Maria Wirth is a German and came to India for a holiday after finishing her psychology studies at Hamburg University. She visited the Ardha Kumbha Mela in Haridwar in April 1980 where she met Sri Anandamayi Ma and Devaraha Baba, two renowned saints. With their blessing she continued to live in India and dived into India’s spiritual tradition, sharing her insights with German readers through articles and books. For long, she was convinced that every Indian knows and treasures his great heritage. However, when in recent years, she noticed that there seemed to be a concerted effort to prevent Indians (and the world) from knowing how valuable this ancient Indian heritage is, she started to point out the unique value of Indian tradition.
Next to the Ramakrishna Mission in Dehradun, there is a small ashram where 33 years ago, on 27thAugust 1982, Anandamayi Ma left her body. Anandamayi Ma, who was born in 1896 as Nirmala Sundari in what is now Bangladesh, was and still is revered all over India for having being extraordinary saintly and wise right from childhood. Devotees still come to her Samadhi in Kankhal, even though many of them have never seen her in person. I was fortunate to meet her and would like to share some of those precious memories:
During the Ardha Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in April 1980, some foreigners asked me to join them to receive their guru, Anandamayi Ma, at the railway station. I was curious, because I had seen a photo of her in Paramahansa Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’. The photo was taken in the 1930s and showed a beautiful woman. Almost fifty years had passed since then and I was surprised that she was alive and anyone could meet her.
At dawn we went to the railway station. A group of Indians were conspicuous by their well-groomed appearance. They were devotees of Ma. Then the train from Varanasi pulled in. Four young men in spotless white dhotis entered and carried Ma out on a chair, to which four handles were attached.
Ma looked delicate, was wrapped in white cloth and her black hair fell over her shoulders. She looked at us with calm eyes. There was no reaction on her face, no sign of recognition of her devotees, many of whom she would have known for decades. She simply looked and her eyes moved slowly around the group. It was pleasant, and I had the strange feeling, that nobody was there behind those eyes.
When I saw her like this, tears were rolling down my cheeks. There was no reason for tears and yet they didn’t want to stop. “That’s normal, when one is touched by a great soul”, someone next to me, who had noticed it, reassured me. And indeed I felt being touched by a very pure soul.
Anandamayi Ma went to her ashram in Kankhal and we followed. At the ashram gate, flower vendors awaited us. Everyone entered the ashram with flowers or fruits in his hands. In the centre of the courtyard, a chair was placed for Ma. She sat down and we, about thirty people, were standing around her.
Now she asked some of her devotees about how they were doing, whether “sab thik hai” and so on. The questions were commonplace, and yet there was a sense of sublime grandeur in the air. I noticed it again: her gaze was different. It touched the heart and widened it. Because of this short, fleeting gaze, I went from then on every evening to Kankhal.
Was Ma enlightened? I did not know, but felt, it was possible. Melita, a journalist from Germany, who had been with Ma for many years, explained to me what enlightenment meant:
‘Ma sees in everything and everywhere only the one Brahman, that is, her own Self. For her, ‘others’ don’t exist. She herself has said that only because of convention she differentiates between herself and others. In truth, she doesn’t see a difference and there is no difference.’
So basically, an enlightened being and we ordinary mortal differ only in one aspect: an enlightened being feels this oneness of all as real, whereas we think we are separate and even prefer this illusion, though we, of course, are also at home in the oneness. Oddly, we even want to be separate; we are fond of our person, our thoughts, feelings, relationships, memories, hopes. Why should we give up this feeling of being separate? Just because it is not the Truth?
Few are ready for it in spite of the assurance that truth is heaven, and illusion compared to it hell. Our suffering originates from our imaginary isolation and is unnecessary, claim the sages. I tried to imagine what Anandamayi Ma perceived, while she looked at us. Did she see our bodies and her own body merely as transitory waves on the one ocean, while feeling blissfully immersed in its depth and vastness?
Concepts like truth and God, which, so far, I had not considered relevant, seemed in the Indian context important, relevant and natural. Ma formulated the essence of Advaita Vedanta in clear terms:
Behind all the different, perpetually changing names and forms in this universe there is only ‘one thing’ – Brahman, Bhagwan, God or however you like to call it. That alone is eternal, ever the same. All appearances are contained in it, like in a mirror. That 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.
When Ma’s mother had died and was laying out in the ashram, Ma had laughed her hearty laugh as usual. Her devotees felt that her behaviour was not appropriate for the occasion. Ma reacted surprised: “Why? Nothing has happened!” For her dying was like changing a dress. Who would be sad over losing an old dress, when one is still fresh and alive?
While waiting for Ma’s darshan in the evenings, we were singing bhajans. Once, a girl of about ten sat next to me. She sang full throatily, yet a little out of tune. Her clapping was also slightly out of rhythm. When I heard her singing like this, my heart suddenly went out to her and was overflowing with love.
Just then Anandamayi Ma appeared, supported by two women. Even before she reached the cot, she briefly stopped, half turned and looked sort of irritated into my direction. When she finally sat down on the cot, her glance settled on me for a long time. In all likelihood Ma’s glance was attracted by the love that I felt for that girl, and she really did not perceive us as separate persons. After all, she often said that it is a mistake to consider oneself as separate from others. But almost certainly all of us, as we were sitting there on the veranda, wished that she appreciated us personally…
Ma didn’t oblige. A genuine guru can see that the ego is the culprit who makes life difficult. Naturally she or he is not interested in flattering the ego – on the contrary. “The association with an enlightened being consists in getting blows for the ego”, Anandamayi Ma once remarked.
Ma had a cure for all worries: “Trust in Bhagawan. He certainly will look after you and all your affairs, if you really put full trust in him and if you dedicate all your energy to realise your Self. You then can feel completely light and free”, Ma claimed and it sounded convincing. By ‘Bhagawan’ she meant the formless essence in everything. Yet this essence is not something abstract and cold. It is love and can be experienced as the beloved. “You are always in his loving embrace”, she claimed.
Feel Bhagawan’s presence in you 24 hours a day. Be aware he moves your feet, he makes your eyes see, he makes your mind think’, she advised us.
I wonder whether she, in her elevated state, knew that this is not that easy for us. It may have been so obvious and natural for her.
By Maria Wirth