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