- Bernard, Pierre Arnold
- (1875–1955)Western tantric teacherBorn Peter Coons in Leon, Iowa, Pierre Bernard created the Tantrik Order in America, in New York City, in 1909, perhaps the first Hindu group in the United States founded by a Westerner.As a young man, Bernard moved from Iowa to California, where he held odd jobs. At age 30 he met Mortimer Hargis, with whom he formed the Bacchante Academy in San Francisco to teach hyp-notism and “soul charming,” a term that referred to sexual practices. The earthquake of 1906 lev-eled the academy and Bernard moved east.In 1909 Bernard founded the Tantrik Order in America and gave himself the name Oom the Omnipotent. He taught YOGA and tantric Hin-duism, a branch of the religion that focuses on sexual energies and consciousness. In 1910 he was arrested on charges filed by two women in his group that he was conducting sexual orgies and was keeping women against their will. He was allowed to continue operating his institute but was kept under the eye of the local police. He became legal guardian of his half sister, Ora Ray Baker, later to become the wife of Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of the Sufi Order.Using the name Dr. Pierre Arnold Bernard, he created the New York Sanskrit College and opened a physiological institute. Around 1918, he married Blanche DeVries, a woman of some means in New York society and a cousin of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ, Scientist. His wife provided an entrée for him into society circles, and some wealthy socialites, Ann Vanderbilt among them, became disciples.In 1924, Bernard founded a center and an Ori-ental-Occult Library on his estate in Nyack, New York. His 70-acre property included a mansion that served as his headquarters and an adjacent Inner Circle Theatre, which contained a library of thousands of books on Eastern religion and the occult. Here he hosted gurus and other visit-ing teachers of religious and occult subjects. He became a prominent citizen, offering his estate to refugees from Nazi Germany. His nephew, Theos Bernard, lived at the Nyack estate and later attended Columbia University, where in 1944 he wrote a thesis on HATHA YOGA that has become a classic text.A colorful and intriguing character, Bernard interpreted tantric practices in a manner uniquely his own. His claims of having attained a teaching degree in Hinduism in India are unsubstantiated. His frequent name changes and questionable credentials made him the object of ridicule in journalistic reports of the day, but he did gain an expertise in Hindu thought and practice that made him an important figure in the growth of interest in Hinduism in the United States, in part through his connections with spiritual leaders and occultists of his day.Bernard died quietly after a brief illness on September 27, 1955, in Nyack, New York.Further reading: Pierre Bernard, “In Re Fifth Veda.” International Journal of the Tantrik Order American Edition (New York: Tantrik Press, 1990); Charles Boswell, “The Great Fume and Fuss Over the Omnipo-tent Oom,” True (January 1965): 31–33, 86–91; Leslie Shepard, Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychol-ogy, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1984–85).Besant, Annie Wood (1847–1933) English socialist and president of the Theosophical SocietyAnnie Besant was an English socialist reformer who converted to THEOSOPHY after reading the works of H. P. BLAVATSKY. She became an influen-tial figure in the growth of Theosophy as a world-wide movement and helped spread appreciation of Hinduism in the West.Annie Wood was born in London to a middle-class Irish couple on October 1, 1847. She was raised after her father’s death by her mother in a very religious environment. She followed conven-tion by marrying a minister and schoolmaster, Frank Besant, in 1867. They had two children, but she left the marriage in 1893 and took the chil-dren with her in order to realize the ideals of her emerging progressivism. The couple was legally separated five years later.Besant had begun to write while still with her husband; once separated she started to air her skeptical views in essays. She joined the National Secular Society and lectured on feminist issues. She joined forces with Charles Bradlaugh, the atheist freethinker, to found the Free-thought Publishing Company. In 1877, with Bradlaugh, she was arrested for selling birth control pam-phlets in London’s slums. They were convicted, but the verdict was overturned and the trial helped to liberalize public attitudes. In 1888 she coordinated a strike of unskilled young women laborers at a match factory, which shed light on cruel and unsafe labor practices. She soon estab-lished a reputation as an orator, skeptic, and advo-cate for women’s rights.During the 1880s, Besant became a friend of George Bernard Shaw, who considered her Britain’s and perhaps Europe’s greatest orator; developing an interest in socialism she joined the Fabian Society.In 1888, she read Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, an event that changed her life. She later said that she found in the revelations of Theosophy answers to questions that she had not found in socialism, free thought, or Christianity. She resigned from the National Secular Society, renounced socialism, and became an ardent spokesperson for Theosophy.After Blavatsky’s death in 1891, Besant became the powerful head of the Esoteric section of the Theosophical Society. After a tour of the United States, where she addressed the World Parlia-ment of Religions in Chicago, she moved to India, which became her home and headquarters until her death. She succeeded H. S. Olcott as president of the Theosophical Society in 1907 and retained the office until her death in 1933; she presided over a time of rapid expansion of the society, after a period of stagnation.In 1909 Besant organized the Order of the Star in the East, in order to prepare for Theosophy’s predicted appearance of a world teacher, who would help all of humanity evolve to higher con-sciousness. When a young South Indian BRAHMIN boy was found near the Theosophy compound at Adyar, outside Madras (Chennai), she became convinced that he, J. KRISHNAMURTI, would be the instrument for the coming world teacher. After receiving considerable grooming for the role of Lord Maitreya, Krishnamurti abdicated the title and suspended the Order of the Star in the East. He continued to call Besant “mother,” but he refused to accept the role of “world teacher” that she felt he embodied.Although she had abandoned her socialist affiliations, Besant carried her social reform values wherever she went. In India, the Theosophical Society founded many schools in India, including some of the first in the country for women. Politi-cally, she fought for Indian independence from British rule, and she was elected president of the Indian National Congress in 1917.To Blavatsky’s emphasis on Buddhism, Besant added an emphasis on Hinduism to the Theo-sophical corpus. She wrote with C. W. Leadbeater, a Theosophist who was also an Anglican priest and later bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, about the gifts of Hinduism and the East to eso-teric wisdom in the West. Besant died on Septem-ber 21, 1933, at the Theosophy compound.Further reading: O. Bennett, Annie Besant (London: Hamish Hamilton, In Her Own Time Series, 1988); A. W. Besant, The Ancient Wisdom (London: Theosophi-cal Publishing House, 1910); ———, Autobiography (Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1939); ———, The Bhagavad Gita or the Lord’s Song. Translated by Annie Besant (Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1953); ———, Esoteric Christianity (New York: J. Lane, 1902); ———, Theosophical Lectures (Chicago: Theosophical Society, 1907); A. H. Nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (London: RupertHart-Davis, 1960); Catherine L. Wessinger, Annie Besant and Progressive Messianism (1847–1933) (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.