Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott's reforms of the 19th Century
and their Cultural Significance

Lecture by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere at the Mahaweli Centre, Colombo, Sri Lanka on January 11, 1992. The theme of the talk was: Colonel Olcott's reforms of the 19th Century and their Cultural Significance.

Henry Steel Olcott
Henry Steel Olcott

Part I

Prof. Ralph Pieris whose recent death we are memorialising in this lecture was my colleague at the University of Sri Lanka at Peradeniya during our green years. Much of his life's work has been devoted to the historical sociology of the Kandyan period and early British colonial rule. In more recent times he has focused on the topic of the transfer of technology and knowledge from the West to the colonized nations.

I want to combine these two major interests of Ralph Pieris by dealing with one of the most important transfers of knowledge that occurred in the hey a day of colonialism, namely the Western indological conception of Buddhism and its acceptance by the then emerging elite that, in our own times, has expanded into a large hegemonic middle class.

The main figure or agent in this transfer was Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a native of the town of Orange, New Jersey, the state in which my own university, Princeton, is located. We all know that Olcott is held in considerable veneration by modern Buddhists and we have a day set aside—Olcott Day—to commemorate the work and genius of this man.

His contributions to Sri Lankan and Buddhist culture have been discussed by scholars like Kitsiri Malalgoda and Smith Amunugama. These scho1ars know more about Olcott and his times than I do. My intention here is to use the Olcott reforms as a way of talking about some of the profound changes in the devotional life of Buddhism that has gradually occurred from the end of the last century into our own times.

In order to place Olcott's contribution in historical perspective let me begin my account with the final conquest of Sri Lanka by the British in 1815 and their rapid consolidation of imperial power. The traditional spokesmen for Buddhism, the monks, had not only to contend with the demoralization that set in with the disestablishment of Buddhism, but also had to deal with Protestant proselytisation.

According to Malalgoda, the initial response of the Buddhist monks to Christian missionization was not unfriendly. Buddhist monks even gave Christian missionaries permission to preach in their temples and were surprised when this gesture was not reciprocated. Buddhism itself had no clear notion of heresy, and it had always accommodated alien deities into its fold.

Thus, as far as Buddhists were concerned, the Christian god was like the Hindu gods they had appropriated. Many Buddhists had little sympathy for Gad the Father but had considerable feeling for Christ. Gogerly, the foremast Anglican Bishop, noted around 1850:

"Until Christianity assumed a decidedly opposing position, even the priests [monks] looked upon that religion with respect, and upon its founder with reverence. I have seen it stated in a controversial tract, written by a Buddhist priest of Matura not fifteen years since, that probably Christ in a former state of existence was a God residing in one of the six heavens (a position which they represented Gotama as having occupied immediately previous to his birth as Buddha); that animated by benevolence he desired and obtained a birth as a man, and taught truth so far as he was acquainted with It.

That his benevolence, his general virtue, and he purity of his doctrine rendered him worthy of reverence and honour. If, therefore, the supremacy of Buddha and the absolute perfection of his system were conceded, they see nothing inconsistent in respecting both systems—Buddhism as the perfection of wisdom and virtue: Christianity as an approximation to it, though mingled with errors."

Gogerly was right: it was the decidedly antagonistic posture of the missions that alienated Buddhists, and their spokesmen, the monks. What was striking and totally alien to the Buddhist tradition was the fact that simply being a Buddhist was for the missions something morally and spiritually wrong a position that no Buddhist monk at that time adopted toward Christianity.

The mobilization of Buddhists against the missions was begun by monks from all the fraternities. This began on several fronts. First, Buddhists started their own printing press and tracts as a response to the missionary ones, generally from an organisation started in 1862 known as The Society for the Propagation of Buddhism.

This was one of the very first attempts by the Buddhists to take over organisational styles from Christianity — in this case, an imitation of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

A second thrust was public debates between Buddhists and Christians, the most famous held in Panadura, in which, by Buddhists accounts, they trounced the Christian representatives.

These confrontations brought to the fore a powerful orator, Mohottivatte Gunananda, who gave up the sedate style of Buddhist sermonizing and adopted instead the active, polemical, vituperative style of the missions.

It was after 1862 with the establishment of the presses and especially in the debates between 1865 and 1873 that the Buddhists for the first time used the European views of Buddhism and aesthetic critiques of Christianity in their attacks on the missions.

Reginald Copleston, Bishop of Colombo, noted in 1879, that the secretary of "an obscure society" was corresponding with monks, "hailing them as brothers in the march of intellect" and praising them for their spirited anti-missionary and anti-Christian challenges.

"This nonsense had a good deal of effect, I think, on the common people, while the more educated, having really become freethinkers, welcome the extravagant encomiums passed on the true, original Buddhism by European writers..."

The "obscure society" that Bishop Copleston referred to was the Theosophical Society, whose secretary was Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Olcott wanted to consolidate these early contacts with Buddhists and on May 17, 1880, he, with Madame Blavatsky and several other Theosophists, arrived in Sri Lanka for this purpose.

Soon after his arrival he founded a local branch of the Theosophical Society but soon became aware of the larger role that Sri Lankan Buddhists expected of him. Olcott enthusiastically accepted this role as a Western champion of Buddhism against the Christian minions.

Thus, wherever he went, he was given an enthusiastic welcome, which Olcott noted with some irony. "The Asiatics have certainly perfected the art of feeding the vanity of public men and their public men seem to like it". Despite protestations to the contrary, Olcott did too.

As a westerner and an anti-imperialist American who had fought in the civil war Olcott possessed enormous charisma which was reinforced by his discovery of his capacity to heal the paralyzed and the lame. He attributed these skills entirely to "animal magnetism" and "mesmerism" which for him was a latent capacity in every individual but the thousands who crowded at his door probably thought that he was like one of their own religious specialists, the Kattadiralas.

One week after his arrival Olcott, along with Blavatsky, knelt before a Buddha statue and repeated the five precepts administered by a Buddhist monk. Thus, he was formally declared a Buddhist. Yet he makes an important qualifier in his diary:

Speaking for her (Blavatsky) as well as for myself. I can say that, if Buddhism contained a single dogma that we were compelled to accept, we would not have taken the pansil nor remained Buddhists ten minutes. Our Buddhism was that of the Master-Adept Gautama Buddha, which was identically the Wisdom Religion of the Aryan Upanishads, and the soul of all ancient world-faiths. Our Buddhism was, in a word, a philosophy, not a creed.

But Olcott was soon to find out that Buddhist monks were hardly interested in Theosophy, though the Theosophical (and consequently "scientific") interpretations of spiritual powers that arahants and other religious virtuosos possessed were accepted by them. This accounts for the virtual demise, shortly thereafter, of the Theosophical Society that he founded in Sri Lanka, whereas the Buddhist Theosophical Society (known as the B.T.S.), which he also founded, profoundly influenced the shaping of modern Buddhism.

Olcott's presumption was that the Buddhist laity of Sri Lanka were ignorant of their own great religion. He also thought that they were addicted to a mass of non-Buddhist rituals and anti-Buddhist institutions like caste, to the extent that even monastic recruitment was often caste based.

Tactfully, he avoided the whole issue of caste by generally ignoring it, but he was overtly critical of popular "superstition". His charisma was such that he could raise the consciousness of monks and laymen to their responsibilities in fighting the missions, resuscitating Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and attempting to promote interchange and ecumenical unity among the different forms of Buddhism in Asia.

Olcott's influence on Sri Lankan Buddhism was both immediate and long lasting. He felt it a duty to provide Sri Lankan children with a good knowledge of their religion through Buddhist schools. To do this he started an educational fund and, with the help of Buddhist monks and laity, founded vernacular schools in village areas and English schools in the cities.

By 1898 there were 103 B.T.S. schools in Sri Lanka, many of them modeled on mission schools and some equal to the best of them in providing a modern English education to Buddhist children. These children were trained for administrative, professional, and mercantile positions under the colonial regime. It is primarily through these schools that modern Buddhism (that is, the Western conception of Buddhism) diffused into the society and became the basic religious ideology of the educated Buddhist bourgeoisie.

A key event in the foundation of Buddhism is the publication of Olcott's The Buddhist Catechism in 1881. "Finding out the shocking ignorance of the Sinhalese about Buddhism," Olcott wrote in his diary, "I began after vainly getting some monk to do it, the compilation of a Buddhist Catechism on the lines of the similar elementary handbooks so effectively used among Christian sects...

Madame Blavatsky and Rev. Sumangala
Henry Steel Olcott and Rev. Sumangala

To do this Olcott read ten thousand pages of Buddhist books from English and French sources and on May 5, 1881, he finished his first draft which he showed to the scholar monk Sumangala and the orator Mohottivatte Gunananda. The role of the monks was to effectively and uncompromisingly throw out overt or hidden elements of Theosophy that the final version could receive their official imprimatur as being ‘Buddhist’.

The fact that no monk could be co-opted into actually drafting the catechism surprised Olcott. But what he did not realize was that the distillation of the ‘essence’ of Buddhist doctrine in the form of a catechism was to them a totally novel idea. Furthermore, many textual sources, sometimes tests attributed to the Buddha himself, imply that laymen’ were not qualified to understand the abstract and difficult doctrine.

But Olcott believed that the philosophical essence of Buddhism had to be taught in schools. He was unaware that the main vehicle for communicating the nature of this high religion to the doctrinally unmusical masses was the story and the parable. It is to the credit of the monks that they endorsed the Catechism, perhaps anticipating that with the development of and educated lay population, a more doctrinally informed view of Buddhism was both necessary and inevitable.

The Catechism contains much that is found in modern Buddhism, though it also excludes much. Insofar as Olcott used French and English translations of texts and expositions of Buddhist doctrine, it was inevitable that the Catechism should be oriented to a Western intellectualist view of Buddhism.

Olcott noted that the missions “taught that Buddhism was a dark superstition” and that the few government schools that existed did not teach the religion at all. Consequently, he made a not unusual outsider’s inference that “our Buddhist children had but small chance of coming to know anything at all of the real merits of their ancestral faith”!

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Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V