I am now packed ready to leave. I have the travellers
cheques. I have 50 audio cassettes bulging out of all pockets. I listen to Kate’s
last words of advice, and the tape recorder and its extention are off. The distant
Himalayan snows are shining: by the time I see them again they will be veiled
in purdah. As I reach the road a tourist taxi (in late December?) passes: I
am given a lift down to the Mussoorie bus station which saves me an hour’s
walk — an auspicious sign.
The bus is taking me to Rajpur where I used to live,
and where I have to find Atmananda who has half-promised to try and give her
But first I call at the Sakya Monastery. The place is empty. I am told H.H.
Sakya Trizin is away. No chance of getting an Interview from a Western Buddhist
here. But I do meet Shyam Bodhisattva: he writes on the back of an envelope
the name of a friend at the Rajneesh Ashram in Poona. If you go there —
he says, all encouraging smiles — Leela, she is the press officer, will
be the best person to help you, and you will find that place -- well -- interesting.
But for now I am walking through the nearby sleepy
gardens of the Anandamayi Ma Ashram on Rajpur Road. Atmananda, whose earlier
Interview atempt registered nothing but recorded silence, is sitting in the
porch of her tiny house; she appears to be surprised:
I wrote to you — she is saying — telling you not to come before
Oh, Lord, another mistake! But I explain: The banks
don’t issue travellers cheques over Christmas, so perhaps the post office
only delivers Christmas cards, and can’t be bothered with letters during
She lets me in, but she is firm: I will not speak into
that thing again...here is a printed article...(not another one?)…use
I glance at it. There are places needing clarification.
She starts explaining, talking so expressively, so much more naturally, I put
the printed, stilted piece aside. She lets me press the recording button --
this time something surely will be captured.
When I met you last month at Kankhal, you were
reluctant to give me an Interview — you said you didn’t want any
personal publicity. When at last you agreed, we found much to your amusement,
nothing had been caught on the cassette. I know you have lived in India for
nearly 50 years and that you are one of Anandamayi Ma’s oldest and first
Western disciples. But can you tell me something about your early life and what
brought you to India?
My mother died when I was 2 years old so I was brought up by my father and grandmother.
He was Polish, but we lived in Vienna. I was interested in religion very early,
but I went through many phases. At school I learned about the Jewish religion,
and I got very Jewish. I remember saying to my grandmother: I can’t stay
here, you don’t keep orthodox rules — I’m going away! All
right — she said — but where will you go? I was 7, so I began to
think I better wait.
But by the time I was ten I was an atheist. When
the First World War started, I got interested in politics — this lasted
a year or two. But I was still religious-minded and began to read Tolstoy when
I was 14. That impressed me very much.
When I arrived at the age of 16 I became a vegetarian
and started reading Theosophy. But, really, it’s very difficult to talk
if you are going to publish everything.
Yes, I know. But only
what you wish to talk about will be published. You know, our backgrounds are
rather similar: I was also born a Jew of Austrian-Polish parents, and like you
I became a musician. Can you tell me how you started your musical training?
It was while still a child of 6 or 7. I was considered a wunderkind, although
I successfully avoided playing in public. It was at my music teacher’s
that I met a girl, much older than I, who was a Theosophist. She gave me some
books to read, but I didn’t like them. Then she brought me Krishnamurti’s
little book At the Feet of the Master. I didn’t read it. After some time
she wanted it back, so I felt I better read it — you probably know it
— it’s very short. Well, it had a peculiar affect on me. From that
day I couldn’t eat meat anymore. My family thought I’d get over
it, but since then — it’s over sixty years ago — I have never
eaten meat. It became contagious: my sister became a vegetarian after one year,
then my father, and as my grandmother had no choice, she also followed. It was
From then on I became a keen Theosophist. When I
was 21 I came to India for the Jubilee Convention at the International Headquarters
in Adyar. That was in 1925. Dr. Annie Besant and Mr. Leadbeater were alive in
those days. I should tell you that I had been fascinated by India since my childhood
although I didn’t know anything about India. When I first heard the names
of India’s two great epics: Mahabharata and Ramayana, I went home from
school repeating those words like a mantra. Of course, I didn’t know
what a mantra was until much later.
When did you come back
Oh, it wasn’t for another ten years… in 1935.
And this time you never
I have not even stepped outside India since then.
How did you meet Anandamayi
Ma? She could hardly have been so well-known in those days.
I was teaching at Rajghat School in Varanasi, and although I had heard much
about Mataji from friends who knew her, and I was
searching for spiritual guidance, I was in no hurry to meet her. It wasn’t
until 1943 when I was spending my summer vacation in Almora that I had my first
darshan. The Danish sadhu
who lives there one day said to me: “The Holy Mother is at Patal Devi, why don’t you see her on your
way back?” The Ashram there was not built then, but I found Mataji sitting in the open on a string cot.
A few devotees were squatting at her feet. She seemed all joy and beauty. She
addressed a few words to me. She didn’t treat me as a stranger but as
if I were well-known to her. At that time I knew no Bengali and only some colloquial
Hindi, not enough for a serious conversation. I wanted to know more about her.
In those days there were no books on her in English. She was always travelling,
never in one place for long.
All my life I had been taught to look at things critically
and never accept anything on authority. I knew it was difficult to distinguish
between an enlightened being and one with a semblance of this divine state.
At that first meeting I was wearing European dress, a solar topi, I carried
a hand-bag in one hand and a mountaineering stick in the other. My appearance
clashed painfully with Mataji’s surroundings, and I was sensitive
to the curious glances of the devotees.
Nevertheless, I was struck by the inward beauty that
shone from their faces. After 15 minutes I got up to go, but within a few months
I was able to have Mataji’s darshan in Varanasi, where I taught.
This time she was surrounded by a huge crowd under
a pandal by the Ganges. This was the site chosen as her new Ashram, although
no building had started. Kirtan was going on. I was not used to
this spectacular worship and felt out of place.
In spite of the dense crowd and the loud singing
and dancing which disturbed me, there was something about Mataji which attracted me profoundly. I wanted
to know her at closer quarters, but the chance didn’t come so quickly.
She says: No one can come to me until the time is
right. It was, therefore, two years later before conditions brought me closer
It was at Sarnath. I was allowed to spend a whole
evening with her on the roof of the Birla Dharamsala. Here there were no crowds,
only a few companions and Buddhist monks. It was informal and I didn’t
feel out of place. Sarnath had been my favourite place of pilgrimage ever since
I had come to Varanasi ten years before. I spent much time there reading Buddhist
scriptures, enjoying the peace and wondering how it was that after millennia
the presence of Lord Buddha could still be felt so strongly.
I never dreamed that Sarnath, where he delivered his first sermon after attaining
illumination, would be the setting for a decisive turning point in my life.
I sat quietly by Mataji not wanting to ask anything, just
imbibing the atmosphere. Several days passed like this until one evening I had
a long private talk with Mataji. What she said was so simple and convincing;
no room for doubts. I thought: How strange I had not been able to find this
out myself. And yet I knew it was not another talking to me, but my Self conversing
with my self. What Mataji said was evidently only the outer
expression of something that took place simultaneously at a deeper level.
The next morning we had another talk to clarify some
details, during which Mataji asked whether I had to support anyone
in my family. Several weeks later I received news of the death of my aged father,
the only near relative I possessed. He had died a refugee in America three days
after Mataji had talked to me at Sarnath. The time
to make close contact with her came when all worldly ties had dissolved. With
extraordinary ease and naturalness she had exploded my problem. Where there
had been a constant dilemma, now there was a straight path.
Was it from that time
you started editing the magazine “Ananda Varta”?
The nominal editor I have been only for five or six years, but, yes, I have
been doing the work from the beginning. The chief editor, Dr. Gopinath Kaviraj(1)
, trained me — he was wonderful to me. Anything I couldn’t understand
he would explain for hours. I used to think: What a waste of time — if
he would only dictate the answer I would use it and finish with it. Only afterwards
when he was no longer available did I realize he had trained me to do everything
myself. The magazine started in the early fifties and is published quarterly.
In those early days I had such an intense desire to know what Mataji was saying that I spent all my spare
time studying Hindi.
In a year I was able to talk to her without help.
No sooner had that happened than Mataji would often call me to translate for
foreigners. I had a unique opportunity to witness many private Interviews which
enabled me to get first-hand experience of the universality of Mataji’s teachings and how she modified
them to suit each person’s nature, conditioning and needs.
When you were young you
were such an accomplished pianist. I wonder if you ever miss classical music
Every day I do kirtan for one hour, and at every Ashram
function also. Of course, this is Indian music. In the beginning when I heard
this loud music I would sneak out — I couldn’t bear it as my ear
was finely attuned to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. I think I once told you that
when I first came out to India I played piano recitals on the Indian Radio.
My favourite composer was Bach, but I also played Chopin, Schumann, Ravel, Debussy,
etc. Yes, I gave it all up, but it never was my life really. I was born into
another culture and background, but this was no new life that I entered when
I came here… you see, I didn’t belong to that life.
You would never go back
to the West?
No, no, no! No question. But suppose I were deported, I know there would be
a quiet place for me somewhere. Even in the West people are living high up in
the mountains with no electricity, no running water. One can live the simple
life anywhere. If you are meant to live this life, you will live it wherever
you are…but I don’t want to go back.
Have you taken Indian
Long, long ago… in 1951. But I have to tell you a strange thing. I don’t
have a passport. When I was filling out all the forms, they said: You don’t
want to go out of India? I replied: No, what for? So they never gave me a passport…I
don’t suppose I can ever leave.
Are you really 76?
Yes. I ought to tell you what happened in 1945 when I wanted to spend the Divali
holidays with Mataji at Vindhyachal. The war was not yet
over, and being an enemy alien I couldn’t leave Varanasi without permission…there
was a permit one had to get. I had only just been drawn close to Mataji. So I was anxious that permission
be granted. Can you imagine my joy when told henceforth I was free to travel
without permission? Since 1939 all my movements had been restricted. As soon
as I was free of desire to go anywhere except to be near Mataji, I was suddenly free to go anywhere
Can you remember something
of special interest from those early days spent with Mataji?
I can never forget the Kali puja
which was celebrated at Vindhyachal during that first visit in 1945. Mataji was present throughout the whole puja.
Her face changed continually: a drama appeared to be enacted on her features.
I cannot claim to know how a goddess looks, but she was so radiantly beautiful
and so young that night, it surely could not have been the countenance of a
When the puja
was over, I didn’t feel sleepy in the least, but I went to my room to
lie down. Someone knocked at the door calling my name. An asana — a small
meditation rug — was handed to me with the message: Mataji sends you this. It was 4 a.m., the
time one usually rises for meditation. How subtle — I thought —
Mataji is presenting me with a reminder:
this is no time to sleep but to sit in meditation! I went outside to thank her;
she was still surrounded by people, but she said to me: You were cold sitting
without an asana? This small treasure is still with me although through the
years it has become badly worn.
When I Interviewed Simonetta,
she had much to say about Ashram hells. Have you gone through any hells?
Now you see my place…where are the hells? Yes, in the beginning there
are difficulties, but difficulties are a necessary part of the training. People
from the West think that when you come to the guru you just bask in the Holy Presence.
That’s part of it — the other part is the difficulties. Mataji is often asked about this. She says:
Whatever happens to you is due to past karma which has to be worked out. We
come to Ashrams from different social and cultural upbringing and have to mix
together. Naturally it’s going to cause upheavals. But we take it as part
of the polishing.
Perhaps we only see this
when the polishing is complete? What do you have to say about the benefits of
The secluded life isn’t a thing you choose like going to a hotel. It has
to be meant for you. The benefits? I couldn’t live any other life. Where
would I go? I could never live with a family.
When did you start wearing
You probably know Mataji doesn’t give sannyas
to Europeans. In 1962 when I had been with her for almost twenty years, she
asked someone in my presence whether he wanted to take sannyas;
he was not willing. I said: “Mataji, I can take it.” She replied:
So she gave me a robe with instructions how to dye it and that I should bathe
in the Ganges before wearing it. My name she gave at the very beginning.
Is that when you started
shaving your head?
Oh, that!…no, no, that’s a funny story. Mataji never told me to do that. A few years
ago I slightly injured my head; it became septic and troublesome. I asked the
doctor to shave the hair off, but he wouldn’t. The wound didn’t
heal so I did it myself. The wound healed but I like to keep my head shaved.
With all the literary
work you have been doing, does it not keep you away from Mataji?
I am now too old to travel with her all the time. It was different in the beginning
— I was with her very much, at times going to small villages where they
had never even heard of a bathroom. I often had to sleep in a storeroom —
on the floor — having arrived in the middle of the night. All that was
good; you see, everything depends on your attitude. Yes, there may be Ashram
hells, but there are two sides to everything. If you wish to be with such a
being like Mataji, you have to be prepared to go through
ups and downs. I have seen Rajas and Ranis putting up with conditions they hadn’t
met before. It’s hard, but look at how many Ranis come of their own accord
to the Samyam Saptah!
Is that the austerity
week Mataji holds every year?
Yes. The one that has just ended is the 32nd. They started in 1952. You see,
Mataji is extremely particular about one
thing: Without self-restraint nothing can be achieved. Mataji firmly maintains if we live soft,
indulgent lives, nothing can be achieved. She tells everybody there must be
self-discipline. She says that worldly pleasures lead to spiritual death. But
knowing that most people live like this these days, she started advising them
to keep one day a week or at least one day a month to observe strict rules:
eat only one meal, don’t smoke, drink or talk unnecessarily, don’t
visit anyone but stay at home reading scriptures and meditating.
What were the eating
arrangements during this week?
On the first day we only take Gangajal — water from the Ganges. The next
six days, nothing until mid-day when a simple meal is served. We are not supposed
to take tea or coffee but as much Gangajal as we like. That is most cleansing.
In the evening there is hot milk for those needing it.
Why do you drink so much
According to what the stomach consumes so will the mind work. When we start
this austerity week, the first thing to be done is to clear out the system by
drinking plenty of water. Together with the fasting, this clears and tones up
the body. For anyone living in luxury, how can they take to the spiritual life?
It can’t go together. That’s why many of those coming from the West
get ill — they are spoilt by every sort of comfort. I tell you, the hard
life is absolutely necessary.
I wonder if you could
end by telling us something about the benefits of the spiritual life?
Oh, oh, oh — there is no end to the benefits. On the superficial level,
just look: there are no worldly distractions, you don’t have to go out
visiting people, or doing useless things. Once you give up these things you
can live a private life, a life of seclusion. People used to leave their homes
and live alone, but this is difficult. Ashram life is the next best thing, although
you have to put up with all sorts of temperaments.
I will tell you one last thing. For me coming to
India was not really a new life: I was interested in this from the beginning.
I never had to give up anything as I was always out of place there.
She replied: “All right. Then sit perfectly
still in meditation” .
The passionate story of Atmananda’s fifty-year
spiritual quest in India is vividly related in the book, “Death
Must Die”, compiled from her diaries which Ram Alexander edited
and which was published by Indica Books, Varanasi, in 2000. Her extraordinary
death four years after giving the above Interview is poignantly described
by Ram Alexander in his epilogue:
“Atmananda’s exit from this world was that of a true yogini – sitting upright repeating
her Guru’s name with complete composure…she
was taken in procession, in the traditional manner for a sannyasi,
to a special area of the Ganges reserved for the submersion of sannyasis…Atmananda
was given the full honours due to her as a Hindu sannyasi.
To my knowledge she is the only Western woman who has ever been accorded
such an honour”.