The White Buddhist- The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott (An Old and Rare Book)
Look Inside

The White Buddhist- The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott (An Old and Rare Book)

FREE Delivery
Ships in 1-3 days
Item Code: NAS375
Author: Stephen Prothero
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Language: English
Edition: 1997
ISBN: 8170305527
Pages: 260
Other Details 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 450 gm
About the Book

The New York Times denounced him as an "unmitigated rascal." Others described him as a reincarnation of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka or perhaps Gautanaa7r Buddha himself. He was Colonel Henry, Steel Olcott (1832-1907), friend to Ma- 40 dame Blavatsky and president-founder of the Theosophical Society is book tells the fascinating story of his odyssey.

Raised a Presbyterian in met centuryNew York, Olcott embra tualism and then theosophy before becoming the first American of European descent to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. Despite his repudiation of Christianity, Olcott's life was an extension of both the "errand to the wilderness" of his Puritan ancestors and the "errand to the world" of American Protestant missionaries. Olcott viewed himself as a defender of Asian religions against the missionaries, but his actions mirrored theirs. He wrote and distributed tracts and catechisms, promoted the translation of scriptures into vernacular languages, established Sunday schools, founded voluntary associations, and con-ducted revivals. And he too labored to "uplift" his Asian acquaintances, urging them to embrace social reforms such as temperance and women's rights. However one views his work, his legacy was a lasting one, and today he is revered in Sri Lanka as a leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival and in India as a key contributor to the Indian Renaissance.

Prothero's portrait of Olcott is an engaging study of spiritual quest and cross-cultural contact. Drawing on exhaustive research conducted on three continents on previously untapped sources-including Colonial Office correspondence, Olcott's diaries and letters, and the personal scrap-book of Helena Blavatsky-Stephen Prothero paints Olcott as an indefatigable reformer and culture broker between East and West. Olcott helped bring about a new spiritual creation known as "Protestant Buddhism," a creative "creolization" of American Protestantism, traditional Theravada Buddhism, and other influences.

About the Author

STEPHEN PROTHERO is Assistant Professor in the Religion Department at Boston University. He has published articles in Religion and American Culture, the Harvard Theological Review, and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.


A screenwriter friend informs me that there are no more than a dozen or so distinct comedies to be told. Everything else is variation on a theme. Among the most popular comedies is the "fish out of water" tale. The recipe is a rather simple one. Take a sympathetic protagonist out of his or her native habitat, plop 'em down in an unfamiliar place, and hijinks are sure to ensue.

This book is a "fish out of water" tale. It chronicles the passage of a New Yorker from America to Asia in an age in which "East" and "West" were in the process of inventing one another. The "fish" is Colonel Henry Steel 01- 'con (1832-1907), a nineteenth-century Renaissance man-theosophist, attorney, agricultural reformer, spiritualist, reporter, drama critic, cremationist, editor, investigator of Lincoln's assassination, and indefatigable spirit-who was the first American of European descent to formally convert to Buddhism. The "water" is nineteenth-century America, more precisely the Gilded Age culture of New York City's literary elites through which 01- cott swam for roughly the first half of his life. The land onto which our fish then flops is British India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where Olcott spent the last half of his life building the Theosophical Society and attempting to reform Buddhism, Hinduism, and, at times, even Zoroastrianism and Islam.

Although the narrative that follows may seem comedic at times, it has three serious purposes: first, to present a sympathetic yet scholarly interpretation of Olcott's adult life, especially his work on behalf of Buddhism and Hinduism in Asia; second, to use that life as an opportunity to interpret the broader nineteenth-century American encounter with the religions of Asia; and, third, to commend to scholars in religious studies the linguistic category of "creolization" as a useful device for analyzing situations of cultural contact and interreligious interaction.

I suppose I should admit from the start that this is a work not only of history but also of criticism. While I am sure that some wonder why I do not criticize Olcott more harshly here, I am equally certain that many of the theosophists who assisted me so graciously in researching the book will be disappointed that I have chosen to find faults in a man who spent the better part of his life pursuing the laudable aim of bringing together people of different races and religions into one "Universal Brotherhood of Humanity." Some explanation of my stance may be in order here.

This book began as a dissertation for the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University but it was crafted to a great extent in the library at the Harvard Divinity School. During my time at the Divinity School, I first became intimately acquainted with the rhetoric of what I have come to call "religious liberalism." Chief among the tenets of this faith is the affirmation made famous by Mahatma Gandhi (but articulated much earlier by the theosophists, Olcott included, who influenced him) that All Religions Are True." A first corollary of this tenet is the mandate for religious tolerance.

Although I was initially attracted to this informally established Harvard Divinity School faith, I eventually came to mistrust it. The religious liberals I met typically underscored the differences between themselves and religious conservatives. But as I got to know liberals and conservatives alike, these differences largely evaporated. I met fundamentalists and charismatics who were in many ways more open-minded than my liberal friends. And I came to see that many religious liberals were zealous missionaries in their own way, as eager to coax evangelical Protestants out of their views on the Bible and Muslim traditionalists out of their commitments to jihad as they were to convert conservatives of all stripes to their gospel of the equality of all religions. Both religious liberals and religious conservatives, I came to believe, hoped in the end to homogenize the world, to lay straight (or, at least, straighter) the multiform hills and valleys of religious belief and practice. Both, in short, fundamentally mistrusted the radical diversity of religious expression that had attracted me to the study of religion in the first place.

As a result of my experiences, I now approach religious liberalism with the same sort of "hermeneutics of suspicion" that liberals typically use when approaching religious conservatives. This book is informed, therefore, by a fundamental mistrust of schemes, however well-intentioned, that begin by judging all religious traditions to be true and end by determining that something is gained when the dizzying diversity of religious beliefs and practices is reduced, however imaginatively, to one core tradition.

Having criticized what I see as the Zeitgeist of the Harvard Divinity School, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge some of the people there and at Harvard University proper who, whether they breathed deeply of that Zeitgeist or not, helped to bring this book into being. Professor William R Hutchison, who exemplifies most of the virtues of religious liberalism and none of its faults, served as the director of my dissertation and has read numerous revisions of the book. Dr. Hutchison, who patiently endured my not infrequent itchings to light out for non-academic territories, has a well-deserved reputation for allowing his students the all-too-rare freedom to pursue projects that, like my own, range well beyond his chosen field of American Protestantism. To his willingness to allow me to follow my own "inner light," I am extremely grateful. I am also appreciative of the assistance I received from Dr. David D. Hall and Dr. Diana Eck, both of whom served as readers of the dissertation. Their helpful comments, along with criticisms I fielded from anthropologist Nur Yalman, Buddhologist M. David Eckel, Islamicist William A. Graham, Jr., and fellow members of Harvard Divinity School's New World Colloquium, pushed the book in fruitful directions I would not otherwise have taken it.

Although this book took shape during my years of graduate study, in many ways it was gestated during my stint at Yale College, where Richard Wightman Fox taught me that doing history consisted not of memorizing dates but of interpreting conflicts and Sydney Ahlstrom convinced me, as no one else could have, that the history of religion in America was as fascinating as it was vast. Other professors and graduate students at Yale who supported my interest and advanced my expertise in the study of religion and the field of American Studies include Wayne Meeks, Elizabeth Black-mar, Robert Westbrook, and Dana Robert.

More recent contributors to the book include a number of scholars who have applied, however modestly, Walt Whitman's justifiably famous prophetic admonition-"Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!"-to our field of American religious history by pressing beyond "mainstream" Protestantism to considerations of "nonmainstream" topics. Catherine L. Albanese, whose America: Religions and Religion (1981) solidified her place as the "dean" of this new school of scholars, read at least two full revisions with her keen eye for problems in theory and interpretation, and I have incorporated many of her suggestions into the book. Stephen J. Stein, who along with Albanese serves as an editor of the Religion in North America series at Indiana University Press, also gave my entire manuscript careful and provocative readings on multiple occasions. Richard Seager, my closest colleague and friend during my graduate school years, read the entire work at various points and more than anyone else helped me chart my interpretive course. Finally, Thomas Tweed and Robert Ellwood, also specialists in Asian religion in America, contributed useful comments on the book at various stages in the revising process, as did South Asian specialist Ananda Wickremeratne.

I received much-needed financial support for this project from a number of sources, including the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which supported my entire graduate education with a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities, and the Lilly Endowment, which provided dissertation writing support.


Each year on February 17, Buddhists throughout the South Asian island of Sri Lanka light brass lamps and offer burning incense to commemorate the anniversary of the death of an American-born Buddhist hero. In Theravada temples, saffron-robed monks bow down before his photographs, and boys and girls in schoolhouses across the country offer gifts in his memory. "May the merit we have gained by these good deeds," they meditate, "pass on to Colonel Olcott, and may he gain happiness and peace."'

In India, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) is remembered every year on February 2, the day of his birth. Early in the morning, just after the hot sun rises above the river that winds its way through the suburb of Madras where Olcott made his home, hundreds of poor Hindu children attending the schools that Olcott founded a century ago march two-by-two down crowded city streets, then past a coconut grove to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society that houses his statue. The icons of Olcott they carry are draped with garlands and the morning air they breathe is filled with hymns praising his auspicious name.

Disinterested historians describe Henry Steel Olcott as the president-founder of the Theosophical Society, one of America's first Buddhists, and an important contributor to both the Indian Renaissance in India and the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).2 Less objective ob-servers have allotted Olcott an even more central place in sacred history.

A prime minister of Ceylon, for example, praised Olcott as "one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national and cultural revival." And other ardent admirers have determined that Olcott was a bodhisattva, a reincarnation of the third century B.C.E. Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, and/or a reincarnation of Gautama Buddha himself.

In the land of his birth, Olcott has been less graciously received. The New York Times denounced him during his lifetime as "an unmitigated rascal"-"a man bereft of reason" whose "insanity, though harmless, is, unfortunately, incurable.' The Dictionary of American Biography, noting that 01- cott has been considered "a fool, knave, and a seer," concludes that he was probably "a little of all three."

In the face of such disparate judgments, scholars frequently step forth to proffer ostensibly objective assessments. But despite the intimation of one historian of religion that Olcott may have done more than any other American to inspire and sustain American interest in Buddhism, to say nothing of direct appeals from specialists in both Buddhist Studies and American Studies for a critical study of Olcott,' none has been forthcom-ing.7 This lacuna would undoubtedly have pleased Olcott himself, who re-buffed the only writer who asked him to authorize a biography. "I considered such things trash," Olcott explained in a curt notation in his diary, "Ephemera!'

Olcott would undoubtedly have been less than delighted with this bit of ephemera, but he might have taken some comfort in the fact that it does not amount to a full-blown biography. Olcott's childhood is largely ignored here, as is his private life and much of his theosophical work. The focus of this project is Olcott's adult life, especially his work in Asia on behalf of Buddhism and Hinduism. Thus the book represents not so much a biography as a case study in cultural and religious contact or, more specifically, an examination of the complexities and ambiguities of the nineteenth-century American encounter with Asian religious traditions.

The decision to craft this sort of book instead of one of the many others that could have been written about Olcott was motivated to some extent by the sources. Olcott's diary, now housed at the Theosophical Society head-quarters in Adyar, a suburb of Madras, India, is as skimpy on private matters as it is exhaustive on public events, and it does not begin until 1878, when Olcott was already well into his forties. Many entries in the book were made, moreover, not by Olcott himself but by friends who evidently read it, so even that most private of documents was in many respects an open book. Several other factors also played a part in shaping this text. The emphasis on 01- cott's Buddhist and Hindu work over his theosophy was motivated largely by the existing secondary literature, which is as skimpy on the Buddhist and Hindu side as it is weighty on matters theosophical.9 This book seeks to address this historiographic imbalance by weighing in more heavily on Buddhist and Hindu matters and largely avoiding the various squabbles between theosophists and their detractors that have occupied both theosophical and non-theosophical historians since Olcott's time. Finally, the decision to forego an exhaustive biography was motivated by my personal interests. Olcott is interesting and important as a man, and certainly deserves the full biographical treatment this work does not attempt to provide. But he is most compelling, at least to this author, as an example of a culture broker existing simultaneously in two distinct worlds. Olcott has lived, in short, the challenges that now face all of us who are attempting to come to grips with the problem of religious pluralism. Far earlier than most, Olcott knew how utterly false was Rudyard Kipling's famous dictum that "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." In many respects, he paved the way for America's collective glance eastward in the 196os and 197os and the New Age interest in Asian religions of today.

Olcott is an appropriate figure for a study in cultural and religious con-tact because of his liminal standing between "East" and "West." A descendant of the Puritans, Olcott was born to Presbyterian parents in Orange, New Jersey, in 1832. As a young man, however, he renounced Protestant Christianity. He became a spiritualist and then a theosophist before moving to India in 1879 and formally embracing Buddhism in Ceylon one year later. From his mid-life passage to Asia until his death in Madras in 1907, Olcott functioned as culture broker between Occident and Orient, facilitating the commerce of religious ideas and practices between America and Asia even as he helped to bring into the world's religious marketplace a wholly new spiritual creation.

In an age inundated with grand schemes, Olcott fashioned one of the grandest of metanarrativesm According to Olcott's grand recit, Kipling's dic-tum regarding the essential separateness of East and West was decidedly false; Occident and Orient were coming together in a great union that would approximate, on the one hand, the glory that was ancient India and, on the other, the grandeur of the kingdom of God to come. As a result of this marriage of the technological West and the spiritual East, a "Universal Brotherhood of Humanity" was waiting to be born.

One of the most intriguing facts of Olcott's life is that though he repudiated Protestantism as a young adult, his writings evinced until his death an obsession with a Puritan heritage that both repelled and attracted him. In an article in the National Review, Olcott derided his "Puritan ancestors who slashed, basted, and hanged the Indians, the witches and the Quakers for alleged compacts with the Evil One."" But he praised the Puritans as frequently as he damned them, citing their courage in the face of adversity and their refusal to compromise their cherished beliefs.

A few years before his exodus to Asia, Olcott repaid at least a portion of his debt to his Puritan ancestors by authoring a genealogical volume entitled The Descendants of Thomas Olcott (187 4) . He concluded the book's preface with as solemn a hymn of praise as a faithful son could offer his pious and democratic forebears. "The country cannot afford to lose the history of any one of the brave men," Olcott began, "who for conscience sake abandoned home, and all that made life sweet, for a new land where, for the privilege of worshipping God in their own way, they had to pay the price of deadly perils overcome, sufferings endured, poverty, cold, sickness and all that makes life hard and bitter." And it was Olcott's appointed task to save the "brave men" of his clan for the sake of posterity. According to Olcott, all patriotic Americans should celebrate the Puritans' passage to the New World, because it was the Puritans who paved the way for liberty on the continent. "Untitled and poor though they may have been," Olcott concluded, "they were the best of their stock and, as William Stoughton said in his election sermon of 1668: 'God sifted a whole nation that he might send choice grain into the wilderness.' "

By invoking in this volume what Perry Miller has identified as the myth of the Puritan "errand into the wilderness,"'3 Olcott placed himself squarely in the midst of an expanded Puritan saga. If it had been the duty of his ancestors faithfully to follow the dictates of conscience across the perilous Atlantic, then it was his duty to set their story down. Shortly after Olcott fulfilled that obligation by publishing his genealogical volume, he decided that he too was "choice grain," and set off on an errand of his own into the Asian wilderness. Years later he stood as a Buddhist in a temple in Kyoto, Japan. While reciting in broken Pali his Buddhist vows, Olcott recalled again his Puritan blood:

I could not help smiling to myself when thinking of the horror that would have been felt by any of my Puritan ancestors of the seventeenth century could they have looked forward to this calamitous day! I am sure that if I had been born among them at Boston or Hartford, I should have been hanged for heresy on the tallest tree."

Placed side-by-side, these references to Olcott's Puritan forebears might seem to introduce a rather straightfoi-ward mainstream-to-margins story of an American Protestant turned Asian Buddhist. But this tale, though plausible, cannot be convincingly told. Despite his frequent claims to stand, like some homme universel, above the fray of sectarian religion and national loy-alties, Olcott never shook his roots in American Protestantism. He carried with him on his passage to India and Ceylon a boatload of American and Protestant baggage, which he neither fully unpacked nor entirely discarded. If Olcott's life cannot be pressed into the service of some "insider-to-outsider" tale of an American Protestant turned Asian Buddhist, how ought his story be told? The argument presented here is that while Olcott was clearly not a "mainstream" religious figure, his story is in no way marginal to mainline developments in American religion and culture. Olcott's adult life is best understood, in other words, not as a repudiation but as an out-growth of nineteenth-century American Protestantism. His errand to Asia ought to be seen as an extension of both the Puritan errand to America and what William Hutchison has identifies as the errand of nineteenth-century American protestant missionaries to the world.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

Add a review
Have A Question

For privacy concerns, please view our Privacy Policy