The founding of the Maha Bodhi Society of India by the late Ven. Anagarika Dharmapala in 1891 is an outstanding event in the history of the revival of Buddhism. David Hewavitarne as Anagarika Dharmapala was born on 17 September 1864 in the Hewavitarne family of Matara, Sri Lanka, which was known for their unstinted devotion and dedication to the cause of Buddhism. While he was still a student of St. Thomas’ Collegiate School, an Anglican institution North Colombo, he came under the influence of Col. H. S. Olcott of America and Madame Blavatsky of Russia the founders of the Theosophical Society, who visited Ceylon and declared their faith in Buddhism in a religious congregation headed by Ven. Migettuvatte Gunananda, the revered High Priest of the Kotahena Temple.
In 1884 Anagarika Dharmapala accompanied Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky to Adya, the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in India. Madame Blavatsky quoted to Anagarika, the message that the Great Masters had sent to Mr. A. P. Sinnett, a Theosophist, “[T]he only refuge for him who aspires to true perfection is the Buddha alone.”
The deep impression that these words made upon him can be realized from the fact that Anagarika wrote them at the head of every alternate page in his diary. It is stated that Anagarika came to Adyar with the primary intention of studying occultism for which Madame Blavatsky could have been of great help. But she told him categorically that he should study Pali and Buddhism and should work for the good of humanity. How faithful and successfully he carried out this solemn pledge is evident from his dedicated service and achievement throughout the rest of his life.
In 1885 Sir Edwin Arnold, the well-known author of The Light of Asia published a few articles in The Telegraph, a London-based periodical of which he was the Editor, drawing the attention of the Buddhists to the deplorable condition of the Buddhagaya Temple and its surroundings. He also addressed a letter to the Government of India which included these words: ‘It is certainly painful to one who realizes the immense significance of this spot (Buddhagaya) in the history of Asia and of humanity to wander round the precinct of the holy tree and to see hundreds of broken sculptures lying in the jungle scattered; some delicately carved with incidents of Buddha legend, some bearing clear and precious inscriptions in early or later characters.’
When Dharmapala read these articles he was deeply moved. The most decisive day in his life was 22 January 1891, when he visited Buddhagaya for the first time. He was overwhelmed with joy and amazement as soon as he stood in front of the Buddhagaya Temple. But his heart broke when he saw the appalling condition of this holy spot. The strong moral urge which he instantly felt can be known in the following few lines from his diary:
“As soon as I touched with my forehead the vajrāsana a sudden impulse came to my mind. It prompted me to stop here and take care of this sacred spot – so sacred that nothing in this world is equal to this place where Prince Sakyasinha gained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.”
With absolute dedication, he resolved to start his great mission for restoring this sacred temple and for the regeneration of Buddhism in the land of its birth. He returned to Sri Lanka determined to finalize his future plans. He convened a meeting and founded the Buddhagaya Maha Bodhi Society in Colombo on 31st May, 1891. The office-bearers of the newly born society were elected with Ven. H. Sumangala Nayaka Maha Thera as President, Col. H. S. Olcott as Director and Chief Adviser and H. Dharmapala as General Secretary. The representatives from Siam, Japan, Sri Lanka, Burma and India were included in the committee. The objectives of this newly founded society were: (a) the establishment of a Buddhist Monastery and founding a Buddhist College and maintaining a staff of Buddhist Bhikkhus at Buddhagaya representing the Buddhist countries of China, Japan, Siam, Cambodia, Burma, Sri Lanka, Chittagong, Nepal, Tibet and Arakam. (b) the publication of Buddhist literature in English and Indian vernacular. The Society sent its first mission to Buddhagaya consisting of four Sinhalese monks on to July 1891. They found shelter in the rest house built by the Burmese King Mindon Min which was also left uncared for at that time. With the object of drawing the attention of the Buddhist world to the state of affairs at Buddhagaya, the Society convened an International Buddhist Conference at Buddhagaya in October 1891. Among the representatives who attended the Conference were Y. Ato, C. Tokuzawa and Kozen Gunaratne of Japan and Bhikkshu Sumangala of Sri Lanka, Lama To Chiya of China, Krishna Chandra Chowdhury of Chittagong and Girish Chandra Dewan of Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The Maha Bodhi Society of India at Kolkata
The Maha Bodhi Society of India started its office at Kolkata in 1892 first at 20/1, Gangadhar Babu Lane, Bowbazar, and then shifted to No. 1, Creek Bow. In May 1892, the Society launched its monthly journal The United Buddhist World (later named as The Maha Bodhi) from Kolkata for the propagation of Buddha’s teachings in India and abroad and also for the interchange of news between Buddhist countries. This International Journal has a proud record of uninterrupted publication for the last 100 years.
World Parliament of Religions at Chicago:
In 1893 World Parliament of Religions was held at Chicago, which was one of the important events of the nineteenth century. The chairman of the organizing committee sent an invitation to the Maha Bodhi Society to send a representative to attend this conference. The Society nominated Anagarika Dharmapala as its representative. On his way to Chicago, Anagarika Dharmapala stayed in England as the guest of Sir Edwin Arnold and called on Lord Kimberley the then Secretary of State for India and apprised him of the Maha Bodhi Temple. Anagarika was one of the most popular speakers at the Parliament. His main paper on ‘The World’s Debt to Buddha’, delivered on 18th September highly impressed the representatives of world’s religions. Mr. C. T. Strauss, a businessman and a life-long student of philosophy and comparative religion was so moved that he was converted to Buddhism at his desire in a simple yet impressive ceremony held under the auspices of the Theosophical Society of Chicago. As it is well-known Swami Vivekananda attended this Parliament and his address also was highly appreciated by the distinguished representatives. The late Dr. B. M. Barua said in his Sri Lanka lectures, “When in the wake of the Theosophical movement under the leadership of Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott came the reawakening of the religious consciousness of the Hindu and Buddhist worlds, India and Sri Lanka found in Swami Vivekananda and Anagarika Dharmapala two lion-hearted, high-spirited and fearless youths to represent Hinduism and Buddhism at the Parliament of Religions held at Chicago in 1893.”
During his return voyage from America Anagarika met Mrs. Mary T. Foster, a Theosophist and wife of Mr. T. R. Foster, a wealthy banker of North America. In this memorable meeting, Anagarika Dharmapala’s short discourse made such a deep impression on her mind that she became one of the greatest benefactresses of the Maha Bodhi Society. With her generous donations, temples, monasteries, schools and numerous other institutions were established in India and Sri Lanka. Anagarika Dharmapala visited America for the second time in 1896 at the invitation of Dr. Paul Carus, author of the well-known book, Gospel of the Buddha. During his stay there for about a year he founded the American Maha Bodhi Society and visited many places including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Duluth and Minneapolis. Everywhere he went, he delivered illuminating speeches on Buddhism and the work of the Maha Bodhi Society. A good number of Americans were embraced Buddhism and worked for the development of this Society. In May 1897 Anagarika organized the first Vaisakhi Purnima celebration ever held in the United States when about 400 people attended the service. In 1902 Anagarika visited America for the third time and stayed for about two years. He collected substantial aid from Mrs. Mary T. Foster for the growth the development of the Society. In 1908 when the Society was served with notice to vacate the rented premises at No. 2, Creek Row, Kolkata, with Mrs. Foster’s contribution, Anagarika could purchase the Beniapukur House, where the headquarters of the Maha Bodhi Society was shifted in 1908. In the meantime in 1904 after the rest houses at Buddhagaya and Sarnath had been opened the headquarters of the Society were shifted to Sarnath and Buddhagaya. But in both these places, the transfer was for a very short period and the headquarters were reverted to Kolkata in the same year. In spite of the continuing legal disputes with the Mahant in connection with the restoration of the temple, with the help of the Maha Bodhi Society, particularly through the wide contact of Anagarika hundreds of pilgrims from Asian countries started visiting the Buddhagaya Temple. In addition to its publication of The Maha Bodhi journal, the Maha Bodhi Society realized the need for Pali studies by Indian students for the revival and proper understanding of the original text of Buddha’s teachings. So the Society approached the Calcutta University authorities to include Pali as one of the second languages in the then entrance of F.A., B.A. and M.A. examinations. Before the teaching of Pali was introduced in the schools and colleges, the Maha Bodhi Society had opened Pali classes with competent monks as teachers. Mr. Rash Behari Mookerjee of Uttarpara acted as the first Honorary Secretary of the Maha Bodhi Literary Section. The Society then undertook publication of a few books from Pali text with a translation which included Kaccāyana’s Pāli Grammar by Pandit Vidyabhushan and Dhammapada by Mr. Charu Chandra Bose.
In 1915 the Maha Bodhi Society of India became a registered body. A governing body was formed with Sir Ashutosh Mukherji, Chief Justice of the High Court of Calcutta and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta and a real builder of the edifice of higher education in India as President. Anagarika Dharmapala was elected as the General Secretary.
Shri Dharmarajika Vihara
In 1914 Anagarika Dharmapala purchased a plot of land at College Square and at this plot the foundation stone of Shri Dharmarajika Vihara was laid on 16 December 1918. Earlier in 1916, the Government of India agreed to offer the Maha Bodhi Society a sacred Holy Relic of the Buddha which had been discovered during the excavations at Bhattiprolu Stupa in Madras Presidency provided the Society erected a suitable Vihara in Kolkata. The construction of the Vihara was completed in 1920. The main donor to the Vihara fund was Mrs. Mary T. Foster, who contributed a total amount of Rs. 63,606 and the ruler of Baroda contributed Rs. 5,685 and another Rs. 5,000 for purchasing an adjoining plot to the East of Vihara. Messers Birla Brothers also contributed Rs. 5,000 to the Vihara fund. So, Anagarika Dharmapala’s long-cherished desire for building a suitable Vihara was at last fulfilled.
Shri Dharmarajika Vihara was opened on 20 November 1920 at an impressive ceremony. As planned for the occasion on the morning of 20 November Sir Ashutosh Mukherji along with Anagarika Dharmapala and Mrs. Annie Besant arrived at the Government House followed by a colorful procession consisting of Burmese, Sinhalese, Chinese, Japanese, Siamese and India Buddhist monks and a concourse of about 2,000 people. His Excellence Lord Ronaldshay, the Governor of Bengal, handed over the Relic contained in a crystal casket to Sir Ashutosh Mukherji. He handed over the same to Anagarika Dharmapala who placed the casket on the throne placed in a carriage drawn by six horses. The procession returned to Shri Dharmarajika Vihara and the Relic was enshrined in the specially prepared stupa. In the evening opening ceremony was held under the Presidentship of Lord Ronaldshay in the presence of a distinguished gathering. Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee gave the address of welcome and after the speeches delivered by Anagarika and other eminent guests, Lord Ronaldshay in his eloquent speech said, “The ceremony for which we are gathered today is one which will surely prove to be of historic interest, for it bears witness to a definite revival of Buddhism in a land which once a famous center of the doctrine has been bereft of it outwardly at least for nigh upon eight centuries... It is not necessary to be an actual adherent of the Buddhist faith to be a reverent admirer of the life and teachings of its founder. And it may not be out of place, perhaps on such an occasion as this that I, an adherent of a different respect and admiration.” Justice Woodroffe, the eminent Sanskrit Scholar proposed a vote of thanks. The opening of a permanent vihara at such a central place in Kolkata was a great step forward regeneration of Buddha’s teachings. Regular meetings for the propagation of the ideals of Buddhism and religious ceremonies on Buddhist festivals began to be held with devotion and enthusiasm. The response from the eminent persons particularly the Bengali intelligentsia was encouraging. The proximity of the head-qu¬arters of the Society to the Calcutta University situated on the opposite side of College Square and the distinct influence of Sir Ashutosh’s Presidentship of the Society helped in securing co-operation of the professors and scholars of the University. Kolkata Headquarters Anagaraik Dharmapala with his keen foresight set up the Society’s headquarters at Kolkata and obviously chose this place as the main centre of this activities. At that time, the people of Bengal, particularly the Buddhists had the sense of a kinship with the Buddhists of Sri Lanka through Buddhism. It is a common belief that Prince Vijaya of India, who, according to the Sri Lanka chronicles, after his accidental conquest of Sri Lanka in the fifth century BC became its first king and laid the foundation of a royal dynasty, hailed from Bengal. It may also be recalled that in the fifteenth century CE a great scholar and poet Pandit Ramchandra Kavi Bharati, a Brahmin of a high family from Bengal visited Sri Lanka and became famous of his profound knowledge and valuable works on Buddhism. The Royal patron conferred on him the title Buddagama Chakravartin.
When Anagarika came here towards the end of 1891 limited numbers of Buddhists from Chittagong, the then eastern border of India, were available here to give him their preliminary basic support. During this time Venerable Kripasharan Mahasthavira of Chittagong was also working here for the regeneration of Buddhism. He founded the Bengali Buddhist Association in 1892, Anagarika was highly impressed by Mahasthavir’s dedicated organizing activities. In the journal, The Maha Bodhi the impor¬t-ant activities of the Bengal Buddhist Association, as well as its occasional appeal for funds, were regularly published. Ano-th¬er important point which has to be taken into account it that when Anagarika started his activities in Kolkata towards the end of the 19th century there was already a great resurgence in Bengal in social, literary, cultural and religious fields. Naturally, he came in contact with many distinguished persons, who extended their sincere co-operation and encouragement. During this period there was also an awakening in Buddhist studies among the scholars in Kolkatta. The Buddhist Text Society was founded by Rai Bahadur Sarat Chandra Das, a scholar and pioneer in Tibetan studies in 1892. In the same year, he returned from his travels into Tibet where he had collected valuable material from the ancient monasteries of Lhasa and a thrilling account of his journey was published in the Journal of the Buddhist Text Society. At about the same time Mr. Rajend¬ralal Mitra and Mr. Hara Prasad Shastri collected and catalogued a large number of valuable manuscripts of Buddhist literature scattered in Nepal and brought out a book, Nepalese Buddhist Literature in 1892. Another eminent Sanskrit scholar of Bengal was Mr. Satish Chandra Vidyabhusan, whose services were lent to the Buddhist Text Society by the Government of Bengal in 1893. Under the auspices of this society he edited a number of Buddhist Sanskrit texts. Thus Anagarika Dharmapala found this atmosphere of the renaissance in Bengal conducive for his noble mission and set up the headquarters of the Society in Kolkata. The Anagarika had also an intimate contact with Visva Bharati. In 1931, Anagarika brought 10 young sāmanera-s from Sri Lanka for training so that later on they could undertake the work of the Society competently. By special arrangement, they were sent to Santiniketan for studies as part of their training. It may be mentioned in this connection that Rabindranath delivered his memorable address on the occasion of Buddha Purnima at the Maha Bodhi Society Hall in 1935.
Extension of Shri Dharmarajika Vihara:
The extension of the building, named after ‘Mary Foster Building’, was completed in 1922 and the opening ceremony was performed on 21 September of the same year on the birth anniversary of Mrs Foster. The third storey of this building was constructed in 1946. With the extension of the Vihara religious and cultural activities of the Society continued to be maintained in a more organized way.
Buddhagaya Temple Affairs:
The Society continued its all-out efforts for the restoration of the Maha Bodhi Temple. Attempts were made to convince the National leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Babu Rajendra Prasad, Deshbandhu C. R. Das, Rabindranath Tagore and other eminent persons, about the legitimate claim of the Buddhists in this regard. In the journal Young India in 1925 Mahatma Gandhi wrote on this subject as follows: "There is no doubt that the possession of the Temple should vest in the Buddhists. There may be legal difficulties. They must be overcome".
Rabindranath Tagore expressed his opinion as follows:
"I am sure, it will be admitted by all Hindus who are true to their own idols, that it is an intolerable wrong to allow the Temple raised on the spot where Lord Buddha attained His Enlightenment, to remain under the control of a rival sect, which can neither have an intimate knowledge of, nor sympathy for the Buddhist religion and its rights of worship (Vide Maha Bodhi journal 1922).
Similar opinions were expressed by many eminent persons as reported in the Maha Bodhi Journal 1922. The long struggle for the restoration of the Buddhagaya Temple continued till 1949 when the Government of Bihar undertook legislation and had the Buddhagaya Temple Bill passed.
Mulagandha Kuty Vihara
At Sarnath Meanwhile, the expanding activities of the Society was continued through the ceaseless effort of its founder. The outstanding achievement of the Society and the last glorious monumental work of Anagarika Dharmapala was the completion of the Mulagandhakuti Vihara at Sarnath, where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon after his enlightenment. The opening ceremony of the Vihara was celebrated on 11 November 1931. The then Viceroy and Governor-General of India, Lord Willingdon, presented the bone-relics of the Buddha to the Society through the Director-General of Archaeology. Till today millions of people including distinguished persons from all over the world visit Mulagandhakuti Vihara throughout the year. It has been rightly said that the Vihara contributed more than any other agency towards the revival of Buddhism in India.
Perhaps, as he willed, Ven’ble Anagarika Dharmapala breathed his last at this Sacred Place of lsipatana. After the demise of Ven. Anagarika Dharmapala two of his close disciples, Brahmachari Devapriya Valisinha and Ven. N. Jinaratana Thero along with other succeeding representatives continued to carry out the noble mission of the Society with their dedicated service.