The Israel Science FoundationThe Goldstein-Goren CenterBen-Gurion University




Theosophical Appropriations:

 Kabbalah, Western Esotericism and the Transformation of Traditions






Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri

Department of History, University of Colombo

‘Olcott Buddhism vs. True Buddhism’: A Review of the New Wave of Revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Dr. Nalin de Silva, formerly Professor of Mathematics, firstly at the University of Colombo and then at the University of Keleniya in Sri Lanka, is probably the most influential public intellectual in Sri Lanka and a champion of the recent upsurge in Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. However, he maintains a highly critical approach towards some dominant forms of practicing Buddhism among Sinhala-Buddhists, describing those Buddhists who follow those practices that he is critical about as “Olcott Buddhists”. Here he is referring to the Buddhist practices that were supposedly influenced by the work of Henry Steele Olcott, the co-founder and first president of the Theosophical Society. Olcott was active in Sri Lanka in the late nineteenth century and instrumental in the establishment of Buddhist schools and promoting other popular religious practices among Buddhists.
The renowned anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere coined the term ‘Protestant Buddhism’ in order to highlight Buddhist practices that emerged from the activities of Olcott in contrast to the religious practices that were predominantly practiced by Sinhala peasants. This so-called ‘Protestant Buddhism’ was heavily influenced by the rationalist ideology of the Theosophical movement and attractive to newly emerged urbanized middle and upper class Sinhala-Buddhists. Gombrich and Obeyesekere have distinguished ‘Protestant Buddhism’ from two other varieties of Buddhism among Sinhala-Buddhists, namely, ‘village Buddhism’ and ‘contemporary Buddhism’. By village Buddhism they mean religious practices among Sinhala-Buddhist peasants. By contemporary Buddhism they mean religious practices among Sinhala-Buddhists prevalent at the time that their work Buddhism Transformed (Princeton, 1988) was published.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka experienced another wave of revival in the last decade and a half that paralleled the deep socio-economic transformation that occurred in the last three decades. This was similar in many ways to those that occurred in the late nineteenth century. The new middle class that was formed as a result of the economic changes related to the expansion of capitalist economics since the late 1970s was the social basis of this new wave of revival of Buddhism. This new wave of Buddhist revival, in my view, has posed more serious issues for scholars of religion than previous occasions in the history of modern Sri Lanka.
My objective in this study is to understand the diverse discursive trends in relation to the ‘true/false’ dichotomy. I focus on early ‘Protestant Buddhism’ which received its main intellectual inspiration from the Theosophical movement which claimed to be ‘true’ and re-oriented towards the ‘original’ teachings of the Buddha as opposed to the ‘false’ and degenerate character of ‘village Buddhism’. This discourse emerged victorious at a time when Rationalist thinking was the dominant intellectual horizon of the urbanized elite and educated population in a colonial setting. There is a justifiable basis to revisit this discourse in a context where new intellectual horizons have emerged at the expense of ‘rationalism’.
I mainly focus on Nalin de Silva’s discourse, which sets its target as re-inventing the ‘original’ Sinhala-Buddhist ethos in the religious practices of Sinhala-Buddhists which has allegedly been degenerated due to the invasion of ‘Modernist Judo-Christian’ ethos. It is this supposedly degenerated variety of Sinhala-Buddhism that he terms ‘Olcott Buddhism’.
Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri received his BA (1991) and MPhil (2002) in History from the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka and PhD from Leiden University, The Netherlands in 2007. Since 1991 he has been teaching in the department of history, University of Colombo, where he is currently a senior lecturer and the head of the Department. His publications include The Adaptable Peasant Agrarian Society in Western Sri Lanka under Dutch Rule, 1740-1800, (Leiden: Brill, 2008). His research interests include the impact of European colonialism, ethno-religious nationalism and Post Colonial State Building in Sri Lanka.