Col. Henry Steele Olcott: A great name in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist history
Monday 23 February 2009
Col. Henry Steele Olcott:
A great name in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist history
Lanka Daily News, Feb 17, 2009
Colombo, Sri Lanka —
World history finds its greatness and attraction through the services rendered by philanthropists. A person whoever he is achieves greatness through ideologies borne in his mind and to the extent of effectiveness and favourable consequences resulting therefrom.
- Col. Henry Steele Olcott awakened a nation
If there was any person who was capable of uplifting the Sinhala Buddhists who were helpless due to colonial rule, although their forefathers enjoyed sublime virtues enriched with the advent of Arahath Mahinda. His achievement in reestablishing a golden era in this country makes really great and sublime. February 17th marks the 102nd death anniversary of Col. Henry Steele Olcott who was able to create history through his revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
He clamoured and awakened a nation that was fast asleep without any vigour to rise up. He was the pioneer who agitated to give due place to Buddhism and the reformer who compelled the colonial government that existed at that time to declare the Vesak Full Moon Day, a public holiday. He was the architect who designed the six coloured Buddhist Flag that has gained universal recognition.
He was the pioneer who was responsible for the establishment of National Schools such as Ananda College. Col. Olcott, whose contribution towards the betterment of our country, nation, religion, justice and good conduct has been so great, therefore remains in our hearts forever.
His motto was "The best religion is nothing but the truth." He established the Theosophical Society at New York in America on the 17th November 1875 towards the achievements of his goal.
As a result of his endeavour towards justice, good conduct, universal fraternity and freedom many erudites around the world gathered around him. We have to record our highest gratitude to Madam Helena Blavatsky who assisted him in all his endeavours.
Col. Olcott was an American. However when we look into his clan, we note that his parents were English and had migrated to America. He was the eldest of a family of six siblings. This great child was born on August 2, 1832.
As an enthusiastic scholar, his research in agriculture in particular paved way for him to become the Head of a Department at Athens University of Greece. However he declined to accept this honour and instead he established an educational institution in agriculture because he preferred to serve his mother country.
During the American Civil War, he joined the army and through his achievements was appointed colonel. American government appreciated his bravery and sharp wisdom, appointed him commissioner to investigate and report on corruption in the American army. He performed this task very well.
For some time he practised as a lawyer. Although he was a Christian by birth, came across a copy of the Panadura controversy by Rev. Migettuwaththe Gunananda Thera, in Ceylon. He who was in search of the Truth and found it in Buddhist philosophy highlighted in this famous controversy.
Col. Olcott made an extensive study of Buddhism. Consequently with a team of people, including Madam Blavatsky came to Ceylon (then) on May 17, 1880 and at Vijayananda, Pirivana at Weliwatta Galle, Col. Olcott and Madam Blavatsky became true Buddhists by accepting the triple Gem and observing Panchaseela, from Rev. Akmeemana Dharmarama Chief Monk.
Through his close association with intellectuals such as Rev. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Chief Monk, Rev. Miggattuwatte Gunananda Thera and Rev. Waskaduwe Sri Subuthi Thera, Col. Olcott realised the sad plight of the Sinhala Buddhists at that time. Considering the gravity of this, he thought of the need to unite and create a formidable workforce to act fast.
He realised the need to provide Buddhist children with an appropriate Buddhist environment through a systematic objective, he established the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society on June 17, 1880.
He thought that the future prosperity of the nation will depend on the good conduct and education of the living children, and therefore purchased a building at Maliban Street, where the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society office was established and subsequently used the same building where an English school was established with 37 children. W. Lead Beater was appointed Principal.
Mr. Lead Beater, an Englishman, provided education free of charge till 1889. After 1889 A.E. Bultjourns was appointed principal and when the number of children increased and the school was shifted to Maradana, present day Ananda College which became one of the foremost colleges in Sri Lanka, found its beginning’s at a small hall in Pettah. This was through the foresight and wisdom of Col. Olcott. Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society was able to establish many Buddhist schools.
With a sense of pride we have to point out to the country that as a result of pursuing the thinking of Col. Olcott, Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society was able to establish 460 Buddhist schools, including leading colleges such as Ananda, Nalanda, Dharmapala, Dharmaraja, Visakha and Musaeus College.
Amid various adversities, difficulties, obstacles, great men like Col. Olcott who directed towards advancement at a stage when Sinhala Buddhists had forgotten their good culture and traditions, it is our duty to commemorate them with a sense of deep gratitude.
Younger generation in particular must be knowledgeable about the excellent qualities of this great leader, about his life and history and follow his path leading to advancement of our country.
When we remember the fact that great schools of learning such as Ananda, Nalanda and Dharmaraja produced national leaders and other country and also when we remember that colleges for ladies like Musaeus and Visakha produced heroic mother for the country, we can imagine that the get they blessings and grace of Col. Olcott who may be at a higher place in the universe.
Our nation was gifted with heroines and heroes, such as Viharamaha Devi, Dutugemunu, Parakramabahu the Great. We can remember the manner in which even great person like Anagarika Dharmapala was brought to the forefront with the able guidance of this rare type of great men like Col. Olcott and in that we observe that differences such as religion, race or caste or black or white are not at all barriers, when such great men go in search of the Truth.
Col. Olcott made every endeavour to awaken the Buddhists and to impress English rulers to prove that Sinhalese are a great race, although he belonged to a different faith.
He embraced Buddhism and Sinhala people. Every Sinhalese in the past, present and future is indebted to him.
Finally at a time he was able to see that his efforts have become fruitful, he became very happy and expressed his sentiments before Rev. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Chief Monk, whom Col. Olcott considered as teacher.
"Seeds have been sown. These have grown and become large trees, my dear Rev. Sir no one on this earth or above can stop its growth and fruition in the future."
The Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society, their founder Col. Henry Steele Olcott had made arrangements to start conservation work of the old building where Col. Olcott lived and used as Old Ananda College by Minister of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage.
Source The Buddhist Channel
Biography - Henry Steel Olcott
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (August 2, 1832 – February 17, 1907) was the founder and first president of the Theosophical Society; he was the first well-known person of European ancestry to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. His subsequent actions as president of the Theosophical Society helped create a renaissance of study of Buddhism. He is still honoured in Sri Lanka for these efforts.
Olcott was born in Orange, New Jersey, the oldest son of Presbyterian businessman Henry Wyckoff Olcott and his wife Emily Steel Olcott. As a child, Olcott lived on his father’s New Jersey farm. At some point the family moved from Orange to New York City.
During his teens he attended the College of the City of New York and Columbia University, where he joined the St. Anthony Hall fraternity, a milieu of well-known people, until his father’s business failed during 1851. Unfortunately, he had to leave the university since his father could not afford the tuition.
In 1860 he married Mary Epplee Morgan daughter of the rector of Trinity parish, New Rochelle; they had three sons. Olcott was agricultural editor of the New York Tribune (1858–60), and sometimes submitted newspaper articles on various other subjects. He served in the US Army during the Civil War and afterward was admitted as a lawyer in New York City. With the rank of Colonel, he was special commissioner in the U.S. War and Navy departments (1863–66). He published a genealogy of his family that traced him back to Thomas Olcott, one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut in 1636.
Some of his newspaper articles concerned the Spiritualist movement. In 1874 while writing a series of articles on the seances of the Eddy brothers of Chittenden, Vermont he met Helena Blavatsky when both visited the Eddy farm. In early 1875 Olcott was asked by important Spiritualists to investigate an accusation of fraud against the mediums Jenny and Nelson Holmes, who had claimed to materialize the famous spirit control Katie King (Doyle 1926: volume 1, 269-277).
In 1875, Olcott, Blavatsky, and others, notably William Quan Judge, formed the Theosophical Society. During December 1878 they left New York in order to move the headquarters of the Society to India.
They landed at Bombay on February 16 1879.. The headquarters of the society were established at Adyar, as the Theosophical Society Adyar.
On 16 May 1880, they arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka. On 25 May, in Galle Olcott and Blavatsky were formally acknowledged as Buddhists , although Olcott noted that they had previously declared themselves Buddhists, in America.
Olcott acted as adviser to the committee appointed to design a Buddhist flag. Blavatsky eventually went to live in London where she died, but Henry stayed in India and pursued the work of the society there.
The Theosophical society built several Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka, most notably Ananda College, Nalanda College, Dharmaraja College, Maliyadeva College and Mahinda College. After his death, Blavatsky’s protege Annie Besant became the manager of the Society.
Olcott Mawatha, a major street in Colombo, has been named for him. A statue of him has been built in Maradana. He is still remembered fondly by many Sri Lankans.
Sorgho and Imphee, the Chinese and African sugar canes; A. O. Moore, New York 1857Outlines of the first course of Yale agricultural lectures; C. M. Saxton, Barker & Co., New York 1860Descendents of Thomas Olcott, 1872Human Spirits and Elementaries; 1875People from the other world; American Publishing Co., Hartford 1875A Buddhist catechism; Madras 1881Theosophy, Religion, and Occult Science; New York 1885Old Diary Leaves (6 volumes)The Hindu Dwaita Catechism; 1886The Golden Rules of Buddhism; 1887The kinship between Hinduism and Buddhism; The Maha-Bodhi society, Calcutta 1893The Poor Pariah; Addison & Co., Madras 1902The Life of the Budha and its Lessons; 1912Old diary leaves, Inside the occult, the true story of Madame H. P. Blavatsky; Running Press, Philadelphia 1975 (reprint); ISBN 0-914294-31-8