"Oh! lovely Lanka, Gem of the
Summer Seas. How doth thy sweet image rise before me, as I recount my
experience among thy children, of my success in warming their hearts
to revere their incomparable religion and its holiest Founder. Happy
the karma which brought me to the shores."
- Col. H. S. Olcott.
Sri Lanka -- One of the most memorable events in the history of
the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and its recovery from the
onslaughts of Colonial rule and Christian missionary activities, since
the coming of the Portuguese in 1505, was the arrival in the island of
Col. Henry Steele Olcott (1832-1907), on May 18, 1880. From that time,
he worked hard for the cause of Buddhism and Buddhist education, when
375 years of foreign rule had sapped its vitality.
Col. Olcott was born
on August 1. 1832 and his parents were Wycliff Olcott and his wife
Alice Steele. They were Roman Catholics and leaving their homeland
(England) had migrated to the United States soon after marriage and
settled down at Orange, New Jersey. In his career in life, Col. Olcott
was first an agricultural scientist, then he got enlisted as an army
officer and thereafter, he practised as a lawyer.
In 1875, Col Olcott
founded the Theosophical Society in New York and spent most of his
time devoted to spirituality. Theosophy is a name applied to various
systems of 'divine power', but in particular to the doctrine
enunciated by the Theosophical Society, based on the Hindu principles
of 'karma' (actions volitional) and rebirth as is corollary and
Nirvana as the goal of the aspirant Buddhist.
Col. Olcott who had
already embraced Buddhism while in New York, publicly avowed his
conversion, a week after arrival in the island, by reciting 'pancaseela'
(the five moral vows of abstinence in Buddhism, from killing, lying,
sexual misconduct, falsehood and drinking intoxicants), before the Ven.
Akmeemana Dhammarama Nayake Thera of the Vijayananda Temple in Galle,
which event served as a symbolic identification of himself among the
local Buddhist population. Thereafter, he looked into the sad plight
of the Buddhist community, to make an astute diagnosis as to how the
situation could be revived.
What made Col. Olcott
to become a Buddhist convert, was the publication 'Panadura Vadaya'
(the Great Panadura Controversy), which received international
recognition as 'The Great Debate on Buddhism and Christianity Face to
Face! The Debate was held on August 26, 1873, on a block of land
called Dombagahawatta, belonging to P. Jeramis Dias, a wealthy and
prominent Buddhist in Panadura and he allowed to use his land for the
purpose, situated a little away from the Rankot Vihara. He also agreed
to defray all expenditure incurred on the Debate.
This spot is now
demarcated by a fence with the statue of the dynamic orator, Ven.
Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, who participated in the Debate on behalf
of the Buddhists. Rev. David de Silva spoke on behalf of the
Christians. The outcome of the Debate was the result of a speech made
by the Methodist priest, at the Wesley Church in Panadura, on June 12,
1873, against Buddhism. The Debate ended peacefully with loss to the
Christians, which played an important part in the history of Buddhism
under the British sovereignty.
The then Editor of
the Times of Ceylon, had the Debate translated into English by one
Edmund Perera and having published it, gave a copy to Dr. J. M.
Peebles, the American spiritualist, who happened to be in Colombo at
the time. The Editor John Cooper took a great interest in the Debate
and he, perhaps, thought that it should be given international
publicity. Dr. Peebles, on his return to the United States showed it
to Col. Olcott, whom he knew before as a Roman Catholic.
Col. Olcott, after
reading the Debate, was so impressed, that he wrote to Ven.
Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and the Most Ven. Hikkaduwe Siri
Sumangala Nayake Thera, who took a keen interest in the Debate, that
in the interest of the universal brotherhood , he had founded the
Theosophical Society, inspired by oriental philosophies, and that he
would come to Sri Lanka to help the Buddhists to regain their lost
heritage and to resuscitate Buddhism that was at an ebb.
Theosophical Society (BTS) was established in Sri Lanka, on June 17,
1880, which campaigned to educate Buddhist children in the English
medium, a privilege exclusively enjoyed by Christian children
attending missionary schools, most of which were conducted by the
Christian clergy. In 1822, the Church Missionary Society was founded
to spread the Christian doctrine among the 'heathen' population
through education media. Col. Olcott became aware that thousands of
boys had been converted to denominational Christianity, though not
directly, but through the missionary propaganda, especially in
The Buddhists, until
1870, had their own schools to teach Sinhala in temples throughout the
island, but the Colonial government did not want that Buddhist boys
should be taught English in missionary schools funded by missionary
societies. In 1870, and Education Act was passed and temple schools
became taboo to Christian children.
Col. Olcott, for the
first time after the destruction of Buddhism in India, convened a
meeting of delegates of the Buddhists of Burma (now Myanmar),
Chittagong, Sri Lanka and Japan, to consider what steps should be
taken for the propagation of Buddhism in those countries. With his
initiative, the Maha Bodhi Society was established on May 31, 1891, in
India (known as the Buddhagaya Maha Bodhi Society) and Col. Olcott was
elected Chief Adviser and Director, unanimously.
As the awakener of a
nation out of long slumber, as the crusader who campaigned to regain
its due place to Buddhism, as the agitator who caused the Colonial
government of the day, to declare the Vesak fullmoon day as a
statutory holiday in Sri Lanka, as the designer of the now
internationally famous Buddhist flag and as the founder of national
educational institutions, such as Ananda College in Colombo in 1886,
the Mahinda College in Galle in 1892 and the Dharmaraja College in
Kandy in 1887, Col. Olcott's service towards Buddhism and education
Col. Olcott was a man
of many parts. he devoted his early life to the service of his
country. He founded agricultural schools in the United States and is
recognised as the founder of the present system of national
agricultural education in the United States. Hiss goal was for the
service of mankind and to awake them from the sloth of despondency.
During his first sojourn in the island, there were only nine
post-primary schools conducted by the Buddhists as against 642
Christian Missionary Schools.
When we speak of Col.
Olcott, we cannot omit to mention the name of the Russian-born Helena
Petronova Blavatsky, who was also a Theosophist who accompanied Col.
Olcott to Sri Lanka. They both started the Theosophical Society in New
York and worked for the spiritual progression of the converted
Col. Olcott's last
visit to Sri Lanka was on November 24, 1906. On February 17,1907, he
passed away at 7.15 a.m., at the Headquarters of the Theosophical
Society in Adyar in India. A statue of this great personality stands
opposite the Fort Railway Station, remarkable for his bushy beard.