by Swami Agehananda Bharati
|Editor’s note: |
Agehananda Bharati, a native of Vienna, Austria, later a US citizen, was a monk in the Dasanami Sannyasi Order and professor of anthropology at Syracuse University, New York. He produced nearly 500 publications in several languages including The Tantric Tradition, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Hinduism and his autobiography The Ochre Robe.
Professor Bharati was born Leopold Fischer on April 20, 1923, in Vienna, Austria. His interest in South Asia began when he was a young boy in Vienna learning classical Sanskrit and Hindi. He graduated Akademisches Gymnasium, Vienna, in 1941 and Oriental Institute and Ethological Institute of the University of Vienna in 1948. He received the name Agehananda Bharati in 1951 when he was ordained in the Dasanami Sanyasi order of Hindu monks. He earned his acharya, the equivalent of a PhD., from Sanyasa Mahavidyalaya in Varanasi, India, that same year.
Early in his career, Prof. Bharati became a noted scholar of Indian culture, teaching linguistics, comparative philosophy, anthropology, and South Asian studies at universities and institutions in India, Japan, Thailand, and the United States. In the 1950s, he was a lecturer in German at Delhi University, a reader in philosophy at Banaras Hindu University in India, a guest professor of comparative religion at the Nalanda Institute of Post-graduate Buddhist Academy in Bangkok, Thailand, Asia Foundation Visiting Professor at the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan, and research associate for the Far Eastern Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Prof. Bharati joined the Maxwell faculty in 1961 as an assistant professor of anthropology. He was promoted to associate professor in 1964 and to full professor in 1968. He chaired the anthropology department from 1971 to 1977 and was acting chair during the spring semester of 1985. In 1991, he was named the Ford/Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies and also was presented with the Chancellor’s Citation for Exceptional Academic Achievement.
An outstanding Sanskritist who spoke 15 classical and modern European and Indian vernacular languages, he is recognized as one of the leading pioneers in the field of tantric studies. He is perhaps best known for his books The Tantric Tradition (The Hutchinson University Publishers, 1966) and The Ochre Robe (Ross-Erikson Press, 1980). Prof. Bharati also wrote hundreds of articles for publications distributed worldwide, was an editor for several international publications, and presented numerous lectures and papers at national and international professional conventions.
I regard both the recent past and the future of Hinduism with mild optimism. It is not so much any specific event or events of the past that I regard as the most significant, though such could be pinpointed (e.g., the creation of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the dialectic reactions to the sati event in Deorala, the withdrawal of the Kamakoti Peedam Swami from the Math and his return, etc.). But these are, singly seen, rather less important than salutary, albeit gradual, movement away from a moralistic, moralizing, Protestant ethic type understanding of Hinduism in the wake of Vivekananda and social reform-oriented monastics and lay people around the turn of the century and later, toward a more reflexive, less uptight, sacerdotally more informed, more experimental and individually experiential form of Hinduism.
Whereas before everything that was not straight laced, puritanical theism was simply rejected as ‘superstition,’ the end of this century witnesses a reversal. Individual techniques are emphasized, a large number of teachers with very different and heterogeneous backgrounds are generating new audiences: the incredible impact of the Ramayana production on Indian TV in the past two years. All these bode well, I believe, for the recapturing of a more sophisticated, no longer necessarily simple, certainly not simplistic, type of multifaceted postmodern Hindu praxis.
All this, of course, has its shadowy sides, too. There is incredible almost pathological gullibility among a very large number of modern, urban people with regard to the alleged feats and signs of some hierophants. There is the vulgar quest for individual power, wealth, etc. through the harnessing of shamanistic practitioners and their skills generally referred to as “tantric”, in a total misconception of tantraism.
On a more sophisticated level, however, things may not turn out that bad after all. I have long ago created the model I called “pizza-effect”. The pizza at one time was looked down upon in Italy as the poor man’s food: it then migrated to America and when it returned to Italy, it became a highly respected dish on the menu of even the most outstanding restaurants. Similarly, when Hinduism was first exported into the West around the turn of the century, the product that returned to India caught everyone’s attention, and Hinduism caught on and up again. The momentum is not expended, but the pizza effect should yield even better results: the involvement with the psycho-experimental, the mystical, etc., the great western attention to Tibetan Buddhism and some quite esoteric forms of Hinduism, though watered down for western consumption, all might do a lot of good to India when repatriated. There is an increasing awareness of esoteric acts, sites and shrines.
More importantly, sites and shrines which were marginal to standard Hinduism until quite recently are now central, or close to it. Forty years ago, very few people did the Sabarimalai pilgrimage, and many sites were identified as low caste, lowbrow, not proper and respectable. All that has changed. Kataragama in Sri Lanka, Sabarimalai in southern India are paradigmatic. The better known, squarer, Tirupati, Brindavan, Haridvar, etc., now have competitors from the soil. And, in tandem with these developments, sacerdotal involvement is no longer dismissed as fatuously ‘unscientific’ superstition—or it is no longer dismissed that easily.
I feel, finally, that nourishing the scholarly tradition in Hinduism must be reestablished at its core. The pandit must continue Sanskrit, he must perform Sanskrit and not only ‘understand’ it. And people must realize that Advaita Vedanta is not all there is in Hindu thought. Also, people must learn to accept it that there is lots of Vedanta apart from ‘practical’ Vedanta, and that Hinduism, to last, must be much, much more than that of Dayananda, Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan combined.