H. S. Olcott and His Philosophy of Life
Proclaiming and Living the Brotherhood of All Religions
N. C. Ramanujachary
Henry S. Olcott (1832-1907) with the other two main founders
of the theosophical movement: Helena Blavatsky and W. Q. Judge
Much information on Henry S. Olcott, prior to his association with Helena Blavatsky and the establishment of the Theosophical Society, is not available to many members of the theosophical movement, especially in India, except that he was a Colonel of the American army. The remarkable events in his early life need to be recapitulated.
Born on 2 August 1832, he was the oldest son of a businessman Henry Wyekoff Olcott and Emily Steel Olcott. His parents moved from Orange to New York City at some point of time, and at age fifteen the boy entered the New York University. He had to leave that after a year, when his father could not afford the tuition fee. He took up share-farming a 500 acre plot near Elysia, Ohio, in the vicinity of his maternal uncle who, fortunately, introduced him to Spiritualism too.
Soon he became an authority on scientific farming and established the Western Farm School. His first book on agriculture “Sorgo and Imphee, the Chinese and African Sugar canes” was published in 1857 (A. O. Moore, New York) and a second book “Outlines of the first course of agricultural lectures” in 1860 (C. M. Saxton, Barker & Co. New York). When his mother passed away in 1856, Olcott moved back into the family home and two years later, became an agricultural editor and writer for two periodicals.
He was married to Mary Eplee Morgon in 1860 (April 26). Civil war interrupted with his domestic life almost in a year. He joined as a Signal officer with General Burnside. Later he did the investigation work for the Army and the Navy and was on the committee of three who investigated the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After the war, he became a lawyer in New York, specialized in Customs, Insurance and revenue cases.
His wife Mary was orthodox and conservative in religious matters. Her husband’s “inquiring mind” was not acceptable to her. The marriage broke in a divorce in mid-1874. While at England in 1874, he conducted a genealogical research and wrote the family history, ‘The Descendents of Thomas Olcott’, according to which book, seven generations back, Thomas Olcott, a trader arrived in the new world, America during 1630s. The family motto was “Vigilete” meaning “Be Watchful.”
He had two sons: Richard Morgon Olcott, who received good education, worked in journalism and latter in export business in San Francisco; William Topping left college (1878) and joined a commercial firm (W. Q. Judge helped his placement).
HSO’s investigation into spiritual séances came out in a book form in 1875 under a title “People from the Other World” (American Publishing Coy. Hartford) well before the formation of the Theosophical Society. His meeting HPB for the first time and his getting enthused, inspired and involved for working in higher spiritual realm were well recorded in the chapters of this book. By the end of 1878, HSO left for India along with Helena Blavatsky and a small party on theosophical commission.
“We theosophists are fully convinced that all religions are but branches of one sole truth,” begins HSO’s essay “Theosophy, Religion and Occult science” (1884). He says the Theosophical Society gives a formal expression to the “world kindling ethical idea” and “a social influence which is powerful enough to lift the depressed masses a great step forward”. It is no new discovery but only a reassertion of the essential unity of Brotherhood, “a principle to be elevated above all accidental or historical distinctions”.
According to him, the study of Occult Science has a two-fold value:
1. It teaches there is “a teeming world of Force within this teeming visible world of phenomena”.
2. It stimulates the student to acquire, by self-discipline and education, a knowledge of his psychic powers and the ability to employ them.
Addressing the ranks of the Theosophical Society, he says:
“We welcome most those who are ready to trample under foot their selfishness when it comes in conflict with the general good. We welcome the intelligent student of science, who has such broad conceptions of the subject that he considers it quite as important to solve the mystery of force as to know the atomic combinations of matter; and feeling so, is not afraid or ashamed to take for his teacher anyone who is competent, whatever be the color of his skin.”
He lays down two cardinal propositions:
1. Psychically, all men are brothers, all entitled to know divine truth.
2. Every human being has within his own nature, in a greater or lesser degree, certain sublime faculties, which when fully developed, will give him divine knowledge.
His association, his working together with HPB, and his tutelage with the Masters of the Wisdom were eloquently expressed in one sentence by Master KH, in one of his letters: ‘He (HSO) represents the entire Society, and by reason of his official position, if not no other, stands with Upasika (HPB), closest to ourselves in the chain of Theosophical work.”
He was a man of keen intelligence, aggressive and original character, and unquestioned integrity, and one established in public affairs attained in consequence of those special features, and a mellow humility and salty sense of humor.
He did not work for any sort of “recognition”, either from the public or his higher ups and Teachers, but strived to obtain “authenticity” in his tasks and talks, so that he becomes “reliable” in the eyes of entire humanity. “Here is a man who we can trust” was the commendation many times made by his Teachers.
He stands today a role-model for every aspiring theosophist. Combining philosophy and organizational development (the abstract and concrete forms of Nature) he carved a way - a royal road - on the working system of “Benefit for Humanity.”
He met one Mulji Thackersay, on a ship, who informed him of the formation of Arya Samaj at Lahore in India, the same year the T.S. was established at New York. Through him, he was able to make further contacts with Harischandra Chintamany and Swami Dayanand Saraswati. These contacts made his travel to India easier and less strenuous when he received through Helena Blavatsky the “Orders” to shift to India.
His arrival in India was on 16 February 1880 at Bombay. The party was welcomed on board, greeted by Thackersay, Shyam Krishna Varma and others. A reception was arranged for them in the premises of Harischandra Chintamany, on 17 February 1880, where the latter owned a photographic studio. Heads of government departments, editors, noted professors, some British, Hindus and Parsis attended the reception meeting. A play of scenes from Ramayana was enacted too. The meeting started at 9h00 p.m. and lasted till 2h45 the next day. This was the first meeting he addressed in India.
His contacts with scholars of various schools and religions at Bombay to start with, later in Calcutta, Pune etc. and much later at Madras in South India, and at Ceylon gave him the needed support and confidence to work for the consolidation of religious faith among men and women of the world, based on the commonalities in ideas and concepts.
His work for social reform was sequel to his commitment to the glorious ideal, made into a reality, of “Brotherhood of Humanity.” He worked for a revival of Sanskrit, Oriental learning, and prepared catechisms and treatises on religions, encouraging the preparation and publication of Lexicons for Indian languages from Sanskrit. This needs special mention, among other things ( such as work for panchamas, swadeshi exhibitions, Adyar library etc.) for it is part of a wide program for Indian renaissance.
His work for a revival of Buddhism in Ceylon and elsewhere needs specific mention. The social and educational reforms he introduced were very much applauded and the Nation had his statue erected in honor at Anuradhapura. This is a significant factor in recognition of his services in another Asiatic country besides India. He caused the publication of Buddhist catechism on religious ideals and social morals. His meetings with the different monasteries and their heads brought out much needed help in regulating the work. It must be noted that he was the co-founder of the Mahabodhi Society and he gave his heart and soul for the work of spreading Buddhist philosophy and thought. He did continue the job of King Ashoka, after the war of Kalinga, in widening the exposure of Buddhist sayings among the neighboring countries. King Ashoka had a large agenda but could not fulfill that as he was called back from life.
Olcott’s work in bringing out reconciliation among the Buddhist groups/sects in Japan and Ceylon and receiving panchsila along with Blavatsky drew ripples in theosophical groups in the West to say that he was anxious and converting the Society into the ranks of Buddhism. A Master of the Wisdom had to intervene and straighten the understanding. He stood by the proclaimed policy of the T.S. that we would not encourage or work for conversion of people from one religion to another; say emphatically that all religions spring from one and the same source; once striped off the personal interpretations of later commentators/ superstitious practices all religions speak the eternal truth.
A mention is also necessary of his healing and mesmeric powers, which he practiced to help the suffering men and women of the land. His exercise of these powers did help thousands of people. Particularly in Ceylon, his healing touch, besides giving relief to the sufferers, arrested to a great deal the missionaries’ work of converting the population into Christianity.
During his early period in India, it will be amazing to note that took lessons in Hindi perhaps to be able to work ere more effectively. He was given the gotra and mantra and made into an Indian Brahmin twice, once at Calcutta and secondly by Pandit taranath, Tarka Vachaspati.
It was in the first visit to Benares, as it was called then, that the Society had the advantage of borrowing from the Maharaja of Kasi the motto Satyat-nasti-Paro-Dharmah for the Society. The Maharajah welcomed the founders in great admiration. The scholarship of Helena Blavatsky and the basic interest Olcott had in the Oriental knowledge stood them in good stead in befriending many scholars and pundits. It was also then, they met Ma-ji who was helpful in finding the sources of Ancient Wisdom. It was at Gooty, where he again saw Ma-ji along with own Master, that he fully understood the relationship and significance to the work of the Society.
He had good friends among Indian scholars, Rajah and Maharajas. He was extremely loved and admired by the Indian Lodges and public. Two instances are worth mentioning here: Bellary lodge TS passed a resolution in the wake of his desire to retire from Presidency, to move to Ootacommond for rest, that the office of President should not be filled in during his life, and the administrative work to be attended by the Vice-President and committee of management. During his visits to places in Tamilnadu (then Madras presidency), the welcome he received was more elaborate than that would be usually offered to Kings/Royalties and was remarkably exceptional in its grandeur and splendor.
Sanskrit Sabhas at Allahabad, Varanasi acclaimed him for his erudition and enthusiastic approach for revival.
It would be appropriate to deal upon his literary skills. He prepared very meticulously for his talks and speeches. While he had to talk to the Indian audience on religious, philosophical and social matters of concern he had to consult very many books and reports and do a lot of ‘home-work’. To talk on subjects which he was still learning and had not yet formulated fixed ideas/opinions is a task for anyone. Yet his zeal being what it was, and with the Blessing he continuously received from his spiritual Teachers, he underwent all the perspiration and happily received the inspiration; and at the end of each talk noted men from the audience would approach around and shower their appreciation in many ways. His talks on religions and philosophies opened new visions and vistas to many a scholars, who later on sat with him for several hours in educating themselves further. His frequent talks in India were centered round the Commonality of all World-Religions; India: Past-Present and Future; Brotherhood of Humanity; Occult Sciences and Religion. He invariably had long sessions of discussions on matters of common academic concern at all places of his visit.
Many may not be aware that it was Olcott who helped edit the book “Isis Unveiled” and other writings of Helena Blavatsky, as she felt herself inadequate to the task for various reasons. The editing of the monthly journal ‘The Theosophist’ is done by him, though Helena Blavatsky supplied much of the material for publication. Members who could assist in the work were very few then at the headquarters of the Society. His tutelage for the knowledge of Occult sciences was with H. P. B. and in her presence, perhaps, his very many other skills got eclipsed.
He had immense and undying faith in the “Brotherhood of Religions.” His work in India centered in bringing about rapport and reconciliation among the warring religious/social groups and Races. The rapid growth and spread of the society’s influence in India (compared to the waning atmosphere in America by end of 1878) was because of the extremely inspiring and enlightening spirit that he brought into play. There was practically no place he did not visited, no public figure he had not met in his untiring journeys to every nook and corner of the country. He enveloped India with the theosophical fragrance. Singing the past glory of the land and religions here, he promised a greater hope in its further splendor and wide expansion. He enthused the educated Indians to well realize the situation and work zealously for India’s future.
We are not here touching upon the administrative skills he employed in running the Society in its infancy. All through he adopted the methods and approaches of Consultative direction and never desired to be an autocrat. He gave the strong frame of Constitution and got it incorporated in 1905, thus attaining a legal status to the theosophical association. His appointing Organizers, Inspectors for Branches, decentralizing the work by forming Sections and Executive Committees needs a long narration. It is not being talked about now: that part of his stupendous work will have to be reserved for another occasion. He adopted a policy of association with like-minded organizations and this helped many Indian groups affiliate to the Theosophical Society. His last message, written down by hand on 2 February 1907, to be read over his body, speaks volumes in making public his noble and worthy aspiration:
“To my beloved brothers in the physical body: I bid you all farewell. In memory of me, carry on the grand work of proclaiming and living the Brotherhood of Religions. To my beloved Brothers on the higher planes: I greet and come to you, and implore you to help me to impress all men on earth that THERE IS NO RELIGION HIGHER THAN TRUTH, and that in the Brotherhood of Religions lie the peace and progress of humanity.”
It is unfortunate that in India we still have inter-religious bickering and highly-rated intolerance. We are not able to see beyond the outer form - rituals and ceremonies-, and touch the region of the Spirit of religion. This only means, if we measure it well, that we, as theosophists and as a body, have a large part of unfinished/unaccomplished agenda over and upon our shoulders.
Our honest and sincere tribute to Col. Olcott, our Founder-President will be to understand this first, and then employ all our energies to strengthen the hands and voices of Those who are in undisturbed determination striving on this endeavor.
In September 2016, after a careful analysis of the state of the esoteric movement worldwide, a group of students decided to form the Independent Lodge of Theosophists, whose priorities include the building of a better future in the different dimensions of life.
E-Theosophy e-group offers a regular study of the classic, intercultural theosophy taught by Helena P. Blavatsky (photo).
000 H. S. Olcott and His Philosophy of Life