establishment of Vidyodaya Pirivena.
During the funeral ceremony at Vidyodaya Pirivena, the vote of thanks was delivered by C. W. W. Kannangara. Typically, the eulogy at a funeral is given by someone who has a deep understanding and connection with the deceased. In this case, it was fitting that the eulogy was delivered by C. W. W. Kannangara, who was greatly influenced by Anagarika Dharmapala and credited him with inspiring the vision for national education in Sri Lanka.
If Sri Lanka had thoroughly embraced and implemented the educational principles articulated in the above statement by Anagarika Dharmapala, the country might have had the potential to advance into a developed nation akin to the United States.
To complete my research book on Anagarika Dharmapala’s religious mission and educational endeavours, it was noted that access to the Nayaka Thera’s museum in Sarnath, India, where his letters and utilised equipment are archived, would be granted for a week.
With the conclusion of this year’s Budget document, I aspire to complete my extensive research book after examining the letters and documents housed in Anagarika Dharmapala’s museum. The book will be titled ‘Anagarika Dharmapala: Father of National Education.’
The writer is the Minister of Transport, Highways and Mass Media and a former Minister of Education and Higher Education.