Sunday, March 6, 2011

a monk as a bird is a bird - Mahanambrata Brahmachari - a messenger from another world

Mahanambrata Brahmachari was a soft-spoken Hindu scholar who offered early and important intellectual encouragement to both Merton and Lax.

Robert Lax never tried to be like others.  Did he have any models?  He had the ability to learn from others.  Open, unbiased, he appears to have always discovered in others whatever it was he needed in his search for self.

Important for him was his meeting with Brahmachari, the young Hindu monk who set out on foot from Calcutta to the Ecumenical World Congress in the USA, and arrived two years late in 1938.

"A monk as a bird is a bird," Lax described him.

In complete disregard of the regulations of their hall of residence, Lax and his friend Thomas Merton put him up for several months in their rooms at Columbia University.

Brahmachari  observed American society with the eyes of a stranger, and thus unwittingly altered the way the two students saw things.  They began to question much that they had previously taken for granted.  Brahmachari's remarks were free of any sarcasm or irony; he did not evaluate, but simply noted and burst out laughing - which was simply an expression of his utter astonishment at the way he saw people living their lives there.  Dressed in a white robe, a pea-yellow shawl, a yellow turban embroidered in red with prayers, and his blue sneakers, he was a messenger from another world. The fact that Brahmachari hadn't a cent to his name and despite this didn't feel the slightest worry or care, but instead radiated a phenomenal calm, made a deep impression the the two friends Lax and Merton.  He had such a deep inner repose and acted so confidently that it seemed he had a direct link with heaven and the world lay at his feet.  His sincerity and warmth were like signs from the higher sphere.  Brahmachari was not the slightest bit bothered about politics.  Lax had the feeling, as he says, that Brahmachari was in touch with something like a timeless world in which we all exist and in which, if we were to do nothing but live a life of quietude, rectitude, and goodness, everything else would come of its own accord.  For Brahmachari, the life of the spirit was the only possible choice.  He lived in the moment, in the present moment.  Love and devotion - Brahmachari exemplified his message.  He was, as Robert Lax says, a wonderfully gentle person.  There can be no doubt that Brahmachari had a lasting influence or Robert Lax's [and Merton's] human dealings.

- Sigrid Hauff, A Line in Three Circles - The Inner Life of Robert Lax, 2007
During Brahmachari's years in the US he kept a diary, much of which has been lost.  However here is an entry he made when he first met Merton (Mr. Tom Martin) and Lax.  The rest of the diary entries can be found HERE.
New York-Wednesday, May 25. Taxi to 135 madison Avenue-the factory of Seymour's father. Leave one passage of (Shree Murti). Take bus to Columbia. Meet Seymour's roommate, Mr. Robert Lx. To Philosophy library reading Karl Marx. Meet Mr. Tom Martin. Three of us go out for lunch after waiting an hour for Seymour hoping he would come. After lunch they take me to one of their girl student friend, Dunny Eilin-her home in Panama. happy visit with her. ...
When he was in Asia, Merton made attempts to locate Brahmachari.  Brahmachari died in 1999 in Calcutta at the age of 95.  The NY Times obituary is here.


  1. Thanks, Beth, for sharing this. Brahmachari always struck my as a fascinating figure. The obituary was very informative.

  2. Beth,

    Thank you - I never heard of Brahmachari. I agree, he must have had a very strong effect on Merton. I have to pick up some books on Lax. Where should I start ?


    1. Hi Brian,

      Brahmachari is my gurudev Dr. Mahanambrata Brahmachari.. Please do let me know if you are still interested to learn more..


  3. I like finding out more about Brahmachari as well, Paul. That the NY Times obituary is intriguing - just the fact that the NY Times chose to run the obituary (probably because of his Merton connection). My sense is that he made a lifelong impression on both Merton and Lax at a time when they were impressionable, and determined a direction for each of them. It was Brahmachari who told Merton to stay within his own Western tradition.

    Brian, Lax is a wonderfully unique poet and person. In many ways I relate to him more than to Merton.

    Lax's best known work is Circus of the Sun, and a good place to start. His later, more simple poetry, will either blow you away or make no impression whatsoever. I'm reading a good book now about Lax and his writing, A Line in Three Circles, by Sigrid Hauff. There aren't a lot of books out there about Lax. This one is especially insightful, I think, because it looks at Lax as an artist as well as a contemplative.

    1. Hi Beth,

      I accidentally came on to this blog.. I am not sure if you are still interested to know more about Brahmachari - from Merton and Lax;s connection. He is my Guru.. His name is Dr. Mahanambrata Brahmachary.. Do let me know if you are still interested to learn more about him. I can send you some links or books that he wrote.

  4. Given Merton's complex nature, I guess I shouldn't be surprised by what seems to me the narcissistic tone of this passage from The Seven Storey Mountain, as excerpted in Brahmachari's obit:

    Merton recounts how Dr. Brahmachari, who rarely gave direct advice, told him to read two classics of Christian spirituality, St. Augustine's ''Confessions'' and the late medieval mystical book, ''The Imitation of Christ.''

    ''Now that I look back on those days,'' Merton wrote in his book, ''it seems to me very probable that one of the reasons why God had brought him all the way from India, was that he might say just that.''

  5. Merton later apologized for a lot of the 7 Story stories, so maybe that was one of them.

    When I was studying Vedanta, the man who was my teacher, also of Brahmin caste, was exasperated by my interests in the radical politics of the Thomas Merton Center where I was volunteering during the time of the Sandinistas. He also showed a complete disinterest in the plight of the untouchables. Politics generally, did not interest any of the swamis that I met.

    The vaishnavas have it easy in a way - sometimes I envy their simplicity (love god and do what you will)


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