Henry Steel Olcott and the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival
Olcott’s ostensibly non-Christian Buddhism sounded like liberal Protestantism. More than an antidote to Christianity, Olcott’s Catechism was a homeopathic cure, treating the scourge of Christianity with a dose of the same. His critique of Christianity shared many elements with liberal Protestants’ critique of Christian orthodoxy, including a distrust of miracles, an emphasis on reason and experience, a tendency toward self-reliance, and a disdain for hell. Like their Jesus, his Buddha was a quintessential Christian gentleman: “sweet and convincing,” the very personification of “self-culture and universal love.”
Returning to Colombo on July 18, 1882, for his third Ceylon tour, Olcott discovered that the Buddhist Theosophical Society was “lifeless” and the revival was “at a standstill.” Of the 13,000 rupees that had been pledged to the National Education Fund, only 100 had been collected. More ominously, a contingent of Roman Catholic missionaries had converted a well near a Buddhist pilgrimage site into a Lourdes-like healing shrine. Olcott feared “a rush of ignorant Buddhists into Catholicism.” In an attempt to break the Catholic monopoly over this crucial segment of the religious marketplace, Olcott pleaded for a monk to step forward and perform healings “in the name of lord Buddha.” But when no monk came forward, he decided to do the work himself.
Olcott’s first healing in Asia occurred on August 29, 1882. When a man said to be totally paralyzed in one arm and partially disabled in one leg approached him after a lecture, Olcott recalled his youthful experiments with mesmerism and made a few perfunctory passes over the man’s arm. The next day the man returned with reports of improved health, and Olcott began to treat him systematically. Soon the man could, in Olcott’s words, “whirl his bad arm around his head, open and shut his hand, . . . jump with both feet, hop on the paralyzed one, kick equally high against the wall with both, and run freely.” News of the Colonel’s healing powers spread across the island “as a match to loose straw,” and his fundraising tour was immediately transformed into a roadshow featuring the miraculous healing hands of the instantly charismatic “White Buddhist.” Olcott publicly attributed his healings to the Buddha. Privately he credited the Austrian physician Franz Mesmer. Now that Olcott possessed a gift on a par with Blavatsky’s conjuring abilities, scores of patients lined up outside the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar (a suburb of Madras), and on a 1882 tour of Bengal Olcott supposedly treated 2,812 patients. Soon, however, the seemingly insatiable needs of his followers overwhelmed Olcott. His popularity became a burden and when, toward the end of 1883, the Theosophical Masters (adepts with whom Blavatsky is supposed to have communicated telepathically) handed down an order to stop the healings, Olcott happily complied.
Before his healing tours of 1882 and 1883, Olcott had recruited most of his Sinhalese and Indian followers from among the English-speaking middle classes. But his celebrated cures popularized his message, especially in Ceylon, where he may have inspired messianic expectations among Sinhalese peasants.
Olcott solidified his role as a leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival in the wake of a tragic Buddhist-Christian riot that occurred on March 25, 1883, in Kotahena, a Catholic stronghold of Colombo. On that day a Buddhist procession marched through the streets on the way to Mohottivatte Gunananda’s newly decorated monastery, the Deepaduttama Vihara, where a new Buddha image was to be dedicated. When the procession approached a Roman Catholic cathedral located a few hundred yards from the temple, the cathedral bell sounded, followed almost immediately by bells in other Catholic churches in the area. As if in response to a signal, about a thousand men descended on the procession and a bloody brawl ensued. Authorities summoned eighty policemen, but their batons were no match for the clubs, swords, and stones of the mob. During the three-hour melee, one man was killed and forty others were injured.
As the governor’s Riots Commission investigated the affair, Catholics and Buddhists took each other to court. Numerous cases were filed, but authorities eventually dropped all charges because of a lack of “reliable evidence.” After it had become clear that the Catholics would not be tried, a group of Sinhalese monks and laypeople cabled Olcott urging him to come to Ceylon. Upon his arrival on January 27, 1884, Olcott organized a Buddhist Defense Committee, which elected him an honorary member and charged him to travel to London as its representative, “to ask for such redress and enter into such engagements as may appear to him judicious.” Thus for the first time Olcott’s role as an intermediary between East and West became apparent, not only to himself but to Buddhists and colonial administrators alike.
Before he left for London, a group of high-ranking Buddhist monks gave Olcott a solemn farewell ceremony, in which they authorized him “to register as Buddhists persons of any nation who may make to him application, to administer the Three Refuges and Five Precepts and to organize societies for the promotion of Buddhism.” The first person of European descent to be given such an honor, Olcott thus became the first Buddhist missionary to the West.