Both a Buddhist religious leader and a writer, Dharmapala helped create the peaceful Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism movement; revived Buddhism in India; and taught the principles of the faith throughout the Asian, European, and North American continents.
After attending several elite, English-language schools in his native Sri Lanka, he made a pilgrimage to India's Mahabodhi Temple and subsequently founded the Maha Bodhi Society with the aim of reinstating Buddhist principles and practices in India.
His Buddhist ideology and teachings, which are modernist in character and reconcile science and religion, were influenced by Protestant and enlightenment ideals. His religious writings include The World's Debt to Buddha (1893), The Constructive Optimism of Buddhism (1915), and Message of the Buddha (1925).
The child of wealthy merchants Mallika Dharmagunawardhana and Don Carolis Hewavitharana, he spent his youth in Colombo, Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). Born Don David Hewavitharane, he grew up with brothers named Charles (later a physician and Indian Independence movement leader) and Edmund (who became a prominent businessman).
While attending Chicago's World Parliament of Religions, he became acquainted with another popular Buddhist figure, Swami Vivekananda.