The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott

Overview

The New York Times denounced him as an "unmitigated rascal". Others described him as a reincarnation of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka or perhaps Gautama Buddha himself. He was Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832 - 1907), friend to Madame Blavatsky and president-founder of the Theosophical Society. This book tells the fascinating story of his spiritual odyssey. Raised a Presbyterian in nineteenth century New York, Olcott embraced spiritualism and then theosophy before becoming the first American of European descent to ...
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Overview

The New York Times denounced him as an "unmitigated rascal". Others described him as a reincarnation of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka or perhaps Gautama Buddha himself. He was Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832 - 1907), friend to Madame Blavatsky and president-founder of the Theosophical Society. This book tells the fascinating story of his spiritual odyssey. Raised a Presbyterian in nineteenth century New York, Olcott embraced spiritualism and then theosophy before becoming the first American of European descent to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. Despite his repudiation of Christianity, Olcott's life was an extension of both the "errand to the wilderness" of his Puritan ancestors and the "errand to the world" of American Protestant missionaries. Olcott viewed himself as a defender of Asian religions against the missionaries, but his actions mirrored theirs. He wrote and distributed tracts and catechisms, promoted the translation of scriptures into vernacular languages, established Sunday schools, founded voluntary associations, and conducted revivals. And he too labored to "uplift" his Asian acquaintances, urging them to embrace social reforms such as temperance and women's rights. However one views his work, his legacy was a lasting one, and today he is revered in Sri Lanka as a leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival and in India as a key contributor to the Indian Renaissance.
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Editorial Reviews

Gananath Obeyesekere
...Prothero has furnished us with a much-needed account of Olcott's life and work....Prothero is strongest when he discusses Olcott as an American pragmatist, his antecedents in thinkers like Emerson....We are given a very useful though well-known historical account of [the] Buddhist "renaissance" to which Olcott contributed....I think Prothero's book should be read by students interested in Theosophy, in American Studies, and in the formation of Buddhist modernism.
Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Choice

"An important study of a remarkable 19th-century American." —Choice

Gnosis Magazine

"Prothero has succeeded in creating a portrait of Olcott that will shape future scholarship.... Engaging and succinct." —Gnosis Magazine

Church History

"A meticulous story of a very colorful subject. In the process, [Prothero] assists the understanding of religious pluralism in our current age." —Church History

Religious Studies Review

"The first scholarly biographical study of [this] influential figure; its use of "creolization" theory adds to ongoing conversations about how to understand contact, colonialism, and conversion." —Religious Studies Review

Journal of American History

"Prothero’s study should interest not only scholars in the field but students of Asian religions and American religious history generally." —Journal of American History

From the Publisher
"An important study of a remarkable 19th-century American." —Choice
Choice

"An important study of a remarkable 19th-century American." —Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253330147
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/1996
  • Series: Religion in North America Series
  • Pages: 260
  • Product dimensions: 6.39 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Prothero is Professor of Religion at Boston University. His books include God is Not One: The Eight Religious Rivals that Run the World; American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon; and the New York Times bestseller Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn't, which won a 2007 Quill Book Award. Prothero blogs for CNN's Belief Blog and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Newsweek, Slate, and Salon.

Indiana University Press

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Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction 1
1 Universal Reformer 14
2 From Spiritualism to Theosophy 38
3 An Errand to Asia 62
4 The Sinhalese Buddhist Revival 85
5 A United Buddhist World 116
6 The Indian Renaissance 134
7 Things Fall Apart 156
Conclusion 173
Abbreviations 183
Notes 185
Selected Bibliography 221
Index 234
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