Colonel Henry Steel Olcott
Henry Steel Olcott was born on August 2, 1832 into a pious Presbyterian household in Orange, New Jersey. In his teens, he attended the College of the City of New York and Columbia University. At the age of 20, he became a convert to spiritualism. Soon, he was championing a host of other causes, including anti-slavery, agricultural reform, women’s rights, cremation, and temperance. At 28 (1860), he married Mary Epplee Morgan, daughter of the rector of Trinity Parish and they had three sons.
He was earning a reputation in the field of agricultural education by
When the Civil war began in 1863, he joined the Army, serving initially as a special commissioner investigating allegations of fraud in the New York Disbursement office. Having achieved the rank of Colonel, he was seconded to the U.S. war and Navy departments in Washington. He was commended for his work by the Secretary of the Navy. Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, he was a member of the team that investigated the President’s murder. In 1865, he resigned his Commission and returned to New York where he became a member of the Bar, specializing in Customs and Excise and Insurance cases; he became a recognized expert in this area of law.
In 1874, he had a chance to meet Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and one year later he and Blavatsky co-founded the Theosophical Society, an organization that would soon play a major role in introducing Americans to the ancient wisdom of the East. Olcott became President and Blavatsky its Corresponding Secretary of the Society.
Henry Steel Olcott with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
On May 16, 1880, Olcott and Blavatsky arrived in olombo. There was a huge crowd ,awaiting to welcome them. White cloths was spread for them from the jetty steps to the road where carriages were ready, and 1,000 flags were frantically waved in welcome.
A few days later on May 25, at the Wijananda Temple in Galle, Olcott and Blavatsky took Pansil by reciting in broken Pali the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts of Theravada Buddhism and becoming the First European -Americans to publicly and formally become Buddhists. Olcott started to promote Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but also to work to, as he saw it, purify and reform Buddhism of practices that has crept into the popular tradition.
Olcott who had second visit to Ceylon in April 1881 together with Ven. Mohottivatte Gunananda Thera, who had spearheaded the first phase of the Sinhalese Buddhist revival, crisscrossed the Western Province for eight months in a bullock cart of his own design. He sold merit cards and solicited subscriptions to support his National Education Fund, wrote and distributed anti-Christian and pro-Buddhist tracts and secured support for his educational reforms.
Olcott’s great achievement was to start a school for Buddhist children. Ananda College had its roots 128 years ago in that historic year 1886 at No. 61, Maliban Street, Pettah, when he started a Buddhist High School and. C.W. Leadbeater, a foreigner and convert to Buddhism became the first principal, and there were 37 students enrolled to the school. Gradually, Olcott founded Buddhist schools in main cities, such as Dharmaraja College Kandy, Mahinda College Galle, Rahula College Matara and Maliyadewa College Kurunegala .He also established the Young Men’s Buddhist Association and lobbied for recognition of the Buddha’s Birthday (Wesak Poya Day) as a national holiday and acted as adviser to a committee appointed to design a Buddhist Flag.
Olcott pioneered unity between different Buddhist Communities. He traveled to Burma and Japan and advocated the formation of a World Buddhist League. In 1950 when the world Buddhist Fellowship was established, it adopted Olcott’s flag as its emblem. Colonel Henry Steel Olcott passed away at age of 75 in India on February 17, 1907.