I now have the afternoon free, and as I have been explaining
that I would like to go to the Ashram of Swami
Chinmayananda some miles out of Bombay, Hari Das, one of the Hare Krishna monks who has a car at his disposal,
calls the driver, and offers to take me there.
I am looking for a Viennese girl who lives there and
whom Charan Das has already warned that I will come to see. She is all in white
and rather shy about the Interview — finally agreeing that she will give
I must now rush back to Bombay to be in time to meet
H.H. Giriraja Swami,
the President of the Hare Krishna Temple.
10 minutes before 8, the appointed time, I am waiting
in Chitrakara’s office. I am under the impression someone has gone in
to tell thePresident I am waiting. 8.15, half the Interview time gone, no one
calls me. I get up and knock at the door. The President is talking to three
secretaries, answering two phone calls and rebuking me for being late. How to
Then when he is alone we talk; there is now no time
for the Interview. Tomorrow? He may have to go to Madras. When will he know?
At 5 a.m. Right, I will see him then to confirm Yes or No. Exit.
5 a.m. The President is not going to Madras. The Interview
is for 11. At 11 as I go into the room — Horror!....
I told you to come at 11.30, he calls out.
Well, at least I am early this time and not doing anything
too bad…I can wait outside.
No, no…He tells me to sit down, he must finish with his secretary. He
is working under stress. He is about 30, yet he has much responsibility.
Then he says in a tired voice: I really don’t
know if I can talk— I was hoping that at least I could rest on the way
I tell him this Interview should not be any bother
to him — but of course I would like him to speak.
Suddenly he aims a lot of questions: Am I interested
in the Hare Krishna movement, do I have a guru, why? Then he announces: If I give
the Interview I will have to criticise the many false gurus and false teachings.
I explain that is not the purpose of the book. He replies:
I must speak the truth. I hold on: Speak the truth about your path and your
guru, leave the others to drown if they
are indeed drowning.
He doesn’t like that. I know why I can’t
give you the Interview — he suddenly tells me -- it’s because I
can’t change you!
This knocks me out. I say: I am willing to change to
anyone else’s way if they can show me they have achieved enlightenment.
Silence. I then make him smile a bit: And just think about it…I try to
reason…if all the devotees in every Ashram I visit will only agree to
an Interview on condition that I change to their guru or path, will I not end up a psychological
He then asks if I plan to pass through Bombay at a
later stage of my journey. That is my plan. We say: Hare Krishna! I bow, and we leave it at that
— I will try again.
Aviva is again dressed in white — this must be her uniform. There is nowhere
to go but outside the Ashram temple for the Interview. I am hoping that my batteries
She pauses and asks if a copy of the Interview can be
sent to her to check.
I agree. At least she is not so complicated in her conditions
as H.H. The President.
But Hari Das who has again driven me to the Ashram
is teasing her — he says: Only materialist persons are suspicious.
She is not amused. Then he tells us that he went to
Moscow dressed in a businessman’s suit and changed into his saffron robes
and took off the wig he was wearing to go into Moscow streets to chant Hare
Krishna. He was arrested but released
when he told the police he was singing a popular Western song.
Aviva loves that story and laughs and laughs and I
not only am able to photograph her, but it puts her into a light, less suspicious
I would prefer to avoid talking about my past activities
because they are the roles I am trying to forget for a while. I can tell you
I was born in Vienna, and from early childhood traveled a good deal. But my
major concern in being in India is, one: to get away from all my old definitions
of myself through society, through relationships with people I know intimately,
and two: to study the Upanishads. Through hearing Swami
Chinmayananda I felt there was much inspiration in them, and perhaps they were
a means to achieve a very subtle intellect.
Where did you first hear
In Switzerland, which was nice because I was not looking for a specific teacher.
At the time I was 23 and felt: So this is adulthood, your mind gets duller and
duller, you have some joys, some friends, but all that magic promised in childhood
seems to totally evade one, and one gets resigned to this state. That’s
when I first heard him — I was like that.
Can you explain what
it was that impressed you?
Well, here was a mystic who was superbly logical in his approach to the scriptures,
who allowed one to question everything, who answered all questions directly,
who had translated the Sanskrit
scriptures into modern terminology, who was unpredictable, and while travelling
with him, seemed to live what he preaches, and show that it can be lived —
which is important.
How did it affect your
When I first saw his picture at a friend’s house I didn’t like it
— she was a great lady with a salon, a spiritual salon. When I went to
hear him I went very critically as I had no intention of being brain-washed
into a religious movement. The goal, as far as I could see, was to develop your
own natural intelligence and freedom. But I was stunned by his logic and by
the depth I felt was in him and by the fact that he does not seen to want to
draw disciples to himself. He wants them to become independent after a time.
But what happened after
that first meeting?
Not much. After hearing the lectures one feels inspired, but after a while the
old problems and ways of looking at life recur. Not much changes, one remains
what one has been. But he came back to Switzerland each year, so for a few years
I just listened. Each time I found I could see more in life, not that I became
euphorically happy… and then I had the opportunity to travel with him,
a month in the United States. This was important because in Switzerland I always
saw him in a first class hotel speaking of detachment, with people catering
to him and his needs. But here I saw that really whatever the situation, he
accepted it as it came — it was most important to me. But see, at this
moment I would prefer the emphasis not to be on the guru/student relationship as I feel it
a wrong emphasis for a person seeking, including myself. The teachings came
through Chinmayananda but it is you who are changing, it’s you who don’t
have to go anywhere — you have to find out how to do it yourself wherever
you are. I believe it comes to you in the form necessary. Only because we are
so blind do we need a specific human being, so the fact that I needed a guru I would consider blindness on my
But once you had found
your guru, didn’t you want to follow
him to India? Or did you prefer to work on yourself?
No, I originally had no intention of coming here. Slowly, slowly I began recognizing
myself, my role as a woman in terms of the way I defined myself through society,
through profession, through success, through marriage, through what you have
and possess. Slowly I am seeing that really all that I am, as far as personality
goes, is fragmentations of thoughts. And to accept this and let it be, not hold
on to notions or the great fear of death or dying or being left in some abyss.
Yet it seems only by leaving ones conceptions behind can anything new happen,
or can one ever really truly feel alive. So although I’m still not living
entirely in the present moment, through this meeting, and thinking of the problems
of mankind and myself, and through the decision to at least temporarily give
up possessing many things, give up friends, give up career, I’m able to
try to see what it is that separates me from every other human being, that separates
me from nature, that makes me feel as if I am alone and not fully alive.
I wonder if you could
give me some idea of Swamiji’s teachings?
I don’t think I can do them justice. He uses the ancient method of transmission;
his teachings come through his own guru, Swami
Tapovan, originating from the ancient rishis.
They are chiefly the interpretations of the Upanishads. Chinmayananda teaches
AdvaitaVedanta, which means non-dualism. He
also interprets the Bhagavad Gita; however, in so doing he
is very much aware of modern society, of each nation whose country he visits
and its problems as opposed to former times: the mechanical life one is trapped
in, the lack of time for enquiry, the tragedies the wars have left behind. He
speaks to that mind of man who has gone through all that. As a modern individual
he can reach one who is politically aware, seeing Europe once again turning
to Fascism, terrorism, yet seeking God. Plus that, there is a personal teaching
— he has a habit of saying a certain thing at the right time.
You have given a vivid
picture of your guru. But why did you not want to at
First of all, any confrontation with another human being, whether he be called
a guru, a master, or a friend is subjective.
Secondly, it’s the teachings applied to yourself which may or may not
change you. Man has not changed much as a species through thousands of years.
People tend to be very devoted to their gurus, and they may get a “high”,
such as one has with opium, or other drugs, or meditation, but in actuality
it’s hard to say whether they have a greater compassion for other human
beings, other creatures, whether they “see” more than one who hasn’t
a guru. So for others it’s not important
who my guru is although he is a wonderful being
to listen to, very humorous, very broad, stern but loving — it depends
— but he is not the main part of change. He is the vehicle of change for
those meant to meet him, and many will not meet him, won’t ever meet any
guru. The idea is not to seek a human
being, but to question. The validity of a guru is only if one feels he has transcended
the problems of time and is able to be aware of the oneness with other creatures.
If one feels that with him then he is a valid teacher for oneself — this
I feel, someone else may not. A guru is not something one sells to someone
I see you are very realistic.
As a Westerner, have you come across difficulties living an Ashram life?
I only know the difficulties in this Ashram. I am on a three year study course
of Vedantic texts and Sanskrit.
A Westerner coming here will naturally expect to find everyone interested in
these subjects. But the Indians coming to Ashrams are usually conservative Hindus.
There tends to be a lack of enquiry and blind acceptance of words. They are
kind but rigid. It’s like living in a convent, but somehow the word Ashram
has given a glamour to this connotation, so one doesn’t realize that in
fact one is going into a cloistered school — males and females separate.
That isn’t bad, but in their contacts with each other there is much unnaturalness.
The philosophy we are all studying has nothing to do with this sort of thinking.
The ladies and men have lived a protected life at home and have never had to
be alone, so although one goes to an Ashram expecting solitude, expecting people
to honour that solitude, instead, Indian society is so based on talking and
being together that it’s like being in a village market at times.
In India there is no concept of privacy for most people,
so in the beginning I was rather upset when anyone would ask what letter I am
reading and then help me sociably by reading it over my shoulder. With time
I see that’s the way it is. Plus, there are a lot of jealousies. Guru is a physical term no matter how
abstract the philosophy — so especially with some of the ladies having
no husbands, having all the problems with Indian society, though they may be
true seekers — all these emotions get thrown onto the guru.
What is your daily program
This is not like a normal Ashram as we are here on a study course as I said
for three years. The purpose is to train Indian missionaries to take this old
knowledge of the Upanishads, which was confined to the Brahmins, out to the villages. Chinmayananda
thought — although it is hard really to know what he thinks — that,
India being in such a cultural decline, the only way is to train young educated
people in their old traditions and values so that the knowledge won’t
die entirely. So we have at 5.30 meditation till 6.30 and Vedic chanting. From
7:00 to 8:00 a Brahmachari will give a class on a Vedantic
text and later on he will take the Upanishads in Sanskrit
and English. We write notes daily which the Brahmachari corrects. Then there are
classes which also requires about three hours home-work. In the evening we go
to a lovely Shiva
temple for bhajans and the Brahmachari will speak on a stotra or
another topic. It’s a thorough, rare education on Upanishadic philosophy
as seen by advaitins, with an emphasis on Adi Shankara’s teachings. There’s
a lack of time for sadhana,
but the young people here are expected to take the path of Karma Yoga — service — by
teaching, and only then will they be considered ready for silent contemplation.
Chinmayananda is not here at the moment?
No. he travels around the world — he is in his 60s — lecturing and
collecting funds for his students, with the idea that they should not depend
on whether they are wealthy or not. He is enabling people to give full time
to study — it’s a rare gift. There are no fees. Even books are provided.
Even for the Westerners?
Yes, but there are only three here at the moment — a Swiss young man and
a man from Canada and a young man from Reunion Island, apart from myself. In
California there is another school of vedanta, part of this mission, which
is paid tuition.
For a Westerner, what
are the benefits of such a three year course?
You do get a clarity of thinking. You can ask many philosophic questions plus
is a beautiful language. Then there’s the practice of living where you
don’t need much, where you can’t go home when you don’t like
someone, where you can’t choose your friends, where you have to face a
culture which is sometimes hostile to you and at times seems ridiculous although
often fascinating. Then there is the food which you might not like, the inconveniences,
the climate is rotten, the air is polluted, there’s noise from the slum
next door. That’s, shall we say, a lesson in forebearance, if you need
These difficulties —
Ashram tortures — are usually there. They help our growth, don’t
For me they are good as I tend to be a social creature when I like people. Here
you can be silent when you want — if you enforce it — so eventually
everyone will understand. You can watch yourself closely, there’s no one
to blame as all the relationships are new — you make your own heavens
and hells — the traps you are inclined to fall into. Then you are free
— well, in my case — of the relationship of being in love, or the
pursuit of love. You face your own loneliness, and you realize what projections
and expectations you make on others.
Since you came to live
in India, have you met any enlightened teachers?
I don’t feel competent to talk on the subject… my criteria for judging
would be faulty, and as I haven’t traveled much in India I have met few
You are spending most
of your time studying the ancient scriptures; can you say what are the advantages?
The subject dealt with in these scriptures is: Who am I? — the individual.
What is the universe? What is the relationship between the two? What is sacred
in life? These questions deal with a subject which is the basis of all religions,
cultures and philosophic endeavours. These questions are relevant to everyone,
not exclusively to Hindus. The Upanishads — i.e. the philosophical portion
of the Vedas, reveal that a oneness between
all beings exists, that a life based on this unity without inner conflict can
be lived through a deep alteration of one’s vision or mode of thought.
The individual differences, conflicts, violence are
known to me as I am part of this. But the concept of oneness, of universal love
remains unknown to me (except superficially), and no secular science deals with
these questions deeply as they are not subjective. Therefore, I found it well
worth the time and enquiry to look into all this.
So this study can help the mind gain subtlety, the
thought process becomes finer, quicker, more concentrated and objective. Of
course, it is possible that someone else may attain all this by, say, painting
or while working, or through the study of other scriptures, or by solitary contemplation.
In that case, that’s fine. For if you are the type that gets hung up in
scholarship, it’s dangerous, it’s beside the point… The important
thing is that in some form or another each of us should come to terms and deal
with these essential questions so that life does not become a mechanical, destructive
So can I assume that
your life is one of controlled scholarship? As a final question, would you like
to say what this new life has brought you?
I can say that my faith in the harmony of the universe has increased, and perhaps
a bit of my selfishness has decreased. Let us say I think I am more able to
see the whole of certain problems. I am slowly learning in whatever I do I should
just take care of the moment, do my best, I needn’t worry so much about
my own future; that things do happen when I need them to happen, and that all
hells pass. I now know that life is magical. Slowly I am being convinced that
losing what I thought of as myself is not so very frightening, that even this
death is not frightening, that in fact it is the only way to be free.