Olcott Memorial Oration - 2015 in the UAE

Speaker: Mr. Imthiaz Bakeer Marker
                Attorney at law

Organisers: Sri Lankan Olcott Schools Alumni, United Arab Emirates

First of all I would like to thank you all profusely for extending this invitation to me.

I feel extremely honoured and privileged for offering me an opportunity to deliver the Olcott memorial oration from a special venue which is a meeting place of various cultures of the world.

This is incidentally my first visit abroad for the last 11 years since 2004. Although I received many invitations for visits abroad to participate in lectures, workshops as well as private tours during this period I was not that keen to undertake them, but Ananda College was an institution where I was born and bred. As such I could not refuse this opportunity to honour the founder of Olcott Schools including Ananda College my alma mater.

As an old Anandian I feel extremely happy to meet my old Anandian colleagues and past pupils of other Olcott Schools at a place like this.

It was an old Anandian and an old Nalandian who came and met me to handover this invitation. During our conversation I realized that despite the brotherhood among our two schools there is a small competition between the two running underneath.

This was there during our time too. I was reminded of it when I saw Mr. Bandula Warnapura among the audience today. Bandula Warnapura was our hero in cricket. We were happy and overjoyed when he made heavy scores with the bat in inter-school matches because he was the captain of Nalanda our brother school. But if I say that we always prayed and expected him to get out with no score in Ananda – Nalanda cricket encounters I am not wrong. That was became we loved our own school more. But we cannot forget the fact that Ananda did not possess a proper playground at that time. We had to visit Nalanda College playground for our sports practices. We used the Nalanda grounds by dividing and allocating separate days of the week among the two schools in a brotherly atmosphere. That is how we played at Nalanda grounds at that time. When I initially received the invitation to deliver the Olcott memorial oration I felt a bit reluctant to accept it thinking what I could say before an audience of learned people like you. When Dilip told me that my old friend and colleague at Ananda College and Ananda Hostel Prof. Sunil Weerawansa spoke for nearly two hours when he delivered the memorial oration last year I had a little fear in accepting the invitation. The reason is that I have never made speeches lasting for hours in my life. When I contested elections and addressed election meetings my speeches lasted only about 20 minutes.

While delving on the time duration of the speech I am reminded of a statement made by Former President J.R.Jayawardene about an incident which occurred when late Mahatma Gandhi visited Sri Lanka in the past. President Jayawardene made this statement at the Ganegama Viharaya in Dewalapola in 1978.

I Quote :-

“One day I invited Mahatma Gandhi to deliver a long speech” he quickly responded giving this answer to me.

“When you get up to deliver a speech you must stand erect for all to see. That is how I am standing up now. Then you must speak in a manner that all can hear. That is how I am speaking now. There after you sit down soon for all to rejoice soon”.

We are today accustomed to making long speeches. But I wont make a long speech like other speakers. I will take 15, 20 or 30 minutes the most. If anyone argued that 30 minutes is insufficient to make a speech I wish to tell them this.

The Buddha took only 10 minutes to deliver the Dhammachakka Pavattana Sutra. Jesus Christ took only 5 minutes to make his sermon on the mount. You can hold the entire world aghast in a matter of five minutes. But I am not an orator of such caliber.

Since you all are eagerly waiting hear some of my ideas and views today I will express them briefly in a short speech. So following in the footsteps of late J.R. Jayawardene I will try to conclude my speech in about 30 minutes to enable you to rejoice quickly.

There is freedom in our country to profess the religion you like and choose medium of instruction you wish to follow in learning. My father had decided to provide me education in the Sinhala medium and admit me to Ananda College after primary education. He proposed the same thing he desired for his own children to other Muslim children too. He published a book titled ‘En Singhalam’ in Tamil highlighting the importance imparting education in the Sinhala medium by joining one of his cousins. Today I consider my father’s decision as correct. Accordingly I not only learnt at Ananda College but in the words of Hon Speaker Mr. Karu Jayasuriya I wish to say that I ate “Parippu” in the Ananda hostel for 7 long years. “We who ate parippu in the Ananda hostel are prepared to eat any humble pie and face vicissitudes of life with equanimity. What ever it is there was diversity at Ananda College at that time. Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu children were found both in school and in the hostel. We did not feel any difference at Ananda College whatever religion we professed. We were like members of a single family. I recall how my fellow students came forward to make me the President of Hostellers Union, Junior Students Society and the Senior Students Association. I also remember how I got the opportunity to captain the College Table Tennis and Hockey Teams as well as the Sinhala Debating Team. Copies of late T.B. Jayah’s book handed over to you relates how late T.B. Jayah in his capacity as Principal selected the only Sinhala student at Zahira College to be the schools head prefect.

These are the moral and spiritual values endowed to us Sri Lankans by a 2500 years history. We can show any amount of examples of our proud heritage from history. If we take world history into account we can see exemplary Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Islamic rulers from whom we can learn fine examples. Similarly we see administrative eras in history which tarnished or damaged the image of those religions.

We have today overcome a very unpleasant era in Sri Lankas history. It was most unfortunate our country’s image was severely tarnished during that following these unfortunate incidents we have reached a cross road in our country’s history. The theme you have given me suits this moment very appropriately.

We all have a great responsibility in this regard to make a new beginning and create a new thinking within and outside the country, our ancient heritage offers us a strong foundation for it.

Asia has been either the birthplace or the centre of major religions of the world. Main religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam which nurture our society had their origins in the Middle East and India. Our origins are also connected to these countries.

There are many similarities in the guidance offered to us by all these religions. I recall a stanza in the Dhammapada.

“Nathang Kammang Kathan Sadhu Yamg Kathwa Anuthappati Yassa Assu Mucko Rodang Vipakan Pati Sevathi”

“If some action makes you happy in retrospect, it is advisable to repeat such actions. If some action makes you repentant in retrospect it is advisable not to repeat such actions”.

Similarly I am reminded of a paragraph of the Holy Quran displayed at the entrance of the famous Harvard University.

“Be fair and just. Rise up for justice even if it goes against your parents, relatives or friends. God will protect you”.

We ought to follow a common path based on these values which enrich our society. We should consider our diversity as a resource. We should not consider it as a burden.

Historically no society in the world has progressed by following super communal beliefs. Both the first world war and the Second World War symbolize this truth to us. It is proved by what we witness in the Middle East today.

We see accusing fingers being leveled at political leaders, religious dignitaries and corporate leaders for these situations. We hear that various conspiracies and hidden agendas are responsible for these things. But all parties in a society have to bear responsibility regarding this. Keeping alert and deep inquiry about what is said and done is very important.

As a group of people who have realized this responsibility you have taken steps to bring us together for an important topic I consider the selection of this timely topic to commemorate late colonel Steele Olcott as an important decision taken by you. I consider this opportunity I received to meet you Sri Lankans living in the United Arab Emirates under this theme as a very special occasion in my life. I also wish to state that I treasure and value the cause which led to the invitation extended to me for this meeting.

On one angle it reminds us of a great lesson regarding gratitude on the other it is a fulfillment of a duty. I wish to recall with honour that it was our alma mater which imbibed the two great values gratitude and duty into our lives.

The schools in which you and I learnt have a common sign. That is that they all had their beginnings based on the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka. Col. Henry Steele Olcott who dedicated himself towards this was an exemplary character who enlightened the path of his life from Buddhist philosophy. As children belonging to schools founded by late Olcott you all organize the annual Olcott memorial lecture by reminding the world about the great values of the Buddha who taught a lesson about gratitude.

The Buddha paid homage to the Bodhi tree which offered him shade and protection to achieve Buddhahood with an animisa lochana pooja by showing a practical lesson about gratitude to the world at large. Accordingly what you are performing at this moment by appreciating the services rendered to the world by late Olcott by understanding the essence of Buddhism is an exhibition of gratitude and joining the grateful people who are very rare in the world.

We in Sri Lanka are aware of this great service rendered by you by residing thousands of miles away from the motherland. Poet Mark Twain who resided in the Mississippi river basin once said “when certain people perform their duties its echo is heard thousands of miles away”. The echo of this duty performed by you as children of our alma mater will undoubtedly be seen and heard by the grateful people in Sri Lanka.

Col. Olcott who lived in the USA traversed thousands of miles arrived in Sri Lanka because he heard the echo of the performance of a similar duty.

The five great debates held to counter the efforts made by colonialism to spiritually defeat Sri Lanka which was a colony spurred Col. Olcott to arrive in Sri Lanka.

The echo of the 1865 Baddegama debate, 1866 Udammita debate, 1971 Gampola debate and the stiff and decisive 1873 Panadura debate which resonated were the historical story which prompted Col. Olcott’s advent to Sri Lanka. A reports published in all newspapers including the Times of Ceylon about the Panadura debate paved the way for it. Mr. John Cooper who was the then Chief Editor of the times of Ceylon got the entire debate in Sinhala translated into English by lawyer Mr. Edward Perera of Kotte and splashed it in the newspaper. A copy of this report fell into the hands of an American scholar named J.M. Feeble living in Galle at that time. He took it along with him to England and took steps to reprint thousands of copies and distribute it. One of the copies fell into the hands of Col. Olcott in 1878 almost five years after the debate laying the foundation for the educational revival which accompanied the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka.

Co. Olcott’s objective through the main project he launched by contributing towards the Buddhist revival movement in Sri Lanka was to provide meaningful education to children of under developed regions in the country. It is very important to identify the Olcott vision regarding the objectives of education. I wish to emphasize that it would be a source of guidance towards the national unity and co-existence which has presently engaged our attention. I consider it pertinent to briefly mention the objectives of the Buddhist Theosophical society launched in USA on 17th of November 1875.

Three main objectives were evident in this society he launched as a movement dedicated to search the truth devoid of differences as to colour, community, caste or religion. The first objective was bind the entire humanity together in brotherhood devoid of differences as to colour, community caste or creed. The second was to encourage the perpetuation of all religious and ideologies in an impartial manner. The third was to explore data about nature and man’s internal powers. Finding solutions to the main problems we have currently encountered will not be difficult if we properly identify these objectives. Many crises which have presently erupted the world wide have communal and religious origins and tendencies. We can see one nation trying to subjugate another nation or one religious belief trying to subvert another religious belief. How logical is the path shown by late Steele Olcott to a world of this nature. I trust that we as children of Olcott schools to highlight this vision once again.

“true terrorism is Communalism” states philosopher Von Tepler. V.I. Lenin has described “Communalists as criminals killing human society”.

When one nation is subjugated to another nation, giving leadership to the subjugated nation is called nation liberation struggle. If has lost his homeland the fight to regain it is called patriotism. A struggle does not end through rumour mongering. A national struggle will end only after obtaining natural liberation. A person who does not see the freedom of another nation or community does not see one’s own communal freedom. It is only for a short period that a community or nation can be suppressed by arms. This is a truth we evidence throughout the world. The Olcott vision shows us the path to rebuild the world through common compassion, common will and common living. He clearly indicated that it is due to ignorance that attempts are made to divide us. This is very clear from his request to learn all religions in an impartial manner. A person who does not respect another religion is not a true Buddhist states a stone inscription made by king Dharmasoke. All this highlight the fact that we have reached a moment where the Olcott vision should be deeply embedded in society.

It was the motto of Brahmadatta kings of Benares India which said “There is no religion superior than the truth” which Olcott accepted as the motto of his Buddhist Theosophical Society. The emergence of untruth over truth is the biggest challenge we face today. There are less opportunities within society for the truthful man. We should try to find our main reason for this. All this is became we talk about the result rather than the cause for the result. Our system of education is very important in this regard. The most outstanding among the services rendered by Col. Olcott often arriving in Sri Lanka are the steps taken by him to improve and upgrade education. We describe it as an attempt to uplift people suffering under colonial rule and a challenge against the attempt made by colonial rulers to first their vision and will over the people by force through education.

On this occasion I am reminded of a statement made by Islamic scholar Prof. Tarik Ramadan who arrived in Sri Lanka to deliver a memorial lecture in honour of my late father. He said, I quote :-

“Our own religion or way of life, is a partial reflection of the truth. The true meaning, can come only, when appreciating the truth. You belong to the truth but truth does not belong to you. The meaning can emerge only by experiencing prularity. To be fully human, you should share the truth of others and other religions. Meet the human being, accepting the truth, in their religion, tradition and philosophies.

All sorts of religious exploration lead to the same destination. Nations of equality freedom and humanity belong to all religious traditions and philosophies”. The speech made by Henry Steele Olcott at Bombay on March 23rd 1879 can be shown as a moment which clearly explained his vision about education. He said “It is regrettable to see Bombay’s youth acting with the only objective of gaining a University degree. There are any amount of doctors and barristers in this country. But the country does not possess an adequate number of technicians. There are any amounts of graduates. But a skilled carpenter, miller, sugar maker or a paper manufacturer cannot be found anywhere. What India needs today are technological centers afflicted to study centers as in America”. This statement meant that vocational units are needed within the education system. When one investigated the depth of national crises which have emerged in most countries one factor which becomes evident is the economic inequalities existing in those countries. The main aspiration of the youth generation is to seek a good job. The frustration caused by the obstruction of avenues to obtain the ability to seek a job and the proliferation of that frustration to rebellion against the administration of a country can be seen ending up as violent terrorism.

Communalism and religionism are the best agents fuelling such acts of violence. The best way to damage national unity and reconciliation and sovereignty of a country is to arm society with narrow visions of distrust, suspicion and alienation.

Section of the participants

When we explain Olcott’s vision for education we can see an education system with a wide vision opposing it. It can be seen as an education system offering vocational guidance which developed knowledge and skills. We in Sri Lanka have suffered from two decades of war. We suffered from two youth rebellions which occurred since independence. There can be various opinions and descriptions about it. Sri Lanka’s failure to look at problems with an open mind by wearing various masks and hanging on to frigid viewpoints may have been one cause which aggravated problems. I believe that it is one reason Olcott’s vision and policy should be subjected to dialogue once again as school children and within Olcott schools.

It is not a difficult task because his belief and vision is based in a Buddhist foundation. What is our main challenge today? It is creating unity harmony and reconciliation in a multi national, multi religious, multi communal and multi linguist society.

Creating unity amidst diversity is the biggest challenge before the country. We can receive guidance from Buddhism which is one of the major religions in the world as well as Islam, Hindu and Catholic religions.

As Henry Olcott said we show offer guidance to our country to study the essence of all these religions. Guidance should be offered to liberate people’s minds from extremist feelings.

Guidance could be received for it by acting according to the Sathara Brahma Viharanaya (Metta, Karuna, Muditha and Upekkha) found in Buddhism the majority religion. It means overcoming hatred, eliminating, sorrow and promoting compassion and equanimity. If anyone is induced to treat every one in an impartial manner it amounts to equanimity. This is a quality strongly used in Olcotts vision throughout his service. This is symbolized by the four to leaves found in the four corners of our national flag.

In a country where people nurtured by such thoughts are living there is room for any opinion or a viewpoint. Such a society does not discriminate against each other on grounds of community, religion caste or any other petty differences.

Although a multicultural social environment is seen in such a country it is not a harmful society. It will create a society rich in world accepted human values providing opportunities for a decent living protecting democratic principles. True democracy can be ushered only by realizing factors such as guaranteeing human rights, religious freedom and harmony among various religions groups, living in peace and harmony among minorities, ushering opportunities for all to gain quality education and sound employment and ensuring human dignity. We can obtain meaningful guidance for a decent living we expect in a multi-cultural society from the Olcott vision. The activities of an individual should be valued and appreciated on the basis of his vision. Philosophers and epochal men act with a special vision endemic to them.

Although Olcott was a foreign national he became sensitive towards people in Sri Lanka by transgressing narrow limitations. A person will act with such an idea when his or her vision is clear and conscience is strong. Understanding the vision which strengthened Olcott’s conscience and self confidence and vitality will undoubtedly help stabilize the existence of a multi faceted society at present. Aristotle once said it is more opportune for a country to be governed by good men rather than good haws and regulations. I wish to bring it to your notice at this moment. In order to cleanse and correct our society e should first identify our own shortcomings and overcome and correct them. We should learn to offer pardon and beg pardon. It is very essential to be flexible and act with an open and unbiased mind.

It is very important to get induced to change what ought to be changed and stabilize what has been changed.

We should also take care to protect the sown cultivation without allowing get overgrown with weeds. It will stabilize the sustenance of a multi cultural society.

We can identify the way to become true and equal Sri Lankans through a multi cultural policy based on social equality.

We can describe Col. Henry Steele Olcott as an exemplary character to develop an environment where everyone whether they be Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or any other community to feel that this is their country of residence where they have a sense of belonging.

“Offer advice to others by conforming to such advice yourself” is a famous saying used in our folk vocabulary. This explains the foundation of the Buddhist society. It is not the society but the individual who comprise the society which is central to the Buddhist political vision.

Democratic principles such as social justice and fairplay and respect for the rights of others should originate in the hearts of individuals who comprise the society. It is in this way that Col. Olcott acted. We can establish a society colorful like a rainbow through his plan of action.

I hope to conclude my speech and say good bye to you by quoting a stanza in the Dhammapada which explained principle of Buddhist democratic vision even to Col. Olcott. It is the second stanza in the Athma Waggaya included in the Dhammapada as well as the 158th stanza in the Dhammapada itself.

“Aththanamecha Patamang – Pathirupe Niwesaye Athannamanu Saseiyang - Nakilisseiyang Panditho”

It means that “one should first conform to the principle before advising others”. A person who does so will not be affected by evil.

Col. Henry Steele Olcott who died on 17th February 1907 is still living in our memory because he led a life full of such great values. I conclude my speech by emphasizing that the time has come as never before for the Sri Lankan society to study Col Olcott’s vision and mission in depth.

Mr. Ravindra Gunarathna, The President of Olcott Schools Alumni of the UAE presenting a Plaque to Mr. Imthiaz Bakeer Marker

Participants with Mr. and Mrs. Imthiaz Bakeer Marker

Committee Members of Olcott Schools Alumni of the UAE with Mr. Imthiaz Bakeer Marker


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