By Rashmi Sehgal
Rashme Sehgal meets Swami Vishwananda, a Mauritian born disciple of Mahavatar Babaji, and propounder of bhakti marga, who has opened an ashram in Vrindavan to highlight the cause of decaying river Yamuna
Mauritius born Swami Vishwananda is the founder of an ashram in Springen, Germany where his followers follow Bhakti Marga, the path of love and devotion so that they may encounter divine love. Swami Vishwananda successfully combines Eastern spirituality with Western spiritual traditions, giving people access to divine experience regardless of their cultural background.
His movement has grown rapidly and he travelled to India in December 2016 with a group of swamis and swaminis to inaugurate his new ashram in Vrindavan. Although small in size, the ashram has a powerful temple dedicated to Yamuna Maharani and Sri Giridhari. A dedicated environmentalist, it is obvious that Swami Vishwananda wants to highlight the cause of Yamuna river which flows past Vrindavan and desperately needs cleaning up.
He spoke at length about his mission and vision in an interview with the author.
You are now opening an ashram in India and that too in Vrindavan. What is the significance of having an ashram in Vrindavan?
Vrindavan is a place where Behari is active. Originally, I did not want an ashram here but the saints and sadhus insisted that I have an ashram in Vrindavan because the energy of Shri Krishna is predominant over here. The city stands as a beacon of devotion and faith.
The ashram is dedicated to Yamuna Maharani and Giridhari. This the first temple in the world which is dedicated to Krishna and his wife Yamunarani. She is one of the main wives of Krishna and had incarnated to marry him.
Is Yamuna Maharani an incarnation of the river Yamuna?
Yes, Yamuna Maharani is the manifestation of river Yamuna. The Yamuna river is one of the deities, one of the wives of Krishna. So the temple is unique because it will have Krishna in the form of Giridhari with Yamuna Maharani next to him.
I hope the worship of Yamunarani will teach us to clean the river and bring down its pollution levels.
When you see Yamuna in Yamunotri, it is flowing powerfully and rapidly. But then barriers are placed and her waters are diverted. The river stops flowing and becomes polluted. People do not realise the importance of a flowing river. The river maintains her balance of energy by flowing. All this pollution and dirt must be removed. I feel people here don’t respect the river enough. Most of the leela of Krishna was performed around here. We cannot forget how sacred this river is for us. We must commit to protect her intrinsic qualities. If pollution continues unabated, it reflects poorly on the people. If the government truly wanted to do something for the Yamuna, they would have done something by now to restore her flow. Up north, a great deal of Yamuna’s water is diverted at the Hathnikund barrage which has affected her flow. Last year, Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi) gave ` 60 crore to restore the ghats of the Yamuna. The Japanese government have also given $210 million for revival of Yamuna.
When I was in Vrindavan in 2015, there were all these gurus participating in the festivals, and I asked them, ‘Why don’t you clean the Yamuna?’ They said that their focus was not on material Vrindavan but on spiritual Vrindavan. But I wonder if your material side is not good, how can you concentrate on the spiritual side? When on the outside there is beauty, it helps you to focus on the inside. Why do you think yogis used to live in forests? Nature uplifts you, it helps to raise your soul to a higher dimension. People working in towns function in a certain way. They need to go on holidays, to mountains, rivers, and the sea to recharge, rejuvenate, and find peace. If they will destroy nature, where will they go to have peace, and re-energise themselves? It is the same thing in Varanasi _ how dirty it is from the outside. The gurus and saints in India should really teach the people outside cleanliness. This will bring them closer to inner cleanliness. Nature is very important. Somebody once asked me how would it be to have an ashram in the city. I said, "No way. We can have a centre in the city, but an ashram must be located in nature."
You are expanding the presence of bhakti marga ashrams across the globe. How does an ashram help to change the energy of a place?
Every temple, every ashram means a place where people come together to be with God. That is what an ashram is; a high energy place where people come to recharge their batteries _ you are recharged spiritually. Yamuna plays a big role in Vrindavan. Unfortunately, the people here do not realise her importance. They respect her but respect does not change anything.
What does an ashram mean for the community who lives around such a place?
I want true bhakts to spread throughout the world. It is through real bhakti and devotion to God that people will be free. Not through dogmas, or scriptures but through surrender to Him. The study of scriptures must develop in us a yearning for God and make us humble. If scriptures make us arrogant, then we are going wrong somewhere. People on the spiritual path must not be proud of their knowledge. Tomorrow, what will happen if they have a stroke? All that knowledge will be gone. But if spiritual love awakens within a human being, it can never be destroyed. It carries on from one generation to another.
What is your mission for India given that we were a spiritual nation which is fast losing its spirituality? How can we regain it?
India is the land of spirituality. Every God’s presence is here. This is a constant reminder of our inherent love for God, the need to make it more permanent. Everything we do must be an act of service to the Lord. Babaji (Mahavatar Baba) says, “Atma Kriya helps awaken our love and devotion to God. Every moment of our life is a service to God. Our life’s purpose is to love. As human beings, we can feel his love. By loving people, we have a glimpse of how to love God.”
India is suffering spiritually because the minds of people have changed. People are blindly copying the West and by doing so, are losing their own culture. The spiritual and the material world are not separate but how much importance one gives to either of the one, determines one’s nature. Ashrams, sadhus, saints are a reminder of something more important than the physical, material life.
What is the cause of present discord in our country?
People like to believe that the form of god they worship is the best. If they were a little clearer, they would transcend their own institutions. People fight because they think they know better than anybody else. There is no respect, or harmony.
The natural world should go hand in hand with spiritual world. India was known for its natural beauty as well as its spiritual beauty but they are now destroying their natural surroundings. (Mahavtar) Babaji talked about how Vrindavan was full of forests. These forests have been destroyed and today Vrindavan should be called `Buildingvan’. Everybody is competing about whose building is bigger, and bank balance fatter. People use knowledge according to what they want. If they have tamasic quality, they will use it in a tamasic way, if they have sattvic quality, they will use it in sattvic way. The gurus are competing with each other about the number of buildings and cars they own. If they have rupees one crore, they want Rs 100 crore. Divine love is reflected in simple people. They are not bothered about all these externalities.
What does the Krishna Leela mean to you?
You see in Krishna Leela, Krishna destroys all the barriers between people and God. He means everything to his believers, not just the gopis and gopalas. He calls everyone to have a relationship with him. He is not limited. You can love him as a child, girlfriend or boyfriend. Only he can take on so many forms. Other deities cannot take on these aspects _ you cannot dance with Shiva. Krishan Leela is about establishing a personal relationship with Him.
Has Indian culture become global?
Our culture has spread throughout the world in the form of yoga, and meditation. India is such a rich country in every field be it education, material life or spirituality. Indians need to remind themselves of their great sages, their culture. They must never let it disappear. Hindu sanatan dharma is eternal. Other religions are governed by strict rules and dogmas; if they are not followed, the religion disappears. Whereas, sanatan dharma is always adapting, taking on different dimensions over time. That is why even when it declines, we find an uprising taking place in a different way. It is always adapting, always fluid.
You grew up in Mauritius. Yet you chose Springen in Germany to set up your first ashram. Why?
I did not start here. The first ashram was in Steffenshof. Why did I choose Germany? Since I was a small boy, I had a vision of a place where there were trees and a valley. I had been travelling around, and when I came to Springen and looked at the valley outside, I realised that this was the actual vision, which I had been carrying within me.
I chose Germany because it is geographically well-situated. And also because people of Europe are searching for Truth and Germany has the right energy. In the new world, it will play a key role in changing this world.
Tell us a little bit about your spiritual journey and your relationship with your guru Mahavatar Babaji.
My relationship with Babaji is not from one life. We are linked to our guru. I remember the first encounter when I was very small. I was taken to a hospital because I had eaten some poisonous seeds. There was a man standing outside the window giving sweets to children in the children's wards. I asked him, who he was what he was doing. He said, “I have come to see my children.” He took my hand and put one rupee and one sweet in it. He looked deep into my eyes and said, “Do you know who you are? When you are small, you don’t know who you are.” He pointe his finger behind his head and said, “Do you see light?” I looked but did not see anything.
“I do not see any light,” I replied.
He bent down and said, “Look properly.”
At that moment I saw a sun surrounded by a halo of light, and he said, “That is you.”
That was my first encounter with Babaji.
As they say in the Hindu tradition, the disciple does not look for the guru; the guru comes looking for his disciples. My spiritual path was always linked to him.
My mother used to tell me that the minute I started walking, I ran to a temple. I would steal incense and burn it. I remember there were a pile of stones behind my nani’s house. I used to pluck flowers and worship these stones as Shiva. That was of course in a fun, child-like way but the love of God was always there. Although my parents believed in God, they were not so dedicated? I remember my mother saying, “I don't think we are your parents. I don’t think you are our son. We don’t have that pull towards spirituality as you do.” When I was 12, my mother told me to stop harassing God and give Him some rest. But I told her, "It doesn’t matter if I go crazy for God. It’s a good crazy."
My mother would stop me from saying my prayers, but I would do it secretly. As I grew older, I would collect little bits of money and use it to buy idols of Shiva and Krishna. When I was five, I had gone with my grandfather to a shop where I saw a Shivalingam which cost Rs 250. I told the Shivalingam, "You belong to me. You will come to me one day." And then seven years later, when I had Rs 250, which was gifted to me by my uncle, I went with my cousin and bought it. I carried the Shivalingam, which was made of stone and was quite heavy, to my house and hid it in a bed of flowers to avoid confrontation with my mother. But she caught me in the act and became quite angry.
One thing led to another until May 21, 1995 when at the age of fourteen I forgot everything. I was in high school at that time. A knowledge within me came to the fore. My past life caught up with me. Wondrous things began to happen in the house. All the pictures on the walls got covered with vibhuti. My mother could not believe her eyes. One day when I came back, I found her crying. When I asked her the reason she said that when I left the house there was no vibhuti, but as soon as I came back vibhuti reappeared on the pictures. One day my mother informed me that the neighbour was very sick. I met the neighbour and she got cured. The next morning people queued up at my place wanting to meet me.
Did you cure the neighbour?
God did it. In the same way, many other miraculous things happened. A lady who had brain tumour, after three days of being blessed, went to the doctor and found she had been cured. All the lines on her hand had taken the shape of Shirdi Sai Baba. This is how it all started. The first country I had travelled to was Kenya. A lady who's son was going blind, had invited me. I was 14 years old at that time. Then I went to India. I met Sathya Sai Baba, who was a big help, and I became very close to him. He wanted to keep me in Puttaparthi but I always refused.
You teach your followers to look within. You emphasise on the restorative powers of love. If this journey is so simple, why do we humans forget it?
Because it is so simple. If it was complicated, we would not forget it. People take simplicity for granted. If we complicate things and give them to people, they get a sense of achievement. Love is very easy. It is inborn, and is the essence of who we are. The mind likes to complicate things. When good things happen in people's lives, they forget it very quickly. But they treasure things which are not good, and dwell on them.
I once told an interesting story on Twitter, ‘You are a Peach Tree’. Parents, society and everybody will tell you that you are not a peach tree, but an apple tree. Naturally, a time comes when you start behaving and thinking like an apple tree. But in essence, you are still a peach tree. The essence will never change. You can create an image of yourself, but when you sit quietly with yourself, you are more than the body, more than the mind, more than your thoughts. You are the eternal reality of Paramatma. All saints and gurus, teach the same thing. This is why we use two words in Hindi, pyar and prem. The difference between them is that while pyar is limited, prem lies deep within us and is unlimited. We say Prem for Bhagwan but pyar for humans. Prem is a deep love. This is who we are.
Are modern Indians moving away from their moorings with family structures disintegrating rapidly?
Western culture has caught up with India. Its indigenous culture has been turned inside out. Through the ages, our yogis and saints gave human values to mankind. Life is not just for eating and sleeping; but to attain something greater. When the British conquered India, the first thing they did was to change the system of education in order to control the people. It suited them and for that they destroyed the Vedic culture. They did it in Latin America, and whichever territory they colonised.
India's sages remind this great society, of how to attain God. India is playing a key role in the world. Its light is shining throughout the world. Yoga is everywhere, though in the West it is little more than a series of exercises. But yoga is deeper than these exercises, something more than the body.
Sadly, Indians have forgotten their mantras. I took a group of people to the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. Our group started chanting the Vaishnav mantras. The priest permitted us inside the temple even though foreigners are prohibited because my followers knew the mantra _ he later told us that Indians who go there do not know the mantras. These mantras are the heritage of India, but they are not limited only to India. These people were Indians in their past lives. That is why they continue to follow the spiritual path from where they had left it.
We are all facing the effects of climate change. If we do not control our carbon dioxide emissions, the planet will be in deep trouble. Do you see this happening?
It is possible to change the situation but people need to have greater awareness. The point is the politicians and great personalities sit and discuss this, but do nothing to change the situation. For years they have been saying that there is a hole in the ozone, but industries are still running in the same way. It depends on the heads of government to first set a strong example. If they set the example, things will change. Otherwise nature will take its course and change things, because that is how nature is. We know it from the shastras and holy scriptures that for every illness there is a cure. When nature sees that things are getting imbalanced, she balances herself. And when she balances herself, it might not be good for the mankind. That is why, the quicker man changes, the better it is for him.
People need to think of the future of their children and grandchildren. Few days ago I was shown a video where three generations were interviewed. The grandfather described how he used to play in the fields, the father too said the same thing but their grandson and granddaughter said that they would die without their computers and internet. If small kids today are talking like that, what will happen to the next generation? If children will be lost in the digital world from morning to night do you think they will bother about nature and humanity? This is not the fault of kids; but of the parents. They give mobile phones to them at a very early age. Parents must change.
Do you see hope for India ? Will we survive as a nation?
India has seen tremendous change. She will not fall. Even Alexander the Great could not conquer India. The English tried to conquer her, but finally had to quit the country. The essence of India cannot change. It is the land of culture. Even though I was not born in India, I am proud to be an Indian. Sanatan dharma has no beginning and end. India will change, she will balance herself and shine her light. Whenever I hear the national anthem, I feel proud of it even though I am not an Indian.
Swamiji will be in New Delhi on November 9, 2017 to meet his followers.
Rashme Sehgal is a senior writer-jounalist who writes on social and political issues. She has worked in several newspapers including The Times of India, The Asian Age, The Telegraph and The Independent.
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