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Col. Olcott - The great Buddhist revivalist

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

"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.

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.

The Buddhist 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 schools.

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 was manifold.

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 community.

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.