Henry Steel Olcott Essaytyper

Henry Steel Olcott (August 2, 1832 – February 17, 1907) was an agriculturist, American military officer, journalist, lawyer, and co-founder of the Theosophical Society.

He held the title of President-Founder of the Society from 1875 till his death in 1907. He was the first well-known American of European ancestry to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. During his presidency he helped to restore Buddhism in South Asia, and established schools for children of Buddhist and Hindu families, among many other notable achievements.

Col. Olcott related the timeless wisdom of Theosophy to the cultures of both East and West, applied it to everyday life, and built the Society into an international organization.

Agricultural work

Colonel Olcott was a descendant of a family which had settled in America many generations earlier when the Puritan, Thomas Olcott, came to this country. His father, Henry Wyckoff Olcott, and his mother, Emily Steel, were both of New York City. He was born in Orange, New Jersey, on August 2, 1832, the eldest of six children.

During his early years he was absorbed in agricultural experimentation, and by the age of 23 he had gained international notice for his work at the Scientific Agricultural Farm near Newark, New Jersey. His success there brought him offers of a directorship of the Agricultural Bureau at Washington, and the Chair of Agriculture at the University of Athens, Greece, both of which he declined. Instead, he founded the Westchester Farm School near Mt. Vernon, New York—a model farm for experimentation and agricultural education and the first American scientific school of agriculture. Here, he conducted experiments with sorghum and published his first book, Sorghum and Imphee, the Chinese and African Sugar Canes, which became a school textbook and has been reprinted as recently as 2000.

Considered an agricultural expert by age 26, Olcott was again the recipient of many offers in that field, including an invitation to join a government botanical mission. He declined these offers, however, and traveled to Europe to study agricultural methods and developments. His report was published in the American Cyclopedia. Upon his return to America he became Associate Agricultural Editor of the New York Tribune, which position he held until 1860.


On April 26, 1860, he married Mary Epplee Morgan, of New Rochelle, New York, daughter of the Reverend Richard U. Morgan, rector of Trinity parish in that city. They had three sons and a daughter, but unfortunately the daughter and one son died in infancy.

Military service

While working as Associate Agricultural Editor of the New York Tribune, he was American correspondent of the Mark Lane Express, London. In 1859, while reporting the hanging of John Brown, the abolitionist, for the Tribune, Olcott was arrested as a spy and condemned to death. However, he was released upon his appeal to his captors under the seal of confidence as a Freemason.

In 1862, he enlisted in the Northern Army and fought through the North Carolina campaign under General Burnside. Continuing in the Northern army after that campaign, he became ill and was sent to New York for recuperation. Colonel Olcott possessed extraordinary courage, both physical and moral, and it was during this period of his life that this characteristic began to show itself strongly.

When he was well enough, instead of returning to active service in the army, the government asked him to conduct an inquiry into suspected frauds at the New York Mustering and Discharging Office. For four years, in the face of the most active opposition, Olcott continued this investigation despite threats, false accusations, and offers of bribes. At the end of that time, he had secured enough evidence to result in the conviction of the leading criminal, who was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and also the dismissal of others implicated. For this service, he received a letter of recognition from Secretary Stanton stating that his service was "as important to the Government as the winning of a great battle".

Now, the War Department, and two years later, the Navy Department asked for Colonel Olcott's services in like capacity. In both of these appointments he distinguished himself, receiving again the highest praise from the heads of both departments and the added comment, "That you have thus escaped with no stain upon your reputation, when we consider the corruption, audacity and power of the many villains in high position whom you have prosecuted and punished, is a tribute of which you may well be proud"[1]. Colonel Olcott had been admitted to the bar in 1868, and at the end of his government service, he entered private practice. Among his clients were many of the large corporations of the country.

Meeting H. P. Blavatsky

During all of these years, Colonel Olcott had been interested in Spiritualism, and in 1874 he was asked to take a special assignment for the New York Graphic to report the psychic phenomena at the Eddy farm in Vermont. As a result of this experience, he published his second book, People From the Other World.

It was at Chittenden, Vermont, while he was on this assignment, that he met H. P. Blavatsky who had come there on instructions from her Master. Joining forces with her, from this point onward he worked to carry out the purposes of the Brotherhood of Adepts, especially those purposes related to the specific mission assigned to Mme. Blavatsky by her Master. "Bound together by the unbreakable ties of a common work—the Masters' work—having mutual confidence and loyalty and one aim in view, we stand or fall together…"[2].

Of their personal relationship, Colonel Olcott says, "Neither then, at the commencement, nor ever afterwards had either of us the sense of the other being of the opposite sex. We were simply chums; so regarded each other, so called each other."[3] And again, "She looked at me in recognition at the first hour, and never since has that look changed . . . It was teacher and pupil, elder brother and younger, both bent on the one single end, but she with the power and the knowledge that belong but to lions and sages".[4]

When the Theosophical Society was founded a year later in 1875, Colonel Olcott was elected president for life. From that time until the end of his life, the Society was his first care. He guarded it jealously from every threat to its existence; he gave his physical strength and the benefit of his wide experience to its organization, and his administrative ability to nourish it and foster its growth. For he believed with his whole heart that the good of mankind depended upon a channel through which the Brotherhood of Adepts could work to destroy the gross materialism of the day and awaken the spiritual nature of man. To this end, after the founders moved to India in 1878, he traveled through India and Ceylon in the interests of the Society, lecturing on Theosophy, trying to get people to see that they could live together in understanding and brother-hood, despite the difference of religious background and race.

He traveled all over Europe, England, South America, back to the United States three times, China, and Japan. With the exception of South America, he visited these countries again and again. Dr. Annie Besant said at the time of his death, "He traveled all the world over with ceaseless and strenuous activity, and doctors impute the heart failure, while his body was splendidly vigorous, to the overstrain put on the heart by the exertion of too many lectures crowded into too short a time."[5] In the Olcott Centenary issue of The Theosophist, August 1932, there are seven and a half pages given to the listing of his travels in the interest of the work.

When, in 1878, they moved the international headquarters to India, Colonel Olcott had to relinquish his flourishing law practice; and in 1882, when the headquarters was established at Adyar, that property was purchased almost entirely from his own and Mme. Blavatsky's funds. In fact, in the early years in India, the Society and the expense of lecture tours was supported primarily by the earnings from their writings and lectures.

During the years of his Presidency, he stood unflinchingly through many upheavals and tribulations suffered by the Society. He stood staunchly by HPB through all of the attacks upon her, though he often felt forced to place the Society's good before the defense of her reputation. Where he was mistaken in his attitude, he was always willing to admit his error and reverse his position when his Master made the issue clear to him. "He is one who never questions, but obeys; who may make innumerable mistakes out of excessive zeal, but never is unwilling to repair his fault even at the cost of the greatest self-humiliation..."[6]

Colonel Olcott had to pilot the Society without the stimulus of Mme. Blavatsky’s spiritual teaching for sixteen years after her death. He bravely continued the work for human brotherhood and understanding, and built the organization of the Society into an increasingly useful channel for the Masters to use in Their work for the world. He gave everything, his devotion, his health, his energy, his worldly goods, and family ties to Them gladly, as he had done from the beginning.

The Leaders of the Theosophical Society seem to be notable for their courage, and Colonel Olcott was no exception in that respect, meeting every disturbing element, every grave and often seemingly disastrous issue fearlessly, with the determination to bring the Society through with its strength undiminished. Numerically, this was not always accomplished; but spiritually the Society grew in strength as the Truth behind it was ultimately revealed after each time of turmoil. Crises were frequent and often shocking during the early years because they centered on Mme. Blavatsky, who was a complete mystery to the world at large, a mystery that could not be explained in terms acceptable to the world. Because of her relation to her Master, she was like a Secret Service man whose actions can never be wholly explained to others; and often even Colonel Olcott himself was not permitted to know the full truth about her. Yet, in the face of this, it was his responsibility to support her and at the same time, to resolve each situation to the best interests of the Society. This he did with characteristic honesty and fairness and great courage.

Communications with the Mahatmas

Colonel Olcott had personal communication with several of the Mahatmas. They regarded him highly as a faithful and reliable chela, and defended him from the anti-American criticisms of A. P. Sinnett and A. O. Hume. In Mahatma Letter Number 5, Mahatma Koot Hoomi wrote of H. S. Olcott,

Him we can trust under all circumstances, and his faithful service is pledged to us come well, come ill. My dear Brother, my voice is the echo of impartial justice. Where can we find an equal devotion? He is one who never questions, but obeys; who may make innumerable mistakes out of excessive zeal but never is unwilling to repair his fault even at the cost of the greatest self-humiliation; who esteems the sacrifice of comfort and even life something to be cheerfully risked whenever necessary; who will eat any food, or even go without; sleep on any bed, work in any place, fraternise with any outcast, endure any privation for the cause. [7]

Work with Buddhists and Buddhist schools

By formally taking Pancha Sila, in 1880, Colonel Olcott made a public commitment to live by Buddhist precepts. He united the Buddhist sects of Ceylon [now Sri Lanka], and united the twelve sects of Japanese Buddhists into a joint committee for promotion of Buddhism. He brought the Burmese, Siamese, and Sri Lankan Buddhists into a Convention of Southern Buddhists; and formulated the Fourteen Propositions of Buddhism, a document which was the basis upon which the northern and southern Buddhists were united:

These two divisions ... did not condemn each other, but they rather gravely doubted whether the others were not taking a long way around to Nirvana... The Colonel went to work and drew up an outline of agreement, a sort of creed, containing fourteen points, and he obtained to this the signature of the high priests of Japan, who represented the Northern Church, and then the signatures of the leading men of the Southern Church, thus furnishing them with a common platform upon which they could agree, and enabling them to say that in important points they did agree... He obtained the consent of the Japanese priests to send each year some of their young students for the priesthood to study under the priests of the Southern Church, and he also got the priests of the Southern Church to send their young men to study under the direction of the Northern Church teachers. In this way, there presently arose a number of priests in both churches who knew both sides of the question, and in the end, peace and harmony must result.[8]

He was successful in getting the government to declare Wesak, the birthday of the Lord Buddha, a holiday. Before that came to pass, the government recognized only the Christian holidays and punished children who were absent from the missionary schools on their own religious holidays. "The Buddhists asked Colonel Olcott to help and he presented their case to the Colonial Secretary in London and gained redress. Full Moon Day of Wesak was made a government holiday in Ceylon and soon afterwards, a similar recognition was given to the principal Hindu festival.[9]

Colonel Olcott wrote and published The Buddhist Catechism, which was translated into at least twenty languages and 44 editions. He played a role in the design of Buddhist flag, which is flown in Sri Lanka and other Buddhist nations.

As a result of the great Buddhist revival which he began, three colleges and 205 schools were established, of which, 177 received government grants.

Work with Hindus and Hindu schools

Colonel Olcott did not confine his activities to strengthening the Buddhist religion alone. He worked zealously to revitalize the Hindu religion in India, and helped to establish many Hindu schools. He started the Olcott Harijan Free Schools (Children of God) for the benefit of the Panchama outcastes of India and in 1948 between 500 and 600 children were in attendance at the school near the Adyar compound.

For his interest and efforts on behalf of Hinduism, Colonel Olcott was adopted into the Brahman caste.

Work with Zoroastrians

He also was interested in the revival of the ancient Zoroastrian teachings, and his efforts bore much splendid fruit. Typical of his work for that religion is his fiery letter to K. R. Cama, who was one of the "best, wisest and most honorable" Parsi leaders of that time. That letter is a classic. In it, Colonel Olcott reproached the Parsis for being content with their wealth and modern culture and valuing so little their ancient teachings and the spirituality shown by the Parsis of old. He says:

They were led by the holy Dastur Darab whose purity and spirituality were such as to make it possible for him to draw from the boundless akash the divine fire of Ormuzd . . . Are you such men today with your wealth, your luxuries, your knighthoods, your medals and your mills? Have you a Darab Dastur among you, or even a school of the Prophets where neophytes are taught the divine science? . . . The question your humble friend and defender asks is whether you mean to keep idle and not stir a hand to revive your religion, to discover all that can be learnt about your sacred writings, to create a modern school of writers who shall invest your ethics and metaphysics with such a charm that we shall hear no more about Parsi men preaching Christianity . . . I believe not." He goes on to warn them of the dangers that threaten them as a result of their excessive worldliness and proceeds to make definite practical suggestions for the revival of their religion and their unique culture.[10]

Indian nationalist work

Soon after they came to India, Colonel Olcott organized the first exhibit of Indian products, and urged Indians to get together and use their own products instead of imports, and to develop an appreciation of them without regard to the religion or race of those who produced them. This was the beginning of Swadeshi, later adopted by the Indian National Congress.

Founding of Adyar library

Colonel Olcott founded the Adyar Library in December 1886, and invited representatives of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam to be present for its dedication ceremonies and bless the work. All accepted except the Christian clergy. This was the first time that representatives of these various religions had been brought together to participate in one meeting, and was considered a remarkable accomplishment on the part of the Colonel.

Healing work

One other activity which occupied Colonel Olcott in his early years in India was his energy healing work. He had great mesmeric healing power and was known all over India for effective cures. So many came to him for healing that it finally became necessary to ask the cooperation of the press to make it known that he would only treat such cases as received written permission to be brought to him. Eventually, he was instructed by his Master to cease that work, because of its drain on his own health and vitality and the fact that his energies must be conserved for the performance of his duties as President.


Colonel Olcott wrote numerous books, articles, and pamphlets that are listed in detail in Olcott writings. Among his writings, the diary series called Old Diary Leaves is especially valued as a first-person account of the early days of the Theosophical Society. The Union Index of Theosophical Periodicals lists 66 articles under the initials HSO, 760 under the name HS Olcott, 3 articles under H. S. Olcott, and 1 under Henry S. Olcott. In his work as a journalist, he also wrote for several New York newspapers.


On October 3, 1906, while he was returning from the United States to Italy for a lecture tour, Colonel Olcott "met with a serious accident on board the steamer... As he was about to descend a stairway of fourteen steps leading to the lower deck his heel caught and he fell forward, 'end over end,' turning two complete somersaults and landing on his back at the bottom ... His escape from death was regarded by seven physicians and Surgeons on board ship, as being a miracle."[11] He was hospitalized in Genoa, Italy, and was expected to recover in in three months, but died the following year, at the age of 74 on February 17, 1907, at the Adyar compound. He left a letter of farewell to his "brethren in the physical body" and of greeting to "my beloved brethren on the higher planes." (Image of letter is at left.)

Visit by the Masters


As Mr. C. Jinarajadasa has stated, "With HPB alone, there would have been Theosophy; but without Henry Steel Olcott, there would have been no world-wide Theosophical Society".[12]

And, greater still, the tribute paid him by the Master:

Where can we find an equal devotion? He is one . . . who esteems the sacrifice of comfort and even life something to be cheerfully risked whenever necessary; who will eat any food, or even go without; sleep on any bed, work in any place, fraternize with any outcast, endure any privation for the cause.[13]

Awards and honors

In 1976, the United States Information Agency commissioned a color film about Colonel Olcott. Theosophist Dr. S. Krishnaswamy of Chennai, India and American Bill Bloom worked together to produce a biographical documentary entitled "Colonel Henry S. Olcott: Searcher After Truth."[14]

A fishing village near Adyar was named Olcott Urur Kuppam. Streets in Colombo and Galle, in Sri Lanka, have been named Olcott Mawatha Road in his memory, along with Alcott Gardens, a residential district in in Rajahmundry.

The Republic of Sri Lanka issued a 15-cent commemorative stamp on December 8, 1967 in honor of Colonel Olcott and the Buddhist flag.

  • Statue at Fort Railway Station, Sri Lanka. Photo by M. Torres.

  • Statue in front of Adyar Library.

  • Statue at Fort Railway Station, Sri Lanka.

  • New Jersey statue before unveiling.

  • New Jersey statue after unveiling.

  • Statue at Dharmaraja College, Kandy.

Statues of the Founder have been erected in several places:

  • Bust in front of the Adyar Library that he helped to establish.
  • Statue in front of the Fort Railway Station in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on the south side of the Pettah, a busy commercial district.
  • Statue at Maradana Railway Station in a suburb of Colombo.
  • Statue in Galle, Ceylon city center.
  • Statue near Princeton, New Jersey at the New Jersey Buddhist Vihara, unveiled on September 10, 2011 as a tribute by the Ananda College Old Boys Association.[15]
  • Statue at Dharmaraja College, Kandy.

Olcott is honored by many schools in India and Sri Lanka as founder. His birthday is remembered at Olcott Memorial High School in Chennai, India: "Every year on February 17th, the OMHS higher wing students celebrate Colonel Henry Steel Olcott’s memory by singing songs while holding a procession carrying his portrait through the T.S."[16]Mahinda College in Galle, Ceylon has an auditorium named Olcott Hall. Ananda College in Colombo annually holds an Olcott Oration.

Online resources

Articles and pamphlets



Additional resources


  1. The Theosophist, August 1932, p. 475
  2. The Theosophist, August 1932, p. 471
  3. ↑Olcott, H. S.Old Diary Leaves, vol. 1, p. 6
  4. ↑Claude Bragdon, Episodes From an Unwritten History, p. 23
  5. Reminiscences of Colonel Olcott, p. 20
  6. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, p. 14
  7. ↑ Mahatma Letter No. 5, page 7.
  8. ↑"The President-Founder and His Work in India",The Theosophic Messenger 2.5 (February 1901), 84.
  9. ↑Gail Wilson, "Colonel Olcott" The Messenger 14.9 (February 1927), 190.
  10. The Theosophist, 1932
  11. ↑"Accident to the President-Founder," Supplement to The Theosophist (November, 1906), xii.
  12. ↑Introduction to The Original Programme of The Theosophical Society
  13. ↑Introduction to The Original Programme of The Theosophical Society
  14. ↑Film No. 52632. "Colonel Henry S. Olcott: Searcher After Truth." 1976. Records of the U. S. Information Agency. Record Group 306.6427. National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD. Description at http://research.archives.gov/description/52632.
  15. ↑"Abdill, Ed. "Olcott Statue Unveiled in New Jersey". Theosophical Society in America web page. October 4, 2011. Available in this news article.
  16. ↑"Olcott's Vision." OMHS Newsletter March 2009. Available at OMHS website
Henry Olcott in 1884
Henry Olcott as a young man
Medal awarded to Col. Olcott
H. P. Blavatsky and H. S. Olcott in their last meeting
H. S. Olcott with Ven. Sumangala
H. S. Olcott with Buddhist group
Colonel Olcott with children
Henry Olcott in his later years.
Madras Mail article dated January 30, 1907 about Olcott injury. Image from TSA Archives.
Farewell letter dated February 2, 1907.
Plaque at the Adyar site of HSO's cremation. Photo from Tony Lysy.
Sri Lankan stamp, 1967.

ColonelHenry Steel Olcott (2 August 1832 – 17 February 1907) was an American military officer, journalist, lawyer and the co-founder and first President of the Theosophical Society.

Olcott was the first well-known American of European ancestry to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. His subsequent actions as president of the Theosophical Society helped create a renaissance in the study of Buddhism. Olcott is considered a Buddhist modernist for his efforts in interpreting Buddhism through a Westernized lens.

Olcott was a major revivalist of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and he is still honored in Sri Lanka for these efforts. Olcott has been called by Sri Lankans "one of the heroes in the struggle of our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national and cultural revival".

Biographical overview[edit]

Olcott was born on 2 August 1832 in Orange, New Jersey, the oldest of six children, to Presbyterian businessman Henry Wyckoff Olcott and Emily Steele Olcott. As a child, Olcott lived on his father's New Jersey farm.[1]

During his teens he attended first the College of the City of New York and later Columbia University,[2] where he joined the St. Anthony Hall fraternity,[3] a milieu of well-known people. In 1851 his father's business failed and he had to leave the university.

From 1858 to 1860 Olcott was the agricultural correspondent for the New York Tribune and the Mark Lane Express, but occasionally submitted articles on other subjects. He also published a genealogy of his family extending back to Thomas Olcott, one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1636.

In 1860 Olcott married Mary Epplee Morgan, daughter of the rector of Trinity parish, New Rochelle, New York. They had four children, two of whom died in infancy.

He served in the US Army during the American Civil War 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. He was well respected, and in 1865, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, assisted in the investigation of the assassination.

In 1868 he became a lawyer specializing in insurance, revenue, and fraud.

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 foundational interest in the Spiritualist movement and his budding relationship with Blavatsky helped foster his development of spiritual philosophy.

Olcott continued to act as a lawyer during the first few years of the establishment of the Theosophical Society, in addition to being a financial supporter of the new religious movement. In early 1875 Olcott was asked by prominent Spiritualists to investigate an accusation of fraud against the mediums Jenny and Nelson Holmes, who had claimed to materialize the famous "spirit control" Katie King (Doyle 1926: volume 1, 269–277).

In 1880 Helena Blavatsky and Olcott became the first Westerners to receive the refuges and precepts, the ceremony by which one traditionally becomes a Buddhist; thus Blavatsky was the first Western woman to do so.[4] Olcott once described his adult faith as "pure, primitive Buddhism," but his was a unique sort of Buddhism.[5]

Theosophical Society[edit]

From 1874 on, Olcott's spiritual growth and development 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 New York City, USA. Olcott financially supported the earliest years of the Theosophical Society and was acting President while Blavatsky served as the Society's 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.[6] Olcott set out to experience the native country of his spiritual leader, the Buddha. The headquarters of the Society were established at Adyar, Chennai as the Theosophical Society Adyar, starting also the Adyar Library and Research Centre within the headquarters.

While in India, Olcott strove to receive the translations of sacred oriental texts which were becoming available as a result of western researches. His intent was to avoid the Westernized interpretations often encountered in America, and to discover the pure message of texts from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Zoroastrian religions, in order to properly educate Westerners.

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.[7][8] Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott took Five Precepts at the Wijayananda Viharaya located at Weliwatta in Galle on May 19, 1880.[9] On that day Olcott and Blavatsky were formally acknowledged as Buddhists, although Olcott noted that they had previously declared themselves Buddhists, while still living in America.[10]

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.

The Theosophical Society built several Buddhist schools in Ceylon, most notably Ananda College in Colombo, Mahinda College in Galle,Musaeus Girls College, Colombo, 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.

Buddhist catechism[edit]

Text of "Buddhist Catechism"[edit]

Olcott's "Buddhist Catechism", composed in 1881, is one of his most enduring contributions to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and remains in use there today. 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.[11]

It is presented in the same format of question and answer used in some Christian catechisms. Here are a few examples from that text:

Q. Would you call a person a Buddhist who has merely been born of Buddhist parents?

A. Certainly not. A Buddhist is one who not only professes belief in the Buddha as the noblest of Teachers, in the Doctrine preached by Him, and in the brotherhood of Arhats, but practices his Precepts in daily life.[12]

Q. What is Karma?

A. A causation operating on the moral, as well as physical and other planes. Buddhists say there is no miracle in human affairs: what a man sows that he must still reap.

Q. What other good words have been used to express the essence of Buddhism?
A. Self-culture and universal love.[13]

Concerning the Four sights and how they impacted the Buddha:
26. Q: Why should these sights, so familiar to everybody, have caused him to go into the jungle?
A. We often see such signs. He had not; and they made a deep impression on his mind.
27. Q: Why had he not also seen them?
A: The astrologers had foretold at his birth that he would one day resign his kingdom and become a Buddha. The King, his father, not wishing to lose his son, had carefully prevented his seeing any sights that might suggest to him human misery and death. No one was allowed even to speak of such things to the Prince. He was almost like a prisoner in his lovely palaces and flower gardens. They were surrounded with high walls; and inside everything was made as beautiful as possible, so that he might not want to go and see the sorrow and distress that are in the world.
28. Q: Was he so kind-hearted that his father feared he might really want to sacrifice himself for the world’s sake?
A: Yes; he seems to have felt for all being so strong a pity and love as that.[14]

55. Q. Why does ignorance cause suffering?
A. Because it makes us prize what is not worth prizing, grieve for that we should not grieve for, consider real what is not real but only illusory, and pass our lives in the pursuit of worthless objects, neglecting what is in reality most valuable.
56. Q. And what is that which is most valuable?
A. To know the whole secret of man’s existence and destiny, so that we may estimate at no more than their actual value and this life and its relations; so that we may live in a way to insure the greatest happiness and the least suffering for our fellow-men and ourselves [15]

Olcott’s catechism reflects a new, post-Enlightenment interpretation of traditional Buddhist tenets. As David McMahan stated, “[Olcott] allied Buddhism with scientific rationalism in implicit criticism of orthodox Christianity, but went well beyond the tenets of conventional science in extrapolating from the Romantic- and Transcendentalist-influenced ‘occult sciences’ of the nineteenth century.”[16]

Olcott's science and theosophy[edit]

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.

Olcott utilized scientific reasoning in his synthesis and presentation of Buddhism. This is clearly seen in a chapter of his "Buddhist Catechism", entitled "Buddhism and Science". Notably, his efforts represent one of the earliest attempts to combine scientific understanding and reasoning with Buddhist religion.[17] The interrelationship he saw between Buddhism and Science paralleled his Theosophical approach to show the scientific bases for supernatural phenomena such as auras, hypnosis, and Buddhist "miracles".

Death and legacy[edit]

Olcott was President of the Theosophical Society until his death on February 17, 1907.

Two major streets in Colombo and Galle have been named Olcott Mawatha, to commemorate him. A statue of him has been erected in front of Colombo Fort Railway Station. Many other schools that he helped to 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 Lankans today. On September 10, 2011, a statue of Colonel Olcott was unveiled at a Buddhist temple near Princeton, New Jersey.[18]

The date of his death is often remembered by Buddhist centers and Sunday schools in present-day Sri Lanka, as well as in Theosophical communities around the globe. Olcott believed himself to be Asia's savior, the outsider hero who would sweep in at the end of the drama to save a disenchanted subcontinent from spiritual death.[19]

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 at the time, and many Buddhists heard Olcott’s interpretation of the Buddha's message as socially motivating and supportive of efforts to overturn colonialist efforts to ignore Buddhism and Buddhist tradition. This was despite the fact that his re-interpretation of the Buddha was along modern liberal ideas promoted by the British in Sri Lanka. As David McMahan wrote, “Henry Steel Olcott saw the Buddha as a figure much like the ideal liberal freethinker – someone full of ‘benevolence,’ ‘gratitude,’ and ‘tolerance,’ who promoted ‘brotherhood among all men’ as well as ‘lessons in manly self-reliance”.[20] His Westernized view of Buddha influenced Sri Lankan leaders, such as Anagarika Dharmapala.

Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala were associates, which reflects both men’s awareness of the divide between East and West—as seen in their presentation of Buddhism to the West.[21] Olcott helped financially support the Buddhist presence at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893. The inclusion of Buddhists in the Parliament allowed for the expansion of Buddhism within the West in general and in America specifically, leading to other Buddhist Modernist 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 shape and its emphasis on education-as-character-building. The most Protestant of all early Protestant Buddhists, Olcott was the liminoid figure, the griot who because of his awkward standing betwixt and between the American Protestant grammars of his youth and the Asian Buddhist lexicon of his adulthood was able to conjure traditional Sinhalese Buddhism, Protestant modernism, metropolitan gentility, and academic Orientalism into a decidedly new creole tradition. This creole tradition Olcott then passed on to a whole generation of Sinhalese students educated in his schools.[22]

Olcott is probably the only major contributor to the nineteenth-century Sinhalese Buddhist revival who was actually born and raised in the Protestant Christian tradition, though he had already left Protestantism for Spiritualism long before he became a Buddhist. His childhood Protestantism is a reason that many scholars have referred to the Buddhist modernism he influenced as "Protestant Buddhism".[23]


  • Sorgho and Imphee, the Chinese and African sugar canes; A. O. Moore, New York 1857
  • Outlines of the first course of Yale agricultural lectures; C. M. Saxton, Barker & Co., New York 1860
  • Descendents of Thomas Olcott, 1872
  • Human Spirits and Elementaries; 1875
  • People from the other world American Publishing Co., Hartford 1875
  • A Buddhist catechism; Madras 1881
  • Theosophy, Religion, and Occult Science; New York 1885
  • Old Diary Leaves (6 volumes), (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895)
  • The Hindu Dwaita Catechism; 1886
  • The Golden Rules of Buddhism; 1887
  • The kinship between Hinduism and Buddhism; The Maha-Bodhi society, Calcutta 1893
  • The Poor Pariah; Addison & Co., Madras 1902
  • The Life of the Buddha and its Lessons; 1912
  • The Spirit of Zoroastrianism; 1913
  • Old diary leaves, Inside the occult, the true story of Madame H. P. Blavatsky; Running Press, Philadelphia 1975 (reprint); ISBN 0-914294-31-8

See also[edit]



  • Caldwell, Daniel H. (ed) The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky: Insights Into the Life of a Modern Sphinx, Quest Books, 2000. ISBN 0-8356-0794-1, ISBN 978-0-8356-0794-0.
  • Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism. New York: G.H. Doran, Co. Volume 1: 1926Volume 2: 1926
  • Guruge, Ananda W. P. Free at Last in Paradis, Authuhouse, Bloomington, Ind, 1998
  • From the Living Fountains of Buddhism, Colombo, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1984
  • Return to Righteousness, Colombo, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1965/1991
  • Motwani, Kewal: Colonel H. S. Olcott, a forgotten page in American history; Ganesh, Madras 1955 (English)
  • Murphet, Howard: Hammer on the mountain, life of Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907); Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton 1972; ISBN 0-8356-0210-9
  • Prothero, Stephen R.: The white Buddhist, the Asian odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott; Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1996; ISBN 0-253-33014-9
  • Killingley, D. (1998, April). "The White Buddhist: the Asian odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott". International Journal of Hindu Studies, 2(1), 153–154. Retrieved April 27, 2009, from ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials database.
  • Williams, Gertrude Marvin. Priestess of the Occult, Madame Blavatsky. New York : A. A. Knopf, 1946.
  • Kuhn, Alvin Boyd. 1930. Theosophy: A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom. New York: Henry Holt & Company.
  • 1995. Henry Steel Olcott and "Protestant Buddhism." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63: 281–302.
  • 1996. The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Guruge, A. (2007, January). "Henry Steel Olcott in Sri Lanka: death centennial tribute". Theosophical History, 13(1), 10–13. Retrieved April 27, 2009, from ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials database.
  • Henry S. Olcott: 100 years anniversary

External links[edit]

A replica of the Certification Letter written By Henry Steel Olcott mentioning that he took Pancha Sila for the first time at Vijayananda Galle.
The spirit materialization of Safar Ali Bek, a drawing from Olcott's book People from the Other World.
Henry Olcott and Buddhists (Colombo, 1883).
  1. ^Janet Kerschner, The Olcott FamilyArchived 2008-12-18 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^Remembering H. S. Olcott
  3. ^Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities ...: Information and Much More from Answers.com at www.answers.com
  4. ^Current Perspectives in Buddhism: Buddhism today : issues & global dimensions, Madhusudan Sakya, Cyber Tech Publications, 2011, page 244
  5. ^Prothero, Stephen. "Henry Steele Olcott and 'Protestant Buddhism'" pg.285.
  6. ^Combined Chronology of The Mahatma Letters – Preface
  7. ^Ranatunga, D. C. (2001). "That controversial clash". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 20 January 2015. 
  8. ^Kaviratne, W. T. J. S. (2004). "The first Buddhist School in Sri Lanka – Piyarathana Vidyalaya of Dodanduwa dilapidated, threatened with closure". Daily News (Sri Lanka). Retrieved 20 January 2015. 
  9. ^Oliveira, Pedro. "BIO". CWL World. 
  10. ^Olcott in Caldwell (2000)
  11. ^Prothero, Stephen. "Henry Steel Olcott and 'Protestant Buddhism'" pg.283
  12. ^Olcott's Buddhist Catechism, pg 2
  13. ^Olcott's Buddhist Catechism, pg 38
  14. ^Olcott's Buddhist Catechism, pg. 18.
  15. ^Olcott's Buddhist Catechism, pg, 27.
  16. ^McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism USA: Oxford University Press, 2008. 95.
  17. ^McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism USA: Oxford University Press, 2008. 99.
  18. ^Ed Abdill Olcott statue unveiled in New Jersey.
  19. ^Prothero, Stephen. "Henry Steel Olcott and 'Protestant Buddhism'" pg.295
  20. ^McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism USA: Oxford University Press, 2008. McMahon 95.
  21. ^McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. USA: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pg 95.
  22. ^Prothero, Stephen. "Henry Steel Olcott and 'Protestant Buddhism'" pg.296/297
  23. ^Prothero, Stephen. "Henry Steel Olcott and what has been termed by scholars as "Protestant Buddhism"."Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63.2 (Summer 1995): 281–302. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. EBSCO. Norlin, Boulder, Colorado. 27 April 2009, pg. 283


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *