Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) is the most acclaimed Buddhist missionary of Sri Lanka. He is remembered for his stellar contribution towards the 20th century Buddhist resurgence in Sri Lanka then under colonial rule, restoration of Bodhgaya where the Buddha attained enlightenment and other Buddhist shrines in India the land of the Buddha. In 1893 he was invited to attend the world parliament of religions in Chicago as a representative of “Southern Buddhism” - the term applied at the time to Theravada Buddhism. This was a time when Sri Lanka then a British crown colony was rediscovering its ancient Buddhist heritage. This was the time when Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott had founded the theosophical society where interest in Buddhism was be kindled in the West. The young Dharmapala assisted Colonel Olcott in his work, particularly by acting as his translator. He also developed close relations with Madame Blavatsky, who advised him to study Pali the language of the Buddhist scripture. It was at this time that he changed his name Don David Hewavitharene to Dharmapala –“Guardian of the Dharma”.
In 1891, he made his first visit to the sacred places of Northern India and found them in dire neglect. The Mahabodhi shrine had been restored by General Sir Alexander Cunningham, but no Buddhist institutional structure was in place to maintain this fountain of the Buddhist traditions. The temple was in the custody of a Hindu priest. Dharmapala initiated a long struggle to gain control of Bodhgaya but lost the battle for control in 1906. Meanwhile the Maha Bodhi Society which he founded in 1891 remained committed to Bodhagaya to its pristine splendor. The Mahabodhi society under his personal stewardship expanded its activities in the promotion of Buddhism in India. Eventually he extended his reach to Japan in the East and London in the West. In 1892 he initiated the publication the Maha Bodhi Journal. His missionary work in Buddhism received global recognition early 20th Century and soon became a global figure. He travelled widely and was prolific in his writings and lectures which he continued in the next forty years until his death in 1933.He established schools and hospitals in Sri Lanka and built Buddhist temples in India. The most important temple he built in India was in Saranath where the Buddha preached his first sermon to the five disciples with the famous exhortation “Go forth o bhikkus, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, for the good and for the happiness of gods and men”. He continued his work as an ‘Anagarika’ which literally means a homeless person. In anticipation of his death in 1933 he got himself ordained as a Bhikku in 1933 at Saranath India. He died in December of the same year at Saranath, aged sixty-nine.
Dharmapala made two outstanding contributions to Buddhism in the twentieth century. He pioneered the revival of Buddhism in India where it was virtually extinct for several centuries. He is the foremost Buddhist evangelist of modern times to preach the Dharma in three continents: Asia, North America and Europe. Dharmapala made his contribution to Buddhism as the first Anagarika- that is as a celebrate person devoted entirely to serve Buddhism – in modern times.