Reassessing Colonel Olcott

Students at Ananda CollegeAbout 10 years ago, there was a debate between two writers in a prominent national newspaper. The debate went on for several weeks with its two contenders, Professor Nalin de Silva and Tissa Devendra. In the end though, it went nowhere.

It started with Professor Nalin. He was writing about “Olcott Buddhism”. He was at loggerheads with Devendra over one point: whether the institutions and ideology represented by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott stunted the Buddhism which would have been an instrument of national regeneration. That it did not was what he opined. That Olcott Buddhism was needed to revive Buddhism was what Devendra opined.

The historian’s role is to record history. Can anyone say that he’s free from prejudice? Can anyone point at history books and claim “objectivity” for them? Of course not. That’s why comment is needed, not because history is open but because those who record it are selective. This is as true a statement as it’s going to get when it comes to our history, not just because those who’ve recorded have not let go of their political preferences but because they have managed to insert those preferences in subtle, even mischievous ways.

The point is that Colonel Henry Steel Olcott deserves reassessment. The point is that, in the attempt to lionise him and his movement, some facts were deliberately skewed. The point is that we were taught that he was a national hero.

But was there another side to him? Was there perhaps a flaw in his movement and revival, which we never missed but opted to forget because that would have tarnished his popular image? To ask this is to look back at his movement and its context and then judge Professor Nalin’s contention.

To begin with, what Colonel Olcott ushered in was a revival. But he was not responsible for its inception, for the simple reason that he came here because of the Panadura Vaadaya.

What happened at Panadura was the culmination of a series of debates between Christian and Buddhist priests. But the revival which followed this was not without its critics. Migetuwatte Gunananda Thera, who had led the priests to victory at Panadura, later disagreed with Colonel Olcott and the Theosophist movement.

By then though (around the late 1880s), what was done was done and dusted: Theosophy won, and with it Colonel Olcott’s revivalist movement. This is important notwithstanding its demerits because on it rests the argument that what dominated the Buddhist discourse thereafter was Olcott’s Buddhism. Not Anagarika Dharmapala’s.

And on this rests another thesis: that Colonel Olcott triumphed at the exact point the Anagarika failed: the preaching of a religion which could embrace all and exclude none. Maybe that’s how Theosophists managed to throw out religion altogether when referring to Buddhism and instead called it a “philosophy”. Philosophies are not static. They are subject to change. Religions, on the other hand, need missions to spread their gospel (largely static), and as Professor H. L. Seneviratne observed in his Work of Kings, the mission here needed a missionary. The missionary needed a leader. That leader was not Colonel Olcott. He was the Anagarika.

But where Theosophy won was also where it lost. To understand why, one needs to understand what Colonel Olcott stood for. He was not a Buddhist, a point acknowledged by almost everyone from Professor Nalin to Victor Ivan. Put simply, he saw Buddhism under Western eyes. How so?

It’s to do with what he wrote and founded, at one level. The Buddhist Catechism, which he compiled, was a virtual copy of Luther’s Small Catechism. Buddhists didn’t go to Sunday Schools before his movement began them. That they coincided with Christian Sunday Schools is all too obvious. To top all that the curriculum he implemented in the schools he founded were, barring a few subjects here and there which catered to the “vernacular” Buddhist crowd, largely imitative of the liberal arts tradition of the (mostly Christian) West.

It follows from all this that the kind of Buddhism Colonel Olcott went after was both imitative and rootless. What those who lionise him forget is that this same “universal Buddhism” they venerate was and is responsible for the culture of disengagement that has pursued Buddhists here to date. More relevantly, they forget the contribution towards the same racialist ideology they find in the Anagarika’s movement by (what else?) Olcott’s movement.

What was this contribution, incidentally?

No religious movement is possible without continuous engagement with its roots. What Colonel Olcott’s program failed to account for was that inasmuch as Buddhism needed to be all-embracive, it couldn’t be sustained for long without placing it in a specific culture. Rootless and virtually castrated, the Buddhism he conceptualised managed to split precept and practice to an extent whereby there could be no engagement with it. Gunadasa Amarasekera pointed this out when he observed that what it created was a “culturally divorced Buddhist elite no different from the westernised Christian class”.

When Amarasekera compared the “Buddhist elite” to the “westernised Christian class”, he was not dabbling in bigoted polemics. It is well known that those who financed and patronised Colonel Olcott’s movement were no different in their social position to their Christian counterparts. There are temples and schools founded by those who were arrack renters by profession, for instance. When their descendants became politically active and led our independence struggle, they began “using” Buddhism.

What aided and aggravated this was the split between temple and state accompanied by the Kandyan Convention. True, a clause in the Convention purported to safeguard Buddhism, but by and by that was violated. And thus two trends – the rift between precept and practice and the rift between Buddhism and the state – contributed to the “rhetoricisation” of religion for political expedience which has become the norm today.

Here lies the tragedy of contemporary Buddhism: the split between the tenet and its practice, echoing the split between temple and state. The one aggravated the other, and while the latter split was needed in the interests of ethnic harmony, the former sought new channels of venting out frustration.

What were the results of this? Extremist political organisations that rise and fall? Ideologues and populists who badmouth other faiths and then backtrack on Buddhism when in power? Perhaps.

The problem wasn’t Anagarika Dharmapala’s chauvinism (only), hence. It was the fact that we looked at Buddhism through and allowed its revival to be led under Western eyes. Most of those who headed Olcott’s schools (as principals or patrons), after all, were not “indigenous” Buddhists. They were “born-again” so to speak, and this largely helped to do away with any form of racialism. Tragically however, they failed to account for the cultural context in which Buddhism here was placed, and this more or less provoked the same racialism which Colonel Olcott (consciously or otherwise) tried to rid his movement of.

There’s more, but we must end here. With an ultimatum.

Popular myths can make heroes out of parvenus, turning them overnight into figures deserving of accolade and posterity. They are venerated and they breed cults. True, they may not have nourished those cults, but the fact is that for the most, they are created with or without their sanction. In that context, it makes good (business) sense to shrug away the other side to the leader of the cult. Which is why history is and always will be full of frill.

Professor Nalin made the following observation about Olcott: “It could be said that he was instrumental in separating Buddhism from Sinhala Buddhism, and as a consequence a group of people emerged who would think of themselves as Sinhalas and Buddhists separately.” In this revelation he may have split hairs and badmouthed sacred cows (and Colonel Olcott, as evidenced by the epithet “Olcott thuma” used by adherents in his schools and elsewhere, is a sacred cow to the teeth). But he spoke the truth.

Whether we like it or not therefore, the Professor’s argument holds water. Makes sense to acknowledge it. Makes sense to note it down. And makes sense to revisit history with it.

Spread the love!


An open minded guy who likes books, movies, and clean fun. Likes to associate with respectable, honest, and open people who are not conformists. You can ready my articles at my blog -

Related post