Maria Wirth is a German who has managed to put her finger on the pulse of India’s spirituality, much more than perhaps many Indians themselves. In her book ‘Thank you India – a German woman’s journey to the wisdom of yoga’, she shares her experiences living as a foreigner in India for the last 38 years, since her visit to the Kumbh Mela in 1980 and about finding her soul
What in your opinion is the biggest challenge facing Hinduism today?
MW: I feel Hinduism faces a challenge on the political and also on the spiritual level. On the political level, Hinduism is under severe attack. Just check international news. Since I come from an Abrahamic religion, I am convinced that their goal is nothing less than to make Hinduism disappear into a museum. Because that’s it what their doctrine says: ‘only we have the full truth. The Highest wants all to follow only our particular book’ (there are 2 competing claims by the way).
So there needs to be a counter on the political level. Being nice and politically correct won’t help. Hindu Dharma needs to survive in the interest of all humanity. In fact, it should be the aim of Hindus to convince the others that what they believe as the only truth simply cannot be the absolute truth. It’s a tough task, because brainwashing in childhood goes deep and it’s nice to believe that one’s religion is superior to others and that God loves us and not them. It’s also tough because Christian and Muslim institutions are highly influential and intent on keeping their power. Further, the whole culture centres around religion in many countries, including in America, Europe and the Muslim nations. To make them realise that certain divisive claims are not true and need to be given up, is not easy, yet should be the goal of Hindus. It would free many of those who feel trapped in the dogmatic religions, as well. It is no fun to be frightened constantly with burning eternally in hell as a child. Children believe what they are told.
On the spiritual level, Indians need to know again more about their tradition and most importantly, do sadhana to know for themselves that their texts are right and guide to a more fulfilling life. It’s important to be quiet sometimes. Being without thoughts, just observing, listening, being fully present in the now or any other form of meditation.
What is the most life-transforming experience you have had in India?
MW: I can’t pinpoint any one life-transforming experience. Maybe meeting Anandamayi Ma and Devaraha Baba at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 1980 was life-transforming because they brought the wisdom of Swami Vivekananda’s Jnana Yoga alive and made me want to stay longer in India and dive deeper into what is the truth. Especially around Anandamayi Ma I learnt a lot, because there were small booklets in English with her sayings. She came fully from Advaita, stressed that all is One, yet at the same put great stress on Bhakti, love for Bhagawan. She used to say, “Feel you are in the loving embrace of Bhagawan. Remember him always, 24 hours a day. Feel he is living through you. Have his name always on your lips” etc.
It showed a clear path, yet it was not easy. Because how can I love That, which is not visible, formless, spread out, infinite, eternal? Jnana was easier for me – to read and reflect on what is really true. It made so much sense. My aspiration was genuine. ‘If I am not what I think I am, I want to find out what I really am’, was my thinking. And I prayed “please help me”, because I knew I needed help and also was convinced that my prayer is “heard”, because the true essence in me is conscious. In fact it’s the only ‘thing’ which is truly conscious and our minds are just reflecting this one consciousness.
How does one reach a stage from seeing the greatness in a guru, to being able to see the same greatness within oneself, albeit in a different measure? Is there a process to this shift of thought?
MW: My view of a guru has changed over the years. In the beginning of my stay in India, I didn’t want a guru, because I was afraid that she or he may tell me what to do and I have to follow it. I took guidance from gurus who had passed away already, like Swami Vivekananda or Ramana Maharshi. Yet after 7 years travelling through India, I felt that I could need a guru, because I knew by then a lot about the truth, but couldn’t see it. It so happened that I landed up in Puttaparthi in Satya Sai Baba’s ashram and convinced myself gradually that he is, what he claims to be: a full Avatar and I became a genuine devotee. Yet after 7 years, my strong faith suddenly slipped away – and the strange thing was that I felt relieved.
After that, again I accepted a guru, who was not well known and a wealthy coffee planter. I stayed in his meditation group for 5 years and again I felt I had to leave and felt relieved. So I know the guru devotee relationship first hand, but I came to the conclusion that the most important guru is the inner guru who is ever present and who guided me to outer gurus for a while. This inner guru is Atman and our true essence. There is no question of higher and lower, rather of true and only apparently true.
New age narratives speak about meditation and even prayer as being a-religious and merely spiritual, sanitising some of India’s great rituals and traditions. Through your interactions with different spiritual leaders in India, do you feel that India can offer to the world an experience of the divine, by greater engagement with ritual rather than less.
MW: India is very fortunate that its great culture was not swept away by Christianity, Islam or communism, which have destroyed ancient cultures all over the globe and made people believe that worthwhile history started only with Jesus Christ, or Prophet Mohamed or Karl Marx. India was the centre of civilisation and the knowledge that we are connected to the whole cosmos did not get fully lost. There is so much wisdom in the innumerable texts, including how to connect with higher lokas and thedevas and devis there through poojas and other rituals. I am glad they are followed, because it more and more turns out that there is science behind them, and moreover, many of them give a lot of joy. I personally have not gone much into rituals, since my approach was more from Jnana and Bhakti, but I greatly benefit from being able to go to temples for example. I love the Arati there. The atmosphere is very uplifting. And my impression is that there are still many mysteries to be discovered in Indian temples that are far more ancient than western historians want them to be.
Reading about India’s wisdom and sitting for meditation is helpful to gain wisdom, but is difficult to sustain in a materialistic environment. In India, this wisdom is alive, the atmosphere is imbibed with it, chanting of the Ramayana for example wafts from somewhere; the many temples and shrines remind one of a greater Presence. The sun, the rivers are revered and worshipped. Everything is sacred and its sacredness is acknowledged.
This is of course more obvious in the many pilgrimage places. Yet even in the big cities one gets reminded off and on.
Can yoga alone lead to enlightenment? Is any awareness of this kind temporary or does it change one forever?
MW: Yoga means to join – to join or merge the ego or I based on thoughts into the real Self. If you mean by yoga only hatha yoga, maybe it won’t be enough. But the yoga of the Bhagavad Gita – jnana, bhakti and karma yoga – shows how to make the whole life yoga. As it is, by our own effort we can only go to the source of the ego. Ramana Maharshi’s first teaching to Ganapathy Muni, who had done a lot of sadhana and felt stuck, was “Observe from where the I-feeling emerges. If you go to its source, you will dissolve in it. This is the right striving for self-realisation.”
If you had to choose one book to explain the wisdom of India, what would it be? When did you read it. You mentioned recently about a book list which was full of people who like to write against India. And you mentioned it’s a good thing that people don’t read much nowadays. Are there book out there you would recommend for people who haven’t been to India, to know more about India the way she should be known.
MW: It’s difficult to recommend one book. Of course the Bhagavad Gita, is a very basic and helpful text and all should read it. In fact I had read it already in Germany when I had no idea that I would live my life in India. Yet I had not understood it. It was in German, in complicated poetic language, and I saw only an ancient text without much relevance for modern times. When I read it again in India, I was amazed that I had not seen its depth earlier.
Similarly, ‘Jnana Yoga’ by Swami Vivekananda impressed me greatly when I first read it in 1980, yet when I came across it again in 2001, it didn’t touch me as much. By then, I preferred the Tripura Rahasya and the books on Kashmir Shaivism, like Shiva Sutras, Spanda Karika, etc.
So it depends on one’s own state what touches.
My book “Thank you India – a German woman’s journey to the wisdom of yoga” gives a general overview and helps ‘to know more about India, the way she should be known’, not only for foreigners but also for Indians who drifted away from their tradition due to English education and who don’t have an experience of spiritual India as it were. A reader said it felt like a modern version of “A search in secret India” by Paul Brunton from the 1930s, but that it goes much deeper. The reason may be that Paul Brunton was only visiting India and I have been living here since 38 years.
The book has two levels, on one hand my experiences while travelling, in ashrams, with gurus, pilgrimage places, festivals, and on the other hand the wisdom, which I gained thanks to gurus, books, reflection and sadhana.
Actually, I would have one request to all: spare some time for sadhana, give a break to the normal thought stream by meditation, japa, yoga, bhajan, satsang, temple visit, whatever suits you best. The beauty of Hindu Dharma is that there are innumerable ways to connect with the great Supreme Being who is our own blissful Essence.
Of course, the desire that one WANTS to connect needs to be there…
In your 38 years in India, would you say that accessing ancient Indian wisdom of yoga, Ayurveda, the Vedas, dance or music is easy, moderately difficult or very difficult? What has your experience been?
MW: It was not difficult for me because I stumbled into it. I was not in search of it. One thing led to the other. I bought a book by Swami Vivekananda, without knowing who he was. It greatly impressed me. Then I landed up at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar without knowing what Kumbh Mela is. There I met foreigners who introduced me to Anandamayi Ma and Devraha Baba. Again, they impressed me immensely. I was mainly interested in what is the truth. If this world of sense perception is not really real, then I wanted to know what is real. So for this, I was guided to sadhana and I also read a lot. Went to libraries and studied for example the Brahma Sutras. Tips, what to read and whom to meet, came my way naturally.
When one sees Pondicherry, Dehradun, Chandigarh, Mysore even, one often feels this is India, this is mighty India. In your book you write – ‘India hides her positive sides’. How can India be transformed, as we have in the recent past seen Varanasi transformed. Isn’t it time we stop romanticising our dirt and dust and try to focus on development and preservation of our great land?
MW: I don’t think that dirt is romanticized in India. When I stayed in Sai Baba’s ashram in the 1980s, there were many signboards with “Cleanliness is Godliness”. After the opening of the economy in 1991, plenty of plastic packages came in and India was not used to such much waste. With Prime Minister Modi’s campaign things are changing fast.
I don’ know how to transform cities, like Varanasi, as I have no expertise. But one thing I would like to make clear. India is doing exceptionally well in relation to her huge population. Can you imagine what Germany would look like if it would have to give shelter within its borders to the whole population of England, France, Spain and Italy? I am sure it would collapse. Yet then the population density would be comparable with that of Bihar and UP for example. And here in India there is still space for monkeys, leopards, tigers, elephants, snakes, dogs. Germany has killed all dangerous wildlife and even deer is culled annually so that the timber is not damaged. Can you see how well India is doing?
You decided to stay put in Dehradun. Why Dehradun?
MW: I landed up in Dehradun in May 1980 when Anandamayi Ma moved there from her ashram in Kankhal. I don’t know why, but I liked the place immensely right from the start, maybe because Ma stayed in beautiful surroundings at the outskirts of the town. The first range of the mighty Himalaya is so close, and the Himalaya had attracted me, ever since I heard on radio of the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. I was only 9 years old, but I remember picturing in my mind the “roof of the world” as it was called.