Samadhi Bouddha Statue - Anuradhapura - Sri Lanka IV-Ve Siècle
Colonel Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky
The repercussions of this historic debate were felt more widely than even Gunananda could have thought possible, and great must have been his surprise and delight when, a few years later, he received a letter from an American colonel and a Russian lady of noble birth expressing satisfaction at his victory, and acquainting him with the formation of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. With the letter came two bulky volumes entitled Isis Unveiled. Gunananda immediately entered into regular correspondence with the two foreign sympathisers, and started translating their letters and extracts from Isis Unveiled into Sinhalese. These translations circulated all over the island, and before long the names of H. S. Olcott and H. P. Blavatsky were repeated with wonder and delight in every Buddhist home.
David Hewavitarne, who had become not only a frequent visitor to the temple but also a great favourite of its incumbent, was among those whose hearts leapt with joy to hear of this unexpected aid, and in 1879 he had the satisfaction of hearing from his master’s lips the news that the Founders of the Theosophical Society had arrived in Bombay and that they would shortly be coming to Ceylon to help in the revival of Buddhism.
He also saw the first number of The Theosophist, a copy of which had been sent to Migettuvatte, and he tells us himself that it was from this time, when he was fourteen years old, that his interest in Theosophy dated. His enthusiasm for the newly-founded movement was still further increased by the lectures which the great preacher had started giving on Col. Olcott, Mme. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, and when, in May 1880, the two Founders at last arrived in Ceylon from India, his excitement was shared by every Buddhist heart in the island, and the two visitors were received amidst scenes of religious fervour such as had not been witnessed within living memory.
After centuries of Christian persecution and oppression the Buddhists of Ceylon could hardly believe that this dignified American colonel, with his patriarchal grey beard, lofty forehead, aquiline nose, and shrewd blue eyes, and this unwieldy Russian woman, with her be-ringed fingers, puffy cheeks and dreamily hypnotic gaze—who were, to them, members of the ruling white race—had actually come to Ceylon not to attack the Dhamma, as thousands of Christian missionaries had done, but to defend and support it, that they had come neither as enemies nor conquerors, but simply as friends and brothers. However when, on that memorable May 21st, the Buddhist devotees flocked in their thousands from the surrounding villages to Galle, and saw the strange pair on their knees in front of the High Priest and actually heard them repeat the familiar words of the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, as no other Westerners had ever done before, all their suspicions were allayed, and it seemed as though their wildest dreams had come true. The tide had turned at last and Gunananda felt that all his labour had not been in vain.
This is not the place for an analysis of the characters of Col. Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky, nor for an examination of the motives with which they came to Ceylon, and space does not permit us to unravel the tangled skein of Theosophical history even prior to the events with which we are now concerned. To what extent the Founders were followers of the Dhamma as that term is understood in the monasteries of Ceylon, and with what mental reservations they publicly embraced Buddhism at Galle, are matters which, though in themselves interesting and important subjects of inquiry, could make no material difference to the course of the narrative now being unfolded. We are concerned not so much with psychology as with history, and it is not only a fact but also an extremely important fact that the conversion of Mme. Blavatsky and Col. Olcott to Buddhism marked the beginning of a new epoch in the annals of Ceylon Buddhism.
If at the Panadura Controversy, Christian fanaticism suffered its first serious repulse, by the ceremony at Galle, Buddhism scored its first positive victory, and that this victory was won for Buddhism by the Founders of the Theosophical Society is impossible for any fair-minded person to deny. At any rate, boundless was the gratitude of the Sinhala Buddhists to the two converts through whose instrumentality the power of the Dhamma had been so abundantly demonstrated, and their triumphal tour from South Ceylon up to Colombo was the occasion for a series of outbreaks of popular enthusiasm. On their arrival at the capital in June, young Hewavitarne, his eyes bright with expectation and his heart thumping wildly at the prospect of seeing the idols whom he had until then been worshipping from afar, walked all the way from St. Thomas to the place where Col. Olcott was to deliver his first lecture.
At the close of the meeting, when everybody had left, his uncle and father remained behind, and with them the fourteen-year old boy. His uncle had already become a great favourite with Mme. Blavatsky, and more than half a century later, only a few months before his death, Dharmapala wrote that he still remembered the delight he felt when along with them he shook hands with the Founders as they said good-bye. He adds that he was intuitively drawn to Mme. Blavatsky, though he never suspected that she would later carry him off to Adyar in the face of the protests of his whole family, together with those of the High Priest Sumangala and Col. Olcott himself. However, that day was still four years ahead, and in the meantime the youthful enthusiast continued to attend St. Thomas. In spite of his strictness, Warden Miller liked the rebellious Sinhala boy for his truthfulness and one day told him, with rare candour, “We don’t come to Ceylon to teach you English, but we come to Ceylon to convert you.” Hewavitarne replied that he could not believe in the Old Testament although he liked the New.
In March 1863 the Catholic riots took place, when a Buddhist procession, which was passing by St. Lucia’s Church in Kotahena to Migettuvatte Gunananda’s temple, was brutally assaulted by a Catholic mob, and Dharmapala’s indignant father refused to allow him to study any longer in a Christian school, even though he had not yet matriculated. On his departure from the school Warden Miller gave him an excellent certificate. The next few months he spent eagerly devouring books in the Pettah Library, of which he was a member.
The range of his interests was always remarkably wide, and we are told that at this period of adolescent intellectual ferment his favourite subjects of study were ethics, philosophy, psychology, biography and history. Poetry he loved passionately, especially that of Keats and Shelley, whose Queen Mab had been his favourite poem ever. since he had chanced to find it in a volume of poetry in his uncle’s library. “I never ceased,” he says, “to love its lyric indignation against the tyrannies and injustices that man heaps on himself and its passion for individual freedom.” Shelley’s poetry, the bulk of which was composed under the blue skies of sunny Italy, has a particularly exhilarating effect when read in the tropics on a starry night, when the palms sway to and fro in the moonlight, and the scent of the temple-flowers drifts intolerably sweet from the trees outside, particularly when the reader is in his late teens, and perhaps it would not be too fanciful to trace in the noble
accomplishments of Dharmapala’s maturity the lingering influence of the poet of Prometheus Unbound. At any rate, he felt a strange sense of kinship with one who as a schoolboy had rebelled against the rigid dogmas of orthodox Christianity, and he wondered if Shelley and Keats had been reborn in the deva-world or on earth, and whether it would be possible to trace them in their present reincarnations and convert them to Buddhism.
Such are the dreams of youth, always aspiring after the impossible, ever enamoured of the unknown. Dharmapala admits, in his Reminiscences, that from boyhood he was inclined towards the mystic, ascetic life, and that he was on the lookout for news about Arahants and the science of Abhiñña, or supernormal knowledge, even though, as he relates, the Bhikkhus of Ceylon were sceptical about the possibility of realising Arahantship, believing that the age of Arahants was past and that the realisation of Nirvana by psychic training was no longer possible. But his thirst for direct spiritual experience, his craving for personal contact with beings of supernormal spiritual development, was by no means quenched by the worldly scepticism of the official custodians of the Dhamma, and it was with a thrill of joy that he read A. P. Sinnett’s The Occult World.