Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Colonel Olcott: Under Eastern Eyes

About 10 years ago, two writers debated over a series of articles. They were debating over what the first writer had claimed about Buddhism. He had claimed that what is known today as Buddhism here was begun in the late 19th century. In other words, it was not what Mahinda Thero preached to King Devanampiyatissa. He also claimed that the Buddhism brought to Sri Lanka in the 19th century was universalist. Which meant that it was rootless. Without an identity. Culturally displaced.

The writer, Professor Nalin de Silva, had drawn a distinction between what he termed as "Sinhala Buddhists" and "Olcott Buddhists". He had then made the following observation: "The Olcott Buddhists have separated religion from culture."

The second writer, Tissa Devendra, countered. He argued that Olcott Buddhism came at a time when Buddhism as a religion was in danger in the country. Believing that the professor had also criticised "Olcott schools", he also made a claim:  

These BTS schools were established to equip Sinhala Buddhist students with modern education in English  which was otherwise available only in Christian missionary schools. And this education was imparted in a genuine Buddhist atmosphere.

Gunadasa Amarasekara joined the debate. He made a claim too, one which was more reason-driven than the other two:

"Olcott Buddhist" is a very exhaustive concept which explains the behaviour of our Buddhist elite over the past years as well as the nature of the institutions created by them. Olcott Buddhism  the Buddhism that grew under the aegis of Olcott and other Theosophists  was a Buddhism that had no anchorage in the culture of the Sinhala people. It was a rootless universalist Buddhism. It is quite natural that this Buddhism should have appealed to the urban Buddhist elite who was by then a rootless anglophile class desperately seeking to become equals of the westernised anglophile class.

The debate didn't end there, of course. It went on. And ended nowhere.

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott is a controversial figure today. Like all controversial figures, he has his champions and his critics. There are those who think he did a service to Buddhism. There are those who think that by doing this service, he contorted what Buddhism stood for. I'm no historian, and given that not even historians have been able to resolve this issue, I won't take sides here. This isn't the time to go into every nook and corner and judge the man. This is a tribute. To him. Colonel Olcott died 108 years ago.

It is true that Olcott wasn't a Buddhist. It is also true that he was the founder of a movement that brought together practically every religion in the East. The Theosophical Society, begun in 1875, sought nothing less than a complete brotherhood of man, devoid of any race, religion, or culture. That the Theosophists and the Colonel should have resorted to the East for this meant just one thing. It meant that the Theosophists, like the New Ageists after them, were searching for a "final answer" in our part of the world.

Whether they found it is another story. What is important here is what Colonel Olcott did. Here.

Olcott came to Sri Lanka in 1880. He came here for a reason. The Panadura Debate, arguably the starting point of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, had happened. The Buddhist faction, led by Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero, had won. Newspaper reports covering the event had reached Olcott. That's when he had decided to come here. His visit to Sri Lanka was greeted. Joyously.

He aimed at two things here. One was to promote the welfare of Buddhists. This was done through the establishment of the Young Men's Buddhist Society (the YMBA). The other was to counter Christian missionary activities. This was done through the establishment of Buddhist schools.

Students at Ananda College (courtesy: "Twentieth
Century Impressions of Ceylon")
There is a reason why Anagarika Dharmapala, a key figure in the Buddhist revival, distanced himself from Olcott. Briefly put, Dharmapala's vision of the Sinhala identity remained "primarily a Buddhist one" ("Stone Statues and Hollow Statues" by Harshana Rambukwella, p 2). This was at odds with Olcott's universalism. In other words, through his movement, Dharmapala was trying to incorporate a Buddhist identity into a Sinhala identity.

This wasn't all. The renowned anthropologist Gananath Obeysekere once called Dharmapala's Sinhala Buddhist revival "Protestant Buddhism". It was Protestant for two reasons: because it rebelled against Christianity, and because it borrowed some elements from Protestantism while doing so. By trying to make Buddhism free from mysticism or ritualism, Dharmapala was trying to free religion from the shackles of superstition and caste. In other words, he taught the lay devotee to find salvation through his own efforts rather than through monks and deities.

What Olcott did was to aggravate this trend beyond what could be sustained. Unwittingly, he brought about a change in Buddhism which couldn't be continued for long. He initiated a movement that, as the decades went on, spilled over to what Professor Obeysekere calls "Post Protestant Buddhism". It is this form of Buddhism, Obeysekere argues, that we practise today. A form of Buddhism tainted by mysticism. The sort of Buddhism Dharmapala shied away from.

There's more, by the way.

When Colonel Olcott wrote up a Buddhist Catechism (based on the Catholic Catechism), and established schools which followed Christian missionary curricula, he had to fall back on the same institutions he criticised. This meant that the Buddhism he "founded" was not the sort of Buddhism which Gunananda Thero began a journey to find. Devoid of any original roots, it languished, continued by everyone who fell under the spell of Olcott's movement.

Not that he didn't achieve. He established schools. He began with Ananda College in 1886. By 1907, the year he died, there were 183 Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) schools. That number multiplied as the decades went on. True to his "universalist" outlook, they sought to incorporate the best of East and West. Following a British curriculum while assimilating "localised" subjects like Pali and Sanskrit, they managed to bridge both worlds. In a way.

In the meantime, Dharmapala's movement gained weight. It found its peak in 1956. From then on, it tried to do what the Olcott project had failed. It tried to search for roots. For Buddhists. That's a project that continues. Even today. In a world far removed from that of Olcott's Theosophy.

For all his emotion-ridden rhetoric, I admit that Nalin de Silva's argument stands valid. If Dharmapala began a Protestant form of Buddhism, devoid of myth and ritual but rooted in one community, then what was begun by Olcott stunted it. What it did was to limit the Buddhist's involvement with his/her religion to sil and bana. What it did was to secularise something that could not be secularised without losing half its essence to dust. What it did was to rationalise Buddhism without really removing the myths and rituals associated with it.

108 years later, where do we stand? It is true that rationalism and Buddhism have come together. Firmly. But it is also true that in this era of what Obeysekere terms "Post Protestant Buddhism", we have given way to superstition. The reason isn't to hard to miss. We revived Buddhism under Western eyes. That's sad.

Olcott's real legacy, I believe, can be judged only on the merits of the movement he founded. It is debatable whether that movement stayed true to what he wanted. What is important, however, is that it was needed. Whether that need manifested itself the way we wanted is peripheral. For now, and on this day, may we be grateful for Colonel Olcott's vision.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, February 17 2015