Taking the Dhamma to the Dalits


t is well known that in 1891, Anagarika Dharmapala initiated the first revival of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth where most of the people who were attracted to him belonged to the upper strata of society. What is less known is that Anagarika Dharmapala inspired a mass movement of South Indian Dalits including Tamils to embrace Buddhism, half a century before.


Anagarika’s earliest connection with India had been with South India. In fact, it was to the Theosophical Society in Adyar in Madras that he made not only his first Indian visit at the age of 20 in the company of Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott, but it was also the place from where he began his great career of dharmaduta activities.


Dharmapala built on contributions made by Thass. Even before Dharmapala visited Sarnath, Benares and Buddha Gaya, Pandit Iyothee Thass (Das) (1845–1914), born to a Dalit “pariah” family in Madras initiated a social transformation of the down-trodden in South India.


In 1886, Thass had issued a revolutionary declaration that untouchables were not Hindus. Following this declaration, he established the Dravida Mahajana Sabha in 1891. During the 1891 census, he urged Dalits to register themselves as “casteless Dravidians” instead of identifying themselves as Hindus. Thass argued that Tamil Dalits were originally Buddhists.


In the meantime, Anagarika Dharmapala had formed the Maha Bodhi Society on May 31, 1891 first in Colombo, and later established its headquarters in Calcutta with the intention of restoring Buddhist shrines in Buddha Gaya. This became the single most important event in the history of the Buddhist revival in India. Two months later, he took four Ramanna Nikaya monks to Buddhagaya. They were the first modern Dharmaduta monks from Sri Lanka to propagate the dhamma in India.


In January 1892, the Maha Bodhi journal was established. Although it was a demi-quarter size journal of 8 pages, it attracted worldwide attention. In fact, it was this journal that led to the invitation for Dharmapala to attend the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, USA in 1893.


A hundred years later, this writer got the opportunity to make a 10 minute presentation at the Parliament of World Religions.


In October 1892, a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society was formed in Akyab (presently known as Sittwe in the island of Arakan (presently known as Rakhine in Myanmar) when Dharmapala visited Akyab with Col. Olcott. The donations given by Arakan Buddhists at the Maha Bodhi Society there helped Dharmapala to hire a house in Calcutta where the Maha Bodhi Society work was carried out until May 1904 and then closed for a time. In February 1894, Dharmapala visited Bangkok as the guest of Prince Rajaski, and a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society was formed with the help of Prince Vivit and other Princes.


Iyothee Thass who established several schools for the panchama caste in Madras came into contact with Col. H.S. Olcott, President of the International Theosophical Society who had also started free schools for panchama children in Madras. Thass now requested Olcott’s assistance for the re-establishment of ‘Tamil Buddhism’. Olcott then wrote to the Venerable Hikkaduwe Sumangala Nayaka Thera, the Principal of Vidyodaya Pirivena and a leading figure of the Sri Lanka Buddhist revival. In the presence of Dharmapala and another Buddhist monk who had arrived from Sri Lanka, a public meeting to form a Dravidian Buddhist Society for the ‘lower’ castes was held in Madras.


Thass then proceeded to Sri Lanka with a delegation of prominent Dalits, and met Hikkaduwe Sumangala Nayaka Thera at a large gathering of Buddhists. The delegates from Madras observed the Five Precepts at the Vidyodaya Pirivena. With the blessings from Sumangala Nayaka Thera, Thass returned to Madras and started the “Sakya Buddhist Society” (also known as the Indian Buddhist Association).


The Sakya Buddhist Society began its activities in 1898 with religious meetings on Sundays, lectures on religious and social issues and the members taking the Five Precepts. Dharmapala received in 1898 an invitation to attend a meeting held on 8th August 1898 in Royapettah in Madras convened by Col. Olcott and Dr. Ayothee Thass. He attended the meeting which paved the way for many from South India to turn to Buddhism.


A year later, Dharmapala received another invitation to come to Madras to open a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society in South India. A Buddhist Young Men’s Association was now formed with Anagarika Dharmapala and Thass as joint secretaries. The Sakya Buddhist Society monks conducted Buddhist rituals for the large numbers of pilgrims who visited the Maha Bodhi Society; thus it soon became an international Buddhist centre.


A small Vihara was built in Perambur in Madras with Rs. 3,000 sent by Dharmapala out of the funds donated to him by Mrs. Mary Foster. The Maha Bodi Society office was located there. Earlier, Dharmapala had encouraged the Sinhalese monk Ven. Nilwakke Somananada Thera to learn Tamil with the intention of bringing him to South India to propagate the hamma. Somananda Thera became the first resident monk of the Perambur Vihara, and was the first resident dharmaduta monk in Tamil Nadu. He also excelled as a Buddhist scholar. He translated the Dhammapada into Tamil which is known to be the first translation of the Dhammapada into Tamil. He also translated several other Buddhist books and many pamphlets into Tamil. These books and pamphlets were published by the Perambur Vihara. Within a short period of time, the Perambur Vihara became a very active Buddhist centre in Tamil Nadu.


Soon after starting the Perambur Vihara, Vesak was celebrated in 1900 for the first time in South India – just four years after Vesak was celebrated in Calcutta. A Tamil booklet on the ‘Life and Teaching of Bhagavan Buddha’ was released on this historic day. By this time, a large number of Tamils in South India had developed an interest in Buddhism, so that 2,000 copies of its second edition were printed, soon after its first release.


Thass established a weekly magazine called Oru Paisa Tamizhan (‘One Paisa Tamilian’) in Madras in 1907, which served as a newsletter linking all the new branches of the Sakya Buddhist Society. The magazine discussed issues relating to his new “Tamil Buddhism”, and Indian history from a Buddhist point of view. The new Tamil Buddhist community in South India thus identified themselves as being the original Indian Buddhists who had been put down by the Brahmin caste and were now only making a return to their earlier Buddhist heritage. According to Thass, the pariahs were originally Buddhists and owned the land which had later been robbed from them by Aryan invaders.


Thass was thus, the pioneer of a new Tamil Buddhist movement in South India. He gave Buddhism a mass base, not only in Tamil Nadu, but also in parts of Burma and South Africa where Untouchable migrant labourers from South India were settled.


An active member of the Mahabodhi Society Prof. P. Lakshmi Narasu, a Tamil who became a Buddhist founded the Madras Buddhist Association. Prof. Narasu wrote the book ‘The Essence of Buddhism’ in 1907. The introduction to the book was written by Anagarika Dharmapala and the book went into several editions and was also translated into Japanese and Czechoslovakian.


It was later the basis for a popular Tamil book by Appaduraiyar Putharathu Aru­laram (“Buddha’s Compassionate Reli­gion”).


When the Buddhist delegation from Sri Lanka attended the Annual Conference of the Indian National Congress in 1923, Appaduraiyar joined the Sri Lanka delegation to press for a resolution to transfer Bodh Gaya to the Buddhists. In the 1920s, a “Ceylon Tamil Buddhist Association” inspired by the South Indian Tamil Buddhist revival and in close collaboration with Sinhalese Buddhists was sponsoring the propagation of Tamil Buddhist literature.


It was Dharmapala who ‘kindled the fire’ and attracted at the beginning, a large number of intellectuals to turn to Buddhism and inspired the continuation of the mass movement in South India although Thass pioneered the Tamil Buddhist movement in South India. Activities initiated by Dharmapala were often carried out even without Dharmapala’s physical presence while he was engaged in diverse activities and campaigns in different parts of Asia including Japan, and in Europe and the US.



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