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Agehananda Bharati Papers

An inventory of his papers at the Syracuse University Archives

Finding aid created by: Kyle C. Wilson
Date: 2007


Agehananda BharatiAgehananda Bharati (1923-1991) was born in Vienna, Austria on April 20, 1923, with the name Leopold Fischer. Leopold Fischer’s path to becoming Agehananda Bharati began at an early age, when he first started developing interests in religious life and Indian culture. As a child, Fischer served as an altar boy and planned to be a priest later in life. As a young adolescent, however, he became frustrated and disillusioned with the way he saw Catholicism being practiced. As he began to turn away from the Catholic Church in his teenage years, he increasingly turned towards exploring his interest in Indian culture.

Fischer first developed an interest in India as an eight-year-old boy, when he had the opportunity to talk to Indians who had traveled to Vienna to attend the city’s famous medical school. The visiting students taught him pieces of different Indian dialects, and he, in turn, would help them with their German. His talent for learning languages was quickly apparent. Within the next several years, he would learn five Indian dialects, and in his adult life he would eventually learn more than 15 modern and classical languages.

Upon entering secondary school, Fischer continued to seek out ways to learn more about India. At age 13, he joined his school’s India Club and began formally studying Hindi and classical Sanskrit. These studies proved to be more than just an academic pursuit; they were also part of his personal and spiritual development. Bharati would later write that by age 15, he knew he wanted to leave the Christian tradition and embrace Hinduism.

The elective Indian studies Fischer pursued at secondary school became his academic focus at the University of Vienna, where he majored in Indic Studies, Sanskrit, and comparative linguistics and minored in anthropology, ethnography, and philosophy. His studies were interrupted in 1943, however, when he was conscripted into the German Army.

The German Army placed Fischer in a specialized role that made use of his detailed knowledge of Indian languages and culture. He was assigned to be an interpreter with the Free India Legion, a unit made up of Indian prisoners of war and Indian-born students who were living in Germany at the time of the war. The Free India Legion was conceived of as a way for the Germans to attack British holdings in India by rallying Indians around the cause of fighting for Indian independence, though ultimately this was not strongly pursued, and the Legion was mostly engaged in non-combat roles. After experiencing the rigid personal and intellectual restrictions of military life and the Nazi occupation of Austria, Fischer became even more resolved to dedicate himself to learning about India and Hinduism.

Following the war, Fischer returned to the University of Vienna to complete his degrees in 1948. Immediately afterwards, in January of 1949, he set off to India, to learn more about the culture he admired through firsthand experience and to become a monk in the religion he had first devoted himself to as a teenager. After some time working at the University of Delhi as a lecturer on German language and literature, and some initial experiences with the Ramakrishna Math order of Hinduism that ultimately left him wanting, he decided his path was to become a monk in the Dasanami Sannyasi order. His ethnicity and outsider status, however, made many religious figures resistant to the idea that he should be made more than a novice in the monastery. Refusing to accept such a limiting position, Fischer traveled to a place where devout members of the monastery who had already fulfilled certain duties could pay a sacrificial fee to become a sannyasi, a monk in a stage of life in which worldly attachments are renounced in order to dedicate oneself to spiritual pursuits.

In 1951, Leopold Fischer was initiated into the Dasanami Sannyasi monastic order and was given the name Agehananda Bharati. The name Agehananda means “bliss through homelessness”, which Bharati soon experienced during his required religious pilgrimage, in which sannyasi travel 1,500 miles, from northern to southern India, barefoot and begging for their food. In addition to being a transformative spiritual experience, this journey also provided Bharati with cultural insight that most Western anthropologists could not hope to gain. Bharati would draw from this knowledge upon returning to the academic world to teach.

From 1951 to 1954, he worked as a reader in philosophy at Banaras Hindu University, and in 1955, he was a visiting professor of comparative literature at the Nalanda Institute for Buddhist Research and Pali. After several years of learning and teaching in India, Bharati decided to travel further eastward for his next teaching job. He taught Sanskrit and Indian philosophy in Thailand from 1955 to 1956. From there, his travels took him to Japan to tour as a visiting professor, to British Columbia to work as a guest professor, to Seattle to work as a research associate, and finally to Syracuse, New York in 1961, to work as an assistant professor at Syracuse University. Though he would continue to travel occasionally throughout his life, Syracuse became his permanent home.

Bharati spent the next ten years as a professor at Syracuse University’s anthropology department, teaching some of the subjects in which he was most well versed. During this time, he also wrote his two most celebrated books. His autobiography, The Ochre Robe, was first published in 1962, and the work he called his magnum opus, The Tantric Tradition, was published in 1965. Both works were met with acclaim, which helped Bharati gain international attention, as did the papers he presented at prestigious universities, the guest lectures he gave in other countries, the original anthropological research he conducted in India and East Africa, and the numerous other writings he published during this time period.

In 1971, Bharati was named chair of the anthropology department, and he would serve in that position until 1977. Bharati’s time at Syracuse University continued long after he left the chair position. He continued to teach, both in Syracuse and around the world as a guest lecturer, for many years. In 1987, he received a Fulbright Scholar Award, on which he traveled to universities in West Germany to teach anthropology and Indian culture. In January of 1991, he was named the Ford-Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies at the Maxwell School.

A few months later, on May 14, 1991, after a lifetime of study, travel, and education, Agehananda Bharati died of cancer.

Scope and Content Note

The Agehananda Bharati Papers contains numerous pieces of correspondence, hundreds of his writings, and a few materials related to his scholarly career. The collection, dated between 1950 and 1992, is divided into three series.

The Correspondence series includes letters Bharati received from 1964 to 1967. Some of the correspondence relates to professional matters, such as the arrangement of speaking engagements or the process of submitting and publishing articles. Other pieces are somewhat more personal, such as letters from people who were impressed by one of his speeches or young people asking for his advice about how to approach higher education. Bharati’s position as an international figure is reflected in both the multiple languages used to write to him and in the kinds of people who wrote to him with requests or praise, such as Thubten Jigme Norbu, the eldest brother of the 14th Dalai Lama.

Also included within the Correspondence series are letters specifically related to Bharati’s time at Syracuse University. Collected in a separate folder, these letters similarly discuss reactions to Bharati’s speeches or articles, program planning, or general requests.

The Writings series comprises the large majority of the collection. Spanning over forty years and collecting over four hundred publications, the series contains many works of a truly prolific writer. This series includes articles, reviews of others' work, chapters contributed to books, reports, and abstracts published in journals, books, magazines, and other outlets around the world. Most publications in this series are written either in English or German, but the collection also includes pieces in nine other languages, some of which are written by Bharati and some of which are translations of his work. Items in this collection that are not in English are noted as such.

The Writings series also contains some of Bharati's published books. The collection includes Bharati’s autobiography, The Ochre Robe (1962), The Tantric Tradition (1965), The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism (1976), and Great Traditions and Little Traditions: Indological Investigations in Cultural Anthropology (1978).

The Subject Files series includes some of the papers Bharati presented, other people's writings related to his publications, pamphlets and programs from various events, and some documents regarding the planning of Syracuse University academic programs. Also included in this series is a special issue of the Syracuse University Graduate Student Journal of Anthropology, Syranthropy: “Special Issue in Commemoration of the Life and Teachings of Agehananda Bharati.” This memorial issue, released on February 26, 1991, includes key passages from Bharati’s writings, personal reflections from students who knew him, and excerpts from student letters written to him.


Access Restrictions:

Please note that the collection is housed off-site, and advance notice is required to allow time to have the materials brought to the Reading Room on campus.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from University Archives,
Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Libraries and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Selected Search Terms


Agehananda Bharati, Swami, 1923-1991.
Syracuse University -- History.
Syracuse University.


College teachers.
Higher education.

Types of Material

Writings (documents)

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Agehananda Bharati Papers,
University Archives,
Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

The Syracuse University Archives presently has almost no information on file about the acquisition of this collection. There is one note from Bharati indicating that he had sent the Archives his curriculum vitae and a list of publications through 1966. The published books in this collection were donated in 1992 by the Undergraduate Anthropology Society in memory of Bharati.

Processing Information

Materials in this collection were placed in acid-free folders and boxes, and acidic materials were placed in protective sleeves.


The series in this collection are arranged alphabetically, as are the materials within the Correspondence and Subject Files series. Most of the materials in the Writings series are arranged chronologically by year. These writings were originally arranged by a "publication number" assigned to them at some point, which mostly followed a chronological structure. Much of this original ordering is still in place, but the writings with a "publication number" that did not follow the chronological pattern have been re-filed according to their actual year of publication. Published books included in this collection are found in the Writings series and arranged alphabetically.

Table of Contents


Subject Files