Queen Victoria beneath the Bodhi Tree: Anagarika Dharmapala as anti-imperialist and Victorian
Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was a Sri Lanka-born Buddhist modernist who moved to India to revive Buddhism in its land of origin. He was a militant anti-imperialist who penned stinging invective against the British and their Raj as early as the late 1890s. Due to his utterances and actions, imperial authorities would later put him under house arrest in Calcutta (1915 to 1920) on suspicion of sedition. Given his reputation as a harsh critic of imperialism, this essay asks why he would write a letter to the Viceroy of India on the occasion of the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 proposing a memorial altar to the Queen-Empress to be located directly at the foot of the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya. To put it mildly, this appears incongruous. And, as Jonathan Z. Smith (adapting a phrase from Paul Ricoeur) observes, “It is the perception of incongruity that gives rise to thought” (quoted in Salmond 2004: 1). Political ploy is the most obvious answer. But this essay argues that there is more to it than that; explanation for Dharmapala’s letter is multi-determined and I suggest that there is, in fact, some measure of sincerity in his proposal. Where does this sincerity originate?