A Hindu Ascetic from Austria

Today it is not uncommon for westerners to come to India for spiritual inspiration. Even big-wigs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have come. Yet this was not the case in 1935, when a 29 year old woman embarked on the long journey from Austria to India and never went back till she died 50 years later. Atmananda, who was called Blanca in her youth in Vienna, came because of Jiddu Krishnamurthi. Later, she was fascinated by Anandamayi Ma and became her disciple. I met Atmananda in 1980 in the surroundings of Anandamayi Ma in Dehradun and stayed in touch with her till she died.

Atmananda was already above 70, had her head shaven and wore a saffron cotton sari, a sign that she had renounced worldly desires.

A small cottage was her domicile and khichdi her usual meal. And as I found a place nearby, where I used to stay frequently during the early 1980s, we became good friends and had long, for me very inspiring talks. In spite of her age, Atmananda was aware, interested, open minded and knew for each topic an appropriate comment by Anandamayi Ma or other sages like Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda or Ramana Maharshi.

Atmananda was Jewish. Her grandmother died in a concentration camp, and her father managed to escape to the USA, yet survived only for a few months after his arrival there. However, there was no bitterness, when she recounted this to me, a German.

Already as a teenager she was fascinated by Jiddu Krishnamurthi and finally taught English for full 18 years in his school in Varanasi. By the side, she gave piano concerts for All India Radio.

Occasionally she heard the name of Anandamayi Ma. Yet she was not particularly interested. She rather would have liked to meet Ramana Maharshi, the sage from Tiruvannamalai in South India. But during the Second World War, as a national from an enemy country, she was not allowed to travel there.

Then an Englishman, Lewis Thompson, came to her school in Varanasi. She, as the only other foreigner, was asked to look after him. The newcomer was seriously in search of truth. When he had not found spiritual guidance in England and France, he came to Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka, at the age of 23. Thereafter he spent seven years near Ramana Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai. Otherwise, too, he had met many great spiritual personalities of that time, even those who were not easily accessible and known only to insiders.

Atmananda stressed that he had a sharp intellect, was highly analytical and radically pushed aside everything that he felt was not genuine. When Atmananda talked about him I could sense that she liked him. Yet only when I read her diaries, which were published after her death, I realised how much she had liked him. Thompson was a poet, overly sensitive, had often not a single paisa in his pocket, did not look after his health because of financial constraints and died early – in 1949, four years after he had landed up in Benares. He was only forty. And it was painful for Atmananda.

Thompson had come to Varanasi because of Anandamayi Ma. She happened to stay at Sarnath at that time, some distance from Varanasi, where Buddha gave his first sermon after enlightenment. Thompson wanted to be back in the evening – and did not show up for three days. He had not taken any change of clothes and in the school had been a case of cholera. Atmananda concluded that he must be sick. She bought medicine and went to Sarnath. There she found Thompson hale and hearty and completely enraptured by Ma. “She surpasses my highest expectations. It is incredible, how profound her answers are”, he gushed.

Anandamayi Ma sat on the veranda of a pilgrims’ shelter, surrounded by Buddhist monks. Atmananda, too, felt that something fascinating emanated from her. From then on she walked every evening to Sarnath and before sunrise back to Varanasi to reach in time for her English class.

Once, late at night, she had a talk with Ma. “What she said was so simple and convincing that I wondered why I had not discovered it myself. Ma said only a few sentences, actually nothing new, and yet – the effect was out of proportion. It was as if someone had switched on light and I suddenly clearly saw the path. I was confident that I would always see the next step before me. My thoughts had not stopped to wander, but worries had stopped”, Atmananda recollected the meeting.

“For everything there is a right time. Nobody can come to me if the time is not right”, Ma used to say. The time was right for Atmananda to come in close contact with Ma. It was the year 1945 – when she had no family left in this world.

Atmananda was proficient in languages. Her mother had died at the birth of her younger sister, and the father employed ayahs in his upper middle class home in Vienna – one after the other from Italy, France and England, so that his daughters would learn languages. In India, Atmananda further learnt Hindi and Bengali and often translated for foreigners or South Indians, when they talked to Ma. She kept a diary about those talks and published them in the monthly magazine of the ashram. Occasionally I helped her with typing or proof reading and thereby came to know from close quarters how Ma responded to each one and to human problems in general.

Ma knew a sure cure for all ills and disclosed it to everyone who was weighed down by worries. “The best cure for any situation is – Bhagawan. Trust him. Depend on him. He is the dearest friend you have in this world. Give all your worries and cares into his hands. He will definitely look after you and your cares, if you really and completely hand yourself over to him. Then you can feel light and care free.”

Ma formulated the essence of Advaita Vedanta, the highest wisdom, in clear and simple terms:

“Behind all the different, perpetually changing names and forms in this universe there is only ‘one thing’ – Bhagawan or however you like to call it. That alone is eternal, ever the same. It plays with itself as it were. All appearances are contained in it, like in a mirror. It is the I of our I. Life is meant to realise this – to realise who we really are and drop the wrong identification with our person.”

Her words had power, because she was genuine and said only, what she knew was true.

Ma stressed that a guru was necessary on the spiritual path, in the same way, as one needs a guru for maths or physics. Atmananda went through an inner struggle, because Jiddu Krishnamurti was vehemently against any kind of guru, and she used to value his opinion highly.

I also had met Krishnamurthi on several occasions – at his public talks, in discussions with teachers of his school in Rishi Valley and at a reception in a garden in Delhi. Krishnamurthi talked in a low voice and kept asking his listeners to ‘see what is’. “How can I see what is?” This question popped up without fail. “There is no ‘how’!” he answered firmly. “Just see. The truth is.”

Thousands came to listen to him, and he doubtless looked like a guru, even though he claimed not to be one. During one of his last talks in Chennai in 1985, he suddenly interrupted his talk and sternly addressed a young man in the front row, “Don’t stare at me like this. Go to the back!” The young foreigner had probably come early, because it was not easy to get a place in the first row. He obediently got up and went to the back, as he was told. When I observed him, a sentence of Anandamayi Ma came to my mind: “The association with an enlightened being consists in getting blows for the ego.” But how can one know for sure? A big ego may also order people around like that. But probably one learns something even then.

Atmananda was certain that she did the right thing when she changed over to Ma und took her as her guru, though Krishnamurti did not approve of it. Still, to be a disciple was not always easy. She spoke of ‘operations’ which Ma quietly conducted. “They are painful, very painful, these operations and if one would not be certain of Ma’s great love, one could take her to be cruel”, she told me. Her diaries of the first years with Ma show what a devotee goes through once he ‘got caught’ in the net of a guru. More of pain than of joy seems to be the rule.

Atmananda told me that earlier in life she used to flare up quickly. I could not notice any quick temper. Atmananda was a beautiful human being in spite of her age and the shaven head. Everyone enjoyed her company.

Atmananda had handed over her diaries to Ram Alexander. Ram had come to India from the US as a young man in the early 70s. Anandamayi Ma offered him to live in her ashram in Kankhal, a privilege that was hardly granted to a foreigner. He stayed in Ma’s ashram for about ten years. Thereafter he married and settled in Europe.

Atmananda felt that Ram was Lewis Thompson reborn. That was why she wanted him to have her diaries, and publish them if he thought them to be helpful for others. Ram got them published under the title “Death Must Die”. His foreword shows literary flair, yet he does not live in penury in this life. “Death must die” has become popular with foreigners in India. It fascinates, because it is authentic.

Anandamayi Ma left her body on 27th August 1982 in Dehradun. She barely ate for several months prior to her death and seemed untouched by what the body went through.

Three years later Atmananda celebrated her 50-years anniversary in India. She was full of energy as usual. Soon after, she fell sick. Two days she lay in her room, looked after by friends, who took her to Haridwar for better care. “You will be back soon”, a friend said to her when she was sitting in the taxi. “No”, Atmananda said firmly. “I go now and won’t come back.’ It took only three days and she was dead and her body was immersed in the Ganga – a privilege which is reserved for Sanyasis.

Atmananda had occasionally worried as to who would look after her in case she needed help. Ma had always claimed, “Bhagawan looks after you”. And he has looked after her…

by Maria Wirth

 

 

 

 

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16 comments

  1. “Today I feel sad, sad for India, sad for the world. For India is in mortal danger, its eternal Sanatana Dharma is under threat. And if India dies spiritually, the world will also die.” Francois Gautier

    1. yadā yadā hi dharmasya, glānir bhavati bhārata.
      abhyutthānam adharmasy, tadatmanam srijamyaham.
      paritrānāya sādhūnām, vināśāya ca dushkritām.
      dharma-sansthāpanārthāya, sambhavāmi yuge yuge
      Translation:
      Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice (of Sanatana Dharma), O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion – at that time I descend Myself.
      To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion (Sanatana Dharma), I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.

      (here dharma has been translated as religious practice though dharma is much more than the literal meaning of word religion in English. Since there’s no equivalent of Dharma in English we’ve chosen this.)

  2. […] Source: A Hindu Ascetic from Austria […]

  3. I also read those diaries, Maria. Very inspiring, as Blanca, later Atmananda, was able to convey so well her spiritual progress, her ups and downs, her difficulties and her joys. So pure her words are as to bring that Shakti that Anandamayi Ma was to he present moment, making us realise that Ma is still alive, no matter that her body is no more there.

    I felt the same when I read “Life of Sri Ramakrishna” by Sw. Nikhilananda, another jewel. But because the vehicle (writer) brings the purity of the devotion with him. Devotion for the one they are writing about, that they gift us with the wonder of feeling the presence of Bhagavan through those enlightened beings in the vibrant energy of the words of their writings. A presence that is real here and now. And with those readings, they help us get closer to ourSelf.

    You share that same quality of those writers, Maria. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. R A Sharma · · Reply

    I hv gone through the book. wonderful

  5. Sometimes I wonder if westerners looking for spirituality give too much extra importance on Bhakti Yoga/renouncing the world, as opposed to Karma Yoga/Gyana Yoga. I mean I am not against Bhakti Yoga, but the world will come to a halt if every second person started renouncing the world.
    In fact, many streams of Hindu philosophy (like Vaishnavas I think) do discourage a sanyasi life as opposed to a ‘grihastha’ life; you know, in the same spirit as Krishna asking Arjuna to do action instead of all this renouncing.
    Possibly the westerners are too fed up with materialistic culture they all around and therefore end up swinging to the other extreme of sanyasi ?!
    Could you shed some light on this ? It will be nice to know the outlook of someone who has 1st-hand experience.

    1. I don’t think, foreigners are more focused on Bhakti, rather the opposite. When they come to know of India’s tradition, they are either convinced by the philosophy or by positive effects of sadhana and then have to work their way towards Bhakti. (in this context see my post https://mariawirthblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/love-in-india/)

      Those foreigners who want to stay longer in India have to find a way to get visa and replenish their funds. Many opt for joining an ashram. Some may also get stuck there, if they feel, it is time to move on, but are frightened to join the rat race in the west by then.
      In the early 1980s I met a young German in transit in Delhi who was so convinced that he would stay for the rest of his life with his guru, that he even had asked his father to give him from his heritage. He wanted to hand it over to his guru. 2 years later I happened to meet him again in Delhi. He realized that ashram life was not for him and felt now like the prodigal son, wanting to go to his father, asking him for a job in his business. He did not find fault with the guru, just that ashram life was not for him.

      In the case of Atmananda, she was not the type who wanted to show off her ‘spirituality’, rather it came naturally rather late. She told me once that it makes it easier. She doesn’t have to explain why she doesn’t come to weddings, etc. Besides her sadhana, she did a lot of writing and translating and also led bhajan in the Dehradun ashram.

    2. Javakusum · · Reply

      The four ancient aims of Hindu life are Dharma (integrity), Artha (prosperity), Kama (pleasure), and Moksha (enlightenment). All are necessary for happiness, but individuals will tend to give more emphasis to an aim or aims that suit their upbringing, propensity or innate urge.Regards.

  6. Surya, usa · · Reply

    Another interesting read Maria. Some westerners wander into hinduism via Buddhism.They embrace Buddhism first and after sometime they don’t find answers to their curiosity about God and Soul, for this faith negates or downplays those two. Hence they wander astray, stumble upon hinduism and read up on Atma and Brahman and get hooked on to hindu literature. That said it is not easy to live in India as a renunciate for life. Both Visa issues and funding issues will prove to be prohibitive in nature. Besides the life of hermits soon gets repetitive and boring. You are an exception of course. I must assure you, as a family man myself, you have not missed anything at al.

    @Kumar,
    Nope westerners are not into Bhakti yoga, and if at all most westerners are more into Jnana Yoga with their insatiable appetite for hindu philosophy which is vast and complex. They are very knowledgeable in the scriptures. There are a few all white hindu monasteries that spread the gospel of shaivism with all potential ambiguity removed from the sampradaya. Also this monastery is very inclusive and keep saying good things about all other hindu sampradayas out there. Check it out on Himalayan Academy out of Hawaii. Cheers.

  7. Maria – I really appreciate the time & effort you put into your blog. Many thanks & best wishes! Kevin in Sydney, Australia.

  8. Respected Maria, My sincere and heartfelt appreciations for your writings.
    Warm regards

  9. […] Source: A Hindu Ascetic from Austria […]

  10. […] article is originally published HERE […]

  11. Mam i read your post “A hindu ascetic from Austria”. While so many foreigners come to India seeking a guru for their spiritual path, many Indians have a mistrust for the godmen because they get fooled in the name of spirituality and also because our society has been suffering from a collective loss of belief in spirituality and morals, may be due to modern outlook or the prevalent cynical world view. Its an irony and such reputation of gurus also prevents many like me from approaching them. Is there any way to resolve such conundrum?? Because i feel a society wont reach its zenith without spiritual progress.. I would be happy if you would take time to reply.. Thanks.

    1. Karan, it is a very valid question and not easy to answer. Personally, this prevented me for the first 7 years in India to accept any of the many spiritual personalities I met as “my guru”. i stuck to gurus who had left their bodies, like Ramana Maharshi.
      I feel the main thing is a sincere aspiration. After 7 years I considered Satya Sai Baba as my guru, more or less convinced myself into it that he possibly cannot tell a lie when he claims to be an avatar. I developed full faith in him and it was helpful. Yet after 7 years again, I somehow lost faith in him from one moment to the other. It was time to move on.
      Ultimately it is the Ishta deva within (atman) who is the guru, but to consider this presence as really real is not so easy and a physical guru as a projection helps.
      On the other hand, nowadays we can get the knowledge via books that were not available earlier. Then a guru was a must.
      Probably the solution is to trust the divine inner guidance and be sensitive to what you feel about some guru, without being too much influenced by his other disciples. Ultimately, whatever is meant to happen, will happen. You can’t go really wrong as long as your motivation and aspiration are pure.

  12. Bhujang nayak · · Reply

    If you want enlightenment, you only have to concentrate on you breathing and surrounding should be peaceful, and nobody to disturb you. Breathing is prana.

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