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Home: Religion: Theosophy: Henry Steel Olcott.

Henry Steel Olcott

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) was an American military officer, journalist, lawyer and the co-founder and first President of the Theosophical Society.




Colonel Henry Steel Olcott

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott was the first well-known person of European ancestry to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. His subsequent actions as president of the Theosophical Society helped create a renaissance in the study of Buddhism. He is still honored in Sri Lanka today for these efforts. He is considered a Buddhist modernist for his efforts in interpreting Buddhism through a Westernized lens.

Olcott has been called by Sri Lankans "one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national and cultural revival." More ardent admirers have claimed that Olcott was a bodhisattva, a reincarnation of the third century B.C.E. Buddhist emperor Ashoka, and/ or a reincarnation of Gautama Buddha himself.

Henry Olcott Biography

Olcott was born in 1832 in Orange, New Jersey. Henry was the oldest son of six children born to a Presbyterian businessman Henry Wyckoff Olcott and his wife Emily Steel Olcott. As a child, Olcott lived on his father's New Jersey farm. During his teens he attended first the College of the City of New York and then Columbia University where he joined the St. Anthony Hall fraternity, a milieu of well-known people, until his father's business failed during 1851. Unfortunately, he had to leave the university since his father could not afford the tuition.

In 1860 he married Mary Epplee Morgan, daughter of the rector of Trinity parish, New Rochelle, New York. They had four children, two of which died in infancy. Olcott was the agricultural correspondent for the New York Tribune and The Mark Lane Express from 1858 to 1860, and he sometimes submitted newspaper articles on various other subjects. He also published a genealogy of his family that traced him back to Thomas Olcott, one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut in 1636.

He served in the US Army during the Civil War and afterward was admitted as the Special Commissioner of the War Department in New York. He was later promoted to the rank of Colonel and transferred to the Navy Department in Washington, DC. He was well respected, and in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Olcott assisted in the investigation. In 1868 he became a lawyer specializing in insurance, revenue, and fraud.

In 1874 he became aware of the sťances of the Eddy brothers of Chittenden, Vermont. His aroused interest motivated Olcott to commission an article from the New York Sun, allowing him to investigate the Eddy Farms. His article was popular enough that other papers, such as the New York Daily Graphic, ran it. His 1874 publication of People from the Other World began with his these early articles concerning the Spiritualist movement.

In 1874, while writing this series of articles, Olcott met Helena Blavatsky when both of them visited the Eddy farm. His foundational interest in the Spiritualist movement and his budding relationship with Blavatsky helped foster his development of spiritual philosophy. Olcott official conversion to Buddhism is considered the first American Buddhists. Olcott once described his adult faith as "pure, primitive Buddhism," but his was a unique sort of Buddhism.

H.P. Blavatsky standing behind Henry Steel Olcott (middle seated) and Damodar Mavalankar (seated to his left). Bombay 1881:

Olcott continued to act as a lawyer during the first few years of the establishment of the Theosophical Society, in addition to being the financial supporter of the new religious movement. In early 1875 Olcott was asked by important Spiritualists to investigate an accusation of fraud against the mediums Jenny and Nelson Holmes, who had claimed to materialize the famous spirit control Katie King.

Theosophical Society

From 1874 on, Olcott's spiritual growth and development with Blavatsky and other spiritual leaders would lead to the founding of the Theosophical Society.

In 1875, Olcott, Blavatsky, and others, notably William Quan Judge, formed the Theosophical Society. Olcott financially supported the earliest years of the Theosophical Society and was acting President while Blavatsky served as the Society s Secretary. In December 1878 they left New York in order to move the headquarters of the Society to India. H.P. Blavatsky standing behind Henry Steel Olcott (middle seated) and Damodar Mavalankar (seated to his left). Bombay 1881

They landed at Bombay on February 16, 1879. Olcott set out to experience the native country of his spiritual leader, the Buddha. The headquarters of the Society were established at Adyar, as the Theosophical Society (Adyar). While in India, Olcott strove to receive original translations of texts which had grown in popularity as a result of colonialist collections of sacred Oriental texts. His intent was to avoid the Westernized interpretations often encountered in America, and to discover the pure message of texts from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Zoroastrian religions, in order to properly educate Westerners.

Olcott's main religious interest was Buddhism, and he is commonly known for his work in Ceylon. On 16 May 1880, they arrived in Colombo, in what was then known as Ceylon, currently known as Sri Lanka. On May 25th, Olcott and Blavatsky were formally acknowledged as Buddhists, although Olcott noted that they had previously declared themselves Buddhists, while still living in America. During his time in Ceylon, Olcott strove to revive Buddhism within the region, while compiling the tenets of Buddhism for the education of Westerners. It was during this period that he wrote the Buddhist Catechism (1881), which is still used today.

The Theosophical Society built several Buddhist schools in Ceylon, most notably Ananda College, Dharmaraja College, Maliyadeva College, and Mahinda College. After his death, Blavatsky's protege Annie Besant became the manager of the Society.

Olcott acted as adviser to the committee appointed to design a Buddhist flag. Blavatsky eventually went to live in London where she died, but Henry stayed in India and pursued the work of the Society there.

Olcott's role in the Theosophical Society would still be as President, but the induction of Annie Besant sparked a new era of the movement. Upon his death, the Society elected her to take over as President and leader of the movement.

Olcotte statue situated near the auditorium of Dharmaraja College, Kandy.

Olcott's Science and Theosophy

The Theosophists combination of spiritualism and science to investigate the supernatural reflected the society's desire to combine of religion and reason and to produce a rationally spiritual movement. This occult science within the Theosophical Society was used to find thetruth behind all of the world's major religions. Through their research, Olcott and Blavatsky concluded that Buddhism best embodied elements of what they found significant in all religions.

Olcott utilized Western scientific reasoning in his synthesis and presention of Buddhism. This is clearly seen in a chapter of the Buddhist Catechism, entitled Buddhism and Science. Notably, his efforts represent one of the earliest attempts to combine the scientific understanding and reasoning of the West with the Buddhist religion of the East. The interrelationship he saw between Buddhism and Science paralleled his Theosophical approach to show the scientific bases for supernatural phenomena such as auras, hypnosis, and Buddhist miracles. 

Death and legacy

Olcott was President of the Theosophical Society until his death on February 17, 1907. Olcott Mawatha, a major street in Colombo, has been named after him. A statue of him has been built in front of Colombo Fort Railway Station. Many other schools that he helped to found or were founded in memory of him have commemorative statues in honor of his contribution to Buddhist education. He is still remembered fondly by many Sri Lankans today.

The date of his death is often remembered by Buddhist centers and Sunday schools in present-day Sri Lanka, as well as in Theosophical communities around the globe. Olcott believed himself to be Asia's savior, the outsider hero who would sweep in at the end of the drama to save a disenchanted subcontinent from spiritual death.

The effort to revitalize Buddhism within Ceylon was successful and influenced many native Buddhist intellectuals. Ceylon was dominated by colonial power and influence at the time, and many Buddhists heard Olcott s interpretation of the Buddha's message as socially motivating and supportive of efforts to overturn colonialist efforts to suppress Buddhism and Buddhist tradition. As David McMahan wrote, Henry Steel Olcott saw the Buddha as a figure much like the ideal liberal freethinker  someone full of benevolence, gratitude, and tolerance, who promoted brotherhood among all men as well as lessons in manly self-reliance. His view of Buddha influenced Sri Lankan leaders, such as Anagarika Dharmapala.

Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala were associates, which reflects both men s awareness of the divide between East and West - as seen in their presentation of Buddhism to the West. Olcott helped financially support the Buddhist presence at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893. The inclusion of Buddhists in the Parliament allowed for the expansion of Buddhism within the West in general and in America specifically, leading to other Buddhist Modernist movements.

Olcott is probably the only major contributor to the nineteenth-century Sinhalese Buddhist revival who was actually born and raised in the Protestant fold. As such, he can be credited him with influencing the start of Protestant Buddhism.

Buddhist Catechism: The Text of the Buddhist Catechism

The Buddhist Catechism, composed by Olcott in 1881, represents one of his most enduring contributions to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and it remains in use there still today. The text outlines what Olcott saw to be the basic doctrines of Buddhism, including the life of the Buddha, the message of the Dharma, the role of the Sanga. The text also treats how the Buddha s message correlates with contemporary society. Olcott was considered by South Asians and others as a Buddhist revivalist

Olcott's Buddhist Catechism is presented in the same format of question and answer used in the Christian Catechism. Here are a few examples from that text:

  • Q. Would you call a person a Buddhist who has merely been born of Buddhist parents?
    A. Certainly not. A Buddhist is one who not only professes belief in the Buddha as the noblest of Teachers, in the Doctrine preached by Him, and in the brotherhood of Arhats, but practices his Precepts in daily life.
  • Q. What is Karma? A. A causation operating on the moral, as well as physical and other planes. Buddhists say there is no miracle in human affairs: what a man sows that he must still reap.
  • Q. What other good words have been used to express the essence of Buddhism? A. Self-culture and universal love.
    Concerning the Four sights and how they impacted the Buddha:
  • Q: Why should these sights, so familiar to everybody, have caused him to go into the jungle? A. We often see such signs. He had not; and they made a deep impression on his mind.
  • Q: Why had he not also seen them?
    A: The astrologers had foretold at his birth that he would one day resign his kingdom and become a Buddha. The King, his father, not wishing to loose his son, had carefully prevented his seeing any sights that might suggest to him human misery and death. No one was allowed even to speak of such things to the Prince. He was almost like a prisoner in his lovely palaces and flower gardens. They were surrounded with high walls; and inside everything was made as beautiful as possible, so that he might not want to go and see the sorrow and distress that are in the world.
  • Q: Was he so kind hearted that his father feared he might really want to sacrifice himself for the world's sake?
    A: Yes; he seems to have felt for all being so strong a pity and love as that.
  • Q. Why does ignorance cause suffering? A. Because it makes us prize what is not worth prizing, grieve for that we should not grieve for, consider real what is not real but only illusory, and pass out lives in the pursuit of worthless objects, neglecting what is in reality most valuable.
  • Q. And what is that which is most valuable?
    A. To know the whole secret of man s existence and destiny, so that we may estimate at no more than their actual value and this life and its relations; so that we may live in a way to insure the greatest happiness and the least suffering for our fellow-men and ourselves
Henry Olcott's Catechism reflects a new, Protestant interpretation of traditional Buddhist tenets. As David McMahan stated, allied Buddhism with scientific rationalism in implicit criticism of orthodox Christianity, but went well beyond the tenets of conventional science in extrapolating from the Romantic- and Transcendentalist-influenced occult sciences of the nineteenth century. 

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