Role of Theosophists in Buddhist revival in Ceylon.
Posted on December 8th, 2021

By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror Courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Princeton University Social Anthropologist Prof. Gananath Obeysekere has said that Theosophists led by Col. Henry Steel Olcott introduced a protestant” and purified” form of Buddhism in Ceylon when Buddhists in the island were demoralized” by the disestablishment” of their religion by the British rulers. But Obeysekere’s view is challenged by Peradeniya University historian Prof. P.V.J. Jeyasekera.

In his book:  Confrontations with Colonialism: Resistance, Revivalism and Reform Under British Rule in Sri Lanka 1796-1920 Vol. 1, Jayasekera fully acknowledges that the Theosophists played a stellar role in the Buddhist liberation movement against the Colonial regime, especially in the field of education. And as Whites, they were a very useful interface between the Sinhala Buddhists and the White Colonial regime both in Colombo and London. But he points out that their attempts to reshape the doctrinal aspects of Buddhism were not successful due to opposition from Buddhists.  

The Ceylonese Buddhists would not allow any amendment of their notion of Buddhist doctrines. In fact, at one stage, a leading Buddhist monk, Migettuwatte Gunananda, even questioned Olcott’s understanding of Buddhism and challenged him to come for a debate. Olcott is said to have fled to India the night before the debate.     

What the Ceylonese Buddhists were seeking was religious independence and protection, as per the Kandyan Convention of 1815 which the British had signed with the Kandyan chiefs. The Buddhists wanted an end to discrimination, marginalization, and the hegemony of State-backed Christianity. The Buddhists did not want political power. All they wanted was a fair share of State funds for their development. Their grievance was that while the regime was collecting taxes from the Buddhist majority, spending was mostly on the minority Christian religious and temporal institutions.

READ: Buddhist circuit will eternally bind India and Sri Lanka

Regime-Church Collusion         

Almost throughout the 19 th., Century, the British Colonial administration and Christian missions were in collusion to keep the Buddhists down through discriminatory laws and regulations. Jayasekera points out that, unlike in India, Christian goals were part and parcel of the policy of British Colonial governance in Ceylon.

The Buddhists could not even hold Peraheras in areas with a strong concentration of Christians. When the Kotehena Buddhist-Catholic riots took place in 1883, Governor James Longden knew that they were instigated by the Catholics, but the government report blamed the Buddhists without a fair investigation. The British tried to take away control of endowed lands from the temples through the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance of 1889. This aroused the ire of the Siam Nikaya and conservative Buddhists.

READ: Showcasing the Gandhara Buddhist civilization

In the 1870s, the Buddhists started boycotting government and missionary-run schools as they were allegedly foisting Christianity on Buddhist students. Even Governor Longden admitted that the instruction in the State and aided schools indirectly helped the Christian missionaries.”

Dr. Jayasekera says that at least till 1858, a Ceylonese had to be at least a nominal Christian” to secure government employment from the highest to the village level. Government schools were theoretically secular, but even they were, in many cases, run by Christian missionaries. In missionary-run schools, students were told that Buddhism was nothing but dark superstition”. The accent was on ‘moral advancement’ (through Christianity) rather than secular advancement.  The Buddhists tried to open their own schools, but the rules were such that it was a very difficult task for an economically deprived community.   

READ: Sri Lanka before it became predominantly Buddhist

Enter Theosophists

It was in this scenario that Olcott and his colleague Helena Blavatsky arrived in the island in May 1880 with the intention to boost the prospects of Buddhism, which, to them, was the panacea for the troubled world. Theosophists, whose founders were Whites from Europe and America, had been pressing fellow Whites to give attention to the Eastern peoples’ religions and metaphysical speculations. The Theosophists’ motto Universal Brotherhood” was breaking national, ethnic and religious barriers.

In Ceylon they were welcomed enthusiastically. Olcott and Blavatsky impressed all by becoming Buddhists soon after their arrival. The Buddhists found it very useful to have a White champion of Buddhism who had an understanding of Western ways and a conception as to how Buddhism could move towards modernity,” Obeysekere said of Olcott. The Theosophists roused the Buddhists to practical action,” he added.    

READ: India and Sri Lanka share responsibility to defend Buddhist heritage, says Indian Foreign Secretary

Olcott was very hard on Christianity, describing it as a demoralizing theology” and a blight in Asia”.  But such a characterization of Christianity did not find favor with Ceylonese Buddhists as they had already established the excellence of Buddhism in the Great Debates” in the 1860s and 1870s. The Buddhists were more concerned about the structure of subordination imposed on their faith by colonialism” and needed some help to end it, Jayasekera points out.  Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera and Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera successfully diverted the Theosophists attention from doctrinal matters or religious eclecticism to issues of colonial discrimination on religious grounds, Jayasekera adds.  

The Theosophists were meant to open schools. Ananda College in Colombo was one among many they opened, and the well-known Theosophist C.W.Leadbeater was its first Principal.  According to the Buddhist Theosophical Society, Col. Olcott attracted a large circle of able and enthusiastic workers. He indicated the steps that were necessary to transform the new found enthusiasm into practical action. He would not allow any obstacle to stand in his way. Antagonist propaganda only strengthened his resolve.   

He believed indigenous solutions to problems and believed in taking people along with him. When he worked on the Buddhist Catechism for school students, he consulted leading monks. He suggested having a Buddhist flag and assisted in selecting a design. He urged Buddhists to seek a public holiday for Vesak. Realizing the need for propaganda he established a newspaper,  Sarasavi Sandaresa.

An Interface

Olcott was an intermediary between the Ceylonese Buddhists and the Colonial Secretary in London. The six demands he put to the Colonial Secretary were: 1) Catholics accused of instigating the 1883 Kotehena riots be brought to trial; 2) Buddhists be guaranteed the right to observe their religion freely; 3) Vesak —the full moon day on which the Sinhalese commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death—be declared a public holiday; 4) All restrictions against the use of tom-toms and other musical instruments in religious processions be removed; 5) Buddhist registrars be appointed; 6) The question of control over Buddhist temporalities be resolved.

Olcott was able to win several concessions: The Catholics riot instigators were to be brought to trial and there would be a Proclamation of Religious Neutrality. Vesak was declared a public holiday on April 28, 1885, and officials promised to allow the use of musical instruments in religious processions.                           

Bane of Casteism

The Theosophists were for education for all” as part of their creed of Universal Brotherhood”. Olcott was dismayed that caste considerations were inhibiting the development of the Karavas, Salagamas and Durawas, though enthusiasm for Buddhist resurgence was higher in these castes than among the Kandyan Goyigamas. 

Inspired by Theosophists, the Buddhist Defense Committee, the Buddhist Theosophical Society and the Young Men’s Buddhist Association accommodated people from all castes. Even in conservative Kandy, Karava businessmen from the south, dominated bodies organized by Theosophists, Jayasekera says.

However, a section of Buddhists feared conversion to ‘occultism’ which was a foundational creed in Theosophy. But one of its leaders, Annie Besant, assured that Theosophy did not believe in conversion and C.W. Leadbeater, Principal of Ananda College explained that the Theosophists were essentially interpreters of the East to the West.

Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala, who were close collaborators, eventually broke up on the Buddha Gaya issue. Olcott left the Maha Bodhi Society and Dharmapala described Theosophy as jugglery of words.” In the end, Olcott described the Siam Nikaya as reactionary”. Olcott was dismayed that his Buddhist Catechism, which he had formulated after consultation with all including the Siam Nikaya, ceased to be used. The clergy felt that it was both superfluous and beyond the mandate for the Theosophists.   

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