Columbians Ahead of Their Time
The Life & Works of Theos Bernard
"The fact is, I, the person about to be initiated into Tibetan sacred mysteries, was no native, no Tibetan, not even an oriental, but an American, hailing from Arizona. And here, at the end of the ceremony, I would become a full-fledged Buddhist monk, a Lama."

Bernard at Jo-kang
Bernard at the Kum-bum temple, Gyantse

The story of Theos Bernard begins in the deserts of southern Arizona. Raised by his mother in Tombstone, Bernard entered the newly founded University of Arizona, in Tucson, in 1928. Bernard's early college years were interrupted, however, by a near fatal illness which profoundly altered his life. It was while convalescing in the Dragoon Mountains that Bernard met his first spiritual teacher, a yogi from India who had been a friend of his family for many years, who began to instruct him in the fundamentals of yoga. Although he had been pursuing a degree in law, Bernard completed his studies in 1934 only to turn to religious and philosophical pursuits.

Theos Bernard entered Columbia University in the fall of 1934, immediately following his graduation from the University of Arizona. At the time of his entry, there was no formal program of studies in religion, and courses on the subject had only been being taught for seven years, mostly through the efforts of Bernard's advisor in the philosophy department, Herbert Schneider. The records of Bernard's career during this time are sparse, and his official transcript gives no account of any classes taken or grades received, noting only that on June 2, 1936, he was awarded the degree of Masters of Arts (AM).

Of his own account, though Bernard's first two publications are autobiographical and tell the story of his education and pursuit of authentic religious instruction, they give no account of his years at Columbia. Rather, Heaven Lies Within Us and Penthouse of the Gods were both published following his trips to India and Tibet from 1936–37 and textually laid the groundwork for his later books through the narrative of a personally validated authentic religious tradition. The full context of Bernard's life story lies unspoken in the world of his uncle, Pierre Bernard, and New York’s high society of the 1920s and 1930s.

Pierre Bernard (aka Oom the Omnipotent) founded the New York Sanskrit College in midtown Manhattan in the early part of the twentieth century. Together with his wife, Blanche de Vries, Oom began instructing a number of wealthy New York socialites in the science and practices of yoga. Chief among Oom's students was Mrs. Vanderbilt, who funneled not only friends, but a substantial amount of money his way to establish a discreet sanctuary in which Oom could lecture and instruct. The result was The Mystic Order of the Tantriks of India and an estate that was to become the Clarkstown Country Club in Nyack, New York. Here Oom did, indeed, lecture and instruct on the practices of yoga–even publishing a journal–but also provided a socially liberal yet exclusive resort for young New Yorkers, and put at their disposal a world-class research library described as "approximately 7,000 volumes on the subjects of philosophy, ethics, psychology, education and metaphysics as well as much collateral material on physiology, medicine and the related sciences." More significantly however, Oom provided his services—either directly or incidentally—as a matchmaker for the membership. It was into this world that he brought his nephew, Theos Bernard, who eventually married a niece of Henry Morgenthau Sr., Viola Wertheim.

"I had become aware of my discovery of those deep joys that I had never before dreampt existed in this life, and I felt that all my effort gained for me a reward altogether overwhelming"

India and Tibet

Ch. XV illustr.

Completing his master's degree in 1936, and with the financial leisure accorded him by his marriage, Bernard was able to embark on an extensive trip to India and Tibet in late summer of 1936. Narrating his account, Bernard tells of seeking out the teacher of Hindu yogi whom he had met once in Arizona through his mother. Arriving in India in time only to hear of the death of his would-be guru, Bernard sought out other teachers in India traveling the length and breadth of the country, from Kasmir to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) taking religious initiations and instruction on various yogic techniques. He finally made his way to Calcutta where he was able to make contacts which eventually led to a meeting with and becoming a student of Lama Tharchin in Kalimpong. Here, Bernard spent a period of intensive study of the Tibetan written language and three spoken dialects. After close to a year in India, he was finally able to secure permission from the British political officer in Sikkim, J. B. Gould to travel to Tibet. Once there, Bernard had audiences with the Ganden Tri-pa, the Regent of Tibet, Reting Rinpoche, and numerous other officials in the Tibetan government. In addition, Bernard received Tantric empowerments, engaged in a meditative retreat, and acquired numerous books included a complete set of the Buddhist canon, a set of the Treasury of Revealed Teachings (rin chen gter mdzod) and several hundred more volumes of Tibetan works.

Shortly after returning from India and Tibet, Theos Bernard was divorced by his wife Viola. Completing his first two books, Bernard began touring, giving a series of lectures in America and Europe. Promoting himself and his new books in England, Bernard authored several magazine articles both about the political situation in Tibet and his experiences there. In conjunction with the British publication of Penthouse of the Gods (published under the title of Land of a Thousand Buddhas), Bernard's accounts were picked up by the British tabloid press at the time, and, though their sensationalistic reports concerning his identity as "a white Lama" garnered some positive public feedback and interest, it also earned him the scorn and private dismissal of British Intelligence operatives (who had monitored his activities since his first entry into Tibet) as a fraud and imposter.

In the West, there is the preconceived notion that man cannot know metaphysical truths by direct experience; therefore, at best, metaphysical truths can only be speculations, inferences, or ungrounded faith.

1947 Report & Picture

Returning to America, Bernard continued working on his dissertation at Columbia University, Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience (1943). He began teaching and lecturing on yoga on the Upper East side of Manhattan, where he met a wealthy Polish opera star who first became one of his students and, later, a romantic interest. Within a year, Bernard and Ganna Walska were married and the two moved to California where they purchased a large piece of land, which they named Tibetland to house Bernard’s collection of Tibetan manuscripts, provide accommodations for visiting Tibetan lamas, and to serve as the center for his translation efforts. Bernard’s marriage to Ganna Walska was short lived, however. While Walska proceeded to convert the property into a horticultural museum (Lotusland), Bernard produced a fourth book, The Philosophical Foundations of India, and together with his third wife, Helen, returned to India in 1947, this time seeking "rare manuscripts" in the hills of Spiti near Ladakh. Entering the Punjab en route to his destination, his party of Muslim porters was rumored to have been attacked by Lahouli tribesman. Conflicting reports about his whereabouts circulated for several months, and though his wife waited for him in Calcutta, he never returned. Despite his talents and good fortunes which had led him so far, in the end Bernard never saw his aspirations fulfilled and, like Tibet, fell victim to the larger forces at play during the twilight of the old empires.

Excerpted from the forthcoming article “The Life and Works of Theos Bernard” by Paul G. Hackett.


Bernard met with the Regent of Tibet, Reting Rinpoche, and was a house guest of the Tibetan Cabinet Minister, Tsarong Shapé.

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