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Anagarika Dharmapala: Admirer of ‘Queen Mab’

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by Rohana R. Wasala

It may look unfashionable or even indecent to write about Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) in these days of ‘reconciliation’ politics. But that is due to the deliberate distortion of facts by vested interests. So I beg my readers’ indulgence. The Anagarika has been consistently misrepresented by anti-nationalists as a Sinhala supremacist, a Buddhist fanatic, and a propagator of violent nationalism. But the truth was otherwise; he was none of these.

As anthropologist Gananath Obesekera, professor emeritus, Princeton University, mentions in his ‘The Doomed King’ (2017), “Dharmapala was the most passionate defender of Sri Vikrama in colonial times…”; Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe had been demonised by the British in the interest of their imperial scheme to annex the Kandyan kingdom. To the Anagarika, the last king of Lanka was a noble ruler and human being who was betrayed by traitorous chiefs like Ehelepola disava (as he conceived of them). He “defended Sri Vikrama and implored Sinhala people to model themselves on his life and history….” (ibid.) Gananath says Dharmapala was indulging in ‘hyper-glorification’ of the last king. Perhaps, he was; but that doesn’t invalidate the latter’s assessment of the king, whose non-Sinhala ethnicity did not trouble him. At the same time, I don’t share Gananath’s criticism of Dharmapala’s alleged anti-Christian attitudes.

Dharmapala was, first and foremost, an international Buddhist missionary, and only secondarily, a Sinhala Buddhist national revivalist and social reformer. Sri Lankans (native Ceylonese) were in urgent need of the brave leadership and guidance of such a heroic figure at that time. He excelled in both roles. Anagarika Dharmapala assumed robes as a Buddhist samanera at an advanced age in July 1931, after a very industrious and productive life; he received the upasampada or higher ordination under the name of Ven. Siri Devamitta Dhammapala, hardly four months before his death on April 29, 1933.

As was the standard practice among the well-to-do families in those colonial days, he received a good school education in the English medium. During all of his active life, he mostly used English for communication. More than 75% of his writings were in that language; he spoke English even more frequently in the course of his lifelong missionary work. No religious leader of the time, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, devoted so much attention as he did to the need for a good modern education for the young that included mastery of languages and science and technology (practical skills).

Anagarika Dharmapala said that he got an insight into Buddhism after reading Sir Edwin Arnold’s poem about the Buddha “Light of Asia” (1879). He treated the latter as his teacher. Arnold received the Anagarika when he visited London. Dharmapala was not an enemy of English or the English people; he was well disposed towards both. But he was a vehement critic and opponent of British imperialism, which though he didn’t challenge politically, as he thought that it was not yet the time for it; he wanted to have favourable relations with the existing imperial government in order that he could get on with his global missionary work without any obstruction. His national endeavour was to lead his people towards freedom from foreign rule through peaceful means, which motivated his work for stimulating social reform and bringing about the moral edification of the masses.

This year marks the 157th birth anniversary of the revered Anagarika Dharmapala, who made an immense contribution towards the restoration of the national dignity and the religious and cultural regeneration of the oppressed Sinhala Buddhists in the heyday of British imperialism in our country. He was born to a wealthy business family in Colombo exactly 157 years ago, that is, on September 17, 1864. The young Don David Hewavitharne, as he was named at birth, despite his strong dislike of British colonialist rule, had a passionate love of English poetry. He particularly liked the poems of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, both assigned by literary critics and historians to the Romantic tradition of English poetry. Ever since he discovered the latter’s ‘Queen Mab’ in a book in his uncle’s library as a schoolboy, it had remained his favourite English poem.

The basis of his admiration of ‘Queen Mab’ is not difficult to find. He said about the poem: “I never ceased …. .to love its lyric indignation against the tyrannies and injustices that man heaps on himself and its passion for individual freedom” (as quoted in ‘Flame in Darkness – the Life and Sayings of Anagarika Dharmapala’ by the English monk Maha Sthavira Sangharakshita, (1980). There is no doubt that this specimen of Shelly’s juvenilia (i.e. works done in his youth) was nevertheless an important source of inspiration for the Anagarika in his life’s work.

What must have appealed to Don David Hewavitharne in ‘Queen Mab’ was obviously more than just the polemical attack it mounts on “the tyrannies and injustices” that humans inflict on fellow humans. The poem embodies many of the radical ideas that Shelley articulated in his works, and some of these such as his atheism, his criticism of meat eating as a cause of vice, and the implicit advocacy of vegetarianism, his idea of death as something not to be feared, his condemnation of political and religious tyranny, his socialist politics, his scientific attitude to human experience and the external world, his belief in the moral perfectibility of humanity, his nonviolence and antipathy towards war, and his vision of social and political change through intellectual transformation are sure to have struck a chord in the great patriot and Buddhist revivalist that the young David later became.

‘Queen Mab’, a book-length poem in nine parts, was written and privately distributed by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in 1813. It was the poet’s first work of genuine literary merit. His decision to make it available to a select circle suggests the type of audience he wanted to address: the target readers were of the same patrician (aristocratic) background as himself who had the time and the means to get an education, and the leisure to read and enjoy poetry; the mostly illiterate downtrodden masses whose welfare he actually had in mind and who stood to gain most from the revolutionary changes he envisioned were for the most part outside of this circle; the Anagarika belonged to the same higher social class in this country as Shelley did in England.

Structurally, ‘Queen Mab’ is a fairy tale composed in nine cantos (main divisions). A fairy named Queen Mab comes down in her ethereal car to the sleeping Ianthe, a beautiful young maiden. Leaving the girl in her deep slumber the fairy awakens her Soul or Spirit and invites it onboard and transports it to her celestial abode at the uttermost edge of the universe. From that vantage point the Spirit (Ianthe’s Soul) is given a view of the universe stretching below. The fairy promises the Spirit to reveal the state presumably, of humanity’s past and present and the ‘secrets of the future’:

Critics have called this poem a dream vision allegory, a fairy tale, a utopian daydream, a protest- poem etc. The young David Hewavitharne might have identified ‘Queen Mab’ as a protest-poem. In terms of its substance we may call it a philosophical poem as well. In fact, the 1813 title of the poem was ‘Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem with Notes’. Shelley was a ‘philosopher’ among the Romantics in the sense that while treating the usual ‘Romantic’ themes of beauty, passion, power of the imagination, the natural goodness of humanity, political freedom etc which formed their characteristic subject matter, he discovered and articulated causal connections in them with rare precision and clarity. He was unique in this respect among his contemporaries, with the possible exception of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) as critics have pointed out. Reading ‘Queen Mab’ we feel that it qualifies for all the above labels.

Though it is unselfconsciously melodramatic, coldly polemical, and crudely emotive in much of its versification and though he himself seemed years later to have had second thoughts about its estimation as a poem worthy of publishing for public consumption when he came to know that a pirated edition of the poem had appeared in 1821 (which was just a year before his accidental death by drowning), the ‘philosophy’ that he versifies in it is found to be as mature as it ever got in his case (considering the fact that he died at the young age of 30). The poem has even been described as ‘monumental’ by more sympathetic, and in my opinion more rational-minded and more discerning, readers. Obviously, Anagarika Dharmapala was among this group of readers.

Both Shelley and Dharmapala were revolutionaries, though of different moulds. They agitated for liberty and morality in the political and socio-cultural spheres. They had similar views about how to foster social and political reform (though the political aspect was more subdued in the case of Dharmapala than in the case of Shelley, a difference between the two that points to the Anagarika’s realistic, pragmatic approach as opposed to the dream-visionary impracticality of Shelley’s): Shelley believed in the possibility of perfecting humanity by moral means, which forms the nuclear theme of ‘Queen Mab’; the revolution he envisaged appears to be something to be achieved in this way, but not through armed struggle (despite his probable allusion to the French Revolution in his sonnet ‘England in 1819’ suggested.

As socially conscious young men in their different places and times Shelley and Dharmapala had much in common. They shared the same reformist ambitions. Both, born into wealth and privilege, showed an unusual concern for the welfare of the poor and were totally committed to the social uplift and moral refinement of the society including particularly the traditionally oppressed. Shelley’s relentless criticism of authoritarian institutions in his country is explicitly articulated in his sonnet ‘England in 1819’: The state of Shelley’s England is such that the king is “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying”; the princes are “the dregs of their dull race”; the rulers who are unable to see, feel or know, cling like leeches to their country until they “drop, blind in blood, without a blow”; the ordinary English people are “starved and stabbed in the untilled fields”; the army is corrupt and inept; the laws “tempt and slay”; religion is “Christless – Godless – a book sealed”. (Won’t this sound familiar to readers in many countries of the world even today?)

All these (agents of tyrannous evil) “Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may – Burst to illumine our tempestuous day” (This could be interpreted as an allusion to the French Revolution, in which a crucial event was the storming of the ancient fortress of the Bastille and the releasing of the wretched prisoners there in 1789, just three years before his birth). Shelley’s diatribes like these preceded, by about three quarters of a century, the Anagarika’s vehement denunciation of the demoralizing British imperialism in our country. Just as Shelley rebelled (ideologically) against what he condemned as the tyranny of the king, priests and statesmen (‘statesmen’ not in its current dignified sense, but in the sense of mere ‘politicians’), Dharmapala adopted a defiant stance towards the occupying foreigners, errant Buddhist monks, and the Westernized local elite that so slavishly pandered to the interests of the colonial rulers.

But he was not an irrational hater of everything Western. He admired the positive aspects of European culture. He possessed a very good knowledge of the English language, which he used to write and edit many English publications in the pursuance of his Buddhist revivalist propaganda. His love of English poetry was consistent with the cosmopolitan Buddhist attitude towards what is admirable in other cultures. He criticized the tyranny and injustice of European colonialism, but he obviously had a high regard for the Western nations’ scientific and inventive genius. In return, he acted in compassion towards them according to his own religious convictions. He wrote in his “My Life Story” already referred to:

It is time that Buddhists of Asia should give the Dhamma to the people of Europe and America. Buddhism is for the scientifically cultured. The discoveries of modern sciences are a help to understand the sublime Dhamma. The mediaeval theology of ecclesiastical tussle may have satisfied the half-civilized consciousness of pre-scientific Europe and the paganized tribes of Europe of a barbarous age. Today the cultured races of Europe require a scientific psychology showing the greatness of human consciousness. The sublime doctrine of the Lord Buddha is a perfect science based on transcendental wisdom. This Dhamma should be freely given to the European races.

The unacceptable reality of our current domestic and international predicament is exactly what the farsighted Anagarika acted to forestall, against many odds, which limited his success. Paradoxically and quite unfairly, leaders like him are held responsible for our present ethnic problems by some individuals. My opinion is that had Anagarika Dharmapala and other patriots that he inspired not been there in that era and after, our plight today would have been worse.



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Keheliya turns down request for abolishing price control on medicine

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Industry leader has sought court intervention

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella yesterday (17) said that in spite of difficulties caused by the foreign currency crisis price control on imported medicines couldn’t be done away with.

Abolition of price control on drugs would heap an enormous burden on the vast majority of people, Minister Rambukwella said.

Lawmaker Rambukwella said so when The Island sought his response to the Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry (SLCPI) requesting the government to do away with price control. Claiming that the grouping imported over 80 percent of medicines into the country, the SLCPI recently warned of possible collapse of the industry unless remedial measures were taken swiftly.

Minister Rambukwella said that recently he met an SLCPI delegation at their request to discuss issues at hand. “Of course, I understand the difficulties experienced by all sectors, including the pharmaceutical trade. However, price control as regards medicine cannot be done away with,” Minister Rambukwella said.

The SLCPI has pointed out to the Minister that at the moment medicines were the only commodity under price control in the local market. The Health Minister asserted that it wouldn’t be fair to compare the medicine with other commodities.

Minister Rambukwella said that regardless of constrains, the government was trying to ensure uninterrupted supply of medicine and it wouldn’t be fair to do at this juncture.

In a statement sent to the media SLCPI asserted: “There is no solution to this dilemma than removing the price control of medicines and implement a fair and equitable pricing mechanism which will link the price of medicines to the dollar, inflation and direct costs such as raw material, fuel and freight charges, which will then make importing and marketing of medicines viable. As difficult as it may sound, the authorities will have to choose between having medicines at a cost and not having medicines at all.”

The SLCPI has already sought the intervention of the courts to establish what the grouping called a transparent pricing mechanism outside government price control.

Recently, Minister Rambukwella, at a meeting also attended by State Minister Dr. Channa Jayasumana called for a report on the requirement of medicines over the next six months. The Health Ministry declared that there was no shortage of drugs whereas SLCPI claimed some drugs were in short supply and the situation could get worse.

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Central Expressway: Rs 3 mn raked in within 12 hours

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Chief Government Whip and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando said yesterday that about three million rupees had been earned by way of toll within the first 12 hours of the opening of the second phase of the Central Expressway.

Rs 2,805,100.00 had been paid by the expressway users during the first 12 hours from 12 noon to midnight Sunday (16) after its opening by the President and the Prime Minister on Saturday (15).

The Minister said that during the first 12 hours of the period of toll collection, a total of 13,583 vehicles had traversed the most  scenic road stretch in the country between Mirigama and Kurunegala. No traffic accidents had been reported during the 12 hour period.

Minister Fernando said that the newly opened road had been allowed to be used by the public free of charge for 12 hours from midnight Saturday (15) to Sunday (16) noon.

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President to inaugurate second session of Ninth Parliament today

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by Saman Indrajith

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is scheduled to commence the second session of the Ninth Parliament today at 10 am with his third Presidential policy statement (formerly Throne Speech).

He made his first ‘Throne Speech’ on Jan 3, 2020, opening the Fourth Session of the Eighth Parliament and the second on Aug 20, 2020 to open the First Session of the Ninth Parliament.

Secretary General of Parliament, Dhammika Dasanayake said that MPs have been requested to arrive at the parliamentary complex at 9.25 am the latest.

The MPs, if accompanied by their spouses will alight from their vehicles at the Staff Entrance of the parliamentary building, while all other MPs are requested to drive up to the Members’ Entrance.

To facilitate orderly arrival, the MPs are requested that the Car Label provided them with be pasted on the inside top left-hand corner of the windscreen of their vehicles. On arrival at Parliament, Members’ vehicles would be directed by the Police to the appropriate Car Park.

Thereafter the MPs are requested to enter the lobbies of Parliament and to remain there until the Quorum Bells are rung.

President Rajapaksa is scheduled to arrive at the Main Steps of the Parliament Building at 9.40 a.m. and he would be received by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and the Secretary-General of Parliament.

The President will be escorted by them to the Parliament Building. Thereafter, the Speaker and the Secretary-General of Parliament will escort the President to his Chambers.

At 9.55 a.m. the Quorum Bells will be rung for five minutes and all Members will take their seats in the Chamber of Parliament.

The President’s procession will leave for the Chamber of Parliament and will enter the Chamber at 10.00 am. On entering the Chamber the President’s arrival will be announced whereupon all Members will stand in their places until the President reaches the Chair and requests the Members to be seated.

Thereafter, the Proclamation proroguing the Parliament and Summoning the Meeting of Parliament will be read by the Secretary General of Parliament. Then, the President will address Parliament.

After his policy statement the President will adjourn the House until 1.00 p.m. on Wednesday (19).

Thereafter, the President will leave the Chamber escorted by the Speaker and the Secretary-General of Parliament.

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