Olcott Day was yesterday:
Revival of Buddhism and theosophists
Sri Lanka has been a leading Buddhist country. It is not quite
correct to speak of the decline of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The invaders
tried to vanquish it by subjugating this peace-loving land which did not
believe in the rule of the arms. All our attempts were made over very
many years to prevent the noble tenets from spreading in the land.
Colonel H.S. Olcott
The famous debate proceedings at Panadura led by Ven. Mohottiwatte
Gunananda were published in the Ceylon Times, later named the Times of
Ceylon. Later a books was brought out on the debate which fell in the
hands of Colonel H.S. Olcott, the President Founder of the Theosophical
Society, in America. He and Madam H.P. Blavatsky, (H.P.B.) The
co-founder both of whom had declared themselves Buddhists although they
had not taken Panchasila as there was none in America to administer it.
Colonel Olcott sent a copy ‘Isis Unveiled’ written by H.P.B. to Ven.
Gunananda who opened correspondence with Col. Olcott and started quoting
from the book in his powerful lectures. Distressed at the plight of the
Buddhists, Col. Olcott and H.P.B. arrived in Galle on May 17 1880 and
were received by a large crowd led by the leading monks. They took
Panchasila at Vijayananda Vihara at Galle.
After discussions with the Venerable monks and assessing the
situation Col. Olcott devised a three-pronged strategy to arrest the
prevailing decadence, namely, Buddhist education, well-planned
propaganda and sound organization.
He was distressed at the practices enforced on faithful Buddhists,
such as baptizing the child in Church (Anagarika Dharmapala was given
the name Don David), Solemnizing the Buddhist Marriages by a Church
Ceremony, Christian oath to be taken in the court, not to speak of
cutting of Bo Trees, no holidays on Buddhist festivals like the Vesak
Full Moon Day and so on and on.
There were only two Buddhist schools as against 805 run by Christian
missionaries. So no wonder the educated citizens were turning against
the noble Dhamma.
Col. Olcott started strenuous lecture tours, accompanied by young
Dharmapala as translator, reviving in the minds of the people the glory
and the magnificence of their Dhamma and started a series of Buddhist
schools for which he had to bring theosophists from the West. At the
time of his death in 1907 the number of the schools rose to nearly 300.
A noteworthy point is that none of his schools were named Olcott School.
This is one of the examples of his self effacing character which
needs to be emulated by others, giving credits to the youngsters and
encouraging them. Details of many contributions by Olcott, duly
authenticated are given in the book ‘Buddhist and Theosophical
Movements’ published by the Mahabodhi Society of India Saranath.
Col Olcott did memorable service by forging unity not only within
Theravadians but also with Mahayana Tradition as is evidenced by leaders
of all the schools signing ‘Fourteen Fundamental Buddhist Beliefs.’ Col.
Olcott is the only non ordained monk given the authority by high priests
led by Ven. Sumangala Nayaka Thera to “Accept and Register as Buddhist
Persons of any nation who may make to him application, to administer to
them the ‘Three Refugees and Five Precepts.’ Col. Olcott had an
invitation sent to Buddhists to send a representative to the World.
Parliament of Religions, Chicago in 1893 for which purpose the
Theosophists paid fare, provided hospitality and all facilities to the
29-year Anagarika Dharmapala who led the so-called revival of Buddhism
in India and elsewhere.
Out of very many remarkable contributions, two need special mention.
One is the ‘Buddhist Chatechism’ giving in brief the essential tenets
suitable for youngsters and the Buddhist flag symbol of unity now
adopted world over.
Dharmapala continued to appreciate the worth and value of Col.
Olcott’s advice, as is evident from a letter he wrote on May 20, 1922 to
the principal of the Mahabodhi College, Colombo. Lamenting that the
advice of Colonel Olcott given forty years earlier to bring out a series
of Buddhist readers had not been acted upon and urging that the books be
brought at the earliest.
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. Not only
this, on February 17, 1967 the 60th Anniversary of Colonel Olcott’s
passing away, a life size statue of him was erected at Norris Road,
Colombo, which was renamed Olcott Mawatha. Another statue of Colonel
Olcott was erected by the Cultural Department at Galle, where he and
Madam Blavatsky accepted the five precepts in 1880.
A stamp was issued on December 9, 1967 in honour of Colonel Olcott,
to mark the 60th Anniversary of his passing away by Dudley Senanayake,
the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, paying tribute to Colonel Olcott
on that occasion said, “At a time when Buddhism was on the wane in
Ceylon, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott came to Ceylon in May 1880 and
awakened its people to fight to regain their Buddhist heritage....
Colonel 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. Colonel Olcott’s visit to this country is a landmark
in the history of Buddhism in Ceylon.”
Then Prime Minister R Premadasa, wrote in June 1, 1978. “The Buddhist
Theosophical Society was the focal point of this movement against
injustice and discrimination. With the assistance of Madam Blavatsky,
and especially Colonel. H.S. Olcott, the Buddhists set up a newspaper,
‘Sarasavi Sandares,’ a Buddhist Publicity Fund and a Buddhist
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 as a public holiday.
Prevention of cutting down of Bo Trees and celebrating Buddhist
In the fields of Education especially, they were very successful. The
Theosophists were able to obtain the service of dedicated teachers like
Leadbeater, Bowes Daley, Mary Musaeus Higgins and F.L. Woodward who
built up prominent Buddhist educational institutions such as Ananda,
Nalanda, Mahinda, Dharmaraja and Dharmashoka.
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 Nayaka Thera, Anagarika Dharmapala and Sir Baron
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 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 forever in our memories.”
(This article was published in the Daily News a few years ago. The
writer passed away recently in India)
[ Profile of a hero]
* Colonel Henry Steel Olcott
* Born on August 2, 1832 in New Jersy
* Served as an American military officer, journalist, lawyer
* In 1875 formed the Theosophical Society
* Arrived in Sri Lanka on May 16 1880
* Pioneered setting up of Ananda College, Dharmaraja College,
Maliyadeva College, and Mahinda College
* Parliament recognized him as a national hero
* Died on February 17, 1907