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The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott

by Stephen Prothero
Reviewed by Matthew Mulligan Goldstein; History of Religions Vol.37 No.3 Feb 1998 pp.291-293
© copyright 1998 University of Chicago
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Stephen Prothero performs a minor miracle in The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott—he constructs a historical narrative whose careful attention to cultural context does not make the biography's immediate subject, the first U.S. citizen of European descent to convert to Buddhism any less sensational. Between reductive social history and a historical romantic individualism, that is, Prothero discovers a third historiographical way, an approach to Olcott's story at once historically grounded and sensitive to personal eccentricity. Further, Prothero, an assistant professor of religion at Boston University, puts recent literary and cultural theory to good use, bringing the work of, among others, Edward Said and Jean-Francois Lyotard to bear on his analysis—a particularly refreshing move in a field too often marked by disciplinary provincialism and critical naiveté.

Best known in the United States as the first president and cofounder, with the celebrated "Madame" Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, of the Theosophical Society, Olcott became a national hero in pre-independence Ceylon when in 1880 he took Pansil and immediately launched a campaign against Christian missionaries.

book cover imageOlcott, who grew up Presbyterian in Orange, New Jersey, flirted with spiritualism after making colonel fighting for the Union in the Civil War, then turned theosophist in 1875. Four years after his conversion to theosophy, Olcott and Blavatsky went to India, where they established a new branch of their Theosophical society. The society fared quite well in its new home, attracting the attention and support of such powerful Anglo-Indians as Pioneer editor A. P. Sinnett, and A. O. Hume, former colonial administrator and "father of the Indian National Congress."

Prothero argues convincingly that Olcott's crises of faith and his apparent ideological fickleness, far from being anomalous in Anglo-American Victorian culture, were very much consistent with the religious doubt and epistemological instability of his historical moment. In particular, Prothero demonstrates with countless examples culled from Olcott's diaries and speeches the ways in which the colonel's brand of Theravada Buddhism was in fact little more than a somewhat idiosyncratic synthesis of Protestant-informed pragmatism, theosophical universalism and Buddhist philosophy.

To make his point, Prothero borrows from comparative linguistics the notion of creolization, the process by which various languages and dialects come into contact and fuse, generally in a colonial context. Prothero, in what becomes a kind of mantra in the text, develops the linguistics metaphor further, characterizing Olcott's faith as "a ‘Buddhism’ of his own invention—a Buddhist lexicon informed by a Protestant grammar and spoken with a theosophical accent" (p. 69). Creolization proves a useful tool for Prothero, as it forms the related issues of imperialism and cultural appropriation into his analysis; there are phenomena of crucial historical importance too often overlooked by scholars working on Olcott and the Theosophical Society. (See, e.g., Sylvia Cranston's unabashedly hagiographic HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky. Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement [New York: Putnam] and Peter Washington's finely written, if inadequately theorized, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon [London: Secker & Warburg], both published in 1993, neither of which clearly defines the broader sociopolitical and cultural context from which its subject emerged.)

Interestingly, sensitive as Prothero is to the issue of cultural imperialism he occasionally betrays surprising bashes of irritation with Olcott's "stridently anti-Christian position" (p. 65). "Unfortunately," Prothero, laments, "Olcott never explicates…why he came to see Christianity as an enemy" (p. 64). But isn't the explanation self-evident? There seems to be every reason to believe that the activities of the Christian missionaries, the dependable handmaidens of imperialism, deserved worse than just the "militantly anti-Christian" (p. 64) rhetoric levelled against them by Olcott. Prothero speculates that Olcott's "Christian-bashing" (p. 64) may have been the product of Blavatsky's malignant influence, an expression of the "Modern Unbelief" (p. 65) characteristic of post-Civil War America, or a rhetorical concession to Hindu allies in India who were fighting to protect their culture from predatory Christian evangelicals. The loaded language Prothero uses to describe Olcott's position vis-a-vis Christianity (he talks about the colonel's "anti-Christian propaganda" [p. 65] and "vitriol" [p. 82]) is perhaps intended to suggest the hypocrisy of Olcott's profession of universal religious tolerance; at times, though, Prothero's incomprehension seems almost defensive. I would not argue, of course, that the Theosophical Society was innocent of imperial intentions. On the contrary, Olcott, as Prothero argues, clearly projected a species of imperial desire in his development of a Western-style "Buddhist catechism" and his designing of the Buddhist flag. Rather, I am suggesting that Prothero's confusion over Olcott's contempt for Christianity may hint as much at the author's cultural biases as it does at Olcott's.

The White Buddhist remain an impressive achievement, despite its author's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of his subject's indignation at the morally dubious practices of nineteenth-century Christian missionaries. And while Prothero may be faulted for overstating his central thesis about Olcott's faith--namely, that it may be glossed as "a Buddhist lexicon informed by a Protestant grammar and spoken with a theosophical accent" (p. 69)—it is clever and apt enough a metaphorical description of the colonel's peculiarly heterogeneous belief system to bear the repetition. Further, Prothero's volume is meticulously footnoted and includes seven subject bibliographies and a thorough index; this, in combination with its engaging narrative and lively theoretical insights, makes The White Buddhist a marvellous reference tool for scholars of history, religion, and cultural studies alike.

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