Olcott - the beacon of commoner's education

by B. A. ABEYRATNA, Lanka Daily News, February 17, 2006

The 99th death anniversary of Col. Henry Steele Olcott falls today

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Many epithets have been ascribed to the great as Col. Henry Steele Olcott. Among them are the 'Searcher of truth', 'Catalyst of Buddhist renaissance', 'Liberator of down trodden', 'Revivalist of indigenous aspirations' etc.

<< Col. Henry Steele Olcott

The list appears awesome and endless, but this great man will be remembered most in this little island for the incomparable contribution he made to revive the indigenous education in this country.

Holding the Bible aloft and with a belief only in their own concepts of civilization, Sri Lanka's coastal areas were first conquered by the Portuguese in 1505, followed by the Dutch and finally the British who subjugated the whole island in 1815 by signing a treaty with the Kandyan Chieftains.

However, with the passage of time, the people of Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese in particular found that the British were wanting in their gentlemanly ways in honouring the very agreement they signed in 1815.

In an attempt to assert themselves the Sinhalese staged a few rebellions, notable among those were the ones led by Puranappu and Kappetipola Adigar in the late 19th century.

Although they fell short of getting the mighty British empire out of the island, they were able to make a considerable impact on the local British administration.

A group of local scholars led by the Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera waged a relentless battle against this onslaught and their 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 in 1873.

Col. Olcott was an intellectual, a philosopher and above all a 'Searcher of Truth'. 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 the soil, his interest in agriculture made him the agricultural editor of Tribune, a widely circulated American newspaper at the time.

The break out of civil war in America made him join the army and he rose to the rank of Colonel by the time he discharged his national obligations of the time. In keeping with his intellectual pursuits Col. Olcott then studied law and by around the 1880s 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.

Intellectualism in the Buddhist philosophy appealed to 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 philanthropists the Buddhist Theosophist Society (BTS) was formed to uplift the lot of the Buddhist in 1880.

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 uncivilized in the eyes of the colonial masters and their local lackeys.

Education, Government employment, and all forms of Government patronization 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.

Although the basic characteristics of the traditional Sinhala Buddhist life style was still prevalent among the population, the BTS realized the need to have an organized formal education for the Sinhalese Buddhist to counter this westernization 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 was quite mindful of the influence education could have in shaping the future society and was therefore 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 realized this glaring discriminatory practice in educational facilities and more importantly to lay the foundation for Sinhala Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, Col. Olcott mobilized 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 Thera and Ven. Hikkaduwe Siri Sumangala Thera.

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 realized 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 decide 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 patronized 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).

The full significance of this activity should be evaluated in the light that the Government taking the cue established a further 200 Madya Maha Vidyalayas of a similar mould in the length and breath of the country from the 1930s onwards.

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, F.l. Woodward, Dr. G.P. Mallalasekare, Thomas de Silva, the BTS schools were able to slowly but surely establish themselves as second to none in the field of education.

However the BTS schools were called upon to play a role beyond just mere academic accomplishments at the time as the people of Ceylon and specially the Sinhalese Buddhist realized the necessity of a struggle to win independence from the British.

With a couple of decades in to the twentieth century, Ananda College in Colombo and other BTS schools in their respective towns were to be the national co-ordination centers for activities connected with the national independence movement.

Ananda's college hall named 'Olcott Hall' after Henry Steele Olcott was the hive of activity and among those who graced this place to hold discussions with regard to national activities of the time, were world renown personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi and Sir Rabindranath Thagore.

This is in addition to a host of local patriots such as Anagarika Dharmapala, Walisingha Harischandra, Ven. S. Mahinda Thera and the Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera.

The present Buddhist flag, designed by Hikkaduewe Sri Sumangala Thera and Col. Olcott, was first exhibited within the precincts of Ananda.

Therefore the contribution these schools have made to the modern Sri Lankan society is simply too numerous to be discussed in an article on Col. 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.

In a recent press report on the Tsunami devastation a writer dwelling on the tsunami history in Sri Lanka quoted a newspaper report from an ancient Sinhala newspaper called 'Sarasavi Sandaresa' on the Tsunami of Krakatum in 1883.

It was Col. Olcott who pioneered and ran this newspaper for the majority Sinhala reader for he believed in liberation of the larger polity through general education.

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.

The writer is Principal - Ananda College, Colombo, Vice President, Sri Lanka Foundation of Alumni Association of Buddhist Schools