Popularly called the White Buddhist, Adyar-based Henry Steele Olcott was even considered an incarnation of Emperor Ashoka for his role in reviving Buddhism in south Asia. He was also rubbished by The New York Times as an ‘unmitigated rascal’ for his role in alternate spiritualism.
Olcott also founded an agriculture school at the age of 23, fought in the American Civil War and had been a member of the investigative team that probed President Lincoln’s assassination. Henry could make his presence felt at any place and Madras or Lanka was no different. There is a fishermen kuppam named after the American colonel in Besant Nagar. In Sri Lanka, devotees light lamps, burn incense and bow to his photographs present universally in most Theravada Buddhist temples.
Olcott felt Madras to be “the most enlightened of the Indian Presidencies in Philosophy and had been less decayed by Western education”. This must have been the major reason for having chosen the city to be the international headquarters of the Theosophical society.
When Olcott and his Ukrainian friend Blavatsky reached Bombay, Olcott symbolically would bow to the ground and kiss it. The magical link was there for he would love this land and help lay the foundation for it to become free as well.
While Blavatsky was interested in occult furthered theosophy, Olcott was deeply engrossed in social reform too. The Colonel would even hold an exhibition of locally manufactured products in Adyar to encourage Indians to use local produce, the attempt preceding Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement by half a century.
While the duo toured India to spread the message of Theosophy, one of the first persons they met on that tour was Allan Octavian Hume. Olcott and Hume would impress each other with their thoughts. No wonder, when the Indian National Congress was soon formed, many of the early members were theosophists. When the dates of the conferences of the two organisations clashed in 1894, the dates of the Theosophical Convention were adjusted to let the Congressmen attend both. Olcott was also an educator and wanted the essence of school education to permeate every part of society. He was shocked to discover that while there were four large caste clusters in India, all with their own spaces etched in the social scenario, there were many who were casteless and had no access to education. Olcott started the Panchamar school for the Dalits in Adyar. Commencing in 1894, it was perhaps the first organised move ever to bring the casteless into the main fold. The school is aptly renamed after him and runs still. Olcott’s effort had a great impact on Buddhism. He would strive to eliminate the ‘shocking ignorance’ of the Sinhalese about Buddhism as he termed it. When he decided to be the first White man to convert to Buddhism and criss-cross Ceylonese island to spread his form of Buddhism, the foremost agenda he had was designing a comfortable bullock cart for himself. The twine bullock cart was a virtual home on the move. It had bookshelves, furniture, a canvass roof and within minutes could be converted to a living room for eight people or a bedroom for four. When he designed the Buddhist flag and fought and obtained a national holiday for Vesak, the birthday of Buddha, he was hailed as a celebrity in Ceylon.
Olcott had upon his advent in India in 1879 resolved to spend a few years absorbing Hinduism from local specialists and then revert home to America, where he would dedicate the remaining years to furthering theosophy. But his successes with perpetuating Buddhism in Ceylon led him to review his roadmap. He decided that India would be his home thereafter.
There had been an invisible tug of war between him and Blavatsky for control of the society. Blavatsky’s daunting shadow was always over him because theosophy sustained on the occult and Blavatsky was the expert. Bedazzled by the popularity Blavatsky was getting, Olcott even tried to follow that route. He posed as a healer though not trained medically or gifted with those powers. When he supposedly revived a man totally paralysed in his limbs, who after the healing could whirl his arms, jump with both feet, hop, kick and run freely, news of the Colonel’s healing powers spread and scores of patients lined up outside the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar.
But by then his oratorical skill was being noticed. With Blavatsky being caught redhanded using human helpers to stage her occult phenomena, Olcott became the undisputed leader of the Theosophical movement. As president for life of the Theosophical Society, Olcott would impact the role TS played on Indian history as well. But for Olcott’s insistence on reform in society, the social outlook of the Theosophical Society would never have found a shape and it would have remained a snake oil society.
—The author is a historian