• Government Services Buddhist Association
  • Government Services Buddhist Association
  • Government Services Buddhist Association
  • Government Services Buddhist Association
  • Government Services Buddhist Association

Colonel Olcott’s Contribution to Buddhist Revival and Buddhist Education

Deshabandhu Olcott Gunasekara

The significance of the contributions made by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, agricultural scientist, academician, lawyer, war veteran and a person of integrity, from the time he arrived in Sri Lanka in 1880 until his death in Adyar, South India, which became the centre of his theosophist activities with Madam Blavatsky, is best appreciated when studied in the context of contemporaneous history.

Colonel Olcott arrived during the heyday of British imperi- alism. By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) the British Empire extended over about one - fifth of the earth’s sur- face and nearly a quarter of the world’s population owed alle- giance to her at least notionally. It was the world’s superpower and its naval might ruled the waves. It was also a time of peace and prosperity, pax Britannica, when social, political and reli- gious movements flourished. Along with the nobility was an emerging middle class, which was a combination of an educated elite and a newly rich commercial class. Whatever the antecedents of a person, wealth and or education was becoming the key to upward social mobility. To send one’s child to be educated at Eton, Rugby or Harrow was the ambition of many parents both in Britain and her colonies.

Sri Lanka, which withstood the military onslaughts on her independence by the Portuguese, Dutch and British invaders since 1505, finally lost her independence in 1815 with the fall of the Kandyan kingdom. The struggle for independence immediately 84 began and attempts were made to regain her independence in 1818 and 1848, but failed. During the period of Portuguese and Dutch rule of the maritime areas there were many attempts to oust them from the Sri Lanka soil and every failure was followed by ruthless vindictive measures against the Sinhala Buddhist people, Buddhist monks and the Buddhist temples. Monks had to disrobe themselves for safety reasons and to the best of their ability tried as lay persons to meet the religious need of the people.

Because of the warring conditions and the suppressive policies to curb any nationalist movement, the Buddha Sasana had reached its lowest ebb. The gravity of the situation was such that five higher ordained monks could not be found in the whole of Sri Lanka to perform the higher ordination ceremony and conse- quently a mission had to be sent to Thailand (then Kingdom of Siam) to obtain a minimum of five higher ordained monks to re- establish the Sasana. Buddhist revival started in 1753 with the re- establishment of the Sima and the higher ordination of Samanera Welivitiye Saranankara, who became famous as Venerable Asarana Sarana Pindapatika Welivitiye Saranankara Sangaraja of Sri Lanka. However, this revivalist movement had a major set- back with the loss of total independance in 1815.

Although a solemn undertaking was given by the British Government to protect and support Buddhism according to the terms of the Kandyan Convention, the British colonial rulers,under the influence of the Christian missionaries, had to retract and sever such connections. Supporting a heathen religion was criticized as a heinous crime that compromised its obliga- tions as the Defender of the Christian faith. Buddhism that had been enjoying royal patronage from the time of its official introduction to Sri Lanka by Arahant Mahinda in the 3rd century B.C. lost all such privileges and had to fend for itself.

Spread of Christianity was a corner-stone in British state policy and, therefore, much encouragement was given to the activities of the Christian missionaries. Most prominet among the different Christian Missions were the Church Missionary Society, 85 the Wesleyans, the Baptists, the Roman Catholics, the Methodists, The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the American Board of Missions. The American Mission worked predominantly in the Jaffna Peninsula and the first Missionary came as early as 1813. Venerable Dehigaspe Pannasara Nayaka Thera of the Vidyodaya Pirivena in his Foreword to a reprint of the book “The Great Debate - Buddhism and Christianity: Face to Face” byJ.M. Peebles, has made the following observation: “The Christian Missionaries overran the Island like a great flood. Buddhism was subject to criticism from all quarters. When it was in such a lamentable state, that James de Alwis, a scholar and gen- tleman of high renown, had said in one of his articles in 1850, that ‘before the end of that century Buddhism would disappear from Ceylon’.” At least that was the wish of the Christian missionar- ies and they worked indefatigably to make it a reality without any scruples, even twisting the arm of the Colonial Office in London.

The Christian Missionaries won the first round of success- fully getting the Colonial Government to sever all ties with Buddhism. Then they attempted to break the backbone of the Sinhala Buddhists by ridiculing Buddhism through books and pamphlets written in Sinhala. These were freely distributed by the Christian preachers in propagating their faith. This was in addi- tion to the mass proselytising of Buddhist children through the school system and the conversions made by dangling the carrot of government jobs to the faithful. These resulted in an open chal- lenge being made by Ven. Mohottiwatte (nee Migettuwatte) Gunananda to the Christians to defend their faith. The challenge was accepted by the Christian clergy. This led to five public debates first at Baddegama in 1865 followed by public debates at Waragoda (1865), Udanwita(1866), Gampola(1871) and the most famous at Panadura(1873). The defeat of the Christians in debate, more than anything else, ‘broke the myth of the infallibility of the Christian Church and was one of the major contributing factors to the Buddhist revival in the country’.

Another tangible result of the public debates was the coming of Colonel Olcott to Sri Lanka in May, 1880. The Ceylon Independent of February 25, 1907, reporting on the Memorial Service in memory of Colonel Olcott, carried this paragraph. “In 1862 the famous Migettuwatte, the silver-tongued orator went over the island of Ceylon, preaching Buddhism; thousands flocked to hear him and in1873 came off the great discussion between him and Rev.David de Silva, the proceeding of which appeared in the daily newspaper. Dr.Peebles, on one of his journ- erys around the world gathered from the Press the reports of this discussion and published them in book form of about 100 pages, with lengthy criticisms and comment, favouring Buddhism rather than the old time orthodox Christianity. This brochure-book by some happy coincidence fell into the hands of Colonel Olcott of America, this being the first link connecting him with Ceylon.” The book referred to is ‘Buddhism and Christianity - Face to Face’ with Introduction and Annotations by J.M. Peebles M.D., M.A., Ph.D. (Published 1878 by Colby and Rich in Boston)

Coming of Colonel Olcott to Sri Lanka is generally believed to be fortuitous, as was also reported in the paragraph above. Dr. Peebles who happened to be at the Memorial Service has this to say. “It gives me great pleasure to state that I personally knew Colonel Olcott for about 35years; knew him as a spiritualist, sit- ting in spiritualist seances; knew him as a medium influenced by Indian spirits to heal the sick. Later I knew him as a Theosophist and I spent with him and Madam Blavatsky, two weeks at the home of the Eddy Mediums in Chittenden, Vermont” Dr. J.M.Peebles, an international lecturer, prolific and talented author and journalist, was himself a spiritualist. He had his home at Hammonton, New Jersey. From the above statements one could conclude that Dr.Peebles has known Colonel Olcott from around 1872 and most likely Dr.Peebles’ book could have been a topic of discussion between them. Peebles further states that “on three of my journeys around the world, I met the Colonel in both India and Ceylon. Once I remained two months with him at Adyar, a magnificent place...” According to the biography of Peebles, he has even helped Colonel Olcott in establishing educational facil- ities in India and Sri Lanka.

Hence it could be said that Colonel Olcott came to Sri Lanka with a mission in hand. He would have had a feel of the plight of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka from his discussions with Peebles. He also had direct communications with the scholar Buddhist monks, and more particularly with Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Maha Thera of the Vidyodaya Pirivena, Venerable Piyaratanatissa Thera of Dodanduwa, who started the first Buddhist school in Dodanduwa, and Ven.Migettuwatte Gunananda Maha Thera of Dipaduttaramaya, Kotahena and with them he had regular exchange of letters. In a letter dated June 15,1878 there is a reference to the book of Peebles. Other notable monks of the period with whom he had very close contact were Ven.Walane Sri Siddhartha Maha Thera of the Paramadhammacetiya Pirivena. Ratmalana, Ven. Ratmalane Sri Dhammaloka Maha Thera of the Vidyalankara Pirivena,and Ven Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti Maha Nayaka Thera.

Because of these contacts, there was much preparation in Sri Lanka before his arrival and when he arrived at the Galle harbour accompanied by Madam Blavatsky there was much rejoicing. They were taken in procession to the Vijayananda Pirivena in Galle, where they were cordially greeted by an assembly of dis- tinguished monks and Buddhist laymen. Colonel Olcott had already embraced Buddhism while in New York. It was con- firmed in public when he observed the five precepts along with the tisarana, been administered by Venerable Akmeemana Dhammarama Nayaka Thera of the Vijayananda Pirivena. By this act he won the heart and confidence of all Buddhists in this coun- try and overnight he was accepted as a trusted servant who could spearhead the Buddhist cause. His fame spread throughout the length and breadth of Sri Lanka and wherever he went he was received with great warmth. He had many admirers and one of them was the firebrand Don David Hewavitarane, who even changed his name to Dharmapala and became an Anagarika. He accompanied Col. Olcott in his travels in Sri Lanka and even abroad. The Buddhists of this country needed a ‘white-skinned’ mentor and a good advocate who could face up to the colonial rulers. Colonel Olcott matched this requirement admirably and, hence, was able to make a lasting contribution to the Buddhist revivalist movement.

He had a clear mind as to his role and what has to be accom- plished. The following excerpt from a letter he wrote to Venerable Weligama Sri Sumangala Thera on 10 February 1880, i.e. before coming to Sri Lanka, will give an inkling of his profound think- ing “.......... Joyful will be the day when Asian people shall prop- erly reverence their own religions. All we Western people can do is to start the idea, encourage them to effort, defend them from Western influence and leave them to work out the problems them- selves. The regeneration of Asia must be effected by Asiatic men......”

A good organizer as he was, even before he set his feet on Sri Lanka’s soil,he had created the necessary environment to found the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society, which was the first Buddhist lay organization at the national level. There were about 40 Buddhist leaders that assembled at the founding ceremony on June 1880. Its headquarters were at Maliban Street, Colombo and still continues to be so with entrance from Norris Road, renamed Olcott Mawatha in 1965, in memory of Colonel Olcott. It is aptly called the Buddha Mandiraya or the Buddhist House.

A clash at Kotahena between the Buddhists and Catholics when the Catholics violently protested against the beating of the tom-tom in a Buddhist procession from Borella to Dipaduttaramaya in Kotahena in 1883 aroused the Buddhists to action. One person was killed and many Buddhists were man- handled. The protests made by the Buddhist leaders, including the leading Buddhist monks to the colonial Governor fell on deaf ears. A five member Buddhist Defence Committee was formed to protect the rights of the Buddhists and Colonel Olcott who was summoned from India was made an honorary member. There were six demands made from the colonial Government and Colonel Olcott was given the onerous task of representing matters to the British Government in person to get redress.

It was a very successful mission and because of Colonel Olcott’s efficient handling of the brief, the full moon day of Wesak was declared a public holiday for religious observances of the Buddhists in the year 1885, a privilege the Buddhists of Sri Lanka in the maritime area lost in 1770 during the period of Dutch colonization. The Colonial Secretary also agreed to appoint civil registrars of marriages so that Buddhist families could register their marriages outside the Church. The others con- cerned the rights and privileges enjoyed by the Buddhists from time immemorial and assured by the British Government to upkeep in accordance with the Kandyan Convention of 1815, like the beating of the tom-tom in Buddhist processions. However, the issues were many and the seeds for a struggle for complete inde- pendence from colonial rule, if Buddhism is to be preserved, were sown.

The Buddhist Defence Committee of which Colonel Olcott was an honorary member continued its operation. There was much discussion relating to the celebration of the Wesak of 1885 in a fitting manner. The need for a Buddhist flag, around which all Buddhists could rally, was identified and a special committee was set up to design a flag. The idea could have been of Colonel Olcott, being an army man who fought in the American civil war. The birth of a five coloured Buddhist flag was the outcome and it fluttered for the first time on April 28, 1885 at Dipaduttaramaya, Kotahena, Vidyodaya Pirivena at Maligakanda, Gangaramaya temple at Hunupitiya, Kelaniya temple and the headquarters of the Buddhist Theosophical Society. Colonel Olcott who returned to the Island in January 1886 was overjoyed to see the Buddhist flag and made certain suggestions for its improvement to conform to accepted standards. The Buddhist prelates and Buddhist lead- ers accepted the suggestions made and the revised Buddhist flag that was flown on the Wesak full moon day of 1886 has now become the acclaimed flag of all Buddhists throughout the world.

Colonel Olcott was a visionary and in a way a forerunner of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. Not only did Colonel Olcott help in the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka but also he laid the foun- dation for closer collaboration of Buddhist groups in Asia. He prepared a document with 14 common Buddhist themes where congruency among major Buddhist sects was found. It was approved at a Buddhist conference that was held in Adyar in 1891. It was signed by Buddhist dignitaries of Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Japan and Chittagong. Among the signatories from Sri Lanka were the Maha Nayaka Theras of Malwatta and Asgiriya, Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera and Venerable Waskaduwe Subhuti Maha Nayaka Thera. Colonel Olcott also helped Anagarika Dharmapala in establishing the Mahabodhi Society of India. Furthermore, he prepared a Buddhist Catechism for learners of Buddhism and it was published after getting approval of Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera.

Education of Buddhist children was another area of concern where Colonel Olcott made a lasting contribution. It was a sig- nificant component of the Buddhist Revivalist movement. Buddhist children had little access to English education that had become the portal of advancement. The colonial rulers followed a laissez faire policy in regard to education and this allowed an open field to the Christian Missionaries to carry out their work of proselytizing. Aided mission schools were less costly to Government. An important policy statement was issued by Governor Robinson on 12 January 1870, namely, ‘to extend the operations of Government in the direction of establishing village schools in localities as yet unprovided with the means of instruc- tion, but gradually to contract its operations in respect of English schools in the town districts where an effective system of grants- in-aid will enable the Government to employ it funds to much greater advantage than to maintaining schools of its own...’ The operative principle as it was pithily mentioned was English edu- cation, as far as possible, for the ‘classes’ and vernacular educa- tion for the ‘masses’.

At the time Colonel Olcott came to Sri Lanka, the policy of the Government, accordingly, was to close down its English schools and transfer them to the aided mission schools. This was done ‘with scant regard for the religious scruples of the students’. The Director of Public Instruction in his Administration Report of 1878 has this to say. “ In some cases.... I have found not a single child professing the nominal religion of the schools he attends.” There was so much rivalry and competition among the different Christian missions to take over the schools closed down by Government and to start new schools that the government issued a three miles distance rule, which was later modified to two miles and finally to a quarter mile. The distance rule stated that ‘no grant will be made to any school establishment’ that was within the stipulated distance from an existing Government or Aided- school of the same class. Commenting on the distance rule Colonel Olcott has stated in the Buddhist of 1892, a journal started then and continued by the Borella Young Men’s Buddhist Association that “this clause is one of those inequalities, those violations of British policy, which can only be perpetrated with comparative safety in a distant colony.”

New rules were made continually by the Government and this seriously jeopardised the opening of schools for Buddhist children. It is against such odds that the work of Colonel Olcott has to be appreciated. It was sometimes a blank wall that his co- workers and he had to face. Every step was heavily mined by the Christian missionaries who were aided and abetted by the Colonial Government whilst parading a facade of liberalism, fair play and justice.

Although the Buddhist temple was the fountain of knowl- edge from ancient times there was no formal temple based edu- cation system for lay Buddhist children. Colonel Olcott pioneered the opening of Buddhist Sunday schools in Sri Lanka. The first was at Vijayananda Pirivena in Galle. At the premises of the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society, too, a Buddhist Sunday school was opened. It was converted in to the Pettah Buddhist 92 English School in 1886 and later renamed Ananda College. The first Principal was C.W. Leadbeater who was the Head of the Buddhist Sunday School. The suggestion was made that the School be named after Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda. The latter softly declined stating that Ananda is a part of his name Gunananda and that the name should be Ananda and not Gunananda. The establishment of Ananda College by the Buddhist Theosophical Society could be considered a historic moment for Buddhist education in Sri Lanka. It was followed by opening of several Buddhist English and Vernacular Schools in several parts of the Island. Notable among them were Mahinda College and Sangamitta College in Galle, Dharmasoka College in Ambalangoda, and Dharmaraja College in Kandy. Musaeus College was the first Buddhist school exclusively for Buddhist girls. Before long it became a movement and by the end of the 19th century there were nearly 200 Buddhist Schools. But when the total educational structure is taken into account they hardly sufficed to meet all the needs of the Buddhist children. A begin- ning was made and Colonel Olcott with his zeal to promote edu- cational facilities for Buddhist children was undoubtedly at the helm.

The period 1880-1907, the year of Colonel Olcott’s arrival in Sri Lanka to his death in 1907, was a part of a critical period in Sri Lanka’s history, when Sri Lanaka was awakening itself to get back to its roots. Neither the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka nor the opening of schools for Buddhist children started with Colonel Olcott. The Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist movement wanted a true believer of Buddhism who could be a strong advocate for its cause and could argue on par with the colonial rulers. Sri Lanka was most fortunate to get such a man in Colonel Olcott, a man who commanded respect in his own right. He had the most cor- dial relationship and the highest respect to the Buddhist prelates who reciprocated by even permitting him to administer the five precepts along with the Tisarana to those who wanted to become Buddhists. He was a trusted servant who championed the 93 Buddhist cause and at the request of the Buddhists made several visits to London to plead their cause with the Colonial masters of the time. He gave the necessary leadership and his advice was sought by the Buddhists on many matters. He considered himself a member of a team of devoted Buddhist workers and activits working with single purpose of uplifting Buddhism and also the Buddhists who have undergone untold suffering and hardships in the hands of three Colonial powers. Colonel Olcott will always be remembered with gratitude by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka for his selfless contribution to the Buddhist cause

For further Rading
1. Buddhism and Christianity Face to Face with Introduction and Annotations by J.M. Peebles. Colombo, 1955 (Reprint)
2. Colonel Olcott - His service to Buddhism, The Wheel Publication, No. 281, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1981
3. Olcott, Colonel Henry Steel, Encyclopaedia of Buddhim, Vol. 7, Fascicle 2, 2004
4. From the Living Fountains of Buddhism by Ananda W. Guruge, Colombo, 1994
5. Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka by K.D.G. Wimalaratne, Satara Publishers, Maharagama, 1985
6. Report of the Buddhist Committee of Inquiry, All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, 1956
7. Educational Policies and Progress during Birtish rule in Ceylon 1796-1948 by J.E. Jayasuriya, Associated Educational Publishers, Colombo, 1984
8. Social Policy and Missionary Organisations in Ceylon 1840-1855 by K.M. de Silva, Longmans, 1965
9. Education in Colonial Ceylon by Ranjit Ruberu, Kandy Printers Ltd, 1962
10. Two Centuries of Sri Lanka - American Friendship - A Pictorial Record, 1976
Deshabandhu Olcott Gunasekara
President, Dharmavijaya Foundation & Asian Buddhist Congress
1090/5, Kotte
Road, Rajagiriya.
Tel: +94 11 2862548
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