Henry Steel Olcott

Of the many great men of the world, only a few leave a legacy that is celebrated for years after their passing. Those who do so accomplish that by dedicating their lives for a cause greater than themselves. There is none that exemplifies this better than Col. Henry Steel Olcott.

Born on the 2nd of August 1832, in Orange, New Jersey, Olcott was an alumni of the College of the City of New York and The Columbia University. He went on to become a military officer, a journalist and finally a lawyer.

Olocott found his true calling with his introduction to the Spiritualist Movement in 1874. During the course of that year he made the acquaintance of fellow Spiritualist Helena Blavatsky. Their relationship founded on their shared fascination of the spiritual, led to the founding of the Theosophical Society in the same year. The society set out 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. After a two-year correspondence with Sri Piyaratana Tissa Mahanayake Thero, he and Blavatsky arrived in the then capital Colombo on the 16th of May, 1880. Upon their arrival Blavatsky and Olcott took the Five Precepts at the Wijayananda Viharaya located in Weliwatta, Galle on the 19th of May, 1880 thus becoming the first Westerners to do so.

With the foundation of the Theosophical Society of Ceylon, Olcott laid the groundwork to usher in the golden age of Buddhist revival in the island. Olcott was also a pioneer in the effort to introduce Buddhism into the western consciousness. He accomplished this through the compilation of Buddhist tenets in publications such as “The Buddhist Catechism”. He was also involved in designing the Buddhist Flag which was adopted as the symbol of the World Fellowship of Buddhists.

Chief among Olcott's efforts was to construct several Buddhist schools in all regions of the country. The Sri Lankan South received the blessings of this revival as Mahinda College opened its doors to a new generation of Sri Lankan youths on the 1st of March, 1892. Since then Mahinda has stood as a beacon of the newly revitalized values of Buddhist philosophy, and as a Centre for the resurgent national spirit against the yolk of British Colonialism.

Thus, 116 years since his passing we still celebrate and honour the life and legacy of the founder of our alma mater and the great personality behind not only the revival of the Buddhist philosophy in Sri Lanka but its spread throughout the western world, Col. Henry Steel Olcott.