A man of vision and compassion | Daily News
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott:

A man of vision and compassion

Col. Henry Steel Olcott
Col. Henry Steel Olcott

Every year in November, Ananda College organizes an oration by an illustrious alumnus of the College to commemorate and celebrate the life and work of an exceptional American who was instrumental in the founding of the College in 1886. The Olcott Oration, one of the main highlights of the College calendar, was inaugurated in 1968.

After a break of about 10 years, it was relaunched in 2001 with Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne as the speaker and has been held unbroken since then. Last year, Sydney-based lawyer, human rights activist and lyricist Maithri Panagoda delivered the oration.

This year it will be held at 4.30 pm tomorrow (28) with Dr. Anil Jasinghe MD, SC, Md (Med. Ad.) speaking on “Sri Lanka’s response to a global pandemic: COVID-19 – A Strategic Perspective.”

For the first time, the Oration will be hosted virtually, live from the Kularatne Auditorium, on the OBA’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/anandacollegeoba) providing an opportunity to the many Anandians residing overseas to participate as well.

 Colonel Henry Steel Olcott was a larger-than-life figure who contributed as much as any Sri Lankan to resurrect the educational and cultural bases of the people in order to strengthen and extend the achievements of the Buddhist revival of the 19th century into the future, and onward to independence from colonial rule.

The three individuals most identified with the 19th century movement that led to the formation of Ananda College were born within 10 years of each other: Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera in 1823; Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera in 1827 and Colonel Olcott in 1832. The latter’s pragmatism, interpersonal skills and unbounded energy complemented the religious and cultural forces coordinated and directed by the two monks and formed a winning combination.

 Col. Olcott was an accomplished agriculturist who took part in the American Civil War and soon after he was appointed as one of three men on the commission to investigate the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. He then qualified and practised as a lawyer in New York City. He had an interest in metaphysics and the supernatural and, during an investigation, met Madam Helena Blavatsky with whom he founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.

 Col. Olcott’s arrival in Ceylon in 1880 resulted from circuitous and fortuitous circumstances. The famous Panadura debate of 1873 was reported in some detail in the Ceylon Times and a copy of a booklet about it was given to an American theosophist, Dr. J.M. Peebles, who just happened to be in Ceylon around that time as part of an international tour. Dr. Peebles re-published the book in the US and gave a copy to Col. Olcott, who was then inspired to start an elaborate correspondence with several prominent monks including Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera to find out more about Buddhism and the predicament of the Buddhists in the country. It was through this serendipitous chain of events that Olcott’s abiding involvement with Buddhism was kindled, resulting in the greatest impact on education for Buddhists.

 In the oppressive climate that existed in Ceylon following three-and-a-half centuries of subjugation and oppression, especially in the coastal areas, most natives had lost their self-esteem. Olcott, with his energy, commitment and optimism represented fresh hope. Quite apart from the rarity of being a ‘white man’ on the side of Buddhism, he brought to the revival movement qualities that were lacking. He was an exceptionally action-oriented man with the organizational skills and persistence needed to achieve results. His legal background and his oratorical and negotiating skills were key factors. He took great care to consult and work closely with the prominent Buddhist figures of the time, especially Ven. Sri Sumangala Thera and Ven. Gunananda Thera, and supplement their efforts rather than project his image as a ‘white saviour’.

 As for strategy, Olcott didn’t re-invent the wheel and at the outset proposed following the methods of the Christian missionaries, along with stirring more community involvement. He stated:

 “We must form similar Societies and make our most practical and honest men of business their managers. Nothing can be done without money. The Christians spend millions to destroy Buddhism; we must spend to defend and propagate it. We must not wait for some few rich men to give the capital: we must call upon the whole nation.” 

True to his word, he came back in 1881 to raise money for Buddhist education and take the message to the people. He embarked on tedious tours of the Western Province by bullock cart on primitive roads that lasted many months, accompanied only by an interpreter. This is something no native had done before. 

 Olcott was captivated by the country and its common people and renewed his dedication to the noble task he had set for himself. After this tour, he wrote in his diary:

“And I saw the people as they are, at their very best; full of smiles, and love, and hospitable impulse, and have been welcomed with triumphal arches, and flying flags, and wild Eastern music, and processions, and shouts of joy.”

 “Ah! lovely Lanka, Gem of the Summer Seas, how doth thy sweet image rise before me as I write the story of my experiences among thy dusky children, of my success in warming their hearts to revere their incomparable religion and its holiest Founder. Happy the karma which brought me to thy shores!”

 During these trips, he realized that many of the lay Buddhists did not have a good grasp of the basic teachings of the Buddha and had no access to books. He thus wrote a Buddhist Catechism, in the form of a series of questions and answers, in his spare time, on the lines of the elementary handbooks used by Christian missionaries. Having got it translated into Sinhala, he spent many hours in discussion with Ven. Sri Sumangala Thera to get his stamp of approval and published it the same year – 1881. 

The subject of improving Buddhist education had apparently been already extensively discussed prior to Col. Olcott’s first arrival in May 1880. A meeting held just five days after his arrival is referred to by Olcott in his diary where he writes of “a movement destined to gather the whole juvenile Sinhalese population into Buddhist schools under our general supervision.” The Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) was formed the following month to drive this project.

 Initially, the BTS set up Sunday schools given the limited resources available – the first in Galle and several others in various parts of Colombo. A few rich businessmen came forward to support the new movement and in May 1885 the BTS bought Nos. 60 and 61, Maliban Street as well as 29 and 30, Beira Street (now Olcott Mawatha) for Rs. 6,000. At that time, the Beira Lake extended up to where the Fort railway station stands today. 

With these acquisitions, it was decided to establish a full-time school at 61, Maliban Street, Pettah, with Charles Leadbeater, an English theosophist, as Principal. The Buddhist English School was established with 37 students and three teachers on November 1, 1886, which is the official birthday of Ananda College, the name the school was given when it moved to its present location in 1895. The main intention of the Buddhist leadership was to create a generation of young Buddhists with patriotic sentiments and modern skills to play a bigger role in national affairs. A more fundamental goal was also to redeem the self-esteem of the majority and help them stand up for their rights that had been long denied.

 On numerous occasions Colonel Olcott was nominated by the Buddhist leadership to negotiate with the British on their behalf, something at which he became very successful. His level of acceptance and trust can be gauged by the fact that as early as 1884, on the eve of a visit to England on behalf of the Buddhists, the Mahanayakes of the Siyam Nikaya and the Amarapura Nikaya, who did not always cooperate, united in giving him full powers to administer Pansil and admit laymen as Buddhists. He was interested in uniting all Buddhist groups in Asia and visited Myanmar and Japan twice – in 1889 and 1891 – the first trip with Anagarika Dharmapala.

Olcott committed himself to the cause of Buddhism, and Buddhist education in Sri Lanka in particular, for 27 years, until his death on February 17, 1907 – i.e. from the age of 48 to 75 years. He made around 30 visits to Ceylon and was the one constant factor from the Theosophical Society as far as Ceylon was concerned. On many occasions, he was instrumental in obtaining the resources and services of the Society for the benefit of the Buddhists.

 We can only speculate as to how the Buddhist revival would have fared if not for this great servant of Buddhism.

(Sanjiva Senanayake attended Ananda College from 1958 to 1969. He was a member of the editorial board responsible for compiling a book published by the Old Boys’ Association in 2017, on the first 125 years of the college.) 

(Col. Olcott’s diaries, titled “Old Diary Leaves” are available at