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A man of vision and compassion

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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.

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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

 

 



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Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine

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In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.

If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?

These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.

The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.

While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.

Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?

However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.

The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.

Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.

On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.

However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.

To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.

However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.

That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.

Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.

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At 80, now serving humanity

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Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.

Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.

No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!

At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.

Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.

“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “

And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.

It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.

“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”

Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.

“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day

“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”

“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.

“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.

“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.

“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.

“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.

“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”

Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.

However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.

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Health services face imminent collapse due to fuel crisis

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A file picture of a recent doctors’ protest

By Dr B. J. C. PERERA

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Pediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Our free National Health Service is something that brings succor to the poorest of the poor, as well as even the well-to-do, and everybody in-between. As a country and a nation, we are so proud of our health services. In fact, as a developing country, we have shown the entire world how much can be accomplished, even with our meager resources, and with so few facilities made available to us in our health facilities. Our healthcare personnel are second to none anywhere else on the planet, and they try to do their best, even under trying circumstances.

There are shortages of medicines, disposable articles and equipment in our healthcare institutions. It has really gotten worse during the current economic crisis. Yet, we have managed to rise above all that, innovate, beg, borrow and do our best for the patients who come to us. Generally, our health workers will not allow a life to be lost without a fight. A case in point is how these personnel, from the lowest-ranked to the highest, rose and fought tooth and nail during the current COVID-19 pandemic. They worked without any worthwhile rest, even foregoing their meals when things had to be done to save lives. Our countrymen and countrywomen hailed us as their saviours, singing hosannas to all of them for so selflessly handling the crisis. The healthcare personnel showed results and they sacrificed many things and went through hell on earth, to save lives.

However, there is a looming dragon that is likely to inflict telling blows to cripple this hallowed service that is provided for our people. It is not due to shortages of drugs or equipment. Those can be handled to the very best of our abilities. The problem is due to severe human resource depletion that is the likely result of the current fuel shortage. It is a looming catastrophe, as large as life, where our healthcare personnel will not be able to get to their places of work, and they will not be able to respond to sudden emergencies, as there is no transport. The government, ministers and all other stupid politicians do not seem to realise this, and perhaps could not even care less about that. That is of course to be expected, as they have their agendas. They will somehow get their things done, but the people who suffer would be the poor who come to our hospitals.

However, the most distressing thing about this entire fiasco is how among our general public, the thugs, ruffians, desperados, those engaged in nefarious hoarding of fuel and all kinds of Mafias, are beginning to treat healthcare personnel at fuel queues and fuel sheds. Healthcare personnel are not asking for special treatment at fuel stations. They are an absolutely essential service, and all they are asking is for some fuel to enable them to attend to their essential service provisions. Even ambulances have to wait in queues, and are not allowed by the irate public to get priority for fuel.

A couple of weeks ago we saw in the news that a lady doctor driver was driven away from a fuel station by a mob. The most distressing thing about that entire episode was the bravado of a non-health staff lady driver, who shouted with powerful gesticulation of her arms that she had children in the car and could not make concessions to lady doctors. God forbid, but what if one of those children suddenly fell ill and the person to attend to them was the very same lady doctor who was chased away, and that person was not able to get to the hospital due to the lack of fuel?

Starting from Friday the 24th of June 2022, there was a lukewarm arrangement made to provide fuel to essential services, from certain designated fuel stations. every Friday. This was not communicated properly through all the media, and in very many places the public vehemently objected to this. The Borella junction Ceypetco fuel shed was one of the stations which were allocated for this purpose, where the essential services people, including healthcare personnel, queued up in their vehicles from around 6.00 am. The bowsers of fuel arrived only in the late evening, after a 12-hour long wait. There was hardly any security cover and virtually a free for all, with the sparse security personnel turning a blind eye to all the misdemeanors of the general public. There were loads of nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers from the National Hospital, Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children, National Eye Hospital, De Soysa Maternity Hospital and the Castle Street Hospital for Women, who were in these vehicle queues, twiddling their thumbs and being forced to keep away from their places of work. No doubt, these hospitals worked with only minimal skeleton staff. All these hospitals have a collective staff strength running into very large numbers, all working in an absolutely vital essential service. In some outstation areas, the incensed public insisted on the healthcare personnel queuing up with the general public, even on that dedicated Friday, and at least in one area, the hospital had to be closed as most of the hospital staff had to be in fuel queues. For whatever it is worth, this writer has not been able to see his patients for more than a week due to lack of fuel.

Unless a proper system to provide fuel to essential services is implemented by this impotent government, this situation will go from bad to worse. Many hospitals will have to be closed, not due to strikes or trade union actions, but due to a lack of human resources to run the hospitals. Medical personnel will not be able to attend to emergencies, especially outside working hours, and many lives will be lost. Our inability to provide timely treatment could also lead to some patients being maimed for life.

So be warned, our people of our own country. Selfishness and scant regard for law and order on the part of the general public will lead to an unprecedented catastrophe. There will be riots inside and outside the medical institutions with damage to public property. Innocent lives will be lost and blood will necessarily have to be on the hands of the decision-makers and the powers-that-be.

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