26 September, 2022


Colonel Olcott: Under Eastern Eyes

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

About 10 years ago, two writers debated over a series of articles. They were debating over what the first writer had claimed about Buddhism. He had claimed that what is known today as Buddhism here was begun in the late 19th century. In other words, it was not what Mahinda Thero preached to King Devanampiyatissa. He also claimed that the Buddhism brought to Sri Lanka in the 19th century was universalist. Which meant that it was rootless. Without an identity. Culturally displaced.

The writer, Professor Nalin de Silva, had drawn a distinction between what he termed as “Sinhala Buddhists” and “Olcott Buddhists”. He had then made the following observation: “The Olcott Buddhists have separated religion from culture.”

The second writer, Tissa Devendra, countered. He argued that Olcott Buddhism came at a time when Buddhism as a religion was in danger in the country. Believing that the professor had also criticised “Olcott schools”, he also made a claim:

“These BTS schools were established to equip Sinhala Buddhist students with modern education in English – which was otherwise available only in Christian missionary schools. And this education was imparted in a genuine Buddhist atmosphere.”

Gunadasa Amarasekara joined the debate. He made a claim too, one which was more reason-driven than the other two:

“‘Olcott Buddhism’ is a very exhaustive concept which explains the behaviour of our Buddhist elite over the past years as well as the nature of the institutions created by them. Olcott Buddhism – the Buddhism that grew under the aegis of Olcott and other Theosophists – was a Buddhism that had no anchorage in the culture of the Sinhala people. It was a rootless universalist Buddhism. It is quite natural that this Buddhism should have appealed to the urban Buddhist elite who were by then a rootless anglophile class desperately seeking to become equals of the westernised anglophile class.”

The debate didn’t end there, of course. It went on. And ended nowhere.

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott is a controversial figure today. Like all controversial figures, he has his champions and his critics. There are those who think he did a service to Buddhism. There are those who think that by doing this service, he contorted what Buddhism stood for. I’m no historian, and given that not even historians have been able to resolve this issue, I won’t take sides here. This isn’t the time to go into every nook and corner and judge the man. This is a tribute. To him. Colonel Olcott died 108 years ago.

Students at Ananda College*Students at Ananda College (courtesy: “Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon”)

It is true that Olcott wasn’t a Buddhist. It is also true that he was the founder of a movement that brought together practically every religion in the East. The Theosophical Society, begun in 1875, sought nothing less than a complete brotherhood of man, devoid of any race, religion, or culture. That the Theosophists and the Colonel should have resorted to the East for this meant just one thing. It meant that the Theosophists, like the New Ageists after them, were searching for a “final answer” in our part of the world.

Whether they found it is another story. What is important here is what Colonel Olcott did. Here.

Olcott came to Sri Lanka in 1880. He came here for a reason. The Panadura Debate, arguably the starting point of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, had happened. The Buddhist faction, led by Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero, had won. Newspaper reports covering the event had reached Olcott. That’s when he had decided to come here. His visit to Sri Lanka was greeted. Joyously.

He aimed at two things here. One was to promote the welfare of Buddhists. This was done through the establishment of the Young Men’s Buddhist Society (the YMBA). The other was to counter Christian missionary activities. This was done through the establishment of Buddhist schools.

There is a reason why Anagarika Dharmapala, a key figure in the Buddhist revival, distanced himself from Olcott. Briefly put, Dharmapala’s vision of the Sinhala identity remained “primarily a Buddhist one” (“Stone Statues and Hollow Statues” by Harshana Rambukwella, p 2). This was at odds with Olcott’s universalism. In other words, through his movement, Dharmapala was trying to incorporate a Buddhist identity into a Sinhala identity.

This wasn’t all. The renowned anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere once called Dharmapala’s Sinhala Buddhist revival “Protestant Buddhism”. It was Protestant for two reasons: because it rebelled against Christianity, and because it borrowed some elements from Protestantism while doing so. By trying to make Buddhism free from mysticism or ritualism, Dharmapala was trying to free religion from the shackles of superstition and caste. In other words, he taught the lay devotee to find salvation through his own efforts rather than through monks and deities.

What Olcott did was to aggravate this trend beyond what could be sustained. Unwittingly, he brought about a change in Buddhism which couldn’t be continued for long. He initiated a movement that, as the decades went on, spilled over to what Professor Obeyesekere calls “Post Protestant Buddhism”. It is this form of Buddhism, Obeyesekere argues, that we practise today. A form of Buddhism tainted by mysticism. The sort of Buddhism Dharmapala shied away from.

There’s more, by the way.

When Colonel Olcott wrote up a Buddhist Catechism (based on the Catholic Catechism), and established schools which followed Christian missionary curricula, he had to fall back on the same institutions he criticised. This meant that the Buddhism he “founded” was not the sort of Buddhism which Gunananda Thero began a journey to find. Devoid of any original roots, it languished, continued by everyone who fell under the spell of Olcott’s movement.

Not that he didn’t achieve. He established schools. He began with Ananda College in 1886. By 1907, the year he died, there were 183 Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) schools. That number multiplied as the decades went on. True to his “universalist” outlook, they sought to incorporate the best of East and West. Following a British curriculum while assimilating “localised” subjects like Pali and Sanskrit, they managed to bridge both worlds. In a way.

In the meantime, Dharmapala’s movement gained weight. It found its peak in 1956. From then on, it tried to do what the Olcott project had failed. It tried to search for roots. For Buddhists. That’s a project that continues even today. In a world far removed from that of Olcott’s Theosophy.

For all his emotion-ridden rhetoric, I admit that Nalin de Silva’s argument stands valid. If Dharmapala began a Protestant form of Buddhism, devoid of myth and ritual but rooted in one community, then what was begun by Olcott stunted it. What it did was to limit the Buddhist’s involvement with his/her religion to sil and bana. What it did was to secularise something that could not be secularised without losing half its essence to dust. What it did was to rationalise Buddhism without really removing the myths and rituals associated with it.

108 years later, where do we stand? It is true that rationalism and Buddhism have come together. Firmly. But it is also true that in this era of what Obeyesekere terms “Post Protestant Buddhism”, we have given way to superstition. The reason isn’t hard to miss. We revived Buddhism under Western eyes. That’s sad.

Olcott’s real legacy, I believe, can be judged only on the merits of the movement he founded. The problem is that whether it stayed true to what he wanted is debatable. What is important, however it was needed. Whether that need manifested itself the way we wanted is peripheral. For now, and on this day, may we be grateful for Colonel Olcott’s vision. May we be grateful even if Professor Nalin de Silva’s and Gunadasa Amarasekara’s claims are valid. Which they are.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 1

    Isn’t Olcott’s real legacy the “educated” Buddhist middle class those schools produced, so identifiable from the products of the Catholic and “Royal” schools, but as cultish as the latter and far from a universalist outlook?

  • 2

    I follow Ven Bhikkhu Samāhita. His teachings are devoid of myths and rituals too. A lot like Mr Olcott.


  • 3

    This subject cannot be discussed without discussing Madam Blavatsky’s role in both Dharmapala/Olcott revivalism as well as her impact on the creation of the Nazi ideology created by Goebbels and Hitler

  • 3

    What is depressing is that the pseudo intellectuals like Dharmapala is prejudiced with the mistaken image of all white colonialists as oppressors. Bearing in mind what happened to Goa that became Christian dominant, Sri Lanka could have gone the same way had it not been for the likes of Henry Olcott. This moronic mindset also emerged a few years ago at Peradeniya University when they wanted to name their refectory after Sir Ivor Jennings. The students protested ignorant of the fact that their very existence owed much to that great visionary educator.

    • 0

      I can imagine Olcott coming in with his Universalism (after discussing Buddhism in the parlors of England and Europe), taking Lanka’s time-honored Buddhism infused with the culture heritage, and together with his “paetha-paetha-rat-tat-tat” accent patronizing the whole heritage and inculcating his form of Western Buddhism into the ancient land, thus creating an alien Buddhist heritage(Nazism included). But it was much needed all the same, although it contorted the faith a bit.

      However, Buddhists would have pushed back quite a bit, even without Olcott and Dharamapala – they being merely conveniently there at the time….pity they were there at the time(Panadura Debate and Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero would have been enough of the spur)……unlike Goa where the one billion Hindus couldn’t have cared less…..it’s all in the demographic proportions (maybe ½ billion at the time).

      • 1

        The main attraction of Buddhism to those outside of Asia is it’s completely devoid of any mysticism or paranormal beliefs prevalent in almost all other religions. It is so ground in with logic substantiating every doctrine that in some quarters, Buddhism is treated as a much loved philosophy. The man propagating this view to the unconvinced was Henry Olcott.

        • 0

          With his British influence and money, Olcott tried to create a New-World-Order experimenting with Lanka, and Lankan Buddhism.

          However much Olcott might have tried to take it to European philosophical levels, Buddhism has the element of the paranormal, which is called Samsara. However, even Plato and Socrates had their own rationalizing into the afterlife. And mysticism comes in together with the paranormal….a natural function of the human mind, unless we are inferior androids and become like Nazis.

          Anyway Socrates and Plato’s philosophical understandings came after Buddha had already preached his word (Buddha’s life a hundred years before). And Buddha’s word came from Hinduism, which Buddha purified and enhanced. Therefore, the European philosophers would have learned from Buddhism and Hinduism.

          Olcott, just getting to know all of these things, merely used his influence and authority to dabble in his newly-founded interest, and eventually almost destroyed a fragile and ancient civilization.And the white fellows are still at it!

  • 3

    “The students protested ignorant of the fact that their very existence owed much to that great visionary educator. “

    They were not ignorant and I suppose you have not seen ignorance in India or Nepal or Pakistan. The 98% literacy then was enough to make them aware. Then at university level to be ignorant is fraud.
    I do remember quite clearly when schools were to be taken over the first to critic were the converts and refugee converts. They were non fee paying and most of those families received charity from the church. It’s the non-converts that the school administration looked for support and financial aid- which we did until the exchange control regulations took over.
    So what it reminds us is the last supper- whom do we trust?? They are political at school level – bara pattata hoiya. Why so?/

    Greatness happiness is the movement of the bowels.

    So came SWRD the Hog and offered free meals, free education demining all to hell except that his son seat at Oxford was reserved and it all followed- dynasty making and royal seepage.

  • 8

    “There is a reason why Anagarika Dharmapala, a key figure in the Buddhist revival, distanced himself from Olcott. Briefly put, Dharmapala’s vision of the Sinhala identity remained “primarily a Buddhist one” (“Stone Statues and Hollow Statues” by Harshana Rambukwella, p 2). This was at odds with Olcott’s universalism. In other words, through his movement, Dharmapala was trying to incorporate a Buddhist identity into a Sinhala identity.” – Moronic writer Uditha Devapriya

    Yes, Dharmapala did precisely what Guido Karl Anton (von) List did when he turned Blavatsky’s Theosophy which was represented by Olcott’s “universalism”; into a nationalistic German centric racist theory. An ugly perversion of the original idea that later inspired Adolf Hitler and was the founding doctrine for Nazi Germany. Olcott had a universal vision, Dharmapala like List, turned it into a Sinhala centric racist one. The writer applauds Dharmapala and patronizes Olcott. In other words this writer sympathizes with the racist Dharmapala because he was not “universal”; the writer prefers the racist to the tolerant. Anyone who knows anything Dharmapala stood for, knows he was a Sinhala first and Sinhala only nationalist. Which is so funny as the Sinhala race itself is an emigrant race with ethnic roots in India not Sri Lanka. Even funnier is the fact that Buddhism itself is a religion that migrated from India; even Buddhism is not Sri Lankan in origin.

    This writer is advocating individuals who propagated divisive racist theories on a country that is still fragile and unstable. Individuals like this writer are the scum that stand between those of us who are the majority, and the peaceful future we want for ourselves and for the children we may one day have. THEY ARE TRAITORS TO THIS COUNTRY. I know that’s dramatic, but if you look at the messes faulty reasoning like this writer’s has made in this country; being dramatic is completely justified! Additionally, as expressed in Buddhism, what goes around comes around; so if this writer thinks that lauding evil behavior over moderation will have no personal consequences for him; he’s kidding himself.

    I have read all the articles by this ridiculous writer. He vehemently supports Wimal Weerawanse and Udaya Gammanpilla; the racist unintelligent dregs of Sri Lanka. He’s also staunch defender of Malinda Seneviratne whom he quotes frequently. He even defends the equally ridiculous Malinda in the comments sections. At the beginning I thought this writer was just naive but now I think his articles are simply a result of an unevolved mind full of faulty reasoning and a racist, nationalist, destructive mindset.

    Please stop writing. We do not need any more traitors like you in this country.

  • 4

    “We revived Buddhism under Western eyes. That’s sad.”

    You don’t even know why Gautama was created by rulers.

    There is no mother Devi so he fell from the sky and at the same time there was Dao the civil servant in mainland China. The Song dynasty made the most statues of Gautama.
    Its the same as SWRD in deceit.
    The folk outside of Brahmin needed a soother so they got Gautama- You should know the history of the Deccan plateau and its impostors. Many invasions and art forms took place during the period of Gautama but why was it written 500 years later??

    Buddha God go lie to self stupid and fraudulent folk- if you look u[p and spit it falls on you (sinhala saying)- but your concept is shameless begging bowl- Buddhist

    Mahanama was one such Hyena.

    Like Valli you are writing erotic art for Linda the villager who thinks USA is the ultimate place.

  • 6

    “This writer is advocating individuals who propagated divisive racist theories on a country that is still fragile and unstable. “

    This is in order because the writer is a product of Hora_Oru to the island of mercenaries present day.

    Initially we had the veddha but what have we done??
    Indian criminals used to hide in these islands and here is the adjoining island (presently a listening point)

    Andaman Islands abuse: new videos reveal Indian police role

  • 4

    Uditha Devapriya,

    You look embalmed by nature- kissing `saffron colour one` butt.??

    Go back to your mummy in the mortuary.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.