By Maria Wirth
Thirty years ago, during the Ardha Kumbh mela in Haridwar, the author met Anandamayi Ma, one of india’s most revered spiritual teachers. A nostalgic rewind of the impact it had on her life
There were several foreigners staying in the tourist bungalow – Americans, Australians and Italians. They had made the journey to the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, primarily because of Anandamayi Ma, whom they considered their guru. “She is coming tomorrow morning!” Manfred from northern Italy called out to me over the balcony. “Come with us to the railway station to meet her.” He did not have to persuade me. I was curious about Ma, because I remembered seeing a photo of her in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi – Yogananda, Anandamayi Ma in the middle, and her husband, who looked much older. The photo taken in the 1930s showed a beautiful, attractive woman. Almost 50 years had passed since then and I was surprised that she was still alive and that anyone could meet her.
At dawn, we went by cycle rickshaws to the railway station. Even at that early hour, pilgrims flocked to the Ganges in a steady stream. Finally, hooting, with a cloud of smoke trailing overhead, the train from Varanasi pulled in, and screeched to a halt. Four young men in spotless white dhotis entered the first class compartment, and carried Ma out on a chair, to which four handles were attached. Ma looked fragile and delicate, wrapped in white cotton cloth. Her black, oiled hair fell over her shoulders. She looked at us with calm eyes. There was no reaction on her face, no sign of recognition of her devotees, many of whom she would have known for decades. She simply looked and her eyes moved slowly around the group. It was pleasant, and I had the strange feeling, that nobody was there behind those eyes. Inexplicably, tears started rolling down my cheeks. “That’s normal when one is touched by a great soul,” someone next to me reassured me. Indeed, I had the feeling that I had been touched by a very pure soul.
Anandamayi Ma went to her ashram in Kankhal, and we followed her in taxis. Kankhal extends to the south of Haridwar. It mainly consists of large ashrams, surrounded by boundary walls. Ashrams are often compared to monasteries, and in a sense, this comparison is valid. Its residents are ideally striving for God, or self-realisation (God and self are interchangeable in Indian philosophy). Yet there is a major difference. An ashram comes up around an extraordinary human being, an enlightened master, or at least someone who is spiritually above average. That person attracts attention, because she rests in the innermost being, and does not seek any benefits for her own person. People who are interested in knowing the truth, want to stay near her, because someone who knows the truth, is said to be of invaluable help to someone who wants to realise it. Therefore, they build houses and an ashram takes shape. It usually continues to exist, even when that great personality dies, without a designated successor. Henceforth the tomb, called samadhi, becomes the focus of veneration, as it is supposed to have power. Anandamayi Ma’s samadhi in Kankhal is today such a focus, since her death on August 27, 1982.
The taxi stopped at the gate of Ma’s ashram. Flower vendors eagerly awaited us. They offered garlands of jasmine, marigold and roses, which were tightly pressed into a net, and shed a wonderful fragrance. Everyone entered the ashram with either flowers or fruits in his hands. An American put a garland into my hands. In the centre of the courtyard, a chair was placed for Ma. She sat down and we, about 30 people, stood around her. She asked some of her devotees how they were doing, whether everything was okay and so on. The questions were commonplace, and yet there was a sense of sublime grandeur in the air.
Then with a garland in his hands, somebody went up to her and kneeled down. He placed the garland at her feet and his forehead on the ground. Two women assistants, who sat on the floor on either side of Ma’s chair, threw the garland over his head. Then he got up slowly, and with folded hands, his gaze fixed on Ma, and probably hoping that she, too, would look at him, which was not always the case. One by one we went up to her like this, including my foreigner friends and it became plain to me that the garland in my hands was waiting for a similar destiny. I felt ill at ease. I was new in India. Eventually, I decided to do ‘pranam’, as it is called in India, when one bows before the divinity in a human being.
I walked up to Ma, knelt down and put my flower garland at her feet and my forehead on the ground. When I lifted my head again and looked up to Ma, she looked above my head towards the group. I went back to my place, disappointed. “When you couldn’t see, Ma looked down at you,” someone next to me kindly whispered into my ear. I had noticed it already on the railway station, and now, in the courtyard, I noticed it again, that her gaze was different. It touched the heart and widened it. Moreover, it was painful when it was withheld. Because of her short, fleeting gaze, and the feeling that it induced, I went from then on every evening by rickshaw to Kankhal.
Was Ma enlightened? I did not know, but felt it was possible. Melita Maschmann, a journalist, who had been living in India since 1963 and had written several books, two of them about Anandamayi Ma, was the only other German in the courtyard, and she explained to me what enlightenment meant. Ma sees in everything and everywhere only the one God, that is, her own self. For her, others do not exist. She herself has said that only because of convention, she differentiates between herself and others. In truth, she does not see a difference, and there is no difference.
Therefore, there is no difference between an enlightened being, and us ordinary mortals. We differ only in one aspect, an enlightened being lives in that oneness, feels it, is at home in it, whereas we think that we are separate, and even prefer to hold on to this illusion, though we, of course, are also at home in the oneness. Oddly, we want to be separate; we are fond of our person, our thoughts, feelings, relationships, memories, hopes and even our worries and pain. We are used to the illusion. It is familiar and almost everyone shares it. So far, we were okay. Why should we give it up? Just because of the truth?
Few are ready for it in spite of the assurance that truth is heaven and illusion is hell. All our suffering originates from our imaginary isolation, and is unnecessary, claim the sages. We do not need to be afraid of the truth. In fact, truth is the fulfilment for which we unconsciously long. I tried to imagine what Anandamayi Ma perceived, while she looked at us. Did she see our bodies and her own among them as fleeting, transitory waves on the one ocean, while she felt immersed in its immense depth and vastness?
Concepts like truth and God, which I had not considered relevant in recent years, and had hardly figured in my vocabulary, seemed in the Indian context important, relevant, and natural.
“Life is meant to realise the truth. Truth has to come first. Everything else is secondary,” Anandamayi Ma claimed and did not compromise on that.
Ma 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.”
When her mother died, Ma was cheerful, and laughed her hearty laugh as usual. Her devotees felt that her behaviour was not quite appropriate for the situation. Ma reacted, surprised, “Why? Nothing has happened!” For her dying was like changing a dress. Who would be sad over losing an old dress, when one is still fresh and alive?
In May, when the temperature shot above 40 degrees Celsius in Haridwar, Ma moved to Dehradun in the foothills of the Himalayas. A wealthy couple had built a cottage for Ma in their spacious compound on the outskirts of the town.
Towards evening, around sunset, Ma would give darshan there. She sat on a cot on the verandah, behind her the outline of the first range of the mountains against the evening sky, which changed into ever new shades of colour. The atmosphere was uplifting and pure.
While waiting for Ma, we were singing bhajans or reciting the Hanuman Chalisa. Once, a girl of about 10 sat next to me. She sang full-throatedly, though a little out of tune. Listening to her, I liked her more and more. My heart was overflowing with love for her. Then the verandah door opened, and Anandamayi Ma appeared, supported by two women. Even before she reached the cot, she briefly stopped; half turned, and looked somewhat irritated in my direction. When she finally sat down on the cot, her glance settled on me for a long time. Yet this time, Ma’s glance did not strike me or induce any feeling. It seemed as if there was no centre that could have been struck. I simply looked back at her.
Probably Ma’s glance was attracted by the love that I felt for that girl, and probably she really did not perceive us as separate persons. After all, she often declared that it is a mistake to consider one as separate from others. However, almost certainly all of us, as we were sitting there on the verandah during her daily darshan, wished that she appreciated us personally. In addition, if we were honest, we most likely even wished that she appreciated our own person a little more than she appreciated the others.
However, Ma didn’t oblige. She was not consistent in her attention and affection. A genuine guru can see, even if his disciple can’t see it, that the ego is the culprit which makes life difficult. Naturally, he is not interested in flattering the ego and strengthening it – on the contrary. “The association with an enlightened being consists in getting blows to the ego,” Anandamayi Ma once remarked. My ego felt the blows. For example, when she didn’t look at me for long, and it reacted with heavy, resentful thoughts. It wanted to leave. On the other hand, I felt attracted to Ma, because I learnt around her almost effortlessly a new way of life – for example that everything is just right as it is.
“Trust in God. He certainly will look after you and all your affairs, if you really put full trust in Him, and if you dedicate all your energy to realise your self. You then can feel completely light and free,” Ma claimed and it sounded convincing. By ‘God,’ she meant the formless essence in everything. Nevertheless, this essence is not something abstract and cold. It is love, and can be experienced as the beloved. She also said, “You are always in His loving embrace.”
It made sense that the great being is the source of love. Where else would love come from? Anandamayi Ma drew my attention repeatedly to that great spirit in me, in whom it is possible to relax, and feel fully safe and protected. Moreover, I genuinely wanted to follow what she asked of us, ‘Feel His presence in you 24 hours a day.’ I wonder whether, in her state, she could imagine that this is not that easy. 30 years later, I trust that this presence is here in me, and aware 24 hours a day, yet I (what I normally consider as I) feel it rarely.
Maria Wirth, a German planned only a stopover in India in 1979. She is still here (presently in Dehradun). Reason: India’s spirituality, which she feels, has no equal. Contact:email@example.com
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Anandamayi Ma was born Nirmala Sundari to Bipinbihari Bhattacharya and Mokshada Sundari Devie in what is now Bangladesh.
Wed at the age of 13 to Ramani Mohan Chakrabarti of Vikramapura, she soon began to experience meditative states. Hers was a celibate marriage – whenever thoughts of sexuality occurred to her husband, Anandamayi’s body would take on the qualities of death and she would grow faint. On the full moon night of August 1922, at midnight, 26-year-old Nirmala went through the actions of spiritual initiation – initiating herself, rather than following the tradition of initiation by a guru or priest. She later stated, ‘As the guru I revealed the mantra; as the shishya I accepted it and started to recite it.’ Soon, she began spontaneously chanting Sanskrit hymns, even though she was completely uneducated. She also performed intricate yoga postures and went for days at a time without food or drink.
More and more people began to be drawn to what they saw as a living embodiment of the divine. Jyotiscandra Ray, an early and close disciple, was the first to suggest that Nirmala be called Anandamayi Ma, meaning ‘Joy-permeated Mother’.