strove for truth through brotherhood of religions
Tudor G. Jayewardene
Colonel Henry Steele Olcott is a name we associate with
the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon and the organisation of an educational
movement directed by Buddhists themselves.
Born in 1832
he came from an old English Puritan family, settled for many generations
in the United States.
of the family in America was Thomas Olcott, one of the first settlers
of the town of Hartford and one of the founders of trade and commerce
in the colony of Connecticut. From what part of England he emigrated
or what year he arrived in the U.S.A. are not known. There is reason
to believe that he was one of "the Goodly Company" of
men, women and children who in June 1635 left Newton (now Cambridge)
and other settlements on the sea-board to plant a new colony on
the "delightful banks" of Connecticut.
himself held that his family was the same as that of Dr. John Alcock,
who in 1486 in the reign of Henry VII succeeded the famous Morton
as Bishop of Ely and who in 1496 founded Jesus College, Cambridge.
The family motto is the Latin word "Vigilante" (Be watchful)
and the crest of the family is a cock, in some cases crowing, in
others silent, standing on a crown, globe or single bar. Amongst
the works of Dr. John Alcock is a little treatise entitled 'Galli
Cantus ad Confratres' (A call of a Cock to his Fellows) in allusion
to his own name.
Olcott was only 23 when his success in the model farm of scientific
agriculture near Newark led the Greek Government to offer him the
Chair of Agriculture in the University of Athens. The young man
declined the honour and in the same year founded with Vail of New
Jersey, the Westchester Farm School, near Mount Vernon, near New
York, a school regarded as one of the pioneers of the present system
of national agricultural education.
He then interested
himself in the cultivation of sorghum, just brought to the United
States, and produced his first book: Sorgo and Imphee, the Chinese
and African sugar-canes, which ran through seven editions and was
placed by the state of Illinois in school libraries. This book brought
him the offer of the Directorship of The Agricultural Bureau in
Washington, an offer he declined.
In 1858, Mr.
Olcott made his first visit to Europe, still bent on the improvement
of agriculture and his report of what he saw was published in Appleton's
American Cyclopaedia. He became the correspondent (American) of
the well-known Mark-lane Express (London), Associate Agricultural
Editor of the famous New York Tribune and published two more books
of his life concluded with the outbreak of the American Civil War,
when his passion for liberty drove him to enlist in the Northern
Army. He went through the whole of the North Carolina campaign under
General Burnside and was invalidated to New York stricken with fever.
As soon as
he recovered he prepared to start again for the front, but the government
noting his ability and courage, chose him to conduct an inquiry
into some suspected frauds at the New York Mustering and Disbursing
Office. Every means was adopted to stop his resolute investigation
but neither bribes nor threats could check the young determined
officer in his conduct of a campaign more dangerous than facing
Southern bullets in the field.
courage had shone out in the North Carolina expedition; his moral
courage shone out yet more brightly as he fought for four years
through a storm of opposition and calumny, till he sent the worst
criminal to Sing Sing prison for 10 years and received from the
government a telegram that this conviction was "as important
to the government as the winning of a great battle". Wrote
the Assistant Secretary of War, "You will have from your fellow
citizens the respect which is due to your patriotism and honourable
service to the government during the rebellion."
now became Colonel Olcott and Special Commissioner of the War Department.
After two years the Secretary of the Navy begged for the loan of
his services to eliminate the abuses in the naval yards and he was
made Special Commissioner of the Navy department. With resolute
and unsparing zeal he plunged into his work, purified the department
and reformed the system of accounts.
This was the
man whom Madam Blavatsky was sent by her master to the United States
to find, to found the Theosophical Society, and then to spend the
remainder of his life in organising it all over the world. He brought
to his task his unsullied record of public service rendered to his
country, his keen capacity, his enormous powers of work and unselfishness
which his colleague declared she had never seen equalled outside
the ashrams of the masters.
located him at Eddy's Farm, where he had been sent by The New York
Sun and The New York Graphic to report on the extraordinary spiritualistic
manifestations which were taking place there. So valuable were his
articles that no less than seven different publishers contended
for the right to publish them in book form. So keen was the interest
aroused that the papers sold at a dollar a copy, and he was said
to divide public attention with the second election of General Grant
to the Presidency.
The two brave
hearts recognized each other and formed a life-long union.
who had resigned from the War Department and had been admitted to
the bar was earning a large income as Counsel in Customs and Revenue
cases at the time. But he abandoned his practice, and in the following
year founded the Theosophical Society of which he was appointed
the President for life. He delivered the Society's inaugural address
on November 17, 1875 in New York. He studied with Madam Blavatsky
and largely helped to put in English for her, her great work, Isis
In 1875, they
left for India and for a time lived in Bombay. There Colonel Olcott
inspired the first exhibition of Indian products, urging on Indians
the use of their own goods in preference to those of foreign manufacture.
was first proclaimed at the first convention of the Theosophical
Society in India. A vigorous propaganda campaign was now carried
on all over India, much hindered by Government hostility, but welcomed
by the masses of Hindus and Parsees. In 1880, he began his great
Buddhist revival in Ceylon, which included the establishment of
Buddhist Schools under The Buddhist Theosophical Society.
service to Buddhism was rendered by his visit to Japan in 1889 during
which he addressed 25,000 people and succeeded in drawing up 14
Fundamental Propositions, which formed the basis of union between
the long-divided Northern and Southern Churches of Buddhism.
In 1882, the
founders bought with their own money the beautiful estate at Adyar,
Madras, which they established as the head-quarters of the Theosophical
saw his colleague Madam Blavatsky pass away in 1981 and bore the
burden alone for another 16 years, joining hands with Annie Besant,
Madam Blavatsky's favourite pupil whom he appointed as his successor.
Colonel Olcottt died peacefully at the Theosophical Society Head-quarters
on February 17, 1907.
His body lay
in state in the main hall amidst a flower-ringed space, with small
tables bearing the sacred volumes of the different religions. The
body draped with his own national flag and the Buddhist flag was
soon covered with a mass of blossoms as hundreds filed past casting
At the conclusion
of the religious ceremonies by the representatives of all the religions
excepting that of Islam who had not arrived, Ms. Besant advanced
to the side of the body and said: "Brothers, we have assembled
here today not to bid farewell to our dear President, for there
is no farewell between spirit and spirit, but to bid farewell to
this cast-off garment of his, in which for the past 31 years he
has so bravely striven to serve humanity. We are here to cast, with
all love and reverence, this cast-off garment to the fire, which
shall give back to the elements to which is theirs, so that Nature,
the Mother, may use again these elements for new forms of beauty
and of life. And now Dear Friend, we bid you not farewell, for you,
unborn, undying, perpetual, eternal, there is no such thing as death.
We have served your body, while we could, tended it, loved it, now
we give it back to the elements whence it came. Brave soldier of
truth, striver for God, we wish you light and peace".
Steele Olcott's last message, signed by his own hand, on February
2 to be read over his body was as follows: "To my beloved brethren
in the physical body'; I bid you farewell. In memory of me, carry
on the grand work of proclaiming and living the brotherhood of religions.
To my beloved brothers on the higher planes, I greet and come to
you, and implore you to help me to impress on all men on earth that
"There is no religion higher than truth, and that in the brotherhood
of religions lies the peace and progress of humanity."
is National President/General Secretary of The Sri Lanka section
of the International Theosophical Society.
wing out of wood
An eagle on a motor- cycle?
Yes, that was
the sight that greeted us in front of Royal College.
a carpenter who hails from Piliyandala had carved the eagle out
always loved carpentry. I make cupboards, tables and chairs and
it is while doing this I got the idea of carving birds," he
carved cranes, eagles, swans, and even baby birds. Most of these
carvings are done out of 'kumbuk' and needless to say, they take
an immense amount of time.
a good piece of wood which is most often kumbuk. Then he decides
on what size the bird would be, and what bird he would carve.
is amazing. The eagle looked regal, and he had carved it so that
the bird looked as if it was poised for flight. He had perched the
majestic eagle on a stump of 'nadun' wood, which he had polished
until it shone..
hours to smoothen the finished product. Most often, the carving
of the bird does not take so much of time. But you see, I have to
smoothen the rough edges, so that when someone touches it, it feels
people are fascinated by what I have done. They urge me to exhibit
these pieces in a show- room, saying I would be able to earn a lot
of money if I displayed them. But I prefer to take them around on
my motor- cycle, and I guarantee that I have never gone home without
selling what I brought ," he says.
is more of a hobby," he says smiling. "Right now I am
carving a young eagle, feeding as the mother looks on.
it is hard work, he admits, "but when I look at the finished
product, I forget the endless hours that have gone into it. I just
feel happy that I managed to make something beautiful out of a stump
of wood, and that it will some day, hopefully, adorn someone's house
and they would consider it a work of art."
the eagle perched on the motorcycle, one is inclined to agree.
Wichita Kansas kind of thanksgiving
By Alfreda de Silva
The year was 1952. For the first time in my life I was
making a long journey by myself, this was to America. The BOAC jet
plane from Colombo took me to London from where I emplaned to New
I had been
selected by the YWCA of Colombo, through whom the award was given,
to participate in a project - 'Learning International Relations
by living them'. This had been sponsored by the YWCA of the U.S.
and financed by the Ford Foundation.
It was with
mixed feelings of happiness and trepidation that I started on my
journey into the unknown.
women from twenty three Asian and African countries came together
in this exciting experiment. It was a whole year of living and learning
in the U.S., in several locations.
All of us participants
had been brought together at an orientation in New York and later
in Washington from where each of us was to fly to our separate destinations.
The month was
November, cold and frosty, with a strong hint of snow. I was bound
for Wichita, Kansas in a small plane with just four other passengers.
This was my first three-month assignment.
had chosen Wichita, so to speak, from the pre-selection information
sent about location that I had received - A quiet, happy, picturesque
place of rolling plains and fields of grain and friendly people.
No one had said 'And thick falls of snow in winter'.
As the plane
landed there in Wichita and the first frosty winds touched my face,
I felt a vast loneliness.
But not for
long - A welcoming group of six women came forward to meet me, a
smiling, International Training Project Committee. They were dressed
to suit the chill. Warm clothes, head-hugging hats with small brims,
women packed full of caring and humour to drive away the blues of
Since I was
a teacher of English, history, speech and drama and a broadcaster
in Ceylon, the schedule for my stay was already drawn up. Visits
to and talks at universities and schools and interviews and poetry
reading on radio.
in my stay I was introduced to the couple who had already left an
invitation for me for thanksgiving dinner in their home the Plestedds.
Without knowing me at all my kind hosts for thanksgiving on November
28, had already accepted me.
After an illuminating
programme of encounters with young adults in schools and universities
during the day, I had some evening free for concerts and plays and
shows of square dancing, at which as many as four hundred or more
couples had the time of their lives in this surprising mid-western
in the large, country barns to the toe-tapping music of violins.
The folksy costumes were quite a treat too - country dresses and
scarves for the women and smocks for the men.
And so the
long-awaited day of thanksgiving, November 28, 1952, brought me
a gift of a blanket of snow outside my window. The room was heated
and cosy, but what would it be at night, when we went outside? I
need not have worried- the car was heated and all vehicles had chains
on their wheels to keep them from skidding. The Plestedd's came
for me to the home in which I lived with the gracious Robert and
I was dressed
in a thick silk saree, on Ruth's advice, a warm coat, scarf, and
woollen shawl, right up to my ears.
We drove through
flat fields of snow and entered a wooded area of leafless trees,
stripped of their red, gold and rust autumn splendour.
Then we stopped
outside the lighted windows of a beautiful home with its living
room decked in rust, gold and green, in memory of the fallen leaves.
started arriving, some twenty of them among them, two other foreign
students - one from Africa and the other from Japan.
We sat round
talking with delicious mulled drinks that warmed us and munched
nuts, listening to the nostalgic music that reminded me of home.
of the dining table was a cornucopia of fruit and flowers that overflowed
into a large glass dish, symbolic of the plentiful harvest of the
For what were
they giving special thanks? For memories of the exiles who sailed
from England in the Mayflower, intent on making America their homeland.
It had proved to be a disastrous and perilous journey. At the end
of it, few survived then, and these gave thanks to God for their
safe arrival and acceptance in their new land, and for the harvests
which they reaped there.
The date of
the celebration for Americans everywhere is November 28 which is
a public holiday. This was set by Presidential Proclamation in the
dinner at the Plestedd's was the traditional turkey and cranberry
sauce with a choice of three desserts of pies: pecan, sweet potato
or pumpkin, all natives of that fertile soil.
evening ended with an amusing game of charades, and singing of lilting
American patriotic songs and ballads.
Bit of humour, wit and banter
"The young journalist was expected to scrape the pork
barrel rather hard almost as a necessary preliminary for journalistic
maturity. The toughness around the journalist was believed to be
the result of the harder knocks he took in life." Lines out
of a contribution made by the journalist himself.
Bertrand Corea, better known as "Ginger" to the readers
of The Island, contributed two popular columns "Morning Spice"
and "Rambling Notes," until recently, when he bade farewell
to both journalism and his readers. A principal of a private school
in Matara, he switched careers, moving on to journalism. Beginning
at the former Times of Ceylon Ltd., he then joined the Daily Mirror
as a reporter and a columnist. His contributions to The Island were
enjoyed by numerous readers, and will now be greatly missed. Journalism
today seems to highlight only the negativities of life, most often
leaving out its simple, yet beautiful side. "Morning Spice
By Ginger," is a collection of the best contributions by Nihal
Corea, during his journalistic stint at the Times of Ceylon Ltd.
and The Island. Put together by his wife Ranee, they reflect the
ordinary details of contemporary society. From history to university
life, journalism and cricket, to pavement hawkers, indigenous medicine,
teachers and boys and girls, these contributions are truly entertaining.
sense of humour, wit and banter didn't just make him a delightful
personality, but also surfaced in his writing, resulting in a sure
smile on the lips of his readers.
of the articles that make up "Morning Spice By Ginger,"
are light hearted, serious topics too find their way into this slim
volume that gives readers a memorable slice of Lankan life.