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Colonel Henry Steele Olcott's :106th death anniversary tomorrow

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Colonel Henry Steele Olcott's :106th death anniversary tomorrow

G P Dhanatunga


There is an old saying that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. This phenomenon did take place here when a non-national was honoured as a National Hero of Ceylon. This is likely to be the only unique instance in the world where a non-national is honoured as a national hero.

It was in the year 1967 when Dudley Senanayake was Prime Minister, realising the great volume of work done by Colonel Olcott to restore Buddhism in this country and also to teach English to Buddhist children in a Buddhist environment, requested the then Cabinet to pursue parliamentary sanction and honour Colonel Henry Steele Olcott as a National Hero of Ceylon.

Colonel Henry Steele Olcott

It was a co-incidence I believe that this posthumous honour was awarded on the 60th death anniversary of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott who departed on February 17,1907. In appreciation of the valuable gesture of Dudley Sananayake he well deserves public applause.

Buddhism in peril

Buddhism was introduced to Ceylon from India with the arrival of Ven. Arhath Mahinda Thera by air with five others around the year 220 BC. There were several minor invasions from South Indian States, but there were no major threats to Buddhism in the country. The real organised threat to Buddhism came in year 1500 with the invasion of the coastal areas by the Portuguese who resorted to atrocities on Buddhist monks and destruction of places of religious worship. Next to trade the main aim of the Portuguese was propagation of Catholicism.

With the passage of 150 years the Dutch, who overpowered the Portuguese with the help of the Sinhala Kings, were against the spread of Catholicism, but propagated their own version of Christianity. However the Dutch were not brutal in attitude as the predecessors.

In yet another 150 years the British overran the coastal areas driving out the Dutch. The British rulers did not have religion in their agenda but they turned a blind eye to the numerous Christian missionaries who followed them and started their religious propagation work in various parts of the country.

By 1850 the people of this little island had been under foreign oppression for 350 years and as such Buddhism was on a very low ebb and sliding down towards annihilation. Some bold monks at Dodanduwa and Panadura started Buddhist Sinhala Schools. Around this time there was open tension between Buddhists and Christians, resulting in the ‘Pancha Maha Vada’ whereby Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera, the silver tongued orator came into prominence.

The story as told by Theosophists

A book published on the ‘five great debates’ got into the hands of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott who along with Madam Blavatsky and few others in America had in the years 1875 established The Theosophical Society and was in search of the ‘Truth’. The Buddhist views expressed in the book appealed to Colonel Olcott and other members of the newly formed society and he and Madam Blavatsky decided to sail to India.

As much as Buddhists, Theosophists do believe in unseen beings, unseen abodes and unseen powers that dominate the human world and its beings.

The belief of the Theosophists is that the protection of Buddhism in Ceylon had been delegated to a Master named Kuthumi whose abode is the Himalayas. A Master is an equivalent of an Arahath in Buddhism.

It was visualised by Master Kuthumi who possessed divine powers that only a white skinned powerful personality who could fathom the value of the greatness of Buddhism can persuade the white skinned rulers at the time to grant redress to the requests of the dark skinned Buddhists to save Buddhism from eradication from this country.

It is said that Madam Blavatsky who was in France at the time after being trained whilst in India, to communicate spiritually with the Masters, was ordered to proceed to America immediately and bring Colonel Henry Steele Olcott to India and then Ceylon.

Arrival of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott in Galle

It was a long and tedious assignment for Madam Blavatsky but she received all assistance and guidance spiritually from the Masters.

The book on the ‘Five Great Debates’ which came into the hands of Colonel Olcott created a special interest to communicate with the silver tongued orator, Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda, who was soon enrolled as a member of the Theosophical society of New Jersey. In turn Ven. Gunananda invited Colonel Olcott to visit Ceylon so that he can meet the other learned Monks and also see the sad plight of the Buddhists and the perilous situation that Buddhism is placed.

The two founders of the Theosophical Society left America by Steamer and arrived in India in 1878 and after setting up their headquarters in Adyar, Chennai they sailed to Ceylon and arrived in Galle in 1880. Colonel Olcott in no time assessed the situation in the country as there were 805 Christian schools against only four Buddhist Sinhala Schools.

He soon collected a group of national minded and enthusiastic Buddhists and set up a society naming it ‘Buddhist Theosophical Society’ with the prime task of setting up Buddhist Sinhala schools in the country and where ever possible Buddhist English schools.

He along with Madam Blavatsky drove to Colombo by horse carriage. Before leaving Galle they were administered Pancha Seela and then confirmed as Buddhists thereafter. On arrival in Colombo he soon set up another ‘Buddhist Theosophical Society’ for the same purpose as in Galle. His second visit to Ceylon was in 1881. He found that the BTS had been able to start only a Sunday School and not any five day school due to want of teachers with ability to teach Buddhism in Sinhala or English.

He sat up and wrote a book named Buddhist Catechism in question and answer form, so that any one who can read English can be a teacher of Buddhism.

This book was translated to Sinhala almost over night, printed and distributed. Even so BTS failed to start a school till C W Leadbeater came to Ceylon in 1885 and started the first Buddhist English School in ‘Maliban Street, Pettah’ on November 1,1886. This school was shifted to Maradana and named Ananda College in 1895.

There were a numerous sacrifices that Colonel Olcott made to protect Buddhism in Ceylon and give Buddhist Children an English education in a Buddhist environment to keep them away from Christian influence. It was in appreciation of his tireless services in Ceylon that he was honoured with the title National Hero of Ceylon.

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