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Buddhadharma : Summer 2007
buddhadharma| 61 |summer 2007 compound. In the first half of the seventeenth cen- tury, a wandering Saivite Hindu ascetic arrived at Mahabodhi and established a hermitage. In the following centuries, his hermitage grew into a large monastery, and his successors, the mahants (abbots), became a powerful influence in Bodhgaya. Until the 1890s, the mahants showed no interest in the temple. Not only did they let it decay, but they also demolished the smaller temples and shrines surrounding the main structure to acquire bricks for construction around the mahant’s monastery. When the British first started questioning the mah- ant, they found he knew nothing of the connection between the temple and the Buddha. In 1880, after a failed attempt by a Burmese delegation to restore the temple, the British gov- ernment stepped in. Under Cunningham’s direc- tion, and with the help of Xuanzang’s detailed descriptions, the Mahabodhi Temple was returned to at least some of its former glory. While Cunningham discovered and restored the Buddhist heritage sites, another man, Anagarika Dharmapala, dedicated his life to reclaiming them for the Buddhist world. Born David Hewavitarana in Sri Lanka in 1865, he took the name Anagarika Dharmapala, which means “homeless guardian of the dhamma.” Dharmapala came to Bodhgaya in 1891 after reading an article by Sir Edwin Arnold, an English poet, journalist, and early Western Bud- dhist who was the first person to understand the importance of returning the Mahabodhi Temple to the Buddhist world. What Dharmapala saw at Bodhgaya caused him both great joy and great pain. The magnificent Mahabodhi Temple stood empty and desolate of all life. Outside, statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas and carved temple stones laid scattered over a wide area, left to decay or be carried away by visitors. Dharmapala wrote in his journal: It was most painful for me to witness the vandalism that was taking place there constantly ... The most beautiful statues of the teacher of Nirvana and the Law ... are still uncared for and quietly allowed to perish by exposure. While standing under the bodhi tree, Dharma- pala had an epiphany. As soon as I touched my forehead to the Vajrasana [seat of enlightenment], a sudden impulse came to my mind to stop here and take care of this sacred spot, so sacred that nothing in the world is equal to this place where Prince Sakya Sinha attained enlighten- ment under the Bodhi Tree.” Like much of Buddhism itself, Dharmapala believed, the Mahabodhi Temple had become a relic of the past rather than something vital and living. He decided he would dedicate his life to reviving them both, and he vowed that by Vai- sakha, four months hence, the Mahabodhi Temple would once again be a properly functioning temple run by Buddhists. Dharmapala sent scores of letters to Buddhist leaders asking for help, but the responses were disappointing. To accomplish his goal, he left the temple and began a period of ceaseless activity. He founded the Maha Bodhi Society to promote the cause and started a magazine to chart its progress. He visited Burma, Sri Lanka, and China to raise funds and support. Although the responses were halfhearted, he continued his efforts. In 1893 he addressed the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where for the first time Buddhism was preached in the West. In the course of his pursuit, Dhar- mapala built schools, dispensaries, and vocational training institutes. He also reclaimed Sarnath as an important Buddhist center and was responsible for the first modern contact between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists. He achieved much by the time he died in 1933, but his primary goal, the return the Mahabodhi Temple to the Buddhist world, had not been realized. By the 1880s, the mahant had become one of the most powerful landholders in Bihar. The activities of the British and of Dharmapala had alerted him to the temple’s value. Knowing there were legal ambiguities regarding its ownership, the mahant began claiming that the temple belonged to him. Conflict erupted when the mahant’s men Anagarika Dharmapala