Olcott - the Searcher of Truth

by Palitha SENANAYAKE, Lanka Daily News, Feb 17, 2007

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The first instance was in 1920's when the missionaries of the Church of America acceded to a request made by the British Government to establish missionary schools in then British colony Ceylon.

<< IMPACT: The American impact on the evolution of modern education in Sri Lanka has taken place at too crucial junctures in the history of the country.

The second American involvement came at an equally crucial time in the history of the island nation when this Colonel Henry Steel Olcott with Ven. Hikkaduwe Siri Sumangala Thera  Juggernaut of missionary education was about to roll over the indigenous education and values of the majority.

Thus it manifested in the form of renaissance of Buddhist education in the later half of the 19th century spearheaded by that American theosophist by the name of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott.

On the aftermath of the Kandyan rebellion in 1818, just three years after the Kandyan treaty, the British in their inability to place a degree of trust in the Sinhalese to conduct their affairs of governance and industry, started increasingly relying on the expatriate labour from England.

But soon this proved to be commercially non viable and administratively impractical as the system, they envisaged, would eventually require an army of blue and white labour.

India by this time had started a very productive missionary education system turning out Indians with Anglicized values and Governor Torrington no doubt decided to take leaf out of the Indian administration to govern the troubled island in the south.

However, unlike in India, there were no diverse ethnicities in Sri Lanka but there was a sizeable Tamil minority in Jaffna.

The British decided to import labour for its Police force from Java and Sumatra, indentured labour from South India for the estates and then to educate the Jaffna Tamils to generate a trustworthy blue/white labour force for industry and administration.

In implementing this decision the colonial administration found that their own missionary education network was exhausted in serving the calls of the 'empire where the sun never sets' and hence invited the Americans to help in the missionary work.

The American missionaries arrived in Jaffna and established St. Johns and St. Patrick's colleges for boys in 1924 and the Kokkuvil girls school for girls in 1929 in Jaffna.

These were the first English education institutes with the full compliment of facilities to be set up in the soil of Island of Ceylon.

Hence a more organized Western system of education was initially established in Jaffna and this was even before the Colombo Academy (the present Royal College) was established in Colombo in 1934.

As much as the first instance of American involvement came involuntarily at the behest of colonial administration in pursuance of the British colonial policy, the second involvement came voluntarily in the later half of the 19th century, to check the advancement of that very colonial educational policy.

In the 1860's a group of local scholars led by the Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera waged a relentless battle against this onslaught and the imposition of missionary education and values in the name of 'civilization' on the indigenous population, who by themselves counted a legacy of a 2500 year old civilized history.

This campaign included holding intellectual debates between the Church and the Temple to decide what is best for the indigenous population.

These efforts bore fruit from the most unexpected quarters when the news of the 'Panadura debate' reached a young 'Theosophist' in the United States of America called Col Henry Steele Olcott in1873. Col. Olcott was an intellectual, a philosopher and above all a 'searcher of truth'.

It was during the course of his quest to conquer the truth, beyond the facade of existing religious dogmas and beliefs, that he stumbled upon the intellectual reasoning in Buddhist philosophy.

Col. Olcott was born on August 2, 1832 to Christian parents in the State of New Jersey, United States of America. After his primary education he graduated from the university of Colombia.

Essentially a man of soil and his interest in agriculture made him the agricultural editor of Tribune, a widely circulated American news paper at the time. The break out of civil war in America made him join the army and rose to the rank of colonel.

In keeping with his academic pursuits Col Olcott then studied law and by around the 1880's he was a much sought after lawyer in the State of New Jersey with a lucrative practice.

Col. Olcott however was a theosophist who believed that 'Truth is above all religion" and an avid reader of philosophy and matters temporal and spiritual. Theosophy is the ultimate truth.

As a result of the appeal, Buddism held out for him, he gave up his promising practice as a lawyer in the state of New Jersey and arrived in Sri Lanka with Madam Blavenski, another theosophist.

Having arrived in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, Col Olcott was much moved by the unjust practices perpetrated on the benign majority by an unscrupulous minority who wielded administrative power.

He took to the cause of the Buddhists as his own 'calling' in life. Thus, with the patronage of the local patriots and philanthropist the Buddhist Theosophist Society (BTS) was formed to uplift the lot of the Buddhist in1880.

The situation in Sri Lanka at the time could only be left to anybody's imagination. The Sinhalese and Buddhist values were looked down upon as 'uncivilised' in the eyes of the colonial masters and their local lackeys.

Education, Government employment, and all forms of Government patronisation were only available to those who 'toed the line' with the British empire, its values and its religion.

In a wider sense it was an era where the might was right and the values and beliefs of the indigenous people were consigned to the barrows.

This was quite in contrast to the current scenario where there are a surfeit of activists groups crying horse for the minority grievances, internationalising them to the point of unmanageability.

The irony however is that it is the antecedents of these very activists groups that heaped all that unjust discriminatory practices under the colonial rule on the majority at that time in the name of 'civilization'.

Although the basic characteristics of the traditional Sinhala Buddhist lifestyle was still prevalent among the population, the BTS realised the need to have an organized formal education for the Sinhalese Buddhist to counter this westernisation and the indoctrination.

The locals had to be taught, to accept their values, culture and education 'as good as any' to restore their self confidence and to redeem them from the servile mentality. Education has to be the foundation on which any civilization is built shaping its values, perceptions and the way forward.

The colonial Government of the day at the time was aiding 77 missionary schools throughout the Island while only two Buddhist schools, one at Panadura and one at Dodanduwa were registered under the Dept. of education.

Having realised this glaring discriminatory practice in educational facilities and more importantly to lay the foundation for Sinhala Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, Col. Olcott mobilised the local philanthropist in Galle to help the Buddhist school at Dodanduwa.

It must be appreciated that initially Col. Olcott's activities were centered around Galle since he was inspired by his teacher, Ven Migettuwatte Gunananda and Ven. Hikkaduwe Siri Sumangala. He was also ordained as a Buddhist at the Viyayananda Viharaya in Galle.

However, after trying his hand as a patron of a comparatively remote school in Galle Col. Olcott realised that it was extremely difficult to accomplish the plan he had in mind by starting from the bottom.

Hence the BTS reassessed the situation and decided that the educational revival should start from the city to have a better effect in a shorter time.

Hence there was a change of strategy and BTS was able to get premises in the Maliban Street in Pettah to commence the first BTS school by the name of 'Buddhist English Academy' in the city, on November 1, 1886.

This school, which was later re-named 'Ananda College' and was to be the most sought after school in year 1 admissions eventually, had only 37 students at the beginning.

This however was only a prelude to a string of similar institutions to be founded later in all other major cities in the Island.

Buoyed by the spirit of the local patriots who patronised Ananda, the BTS set about in establishing similar schools all over the Island and as a result in 1887 Dharmaraja in Kandy, (1891) Mahinda in Galle, (1895) Maliyadeva in Kurunegala, (1913) Dharmasoka in Ambalangoda, (1924 ) Rahula in Matara, were established. The expansion of Ananda under that inspiring leadership of Dr. P. De S. Kularatne then lead to the establishment of Nalanda in Colombo (1925) and Dharmapala in Pannipitiya (1940).

At the initial stages the schools found it somewhat uneasy to tread the compromising line between the local aspirations and the Government demands but with time, settled down to the role of a catalyst in national renaissance.

On the one hand the schools had to put up with the step-motherly treatment of the authorities while on the other it canvassed the support and blessings of the general public.

For a parent, education of a child is a sensitive issue that involves the very future of the family establishment.

When confronted with the choice between the proven institutions of the establishment and the messiah of an uncertain promised land, any parent, and specially well to do, would opt not to gamble with the future of their children and as a result only the very patriotic citizens were to initially send their children to the BTS schools.

However, with the guidance of patriotic and dedicated persons in the caliber of Sir D. B. Jayatileka, A. B. Perera, Dr. Daly, Fl Woodward, Dr. G P. Malalasekara, Thomas De Silva, the BTS schools were able to slowly but surely establish themselves as second to none in the field of education.

Since then and specially after the independence which brought a new sense of national renaissance, BTS schools were able to forge ahead in university admissions and extracurricular activities albeit with comparatively limited facilities.

However, the greatest service the BTS schools were able to render was in serving as a model to the many Maha Vidyalaya's, the Government of the day was in the process of establishing through the length and breadth of the country.

The Minister of Education at the time Mr. C. W. W. Kannangara, having introduced the free education was looking askance to make that policy more meaningful.

In the BTS schools Mr. Kannangara found a viable model to take the education to the village. Even though the many accomplishments of these BTS schools, in different fields, are too numerous to be mentioned here, it is an undisputed fact in the history of education in Sri Lanka that it is the BTS schools that opened the gates of education to the children of the majority, i.e. first to the oppressed Buddhist and then to the commoner.

When the writer chose Accountancy as a profession as recently as the early seventies, aspersions were cast to the effect that the particular profession was dominated by members of a minority community and hence that there would be communal marginalisation.

Today not a single profession in Sri Lanka is dominated by any minority group and even the most privileged bastions have fallen one by one to the educated, mostly from the BTS schools.

Those who travel abroad will notice that in many countries where Sri Lankan professionals are employed, that most of them are the products of these BTS schools.

Even the writer of this article, being an old student of Ananda, is a benefactor of the BTS movement.

Hence the contribution these schools have made to the modern Sri Lankan society is enormous and stands in eternal tribute to that searcher of life's truth, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott.

Apart from these accomplishments, it is no accidents that Sri Lanka cricket attained test status just about the time that schools such as Ananda and Nalanda emerged as the champions of local cricket at the expense of more suave schools who often treated cricket as their rightful colonial legacy.

It is probably this self belief that the 'locals are second to none', instilled and nurtured by the BTS philosophy that probably helped Sri Lanka to win the world cup in cricket eventually, for there were 6 members in that world cup winning team including its captain, from BTS schools.

The activities of Col. Olcott however, was not limited to opening up of schools for the commoners. He realized the importance of a literate society and to this end he initiated the first Sinhala newspaper called 'Sarasavi Sandaresa' in 1883. Col. Olcott died on the 17th of February 1907 in Madrass.

The greatest homage we can pay to this extraordinary American personality, who meant so much to so many in this country, is to contemplate that his contribution to the Sri Lanka's liberation on enlightenment has been truly without a parallel. May he conquer the 'truth' that he always considered to be above all else.