Colonel Henry Steel Olcott was an American military officer, journalist, lawyer, Freemason and the co-founder and first president of the Theosophical Society. Olcott was the first well-known American of European ancestry to make a formal conversion to Buddhism


Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) was an American military officer, lawyer, and journalist who is perhaps best known for his role in the founding of the Theosophical Society. Olcott’s life was marked by his interest in the esoteric and his commitment to promoting spiritual and intellectual inquiry.

Olcott was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1832. After completing his education, he joined the United States Army and served in the American Civil War. Following the war, Olcott pursued a career in law and journalism, eventually becoming a well-respected correspondent for the New York Tribune.

In the early 1870s, Olcott’s interest in the occult and spiritualism led him to investigate the claims of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a Russian spiritualist who claimed to have knowledge of ancient wisdom and spiritual truths. Olcott was convinced of Blavatsky’s authenticity and together they founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.

The Theosophical Society aimed to promote the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science, and sought to investigate the mysteries of the universe through spiritual inquiry. Olcott played a crucial role in the development of the society, serving as its president for over two decades.

Olcott was a prolific writer and lecturer, and his work helped to popularize the ideas of the Theosophical Society. He authored numerous books, including “The Buddhist Catechism” and “Old Diary Leaves,” a memoir of his life and experiences in the Theosophical Society. Olcott was also instrumental in establishing Theosophical Societies around the world, traveling extensively to promote the society’s ideals and encourage the study of spiritual and esoteric knowledge.

In addition to his work with the Theosophical Society, Olcott was a passionate advocate for social and political reform. He was an active member of the Free Masons and was involved in the anti-slavery movement. Olcott was also a supporter of Indian independence and played a key role in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

He arrived in Sri Lanka on May 16, 1880 with Helena Blavatsky after a two-year correspondence with Sri Piyaratana Tissa Mahanayake Thero. Three days later, Olcott and Blavatsky took the Five Precepts at the Wijayananda Viharaya located at Weliwatta in Galle and were formally acknowledged as Buddhists.

During his time in Sri Lanka, Olcott was determined to revive Buddhism in the region while also creating educational resources for Westerners to learn about the religion. It was during this period that he wrote the “Buddhist Catechism” in 1881, which is still used today.

Olcott’s contributions to Buddhist education in Sri Lanka were extensive. The Theosophical Society built several Buddhist schools in Ceylon, including Ananda College in 1886, Dharmaraja College Kandy in 1887, Maliyadeva College Kurunegala in 1888, Siddhartha Kumara Maha Vidyalaya (first named as “Buddhist Boys’ School”) Gampaha in 1891, Dharmadutha College Badulla in 1891, Mahinda College Galle in 1892, Nalanda College, Colombo in 1925, Musaeus Girls College in Colombo, and Dharmasoka College in Ambalangoda.

In addition to his educational efforts, Olcott was also instrumental in designing a Buddhist flag. In 1885, he acted as an advisor to the committee responsible for creating the flag, which was later adopted as a symbol by the World Fellowship of Buddhists and became the universal flag of all Buddhist traditions.

Henry Steel Olcott’s legacy in Sri Lanka is still celebrated today, more than a century after his death. He is remembered as a dedicated advocate for Buddhism and for his contributions to Buddhist education in the region. Olcott’s work helped to revive interest in Buddhism and fostered a greater understanding of the religion among both Sri Lankans and Westerners alike.
Despite his many accomplishments, Olcott’s legacy is somewhat overshadowed by his association with Blavatsky and the controversies surrounding her claims of spiritual knowledge. Nevertheless, Olcott’s contributions to the study of comparative religion and philosophy, his promotion of spiritual and intellectual inquiry, and his advocacy for social and political reform remain important and enduring legacies.