The Death of Theos Bernard, the White Lama

Paul Hackett, Theos BernardThe death of Theos Bernard has always been somewhat of a mystery. In the postscript to Theos Bernard, the White Lama: Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life, Paul Hackett speculates on the events surrounding his demise and Bernard’s last effort at glory.

So what happened to Theos Bernard? From the information I was able to gather, the primary sources at my disposal, and my hopefully correct inferences drawn from analyzing it all over several years, I had a consistent and plausible narrative in my head.

Sitting in Kalimpong in the spring of 1947, Theos Bernard was on a mission to compile enough raw materials for another sensationalistic return to America. While he and his father, and Helen as well, had ambitious plans for the future—a Tibetan language school, a yoga studio, perhaps even a retreat center—their ploy to fund it all with Ganna Walska’s money had failed. To recruit students and attract benefactors, Bernard’s return to America would have to make a big impression.

In 1947, if he could make it to Lhasa, he could try to meet the young Dalai Lama to receive his blessing; perhaps he could even secure the release of Gedun Chöpel from prison and bring him back to America. But Gould and Richardson had reserved the honor of conferring with His Holiness for themselves and were not about to let Theos anywhere near Lhasa, much less before the young ruler. Theos had fallback plans as well, so he petitioned Nepal for an entry visa. If he could not go to Lhasa, he could try to go to Sakya and western Tibet. But the British authorities were determined to keep him out—for reasons not that different from the ones that motivated Bernard—so that ploy also failed.

Bernard still had one last fallback plan—indeed, it had been part of his plan all along: an audience with a great lama or yogi and a great discovery as well. Although he had visited Ladakh and Hemis Monastery in 1936 with Viola and his father, he had not known then what he knew now, so he was determined to go back. For in the library of Hemis, he had discovered, lay the manuscript of the secret life of Jesus in India, and he, Theos Bernard, would be the one to bring that manuscript back to America.

In 1894, a Russian by the name of Nicholas Notovitch published a small book in Paris called La Vie inconnu de Jésus-Christ. Appearing in English translation later that same year, The Secret Life of Jesus detailed a trip that Notovitch claimed to have taken to Hemis Monastery in Leh, Ladakh. While there, Notovitch further claimed, he had seen a Tibetan translation of a manuscript written in the early years of the first millennium in India, detailing the activities of Jesus—“Issa,” as he was called in Islamic sources—in India and Tibet, where he had “studied Pali and thoroughly read the Buddhist scriptures,” proving once and for all that Christianity was not “a Jewish thing.” Several scholars at the time took great exception to these ideas, while others attempted to confirm them and locate the manuscript themselves. Each concluded that Notovitch was a fraud and his account pure fiction.

In 1909, however, an aging “pioneer preacher” named Levi H. Dowling, who had served in the American Civil War, published his own book called The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ. In addition to announcing “The Age of Aquarius,” he made similar claims about the life of Jesus in India. It was an interesting, if strange book, and Theos had read it.15 But Dowling and Notovitch were not the only ones attesting to the truth of the narrative. In 1929, Swami Abhedananda published his own book in which he claimed to have retraced Notovitch’s path to Hemis Monastery, found the same manuscript and more, and produced his own translation of the text.16 Likewise, Nicholas Roerich was a firm believer, even plotting Jesus’s journey from Jerusalem through Bactria, across India to Konarak, on to Varanasi and up into Tibet to Lhasa. Calling him “Blessed Issa, the Prophet, who walked through these lands,” Roerich had established that “Kulu and Mandi are the sacred lands Zahor, which so often are mentioned in ancient records. Here after the persecution of the impious King Landarma were hidden the most ancient books. Even the place of these hidden treasures is indicated approximately.”

When Theos Bernard came to Kulu in August 1947, he did so in preparation for a trip in search of the text of the life of Jesus in India, and specifically sought out Nicholas Roerich in hope of obtaining more clues that might enable him to locate the manuscript. It was Roerich who suggested that he try Ki Monastery, but the reasoning behind that recommendation is unclear.

Ki Monastery holds a unique place in the popular history of western Tibet. The monastery is situated in the heart of a landscape whose Buddhist roots can be traced at least as far back as the Fourth Buddhist Council of King Kaniṣka (c. 125–152 c.e.). The actual structure, however, dates to the eleventh century and is held to be one of the four monasteries founded by the student of Atīśa, Drom-dön-pa (‘brom ston pa). The missionary A. H. Francke also made several references to the monastery and its fame. But it is doubtful that Bernard (or Roerich, for that matter) had ever read Francke’s account, since it would have mitigated against visiting the monastery in search of manuscripts:

The Ki monastery was thoroughly ransacked in the petty wars between Kuḷū and Ladakh which preceded the Ḍōgrā war. And during the Ḍōgrā war itself it suffered even more severely. . . . But the Ki monastery has been restored since the turbulent times of the Ḍōgrā war. . . . As all the old books and idols had been destroyed by Ghulām Khān, the outfit of the Ki monastery is rather modern.

Consequently, what Bernard found upon his arrival at Ki was likely only disappointment, for the simple reason that Ki did not have a library and Tabo, just down the valley, which did have one, was not in much better shape.

Returning from Ki Monastery, Bernard and Senge made their way back through Spiti over the Kunzom Pass to Lahoul. Traversing the length of Lahoul, they approached the Rohtang Pass, but the storms that were sending torrential rains down on Helen and the others in the Kulu Valley were dumping massive amounts of snow on the mountains between Lahoul and Kulu. Attempting to cross the pass, Bernard and Senge were finally forced back by the weather. Still on the north side, they headed down the mountain from the pass and made their way farther west, toward the small village of Koksar, to seek food and shelter. After crossing the chain suspension bridge on their ponies, they encountered a group of men coming their way.

Days earlier, messages had come up from Kulu, both legitimate ones—the Banons’ call for help in defending themselves—and fraudulent ones—from the same marauders who had engineered the slaughter of the Muslim population of the valley, claiming more Muslims were on the way seeking revenge. In southern Lahoul, their appeals were being answered.

Even at the time, the state of affairs in Lahoul was well known to both the British and American authorities in India.

The common talk in the [Kulu] valley regarding Lahoul is that there are four ruling families which at one time or another held power but are now merely land owners. Of these four, there is one who is ambitious for power and has organized residents in the form of gangs who roam the two entrances to the Lahoul Valley. While the northern part of the country is still under the domination of the monasteries, the southern part just over the Rotung Pass has been greatly influenced by Hinduism in the last fifty years or more, and the people are not considered as reliable or as peaceful as the northern Lahoulies

But regardless of feelings of allegiance, religious or ethnic, as one person I spoke to explained, most people would find it hard to kill. When the decision to send men to Kulu to support one or more of the factions there was made by local leaders in Lahoul, the appropriate men had to be found. Known for banditry in the area, the members of one family in particular were not strangers to killing, so they were chosen to lead the expedition. It was those men who approached Theos and Senge as they crossed the Koksar bridge.

One man raised his rifle and took aim. “Don’t shoot! I’m not Muslim!” Bernard shouted out. But his cries fell on deaf ears, not because the man didn’t speak English, but because he didn’t care. A shot rang out and the bullet knocked Bernard off his pony to the ground. Senge quickly dismounted and ran to Theos’s side as the men swarmed over them. But the shot had been fatal—Bernard was dead. Rifling through his clothes, the men took his possessions and threw his body into the river. But far from being disposed of, Bernard’s body got caught in an eddy and became pinned against a rock only a few yards downstream.

But the men had an even bigger problem: Senge was still alive. He had seen it all and could identify them all. Although they were not Buddhists, the men were still hesitant to kill a monk. For some time they argued over what to do until finally they came to a decision. Grabbing Senge, they bound his hands and feet securely with rope and tossed him, still alive, into the Chandra River. Determined to conceal their crime, they then stripped the ponies of all their markings and pushed them into the river as well. It was a brutal series of murders that soon everyone in Lahoul would know about. Some, concerned for the future, found Senge’s body farther downstream and, fishing it out of the river, buried it. As for the ultimate fate of Bernard’s body, no one could say.

As the days and weeks went by, the significance of the men’s actions became frighteningly clear to the people of Lahoul. In lands where an ordinary police officer was seldom seen, all of a sudden a Thanodar, a chief of police, had arrived, accompanied by a squad of Gurkhas and British officers, and the residents of the valley became truly terrified. Claiming to have no knowledge of anything they were asked about, they began an active campaign of disinformation. Bernard and Senge had never been anywhere near Koksar, or they had been spotted heading east toward the Hampta Pass.

Although as time passed and the secret of Bernard’s murder seemed to be safe, the stigma of the killings remained. With the murder of Bernard and Senge, two individuals innocent and unrelated to the events unfolding to the south in Kulu, the locals began to feel that the men who had killed them were cursed. Disgraced, they and their families were driven from the valley. Years later, a stūpa was constructed on the bank of the river at the site of the murders in the hope of expatiating the curse that some felt remained.

3 Responses

  1. My name is Julian. back in 1990, I was in the Kulu Valley trying my best to get to the area where Theos was killed, in Sept. 1947. I had been doing extensive research on Theos, since 1984. Was in touch with Viola. I knew Kamala Murray, I knew Jigme and Mary Taring, of Dehra Dun. I knew Dugald Gordon, of santa Fe, and his family from Tombstone. I gave 6 boxes of research material to Mr. D. Veenhoff, in 2004. From this he came out with his bk. Then, Mr. Paul Hackett, calls, me wanting to meet with me, and asked me to get the boxes back from Doug, so that I could send them to the Univ. of calif. at Berkeley… where they are now.

  2. «One man raised his rifle and took aim. “Don’t shoot! I’m not Muslim!” Bernard shouted out.»

    Who was it that reported this on-the-scene occurrence?

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