Col. Henry Steel Olcott has been much in the news this season. A life-size statue was raised on the grounds of the New Jersey Buddhist Vihara near Princeton (though Olcott was born in Orange New Jersey) on September 10. The member of the American Congress for this district, Rush Holt, in his greeting noted: “Although British rule limited options for Sri Lankans, Clonel Olcott’s schools made it possible for students to seek strong academic instruction while learning and practicing their faith. It is a tribute to Colonel Olcott’s commitment to culture and the pursuit of knowledge that he is being honored today.”
A souvenir booklet, Henry Steel Olcott and the Revival of Buddhist Education, was issued in connection with the event by the Ananda College Old Boys’ Association—EastCoast. At 85 pages it contains a number of contributions focusing on Olcott’s work in the development of education in Sri Lanka and features some attractive color photographs of the schools (now colleges) established by him. While many of the testimonials offer nothing new they show Olcott’s memory is still warm in the hearts of many Sri Lankans. Sunil J. Wimalawansa who has a piece in the collection has also issued a short monograph, The American who revived Buddhism in Asia: Legacy of Colonel Steel Olcott. At 84 pages, it is also benefited by some attractive color photographs.
This year’s Olcott Oration delivered November 12 at the Auditorium of Ananda College, Colombo, by Professor Chandana Wirasinghe, Founding Dean (Emeritus), Schulich School of Engineering, University of Calgary, Canada, on the “Role of the Individual in National Development - Ananda Can Show the Way”, received much coverage as it coincided with the 125th anniversary celebrations of Ananda College, founded by Col. Olcott. In his address Professor Wirasinghe looked at Olcott’s life and the lessons that could be drawn from it for today’s world. Blavatsky is mentioned briefly in passing: “He came under the influence of a Russian woman called Helena Blavatsky who claimed many super natural powers. More than a decade later, The Society for Psychical Research who investigated her called her an ‘imposter’.”
Of course, in this he is in error, as the Society for Psychical Research has always claimed that the responsibly for the report rests with the Committee that issued it and not the Society. Perhaps as a nod to his audience and alma mater, Professor Wirasinghe concludes: “Having studied Olcott’s life in some detail, from birth to death, I can say to you today that he had many accomplishments, but the establishment of Ananda College is without any doubt his greatest achievement.”
The Olcott Oration for 2011 is now online and can be read here.