Spread of Buddhist Education in Sri Lanka; the role played by Col Olcott and Theosophists
Posted on December 31st, 2020

by Dr D Chandraratna Courtesy The Island

The Olcott Oration delivered to the Old Boys Association of Ananda College (November 2020, Perth, Western Australia)

It can be gauged from the Buddhist publications in and around 1880s that the ordinary Sinhalese were experiencing an acute sense of despair and disquiet that colonialism had brought about a social degeneration evidenced by increased consumption of liquor and associated problems of family violence, cattle stealing, gambling, and crime. Even the colonial civil servants from numerous districts complained to the Governor that social disorganization was affecting administration, revenue collection and policing. The Sinhalese Buddhist revivalist movement and a proper assessment of Col Olcott’s contribution must be understood in this context of the rising tide of Sinhala nationalism, Buddhist confrontation with Colonialism, Christian missionary activity and increasing westernization.

The elite Buddhists including those culturally identified with the foreigner were not unaware that there was an imminent collapse of the civilizational heritage of the Sinhala people. Western civilization alongside cultural assimilation was sweeping though the country The protest against the social degeneration was a combined protest of all strata reflected in the mushrooming of many grass roots organisations such as gramaarakshka sabhas, Sucharithodaya/ Sucharithawardana samagamas in addition to the already existing temperence (amadyapa) associations. Calling for athma shakthi or self-confidence in the people, newspapers, pamphlets, theatre and drama, enjoined an appeal to stem the degeneration of Sri Lankan society. The colonial administration was conscious of the rising discontent but continued as usual by labelling the village leadership as rowdies intent on sedition.

It was a time that the missionaries and even scholars such as Max Weber characterized all indological and Orient as primitive and their belief systems as irrational and superstitious. The British colonial state was admittedly Christian and the disabilities and intolerance that the Buddhists in Ceylon experienced were the same as the Hindus in India. Whereas in India the role of the missionaries was insignificant in the structure of colonial domination in Ceylon it was a formidable feature of what is called ‘the colonial difference’. The Buddhists and the Hindus attracted the Orientalist racism and the colonial regime was not yet ready to accept even nominally the faith of the vast majority of its subject population on equal terms. The ‘superior truth’ of the colonialist rested on the formal structure of subordination for reasons of political dominance and ideological hegemony.

The colonial state was far from the declared fairness and impartiality when it came to religion because it was inseparable from the Christian faith. Converting the heathens was another way of serving the needs of the colonial government. Imperialism was the will of the God. There was no impartial religious policy and the conventions and treaties agreed to by the colonial Office in 1815 were limited to paper only. Though the discrimination faced by the Buddhist was questioned even in the Legislative Council by non-Buddhist Sri Lankans, these fell on deaf ears. The Ceylonese legislators being non-Buddhists their pleas were muted and response by the administration came to nothing.

The successful confrontations with the missionaries in the 1860’s and 70’s and the accompanying argumentation lifted the spirits of the Sinhalese and gave Buddhists some strength of purpose. They were outspoken about the injustices such as the privileges granted to Christian missionaries, and the denial of the rights that Buddhist were entitled to being the majority. The intimate association of the colonial state with a particular religion made their claims to neutrality hollow. The colonial fairness and neutrality was only in relations with different sects of the Christian faith. The agitation made by the Christian Liberation Society asking for a separation of the state from the Anglican faith kept the Buddhists and the Hindus out of the agitation. The Colonial Secretary was convinced that if the Ecclesiastical department was disestablished the natives would lose respect for Christianity and he remained unmoved.

Despite these protestations the state relationship with Christianity continued untrammelled as before. The missionaries were paid by the public purse even though many missionaries were known to be fraudulent in their account keeping; the colonial civil servants participated in religious activities, and were encouraged even to preach. However much the Buddhists complained that the taxes collected from the Buddhists were used to provide education to the non-Buddhists the state maintained that the latter were unable to provide a modern secular education and evaded the issue. Conversion was commonplace and the Buddhist sangha were helpless to stem the erosion of their religion through material inducement. Preferential treatment in appointing headmen was no secret and in fact the Headmen were more useful than Christian priests for obvious reasons. Resistance to conversion by Headmen often resulted in dismissal from office.

The Arrival of the Theosophists

The theosophists entered the scene ‘at the right historical moment when Buddhists were demoralized at the disestablishment of their religion and the power of the missions’. To have white champions of Buddhism who had an understanding of western ways and a conception as to how Buddhism could move towards modernity roused the Buddhists to practical action’. It was a psychological boost of immense consequence to the inferiority complex of the subordinate subjects.

The theosophists were not a very significant organisation in the west. It was the resurgence movements of indigenous religions in countries such as Sri Lanka, India Thailand, Tibet and so on that paved the way for the theosophists to enter Asia. In India theosophists were rejected as a religion and if not for their espousal of larger political objectives they would not have survived. Generally their role in these countries was cultural and ideological and of course the support they extended to the local indigenous religions made a notable difference. The principal motto of Theosophists was universal brotherhood and that had appeal in societies such as ours that differentiated people on immutable criteria. They were also rationalizing the Eastern religious traditions and rites. Madam Blavatsky stated in India that, ‘her aim was to drive into the wooden heads of the Anglo-Saxons that in matters of metaphysical speculation the East is entitled to the same respect as the West’. This message was given to packed houses throughout India and Sri Lanka and was received with much enthusiasm. They also harped on the evil association of Christianity with racism, and vehemently blasted colonialism and the illegal occupation of countries. An assault by the whites on imperialism was most appealing to the masses.

Some of the authors of Sri Lankan historiography contend that the Asian reawakening of traditional religions was due to outside forces such as Western theosophical movement. It is only partly true. A Western movement defending traditional religions and Asian cultures at a time that westernization had brought them into disrepute gave the Colonialists a headache. The colonial structure of subordination was complete with the proselytization orchestrated through education and the missionaries were the principal agents in that drive for cultural hegemony. Though the British were openly promoting secular education they could not afford to divorce education from the political purposes of colonial domination. For them education was moral advancement and that was possible only though Christianity. The way that the heathen could be saved from damnation was though education and it was their second objective of civilizing the primitives of Asia.

The arrival of the Theosophists in Sri Lanka is significant not only because of the fact that they were a western organization capable of questioning the civilizing mission and the ideology of colonialism. Hikkaduwe who wrote to Olcott in India was quite aware of the role that the white men and women could play in Sri Lanka and that was in their specific role in education and not on the Buddhist faith as such. While rejecting the essentials of theosophy the Sri Lankans were happy for theosophists to undertake the educational role much coveted by a laity in search of modernity. The bhikkus Bulathgama, Walane, Hikkaduwe, Weligama, Migettuwatte, and Dodanduwe

who were committed educationists were encouraged by the arrival of Olcott. Hikkaduwe Sumangala by that time had an international reputation as an authoritative person after the Great debates of the 1860’s. Most importantly he stated that the theosophists should spearhead the spread of education among Buddhist boys and girls and in securing that toleration and freedom from persecution reinvigorate Buddhist civilization. Availing themselves of the benefits of secular education on Western principles was the one only path to a modern, secular society.

Theosophists and Buddhist Education

At the arrival of the theosophists there were only four schools receiving grant in aid and the rest were missionary and government schools. In the missionary schools the children were taught that Buddhism was a dark superstition and in the government schools no religious instructions were given. The American missionaries dominated the Northern peninsula where all students were compelled to follow Christian instruction. The theosophists embarked on there allotted task with vigour by undertaking fund raising campaigns for new schools with the active participation of the sangha. The BTS and its network of branches undertook the Buddhist educational movement. The Christian missionaries now faced a better-organized opposition and the sangha were also active participants in the educational movement. The Buddhist schools faced difficulties as the state favoured missionary schools being favoured in the employment market. Even the Buddhists who were relatively affluent sent their children to the missionary and state schools.

The Theosophists were useful to the Sinhalese Buddhists in ways of promoting peace and cooperation among the various divisions of the Sinhala society. Their notion of universal brotherhood was especially appealing to the lower castes in the Society. They were also sending a message to the sangha as to the nikaya divisions that were so ingrained in the Buddhist monkhood. The hostility and the uppishness of the Kandyan Siamese sect made Olcott and theosophists most welcome in the Amarapura and low country sects. The increasing interest in oriental studies in the West, the creation of the Oriental languages commission in 1902 gave a major boost to the activities of the sangha in the country. As far as the doctrine of the theosophists was concerned they were no experts on Buddhism and Olcott’s occult practices and hypnotic powers he claimed to possess did not enthuse the locals. In fact he accused Migettuwatte of a plot to expose him and fled to India once to ‘sail away from the wily fowler’.

What the locals could not accomplish the Western Theosophists did with a flourish. Theosophists in their publications attempted to rationally elucidate the concepts of kamma, nirvana, and rebirth while refuting the charges of fatalism, nihilism and pessimism accusations. By the end of the 19 th century however it is fair to say that Buddhism and Theosophy parted company. Anagarika Dharmapala, Vidyodaya Pirivena, Migettuwatte, Siyam Nikaya, Maha Bodhi Society together created a rift between the Buddhist laity and the theosophists. Nevertheless Col Olcott went on to produce the Buddhist catechism replacing Bauddha Adahilla of Migettuwatte` and Hikkaduwe Sumangala always appreciated Olcott for his educational endevour for the Buddhist children in the island.

Buddhist Schools and Col Olcott

With Col Olcott’s initiative and guidance, the theosophists were convinced that the decline of Sinhalese Buddhists was the lack of proper education facilities, and the best solution was to make available educational institutes with a solid Buddhist religious background. Starting from the metropolitan centres, leading Buddhist colleges was established all over the country. A brief look at a few major Schools reveals the salient features. The endeavour united the Buddhists, Philanthropy flourished. A sense of pride galvanized the people and it gave an opportunity to bring the common folk and elites together.

Following a meeting of Buddhists at, Pettah, under the patronage of Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, an English-Buddhist school was inaugurated at 19, Prince Street on 1 November, 1886, by the Buddhist Theosophical Society. Thirty -seven students attended the first session. In 1888, when about 130 boys were attending, it moved to 61 Maliban Street, C. W. Leadbeater was appointed the first Principal of Ananda. In March 1890, the school’s proximity to a Catholic school led to controversy—and a move to 54, Maliban Street, where further growth ensued, and student enrolments rose to 200 in 1892. In 1894 the school was relocated in the suburb of Maradana. On 17 August 1895, the former English Buddhist School was renamed to Ananda College Colombo. By 1961, the college had officially become a government school.

After setting up a branch of the BTS in Galle, Col. Olcott opened up the B. T. S. English school at Pettigalawatta on 15 September 1880. This school had a short existence and later with the arrival of Dr. Bowles Daly (LLD), an Irish clergyman and a theosophist, Mahinda College was opened on 1 March 1892 at Pedlar Street in Galle, Fort. The school was named after Arhant Mahinda Thera, the Buddhist monk who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Frank Lee Woodward, born in England (1871-1952) and trained as a schoolmaster arrived in Sri Lanka and assumed duties as the Principal of Mahinda College, Galle.,

In 1887 Col Olcott visited Kandy and expressed his wish to start an English-medium Buddhist School with the help of Sumangala Thera and the Mudaliyar of Kandy at that time. In June 1888, a new school with one student was opened at a place in Bodhiraja Mawatha near the present Central Bus Stand in Kurunegala, by Semenaries A. Bamunu-Arachchige The school was named Maliyadeva College after Arhat Maliyadeva. In 1946 the girls’ section was separated from the original mixed Maliyadeva College and became a separate institution for girls.

Buddhist Girl’s Education

after Olcott

Kumari Jayawardena argues that ‘as a result of neglect, if not gender bias, we know little about either the role of women in the Buddhist revivalist movement or of their efforts to promote Buddhist female education. As part of the Buddhist revival and as counter to the education offered by missionary schools, revivalists spoke mostly of the necessity of giving Buddhist boys a secular education whereas education of girls did not receive the same emphasis’ and early efforts to give girls a modern education had even led to bitter controversies and quarrels in the Buddhist Theosophical Society.

Jayawardena points out that there were few Buddhist women with formal education, and no local women graduates or trained teachers were available to sustain a school, Col Olcott made overtures to foreign Theosophist women to come to Sri Lanka as teachers and principals. Many of them were the early beneficiaries of women’s university education in the West, who had given up Christianity for Theosophy and Buddhism. As qualified ‘white’ principals, they gave immediate ‘status’ to Buddhist schools. They arrived at a time when ‘white women’ were being demonized by nationalists as suddis (‘immoral, promiscuous, and shameless white women’), foreign women. In the fullness of time however Theosophists like Higgins were referred to endearingly as sudu ammas (‘white mothers’) who were giving Buddhist girls an education in English, and rescuing them from the clutches of the missionaries. Up till then Buddhists desiring a modem education in English for their daughters had no choice except the Catholic and Protestant schools such as Good Shepherd Convent, Colombo (started in 1869), the Methodist Girls’ High School, Colombo (1886), the Girls’ High School, Kandy (1879), and many others established subsequently.

The lack of Buddhist schools for girls was noted by Col. Olcott (the founder of the Theosophical Society), who often spoke of the need for schools where girls could be educated in a Sinhala Buddhist atmosphere, based on the view that the mother is the first teacher,” and from daughter to wife, from wife to mother” . By the late 19th century, Buddhist middle-class men were looking out for companions who could stand shoulder to shoulder with the educated Sinhalese. Marrying Christians or non-Sinhalese was perceived to be a threat to Sinhala Buddhist identity.

Women theosophists who encouraged the Ceylonese to start girls schools were many.

Sarah A. English, a Theosophist from Massachusetts (who later taught in Sri Lanka); she spoke of the importance of education for women, described the progress of women’s education in the USA and urged Buddhist women to resist Christianity

The Women’s Education Society started four small schools teaching in Sinhala at Wellawatte, Kandy, Gampaha and Panadura, and in 1890 one in Ambalangoda, but its ambitious project was the Sanghamitta School (teaching in English) started at Maradana with 20 pupils. Olcott who recruited Katherine Pickett to lead the project died soon after arrival, was later instrumental in getting Marie Museaus Higgins, (1855-1926), a German widow of an American Theosophist, to become the next principal.

According to Kumari Jayawardena, ‘there were serious differences of opinion over the running of the Sanghamitta School in 1894 and Higgins then left to start another school, Museaus College, on land donated by a Buddhist philanthropist. The fortunes of Sanghamitta School fluctuated. In 1896 its management was transferred to the Buddhist Theosophical Society, and in 1898 to the Mahabodhi Society (founded by Anagarika Dharmapala). The Sanghamitta School, under Dharmapala became more religious and conservative and was linked to a religious order started by one of Dharmapala’s friends. Internal acrimony led to a rival breakaway school, Museaus College, which became the more fashionable one for Sinhala Buddhist women. Having given her own maiden name to the school, Marie Museaus Higgins had a personal stake in its success. There were a few early academic successes; by 1897 Elsie de Silva passed the Junior Cambridge examination and Lucy de Abrew was the first Sinhala woman to enter Medical College in 1902, also winning the Jeejeebhoy Scholarship’.

By 1910 there was the need for a good Buddhist girls’ high schools, on the lines of missionary schools to be established in the important towns of Ceylon. This move may have been influenced by the example of Ramanathan College, which started with much fanfare in 1913 by P. Ramanathan. While most of the leading Buddhists were content merely to deplore the lack of good Buddhist girls’ schools, Selestina Dias stepped in to change the situation. Born in 1858, she was the daughter of Solomon Rodrigo of Panadura, a leading liquor merchant and landowner of his time. She married Jeremias Dias of Panadura who was a member of the powerful Arrack Syndicate and at a time when it was unusual for women to run businesses, she did so very effectively, and was known popularly as ‘Rainda Nona,’ (Lady Arrack Renter). Many referred to Mrs. Dias as Mahopasikava (Great Lady Devotee) and compared her to Visakha, the famous benefactor of Buddha’s time, also the wife and daughter of a leading merchant.

With the Dias money, the Buddhist Girls’ College was begun in 1917 with 47 pupils; Dr. Bernice Thornton Banning, an American Theosophist (with an M.A. and Ph.D.) was the principal for the first year. In the period up to 1933, Visakha Vidyalaya had a succession of eight foreign principals. From 1933 to 1945, the principal was an American, Clara Motwani, nee Heath, married to an Indian Theosophist; she was succeeded by Susan George Pulimood of Kerala who was principal from 1945 to 1967. It was only in 1967 that the first Sinhala Buddhist Woman Hema Jayasingha became the principal.

Concluding Comment

The opening up of secular education to those who were deprived of had tremendous consequences for the Sinhalese in particular and the country in general. Col Olcott’s efforts produced in the country all different forms of men and women. Buddhist Colleges produced seers and saints, philosophers and scientists, technocrats and researchers, writers and politicians among the Sinhalese that a pirivena education could never accomplish. Visionaries cannot carry out metaphysics and religion because it is not a rational pursuit and even religious knowledge cannot be furthered in rational conversation without a secular institution. In so far as a future democratic society with a democratic political process cannot be ushered in unless by reason of its general affinity to scientific process, a Buddhist middle class took up the challenge. For women in particular there was much discussion on the need for educated Buddhist wives, presentable in bourgeois and colonial society, become enterprising managers as well as educated mothers who would reproduce and correctly socialize the next generation of Sinhala Buddhists. The theosophists and Buddhists working together bequeathed to the country a secular education, pluralist liberal values, which an imperial power will never impart by example. Ananda College and Vishaka with all the other Buddhist schools in the island furthered a vision for Sri Lanka as evidenced by the products that yielded over the years.


Prof P.V.J.Jayasekera’s Confrontations with Colonialism, (2017) and Kumari Jayawardena’s Nobodies to Somebodies (2015),

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2024 LankaWeb.com. All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress