Henry Steel Olcott

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Henry Steel Olcott
Annie Besant, Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge in London May 1891

Henry Steel Olcott (2 August 1832 – 17 February 1907) was an American military officer, journalist, lawyer and the co-founder and first President of the Theosophical Society.


  • What is it then, which makes me say what in deepest seriousness and a full knowledge of its truth I have said? What is it that makes me not only content but proud to stand for the brief moment as the mouthpiece and figure-head of this movement, risking abuse, misrepresentation, and every vile assault? It is the fact that in my soul I feel that behind us, behind our little band, behind our feeble, newborn organization, there gathers a mighty power that nothing can withstand—the power of truth!
  • What the Society has hitherto done…is to make people think. No one can for long belong to the Theosophical Society without beginning to question himself. He begins to ask himself: “How do I know that?” “Why do I believe this?” “What reason have I to be so certain that I am right, and so sure that my neighbors are wrong?” “What is my warrant for declaring this action, or that practice, to be good, and their opposite bad?” The very air of Theosophy is charged with the spirit of enquiry. It is not the “skeptical” spirit, nor is it the “agnostic”. It is a real desire to know and to learn the truth….
  • If the tendency of Fellowship in the Society is to develop certain habits of philosophic thought, its tendency is even stronger to give rise to definite ethical views and moral principles. However much and bitterly the Fellows may disagree as to... [details concerning] occult doctrine, it would be hard to get up a dispute among the brethren as to the evil of intemperance, or the abomination of cruelty, or about any other of the crying sins of our times.
  • A great Brahmin Pandit of the Vedantin school came to see us that evening, evidently with the sole object of showing up our ignorance; but in us two old campaigners, especially in H. P. B., with her wit and sarcasm, he got more than he bargained for, and in a couple of hours we were able to expose to the company present his intense selfishness, vanity, and bigoted prejudices. Our victory cost us something, however, for I see a Postscriptum note in my Diary that he subsequently showed himself “our active enemy.” Good luck to him and to all the noble army of our “enemies”; their hatred never did them the least good nor the Society the least harm. Our ship does not sail on the wind of favor.
  • The thoughtful student, in scanning the religious history of the race has one fact continually forced upon his notice, viz., that there is an invariable tendency to deify whomsoever shows himself superior to the weakness of our common humanity. Look where we will, we find the saint like man exalted into a divine personage and worshiped for a god. Though perhaps misunderstood, reviled and even persecuted while living, the apotheosis is almost sure to come after death: and the victim of yesterday’s mob, raised to the stage of an Intercessor in Heaven, is besought with prayer and tears, and placatory penances to mediate with God for the pardon of human sin. This is a mean and vile trait of human nature, the proof of ignorance, selfishness, brutal cowardice, and a superstitious materialism. It shows the base instinct to put down and destroy whatever or whoever makes men feel their own imperfections; with the alternative of ignoring and denying these very imperfections by turning into gods men who have merely spiritualized their natures, so that it may be supposed that they were heavenly incarnations and not mortal like other men.

Spiritualism and Theosophy (1880)

  • The handbills announce me as the President of the Theosophical Society, and you gathered here to learn what Theosophy is and what are its relations with Spiritualism. Let me say then, that in the sense given to it by those who first used it, the word means divine wisdom, or the knowledge of divine wisdom, or the knowledge of divine things... Essentially, a Theosophical Society is one which favours man’s original acquisition of knowledge about the hidden things of the universe by the education and perfecting of his own latent powers.
  • The mention of religion leads me to a certain fact. While the Protestant Church has, in our time, ever resolutely denied the reality of such manifestations of occult agencies, the Church of Rome has always admitted them to be true. In her rubrics there are special forms of exorcism, and when Miss Laura Edmonds... one of the most remarkable mediums... united herself with the Catholic Church, her confessor, a Paulist Brother of New York, drove out her obsessing “devils” in due form, after - as he told me - a terrific struggle. Mediumship was anathematized by the late Pope himself, as a dangerous device of the Evil One, and the faithful warned against the familiars of the circle, as his agents for the ruin of souls... Though there is never a grain of religious orthodoxy in me, and I do not in the least sympathize with the demoniacal theory, yet I find, after learning what I have of Asiatic psychological science, that the Catholics are much nearer right in recognizing and warning against the dangers of mediumship, than the Protestants in blindly denying the reality of the phenomena. Mediumship is a peril indeed...and if mediumship is to be encouraged at all, it shall be under such protective restriction as the ancient Sybils enjoyed in the temple, under the watchful care of initiated priests. This is not the language of a Spiritualist, nor am I one: in the reality of the phenomena and the existence of the psychic force I do most unreservedly believe, but here my concurrence with the Spiritualists ends.

The Source and Value of the "Mysteries" (1888)

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  • The lampooners and denunciators of our time have as little succeeded in shaking the faith of believers in the reality and value of mystical initiation, as did their precursors in the olden times that of their believing contemporaries. It has been simply the array of conjecture against experience, of surmise against knowledge. The wise have had but a feeling of contemptuous pity for the army of critics whose conclusions have rested upon wholly mistaken premises, and whose verdict has been colored by exaggerated prejudice and foolish mistrust.
  • Those who, in our own days, have been blessed with personal relations with the "Wise Men of the East," have found them teaching an identical philosophy, whether they were externally Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Parsi, or Mussulman as to social environment and nominal caste. And what they are now teaching is the same as that which was taught to students in all countries, at all preceding epochs.
So long as one's perceptions are restricted to sensuous experiences, one's knowledge will be proportionately small
  • So long as one's perceptions are restricted to sensuous experiences, one's knowledge will be proportionately small; to become truly wise, one must burst the bonds of illusion, tear away the curtain of MAYA, break the chains of passion, learn the self and put it in command of our consciousness and our actions.
  • The neophyte is never in greater danger of falling a victim to delusion than when he has subjected his grosser passions and begun to develop his psychic sight, hearing, and touch. He is like the newborn babe getting its first lessons of cisuterine life, grasping at the pretty silver moon, clutching at fire and lamp, miscalculating distances, tottering upon its feeble legs.
  • There are fewer potential adepts in an epoch than the superficial imagine. The fate of those who tread this dizzy precipice of wisdom with weak and faltering steps may be readily inferred. What happens to the dizzy-brained and slippery-footed alpine climber? His brain turns, and he falls headlong into the chasm, with a last shriek and a clutching at the air.

So, too, falls the rash postulant who has ventured to force nature prematurely.

  • Patanjali tells us that the "... local deities will assail such a Yogi [one who is only in the rudimentary stage], and will endeavor to divert him from the religious abstraction which he has attained, by bringing before him sensual gratifications, or by exciting in his mind thoughts of personal aggrandizement, but he should partake of these gratifications without interest, for if these deities succeed in exciting desire in the mind, he will be thrown back to all the evils..."
  • The attainment of perfection is but postponed to a future birth. Every preliminary step in self-conquest and self-knowledge is so much experience and developed power, stored up psychic energy, for the use of the individuality in its next incarnation.

The Buddhist Catechism (1903)

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A Buddhist is one who not only professes belief in the Buddha as the noblest of Teachers, in the Doctrine preached by Him, and in the Brotherhood of Arhats, but practises His precepts in daily life.

Part I The life of the Buddha

  • 2. Q. What is Buddhism? A. It is a body of teachings given out by the great personage known as the Buddha.
  • 4. Q. Would you call a person a Buddhist who had merely been born of Buddha parents? A. Certainly not. A Buddhist is one who not only professes belief in the Buddha as the noblest of Teachers, in the Doctrine preached by Him, and in the Brotherhood of Arhats, but practises His precepts in daily life.
  • 10. Q. Was he a man? A. Yes; but the wisest, noblest and most holy being, who had developed himself in the course of countless births far beyond all other beings, the previous BUDDHAS alone excepted.
  • 12. Q. Was Buddha his name? A. No. It is the name of a condition or state of mind, of the mind after it has reached the culmination of development.
  • 13. Q. What is its meaning? A. Enlightened; or, he who has the all-perfect wisdom. The Pālī phrase is Sabbannu, the One of Boundless Knowledge. In Samskrt it is Sarvajña.
  • 19. Q. Tell me again when Prince Siddhārtha was born? A. Six hundred and twenty-three years before the Christian era.
  • 26. Q. Did he become Buddha in his splendid palaces? A. No. He left all and went alone into the jungle.
  • 27. Q. Why did he do this? A. To discover the cause of our sufferings and the way to escape from them.
  • 29. Q. But how did he acquire this boundless love? A. Throughout numberless births and aeons of years he had been cultivating this love, with the unfaltering determination to become a Buddha.
  • 32. Q. But have not many men given up all earthly blessings, and even life itself, for the sake of their fellow-men? A. Certainly. But we believe that this surpassing unselfishness and love for humanity showed themselves in his renouncing the bliss of Nirvāna countless ages ago, when he was born as the Brāhmana Sumedha, in the time of Dīpānkara Buddha: he had then reached the stage where he might have entered Nirvāna, had he not loved mankind more than himself. This renunciation implied his voluntarily enduring the miseries of earthly lives until he became Buddha, for the sake of teaching all beings the way to emancipation and to give rest to the world.
  • 33. Q. How old was he when he went to the jungle? A. He was in his twenty-ninth year.
  • 40. Q. And how did he expect to learn the cause of sorrow in the jungle? A. By removing far away from all that could prevent his thinking deeply of the causes of sorrow and the nature of man... He went away into the forest near Uruvela, and spent six years in deep meditation, undergoing the severest discipline in mortifying his body... five Brāhman companions attended him.

Part II The Dharma or Doctrine

Why does ignorance cause suffering? A. Because it makes us prize what is not worth prizing, grieve when we should not grieve, consider real what is not real but only illusionary, and pass our lives in the pursuit of worthless objects, neglecting what is in reality most valuable.
  • 116. Q. When our Bōdhisattva became Buddha, what did he see was the cause of human misery? Tell me in one word. A. Ignorance (Avidyā).
  • 117. Q. Can you tell me the remedy? A. To dispel Ignorance and become wise (Prājña).
  • 118. Q. Why does ignorance cause suffering? A. Because it makes us prize what is not worth prizing, grieve when we should not grieve, consider real what is not real but only illusionary, and pass our lives in the pursuit of worthless objects, neglecting what is in reality most valuable.
  • 119. Q. And what is that which is most valuable? A. To know the whole secret of man's existence and destiny, so that we may estimate at no more than their actual value this life and its relations; and so that we may live in a way to ensure the greatest happiness and the least suffering for our fellow-men and ourselves.
  • 120. Q. What is the light that can dispel this ignorance of ours and remove all sorrows? A. The knowledge of the "Four Noble Truths," as the Buddha called them.
  • 121. Q. Name these Four Noble Truths? A. 1. The miseries of evolutionary existence resulting in births and deaths, life after life. 2. The cause productive of misery, which is the selfish desire, ever renewed, of satisfying one's self, without being able ever to secure that end. 3. The destruction of that desire, or the estranging of one's self from it. 4. The means of obtaining this destruction of desire.
  • 122. Q. Tell me some things that cause sorrow? A. Birth, decay, illness, death, separation from objects we love, association with those who are repugnant, craving for what cannot be obtained.
  • 123. Q. Do these differ with each individual? A. Yes: but all men suffer from them in degree.
  • 124. Q. How can we escape the sufferings which result from unsatisfied desires and ignorant cravings? A. By complete conquest over, and destruction of, this eager thirst for life and its pleasures, which causes sorrow.
  • 125. Q. How may we gain such a conquest? A. By following the Noble Eight-fold Path which the Buddha discovered and pointed out.
  • 126. Q. What do you mean by that word: what is this Noble Eight-fold Path? (For the Pālī name see Q. 79.) A. The eight parts of this path are called angas. They are: 1. Right Belief (as to the law of Causation, or Karma); 2. Right Thought; 3. Right Speech; 4. Right Action; 5. Right Means of Livelihood; 6. Right Exertion; 7. Right Remembrance and Self-discipline; 8. Right Concentration of Thought. The man who keeps these angas in mind and follows them will be free from sorrow and ultimately reach salvation.
  • 127. Q. Can you give a better word for salvation? A. Yes, emancipation.
  • 128. Q. Emancipation, then, from what? A. Emancipation from the miseries of earthly existence and of rebirths, all of which are due to ignorance and impure lusts and cravings.
  • 129. Q. And when this salvation or emancipation is attained, what do we reach? A. NIRVĀNA.
  • 130. Q. What is Nirvāna?...

The Life of Buddha and Its Lessons (1912)


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  • The thoughtful student, in scanning the religious history of the race, has one fact continually forced upon his notice, viz., that there is an invariable tendency to deify whomsoever shows himself superior to the weakness of our common humanity.
  • What he taught may be summed up in a few words, as the perfume of many roses may be distilled into a few drops of attar: Everything in the world of Matter is unreal; the only reality is in the world of Spirit.
  • The history of Sākya Muni's life is the strongest bulwark of his religion. As long as the human heart is capable of being touched by tales of heroic self-sacrifice, accompanied by purity and celestial benevolence of motive, it will cherish his memory.
  • Though all suggestions of death were banished from the royal palace, though the city was bedecked with flowers and gay flags, and every painful object removed from sight when the young Prince Siḍḍārtha visited it, yet the decrees of destiny were not to be baffled, the "voices of the spirits," the "wandering winds" and the ḍevas, whispered the truth of human sorrows into his listening ear, and when the appointed hour arrived, the Suḍḍha Ḍevas threw the spell of slumber over the household, steeped in profound lethargy the sentinels (as we are told was done by an angel to the gaolers of Peter's prison), rolled back the triple gates of bronze, strewed the sweet moghra-flowers thickly beneath his horse's feet to muffle every sound, and he was free. Free? Yes—to resign every earthly comfort, every sensuous enjoyment, the sweets of royal power, the homage of a Court, the delights of domestic life: gems, the glitter of gold: rich stuffs, rich food, soft beds...
  • Gauṭama Buḍḍha, Sākya Muni, has ennobled the whole human race. His fame is our common inheritance. His Law is the law of Justice, providing for every good thought, word and deed its fair reward, for every evil one its proper punishment. His law is in harmony with the voices of Nature, and the evident equilibrium of the universe. It yields nothing to importunities or threats, can be neither coaxed nor bribed by offerings to abate or alter one jot or tittle of its inexorable course.

Quotes about H.S. Olcott

  • Many difficulties have confronted this lion-hearted man, during these thirty-one years. He stood unflinchingly through the discreditable attack on Madame Blavatsky by the Society for Psychical Research, and has lived to see Dr. Hodson accept more marvels than he then denounced. He steered the Society through the crisis which rent from it for a time nearly the whole American Section, to see that Section welcome him to his native land with pride and exultation. He saw his colleague pass away from his side, and bore the burden alone, steadfastly and bravely for another sixteen years, knitting hands with... her favorite pupil, as loyally and firmly as with herself. Through good report and evil report he has worked unwaveringly, until his Master’s voice has called him home... He endured his last prolonged sufferings bravely and patiently, facing death as steadfastly as he had faced life, and cheered in the last weeks of his illness by the visits of the great Indian Sages, to whom he had given the strength of his manhood, the devotion of his life. He has passed away from earth, and left behind him a splendid monument of noble work, and on the other side he still will work, till the time comes for his return. India has had no more faithful helper in the revival of her religions than this noble American, and she may well send her blessing to the man who loved and served her.
  • The doctrine we promulgate... must - supported by such evidence as we are preparing to give - become ultimately triumphant as every other truth. Yet it is absolutely necessary to inculcate it gradually enforcing its theories, unimpeachable facts for those who know, with direct inferences deducted from and corroborated by the evidence furnished by modern exact science. That is why Col. H.S.O. who works but to revive Buddhism may be regarded as one who labours in the true path of theosophy, far more than any other man who chooses as his goal the gratification of his own ardent aspirations for occult knowledge. Buddhism stripped of its superstitions is eternal truth, and he who strives for the latter is striving for theo-sophia - Divine Wisdom, which is a synonym of truth.
  • Some, most unjustly, try to make H.S.O. and H.P.B., solely responsible for the state of things, those two are, say, far from perfect — in some respects, quite the opposite. But they have that in them (pardon the eternal repetition but it is being as constantly overlooked) which we have but too rarely found elsewhere —Unselfishness, and an eager readiness for self-sacrifice for the good of others; what a multitude of sins does not this cover! It is but a truism, yet I say it, that in adversity alone can we discover the real man. It is a true manhood when one boldly accepts one's share of the collective Karma of the group one works with, and does not permit oneself to be embittered, and to see others in blacker colours than reality, or to throw all blame upon some one "black sheep," a victim, specially selected. Such a true man as that we will ever protect and despite his shortcomings, assist to develop the good he has in him. Such an one is sublimely unselfish; he sinks his personality in his cause, and takes no heed of discomforts or personal obloquy unjustly fastened upon him. (370)
  • Olcott is doubtless out of time with the feelings of English people of both classes; but nevertheless more in time with us than either. Him we can trust under all circumstances, and his faithful service is pledged to us come well — come ill... my voice is the echo of impartial justice. Where can we find an equal devotion? He is one who never questions, but obeys; who may make innumerable mistakes out of excessive zeal but never is unwilling to repair his fault even at the cost of the greatest self-humiliation; who esteems the sacrifice of comfort and even life something to be cheerfully risked whenever necessary; who will eat any food, or even go without; sleep on any bed, work in any place, fraternise with any outcast, endure any privation for the cause...

See also


Theosophical Teachers

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Modern Buddhist writers 19th century to date
Theravada / Vipassana movement B. R. AmbedkarṬhānissaro BhikkhuAjahn ChahAnagarika DharmapalaJoseph GoldsteinHenepola GunaratanaNoah LevineNyanaponika Thera
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Other and Secular Buddhism Stephen BatchelorRobert Wright
Scholars Lokesh ChandraWalter Evans-WentzRichard GombrichThomas Rhys Davids
Non-Buddhists influenced by Buddhism Edwin ArnoldHelena BlavatskyFritjof CapraLeonard CohenAlexandra David-NéelHermann HesseCarl JungJon Kabat-ZinnFriedrich NietzscheHenry Steel OlcottRajneeshHelena RoerichJ. D. SalingerArthur SchopenhauerGary SnyderAlan WattsAlfred North Whitehead