By Pradeep Krishnan
Pradeep Krishnan interviews Vanamali Mataji, a former professor from Kerala and an ardent Krishna bhakt, who runs an ashram in Rishikes
My wife and I had a chance meeting with Vanamali Mataji, known in her poorvashram as Professor Devi Menon, during our spiritual sojourn in Rishikesh about a decade ago. On our return from Vasishta guha, Sage Vasishta’s cave situated on the banks of the river Ganga, we saw the board, Vanamali Gita Yogashram, and stepped in. The scenic beauty of the ashram, located on the banks of Gangaji, instantly made us cheerful and happy. Even though she was meeting us for the first time, Mataji at once showered us with love and affection, as if she had known us for years. For years, Mataji’s innocent and smiling face, simple manners and loving gestures lingered in our hearts.
Mataji is a beautiful singer, having several bhajan CDs to her credit. Her melodious Krishna bhajans, yearning for the Divine, lifts the listener to a different plane of existence. Interestingly, she herself has written the lyrics and composed the music for all her bhajans. Recently, when I learnt that Mataji was in Thrissur, her native place in Kerala, to record her bhajans, I sought an interview.
Sitting in the cozy drawing room of the house of her college classmate Smt. Nalini Chandran, adorned in a violet cotton saree, her childlike nature, joyful smile and simple manners instantly made me relaxed and calm.
Born to Shri KMR Menon and Smt Ammaluamma on December 11, 1939, in Guruvayoor, a place synonymous with the famous Sri Krishna temple, Devi, as she was named, was a pure Krishna bhakt right from childhood.
In time she passed out with a first rank in MA Honours degree in philosophy from the University of Madras. Later, she joined a college in Thrissur as lecturer and subsequently became a professor. However, the Divine had other plans.
Looking back, Mataji says that her whole life had been shaped by Lord Sri Krishna, as part of the cosmic plan. “I had no aim, I am fulfilled and contented. I have never planned anything. In my life everything happened the way it had to happen.”
At the invitation of her devotees, Mataji holds spiritual sessions in India and abroad, on different aspects of sanatan dharma. A prolific writer, she has written several books on different aspects of Hinduism. Her latest book, The Science called Hinduism, is a systematic and logical analysis of the philosophy.
In addition to conducting regular puja, satsangs and meditation sessions, the ashram is engaged in social service projects. They have adopted the small village, Gaja, located in Garhwal Himalayas, and take care of the health, and sanitation needs of the villagers.
In all ashram activities, Mataji is assisted by Br. Mohan, who joined her about 38 years ago after relinquishing his job in Thrissur. Mataji considers Br. Mohan ‘her dearest brother, friend and companion’ whose unstinted support and dedication has contributed much to the running of the Vanamali Gita Yogashram.
Excerpts from the interview:
Mataji, tell us about your journey from Professor Devi Menon to Vanamali Mataji?
It is an inward journey, not just a change of name, but the journey of the soul towards the Self. When my husband left me to marry another lady, initially I was shocked and perplexed as I did not know what to do. However, soon difficulties turned into blessings. After my daughter got married and my son finished his studies, I just resigned from my job, and left home without any plan, preparation or programme. I wandered all over the Himalayas searching for some place to settle. Eventually, I came to Rishikesh and then somebody offered a beautiful place overlooking the Ganga, a unique place for me to stay, where the Vanamali Gita Yogashram has now come up.
Tell us about your guru.
My guru is Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal of Kanchi Kamakoti peetam, who initiated me to the path of advaita. Again, that was not my choice. After leaving home, I was earnestly searching for a sadguru. Even though I met several gurus in Rishikesh, some incident or other always stopped me from accepting any one as my guru. Once when Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swami was on his pilgrimage to Kedarnath and Badrinath on foot, I saw him passing near the ashram, and ran after him to request him to come to the ashram. Swamiji said that he would on his return journey.
As promised, on his way back, he came to the ashram. Later, when he was staying in the Dayananda Ashram, Rishikesh, I regularly attended his morning classes, and puja. One day, I appealed to Swamiji for initiation. When all the others had left the hall, Swamiji initiated me with a Vishnu mantra without any ceremonial offerings or rituals. On hearing the mantra, tears rolled down from my eyes and I fell at his feet as it was quite astonishing that Swamiji had initiated me with a mantra that I had been using for several years or perhaps lifetimes. After some years, when Swamiji was searching for a place somewhere in Rishikesh to build temples for Shiva and Vishnu, symbolising the temples of Kedarnath and Badrinath, our premises were offered as guru dakshina. Swamiji consecrated the two temples in the year 1984. I consider it as my poorvajanma sukrta. I still keep in touch with my guru and seek his advice on spiritual matters.
The spiritual path that you follow?
All paths ultimately lead to advaita, unity with the One essential truth. I follow the bhakti marga based on advaita as bhakti without jnana leads to fundamentalism as is happening now all over the world. That is why bhakti yoga comes only after jnana and karma in the Bhagavad Gita.
You say to overcome duality, one must go beyond attachment to joy and sorrow and accept life as it is. How does one do that?
Generally, we don’t accept that the world is made of dualities. Like electricity, positive and negative are integral parts of life. We crave only for the positive, resulting in friction within our mind. The moment one accepts that life consists of both and learns to accept the good and bad, the negative and positive, life becomes easy, happy and comfortable.
What, according to you, is liberation or moksha? Practical tips?
The purpose of human life is attaining liberation from the samsara sagar. Liberation does not come from the outside. It is discovering one’s own self or rather removal of the veil of ignorance. The unawareness of connecting and identifying with the mortal body acts as a hindrance to our self-discovery. When we ponder deeply we find that the question of liberation does not arise at all because we are already liberated. The practical method I suggest is to accept and understand the dualities of existence with a calm mind and constantly be aware that we are immortal.
How do you view life?
Life is a leela; joyously play it. I follow the philosophy of Lord Krishna, who is utterly incomparable. He is the only great spiritual yogi who laughed all the time. Whatever the situation he was placed in, Krishna
stood like a lotus leaf on water. When light passes through a crystal, it emits so many colours. Likewise life also gives different colours, shades and many facets. Accept everything as it comes, and live happily and blissfully.
What is your concept of God?
The moment you say God, it becomes a mental concept. God is not a mental concept. It is an eternal and all-pervading energy that the mind can never conceive of. That is why sanatan dharma has innumerable gods. The human mind is not capable of conceiving a god which is formless, and eternal, that is never born and never dies. It is non-dual, but capable of giving duality. Now modern physics says that every matter is nothing but energy in a different form. This is exactly what the rishis had perceived thousands of years ago. They described the world as maya, for the world that we perceive through the senses is deceptive. They showed that the world is not the way you think it is. Quantum physics affirms that all is energy in motion. All is interconnected.
What is your message to seekers?
Understand the God that you are seeking. Sanatan dharma insists that everything, every creation, is God. God has many names and forms, but is actually nameless and formless. First try to intellectually understand that energy/force, so that experience naturally happens at a later stage. For a bhakta, japa is the best. For a person inclined towards work, karma yoga is the best. For an intellectual, jnana marga is the best. Whatever be the path, spirituality should lead one to love humanity. Once a path is chosen, don’t have any doubts about it. Obviously one chooses a path that one is mentally inclined towards. Realize that all the three paths, bhakti, karma and jnana, ultimately merges into one.
About the author :
A seeker based in Trivandrum, Kerala, Pradeep Krishnan is deeply attracted to the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
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