Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (August 2, 1832 – February 17, 1907) was an American military officer, journalist, lawyer and co-founder and first president of the Theosophical Society.
Olcott was the first American acquaintance of European descent to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. His later actions as president of the Theosophical Society helped to create a rebirth in the study of Buddhism.Olcott is considered a Buddhist modernist for his efforts in interpreting Buddhism through a Westernized lens.
Olcott was a great renovator of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and is still honored in Sri Lanka for these efforts. Olcott has been called by the Sinhalese «one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the current religious, national and cultural renaissance.»
In 1860 Olcott married Mary Epplee Morgan, daughter of the rector of the parish of Trinity, New Rochelle, New York. They had four children, two of whom died in childhood.
He served in the United States Army during the American Civil War and was later admitted as the Special Commissioner of the Department of War in New York. Later he was promoted to the rank of colonel and transferred to the Department of the Navy in Washington, DC.
He was well respected, and in 1865, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he helped in the murder investigation.
In 1868 he became a lawyer specialized in insurance, income and fraud. In 1874 he became aware of the sessions of the Eddy Brothers of Chittenden, Vermont. His interest woke up, Olcott wrote an article for the New York Sun, in which he investigated Eddy Farms. His article was popular enough for other newspapers, such as the New York Daily Graphic, to republish.His publication of 1874 People of the Other World began with his first articles on the Spiritualist movement.
Also in 1874, Olcott met Helena Blavatsky while both visited the Eddy farm.His fundamental interest in the spiritualist movement and his budding relationship with Blavatsky helped foster his development of spiritual philosophy.
From 1874, the growth and spiritual development of Olcott 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 in the city of New York, United States.Olcott financially supported the early years of the Theosophical Society and was acting president, while Blavatsky served as secretary of the Society.
In December 1878, they left New York to move the Society’s headquarters to India. They landed in Bombay on February 16, 1879.
Olcott set out to experience the home country of his spiritual leader, the Buddha. The headquarters of the Society was established in Adyar, Chennai as the Adyar Theosophical Society, also beginning the Adyar Library and the Research Center within the headquarters.
While in India, Olcott endeavored to receive translations of Eastern sacred texts that were available as a result of Western research. His intention was to avoid the Westernized interpretations that are often found in the United States, and to discover the pure message of texts of the Buddhist, Hindu and Zoroastrian religions, in order to adequately educate Westerners.
Olcott continued to act as a lawyer during the early years of the establishment of the Theosophical Society, in addition to being a financial advocate for the new religious movement.
In early 1875, prominent spiritualists asked Olcott to investigate an accusation of fraud against the mediums Jenny and Nelson Holmes, who had claimed to materialize the famous «spiritual control» Katie King (Doyle 1926: volume 1, 269-277).
In 1880 Helena Blavatsky and Olcott became the first Westerners to receive the shelters and precepts, the ceremony by which one traditionally becomes a Buddhist; therefore, Blavatsky was the first Western woman to do so. Olcott once described his adult faith as «pure and primitive Buddhism,» but his was a unique type of Buddhism.
The main religious interest of Olcott was Buddhism, and he is known for his work in Sri Lanka. After a two-year correspondence with Ven.Piyarathne Thissa, he and Blavatsky arrived at the then capital Colombo on May 16, 1880. Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott took the five precepts at the Wijayananda Viharaya located at Weliwatta in Galle on May 19, 1880. That day Olcott and Blavatsky they were formally recognized as Buddhists, although Olcott pointed out that they had previously declared themselves Buddhists, while still living in the United States.
During his time in Sri Lanka Olcott endeavored to revive Buddhism within the region, while compiling the principles 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, especially Ananda College and Nalanda College, Colombo, Dharmaraja College in Kandy, Mahinda College in Galle, Musaeus Girls College, Colombo and Maliyadeva College in Kurunegala. Olcott also acted as advisor to the committee appointed to design a Buddhist banner in 1885.
The Buddhist banner designed with the help of Olcott was later adopted as a symbol by the World Community of Buddhists and as the universal banner of all Buddhist traditions.
Helena Blavatsky finally went to live in London, where she died in 1891, but Olcott stayed in India and continued the work of the Theosophical Society there. Olcott’s role in the Theosophical Society would still be as president, but the induction of Annie Besant brought about a new era of movement.Upon his death, the Theosophical Society elected her to assume control as president and leader of the movement.
Olcott’s «Buddhist Catechism», composed in 1881, is one of his most enduring contributions to the rebirth of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and remains in use today. The text describes what Olcott saw as the basic doctrines of Buddhism, including the life of the Buddha, the message of the Dharma, the role of the Sangha. The text also deals with how the Buddha’s message correlates with contemporary society. Olcott was considered by the Asians of the south and others as a devout Buddhist. It is presented in the same question and answer format used in some Christian catechisms.
The combination of theosophists of spiritualism and science to investigate the supernatural reflects the desire of society to combine religion and reason and produce a rationally spiritual movement. This «occult science» within the Theosophical Society was used to find the «truth» behind all the major religions of the world. Through their research, Olcott and Blavatsky concluded that Buddhism best embodied the elements of what they considered significant in all religions.
Olcott used scientific reasoning in his synthesis and presentation of Buddhism. This is clearly seen in a chapter of his «Buddhist Catechism,» entitled «Buddhism and Science.» In particular, his efforts represent one of the first attempts to combine scientific understanding and reasoning with Buddhist religion. The interrelationship he saw between Buddhism and science paralleled his theosophical approach to show the scientific basis of supernatural phenomena such as auras, hypnosis and Buddhist «miracles».
Olcott was president of the Theosophical Society until his death on February 17, 1907.
Two main streets in Colombo and Galle have been named Olcott Mawatha, to commemorate it. A statue of him has been erected in front of Colombo Fort train station.
Many other schools that he helped 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 Lanka today. On September 10, 2011, a statue of Colonel Olcott was discovered at a Buddhist temple near Princeton, New Jersey.
The date of his death is often remembered by Buddhist schools and Sunday schools in present-day Sri Lanka, as well as in theosophical communities around the world. Olcott thought himself the savior of Asia, the foreign hero who would come to the end of the drama to save a disenchanted subcontinent from spiritual death.
The effort to revitalize Buddhism within Sri Lanka was successful and influenced many native Buddhist intellectuals. Sri Lanka was dominated by British colonial power and influence of the time, and many Buddhists heard Olcott’s interpretation of the Buddha’s message as a social motivator and support for efforts to reverse colonialist efforts to ignore Buddhism and Buddhist tradition.
This was despite the fact that his reinterpretation of the Buddha was along the modern liberal ideas promoted by the British in Sri Lanka.
As David McMahan wrote, «Henry Steel Olcott saw the Buddha as a very similar figure to the ideal liberal freethinker: someone full of ‘benevolence’, ‘gratitude’ and ‘tolerance’, who promoted ‘brotherhood among all men’ as well as’ lessons of masculine self-sufficiency «. His westernized vision of Buddha influenced the leaders of Sri Lanka, such as Anagarika Dharmapala.
Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala were associated, reflecting both men’s awareness of the division between East and West, as seen in their presentation of Buddhism in the West. Olcott economically assisted the Buddhist presence in the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893.
The inclusion of the Buddhists in the Parliament allowed the expansion of Buddhism in the West in general and in America specifically, which led to other modernist Buddhist movements.
As Stephen Prothero wrote, it was Olcott who most eloquently articulated and most obviously embodied the diverse religious and cultural traditions that shaped Protestant Buddhism, who gave the revival movement both its organizational form and its emphasis on education as character building.The most Protestant of all the early Protestant Buddhists, Olcott was the liminoid figure, the griot that due to his uncomfortable position between the American Protestant grammars of his youth and the Asian Buddhist lexicon of his adulthood was able to conjure up traditional Sinhalese Buddhism, Protestant modernism, metropolitan courtesy and academic orientalism in a decidedly new creole tradition. This Olcott Creole tradition then passed on to a whole generation of Sinhalese students educated in their schools.
Olcott is probably the only major contributor to the nineteenth-century Sinhalese Buddhist rebirth that was born and grew in the Protestant Christian tradition, although he had already abandoned Protestantism for spiritualism long before he became a Buddhist. His childhood Protestantism is one reason why many scholars have referred to Buddhist modernism that he influenced as «Protestant Buddhism.»
With such parents, Olcott and Blavatskaya, it is not surprising to find the concoction of conflicting doctrines that is the current commercial Buddhism.