Barbarian lands: Theos Bernard, Tibet, and the American religious life

by Hackett, Paul Gerard, Ph.D., COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, 2008, 1102 pages; 3305226


This dissertation presents the first comprehensive narrative of the life of Theos Bernard (1908-1947). As a first-generation American explorer in Tibet, Bernard was only the third American to successfully reach Lhasa, the capital of Tibet in the late 1930s. While there, Bernard amassed what would be the largest collection of Tibetan texts, art and artifacts in the Western hemisphere for more than thirty years, as well as documenting, in both still photography and 16mm film, an age-old civilization on the eve of its destruction. In his day, Bernard met, associated and corresponded with the social, political and cultural icons of his day, from the Regent and leading politicians of Tibet to saints, scholars and diplomats in British India, and such notables as Charles Lindbergh, Gandhi, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Bernard also established a research center in California to collaborate with a man considered "the most important Tibetan intellectual of the twentieth century," Amdo Gedun Chöpel. When they were unable to overcome the turmoil of the 1940s, however, their collaboration failed and instead, within ten years both men would be dead.

The dissertation examines such issues as Bernard's place in the early history of the American subculture and counter-culture informed by Indian concepts of religiosity and the narrative of the genesis and spread of Indian and Buddhist religious traditions in America over the last 150 years. In addition, Bernard's life and writings are examined as a paradigm of an ethnically American counter-culture religious experience and his academic activities are discussed in terms of their broader implications for the study of religion.

The dissertation concludes with a series of appendices containing presentations of some of the primary data amassed over the course of the research, including: some of Bernard's unpublished works; an overview of American visitors to Tibet from 1920 to 1959; and a photographic essay retracing Bernard's trips in India and Tibet with comparative photographs (1937 and 2006).

AdviserRobert A. F. Thurman
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsBiographies; Religious history; American studies
Publication Number3305226

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