Miranda de Souza Canavarro

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Miranda de Souza Canavarro (1849-1933), sometimes called Marie, was a Portuguese noblewoman and Theosophist in Hawai'i. She was the first woman in the United States to convert to Buddhism, under the instruction of Anagarika Dharmapala.

Involvement with Theosophy

She spent several years in Honolulu during the early 1890s as the wife of the Portuguese consul. She became acquainted with Theosophists Mary E. Foster, a wealthy businesswoman and philanthropist, and Dr. Auguste Marques, a scientist and civic leader who was heavily involved with the Portuguese community.[1]

Conversion to Buddhism

In a public ceremony officiated by Dharmapala in 1897 in the New Century Hall on Fifth Avenue in New York she formally converted to Buddhism. She took the religious name “Sister Sanghamitta;” Sanghamitta was the daughter of Asoka, the Buddhist king of the third century B.C.E. Canavarro strived to follow Sanghamitta’s spiritual example by going to to Sri Lanka and establishing schools and orphanages.[2]

Canavarro became a rather well known figure in fin-de-siècle America. She was sought as an authoritative lecturer on Buddhism, and later in life included lectures on other religions as well and was one of Paul Carus’ closest friends. Canavarro’s exact place of birth is unknown; she was either born in Europe, Mexico, someplace in South America, or the United States. She claimed noble Spanish descent; however, it is presumed by many that she was born in San Antonio, Texas. Her father seems to have been from Mexico while her mother was from Virginia. Her family later moved to Mariposa County, California where she would marry Samuel C. Bates while she was still sixteen years old. Her husband died and she remarried to His Excellency Senor A. deSouza Canavarro, the Portuguese representative to the Sandwich Islands, and became Countess de Canavarro. Together they lived in Honolulu, Hawai’i for several years. Becoming bored as a diplomat’s wife in Hawai’i and endeavoring to partake in some “noble and useful and sacrificing work,” she sailed to Asia in 1897 with a plan to work at a Buddhist school for girls in Sri Lanka. Canavarro imbued her view of Asian religions and thought, particularly Buddhism, with a theoretically nuanced patina of social action, certainly influenced by her own reading of Buddhist literature and her many dialogues with Paul Carus.[3]

After her conversion, she established the Sanghamitta Convent in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). She lectured about Buddhism for three years in Ceylon, India, and Burma. In 1900 she returned to the United States and toured New York, Chicago, and San Francisco to talk about her experiences. She also became active in the Maha Bodhi Society of America.[4]

Involvement with Baha'i and Vedanta

Canavarro's spiritual explorations did not end with Buddhism. She explored Bahá'i and traveled to the Middle East to meet with 'Abdu'l-Baha, son of the founder of the Persian sect. "In the 1920s she returned to South Asia and to an interest in Vedanta Hinduism through a connection with Swami Paramananda."[5]

Additional resources

  • Bartholomeusz, Tessa, "Real Life and Romance: The Life of Miranda de Souza Canavarro," in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 10.2 (Fall, 1994).
  • Holt, John Holt. The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. 2011.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. The American Encounter with Buddhism: 1844 – 1912. 1992

Notes

  1. Frank Karpiel, "Theosophy, Culture, and Politics in Honolulu, 1890-1920," Hawaiian Journal of History 30 (1996), 182. Available at this website.
  2. Edgar A. Weir Jr. The Whiter Lotus: Asian Religions and Reform Movements in America, 1836-1933. (2011). UNLV Theses/Dissertations/Professional Papers/Capstones. Paper 932.
  3. Edgar A. Weir Jr. The Whiter Lotus: Asian Religions and Reform Movements in America, 1836-1933. (2011), 208-209. UNLV Theses/Dissertations/Professional Papers/Capstones. Paper 932.
  4. Edgar A. Weir Jr. The Whiter Lotus: Asian Religions and Reform Movements in America, 1836-1933. (2011). UNLV Theses/Dissertations/Professional Papers/Capstones. Paper 932.
  5. Edgar A. Weir Jr. The Whiter Lotus: Asian Religions and Reform Movements in America, 1836-1933. (2011),212. UNLV Theses/Dissertations/Professional Papers/Capstones. Paper 932.