21 May, 2024


Precept & Practice: The Strange Case Of Colonel Olcott

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

About 10 years ago, there was a debate between two writers in a prominent national newspaper. The debate went on for several weeks with its two contenders, Professor Nalin de Silva and Tissa Devendra. In the end though, it went nowhere.

It started with Professor Nalin. He was writing about “Olcott Buddhism”. He was at loggerheads with Devendra over one point: whether the institutions and ideology represented by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott stunted the Buddhism which would have been an instrument of national regeneration. That it did not was what he opined. That Olcott Buddhism was needed to revive Buddhism was what Devendra opined.

The historian’s role is to record history. Can anyone say that he’s free from prejudice? Can anyone point at history books and claim “objectivity” for them? Of course not. That’s why comment is needed, not because history is open but because those who record it are selective. This is as true a statement as it’s going to get when it comes to our history, not just because those who’ve recorded have not let go of their political preferences but because they have managed to insert those preferences in subtle, even mischievous ways.

The point is that Colonel Henry Steel Olcott deserves reassessment. The point is that, in the attempt to lionise him and his movement, some facts were deliberately skewed. The point is that we were taught that he was a national hero.

But was there another side to him? Was there perhaps a flaw in his movement and revival, which we never missed but opted to forget because that would have tarnished his popular image? To ask this is to look back at his movement and its context and then judge Professor Nalin’s contention.

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott

To begin with, what Colonel Olcott ushered in was a revival. But he was not responsible for its inception, for the simple reason that he came here because of the Panadura Vaadaya. What happened at Panadura was the culmination of a series of debates between Christian and Buddhist priests.

The revival which followed this was not without its critics. Migetuwatte Gunananda Thera, who had led the priests to victory at Panadura, later disagreed with Colonel Olcott and the Theosophist movement. But by then (around the late 1880s), what was done was done and dusted: Theosophy won, and with it Colonel Olcott’s revivalist movement. This is important notwithstanding its demerits because on it rests the argument that what dominated the Buddhist discourse thereafter was Olcott’s Buddhism. Not Anagarika Dharmapala’s.

And on this rests another thesis: that Colonel Olcott triumphed at the exact point the Anagarika failed: the preaching of a religion which could embrace all and exclude none. Maybe that’s how Theosophists managed to throw out religion altogether when referring to Buddhism and instead called it a “philosophy”. Philosophies are not static. They are subject to change. Religions, on the other hand, need missions to spread their gospel (largely static), and as Professor H. L. Seneviratne observed in his Work of Kings, the mission here needed a missionary. The missionary needed a leader. That leader was not Colonel Olcott. He was the Anagarika.

But where Theosophy won was also where it lost. To understand why, one needs to understand what Colonel Olcott stood for. He was not a Buddhist, a point acknowledged by almost everyone from Professor Nalin to Victor Ivan. Put simply, he saw Buddhism under Western eyes. How so?

It’s to do with what he wrote and founded, at one level. The Buddhist Catechism, which he compiled, was a virtual copy of Luther’s Small Catechism. Buddhists didn’t go to Sunday Schools before his movement began them. That they coincided with Christian Sunday Schools is all too obvious. To top all that the curriculum he implemented in the schools he founded were, barring a few subjects here and there which catered to the “vernacular” Buddhist crowd, largely imitative of the liberal arts tradition of the (mostly Christian) West.

It follows from all this that the kind of Buddhism Colonel Olcott went after was both imitative and rootless. What those who lionise him forget is that this same “universal Buddhism” they venerate was and is responsible for the culture of disengagement that has pursued Buddhists here to date. More relevantly, they forget the contribution towards the same racialist ideology they find in the Anagarika’s movement by (what else?) Olcott’s movement.

What was this contribution, incidentally?

No religious movement is possible without continuous engagement with its roots. What Colonel Olcott’s program failed to account for was that inasmuch as Buddhism needed to be all-embracive, it couldn’t be sustained for long without placing it in a specific culture. Rootless and virtually castrated, the Buddhism he conceptualised managed to split precept and practice to an extent whereby there could be no engagement with it. Gunadasa Amarasekera pointed this out when he observed that what it created was a “culturally divorced Buddhist elite no different from the westernised Christian class“.

When Amarasekera compared the “Buddhist elite” to the “westernised Christian class”, he was not dabbling in bigoted polemics. It is well known that those who financed and patronised Colonel Olcott’s movement were no different in their social position to their Christian counterparts. There are temples and schools founded by those who were arrack renters by profession, for instance. When their descendants became politically active and led our independence struggle, they began “using” Buddhism.

What aided and aggravated this was the split between temple and state accompanied by the Kandyan Convention. True, a clause in the Convention purported to safeguard Buddhism, but by and by that was violated. And thus two trends – the rift between precept and practice and the rift between Buddhism and the state – contributed to the “rhetoricisation” of religion for political expedience which has become the norm today.

Here lies the tragedy of contemporary Buddhism: the split between the tenet and its practice, echoing the split between temple and state. The one aggravated the other, and while the latter split was needed in the interests of ethnic harmony, the former sought new channels of venting out frustration.

What were the results of this? Extremist political organisations that rise and fall? Ideologues and populists who badmouth other faiths and then backtrack on Buddhism when in power? Perhaps.

The problem wasn’t Anagarika Dharmapala’s chauvinism (only), hence. It was the fact that we looked at Buddhism through and allowed its revival to be led under Western eyes. Most of those who headed Olcott’s schools (as principals or patrons), after all, were not “indigenous” Buddhists. They were “born-again” so to speak, and this largely helped to do away with any form of racialism. Tragically however, they failed to account for the cultural context in which Buddhism here was placed, and this more or less provoked the same racialism which Colonel Olcott (consciously or otherwise) tried to rid his movement of.

There’s more, but we must end here. With an ultimatum.

Popular myths can make heroes out of parvenus, turning them overnight into figures deserving of accolade and posterity. They are venerated and they breed cults. True, they may not have nourished those cults, but the fact is that for the most, they are created with or without their sanction. In that context, it makes good (business) sense to shrug away the other side to the leader of the cult. Which is why history is and always will be full of frill.

Professor Nalin made the following observation about Olcott: “It could be said that he was instrumental in separating Buddhism from Sinhala Buddhism, and as a consequence a group of people emerged who would think of themselves as Sinhalas and Buddhists separately.” In this revelation he may have split hairs and badmouthed sacred cows (and Colonel Olcott, as evidenced by the epithet “Olcott thuma” used by adherents in his schools and elsewhere, is a sacred cow to the teeth). But he spoke the truth.

Whether we like it or not therefore, the Professor’s argument holds water. Makes sense to acknowledge it. Makes sense to note it down. And makes sense to revisit history with it.

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

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Interesting article. Just a couple of points:

    1 Daham Pasal on Sunday was only because we followed the ‘western’ working week. Remember, when we did break free and the practice changed? Sadly, it did not last.

    2 Victory? at the Panadura vaadaya. I always thought it was a full and frank exchange of views. Nothing less, nothing more. Both parties were simply pitching for the the custom of lost, and misguided, souls that seek some comfort in this unfathomable world.

    3 The statues of Olcott and Dharmapala both stand as testimony to their contributions. Let it be said that not for Olcott (and Higgins) Buddhist education as we know it would have taken even longer to catch up with the rest of the country.

    • 0

      It is not what you say.

      Dumb questions would have never answered with intelligent answers because none of the Buddhist monks who involved in the debate were Samyak Sambuddhas.

      They simply answered dumb questions with fitting answers.

      Otherwise, how can the Catholic/christian priests show the forbidden tree ?

      If the forbidden tree was true, they could climbed that see far away to see Nirvana.

  • 2

    For racist Sinhalese, Olcott is simply a paraya – a foreigner. They hate him because he is not one of them.

    Sorry I pressed the wrong button. Here’s my full comment:

    My dear Uditha, I like your writing. But on this article you have left out the important questions. Here they are:

    Is Buddhism an international philosophy, or is it a narrow philosophy limited to a group called the Sinhala Buddhists? Was there any reference to the Sinhalese in his preachings?

    The moment Buddhism is claimed to be owned by a community, be it Sinhalese, Chinese or Vietnamese – it becomes a tool of ‘self’, because ownership is an integral part of selfishness. Lord Buddha totally rejected ‘self’.

    So, even the term Sinhala Buddhist is an oxymoron. It is contradictory, and an insult to the philosophy that Buddha preached.

    • 1

      What you have asked from Uditha is a DUMB question.

      Buddhism can not be owned by any one. That Sinhala name is given by Sinhala haters just like you.

      If you want you can have Tamil-buddhism too.

      Sinhala culture and civilization grew up with buddhism. Two are intertwined.

      • 0

        Thank you softy for the dumb answer.

  • 2

    To understand why, one needs to understand what Colonel Olcott stood for. He was not a Buddhist, a point acknowledged by almost everyone from Professor Nalin to Victor Ivan. Put simply, he saw Buddhism under Western eyes

    Col. Olcott actions are perceived by you as “Non-Buddhist”. There are no Buddhist people and others. There are people who follow the Dhamma and those who do not.

    A person does not become a follower of Dhammic principles in keeping to your visually describable standards.

    Its all in his intention. Col. Olcott intends to help donating his wealth to spread Buddha’s word. This is the highest form of Dhana one can give.

    A person himself as a line-of-sight into the nature of their citta and cetana, and thus, what actions will be skilful in the Dhamma – Paul Davy.

  • 4

    Uditha Devapriya

    “The problem wasn’t Anagarika Dharmapala’s chauvinism (only),”

    He the homeless one played a major part in destroying Buddhism and managed to convert most Sinhalese and Buddhists into Sinhala/Buddhism. This island has not yet recovered from the past. Lets not lionise the bigot rather we have other important issues to deal with such as the rights of sex workers.

    Centre for Sex Worker’s Rights (CSWR)needs lot of help, streamlining adhoc outdated laws, protection from pimps, sexually transmitted diseases, violence, ……….. police and above all from the hypocritical clients and moralists.

    Go on, have a conversation with them.

    • 2

      Good article, Uditha and on the dot, NV
      I am with you on the sex workers.
      Now let us have a free and open debate on other sacred cows, viz, ordination of minor children, Buddha’s purported visits to Sri Lanka, why Mahanayake Theras have to belong to any particular caste, etc etc.

      • 1

        Old Codger – good point on those “sacred cows”!

        To me, ALL ‘Religions’ are the bane of mankind. The teachers of these ‘doctrines’ had noble and moral intentions that were used by opportunists to cultivate followings based on fear of the unknown and to makes themselves shepherds of the flock of the gullible.

        Just look at the state of Buddhism in this country for starters! It has little to do with the Gautama’s Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold path and more to do with the desecration of the Gautama Buddha’s beautiful philosophy. And we have our ;Buddhists’ trooping to their temples with ‘poojas’ to worship priests and ask for favours (from whom, is the question?!!).

        Religions, by and large, are the reasons for the unspeakable cruelty, wars and others desecrations perpetrated by bigots in the various names of their ‘Gods” throughout the ages.

        All that Buddhists need to do is to abide by those Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path to get to that place described by the Buddha as ‘nirvana’.

        Forget the phony priests and temples – they are merely distractions and are becoming increasingly ‘political’.

        • 1

          I agree totally with you. Organized religion is at the root of much of the world’s troubles.

  • 1

    Uditha, it looks you are well and truly “entangled in the tangle” with your take on ‘objectivity’ and your assessments of Olcott and Anagarika.

    Check the Vissudhi Magga for the complete quote, context and and meaning of: “When a wise man, established well in virtue, Develops consciousness and understanding, Then as a bhikkhu ardent and sagacious He succeeds in disentangling this tangle.”

    • 0

      This comment has given the best advice to Udita.

      LEarn that verse and go alone, you will learn the truth.

  • 2


    Thanks for this attempt to be dispassionate about 2 pivotal figures in SL history.

    Have you read Dr.Gananath Obeysekera’s books on Sri Lankan religions? He makes the case that the newer version of Buddhism popularized in the early 20th century had many characteristics of the American type evangelical Christianity. One of the features of this type of evangelicals is their FIRM belief that their version of the “truth” IS the penultimate. (not very different from ISIS’ beliefs).

    I once visited the serene (but very stinky) headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar in Chennai. There I purchased a memoir by the colonel. Even a quick read through shows that he had a great ego, and he was in fact coming at Buddhism from an American perspective. Similar to modern day American Buddhists, he too appropriated aspects of Buddhism to suit his worldview that justified his actions, and provided for him sustenance (perhaps both spiritual and material – thanks to Mme. Blavatsky).

    In the US I visited one of the palaces dedicated to the Dalai Lama in Wisconsin, with its huge and opulent statues and all modern distractions. This palace (or temple – depending on your perspective) was built by funds from upper class American Buddhists. There was hardly anyone in the temple; it seemed to me just a big ego-trip for rich people.

    Then just round the block I walked in to a temple complex that reminded me of a Sri Lankan temple. The gopuram (entrance gateway) and the parapet walls were almost identical to those of my temple, and once inside the images and statues of the Buddha too were almost identical.

    This was not a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple, but a Cambodian one. Built brick by brick by cambodian refugees and their descendants in the US. I felt so much more at home in this latter temple, than the ostentatious former. The prayers were the same, and the customs of feeding the needy at the temple, remembrance of the dearly departed etc. were very similar to Sri Lankan Buddhist practice.

    These 2 experiences highlight 2 real-life manifestations of Buddhism today. The flashy egocentric “I’m cool, I’m Buddhist”, vs. “Buddhism is the bedrock which helps me be humble and connect with my ancestors” version.

    I am grateful, that despite the flourishing of the former even in Sri Lanka, the majority of SL Buddhists still have a much more folksy approach to their religion – one that provides them psychological relief at times of stress (illness, death etc.)and a way to remember the dead. Despite the antics of BBS and other racist Buddhist groups, the majority of Buddhists are non-violent, and not extremist in their opinions.

    I believe Sri Lankan Buddhism has the potential to become a truly universal (ecumenical) practice if we can have politicians who can appeal to the non-extremists, instead of using racism and ethnocentrism to get into power.

    • 1

      Evangelical christianity is a cult and is a business.

      Buddhism never talks anything like that.

      Christianity has leaders. The leader in buddhism is “DHAMMA”. that is what buddha Taught. buddha never appoint to lead BUDDHA SASANA once Budda attained parinirvana.

      Sinhala Buddhist is a christian Tamil. You are writing Crap.

      • 3

        Jim softy

        What do you know about Buddhism?

        Tell us everything you know about Buddhism, it won’t take more than a few sentences.

        First convert yourself to Buddhism, then you may have a slim chance of discussing about it.

      • 1

        ‘ Christianity has leaders. The leader in buddhism is “DHAMMA”. that is what buddha Taught. buddha never appoint to lead BUDDHA SASANA once Budda attained parinirvana.”
        BUDDHISM has no leaders.
        Sinhala Buddhism has leaders at every street corner. Gandasara, Podi Hamuduruwo, Elle Gunawansa, and of course Somarama and Buddharakkita.

  • 1

    This article has been written by another exactly like the that he hads been criticized.

    Unlike where ever buddhism moves it intermingles with the own culture of that country. So, chinese, Japanese, Tibetan,Sri lankan, Indian buddhism as well as western buddhism will be different.

    Even Buddha Told it as my “doctrine”. it is like saying my PHILOSOPHY. Mysticism, Esoteric Religions, buddhism are all words given by western depending where they came across buddhism first. Those went to Tibet saw it as esoteric or mysticism.

    Colonel OlCott and Helena Blavatsky, A Russian woman with intuitive or Psychic powers was interested in eastern religions. Panadura vadaya may have opened their eyes about sri lanka. That may be why they travelled to Sri lanka.

    Anyway, your article sees things in your eyes and you also do not know much about what you are talking.

  • 0

    Colonel Henry Steel Olcott was a Army Commissioned Officer who sat in the Abraham Lincoln assassination Commission. He was sent to Sri Lanka by the Americans not for the love of Buddhism but to create a Born Again Buddhist movement just like how the Americans have created the Born Again Christians and the Born Again Islamist. The Americans had the foresight to understand that Religion was a powerful tool to divide people, to create wars in every country. They have successfully achieved their agendas with the gullible who are the majority, be they from the Developed world or the under developed world. What better recipe to sow conflict for them to be the self appointed Policeman to dictate to the entire world.

  • 2

    There are lot of Dumb and ignorant arguments in Uditha’s article.

    It is simply lack of knowledge.

    It is like a blind explaining how the elephant look like is. The article is not worth commenting.

    • 0

      Jim Softy

      You are nothing but a Blind Olcott Buddhist. Ignorance is Bliss for you, which you wallow in, like pig in a sty.

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