Worlds Collide

I was fascinated by this profile, in The Smart Set of Henry Steel Olcott, the American leader of a Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka in the late 19th century. It would be hard to find a better example of an extraordinary person doing extraordinary things than Olcott’s life, spanning from antebellum United States:

Henry Steel Olcott began life in 1832 on a farm in Orange, New Jersey, the eldest of six children. His parents were devout Presbyterians who traced their lineage to the Puritans. Olcott would study agricultural science at what is now New York University, and then work in experimental agriculture, publishing several influential studies that gave him international renown. Olcott was a confident man and a modern man, unconventional and independent, excelling at whatever he did, an embodiment of the American ethic. He allied himself with the liberal causes of mid-19th century America: the abolition movement, the women’s movement, the temperance movement, the cremation movement. There is some evidence that a young Olcott dabbled in Spiritualism, a fad at the time. Everyone who knew Olcott thought of him as a man of principle, and also a kook, and maybe a visionary, too. When he tired of agriculture, Olcott decided he would be a journalist, writing for the New York Tribune and a few other papers. Around this time, Olcott married the pious daughter of an Episcopalian minister who bore Olcott two sons. But husband and wife were destined to grow apart, and eventually they divorced, leaving Olcott to explore his more experimental side.
At the onset of the American Civil War, Olcott joined the Union Army and served as the special commissioner of the War Department investigating fraud, corruption, and graft at the New York Mustering and Disbursement Office. By the time he was through, Olcott had achieved the rank of colonel. He became so well respected as a man who could get to the bottom of any injustice, the secretary of war appointed him to investigate the conspiracy behind the Lincoln assassination, which was accomplished in two weeks’ time. At the war’s end, Olcott decided he would leave government service and become a private lawyer specializing in insurance, revenue, and fraud.

and ending as a leader of men:

By the time Olcott died in 1907, it was clear he had played a crucial role as just such a leader. In Sri Lanka, Henry Steel Olcott would create scores of Buddhist schools, and many more would be built in his name. It was Henry Steel Olcott who initiated the design of the international Buddhist flag, and you see it everywhere in Sri Lanka, from temples to trishaws. His Buddhist Catechism has been translated into more than 20 languages and is still used in Buddhist education all over the world. And Olcott has been honored in kind. There are Henry Steel Olcott statues in Sri Lanka, and Henry Steel Olcott streets. There is a Henry Steel Olcott Memorial Cricket Tournament (perhaps the greatest honor Sri Lanka could bestow upon a man) held across the country each year.
In 1967, at a ceremony for the commemorative stamp issued in Sri Lanka to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Olcott’s death, then-Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake summed up Olcott thus: “At a time when Buddhism was on the wane in Ceylon, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott…awakened its people to fight to regain their Buddhist heritage. Colonel Olcott was one of the heroes in the struggle of Lankan independence…. Colonel Olcott’s visit to Ceylon was a landmark in the history of Buddhism.”

On a more personal level, I was intrigued by this tidbit: “At his funeral in India in 1907, his successor as resident of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, told the gathering of mourners that they were not to say goodbye to Colonel Henry Steel Olcott but merely to the cast-off garment that once held his spirit.” It turns out that this woman, Dr. Annie Besant, was one of the founders of Besant Hill School, a competing boarding school located in the town that I attended school in, Ojai, California. Ojai has a long history of strange religious establishment; the school that I attended is located next to a compound run by the followers of Jiddu Krishnamurti.

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