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Dharmaraja News

Friends remembered at Vesak - Henry Olcott and Yelena Blavatskaya

By Wendell W Solomons

Buddhists worldwide remember sage Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha, on Vesak day. In 2012 this day falls on Full Moon day 24th May.   

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A Buddhist revival was in progress in Lanka when two visitors were greeted. The visitors arriving on 17th May 1880 were Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and noblewoman Yelena Petrovna Blavatsaya.

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Colonel Olcott had been appointed by the US President in 1878 to report on trade relations between America, India and Ceylon. The Russian noblewoman, his friend in New York and guide to the East, was a descendant of Prince Yuri, the founder of Moscow.

These visitors' interests included a search for a means of gaining relief for Western ethics because Christianity had then been shaken by the work of Charles Darwin on the origin of the species.

Having studied Eastern faiths previously the visitors accepted Buddhism soon after their arrival. In Galle on a wall of Vijayananda Vihara, Welliwatta, Colonel Olcott wrote by hand: “This is to certify that on the 19th May 1880 the Founders of the Theosophical Society Madame H. P. Blavatsky and myself took the Panchasila for the first time at Vijayananda Vihara from Akmemana Dhammarama Thera.”

Colonel Olcott was later selected by local Buddhists to represent them in bringing forward several issues in London. In consequence, a colonial ban on a holiday for Wesak Full Moon Poya was removed and it was celebrated as a public holiday under British rule in 1885.

Colonel Olcott's next major contribution was a flag to unite Buddhists. The sketching of the Buddhist flag was entrusted to a committee headed by Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, head of the Vidyodaya Pirivena.

Colonel Olcott was not satisfied with the first design. He explained that the length, for instance, was not in proportion to the width. Hence the committee reviewed the design.

This flag was not without origin or precedent. A pattern had been created by the British East India Company for its seagoing ships. These same stripes had entered the flag of the USA. For the young nation the flag was marked with a corner rectangle. An American eagle was first portrayed in the top corner rectangle. 

The flag was finally adjusted for Buddhists with a vertical rectangle as end trim. The main stripes placed in the flag were in blue, yellow, red, white and orange..The five colors were placed in the end trim too. Collectively they can be considered as forming the significant number seven. The flag of this design was first ceremonially flown on Wesak Full Moon Poya day of 1886.

The colonel was aiming for deep social amity and had earlier decried the Indian caste system which he named as one of the causes of the downfall of Indian             civilisation. He made every effort to get India to forbid the caste system, which culminated in its being banned in the new Indian constitution.

The colonel and associates founded schools for outcastes in South India. Colonel Olcott stipulated that no school fees should be charged; that the school hours were to be convenient for the occupations of domestic servants and others who might seek education..

The flag created in Sri Lanka came to symbolise Buddhism in nearly 60 countries and is flown on ceremonial days at the UN.

Dr. Buddhadasa and P. Kirthisinghe remark:

"It can be safely asserted that the name of Colonel Olcott is honoured in Hindu-Buddhist Asia from India and Ceylon to Japan, more than that of any other American who has lived in Asia. Ceylon’s educational system, the international Buddhist flag and Adyar Oriental Library stand today as living monuments to his greatness."

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (RussianЕле́на Петро́вна Блава́тскаяUkrainianОлена Петрівна Блаватська), (born as Helena von Hahn (RussianЕлена Петровна ГанUkrainianОлена Петрівна Ган); 12 August [O.S. 31 July] 1831 – 8 May 1891) was a Russian-German occultist.
In 1875, Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott established a research and publishing institute called the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky defined Theosophy as "the archaic Wisdom-Religion, the esoteric doctrine once known in every ancient country having claims to civilization." One of the main purposes of the Theosophical Society was “to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color”. Blavatsky saw herself as a missionary of this ancient knowledge.
Blavatsky's extensive research into the many different spiritual traditions of the world led to the publication of what is now considered her magnum opusThe Secret Doctrine, which collates and organizes the essence of these teachings into a comprehensive synthesis. Blavatsky's other works include Isis UnveiledThe Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence. Blavatsky is a leading name in the New Age Movement.
The Theosophical Society had a major influence on Buddhist modernism[4] and Hindu reform movements, and the spread of those modernised versions in the west.Along with H. S. Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala, Blavatsky was instrumental in the Western transmission and revival of Theravada Buddhism.

The Theosophical Society in America:

A Brief Tour


At the Buddhist Theosophical Society

Website in Sri Lanka

When Col. Olcott arrived in Ceylon there were only four Buddhist Schools in the Island. Two of these (boys’ and girls’) were at Dodanduwa, started by the Ven. Piyaratana Tissa. The other two (also boys’ and girls’) were at Panadura started by a local Buddhist Society. The total Attendance of all the 4 schools was 246 children. At this time there were 805 Christian Schools with a total attendance of 78,086 children. The Buddhist Schools received a grant of Rs. 532.70 whereas the Christians schools raked in no less than Rs.174, 420.00.

In 1881, on the full moon day of Vesak, Colonel Olcott, with the wholehearted support of the most prominent prelates. Inaugurated at kelaniya a Buddhist National Fund for the general promotion of the religious and secular education of Buddhist children and the dissemination of Buddhist Literature. The first cheque (for Rs.100) was handed over to the Colonel for this fund by Mr. R.A. Mirando immediately after the speech. At the time the Society had 87 members 66 from Colombo and the others from Moratuwa, Negombo, Pamankada, Rathmalana and Nuwara Eliya.
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