Steven E. KemperRescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World

University of Chicago Press, 2015

by Luke Thompson on June 27, 2015

Steven E. Kemper

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In his recent book, Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Steven E. Kemper examines the Sinhala layman Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) and argues that this figure has been misunderstood by both Sinhala nationalists, who have appropriated him for their own political ends, and scholars, who have portrayed Dharmapala primarily as a social reformer and a Sinhala chauvinist.  Making extensive use of the Journal of the Mahā Bodhi Society, effectively a forum for the expression of Dharmapala's own opinions, and the entirety of Dharmapala's meticulous diaries, which cover a forty-year period, Kemper asserts that Dharmapala was above all a religious seeker–a world renouncer who at times sought to emulate the life of the Buddha.

Central to Kemper's study of Dharmapala are the diametrically opposed themes of universalism and nationalism.  While Dharmapala was realistic in so far as he understood that the various Buddhist sects and orders could not be united due to sectarian, ethnic, and caste and class-related divisions, his Buddhist identity was in no way based on his own Sinhala identity, and his life was organized around three universalisms: an Asian Buddhist universalism, the universalism of Theosophy, and the universalism of the British imperium.  He spent most of his adult life living outside of Sri Lanka and at various times imagined and hoped to be reborn in India, Japan, Switzerland, and England.

Dharmapala devoted much of his life to establishing Buddhist control of the Mahābodhi Temple in Bodhgayā, India, which had been the legal property of a Saivite monastic order since the early eighteenth century and had since come to be thoroughly incorporated into a Hindu pilgrimage route.  His interest in the temple was in part a result of his own efforts to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, but was also his attempt to establish a geographical point of focus for Buddhists–a Buddhist Mecca, if you will–around which Buddhists could rally and come together.  He looked to many sources of potential support, including the Bengali elite, Japan, the Thai royal family, and British government officials in India, but in the end failed to achieve his aim.

In contrast to previous depictions of Dharmapala as a Protestant Buddhist who encouraged the laicization of Buddhism, Kemper shows that Dharmapala was if anything an ascetic at heart who believed celibacy was a prerequisite for soteriological progress and participation in Buddhist work (sasana), who emphasized meditation, and whose spiritual aspirations are visible from a very early age.  Kemper also shows that the influence of Theosophy on Dharmapala's interpretation of Buddhism and thought more broadly did not end with his formal break with the American Colonel Olcott and the Theosophical Society in 1905, but continued to the end of his life, a fact obscured by Sinhala nationalistic portrayals of him.

At some 500 pages, Rescued from the Nation includes detailed discussions of many contemporaneous figures, movements, and trends.  These include Japanese institutional interest in India, Japanese nationalism, and the struggles of Japanese Buddhism in the aftermath of the Meiji restoration; the World Parliament of Religions that took place in Chicago in 1893 and the emergence of the category of "world religion"; the Bengali Renaissance and associated figures such as Swami Vivekananda; Western interest in Buddhism and Indian religion; and South Asian resistance to British colonial governance.  In this way, this book will be of great value to those interested in Asian religions and modernity, Buddhist and Hindu revival movements, Asian nationalisms, and Asia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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