31 October 1875|
Leon, Iowa, United States
|Died||27 September 1955
New York City, United States
|Blanche DeVries Bernard|
Pierre Arnold Bernard (1875-1955) -- known as "The Great Oom", "The Omnipotent Oom" and "Oom the Magnificent" -- was a pioneering American yogi, scholar, occultist, philosopher, mystic and businessman.
Due to his practice of keeping his origins obscure, little is known for certain about his early life. He is reported to have been born Perry Baker or Peter Coon in Leon, Iowa, 31 October 1875, the son of a barber. He also called himself Homer Stansbury Leeds at some point.
He claimed to have traveled to Kashmir and Bengal before founding the Tantrik Order of America in 1905 or 1906, variously reported as starting in San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Washington, or in Portland, Oregon; the New York Sanskrit College in 1910; and the Clarkstown Country Club (originally called the Braeburn Country Club), a seventy-two acre estate with a thirty-room mansion in Nyack, New York, a gift from a disciple, in 1918. He eventually expanded to a chain of tantric clinics in places such as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City. Bernard is widely credited with being the first American to introduce the philosophy and practices of yoga and tantra to the American people. He also played a critical role in establishing a greatly exaggerated association of tantra with the use of sex for mystical purposes in the American mindset.
In 1910, two teenage girls, Zella Hopp and Gertrude Leo, feeling that he had taken too much psychic control over their lives, had him charged with kidnapping (alleging that Leo had been prevented three times from leaving the institute) and briefly imprisoned. Hopp reported that, for a pre-induction, Bernard had her strip and placed his hand upon her left breast, explaining that he was testing her heartbeat. "I cannot tell you how Bernard got his control over me or how he gets it over other people. He is the most wonderful man in the world. No women seem able to resist him.... He had promised to marry me many times. But when he began the same thing with my little sister [Mary, age sixteen] I decided I would expose the whole matter. If it had only been myself I wouldn't have done it for the whole world." Three months later, the charges were dropped.
He remained popular with upper middle class women and the high society of New York throughout the 1920s and 30s. He married Blanche de Vries, who taught yoga in New York into her eighties, combining yoga with Eastern-inspired sensual dance and contributing to a shift in attitudes about women's autonomy and sexuality.
At some point, he shifted his attentions to more conventional businesses, including baseball stadiums, dog tracks, an airport, and became president of the State Bank of Pearl River in 1931.
Lecturers at the Clarkstown Country Club included Ruth Fuller Everett and Leopold Stokowski. Among Bernard's students there was Ida Pauline Rolf. Scholars from across the US visited Bernard's library, said to have been the best Sanskrit collection in the country and to contain some 7000 volumes of philosophy, ethics, psychology, education, metaphysics, and related material on physiology and medicine, to do research.
He was uncle of Theos Bernard, an American scholar of religion, explorer and famous practitioner of Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism. His half-sister Ora Ray Baker married Inayat Khan after they met in 1912 at Bernard's Sanskrit College, and she subsequently became the mother of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, a Sufi teacher.