Remembering Colonel Henry Steele Olcott

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky with Colonel Henry Steele Olcott in 1888.
Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, an American Theosophist, Author, Attorney, Philosopher, and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, a religious sect incorporating aspects of Buddhism,Brahamanism and Christian esotericism and the founder of Ananda College was born on August 2, 1832 in Orange, New Jersey, the United States to the family of Wycliff Olcott and Alice Steele.

He was the eldest of six children of the family. His parents were English. However, they had migrated to America.

He was an enthusiastic scholar and his research in agriculture paved the way for him to become the chief of the Agricultural Department at the Athens University.

During the American Civil War, he joined the army and through his achievements, he was appointed colonel. Further, he was appointed the commissioner to investigate and report on corrupt practices in the army. He also practiced as a lawyer for some time.

After some time, he came across a copy of the proceedings of the famous Panadura debate (‘Panadura Vadaya’) by Rev. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera. He read it very carefully and anxiously and he who was searching for truth from a long time, found it in Buddhism. He further made an extensive study of Buddhism. Inspired by this study, he came to Sri Lanka on May 17, 1880, with some others who were so inspired, Madame Helena Petrovna nee Hahn Blavatsky, who along with Col. Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, W. Wimbridgo, Demodar K. Malvalankar, Purushottam and Panachand Anandji (Hindu), Sorabji J. Pradshan and Ferozhah D. Sheroff (Paris) who were Theosophists and bearers of brotherly salutations expressive of their broad tolerance to Buddhism, as a universal philosophy with a rational outlook, for the welfare of mankind and to free them from earthly bondage.

Prior to arriving in what was then known as Ceylon, Col. Olcott and Madame Blavastsky declared themselves Buddhists although they had not observed ‘Panchaseela’ as there was none in America to administer ‘Panchaseela’.

Col. Olcott and Madame Blavastsky, at the Vijayarnanda Pirivena at Weliwatta in Galle became true Buddhists by accepting the Triple Gem and observing ‘Panchaseela’ from Rev. Akmeemana Dharmarama Thera, the Chief Monk of the Pirivena.

He realised the sad plight of the Sinhala Buddhists in the country through his association with intellectuals such as Rev. Hikkaduwe Sri Smangala Nayake Thera, Rev. Migettuwattte Gunananda Thera and Rev. Waskaduwe Sri Subhuthi Maha Thera at the time.

From the day the Portuguese invaded the country in 1505 they, themselves, the Dutch and the British under the influence of the church dominated the country for nearly four centuries. The arrival of Col. Olcott in the island was a great historic event, served as a symbolic identification of himself with the Buddhist community and their cause for the revival of Buddhism in the island, which was at low ebb as a result of foreign domination and persecution by the westerners.

The Baptist Missionary Society (1814), the Church Missionary Society (1818) and other ecclesiastical organisations were competitive in opening up their schools in the island, and their motive was proselystisation through education.

When a Buddhist child was born, he was given the name as the desire of the Christian/Catholic Church. For instance, Anagarika Dharmapala was given the name Don David. Marriages of Buddhist young couples were to be held at their churches.

The cutting of bo-trees in the island was done by force.

There were no holidays for Buddhist festivals like Full Moon Poya days. There were only two Buddhist schools in the island as against 805 run by Christian Missionaries funded by the government.

On June 17, 1880, Sir Henry Steele Olcott established the Buddhist Theosophical Society for the purpose of giving English education, a privileged exclusively enjoyed by Christian children attending Missionary schools.

On May 31, 1891, the Maha Bodhi Society was established in India and Sir Henry Steele Olcott was elected as the Chief Adviser and Director, unanimously.

He also devised the Buddhist Flag, with the assistance of monks such as Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Maha Thera. This six-striped banner representing the colours in the aura emanating from the person of the great teacher, is now accepted by the whole world.

He purchased a plot of land with a building at Maliban Street in Pettah, where the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society office was established and subsequently, used the same building where an English school was established with 37 children. An English national, W. Lead Beater was appointed as the Principal of this school. He provided education free of charge until 1889. Thereafter, A. E. Bultjens was appointed as the Principal and when the number of children increased and the school was shifted to Maradana, the present day Ananda College, which became one of the foremost colleges in Sri Lanka, found its beginnings at a small hall in Pettah.

This was through the foresight and wisdom of Col. Olcott. The Colombo Theosophical Society was able to establish many such Buddhist schools – Ananda College, Nalanda College, Dharmapala College, Dharmaraja College, Visakha College and Musaeus College.

Our Nation was gifted with heroines and heroes such Vihara Maha Devi, Dutugemunu, Parakramabahu the Great, Anangarika Dharmapala, Sir Henry Steele Olcott, Walisinghe Harischandra, Wasakaduwe Sri Subhuthi Maha Thera, Migettuwatte Gunananda Maha Thera, Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Maha Thera etc.

In recognition of the invaluable and selfless services rendered by Colonel Olcott to the cause of Buddhism, education and the Theosophical Society of Sri Lanka, the Parliament of Sri Lanka conferred on him the unique distinction of naming him as one of the heroes of Sri Lanka.

He is the only foreigner on the role of national heroes. On February 17, 1967, the 60th anniversary of his passing away, a life size statue of him was erected at Norris Road, Colombo, which was renamed Olcott Mawatha. Another statue of him was erected by the Cultural Department at Galle, where he and Madame Blavatsky accepted the five precepts in 1880.

A stamp was issued on December 9, 1967, in honour of Col. Olcott to mark the 60th anniversary of his passing away by Dudley Senanayake, the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Paying tribute to him on that occasion the Prime Minister said; "at a time when Buddhism was on the wane in Sri Lanka, Col. Olcott came to Sri Lanka in May 1880 and awakened its people to fight to regain their Buddhist heritage...Col. Olcott can be considered one of the heroes in the struggle of our Independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national and cultural revival. Col. Olcott’s visit to this country is a landmark event in the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka."

Ranasinghe Premadasa, the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, wrote on June 1, 1978; "the Buddhist Theosophical Society was the focal point of this movement against injustice and discrimination with the assistance of Madame Blavatsky and specially Col. Henry Steele Olcott. The Buddhists set up a newspaper, ‘Sarasavi Sandaresa’ a Buddhist publicity fund and a Buddhist Educational Fund. The Theosophical Society had many successes in these fields. They agitated on behalf of the Buddhists and won many concessions, such as the declaration of Vesak Day a public holiday and the prevention of cutting down of bo-trees and celebrating Buddhist festivals. In the fields of education especially, they were very successful. The Theosophists were able to obtain the service of dedicated teachers like Lead Beater, Bowes Daley, Mary Musaeus, Higgins and F. L. Woodward who built up prominent Buddhist educational institutions such as Ananda, Nalanda, Mahinda, Dharmaraja and Dharmasoka. They were assisted by a band of local helpers drawn from both the Buddhist clergy and laity, outstanding among them were Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayake Thera, Anagarika Dharmapala and Sir Baron Jayathilake."

In a message dated March 26, 1980, J. R. Jayewardene, the then President of Sri Lanka, wrote; "as the awakener of a nation out of a long slumber, as the crusader who campaigned to regain its due place for Buddhism, as the agitator who caused the colonial government of the day to declare the Vesak Full Moon Poya Day a statutory holiday in Sri Lanka (1885), as the designer of the now internationally famous Buddhist Flag (1885) and as the founder of national and educational institutions like Ananda College (1886), Colonel lives for ever in our memories."

Col. Olcott breathed his last on February 17, 1907 at 7.15 am at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar in India. May he attain the bliss of Nibbana!

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