By Maria Wirth
Atmananda, whose book, death must die, is an underground spiritual classic, was a lifelong follower of the great anandamayi ma
Today it is not uncommon for Westerners to go to India for spiritual inspiration. Yet this was not the case in 1935, when a young woman embarked on the long journey from Austria to India and never went back. She died 50 years later. Atmananda, who was called Blanca in her youth in Vienna, originally came because of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Later, she was fascinated by Anandamayi Ma and became her disciple. I met Atmananda in 1980 and stayed in touch with her till she died.
I had noticed Atmananda right in the beginning of my visits to Anandamayi Ma in Dehradun. She was already above 70, had her head shaven and wore a simple, orange-coloured cotton sari, a sign that she had renounced the world; the orange colour symbolising the fire of knowledge that has ideally burnt up all worldly desires. Yet she was not the type who wanted to show off her stand. Once she disclosed to me the reason why she wore orange. “You know, in India one gets invited to so many functions – first of all, of course, to weddings, but then, when a baby is born to the naming ceremony, then again to the first haircut and so on. If I wear orange I don’t have to explain why I don’t come.”
A small one – room house on Rajpur Road was her domicile. And as I found a place on the same road a few hundred metres away, where I used to stay frequently during the early ’80s, we became good friends and had long,
for me, very inspiring talks. In spite of her age, Atmananda was amazingly aware, interested, open–minded and knew for each topic an appropriate comment by Anandamayi Ma or other saints like Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, and others.
She was 29 when she started off on her journey to India from Vienna. That was in 1935 and she never went back to the West. Soon she had no family left whom she could have gone back to. Atmananda was Jewish, and she sometimes wondered whether her grandmother, who was 90 when she was taken to the KZ, had died before being forced into the gas chamber.
Her father had managed to escape to the United States, yet survived only for a few months after his arrival there. However, there was no bitterness, when she recounted this to me, a German.
I asked her how she came to Anandamayi Ma. Originally she had come to India because of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Already as a teenager she was taken in by him, and finally taught English for full 18 years in his school in Varanasi. And by the side she gave piano concerts for All India Radio.
Occasionally she heard the name of Anandamayi Ma. Yet she was not particularly interested. She would rather have met Ramana Maharshi, the great sage from Thiruvannamalai in South India. But during the Second World War she was classified as a national from an enemy country, and her movements were restricted.
Then an Englishman, Lewis Thompson, came to her school in Varanasi. She, as the only other foreigner, was asked to look after him. The newcomer was seriously in search of the truth. When he had not found spiritual guidance in England and France, he came to Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka, at the age of 23. Thereafter, he spent seven years near Ramana Maharshi in Thiruvannamalai.
Atmananda stressed that he had a sharp intellect, was very analytical, and radically pushed aside everything that he felt was not genuine. When Atmananda talked about him I could sense that she liked him. Yet only when I read her diaries, which were published after her death, did I realise how much she had liked him. Thompson was a poet, overly sensitive, had often not a single paisa in his pocket, did not look after his health because of financial constraints, and died early – in 1949, four years after he had come to Varanasi. He was only 40. And it was painful for Atmananda. It might have been of some comfort to her that after his death, his poems were appreciated. Two volumes of them were published.
Thompson had come to Varanasi to meet Anandamayi Ma. She happened to stay at Sarnath at that time, some distance away from Varanasi, where Buddha gave his first sermon after his enlightenment. He started off with the intention of returning in the evening – and did not show up for three days. He had not taken any change of clothes, and the school opposite his room had reported a case of cholera. Atmananda concluded that he must be sick. She bought medicine and went by rickshaw to Sarnath. There she found Thompson hale and hearty, and completely enraptured by Ma. “She surpasses my highest expectations. It is incredible how profound her answers are,” he gushed.
Anandamyi Ma sat on the veranda of a pilgrims’ shelter, surrounded by Buddhist monks. Atmananda, too, felt that something fascinating emanated from her. From then on she walked every evening to Sarnath and before sunrise back to Varanasi to reach in time for her English class.
Once, late at night, she had a talk with Ma. “What she said was so completely simple and convincing that I wondered why I had not discovered it myself. She said only a few sentences, actually nothing new, and yet – the effect was out of proportion. It was as if someone had switched on a light, and I suddenly clearly saw the path. I was confident that I would always see the next step before me. My thoughts did not stop wandering, but worries stopped,” she reminisced.
“For everything there is a right time. Nobody can come to me if the time is not right,” Ma used to say. The time was right for Atmananda to come in close contact with Ma. It was in the year 1945 – when she was completely alone in this world.
Atmananda was proficient in languages. Her mother had died in giving birth to her sister, who was two years younger, and the father employed nannies in his upper middle class home in Vienna – successively from Italy, France and England, so that his daughters would learn languages. In India, Atmananda further learnt Hindi and Bengali, and often translated for foreigners or South Indians, when they talked to Ma. She kept a diary about those talks, and published them in the monthly magazine of the ashram. Occasionally, I helped her with typing or proofreading and thereby came to know from close quarters how Ma responded to each one, and to human problems in general.
Ma knew a sure cure for all ills, and disclosed it to everyone who was weighed down by worries. “The best cure for any situation is – God. Trust in him. Depend on him. Give all your worries and cares into his hands. He will definitely look after you and your cares, if you really and completely hand yourself over to him. Then you can feel light and carefree.”
Ma talked about God as if he was naturally the dearest friend we had in this world. She saw that it was true, and did her best to enable us to see it too. When scholars put questions to her, she argued highly philosophically, and gave inadvertent proof that she, who had attended a village school in East Bengal for only two years, not only knew the scriptures but knew from direct experience what they propounded. The scholars were impressed by her. Many came to meet her.
On the other hand, she formulated the essence of Advaita Vedanta, the highest wisdom, in clear and simple terms:
“Behind all the different, perpetually changing names and forms in this universe there is only ‘one thing’ – God, or however you like to call it. That alone is eternal, ever the same. This god plays with himself as it were. All appearances are contained in him, like in a mirror. He 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.”
Her words had power, probably because she was genuine, and said only what she knew was true.
Ma stressed that a guru was necessary on the spiritual path. In the same way as one needs a guru for maths or physics, one needs a guru on the spiritual path, she claimed.
On the one hand, I could see her point, yet on the other hand, I did not want a guru. Atmananda knew how I felt. She herself had gone through a similar struggle, because Jiddu Krishnamurti was vehemently against any kind of guru, and she used to value his opinion highly.
I soon had several occasions to meet Krishnamurti – in his public talks, in discussions with teachers of his school in Rishi Valley, and at a reception in a private garden in Delhi. Krishnamurti talked in a low, intense voice, and again and again asked his listeners to ‘see what is’. “How can I see what is?” This question popped up without fail. “There is no ‘how’!” he answered firmly. “Just see. The truth is.”
Thousands came to listen to him, and he doubtless looked like a guru, even though he claimed not to be one. During one of his last talks in Madras in 1985, he suddenly interrupted his talk, and sternly addressed a young man in the first row, “Don’t stare at me like this. Go to the back!” The young foreigner had probably come early, because it was not easy to get a place in the first row. He obediently got up and went to the back, as he was told.
When I observed him, a sentence of Anandamayi Ma came to my mind: “The association with an enlightened being consists in getting blows for the ego.” But how can one know for sure? A big, blown ego may also order people around like that. But probably one learns something even then.
Atmananda was certain that she had done the right thing when she changed over to Ma and took her as her guru. Yet it was not always easy. She talked of ‘operations’ which Ma quietly conducted. “They are painful, very painful, these operations, and if one had not been certain about Ma’s great love, one could think her cruel,” she told me. Her diaries of the first years with Ma give a good picture of what a devotee goes through once he ‘gets caught’ in the net of a guru. More of pain than of joy seems to be the rule.
Atmananda told me that earlier in life she used to be very quick tempered and would flare up at the smallest cause. I, however, never noticed any upsurge of temper. Atmananda was a beautiful human being in spite of her age and the shaven head. Everyone enjoyed her company. She was non-judgemental, and accepted each one as he or she was. The time with Ma had obviously benefitted her immensely.
Atmananda gave her diaries to Ram Alexander. Ram had come to India as a young man in the early ’70s. Anandamayi Ma offered him the chance to live in her ashram in Kankhal, a privilege rarely granted to a foreigner. He stayed in Ma’s ashram for about 10 years. Thereafter, he married and settled in Assisi.
Atmananda felt that Ram was Lewis Thompson reborn. That was the reason why she wanted him to have her diaries, and publish them if he thought they would be helpful to others. Ram did not disappoint her, and got them published under the title, Death Must Die. His foreword shows literary flair, but unlike Thompson, in this life he does not live in penury.
Atmananda’s diaries have by now become a sort of underground bestseller. I often saw the book with foreigners. It fascinates, because it is very authentic.
Anandamayi Ma left her body on August 27, 1982. She barely ate for several months prior to her death. We could see her lying still on her bed. There was never an expression of pain or revulsion on her face. Once, when I stood before her, she had to vomit. An assistant held a bowl in front of her mouth. She retched and brought up only bile, yet her facial expression was indifferent. She seemed untouched by what the body went through.
Three years later, Atmananda celebrated her 50-years jubilee in India. She was full of energy as usual. Soon after, she fell sick. Two days she lay in her room, looked after by friends, who took her to Kankhal for better medical care. “You will be back soon,” a friend said to her when she was sitting in the taxi to Kankhal. “No,” Atmananda said firmly. “I go now, and won’t come back.” In three days she was dead, and her body was immersed in the Ganga – a privilege reserved for sanyasis.
Atmananda had occasionally worried as to who would look after her in case she needed care. Ma had claimed, “God looks after you.” And He did look after her.
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