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Hedonism and the Spiritual Life

by Sangharakshita

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS on

SANGHARAKSHITA: HEDONISM AND SPIRITUAL LIFE
(Windhorse Publications: Ola Leaves), London 1982
Reprint of Review of AGEHANANDA BHARATI, LIGHT AT THE CENTRE
(Ross-Erikson, Santa Barbara 1976) in FWBO Newsletter No. 37 (Winter 1978).
Tuscany, 1986.
PRESENT: Sangharakshita, Vessantara, Uttara, Sudhana, Sumana, Cittapala, Jayamati,
Sanghapala, Chakkhupala, Dharmamati, Ratnaprabha, Padmapani, Douglas Ponton, Duncan
Steen, Peter Nicholson, Paul Tozer, Alan Pendock, Ben Murphy, Ong Sin Choon, Alan
Turner, Kevin Donovan, Derek Goodman, Colin Lavender, Thomas McGeary, Gerd Baak.
3 October 1986Vessantara: So we start on Hedonism, Bhante. Most of the groups haven't got very far into the
text yet, so we'll start with some questions which are really just around the text, just asking
for a bit more information on [.. .]
Cittapala: We were just wondering, Bhante, whether you could give us any more information,
if it would be useful for us in respect of Bharati's life story. You give a very brief life story in
the first paragraph. So the first thing which struck us was: was he actually Austrian or, with a
name like that, does he have Indian descent?
S: Oh no, he was definitely Austrian. He has written I think it was his first book, actually an
autobiography called The Ochre Road, that is quite an interesting book. From a purely
spiritual point of view, it suffers from the limitations of the man himself. None the less, it is a
very vivid and I would say accurate picture of the Indian religious scene, or at least part of it.
Some of his experiences, in fact, seem to have paralleled mine. So I would certainly
recommend the book. There is a copy of it in the Order Library. And, as I think I have also
mentioned in the article, he is also the author of a book called The Tantric Tradition. That is
quite a scholarly work and quite useful, though dealing almost entirely with the Hindu Tantric
tradition, not with the Buddhist Tantric tradition.
Cittapala: There were a couple of other areas. The first was just that it was rather interesting
that he studied Sanskrit and other Indian languages when still a boy.
S: He seems to have quite a gift for languages. He seems to have that sort of mind; you know,
some people have it, some people don't, it seems. But he seems to have picked up quite
difficult languages quickly and easily, and as a boy, yes, he went into Indian languages. He
learned Sanskrit, and Hindi also, when he was in Austria, or perhaps in Germany.
Cittapala: Was there any particular reason why he chose those languages?
S: To the best of my recollection and it is many years since I read his autobiography he had a
sort of instinctive attraction to India: Indian religion, Indian culture and so on.
Cittapala: The other area which we were interested in was his participation in Hitler's 'Free
India and Egypt'. Was he actually a Nazi, or did he have any particular role in ..
[2]
S: Whether he was a Nazi or not doesn't transpire from his autobiography. He gives no
indication of his actual political sympathies. But that particular legion what did you call it?
Cittapala: It was the 'Free India'
S: Yes, the 'Free India' Legion: it had various names at the time. But that was a legion that
Hitler tried to form from Indian prisoners of war, because in the course of the war, especially
in the Far East, quite a number of Indians belonging to the Indian Army, who were of course
fighting with the British, were captured and became prisoners of war. So Hitler, or rather his
representatives, tried to form a special legion out of these prisoners of war to fight the British.
He wasn't very successful: quite a small percentage of them did join this legion, despite quite
a lot of coercion, and a very tiny percentage of the officers. Yes, it was more usually called
the Indian National Army, the INA certainly that part of it which operated in the Far East,
especially in Singapore. And the leader of that was the famous Nataji Subhas Chandra Bose.
(Laughter.) Oh dear! More background information needed! He was originally a member of
the Indian National Congress; you have all heard of that, of course? (Laughter.) He was one
of the, well, he was a prominent figure in the Indian National Congress; he was president of
the Indian National Congress, I think it was for one year, one session. But he didn't get on
well with Mahatma Gandhi. Some people consider him a more intelligent politician than
Mahatma Gandhi. He was a Bengali by birth, rather fiery; did not disbelieve in violence.
So after, well, to cut a long story short, Gandhi more or less forced him out of the Indian
National Congress, and he started his own political movement, which was called the Forward
Bloc. This was before the war. And it was much more extreme than the Congress Party, and
as far as I remember it openly advocated violence. Anyway, he was tried and imprisoned by
the British Indian government of those days, and during the war he escaped and made his
way, it seems, to the Japanese and from them he went to the Germans, he went to Germany.
He seems to have contacted Hitler personally, and he became eventually the leader of the
Indian National Army at the end of the war, he seems to have been killed in an air crash, but
there's a lot of mystery surrounding that. The Indian government conducted an investigation
and concluded he had in fact died in an air crash, I think in a Japanese plane. But many of his
followers in Bengal, at least, to whom he had become a sort of legend in his lifetime, refused
to believe that he had died, and are still awaiting his return, in a sort of King Arthurish way.
And when I was in India there were all sorts of rumours and reports from time to time that
Nataji Subhas Chandra Bose had come back. Anyway, he was the commander-in-chief of the
Indian National Army and had his headquarters in Singapore. So it would seem that the young
Agehananda Bharati in Germany I believe it was in Germany; when I say Germany I sort of
include Austria, as a young man came into contact with members of this Free India legion,
who were either a branch of or identical with, I am not quite sure which, the Indian National
Army in Europe. And he seems to have acted as a sort of interpreter, because he had this great
interest in India anyway. I believe he either had learned or was learning Sanskrit, and he
picked up Hindi and I think even other Indian languages very quickly; so he made himself
useful as an interpreter. At the end of the war, I believe he tried to pass himself off as an
Indian to escape arrest and possible trial by the Allies, but he was discovered. He was
detected and simply sent back to Germany or sent back to Austria. From there he eventually
found his way to India, and he became a Vedanta swami and pursued his Sanskrit studies and
engaged in culture criticism, as he called it, which made him quite unpopular with quite a lot
of orthodox Hindus. He considered himself a very [3] orthodox Hindu, but he was so
orthodox in some ways which meant that to many he looked very unorthodox and perhaps in
some ways he was unorthodox, that he offended quite a lot of people. And in the end he had
to leave India under that cloud I mention. I won't go into the nature of the cloud; that wouldn't
be quite fair, perhaps. But anyway, he left, and to the best of my knowledge he is now happily
living in the United States of America. But read his autobiography, which mainly deals with
his early years in Austria and Germany and his experiences in India.
Cittapala: You mentioned that Light at the Centre 'is one of those entertaining and instructive
essays in cultural anthropology that over the last two or three decades we have learned to
expect from the campuses of North America.' I was wondering whether you could
recommend any other entertaining and instructive essays?
S: (laughs) Recommending? Well, the sort of thing I have in mind I am not sure that this
came from the campuses of North America was Koestler's The Lotus and the Robot. This was
very controversial. Then there is another one, oh dear, I can't remember the name of it now:
written by a woman anthropologist, Ruth Benedict. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, I
think that was. That was about Japan and the Samurai cult and the tea ceremony and all that
sort of thing. Those are the sort of works I had in mind. I can't say that I've read many of them
myself, but there are quite a lot of them around.
Cittapala: And, following on from that, you also say that, according to the publishers of Light
at the Centre, Bharati's latest book is an investigation of mysticism in the tradition of Butler,
Underhill and Zaehner. I was wondering whether you could tell us a little bit about this
tradition and who these characters actually were.
S: When I say 'tradition', don't take me too literally; not that one was a personal disciple of the
other, so to speak. Butler is a Catholic writer. I think he is Dom Cuthbert Butler, but I won't
be completely sure of that because it's many years since I read him and I can't remember the
titles of his writings; but he was quite well known in his day.
Evelyn Underhill was much more famous. She was a high Anglican lady who wrote some
classic works on mysticism, the most important of which is one simply called Mysticism,
which has been reprinted a number of times. It deals mainly with Christian mysticism but ...

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