Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907): Founder-President of The Theosophical Society.
Born on 2 August 1832, he was the oldest son of a businessman Henry Wyekoff Olcott and Emily Steel Olcott. His parents moved from Orange to New York City at some point of time, and at age fifteen the boy entered the New York University. He had to leave that after a year, when his father could not afford the tuition fee. He took up share-farming a 500 acre plot near Elysia, Ohio, in the vicinity of his maternal uncle who, fortunately, introduced him to Spiritualism too.
Soon he became an authority on scientific farming and established the Western Farm School. His first book on agriculture “Sorgo and Imphee, the Chinese and African Sugar canes” was published in 1857 (A. O. Moore, New York) and a second book “Outlines of the first course of agricultural lectures” in 1860 (C. M. Saxton, Barker & Co. New York). When his mother passed away in 1856, Olcott moved back into the family home and two years later, became an agricultural editor and writer for two periodicals.
He was married to Mary Eplee Morgon in 1860 (April 26). Civil war interrupted with his domestic life almost in a year. He joined as a Signal officer with General Burnside. Later he did the investigation work for the Army and the Navy and was on the committee of three who investigated the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After the war, he became a lawyer in New York, specialized in Customs, Insurance and revenue cases.
His wife Mary was orthodox and conservative in religious matters. Her husband’s “inquiring mind” was not acceptable to her. The marriage broke in a divorce in mid-1874. HSO’s investigation into spiritual séances came out in a book form in 1875 under a title “People from the Other World” (American Publishing Coy. Hartford) well before the formation of the Theosophical Society. His meeting HPB for the first time and his getting enthused, inspired and involved for working in higher spiritual realm were well recorded in the chapters of this book. By the end of 1878, HSO left for India along with Helena Blavatsky and a small party on theosophical commission.
“We theosophists are fully convinced that all religions are but branches of one sole truth,” begins HSO’s essay “Theosophy, Religion and Occult science” (1884). He says the Theosophical Society gives a formal expression to the “world kindling ethical idea” and “a social influence which is powerful enough to lift the depressed masses a great step forward”. It is no new discovery but only a reassertion of the essential unity of Brotherhood, “a principle to be elevated above all accidental or historical distinctions”.
According to him, the study of Occult Science has a two-fold value:
1. It teaches there is “a teeming world of Force within this teeming visible world of phenomena”.
2. It stimulates the student to acquire, by self-discipline and education, a knowledge of his psychic powers and the ability to employ them.
Addressing the ranks of the Theosophical Society, he says:
“We welcome most those who are ready to trample under foot their selfishness when it comes in conflict with the general good. We welcome the intelligent student of science, who has such broad conceptions of the subject that he considers it quite as important to solve the mystery of force as to know the atomic combinations of matter; and feeling so, is not afraid or ashamed to take for his teacher anyone who is competent, whatever be the color of his skin.”
He lays down two cardinal propositions:
1. Psychically, all men are brothers, all entitled to know divine truth.
2. Every human being has within his own nature, in a greater or lesser degree, certain sublime faculties, which when fully developed, will give him divine knowledge.
His association, his working together with HPB, and his tutelage with the Masters of the Wisdom were eloquently expressed in one sentence by Master KH, in one of his letters: ‘He (HSO) represents the entire Society, and by reason of his official position, if not no other, stands with Upasika (HPB), closest to ourselves in the chain of Theosophical work.”
He did not work for any sort of “recognition”, either from the public or his higher ups and Teachers, but strived to obtain “authenticity” in his tasks and talks, so that he becomes “reliable” in the eyes of entire humanity. “Here is a man who we can trust” was the commendation many times made by his Teachers.
He stands today a role-model for every aspiring theosophist. Combining philosophy and organizational development (the abstract and concrete forms of Nature) he carved a way – a royal road – on the working system of “Benefit for Humanity.”
His work for social reform was sequel to his commitment to the glorious ideal, made into a reality, of “Brotherhood of Humanity.” He worked for a revival of Sanskrit, Oriental learning, and prepared catechisms and treatises on religions, encouraging the preparation and publication of Lexicons for Indian languages from Sanskrit. This needs special mention, among other things (such as work for panchamas, swadeshiexhibitions, Adyar library etc.) for it is part of a wide program for Indian renaissance.
He had immense and undying faith in the “Brotherhood of Religions.” His work in India centered in bringing about rapport and reconciliation among the warring religious/social groups and Races. The rapid growth and spread of the society’s influence in India (compared to the waning atmosphere in America by end of 1878) was because of the extremely inspiring and enlightening spirit that he brought into play. There was practically no place he did not visited, no public figure he had not met in his untiring journeys to every nook and corner of the country. He enveloped India with the theosophical fragrance. Singing the past glory of the land and religions here, he promised a greater hope in its further splendor and wide expansion. He enthused the educated Indians to well realize the situation and work zealously for India’s future.
His last message, written down by hand on 2 February 1907, to be read over his body, speaks volumes in making public his noble and worthy aspiration:
“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.
To my beloved Brothers on the higher planes:I greet and come to you, and implore you to help me to impress all men on earth that THERE IS NO RELIGION HIGHER THAN TRUTH, and that in the Brotherhood of Religions lie the peace and progress of humanity.”
He passed to peace on 17 February 1907.