Switzerland 1931
Denmark & Sweden 1932
Germany 1934
Istanbul 1935
Berlin 1936
Norway 1940
Berlin 1943
The Flight - Oslo
Sweden 1944
End of War

India 1953
Nepal 1954
Kathmandu, Swayanbhunath
and becoming a monk
Kali Gankaki 1950
Sugata accomapnied Sherchan
to take photograhs of the
Devil Dances up in Tukuche
2001 Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Goa
Sugata at 90
in Tatopani and returning to
Tukuche and Chhairo

Sugata's homeland

2005 Sugata's footsteps
1940 Norway


India 1953    

Pilgrim praying around the Sarnath stupa

The seeds of Sugata's first journey East had, of course, been sown in his youth. There were those that were festering in reactive anger - against his so called fatherland, against the Christian tradition (the conditioning was deep, remember: he thought a church was 'the War'). The dark political climate and his unwilling family provided plenty of wood for his already ignited fire of 'anti'. Oh yes, there was plenty of anger there, enough to fill out into a potential revolutionary - certainly enough to make an evangelist.But just as the fire destroys, like Shiva, so it creates.

There was Ignatz, his Jewish school friend, with whom he explored the ideas from Gandhi of 'Ahimsa': non-violence. There was half-Indian Krishna and the intimate and honest friendship of two searching, homeless orphans and, above all, 'out-casts'; a friendship that, once lost, he would seek throughout his life along with his Radha.

Already tipped to the east, Sugata's embracing of Theosophy - at the time a new and growing movement with eastern roots - was not suprising.

'I became 110% Theosophist and would make the world Theosophists! Yes, it was through Theosophy I came to Buddhism. I read the teachings of Lama Govinda.'

With little more than an invitation from the Buddhist Mahabodhi Society in Sarnath, Karl Wagner and his wife Ingrid set off overland to India by train from Stockholm in August 1953. It dawned on them half-way that the Arabs travelling with them were right: 'So you are pilgrims!'

Arriving penniless through the Gateway of India (Bombay), they were welcomed by the Sarnath Mahabodi society.



Vijaya Laxshmi Nehru, Pandit, Nehru sister, with Sarnath Therevanan monks.


'The first thing I remember in Sarnath is the sight of Buddhist monks - the first I had ever seen. They wore the yellow robes of the Sinhalese. From the beginning we were fascinated by their day-to-day lives. Every evening we would follow them across the road to the Vihar, the main temple, as they carried soft gas lamps that lit their faces and their way. And then they would to do their chanting - typically, monotonous, repetitive chanting. We just sat and listened. We were fascinated.'

'A month after we arrived I became very ill. On one side of my bed came a monk with ayurvedic medicine and on the other came an Indian travelling from London cautioning me: "Beware of ayurvedic - I have Swiss medicine." The result was I got both Swiss and ayurvedic, mixed by the compounder (the only thing free of cost) and probably the devil's own mixture. I was sent to Benaras, staying at the Theosophical Society in Shanti Bhavan, where a Burmese monk fed me fresh vegetables and plain boiled rice and probably saved my life. I rested there for several months.'


How was Varanasi then, I asked him.

'Oh not so different then as now. It was still making ruins and at the same time like an impermanent building site in construction. The same temple was sinking into the Ganga at the Manikarnika Ghat. Of course there were differences. The traffic was different: people went much more on foot, the dream of every farmer at the time was for a bicycle. Rickshaws were for rich people and only the very rich had the rare cars, mostly from the English time. Tata was only just beginning to make its lorries.

Everything was carried on heads, and I spent hours drawing poters and carriers.'




'Somehow Ingrid must have heard about this monument, I cannot remember how. It was a monument for the last woman in Sarnath who was burned together with her dead husband. Sati it is called.

How this monument was every made I cannot imagine: others must have loved and respected her, and it must have been made by women and probably secretly. Anyhow Ingrid heard about it, and we went there one day. It took about an hour from Sarnath. As soon as we arrived she went up to it with some flowers as an offering and she lit a candle. I was enormous moved by her humbleness then.'


'Along with the monks, there was an injured three-legged bull who slowly circled the stupa every day, and one day the bull lay down, unable to get up. Ingrid, forever sympathetic for the downtrodden, collected grass and leaves from around the deer park to feed it. But one night came a terrible cry. Nearby a man slept in the maize fields for Rs6 a month to guard the crops by scaring away predators, and the first cry came from this man, and then more terribly from the hyenas. Ingrid ran out and, seeing a pack of them attacking the belly of the still living bull, without hesitation or fear for her own life, gesticulating wildly and crying out, she scared them away.

'My wife was a very little person, but she had moments of enormously strong will, and this was one.'

But after she left, the hyenas, of course, returned. The next morning the bull was literally being eaten alive by the hyenas. Unable to understand how this could be passively tolerated, Ingrid ran to the monks, pleading that they call a veterinarian to shoot the bull. The velocity of her anger horrified the monks. Of course they would not, could not, shoot the bull. We Westerners were learning the subtleties of Buddhist ethics. Refraining from intentionally killing any living creature is the first of the five Buddhist precepts. (Its interpretation can be contentious - for example, a Tibetan Buddhist may eat meat and at the same time condemn the killer of his meat.)

'For two nights the hyenas feasted on the dying bull, Ingrid becoming more and more distraught, railing at the monks to take action. But when it finally died, the monks arose from their passivity. In a remarkable ceremony, they circled the dead bull with their chants and burned its mauled carcass on a pyre.

'That they did not help the bull, but with a kind of loving kindness gave a ceremony, was for us a hollow gesture. We could not understand it.'



Lama Govinda, the bridge between East and West, helped to unravel a few of these perplexing eastern paradoxes and mysteries.

Lama Govinda told Karl something that completely rocked his conventional understanding: monk-hood was not necessarily for life, but could be for a period of life, and the prerequisites were not an arduously long training. The impossible barriers began to fall and the possibility of becoming a monk himself, a nascent and hidden thought for many years, began to take form.

'One lazy hot afternoon, while keeping cool inside their dark room, a heinous din of a dog fight over a bitch in heat drew him out to the veranda. A young Nepali monk, whom we had never met despite his living in the room next door to them in the Mahabodi, was also drawn out. He carried in his hand the book he was disturbed from reading, a book on Lenin's life.

'I must have asked how Lenin's life interested a Buddhist monk. Anyhow, we got into a conversation, and I asked him about being a monk.'

With this friendly monk I began exploring ideas of monkood, and he told him of his monk life, and of his inspiring Abbot, Amritananda.



Karl and Ingrid travelled to Patna to meet Amritananda for the first time, and the outcome was an opening of all doors.

'He understood the determination of our long journey from Stockholm, our struggles in India to understand the East and our desire to embrace Buddhism. He had immediate sympathy for us.

'He laughed at my English; at that time I said many times 'terrible', and each time I did Amritananda laughed. Suddenly the word 'terrible' and what it described was not so bad after all.'

For Amritananda, it was no problem to get us into Nepal. For a start, he knew the Nepal consul in Patna.'



Part1 in PicturesIndia 1953Nepal 1954 | Kali Gandaki 1960 | Sugata at 90 | Sugata in India 2001 | Norway 1940-2001

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