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The Unlikely Path

Former colleagues of Agehananda Bharati gather to mark 25 years since his passing.

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Agehananda Bharati was a charismatic former anthropology professor who died 25 years ago.

On a November evening in Maxwell Hall, a large black-and-white photograph of a man sitting cross-legged in monk’s robes, a look of deep concentration on his face, presided over a gathering of faculty and graduate students. The portrait is of the late, legendary Maxwell scholar and author Agehananda Bharati, and displayed next to it were several of his books published in the 1960s, including The Ochre Robe, an autobiography that traces his journey from growing up in Austria to becoming a Hindu monk, and his best-known work, The Tantric Tradition.

From 1961 to 1991, Bharati was, in the words of anthropology professor and South Asia specialist Susan Wadley, “the centerpiece of anthropology at Syracuse,” and a revered figure among South Asia scholars worldwide. To mark the 25th anniversary of his death, Wadley organized this gathering of longtime faculty members and others who knew Swami, as many people called him, and those curious to learn more about his legacy. Following the reception was a special production of Mission Suhani, a modern Indian folk opera in the nautanki tradition.

Bharati certainly followed an unlikely path to Syracuse. Born Leopold Fischer in Vienna in 1923, he became fascinated with India at eight years old and started learning Sanskrit and Hindi through Indian medical students he met. At the time, Fischer was a Catholic altar boy and planned to become a priest, but during his adolescence he grew disenchanted with how Catholicism was practiced. “By the time I was 15, I knew the alternative,” he later wrote in the book The Light at the Center. “It was bowing out of Christianity and opting into Hinduism.”

Bharati was, in his time, “the centerpiece of anthropology at Syracuse.”
— Susan Wadley

After World War II, Fischer went to India and, after several years of overcoming resistance as an outsider, was finally initiated into the Dasanami Sannyasi monastic order and given the name Agehananda Bharati. During his required religious pilgrimage, he traveled 1,500 miles around India, barefoot and begging for food.

One of the speakers at the memorial reception, Kameshwar Wali, professor emeritus of physics at SU, had met Bharati in India in this period — circa 1950 in Benares. When Wali joined the faculty at SU nearly 20 years later, he was stunned to encounter Bharati again, ensconced in the Department of Anthropology.

At the reception, stories flowed about Bharati’s intellectual intensity, his galvanizing effect on students, his love of food, his sometimes risqué sense of humor, and his extraordinary linguistic gifts. He spoke some 17 modern and classical languages. Based on speech alone, “He could often identify exactly which township someone was from,” noted fellow anthropologist Doug Armstrong.

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Memorial observances included a production of an Indian folk opera, featuring Syracuse University students.

Like many others who first knew of Bharati by name only, SU linguistics and Hindi professor Tej Bhatia was more than a little surprised when they met in person. “What did I expect? Well, an Indian, perhaps a priest,” Bhatia recalled. “Here I see all my stereotypes crumbled.”

After the close of the reception, the group relocated to SU’s Setnor Auditorium for the performance ofMission Suhani. Devendra Sharma from California State University, Fresno, had spent a week with SU students working on the Hindi and English musical — a contemporary story about an arranged marriage gone awry.

An anonymous donor and appreciator of Bharati’s legacy sponsored both the theatrical performance and the reception, in conjunction with a major gift to the Bharati Memorial Fund, which bears an award given to students for South Asia–related research. This donor is just one of many at SU and beyond whose lives were touched and inspired by Bharati’s example.

“Swami provided much to the Syracuse community, whether performing birth ceremonies for the Indian community, serving as Hindu chaplain at Hendricks Chapel, or teaching Magic and Religion, his signature anthropology course,” says Wadley, who teaches that course still. She cites the example of an alumnus who, when speaking recently at SU, credited Bharati with influencing his choice of major and career. “Whether it was graduate or undergraduate students, faculty, or Syracuse residents,” says Wadley, “Swami had an enormous influence.”

— Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

This article appeared in the fall 2016 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2016 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.