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Sunday, 12 May 2013





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Col. Henry Steel Olcott:

Ushering in the Buddhist Revival in Ceylon

Reminiscent on what inspired Colonel Henry Steel Olcott an American to come to Ceylon (Sri Lanka then a British colony) accompanied by Madame Helena Pavlov Blavatsky a Russian, the starting point is the famous Panadura Debate (Vade) held in Panadura in August 1875. On the one side stood the Buddhist prelate, the indefatigable Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, and on the other Rev. David de Silva.

The debate had been effectively argued for the Buddhists by the former. Proceedings were translated into English by the then famous patriot, proctor Edward Perera. It was published in the 'Times of Ceylon by John Caper, an American visitor. J.M. Peebles another pioneer searching for Asian spiritualism who happened to be in Ceylon soon afterwards obtained copies of the article and distributed them in New York.

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Helena Pavlov Blavatsky

Col. Olcott after reading the article, his inner temptation to explore Asian spiritualism prompted him to go to Ceylon. It was somewhat like how Lorenzo de Almeida of Portugal was drifted to the island by the vagaries of the south west monsoon. The similarity was that both arrived at the Port of Galle, Almeida in 1505 and Col. Olcott on May 17, 1880. The irony was that the former led to the establishment of a Portuguese colony in the island followed by a large scale conversion of Buddhists to Catholicism whereas Col. Olcott's visit helped to bolster up a great revival of Buddhist education, if I may call it Buddhist Renaissance in Ceylon in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.

The stage was set for the messiah to operate by the then well-known Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, the Chief Incumbent of Sri Pada, founder of Vidyodaya Pirivena and a world renowned scholar with Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera of the Panadura Vade fame and Ven. Dhammalankara Thera, the Chief Priest of Amarapura Nikaya, Ven. Waskaduwe Subhuti Thera and Ven. Pothuvila Indrajothi Thera with a gathering of Buddhist laymen led by David Hewavitarane later known as Anagarika Dharmapala waiting anxiously to receive him and his delegation.

Grand welcome

Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky the "Theosophic twins" seemed mesmerised by the ovation they received as they arrived in Galle on May 17, 1880.

This was how Col. Olcott spoke of the ovation he and Madame Blavatsky received on their arrival in Galle (Old Diary leaves second series 1878-1883). "After breakfast, in a lull of the storm we embarked in a large boat decorated with banana leaves and liens of bright coloured flowers, on which were the leading Buddhists of the place. We passed through a lane of fishing boats tricked out with gaudy cloths and streamers, their prows pointing inward. On the jetty and along the beach a huge crowd awaited us and rent the air with the united shout of 'Sadhoo, Sadhoo'. A white cloth was spread for us from the jetty to the road where the carriages were ready and a thousand flags frantically waved in welcome.... and at Mrs. Wijeratne's residence three chief Bhikkhus received and blessed us at the threshold reciting appropriate Pali verses".

Later on at Chapter XXI of his diary Col. Olcott said further "....And I saw the people as they are at their best, full of smiles, and love, and hospitable impulse, and have been welcomed with flying flags and wild Eastern music and processions and shouts of joy. Ah! Lovely Lanka, gem of the Summer Sea, how doth thy sweet image rise before me as I write the story of my experience among thy dusky children of my success in warming their hearts to reverse their incomparable religion and its holiest founder. Happy the Karma which brought me to thy shores". (highlighted by me)

Col. Olcott's entries in his diary reveal that he had already proclaimed himself a true Buddhist. In a select anthology titled 'Images of Sri Lanka Through American Eyes' edited by H.A.L. Goonetileke famous librarian who won the Cowley Prize awarded by the University of London described Col. Olcott's arrival in Ceylon in the following terms." he descended on the island with the messianic zeal of an Old Testament prophet and looking like one too".

The Buddhist Convention

His first important event after coming to the island was the memorable Buddhist Convention in Galle on July 4, 1880. At the Convention presided over by the great Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera flanked by Col. Olcott on one side and Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera on the other Col. Olcott addressing the gathering of people outlined his proposed campaign for the Buddhist revival and detailed the important steps to be taken for its success to restore the rights of the Buddhists. Then there were only four Buddhist schools compared with 802 Christian schools.

David Hewavitarana (Anagarika Dharmapala) writing to the Buddhist on June 13, 1990 referring to the convention had this to say, "The address of Olcott made a deep impression on the whole assembly. From this meeting dates the present revival of Buddhism. Compare the present State of things with that date and it seems almost like a dream. We now have Buddhist schools opening everywhere, thousands of Buddhist children were taught their religion, two successful journals established, a movement commenced for the resumption of old family names, 80,000 copies of Buddhist books printed and sold, Vesak day joyfully observed and feeling of brotherhood linking all together. What a glorious work for one American Buddhist to have done".

Col. Olcott would have been a happy man to hear that what he was doing for the Buddhists had been appreciated by the leading Buddhist laymen at the time. Col. Olcott came to the island at a time when the Christian Missionaries had already made a tremendous progress in converting local Buddhists who then comprised nearly 90 percent of the island's population.

Their task had been made easier for the reason that the rulers from 1505, namely, the Portuguese and the Dutch (of the Maritime Provinces) followed by the British who ruled the entire island after 1815 supported their cause wholeheartedly.

History tells us that the Buddhists who refused to be converts were persecuted. Even though the British did not persecute the Buddhists the local people who revolted against the British rule were mercilessly killed e.g. Uva-Wellassa Revolt in 1818 and that of Matale in 1848.

By 1875, the Government cruelty had been subdued. Nevertheless the Buddhist education was at a low ebb. Buddhists who were the recipients of royal patronage prior to 1505 had lost their identity. There was wholesale discrimination against the Buddhists.

Henry Steel Olcott was born in Orange, New Jersey on August 2, 1832. He received his early education in New York. He pursued a course in agriculture and published a treatise on the culture of sorghum Sorgho and Imphee. He enlisted in the Civil War and was appointed a special commissioner to uncover corruption at military depots and navy yards. To facilitate this work he was made a Colonel. He studied law and after admission to the Bar in New York practised as a lawyer for a few years.

A man of steel

True to his name Col. Henry Steel Olcott was a man made of steel. In describing how he slept while on a very difficult journey down the Kaluganga from Ratnapura he says, "We had no cots or bunks to comfort us, but sat all day and slept all night on mats laid on the bamboo deck after a bone-crushing fashion which I prefer to leave to the reader's imagination rather than dwell too long upon details".

It was at that time when Col. Olcott was drawn towards the spiritualism in the great Eastern religions that Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky a Theosophist herself met Col. Olcott. She was the widow of General Blavatsky, Governor of Erivan in Armenia and daughter of Col. Hahn of Russian Horse Artillery. Together they found the Theosophical Society of New York in September 1875. this was to be the nucleus which inspired a number of Western educationalists who carried out the good work pioneered by Col. Olcott to come to Ceylon.

Imbibed with the genuine desire of exploring the spiritualism in the Eastern religions the "Theosophic Twins" Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky embarked on a voyage of discovery to India in September 1879.

It was while they were engaged in putting up a Theosophical Society branch at Adyar in Madras as already mentioned they were provoked to come to Ceylon where they were most needed. No doubt they succeeded in their venture.

No sooner they arrived in Galle they installed a small office at Wijayananda Vihare in Galle. In the same year the Colombo Theosophical Society was established. This was the answer to the Christian missionary societies set up all over the island. During their first "trail breaking" two month's tour seven branches of the society were formed. Unexpectedly Madame Blavasky the companion who was around with him in all his endeavours both in India and Ceylon died in May 1891 at Adyar in Madras. In the course of making an address when Theosophical Society put up a Buddhist Girls' School at Wellawatta, Col. Olcott said, "Madame Blavatsky and I came to Ceylon in 1880 just ten years ago with a few gentlemen from India of the Theosophical Society. You will yourself see the vast change - the Great Revival within the last ten years". Then he expressed his fervent wish, "And now a Buddhist school for women has been established. And I hope 500 other schools will be formed so that Buddhist sisters may have as good as education as their Buddhist brothers".

Second visit

On his second visit to the island in April 1881, the Society launched an Education Fund with Buddhist philanthropists such as Muhandiram Amarasuriya contributed lavishly. He made it a point to meet some leaders of the Tamil community as well. Arunachalam an intellectual and P. Ramanathan he met in Kalutara on his way to Colombo during his first visit to the island.

Even at this early stage they did not want to hide why they had come. Col. Olcott in Chapter XI of his diary stated, "as a dessert or rather pouse-cafe, my colleague abused the Missionaries in her best style"

He was referring to the after dinner speech made by Madame Blavatsky.

Col. Olcott was well aware of the gravity of his task. He was a shrewd tactician as well. He renewed his acquaintance with Miller, American Consul in Colombo who had been a clerk under him when he was a commissioner in the war department during the Civil War. Col. Olcott's diary entries reveal that his friend in the Theosophic Society in New York Dr. Peebles a globe trotter was with him for a few days.

Undoubtedly, Col. Olcott was a man possessed of indomitable courage and strong determination to face not only the formidable Christian Missionaries, but an unknown geography of a country very much alien to him and also a huge local population that thronged around him. Their kindness and admiration he valued very much as portrayed in his diary entries.


His untiring efforts to bolster up the revival of Buddhist education bore fruits in a short span of time. The founding of an institution which later became Mahinda College was achieved with the opening of an English school then called the Galle Buddhist Theosophical Society School on September 15, 1880.

Col. Olcott had invited Dr. Bowles Daly an Englishman who had already enrolled as a member of the Theosophical Society in New York to come to Ceylon. Dr. Daly was a clergymen from London, but before assuming his duties on August 1, 1891 as the principal of the institution now known as Mahinda College he had become a Buddhist after taking Panchaseela from Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera. Owing to certain difficulties in running the institution Dr. Daly went back to England. Subsequently on an urgent appeal made by the Buddhist Theosophical Society, Galle, Col. Olcott who was in Adyar at the time got down Frank Le Woodward to succeed Dr. Daly as principal of Mahinda College.

Woodward came from a strong Anglican family. He was a Cambridge scholar and was proficient in six languages including French, German, Latin and after coming to Ceylon he studied his Pali as well. He was an admirer of Stoic Philosophy which tempted him to get involved in Theosophy. So, the background was well founded for him to become a Buddhist and take over the Buddhist institution in August 1893, which task he had performed exceptionally well. Woodward was so grateful to his guru he put up a huge memorial hall which was named after Col. Olcott as the Olcott memorial Assembly Hall. As the the college flourished Woodward succeeded in getting the services of another Western educationalist F. Gorden Pearce as the Vice Principal.Col. Olcott's entrepreneurship in establishing Buddhist schools as the answer to schools put up by the Christian Missions was not confined to Galle. With funds coming from the Buddhist Education Fund and Buddhist philanthropists' schools sprung up all over the island. Ananda College which in no time became one of the leading Buddhist institutions was established in 1886. the inspiration created by Col. Olcott made eminent foreign educationalists such as Lead Beater to come as the school principal. Ananda College showed its gratitude by putting up a memorial hall named after him as Olcott Memorial Hall. In Kandy, the leading Buddhist institution Dharmaraja College too was founded in 1887 by Col. Olcott. The school hall Olcott Memorial Hall was put up to honour him.

Inspired by the revival of Buddhist Education Mrs. Marie Musaeus Higgings of Washington D.C. an educationalist came to Ceylon in 1892 to become the principal of the newly founded Sangamittha Girls' School in Colombo. In 1893, she founded her own Musaeus College which soon became the leading Buddhist school for girls in the island. Col. Olcott's last visit to the island was in November 1903. AT the time of his death there were three colleges and 205 schools run by the Buddhist Theosophical Society.

The indigenous cutting edge

Goonetileke in his book 'Images of Sri Lanka Through American Eyes' pays a tribute to Col. Olcott for making the indomitable charismatic personality Anagarika Dharmapala in the following terms "He fired Anagarika Dharmapala to provide the indigenous cutting edge to the religious and educational weapon he had forged and this great Sinhalese nationalist was the true native product of the Olcott phase of Buddhist evangelism". One must not forget the fact that it was Anagarika Dharmapala who rescued Buddhagaya from Mahanta after a legal battle. Col. Olcott should be credited with laying the seeds of a national movement which was powerful enough to bloodlessly negotiate independence from the British colonial domination.

Sri Lankans irrespective of whether they are Buddhists, Christians, Hindus or Muslims can never forget the services rendered by this great American.

Buddhist Catechism

Another important event attributed to Col. Olcott is the compilation of the Buddhist Catechism (a set of question and answers). The English original and its Sinhala version appeared on July 24, 1881. It was translated into 23 languages.To get a first hand knowledge of the plight of local population, the majority of whom were Buddhists he undertook a village to village gruelling tour of the maritime provinces in a specially constructed bullock cart.

The speeches he made during his tours took the form of discourses on the basic principles of Buddhism. While making a tour of Kandyan villages he was perturbed by the caste system prevailing there. Citing quotations from Wasala Sutta Col. Olcott said it was not the birth that makes a man a Brahman or a Pariah or an outcast, but his deeds or actions.

While addressing a gathering of people in a village in Madmpe he did not fail to ridicule a village headman who was an arrack renter and a fish mudalali. He said if they imagined that they could get to Nirvana with a jug of arrack in one hand and a string of fish in the other they were mightily mistaken, they had better go elsewhere.... For fishing and arrack drinking put a man outside the pale of Buddhism". In fact, Col. Olcott's mode of speech may have influenced Anagarika Dharmapala when attacking the un-Buddhist actions of people in very strong words.

Tribute to Col. Olcott

Even after shedding the colonial title Ceylon in 1948 people of independent Sri Lanka continued to adore and venerate Col. Olcott the great American who played a leading role in uplifting the morale of the Buddhists from the utter chaos they were in.

On February, 1967 commemorating the 60th anniversary of his death his statue was erected opposite the Fort Railway Station on the Olcott Mawatha named after him (formally Norris Road). Olcott Commemoration Volume was published in the same year and also issued a special postage stamp.

Recently the people of Galle too erected his statue in the Galle town and renamed the road running opposite Mahinda College as Olcott Mawatha. Almost every school then run by the Buddhist Theosophical Society still carries his portrait to honour him. All the colleges founded by him still annually have an alms-giving in February to commemorate his death.

The writer is a former Director, Sri Lanka Judges' Institute.


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