Book Talk

Steven Kemper, Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World,2015, pp. 368. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226199078.

~ Sasanka Perera, South Asian University

Growing up Sinhala and Buddhist in Sri Lanka, one cannot but be familiar with Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933).  As many of us have known as a matter of quotidian socialization, Dharmapala was the preeminent spokesperson and activist of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist revivalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and as a result, he was the most significant culture hero of the Sinhala Buddhists (the country’s ethno-religious majority) in the modern period. Within the prism of the interethnic conflict involving the Sinhalas and Tamils, which dominated post-colonial politics in the country, and the resultant civil war which engulfed Sri Lanka for thirty years, Dharmapala is revered by the Sinhalas while he is seen as a divisive and chauvinist figure by ethno-religious others as well as much of the formal social science scholarship on him.  Clearly, some aspects of his local politics and particularly his rhetoric support this view. But this largely local politico-cultural popular understanding of Dharmapala as well as the scholarship focusing on his local rhetoric is at best a partial and thoroughly incomplete understating of the life of a complex character.  As Kemper points out correctly, in these local cultural understandings as well as in the important writings of scholars such as Gananath Obyesekere, Richard Gombrich, S.J. Tambiah and H.L. Seneviratne much is overlooked in the life and politics of Dharmapala (pp. 5-6).  This lapse derives primarily from the way these discourses have implicated Dharmapala too closely with the politics of the ‘nation.’ As such, for Kemper, “seeing Dharmapala only in a Sri Lankan context has led his life’s being misconstrued by scholars and nationalists alike (pp. 9-10).

In this context, Kemper’s primary effort as the title of the book itself amply demonstrates is to ‘rescue’ Dharmapala from the ‘nation,’ and locate him more broadly in the domain of the Buddhist world of his time as he perceived and attempted to fashion, which obviously expands much further than Sri Lanka’s national borders. Much of Kemper’s material comes from Dharmapala’s notes and diaries many of which are unpublished and languishing in repositories in India as well as his published works.  What emerges from Kemper’s book is ‘another’ Dharmapala many of us hardly know, whose main attempt was to help construct what he imagined to be a ‘united Buddhist world’, incorporating Buddhist polities in the east, India from where Buddhism had nearly disappeared, and the West where Buddhism had acquired a specific intellectual interest among some sections of the elite as a result of translated Pali Buddhist texts reaching these areas as well as due to the publication of texts such The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold.  What Kemper describes through Dharmapala’s travels, speeches and writings is a tireless universalizing mission undertaken by an obstinately passionate man in the midst of other universalizing forces with which Dharmapala’s effort had to compete. These included colonialism itself within which he was operating as well as Christianity, which was by then empowered and emboldened by the successes of colonialism.

Towards this effort, Dharmapala became a pilgrim of a kind living much of his adult life away from Sri Lanka, based mostly in Calcutta and London. In 1889, 1896, 1902, and 1913 and between 1925 and 1926 Dharmapala traveled around the world looking for supporters and funds and establishing networks (pp. 6). He visited Japan on four specific occasions and travelled to Akyab (1892), Shanghai (1894), Siam (1894), and North India  (1899 and 1923), London (1904), Hawaii (1913) and China, Korea and Boro Budhur (1913) (pp. 6).  In 1925 and 1926, he toured Europe and the United States before he settled in London for a significant period of time in the context of which he established the first Buddhist temple in Europe (pp. 6). In addition to the stamina of the man, these travels also indicated the power of private capital in the religio-political enterprise he had embarked upon.  These were not funded by states, but by individuals including himself.

As described by Kemper, in addition to his travels, Dharmapala’s institution-building activities were also geared towards the larger project of creating his idea of a united Buddhist world.  In this scheme, though he privileged Theravada Buddhism, which he was familiar with, he acknowledged the existence of many Buddhisms. These activities come under two basic categories, which are intellectual as well as physical. That is, the building of intellectual infrastructure to promote his ideas by setting up journals, discussion forums etc one hand, and the physical building of institutions on the other, which includes the Mahabodhi Society of India.  In the case of the former, the historical moment in which he operated played a crucial role. That is, the relatively easy availability of the printing press and the evolution of an international postal system allowed for his ideas to travel great distances in a relatively short period of time, just as much as the technological advances which allowed for the spread of train and steamship services also allowed for him to take the kind of relentless travel he undertook in order to personally build his network (pp. 7). Dharmapala began publishing the Journal of the Maha Bodhi Society and the United Buddhist World in 1911 in Calcutta (pp. 7, 8).  Its title captured his hopes “for drawing Buddhists into a pan-Asian community linked to supporters in Europe and America” (pp. 8).

What Kemper has undertaken is not a reformist intellectual project to erase Dharmapala’s divisive politics in Sri Lanka, but a project to resurrect his other more global and universalizing self, which has thus far remained relatively invisible, and place these two seemingly contradictory personalities of a single man, together.  As Kemper notes, this does not offer a “different Dharmapala,” but simply offers Dharmapala in the complexity he deserves (pp. 10). Kemper’s book is the most important contribution to date in understanding this enigmatic modernist social reformer and ideologue who is hardly known outside of Sri Lanka.  Further, by bringing this work into global circulation, Kemper has also successfully helped complicate and diversify albeit slightly, the otherwise mostly India-centric scholarship on South Asia.

(This review was initially published in The Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 77, Issue 3, August 2018, pp. 825-826. It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the reviewer’s consent)

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