Coupling Malala and Olcott
Posted on August 28th, 2017

By Rohana R. Wasala

Waruna Chandrakirthi’s interesting article under the curious title මලාලා ගේ පාඩම සහ ඕල්කොට්තුමා Malala’s lesson and Olcott (Lankaweb/August 28, 2017) prompted me to write this.

 Chandrakirthi says:

ඕලකොට්තුමා මුල්වෙලා ආරම්භ කරපු බෞද්ධ ඉස්කෝලවල උගන්වන්නෙත් මලාලා කියලා දෙන්න හදන පාඩම් ම තමයි කියලා කියන එක හොඳ නිරීක්‍ෂණයක්.

(That what is taught in Buddhist schools pioneered by Olcott is the selfsame lesson that Malala is trying to give is a good observation.)

Waruna hasn’t presented enough facts to support his opinion. In any case, I for one cannot agree with him on this point. It is true that Col. Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) looked at Buddhism through Western eyes. But he meant well as far as the children of the dispossessed Sinhalese Buddhists of Ceylon were concerned. To begin with he was a ‘theosophist’ (a believer in the possibility of a mystical insight into God/divine nature). He was especially enamoured of Theravada Buddhism, nonetheless, so much so that he formally got converted to Buddhism. Though there is no room for theosophical beliefs in Theravada Buddhism, Col. Olcott probably squared the two (Buddhism and theosophy) intellectually through the vestigial influence of his childhood indoctrination in Christianity (This is only my hunch). Young David Hewavitarana, later known as Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), whom he mentored in his youth, eventually fell out with Olcott, but perhaps not exclusively due to lingering theosophical leanings in the latter. Dharmapala wanted  the word ‘theosophical’ omitted from the name ‘The Ceylon Buddhist Theosophical Society’, which the colonel did not approve of. However, the truth is that had there been no Olcott, there couldn’t have come into being an Anagarika Dharmapala who was influential enough in those colonial days to initiate a viable movement of religious and national resurgence (which, as we know, eventually led to independence from Britain).

Olcott started schools for the education of Buddhist children. It is difficult to think that he wanted to serve British imperialism through education; nor did he want to challenge Western rule; but definitely he wanted to put an end to governmental discrimination against Buddhist children. The young David Hewavitarana was well aware of the despicable way the majority Buddhist community were treated by the foreign rulers. When he was a student at St Thomas’, David was known for his rebelliousness as well as his honesty. Warden Miller, who was a very strict disciplinarian, felt compelled to make this frank admission to the boy David: We don’t come to Ceylon to teach you English, but we come to Ceylon to convert you.”

The Anagarika did not try to topple the British government, either. Probably, he thought it was too early to think about that. First, he wanted to wean his people of their slavish mentality. He, being from the moneyed class, was himself a beneficiary of a colonial English education. He wanted the children of the country to be taught modern science and modern languages including particularly English; he recommended Pali for Buddhist children. It is known that Dharmapala was more a Buddhist missionary than a nationalist reformer, though in both roles he was equally zealous. A large proportion (in fact, 75%) of all his writings and speeches were in English according to scholar Ananda Guruge. We owe the Anagarika, at least partly, to Olcott.  Actually, the American did a great service to the country in general, and to the Sinhala Buddhists in particular. No doubt, the Anagarika himself honoured Olcott for the services he rendered to our country. He also admired poet Edwin Arnold whose versified biography of the Buddha ‘Light of Asia’ introduced this great Eastern religion and its founder to Europe. The Anagarika regarded Edwin Arnold as his ‘English guru’. The Englishman reciprocated these feelings. Anagarika Dharmapala did not reject everything English or European simply because it came from that source. He was for accepting what was good in it like modern scientific knowledge and technology, and good moral qualities like diligence, perseverance, and industry. But he detested cultural Westernization and indolence. He thought that we owed them a debt of gratitude for such good things. He believed that he had to reward them by offering them the gift of Theravada Buddhism. Olcott’s involvement and early patronage helped the Anagarika in his life’s mission.

Just as Olcott pioneered education for Buddhist children at a time when they had been virtually denied any kind of education, the Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997) is at the forefront of a campaign for education for girls in a backward Muslim society where the conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists grudge or totally deny them that right, thinking that it is in accordance with the teachings of their religion. It is true that Pakistan has had a woman as prime minister (Benazir Bhutto), but this does not mean it has ceased to be male-supremacist, rather misogynistic society.

Hardly any developing country is free from Western interference. It is a fact of life. Not that it is a good thing. But in a country where the choice is between surrendering to the dictates of life denying barbarians and accepting the proffered help of those who have some regard for life and freedom despite their imperfections, Western interference may be tolerated at least provisionally. It may be that the Malala case is being exploited by the West to boost its image as a guardian of human rights, democracy, religious tolerance, etc (which we know often turns out to be a sham). If Malala declined the patronage that UK offers her, well then, they would find another young person for the purpose. But she has demonstrated that she possesses special abilities, that make her a dependable youth leader. Her victimization by religious extremists is a unique qualification for her. It appears that she is doing some badly needed pioneering work in increasing the chances of education for more and more girls and young women living in oppressive societies around the world.

Incidentally, in terms of information given in her biography I am Malala – The Girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban” (Widenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2013), written in collaboration with Oxford and Harvard educated writer and journalist Christiana Lamb, it cannot be said that her father Ziauddin Yousafzai was a big entrepreneur having invested a lot of money in a chain of private schools as Chandrakirthi suggests. Now the Yousafzai family are living in Birmingham, England, UK. At the time Malala was attacked by the Taliban, Ziauddin had founded an English medium school at Mingora, their village in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, with the help of a college friend of his named Mohammad Naeem Khan. The place is a popular tourist destination. That was one reason for opening such a school there. They named the school Khushal School after a Pashtun warrior poet called Khushal Khan Khattak of the 17th century whom Ziauddin greatly admired as a hero of his tribe. No other private school is mentioned as managed or possessed by him.

Ziauddin has a Master’s degree in English. He distinguished himself as a student activist when Gen. Zia Ul Haq was at the helm in Pakistan. He was general secretary of Pakhtun Students Federation. This was 1989. British author of Indian origin Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ published in 1988 excited a great outcry against it in the Muslim world including Pakistan, because it was thought to be blasphemous against Islam. Protesters demanded that the book be banned. Ziauddin also held that the book was offensive to Islamic sensitivities. But he knew that most of them condemned the book without having read it. He, as a person who always stood up for freedom of speech, suggested, during a college debate about ‘The Satanic Verses’: First, let’s read the book, and then why not respond with our own book?” He ‘thundered’ (as the authors put it) during that debate: Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it? Not my Islam,” (p. 37/ I am Malala). Actually, it was Ziauddin who had publicly opposed the activities of the Taliban. No one thought that the Taliban would go for the 15 year old Malala instead of her father, on October 9, 2012.

Though, frankly, I could not understand what exactly Chandrakirthi is trying to say about Sri Lankan education by comparing Malala and Olcott, I commend him for his bold approach in exciting our interest in looking at both from a novel point of view.

2 Responses to “Coupling Malala and Olcott”

  1. dingiri bandara Says:

    There was ,as far as we known one Gauthama Buddha whose philosophy we Sri Lankans Follow.
    We should not have any divisions in Buddhism as in other religions. These divisions are created by humans for whatever reasons.
    We only need to intelligently follow that path he has shown us.

  2. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Even though the word Theosophy is of Greek origin meaning Wisdom of the Gods (theo – of Gods, sophia– wisdom). Wisdom is a Truth which must be discovered and experienced by each one for themselves. In other words Theosophy is the wisdom underlying all religions when they are stripped of all superstitions.
    So there can not be conflicting interests between the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) and the Theosophical Society in general.

    Although Olcott initiated the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival, his connection with the movement was, as he himself recognized, neither as originator (credit Mohottivatte Gunananda) nor as culminator (credit Anagarika Dharmapala) but as organizer and articulator.

    According to the well prepared chronology of Anagarika Dharmapala’s life published in the Maha Bodhi Journal (January 1927) 1n 1986 Anagarika Dharmapala left Government Service to work in the interest and welfare of the Buddhist Theosophical Society wherein he was engaged as general secretary of the Buddhist Section, Manager of the Sandaresa paper published by the Buddhist Press. Manager of Buddhist School and Assistant Secretary of the Buddhist Defence Committee from March 1886 to December 1890.

    In October 1904 Anagarika Dharmapala left Benares for Colombo. On the way went to Adyar to see Col. Olcott, with whom he ad an altercation because Col.Olcott insulted the feelings of the Buddhists by showing disrespect to the Tooth Relic, a copy of which he had placed under a shelf. Col Olcott showed bad temper and broke off friendship with him after a period of twenty years. The Anagarika was initiated by him in January 1884 into the Theosophical Society.

    March 1906 Anagarika Dharmapala began a campaign against the Theosophical Society. As the local Theosophical Society was under the control of Buddhists, it was suggested that there should be harmony with Theosophy and Buddhism and wanted the name Theosophy to be eliminated. Certain members wished to retain the name and the campaign was therefore started.

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