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Colonel Henry Steel Olcott 2 August 1832 – 17 February 1907) enjoyed a remarkable life an American military officer, journalist, lawyer, co-founder and first President of the Theosophical Society and inspiration to the revival of Buddhism and Nationalism in Sri Lanka.
From 1858 to 1860 Olcott was the agricultural correspondent for the New York Tribune at which he learned the journalist’s craft.
During the American Civil War, he served in the Army 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 Department of the Navy in Washington, DC.
Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he assisted in the investigation of the assassination. Upon leaving the military in 1868 he became a lawyer specializing in insurance, revenue, and fraud.
He came to wide prominence as the first distinguished American to convert to Buddhism, a decision which scandalised high society at the time. His subsequent actions as president of the Theosophical Society, together with those of Helena Blavatsky helped create a renaissance in the study of Buddhism, and was amongst the first to popularise Buddhism to a Western audience.
Remarkably he is canonised in Sri Lanka for helping to shape their modern religious, national and cultural revival identity.
In 1874, he became aware of the séances of the Eddy Brothers of Chittenden, Vermont. His interest aroused, Olcott wrote an article for the New York Sun, in which he investigated Eddy Farms.
His article was popular enough that other papers, such as the New York Daily Graphic, republished it. His 1874 publication People from the Other World began with his early articles concerning the Spiritualist movement.
Also in 1874, Olcott met Helena Blavatsky while both were visiting the Eddy farm. His interest in the Spiritualist movement and his personal chemistry with Blavatsky resulted in the creation of the Theosophical Society barely a year later, in 1875 which he financially supported with him as President and Blavatsky as Secretary.
In December 1878, they left New York in order to move the headquarters of the Society to India. They landed at Bombay on February 16, 1879. Olcott aimed to experience the native country of his spiritual leader, the Buddha and inspect original spiritual and religious texts before translation.
He suspected that versions circulating in the West had drifted some way off the sense of the originals. The headquarters of the Society were established at Adyar, Chennai, as the Theosophical Society Adyar, incorprating the Adyar Library and Research Centre within the headquarters.
Olcott’s main religious interest was Buddhism, and he is commonly known for his work in Sri Lanka. After a two-year correspondence with Ven. Piyarathne Thissa, he and Blavatsky arrived in the then capital Colombo on May 16, 1880.
Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott took Five Precepts at the Wijayananda Viharaya located at Weliwatta in Galle on May 19, 1880 and on that day Olcott and Blavatsky were formally acknowledged as Buddhists, further to their previous Stateside declaration.
During his time in Sri Lanka 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. It is one of his most enduring contributions to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
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 Sangha.
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, and his work resonated back in the West too.
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 the “truth” 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.
The Theosophical Society built several Buddhist schools in Ceylon, most notably Ananda College in Colombo, Mahinda College in Galle, Dharmaraja College in Kandy and Maliyadeva College in Kurunegala. Olcott also acted as an adviser to the committee appointed to design a Buddhist flag in 1885.
The Buddhist flag designed with the assistance of Olcott was later adopted as a symbol by the World Fellowship of Buddhists and as the universal flag of all Buddhist traditions.
Helena Blavatsky eventually went to live in London, where she died in 1891, but Olcott stayed in India and pursued 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 sparked a new era of the movement. Upon his death, the Theosophical Society elected her to take over as President and leader of the movement.
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