Carl Herman Vetterling 1849 – 1931 Swedish immigrant to America, also known by the Tibetan pseudonym of Philangi Dasa, was a Swedenborgian (based on the works of Emanuel Swedenborg) philosopher who converted to Buddhism in 1884.
Vetterling was a homeopath and a friend of Edward Maitland.
Herman Vetterling lived from 1886 to 1894 in a mountain home north of Scotts Valley, California. From this location he wrote and published The Buddhist Ray, a monthly magazine dedicated to the understanding of Buddhism.
He also practiced as a homeopathic physician in nearby Santa Cruz. Vetterling spent his last years in San Jose, California, where he wrote and published a compendious study of comparative religion.
Under his own name he has occupied a secure although obscure place in the history of American religions, and it is only recently that his Santa Cruz phase has been connected with this because in his Buddhist publications he identified himself as “Philangi Dasa.”
As local historian Marian Pokriots researched the properties of an area ten miles north of Santa Cruz, California known as Mount Roberta, she found in two memoirs the description of a 19th century house with curious features. It had a round stained glass window showing Sanskrit characters within two triangles arranged to form a hexagon.
A printing press was housed in a nearby small building, and a fireproof vault was cut into the hillside. A guest at the house remembered that the creek below it was called “Mahatma Creek,” and she thought perhaps a Hindu had lived there. It was also mentioned that the man who lived there was a student of Theosophy.
Intrigued, Marian Pokriots called Paul Tutwiler, who has written on the history of religion in Santa Cruz. He told her that there was virtually no chance that a Hindu had lived there a hundred or so years ago, but that there seemed to be a curious coincidence. He had seen in the University of California Santa Cruz Library Special Collections a copy of a periodical called The Buddhist Ray, which had been acquired by Donald Clark, UCSC’s first Head Librarian.
The Buddhist Ray had been published from 1888 to 1894 somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains by a Buddhist named Philangi Dasa. Moreover, it contained a great deal about Theosophy, in which Mahatmas, teachers of ancient Tibetan wisdom, figured prominently.
Tutwiler set about finding reliable information on the background of The Buddhist Ray, and soon learned that the real name of Philangi Dasa was Herman Vetterling.
He called Pokriots and asked her, “Who did you say owned that property around 1890?” “Herman Vetterling,” she replied. What the two of them then learned about Herman Vetterling, otherwise known as Philangi Dasa, is the subject of this article.
Before Santa Cruz
Born in Sweden in August, 1849, Herman C. Vetterling entered the United States on August 26, 1871, was living in Douglas County, Minnesota in 1872, and was naturalized as an American citizen in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania on April 15, 1880.
We know with certainty that he had one brother and four half sisters. Swedish born Wetterlings, also in Minnesota, may have been related.
Young Herman it is said, attended “St. Paul’s university in Minnesota,” and “At one time, early in his career, he worked on a Minnesota newspaper, often gathering the news and writing the editorials.”
“I was brought up in the Swedish (Lutheran) State Church. My mother was a pious woman, and she sought to inculcate what she supposed to be the truths of eternal life, especially by example.”
When he went on for higher education in a radically different religious direction, Herman’s family not only did not support him, but also “would not assist me, because they considered the New Church to be an ‘infernal concern.'”
While still in his teens he read German, French, and American authors who had nothing good to say about traditional Lutheranism.
Later he remarked that his spiritual journey began around 1872, when he was seized by a fascination with the study of immortality and began a fifty year study of it, and of psychic research.
The next known stop on Herman’s spiritual journey is Urbana University in Urbana, Ohio. “Founded in 1850 by followers of the 18th century Swedish philosopher and scientist, Emanuel Swedenborg,” Urbana still maintains an “informal relationship” with the Swedenborgian-inspired New Church.
Entering Urbana on a scholarship from the New Church, Herman studied there from 1873 to 1875, continued his studies for the New Church ministry in the Pittsburgh area, and was ordained in 1877.
Emanuel Swedenborg, who died in 1772, left a legacy of writings concerning knowledge he had acquired about the spirit world in out of body experiences. Among other concepts he promoted the idea that there was now a new era in the world and that the Christian Church should recognize this.
Inspired by his insights, followers, especially in England, organized the Church of the New Jerusalem, or simply the New Church. The movement spread quickly to the United States, and the first New Church was formally established in Baltimore in 1800.
By the 1840s a scattering of New Church congregations was to be found in many places as far west as Chicago and St. Louis.
Swedenborgianism was closely associated with Transcendentalism, an intellectual movement, and Spiritualism, a popular one. Although it has never made much progress among the masses, it has had a role in introducing religions other than Christian to America. Herman Vetterling was thus closer to the mainstream of American religious development than we might suppose.
From 1877 to 1881 Rev. Vetterling served as New Church pastor pro tem in Pittsburgh and pastor in Detroit. He also served the church congregations in Greenford and Salem, Ohio.
In 1881 the Detroit Post and Tribune newspaper accused him of misconduct on the excursion boat, the Alaska, specifically, that he had been publicly drunk and had molested two young women. He protested his innocence and his congregation stood by him, but within two months of the alleged incident he asked to be relieved of his post.
Leaving Detroit, he sought New Church support for entering Hahnemann (homeopathic) Medical College in Philadelphia. He graduated, however, from Hahnemann Medical College in Chicago in 1883.
Details of Vetterling’s life for the next three years are scanty. He is reported to have been a “resident of Chicago, 1882-1886.” During this period, however, it is clear that he turned from the New Church and began to take an interest in Theosophy, and there is evidence that he joined the Theosophical Society in 1884 while he was living in St. Paul.
He did, moreover, begin to see elements from 18th century Emanuel Swedenborg that reappeared in 19th century Theosophy, especially the notion that the ancient wisdom of East Asia was the world’s prime source of genuine religion. In fact, his series Studies in Swedenborg appeared in The Theosophist in seven parts, from October, 1884 through December, 1885.
In 1888 he was “dropped” from the New Church, which had not heard from him for three years.
In Santa Cruz
In 1886 “In Scott’s Valley is a gentleman who is at present engaged in writing a work on ‘Theosophy…'” The “gentleman” is not identified, and the reporter who writes this does not go out to Scotts Valley to see him, but, instead, finds Theosophists in the city of Santa Cruz and interviews one of them.
There can be no doubt that the gentleman was Herman Vetterling. Back East, in fact, it was said that the former New Church minister “attempted to establish some kind of theosophical brotherhood in the country.”
Herman Vetterling was not alone in Santa Cruz; his companion at this time was Margaret Curry Pitcairn, whom he had known in the Pittsburgh area. While serving the New Church there, Herman had fallen in love with a young woman of the Pitcairn family, wealthy Scottish emigrants, members of the New Church. The young lady did not reciprocate his ardor, and it seems clear that his later sigh, “In our younger days we, too, wrote religious poetry. The inspiration came from a blue eyed maiden, who, by the way, later jilted us, thinking she could do better,” referred to her.
It happened, however, that Margaret C. Pitcairn, the aunt of the young woman, ten years older than Herman, fixed her affections on him. Presumably having a share of Pitcairn wealth, Margaret bought twelve acres of land on Mount Roberta from John M. Mitchell in early 1886, and, as we have seen, Herman was living and writing in the Scotts Valley area later that same year.
In 1887 it was reported that “Dr. H. C. Vetterling of Glenwood has connected himself with Dr. W. S. Hall of this city…. Dr. Vetterling is a specialist on diseases of the eye and ear, and Dr. Hall gives special attention to refractive difficulties of the eye.”
Vetterling maintained his medical practice at least through 1889. He married Margaret in or about 1890 according to the 1900 U. S. Census, but in 1894 the two sold their Mount Roberta property to Edith K. Davis.
Next we found them living in San Jose in 1900, but in the meanwhile there is the story to tell of Philangi Dasa.
The report that the gentleman of Scotts Valley was writing about Theosophy was not incorrect, but the more significant fact is that Herman Vetterling was only temporarily occupied with Theosophy as he sought deeper roots of religion.
Just when he conceived the notion that Emanuel Swedenborg had rediscovered and promulgated the ancient Buddhist spiritual wisdom is not clear at present, but the book he was writing when he arrived in Santa Cruz was entitled Swedenborg the Buddhist or the Higher Swedenborgianism its secrets and Thibetan origin. This was published in 1887, the year after he established himself in Scotts Valley.
The author of Swedenborg the Buddhist identified himself not as Herman Carl Vetterling, but as Philangi Dasa, who actually appeared as a character in the book without revealing anything about himself except that he had been harassed by many people in his search for religious truth.
The earliest testimony we have found that Philangi Dasa was Herman Vetterling is in Blackmer’s note, which cites the 1925 statement of John A. Whitehead, pastor of the Pittsburgh New Church just after Vetterling’s ministry there. None of the sources consulted for this article ventures an opinion as to how Herman decided upon the name Philangi Dasa.
Swedenborg the Buddhist appeared before there was much general interest in Buddhism in the United States. It greatly displeased the Swedenborgians, but was rather well received by the Theosophists.
There was a renaissance in Japanese Buddhism just at that time, and by 1893 Swedenborg the Buddhist had been translated into Japanese and was selling well there.
Philangi Dasa, however, went on to his new project, the publication of The Buddhist Ray, said by him, and not contradicted by others, to be the first Buddhist periodical in “Christendom.” From January 1888 to December 1894, The Buddhist Ray appeared in Santa Cruz, written, edited, printed, and distributed by the invisible hand of Herman Vetterling.
In its early issues, The Buddhist Ray devoted much space to the author’s contention that Emanuel Swedenborg was in reality a Buddhist, but it gradually introduced more material about Buddhism itself. It emphasized Buddhism’s antiquity (somewhat at the expense of its Hindu roots) and its moral superiority to Christianity (especially institutional Christianity).
Articles from The Buddhist Ray were disseminated in translation in Japan. Some other Buddhist communities, especially in Ceylon, subscribed in appreciable numbers to The Buddhist Ray, which also attracted the financial support of at least two prominent religious figures, and locally was favorably reviewed by the Santa Cruz Surf.
Philangi Dasa was “made a member of the Advisory Committee of the Religious Congress to be held in Chicago in connection with the World’s Fair.” Dasa’s views on Emanuel Swedenborg even appeared as an article in a French review, Le Lotus Bleu: Revue theosophique.
Toward the end of its run The Buddhist Ray took an interest in anti-vivisection, devoting the final issue to this topic. Interest in animals is a common thread through Herman’s life and will appear again in San Jose.
The year 1894, however, marked the end of The Buddhist Ray, of Philangi Dasa, and of the Vetterlings as property owners on Mount Roberta.
In San Jose
The earliest information we have that Herman and Margaret Vetterling were residents of San Jose is the 1900 U. S. Census. After that the San Jose city directories tell us that from 1901 to 1927 Herman’s address was 527 McLaughlin Avenue, which is in East San Jose, about one hundred yards outside the San Jose city limits of that period.
From 1928 to 1931 he was living at 1114 Cook Street, close to the present San Jose airport. He was a physician from 1901 to 1907, a farmer from 1910 to 1916, and had no stated occupation in other years, although the 1920 U. S. Census listed him as a retired physician.
Margaret Curry Vetterling, “Maggie,” was mentioned as his wife in the directories for 1911-1912 through 1913-1914. She died in January, 1915, at the age, it seems, of 73. On January 28, 1915 Herman C. Vetterling filed a petition for probate of the will of Margaret C. Vetterling in the Superior Court of Santa Clara County. “The estate is valued at not more than $10,000.”
Margaret’s role in Herman’s life is obscure. His feelings about her, nevertheless, seem to be expressed in the Illuminate of Goerlitz, the book he published after her death. It was “Dedicated to the memory of Margaret Curry Pitcairn, my faithful friend, who though unaware of it, carried out during her earthly pilgrimage, the Mazdean [Zoroastrian early monotheism] formula of purity – ‘good thoughts, good words, and good deeds; and who enabled me to pen and publish the following pages; for which she deserves to be held in grateful remembrance not only by me, but also by all sympathetic students of the Illuminate of Goerlitz.”
Another indication of Vetterling’s sentiments is shown by his final significant public activities, the building of an animal shelter and the founding of the Santa Clara Humane Society. In 1928 he “commenced the erection of an animal shelter in Willow Glen [south of downtown San Jose].” Work was halted by action of the city, but he “later built another shelter, on which he spent more than $50,000, on the Stevens Creek road east of the Winchester road [west of downtown]. It has been in disuse for some time.”
In 1928 he resigned from the Santa Clara County Humane Society “because of differences over the terms of a gift of a $50,000 animal shelter.” This did not prevent him, nevertheless, from bequeathing in his will a large sum to the humane society.
Physician, farmer, sympathetic husband, friend of animals: all these were true of Herman Vetterling while he lived in San Jose. His main achievement in the San Jose years, however, was the 1923 publication of the 1500 page tome he wrote over a period of 25 years, The Illuminate of Goerlitz or Jakob Bohme’s (1575-1624) Life and Philosophy: A Comparative Study.
Jakob Bohme is known as a Protestant Christian mystic, an untutored shoemaker who wrote many volumes about the Christian faith from the point of view of direct inspiration. The term Theosophist was coined to refer to him, two centuries before Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott began to use the term to describe their doctrines, which were quite different from his.
In Jakob Bohme, Herman Vetterling saw human spirituality in its finest, deepest, simplest form, which predated Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Swedenborgians, Spiritualists, and Theosophists and yet lived on in the midst of all these imperfect forms.
Herman was citing Jakob Bohme with approval as far back as 1887 in Swedenborg the Buddhist. He may have become acquainted with Jakob Bohme in his early, formative period, since it was said, apparently on his authority, that “It was from the hands of a simple peasant that Dr. Vetterling received the first of Jakob Bohme‘s works. From another later, he got the loan of the complete set.”
Herman C.Vetterling died in his home in San Jose on September 5, 1931, at 82 years of age.