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Devapriya Valisinha: A pioneer of the Buddhist revival in India and Sri Lanka


SUGEESHWARA GUNARATNA | New Delhi, February 8, 2011 10:21
Tags : Indo-Lanka relations | gautama buddha | buddhism | mahabodhi society | buddha gaya | Devapriya Valisinha | Anagarika Dharmapala |

Indo-Lanka relations go back to a time that diffuses into the mist of history. This historical relationship has continued to leave an intense emotional bonding in the minds of the people of both countries. Sri Lanka is indelibly ingrained in the minds of the Indian people through the epic Ramayana. Similarly, India remains embedded in the psyche of the Sri Lankan people as the land where Gautama Buddha preached his enlightened message, gifted to Sri Lanka by emperor Ashoka. It was the advent of Buddhism that marked the flourishing of the Sinhala Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka and the umbilical cord relationship between the Sinhala people and Buddhism, the safeguarding of which, the Sinhala people see as their tryst with destiny.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the pioneers of the 20th century Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka and India were Sri Lankans who came and lived in India for a large part of their active lives. Foremost among them was Anagarika Dharmapala, founder of the Mahabodhi Society, who first visited India in 1891. He thereafter pioneered the cause of revival and restoration of Buddha Gaya, the site where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment, and other centres of Buddhism in India which had for centuries been prone to neglect and waste. During this effort, alongside him was his chief and foremost disciple, Brahmachari Devapriya Valisinha.

Born in Apulatotuwa, a small village in the Sabaragamuwa Province of Sri Lanka, on February 10, 1904, Devapriya Valisinha was the sixth child of a family of seven brothers and sisters.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, the activities undertaken by Anagarika Dharmapala began to resonate in Sri Lanka and abroad. On the one hand he had started the mission of propagating the sublime message of Gautama Buddha in Asia, Europe, and America. On the other hand he was travelling the length and breadth of Sri Lanka stirring up the people and inculcating in them a nationalistic sense and a pride in the values Buddhist culture, which was being threatened by centuries of colonial rule.

An accidental meeting with Anagarika Dharmapala, during a visit to the village temple changed the course of young Devapriya’s life. He was adopted by Anagarika Dharmapala and entrusted to the care of Mallika Hewavitharana, mother of Anagarika Dharmapala. In 1917 Devapriya Valisinha came to India for his studies. He passed out from the Presidency College, Kolkata and was also enrolled at Shantiniketan. Incidentally, he was the first Sri Lankan student at Shantiniketan. During that time, he was also the Editor of the Ashram magazine and the Secretary of the Literary Association.

Devapriya was an average Sinhalese with a Bengali appearance. He wore Bengali dress and spoke Bengali. Once Anagarika Dharmapala wrote in his diary, "Devapriya started to Bolpur (Shantiniketan). I do not know how he will behave in future. He is now like a Bengali boy of a good family. I hope he will not be proud." (The Maha Bodhi-20.11.1917). No doubt the values of universalism he exhibited in later life were imbibed during his time at the Ashram of Rabindranath Tagore.

Having been involved in the work of the Mahabodhi Society since the early 1920s, Devapriya was elected Recording Secretary and Treasurer in 1927. It was on his initiative that Mahatma Gandhi was invited to preside over the Buddha Poornima celebrations in 1925 in Kolkata. After the passing away of his mentor Anagarika Dharmapala, Devapriya Valisinha was elected General Secretary of the Mahabodhi Society in 1933, a post he went on to hold for 35 years until his death in 1968.

Devapriya Valisinha’s foremost contribution to the 20th century Buddhist revival was to provide leadership to resolving the question of the Bodh Gaya temple after the demise of Dharmapala. Beginning in 1922, when he along with other notable personalities, attended the Gaya Congress and raised the Temple Question. Devapriya continued the agitation enlisting the support of the leaders of the Indian independence struggle as well as other Buddhist countries.

In 1941 when World War broke out, Devapriya was arrested along with Dr Kalidas Nag and lodged in the Lalbazar lockup. After his release he was ordered not to go beyond a radius of five miles from the place of residence. He thereafter left for Sri Lanka on a visit but upon arrival was served with a notice not to return to India till the end of the war. He was, therefore, compelled to spend six years in Ceylon during which time he rendered yeoman service in building up the Mahabodhi Society in Sri Lanka.

Upon his return to India, the Government of the State of Bihar in newly independent India passed the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Act of 1949 based on the recommendations of a Committee headed by Dr Rajendra Prasad. Devapriya Valisinha was a member of this Committee. He also served in the first Board of Management of the Gaya Temple.

Devapriya’s contribution to resolving the Gaya Temple issue should be coupled with another achievement which remains unparalleled. He successfully negotiated with the British Government through the Archaeological Department of India and restored the relics of Sariputta and Moggallana, the two chief disciples of Gautama Buddha, to the Maha Bodhi Society. Previous attempts by various organisations had failed to secure the relics which had been taken to the Albert and Victoria Museum in London. The relics were subsequently exhibited in Kolkata, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal, Ladakh, Sikkim, and Tibet leading to a tremendous Buddhist reawakening in India, Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries. Today, the relics lie in the city of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh.

This account would not be complete without mention of Devapriya Valisinha’s contribution to the restoration of the Mulagandha Kuty Vihara in Sarnath, the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon. Since the laying of the foundation stone in 1922, by Sir Harcourt Butler, Governor of Uttar Pradesh, Devapriya was intensely involved in resolving the many vexed issues of land and architectural plans.

The Vihara was ceremonially opened on November 11, 1931 and was attended by personalities such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Ramananda Chatterjee, Ven’ble N Fuji, Acharya Rama Chandra Shukla and Dr SN Das Gupta. In the same year, an International Buddhist Institute was started.

The opening ceremony of the Vihara was the beginning of a new chapter of Buddhist revival in India. As the news of the opening of the Vihara became widespread people from far and near began to take greater interest in Buddhism. More and more pilgrims started coming to India. The vision of Devapriya was for Sarnath to become not only a centre of worship but also a place which catered to the social upliftment of the people of the area. He, therefore, conceived the idea of a Dispensary and High School. The Maha Bodhi Dispensary gave medicines free of charge. It became a boon to the villagers who had no medical aid at that time. He started the Maha Bodhi Schools and College. The Mahabodhi School which was originally founded with 5 children by Anagarika Dharmapala in 1901 was thereafter closed and was restarted by Devapriya Valisinha in 1928. It became a full fledged functioning school under the tutelage of Brahmachari Devapriya Valisinha during his tenure as the General Secretary of the Maha Bodhi Society. Today the schools and college have around 5000 students and around 120 staff members.

Devapriya Valisinha had for long years been in correspondence with Dr BR Ambedkar.   This is borne out by the fact that Dr Ambedkar contributed many articles to the Maha Bodhi journal during this period. In 1956 Dr Ambedkar decided to become a Buddhist and asked his followers to join him. Devapriya attended the mass meeting held in Nagpur with several Bhikkus of the Society and helped in arranging the religious ceremony. He spoke at the occasion and presented to Dr Ambedkar an image of Lord Buddha on behalf of the Mahabodhi Society, where it is recorded that around five lakhs embraced Buddhism.

Devapriya Valisinha also constructed a Buddhist Temple in Delhi, next to the ‘Bhirla Mandir’, with the help of Jugal Kishore Bhirla. He pioneered efforts to translate the Tripitaka into Hindi and for this purporse enlisted the support of the great Sanskrit scholar Rahul Sankrityayana. He also started the "Dharmadoot" Hindi monthly for propagating Buddhism among the Hindi speaking people.

February 10 marks the 107th birth anniversary of Brahmachari Devapriya Valisinha.

This year, as we commemorate the 2600th year of the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha under the Bo tree in Gaya and as both Sri Lanka and India jointly celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, it is apt that we remember this illustrious son whom both countries can jointly call her own. 

(The writer is the Counsellor of the Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi and is a grandson of Brahmachari Devapriya Valisinha. The views expressed in the column are that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Sunday Indian. )

(For more information on the life and work of Devpariya Valisinha please visit

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017