Some time ago, Adity Sharma had asked me some questions via email. Adity is a student at St. John’s University School of Law in New York. Here are her questions and my answers which she first published in Chakranews:
What was originally planned as a trip to see Kerala’s wildlife, transmuted into a journey of spiritual discovery for Maria Wirth. She writes in her
BLOG about Hindu Dharma with clarity, deep insight and yet in simple language. It shows that hers is not merely abstract knowledge but based on experience and intuition.
Many Western disciples of Sanatana Dharma, express an interest in one or another aspect of the vast philosophy, but rarely see the larger picture that confronts today’s Hindus. But whether discussing
Monotheistic Belief Systems
The Lack of Recognition for Sanatana Dharma in Western Countries
Maria Wirth boldly addresses it in her posts. As someone who was born in a predominantly Christian country, she has a unique perspective as an insider of a dogmatic religion. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions that range from her unexpected journey to Sanatana Dharma, to her views on the current state of Hindu apathy towards the challenges facing Hinduism.
Adity Sharma (AS): You have written at some length in your blog about your conversion to Hinduism. But there have been quite a few pagan revivals in many parts of Europe. Even in the Middle East, many pagan tribes have struggled to hold onto their tradition.
What drew you to Hinduism in particular?
Maria Wirth (MW): I was not in search of a religion. I had lost faith in Christianity when I was 16, but a vague feeling that there may be an invisible, great power never left me. When I discovered Vedanta philosophy in India, it was like recognizing a truth that felt immensely familiar. It made immediately sense, though I could not have expressed it on my own. I did not think that I had found a ‘religion’, but that I had come closer to truth.
Pagan traditions in Europe cannot be compared to Hindu tradition. When Christianity rolled over Europe, it destroyed them thoroughly. When neo Pagans today reinvent ancient rituals, worship nature and the divine feminine, it seems somewhat artificial to me as a solid, philosophical basis is lacking. This solid basis is preserved in India.
If Pagans want to become a relevant alternative in the west, they will have to turn to India and acknowledge the valuable knowledge available here. Look at the huge body of profound texts in India. It has no equal anywhere in the world. The attempt to link the Hindu with the Pagan traditions is like linking PH D. students with kindergarten kids.
However, in my view, it would be helpful if Hinduism links up with its offshoots (Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) to make the Indian traditions a stronger force that is able to counter the onrush of Christianity and Islam. Both of them want to bring the whole world under their dominion and both of them have an eye on India.
AS: You have lived in India for more than 30 years.
What was your first impression of the country?
MW: When I came for the first time, in 1974 during my studies, my impression was not so good. The humidity and heat, the beggar children who would not leave me alone, and so many people everywhere, even though the population then was not even half of what it is today.….and to top it all, I fell sick with severe diarrhea. When I came home after six weeks, my mother claims I even said “Never again India.”
My second visit was due to a friend who convinced me to stop over and see the wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala on my way to Australia. So that trip was meant only as a stopover. And then, in Kanyakumari, I bought Swami Vivekananda’s Jnana Yoga. I was struck by his clarity. Thanks to him I discovered a very different, highly appealing India.
AS: What spiritual Guru (living or historic) have you been most inspired by?
MW: That’s a long story. I wrote a book in German on my time in India that was published in 2006. In short: I felt inspired by many gurus. Swami Vivekananda was the first great inspiration.
Then, I ended up by chance at the Ardha Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in April 1980 where Sri Anandamayi Ma and Devaraha Baba impressed me a lot. I had this strange feeling that nobody was there behind their eyes. Then I wanted to stay longer in India and wondered how this could be possible. Devaraha Baba gave me his “special” blessing (the translator stressed “special”) when I told him about my desire. At that time I could have never imagined that, 34 years later, I would still be in India.
For seven years I travelled through the country, and when I wrote down the gurus I had met, 36 names were on that list! I also read a lot, ancient texts and modern sages. Ramana Maharshi’s conversations inspired me a lot. For 12 years I stayed successively with two gurus. Maybe I had not made the best choices, as I left both of them. But ultimately it was for the best. I am now also able to understand the mindset of a devotee of a guru.
AS: What concept(s) in Hindu Dharma do you think is most applicable to the modern world?
MW: The Rishis were concerned with truth and truth is missing in today’s discourse. Truth has to return: especially the knowledge that all is permeated by one conscious Essence. This knowledge is still intuitively there in most Hindus, maybe also in most of those who adopted Christianity or Islam. Yet it is lost in the west.
The analogy of the ocean and the waves illustrates it beautifully: a wave seems to be separate from the ocean. It has its own form and sees only other waves. Yet in its depth, it is one with the ocean, it is ultimately nothing but the ocean. When its form subsides, nothing is lost. Similarly with the individual: It seems separate, but in truth, it is one with the all -pervading consciousness.
To realize this oneness, is the goal of human life according to the Rishis. However, to claim that the human being and the Divine are one is forbidden by Christianity and Islam. It is considered heresy. Mystics who were born in these religions and accidentally discovered and proclaimed this oneness were excommunicated and even killed.
Hindus should reflect on this: what is considered as the highest achievement in Hindu tradition is considered as heresy in the two biggest religions. This means Hinduism differs fundamentally from those dogmatic religions and should not be thrown into the same basket of “religion”.
AS: As a frequent visitor to India, it is shocking for me to observe the population, particularly the youngsters taking so willingly to Western dress and habits. While there is nothing wrong with that; it seems that young people in India do this at the expense of their own traditions.
What do you think the root cause(s) is for this trend?
MW: There seems to be an attempt to make the world conform to the American model. I could observe this in Germany, too. It is far more ‘American’ now than it was when I was a child. Advertisement companies are adept in catching especially students. Peer pressure is doing the rest.
A girl in Jeans and T-shirt once told me that she would like to wear Salwar Kamis, but her friends in college would make fun of her. After this meeting, I wrote on my blog:
Jeans in the Indian Summer
However there may be a more sinister agenda than just to make Indians wear western clothing. I can see parallels of what is happening now in India and what happened in the 1960s in Germany. It started with sexually explicit scenes in movies, miniskirts as fashion, a lot of talk about the “generation gap” and women issues. Then came almost daily reports on rapes in newspapers. I remember it, as I was a teenager and didn’t like it when people drew my attention to those reports. Then talk about free sex started and slowly but steadily the family system broke down. Students were in the forefront. When I studied in the 1970s, it was considered old fashioned to marry. Live-in relationships became the norm. There was immense peer pressure to be ‘open and ‘modern’.
I am afraid there are some vested interests who want to break the Indian society as well. India needs to be on its guard.
AS: Do you think that the term Hindutva has been misused by Hindu organizations for narrow political gains, and the actual meaning has been buried?
MW: I don’t feel that Hindutva has been misused for political gains. I have written extensively about Hindutva on my blog. There is no harm when it is in the public sphere. In fact, it should be in the public sphere, as even politics needs to be based on and guided by dharma. This however is not valid for dogmatic religions. They should be kept at a distance, as belief in them is not natural and therefore they try to interfere in the state to keep their followers in check.
AS: Much has been written about the discrimination and unequal treatment that women face in Hindu society.
Do you think that view is substantiated by evidence, given that Hindu Dharma has many texts that elevate and revere woman power (Shakti)?
MW: I feel the negative portrayal of women in Hindu society by the media is very unfair and is part of that agenda to break the strong family system that I mentioned earlier. Hindus easily buy into a feeling of guilt, of being worse than other people. This is simply not true. Recently I read that President Obama said the world looks to the US for ideas. It should look to the Indian tradition instead. While the freedom for women is too directionless in the west and is too restricted in Muslim countries, India has the golden mean. It has the best ideas for a harmonious living together.
Unfortunately, they are being ridiculed even in India by today’s convent educated elite.
AS: What advice would you give to young Hindus who wish to preserve and propagate Hindu Dharma in and outside of India?
MW: Traditionally, three steps are given: Sravana, manana and nididhyasana:
Learn about the truth, reflect deeply on it and then be always aware of it, live it in your life.
You need to have a solid basis in the truth to be able to stand up for it and convey it. It is not only an intellectual issue. It is about the highest truth and this truth is living and loving. Become convinced of its Presence through your own experience. Anandamayi Ma advised to be always aware of its presence. “Feel that Bhagwan is acting, walking, thinking, feeling through you. And she added, “You are always in his loving embrace.”
When motivation is pure, guidance will surely come regarding what one should do.