Connect with us

Features

A man of vision and compassion

Published

on

Col. Henry Steel Olcott

by Sanjiva Senanayake

Every year in November, Ananda College organizes an oration by an illustrious alumnus of Ananda to commemorate and celebrate the life and work of an exceptional American who was instrumental in the founding of the College in 1886. The Olcott Oration, one of the main highlights of the College calendar, was inaugurated in 1968. After a break of about 10 years, it was relaunched in 2001 with Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne as the speaker and has been held unbroken since then. Last year, Sydney-based lawyer, human rights activist and lyricist, Maithri Panagoda, delivered the oration.

This year it will be held at 4.30 pm on 28th of November with Dr. Anil Jasinghe MD, SC, Md (Med. Ad.) speaking on “SRI LANKA’S RESPONSE TO A GLOBAL PANDEMIC. COVID-19 – A STRATEGIC PERSPECTIVE”. For the first time it will be hosted virtually, cast live from the Kularatne Auditorium on the OBA’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/anandacollegeoba) providing an opportunity to the many Anandians residing overseas to participate as well.

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott was a larger-than-life figure who contributed as much as any Sri Lankan to resurrect the educational and cultural bases of the people to strengthen and extend the achievements of the Buddhist revival of the 19th century into the future, and onward to Independence from colonial rule. The three individuals most identified with the 19th century movement that led to the formation of Ananda were born within 10 years of each other. Ven Mohottiwatte Gunananda in 1823; Ven Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala in 1827 and Colonel Olcott in 1832. The latter’s pragmatism, interpersonal skills and unbounded energy complemented the religious and cultural forces, coordinated and directed by the two monks, and formed a winning combination.

Col Olcott was an accomplished agriculturist who took part in the American Civil War and soon thereafter he was appointed one of three men on the commission to investigate the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. He then qualified and practised as a lawyer in New York City. He had an interest in metaphysics and the supernatural and, during an investigation, met Madam Helena Blavatsky with whom he founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.

Col. Olcott’s arrival in Ceylon in 1880, resulted from circuitous and fortuitous circumstances. The famous Panadura debate of 1873 was reported in some detail in the ‘Ceylon Times’ and a copy of a booklet about it was given to an American Theosophist, Dr. J. M. Peebles, who just happened to be in Ceylon around that time as part of an international tour. Peebles re-published the book in the US and gave a copy to Col. Olcott, who was then inspired enough to start an elaborate correspondence with several prominent monks including Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala to find out more about Buddhism and the predicament of the Buddhists in the country. It was through this serendipitous chain of events that Olcott’s abiding involvement with Buddhism was kindled, resulting in the greatest impact on education for Buddhists.

In the oppressive climate that existed in Ceylon following 3 ½ centuries of subjugation and oppression, especially in the coastal areas, most natives had lost their self-esteem. Olcott, with his energy, commitment and optimism, represented fresh hope. Quite apart from the rarity of being a ‘white man’ on the side of Buddhism, he brought to the revival movement qualities that were lacking. He was an exceptionally action-oriented man with the organizational skills and persistence needed to achieve results. His legal background and his oratorical and negotiating skills were key factors. He took great care to consult and work closely with the prominent Buddhist figures of the time, especially Ven. Sri Sumangala and Ven. Gunananda, and supplement their efforts rather than project his image as a ‘white saviour’.

As for strategy, Olcott didn’t re-invent the wheel and at the outset proposed following the methods of the Christian missionaries, along with stirring more community involvement. He stated:

“We must form similar Societies, and make our most practical and honest men of business their managers. Nothing can be done without money. The Christians spend millions to destroy Buddhism; we must spend to defend and propagate it. We must not wait for some few rich men to give the capital: we must call upon the whole nation.

True to his word, he came back in 1881 to raise money for Buddhist education and take the message to the people. He embarked on tedious tours of the Western province by bullock cart on primitive roads that lasted many months, accompanied only by an interpreter. This is something no native had done before.

Olcott was captivated by the country and its common people and renewed his dedication to the noble task he had set for himself. After this tour, he wrote in his diary –

“And I saw the people as they are, at their very best; full of smiles, and love, and hospitable impulse, and have been welcomed with triumphal arches, and flying flags, and wild Eastern music, and processions, and shouts of joy.”

“Ah! lovely Lanka, Gem of the Summer Seas, how doth thy sweet image rise before me as I write the story of my experiences among thy dusky children, of my success in warming their hearts to revere their incomparable religion and its holiest Founder. Happy the karma which brought me to thy shores!”

During these trips, he realized that many of the lay Buddhists did not have a good grasp of the basic teachings of the Buddha and had no access to books. He thus wrote a Buddhist Catechism, in the form of a series of questions and answers, in his spare time on the lines of the elementary hand-books used by Christian missionaries. Having got it translated into Sinhala, he spent many hours in discussion with Ven. Sri Sumangala to get his stamp of approval and published it the same year – 1881.

The subject of improving Buddhist education had apparently been already extensively discussed prior to Col. Olcott’s first arrival in May 1880. A meeting held just five days after his arrival is referred to by Olcott in his diary where he writes of “a movement destined to gather the whole juvenile Sinhalese population into Buddhist schools under our general supervision”. The Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) was formed the following month to drive this project.

Initially, the BTS set up Sunday schools given the limited resources available – the first in Galle and several others in various parts of Colombo. A few rich businessmen came forward to support the new movement and in May 1885 the BTS bought Nos. 60 and 61, Maliban Street as well as 29 and 30, Beira Street (now Olcott Mawatha) for Rs. 6,000! At that time, the Beira Lake extended up to where the Fort railway station stands today.

With these acquisitions it was decided to establish a full-time school at 61, Maliban Street, Pettah, with Charles Leadbeater, an English theosophist, as Principal. The Buddhist English School was established with 37 students and three teachers on 1st November, 1886, which is the official birthday of Ananda College, the name the school was given when it moved to its present location in 1895. The main intention of the Buddhist leadership was to create a generation of young Buddhists with patriotic sentiments and modern skills to play a bigger role in national affairs. A more fundamental goal was also to redeem the self-esteem of the majority and help them stand up for their rights that had been long denied.

On numerous occasions Colonel Olcott was nominated by the Buddhist leadership to negotiate with the British on their behalf, something at which he became very successful. His level of acceptance and trust can be gauged by the fact that as early as 1884, on the eve of a visit to England on behalf of the Buddhists, the Mahanayakes of the Siyam Nikaya and the Amarapura Nikaya, who did not always cooperate, united in giving him full powers to administer Pansil and admit laymen as Buddhists. He was interested in uniting all Buddhist groups in Asia and visited Myanmar and Japan twice – in 1889 and 1891 – the first trip with Anagarika Dharmapala.

Olcott committed himself to the cause of Buddhism, and Buddhist education in Sri Lanka in particular, for 27 years, until his death on 17th February 1907 – i.e. from the age of 48 to 75 years. He made around 30 visits to Ceylon and was the one constant factor from the Theosophical Society as far as Ceylon was concerned. On many occasions, he was instrumental in obtaining the resources and services of the Society for the benefit of the Buddhists.

We can only speculate as to how the Buddhist revival would have fared if not for this great servant of Buddhism.

—————————————————-

Col. Olcott’s diaries, titled “Old Diary Leaves” are available at

Online Books and Articles

The author, attended Aananda College, from 1958-1969. He was a member of the editorial board responsible for compiling a book, published by the Old Boys’ Association in 2017, on the first 125 years of the college

 

 



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Sinharaja world heritage

Published

on

Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday

 

Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.

 

Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.

 

Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)

 

Continue Reading

Features

US seeking way out of Afghan killing field

Published

on

As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

Continue Reading

Features

The Soul

Published

on

The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

Continue Reading

Trending