SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Service was his second nature

Truly great: The memorial within the Theosophical Society, Chennai.   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: N.SRIDHARAN

MEERA SRINIVASAN

A century after Col. Henry Olcott's death, a peek into his life leaves one thirsty for insights.

"Henry Steel Olcott, Colonel of the U.S.A. Army, president, founder of the Theosophical Society. On the spot his body was given back to the elements by fire, February 17, 1907. May he soon return." THE memorial placed at the circle where he was cremated at the international headquarters in Chennai bears these words. A painting of Olcott, dated 1906, his wooden armchair and a few other belongings faithfully adorn the museum housed at the headquarters. The space that he once used has a board that reads "Olcott lived here, 1885-1907".

Renowned for his work

A peek into the great man's life leaves one thirsty for insights. At 23, he was renowned for his work on the model farm of Scientific Agriculture at Newark. He later served Mark Lane Express (London) as American correspondent and the New York Tribune as Associate Agricultural Editor (1858-60).At great personal risk, Olcott was present at the hanging of John Brown, an activist campaigning against slavery. Leading newspapers carried his report on the episode in December 1859. A few years later, he joined the Northern Army. Highly commended for eradicating corruption and cleansing the U.S Army's reputation he rose to the rank of Colonel. In a stint as a skilful attorney, he had several leading banks, insurance companies and stock exchanges as clients. In 1874, he reported on the Eddy Brothers, who claimed to possess psychic powers. It was in Eddy Homestead that he met Madame Blavatsky with whom he founded the Theosophical Society in New York, in 1875. They came to Bombay in 1879 and three years later the headquarters of the Society moved to its present site in Adyar, Chennai.

In the field of education

Colonel Olcott travelled widely. His services in the field of education and the revival of Buddhism, in particular, in Sri Lanka were hailed the world over. He started more than 200 schools and three colleges in Ceylon, then. Olcott's birthday, August 2, is still observed as a public holiday in Sri Lanka."It was a time when people weighed their manuscripts and sold them for money. Olcott dorai would venture into the streets of Madras on his self-designed cart, wait on the thinnais of homes and eat what little people offered. Before leaving, he would offer some money in return for those manuscripts that he deemed priceless," G. Sundari of the Theosophical Society cheerfully recalls a grandmother's tale. "Olcott dorai, that's how my grandma referred to him." Thanks to him, a precious collection of manuscripts has been preserved at the Adyar Library he founded. He also established schools in Chennai, including the century-old Olcott Memorial High School in Besant Nagar. Service was his second nature and, not surprisingly, he thought what he did was grossly insufficient, as is evident in this episode recalled by Annie Besant in Reminiscences of Colonel H.S. Olcott, a publication of The Theosophical Publishing House. "One day I said to him: Henry, I believe you would cut off your right hand for the Society. `Cut off my right hand!' He cried; `I'd cut myself into little pieces if it would do the Society any good.' And so, verily, would he have done."However, Colonel Olcott did encounter criticism. He was alleged to have been `worldly', `ambitious for power' and untheosophical for it. In the same book, co-founder Madam Blavatsky notes, "Very well; let, then, any impartial judge compare the life of the Founder with those of most of his critics, and see which was the most Theosophical, ever since the Society sprung into existence."

Final moments

It was February 17, 1907, wrote Annie Besant. "We sat quietly beside him, an occasional long breath taken, till 7.15 a.m. A shiver ran through his body, two minutes later he was gone. The three Masters to whom he had been the nearest during his life, and his old comrade, H.P. Blavatsky, were there in astral presence, and at 7.27 HPB said: `The cord is broken.' He was free."The Colonel's last message was read out in the new president's funeral oration. He had said: "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...I implore you to help me impress upon all men on earth that `there is no religion higher than Truth'."