Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

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

Professor Gananath Obeyesekera of Princeton University delivered the Ralph Peiris Memorial Lecture at the Mahaweli Centre on January 11, 1992. The theme of his talk was: Colonel Olcott's reforms of the 19th Century and their Cultural Significance.

Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott
Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott

Part II

Olcott was ignorant of the fact that Sinhala children were traditionally educated into Buddhism in a variety of ways. Like many contemporary intellectuals he seemed to accept implicitly the missionary critique of Buddhism. Olcott speaks of devales, or shrines for the Hindu derived gods (devas) adjacent to Buddhist temples, as an "excrescence on pure Buddhism, left by the Tamil sovereign of former days ... "This condemnation of popular religion is carried

Q: What was the Buddha's estimate of ceremonialism?

A: From the beginning, he condemned the observance of ceremonies and other external practices, which only tend to increase our spiritual blindness and our clinging to mere lifeless forms.


Q: Are charms, incantations, the observance of lucky hours and devil dancing a part of Buddhism?

A: They are positively repugnant to its fundamental principles. They are surviving relics of fetishism and pantheism and other foreign religions. In the Brahmajala Sutta the Buddha has categorically described these and other superstitions as Pagan, mean, and spurious.

Q: What striking contrasts are there between Buddhism and what may be properly called "religions"?

A: Among others, these: It teaches the highest goodness without a creating God; a continuity of line without adhering to the superstitions and selfish doctrine of an eternal, metaphysical soul-substance that goes out of the body; a happiness without an objective heaven; a method of salvation without a vicarious Saviour; redemption by oneself as the Redeemer, and without rites, prayers, penances, priest or intercessory saints; and a summum bonum, that is, Nirvana, attainable in this life and in this world by leading a pure, unselfish life of wisdom and of compassion to all beings.

Olcott was a son of a Protestant minister and it shouldn't surprise us that he introduced a Protestant and "purified" form of Buddhism. He also used the words of the missionary lexicon—idolater, pagan, and so forth, a vocabulary further developed later by his ‘disciple Dharmapala, to castigate the Christians themselves. He did not concern himself overly with public morality, but he must surely have noted the existence of polyandry and also occasional polygamy:

Q: What does Buddhism teach about marriage?

A: Absolute chastity being a condition of full spiritual development, is most highly commended, but a marriage to one wife and fidelity to her is recognized as a kind of chastity. Polygamy was censured by the Buddha as involving ignorance and promoting lust.

Olcott was living in the hey-day of Victorian morality and, like Dharmapala after him, he tried to retranslate Sinhala-Buddhist values into Victorian terms. Olcott was ignorant of the fact that Buddhism was a non-sacramental religion that did not concern itself with regulating marriage and other rites of passage. As far as I know there is no instance in Buddhist texts where the Buddha condemned polygamy as involving ignorance and promoting lust.

The systematic modernist aspect of the Catechism is a justification that the doctrine is not only perfectly compatible with "science" but also in some ways is vindicated by modern science. Early in the Catechism he asks:

Q: Is that (karma theory) consistent or inconsistent with commonsense and the teachings of modern science?

A: Perfectly consistent: there can be no doubt about it.

He then developed this theme in a whole section entitled 'Buddhism and Science'. Here he justifies Buddhism as a "scientific religion" and notes its support of education and science. Perhaps the most interesting part is where he justifies popular Buddhist ideas pertaining to "Buddha rays" and the power of arahants (renouncers).

The former are "auras", their existence had been proved by scientific experiments of Baron Von Reichenbach; "Dr. Baraduc, of Paris, has, quite recently, photographed this light". These auras are therefore not miracles, but products of nature.

If the Buddhas and arahants emanate these, this is due to their "superior development". The power of the Buddhist arahant to project his image outside himself is also similar and based on hypnosis. These and other accomplishments are not "miracles" but powers cultivated by the Buddhist meditator.

This type of discourse is of course justified by Theosophy and it has gone into the Buddhism of educated people today. It produced in our time a line of pseudo-scientific investigations into the verification of rebirth through hypnosis and into philosophical attempts to legitimize Buddhist thought as a kind of "empiricism" of the British variety.

The whole thrust of Olcott's message exemplified the turn to modem Western writing to justify Buddhism. This thrust produces some startling absurdities:

Q: Where can be found a learned discussion of the word Nirvana and a list of other names by which the old Pali writers attempt to define it?

A: In the famous Dictionary of the Pali Language, by the late Mr. R. Childers is a complete list.

Q: In the whole text of the three Pitakas how many words are there?

A: Dr. Rhys Davids estimates them at 1,752,800.

The Buddhist Catechism was, in Olcott's own lifetime, translated into twenty-two languages and went into forty editions. The Sinhala translation was employed in Buddhist schools. The modern Buddhist curriculum, in practically all schools has been influenced, if not by the Catechism, at least by the larger tradition of Buddhist modernism that it initiated.

By himself Olcott's influence might have not been as great but for the fact that Anagarika Dharmapala, who had serious disagreements with Olcott, at least agreed with the latter's view of Buddhism as a scientific philosophy. Furthermore Dharmapala, like Olcott, castigated popular religious cults and the belief in gods and demons. "The gods are helpless to help the helpless", he said.

The message of the Buddha that I have tried to bring to you is free from theology, priestcraft, rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, heavens, hells and other theological shibboleths. The Buddha taught to the civilized Aryan of India 25 centuries ago a scientific religion containing the highest individualistic altruistic ethics, a philosophy of life built on psychological mysticism and a cosmogony which is in harmony with geology, astronomy, radioactivity, (sic) and relativity ...

It is interesting to note that Dharmapala, like Olcott, barely dealt with the jatakas, or life stories of the Buddha. In the collection of his English writings, edited by A. Guruge, the jatakas are discussed in one page and mainly as a storehouse for ethnological and historical information-which is exactly the Western indological conception of the jataka tales.

Buddhism as a religion of the heart

In the preceding account I traced the intellectual genealogy that helped effect the transfer into Sri Lanka of the Western conception of Buddhism. Institutionally, this transfer was effected through the Buddhist schools; later, with the expansion of the bourgeoisie by the middle of this century, this form of Buddhism constituted the dominant religious ideology in Sri Lanka.

The Lankan appropriation of the Western conception of Buddhism was perhaps inevitable. Traditionally, Buddhism recognized a clear distinction between the highly literate monkhood and the ordinary laity involved in the world. There are several places in the textual tradition that explicitly recognise that laymen cannot grasp the abstruse and abstract nature of the doctrine, and further, that the whole path of salvation through the discipline and technology of meditation was, for practical purposes, an exclusive preserve of the monks.

With the development of an educated bourgeoisie the monk order as the sole repository of the religion no longer held. Thus, it became possible for laymen to know more about Buddhism and its history than monks did. Their interpretation of Buddhism was however, based on the work of Western scholars.

There was nothing alienating about this since, 11 the context of the loss of self-worth that colonialism brought in its wake, the Western discovery o Buddhism as a "rational religion" appealed to the plurality of Sinhala, enhancing their dignity am helping them to recognise their nation as the historic center of Theravada Buddhism.

In this modern conception Buddhism is an atheistic and anti-magical religion of reason, as it were "Atheistic religion" is almost a contradiction in terms yet there are many Buddhists who will say that Buddhism is not a religion at all but a philosophy. It i not that this version of Buddhism is not true; it is, like all half-truths, also half false.

It eliminates ideas of faith, devotion, miracle, story telling, and parables that constitute a good part of the ongoing practical religious life. These elements arc not simply excrescences that were superadded to pristine Buddhism.

They existed to some extent in the original doctrinal corpus and were then supplemented historically from other sources such as Hinduism and pre-Buddhist folk beliefs.

The vision of Buddhism that Olcott initiated was one rooted in scientific and philosophical traditions of the West and might be designated as a "rationalist" adaptation of Buddhism, strongly influenced by the thought of the post-18th century Europe known as the Enlightenment.

The period of the European Enlightenment produced an efflorescence of modern science and philosophy including the social sciences. One of the features of Enlightenment thought is the philosophical assumption of a radical split or disjunction between mind and body, head and heart, thought and emotion.

These oppositions were in turn inherited from the thought of Rene Descartes, who could be viewed as -the great founder of modern Western scientific philosophy. Thus for Olcott the philosophical and rational component of Buddhism was primary and the emotional element - faith, miracle and devotion —was not intrinsic to the religion. For him the Buddha was a figure who fitted the thought of the European, Enlightenment.

The Buddha's own Enlightenment was Europeanized, so as to speak. However contrary to Olcott it is easy to show that the greatest of Buddhist philosophers like Buddhaghosa and Asvaghosha believed in both the abstract philosophical teachings as well as the devotional and so-called miraculous aspects.

In their thinking, unlike Olcott's, there is no radical disjunction or split between the mind and the heart, between thought and devotion.

For example, these Buddhist thinkers literally believed that the Buddha was born in a miraculous manner unsullied by impurity and that he had the thirty-two signs of a great man or mahapurusha —ideas that Olcott would have scoffed at.

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