Col. Henry Steel Olcott:
Ushering in the Buddhist Revival in Ceylon
Reminiscent on what inspired Colonel Henry Steel Olcott an American
to come to Ceylon (Sri Lanka then a British colony) accompanied by
Madame Helena Pavlov Blavatsky a Russian, the starting point is the
famous Panadura Debate (Vade) held in Panadura in August 1875. On the
one side stood the Buddhist prelate, the indefatigable Ven. Migettuwatte
Gunananda Thera, and on the other Rev. David de Silva.
The debate had been effectively argued for the Buddhists by the
former. Proceedings were translated into English by the then famous
patriot, proctor Edward Perera. It was published in the 'Times of Ceylon
by John Caper, an American visitor. J.M. Peebles another pioneer
searching for Asian spiritualism who happened to be in Ceylon soon
afterwards obtained copies of the article and distributed them in New
Colonel Henry Steel
Olcott and Madame Helena Pavlov Blavatsky
Col. Olcott after reading the article, his inner temptation to
explore Asian spiritualism prompted him to go to Ceylon. It was somewhat
like how Lorenzo de Almeida of Portugal was drifted to the island by the
vagaries of the south west monsoon. The similarity was that both arrived
at the Port of Galle, Almeida in 1505 and Col. Olcott on May 17, 1880.
The irony was that the former led to the establishment of a Portuguese
colony in the island followed by a large scale conversion of Buddhists
to Catholicism whereas Col. Olcott's visit helped to bolster up a great
revival of Buddhist education, if I may call it Buddhist Renaissance in
Ceylon in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th
The stage was set for the messiah to operate by the then well-known
Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, the Chief Incumbent of Sri Pada,
founder of Vidyodaya Pirivena and a world renowned scholar with Ven.
Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera of the Panadura Vade fame and Ven.
Dhammalankara Thera, the Chief Priest of Amarapura Nikaya, Ven.
Waskaduwe Subhuti Thera and Ven. Pothuvila Indrajothi Thera with a
gathering of Buddhist laymen led by David Hewavitarane later known as
Anagarika Dharmapala waiting anxiously to receive him and his
Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky the "Theosophic twins" seemed
mesmerised by the ovation they received as they arrived in Galle on May
This was how Col. Olcott spoke of the ovation he and Madame Blavatsky
received on their arrival in Galle (Old Diary leaves second series
1878-1883). "After breakfast, in a lull of the storm we embarked in a
large boat decorated with banana leaves and liens of bright coloured
flowers, on which were the leading Buddhists of the place. We passed
through a lane of fishing boats tricked out with gaudy cloths and
streamers, their prows pointing inward. On the jetty and along the beach
a huge crowd awaited us and rent the air with the united shout of
'Sadhoo, Sadhoo'. A white cloth was spread for us from the jetty to the
road where the carriages were ready and a thousand flags frantically
waved in welcome.... and at Mrs. Wijeratne's residence three chief
Bhikkhus received and blessed us at the threshold reciting appropriate
Later on at Chapter XXI of his diary Col. Olcott said further
"....And I saw the people as they are at their best, full of smiles, and
love, and hospitable impulse, and have been welcomed with flying flags
and wild Eastern music and processions and shouts of joy. Ah! Lovely
Lanka, gem of the Summer Sea, how doth thy sweet image rise before me as
I write the story of my experience among thy dusky children of my
success in warming their hearts to reverse their incomparable religion
and its holiest founder. Happy the Karma which brought me to thy
shores". (highlighted by me)
Col. Olcott's entries in his diary reveal that he had already
proclaimed himself a true Buddhist. In a select anthology titled 'Images
of Sri Lanka Through American Eyes' edited by H.A.L. Goonetileke famous
librarian who won the Cowley Prize awarded by the University of London
described Col. Olcott's arrival in Ceylon in the following terms." he
descended on the island with the messianic zeal of an Old Testament
prophet and looking like one too".
The Buddhist Convention
His first important event after coming to the island was the
memorable Buddhist Convention in Galle on July 4, 1880. At the
Convention presided over by the great Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera
flanked by Col. Olcott on one side and Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera
on the other Col. Olcott addressing the gathering of people outlined his
proposed campaign for the Buddhist revival and detailed the important
steps to be taken for its success to restore the rights of the
Buddhists. Then there were only four Buddhist schools compared with 802
David Hewavitarana (Anagarika Dharmapala) writing to the Buddhist on
June 13, 1990 referring to the convention had this to say, "The address
of Olcott made a deep impression on the whole assembly. From this
meeting dates the present revival of Buddhism. Compare the present State
of things with that date and it seems almost like a dream. We now have
Buddhist schools opening everywhere, thousands of Buddhist children were
taught their religion, two successful journals established, a movement
commenced for the resumption of old family names, 80,000 copies of
Buddhist books printed and sold, Vesak day joyfully observed and feeling
of brotherhood linking all together. What a glorious work for one
American Buddhist to have done".
Col. Olcott would have been a happy man to hear that what he was
doing for the Buddhists had been appreciated by the leading Buddhist
laymen at the time. Col. Olcott came to the island at a time when the
Christian Missionaries had already made a tremendous progress in
converting local Buddhists who then comprised nearly 90 percent of the
Their task had been made easier for the reason that the rulers from
1505, namely, the Portuguese and the Dutch (of the Maritime Provinces)
followed by the British who ruled the entire island after 1815 supported
their cause wholeheartedly.
History tells us that the Buddhists who refused to be converts were
persecuted. Even though the British did not persecute the Buddhists the
local people who revolted against the British rule were mercilessly
killed e.g. Uva-Wellassa Revolt in 1818 and that of Matale in 1848.
By 1875, the Government cruelty had been subdued. Nevertheless the
Buddhist education was at a low ebb. Buddhists who were the recipients
of royal patronage prior to 1505 had lost their identity. There was
wholesale discrimination against the Buddhists.
Henry Steel Olcott was born in Orange, New Jersey on August 2, 1832.
He received his early education in New York. He pursued a course in
agriculture and published a treatise on the culture of sorghum Sorgho
and Imphee. He enlisted in the Civil War and was appointed a special
commissioner to uncover corruption at military depots and navy yards. To
facilitate this work he was made a Colonel. He studied law and after
admission to the Bar in New York practised as a lawyer for a few years.
A man of steel
True to his name Col. Henry Steel Olcott was a man made of steel. In
describing how he slept while on a very difficult journey down the
Kaluganga from Ratnapura he says, "We had no cots or bunks to comfort
us, but sat all day and slept all night on mats laid on the bamboo deck
after a bone-crushing fashion which I prefer to leave to the reader's
imagination rather than dwell too long upon details".
It was at that time when Col. Olcott was drawn towards the
spiritualism in the great Eastern religions that Madame Helena Petrovna
Blavatsky a Theosophist herself met Col. Olcott. She was the widow of
General Blavatsky, Governor of Erivan in Armenia and daughter of Col.
Hahn of Russian Horse Artillery. Together they found the Theosophical
Society of New York in September 1875. this was to be the nucleus which
inspired a number of Western educationalists who carried out the good
work pioneered by Col. Olcott to come to Ceylon.
Imbibed with the genuine desire of exploring the spiritualism in the
Eastern religions the "Theosophic Twins" Col. Olcott and Madame
Blavatsky embarked on a voyage of discovery to India in September 1879.
It was while they were engaged in putting up a Theosophical Society
branch at Adyar in Madras as already mentioned they were provoked to
come to Ceylon where they were most needed. No doubt they succeeded in
No sooner they arrived in Galle they installed a small office at
Wijayananda Vihare in Galle. In the same year the Colombo Theosophical
Society was established. This was the answer to the Christian missionary
societies set up all over the island. During their first "trail
breaking" two month's tour seven branches of the society were formed.
Unexpectedly Madame Blavasky the companion who was around with him in
all his endeavours both in India and Ceylon died in May 1891 at Adyar in
Madras. In the course of making an address when Theosophical Society put
up a Buddhist Girls' School at Wellawatta, Col. Olcott said, "Madame
Blavatsky and I came to Ceylon in 1880 just ten years ago with a few
gentlemen from India of the Theosophical Society. You will yourself see
the vast change - the Great Revival within the last ten years". Then he
expressed his fervent wish, "And now a Buddhist school for women has
been established. And I hope 500 other schools will be formed so that
Buddhist sisters may have as good as education as their Buddhist
On his second visit to the island in April 1881, the Society launched
an Education Fund with Buddhist philanthropists such as Muhandiram
Amarasuriya contributed lavishly. He made it a point to meet some
leaders of the Tamil community as well. Arunachalam an intellectual and
P. Ramanathan he met in Kalutara on his way to Colombo during his first
visit to the island.
Even at this early stage they did not want to hide why they had come.
Col. Olcott in Chapter XI of his diary stated, "as a dessert or rather
pouse-cafe, my colleague abused the Missionaries in her best style"
He was referring to the after dinner speech made by Madame Blavatsky.
Col. Olcott was well aware of the gravity of his task. He was a
shrewd tactician as well. He renewed his acquaintance with Miller,
American Consul in Colombo who had been a clerk under him when he was a
commissioner in the war department during the Civil War. Col. Olcott's
diary entries reveal that his friend in the Theosophic Society in New
York Dr. Peebles a globe trotter was with him for a few days.
Undoubtedly, Col. Olcott was a man possessed of indomitable courage
and strong determination to face not only the formidable Christian
Missionaries, but an unknown geography of a country very much alien to
him and also a huge local population that thronged around him. Their
kindness and admiration he valued very much as portrayed in his diary
His untiring efforts to bolster up the revival of Buddhist education
bore fruits in a short span of time. The founding of an institution
which later became Mahinda College was achieved with the opening of an
English school then called the Galle Buddhist Theosophical Society
School on September 15, 1880.
Col. Olcott had invited Dr. Bowles Daly an Englishman who had already
enrolled as a member of the Theosophical Society in New York to come to
Ceylon. Dr. Daly was a clergymen from London, but before assuming his
duties on August 1, 1891 as the principal of the institution now known
as Mahinda College he had become a Buddhist after taking Panchaseela
from Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera. Owing to certain difficulties
in running the institution Dr. Daly went back to England. Subsequently
on an urgent appeal made by the Buddhist Theosophical Society, Galle,
Col. Olcott who was in Adyar at the time got down Frank Le Woodward to
succeed Dr. Daly as principal of Mahinda College.
Woodward came from a strong Anglican family. He was a Cambridge
scholar and was proficient in six languages including French, German,
Latin and after coming to Ceylon he studied his Pali as well. He was an
admirer of Stoic Philosophy which tempted him to get involved in
Theosophy. So, the background was well founded for him to become a
Buddhist and take over the Buddhist institution in August 1893, which
task he had performed exceptionally well. Woodward was so grateful to
his guru he put up a huge memorial hall which was named after Col.
Olcott as the Olcott memorial Assembly Hall. As the the college
flourished Woodward succeeded in getting the services of another Western
educationalist F. Gorden Pearce as the Vice Principal.Col. Olcott's
entrepreneurship in establishing Buddhist schools as the answer to
schools put up by the Christian Missions was not confined to Galle. With
funds coming from the Buddhist Education Fund and Buddhist
philanthropists' schools sprung up all over the island. Ananda College
which in no time became one of the leading Buddhist institutions was
established in 1886. the inspiration created by Col. Olcott made eminent
foreign educationalists such as Lead Beater to come as the school
principal. Ananda College showed its gratitude by putting up a memorial
hall named after him as Olcott Memorial Hall. In Kandy, the leading
Buddhist institution Dharmaraja College too was founded in 1887 by Col.
Olcott. The school hall Olcott Memorial Hall was put up to honour him.
Inspired by the revival of Buddhist Education Mrs. Marie Musaeus
Higgings of Washington D.C. an educationalist came to Ceylon in 1892 to
become the principal of the newly founded Sangamittha Girls' School in
Colombo. In 1893, she founded her own Musaeus College which soon became
the leading Buddhist school for girls in the island. Col. Olcott's last
visit to the island was in November 1903. AT the time of his death there
were three colleges and 205 schools run by the Buddhist Theosophical
The indigenous cutting edge
Goonetileke in his book 'Images of Sri Lanka Through American Eyes'
pays a tribute to Col. Olcott for making the indomitable charismatic
personality Anagarika Dharmapala in the following terms "He fired
Anagarika Dharmapala to provide the indigenous cutting edge to the
religious and educational weapon he had forged and this great Sinhalese
nationalist was the true native product of the Olcott phase of Buddhist
evangelism". One must not forget the fact that it was Anagarika
Dharmapala who rescued Buddhagaya from Mahanta after a legal battle.
Col. Olcott should be credited with laying the seeds of a national
movement which was powerful enough to bloodlessly negotiate independence
from the British colonial domination.
Sri Lankans irrespective of whether they are Buddhists, Christians,
Hindus or Muslims can never forget the services rendered by this great
Another important event attributed to Col. Olcott is the compilation
of the Buddhist Catechism (a set of question and answers). The English
original and its Sinhala version appeared on July 24, 1881. It was
translated into 23 languages.To get a first hand knowledge of the plight
of local population, the majority of whom were Buddhists he undertook a
village to village gruelling tour of the maritime provinces in a
specially constructed bullock cart.
The speeches he made during his tours took the form of discourses on
the basic principles of Buddhism. While making a tour of Kandyan
villages he was perturbed by the caste system prevailing there. Citing
quotations from Wasala Sutta Col. Olcott said it was not the birth that
makes a man a Brahman or a Pariah or an outcast, but his deeds or
While addressing a gathering of people in a village in Madmpe he did
not fail to ridicule a village headman who was an arrack renter and a
fish mudalali. He said if they imagined that they could get to Nirvana
with a jug of arrack in one hand and a string of fish in the other they
were mightily mistaken, they had better go elsewhere.... For fishing and
arrack drinking put a man outside the pale of Buddhism". In fact, Col.
Olcott's mode of speech may have influenced Anagarika Dharmapala when
attacking the un-Buddhist actions of people in very strong words.
Tribute to Col. Olcott
Even after shedding the colonial title Ceylon in 1948 people of
independent Sri Lanka continued to adore and venerate Col. Olcott the
great American who played a leading role in uplifting the morale of the
Buddhists from the utter chaos they were in.
On February, 1967 commemorating the 60th anniversary of his death his
statue was erected opposite the Fort Railway Station on the Olcott
Mawatha named after him (formally Norris Road). Olcott Commemoration
Volume was published in the same year and also issued a special postage
Recently the people of Galle too erected his statue in the Galle town
and renamed the road running opposite Mahinda College as Olcott Mawatha.
Almost every school then run by the Buddhist Theosophical Society still
carries his portrait to honour him. All the colleges founded by him
still annually have an alms-giving in February to commemorate his death.
The writer is a former Director, Sri Lanka Judges' Institute.