From time to time, Renaissance will feature a book which brings new light on some aspect of Indian culture - whether it be an invocation of the eternal wisdom of Indian spiritual traditions or a fresh perspective on some social-cultural challenge impeding a true Indian renaissance.
This month we bring for our readers a synopsis and a review of a book which does both! We are happy to feature Maria Wirth's book – “Thank you India: A German Woman's Journey to the Wisdom of Yoga," along with a free-flowing conversation with her about the book, about her life and work in India and most importantly, her love for India.
Author: Maria Wirth
Published by: Garuda Prakashan, Gurugram
Year of Publication: 2018
Maria Wirth, a woman of German origin, who has lived in India for about 38 years, is a prolific and highly readable writer on India, Indian spirituality and issues in contemporary Indian society and culture. Many of her writings are available on her extremely popular six-year-old blog as well as several other prominent e-magazines and web portals. She was one of the speakers at the recently held first International Conference on Soft Power organised by India Foundation in collaboration with Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, in New Delhi on December 17-19, 2018.
“Thank You India: A German Woman’s Journey to the Wisdom of Yoga” is her first book in English, published by Garuda Prakashan.
As Maria shares in the book, her first visit to India was at the time when she was still pursuing her studies at Hamburg University. She spent six weeks in India, went back to Germany and told her mother – “Never again India!” But the pull of Mother India had yet to start working its full force on her.
After finishing her psychology studies at the university, Maria found herself back in India on a quick stop-over (or that’s what she had thought at least) on her way to Australia. And the stop-over has never ended, and she has yet to visit Australia! This, she says, is the blessing of the various sages and saints she has met in India during her 30 plus years.
In her book, Maria writes about her meetings and interactions with various sages and saints from different parts of India. In the latter part of the book, she also speaks of her meetings with the widely acclaimed modern gurus such as Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as well as Meister Eckhart. She writes about the time she spent in Auroville, and why even after spending much time with a dear and close friend who was a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, she could not accept Sri Aurobndo as her spiritual guide. What strikes the reader right from the start is that her account is not that of a Westerner or an Indian merely curious about all things spiritual; her account is that of a seeker, of an aspirant who is seeking and ardently pursuing the path which leads to an inner wisdom, a wider and richer self-awareness and a deeper realisation of the Truth.
Maria also writes candidly about the time she stayed at the ashrams of several gurus such as Anandamayi Ma, Devaraha Baba, Sathya Sai Baba, Amritanandmayi Ma and a few others. She speaks of the love, compassion, bliss and peace she experienced at the feet of the gurus; she also speaks of the troubles caused by the failings of the human instrument that she witnessed at such places. She doesn’t sugarcoat her own doubts and questions either, which is what makes her book so remarkably sincere and honest, and adds an extra dose of delight to anyone on a similar quest to seek the eternal wisdom that constitutes the core of Indian spiritual culture. For example, the chapter in which she explores the question whether one needs a guru, what the Indian tradition speaks about the role of the guru, the significance of finding one’s true guru within oneself, and her own struggles with committing and surrendering to an outer guru is a remarkable read, and one with which many modern minds will easily connect.
Through her outer journeys to various places in India, Maria is actually describing her inner journey, journeys rather, into the different parts of her ‘self’. This is what makes her book intensely personal, and yet so relatable for many readers who are on a similar quest in their own way. In a deeper sense, this is also universal in nature because it speaks of how an outer and an inner journey come together when one is sincerely seeking a deeper meaning and purpose in life.
Reading from one chapter to the next one gets a sense that the text is flowing so smoothly because it is the author’s personal account of India. One also witnesses the diversity and richness in the Indian spiritual traditions that she came across and experienced, the various spiritual teachers whom she met, and more importantly, the ways in which she grew and evolved through this discovery of India and of herself. Maria elaborates on some key turning points, the experiences, the moments, the memories, the insights – which left deep imprint on her, that shaped her journeys – both within and without.
Maria also speaks of the practical challenges of living in India as a foreigner, including the financial struggle, which she tried to work out by writing articles for magazines in Germany. For the most part, we find Maria living a frugal life with very few possessions and more or less like an ascetic. But she is not your ordinary other-worldly ascetic – the one whose stereotypical image is so deeply ingrained in the Indian collective mind, thanks to the pop-cultural misrepresentations and scholarly misinterpretations of Indian spiritual culture. Indian spirituality, as Sri Aurobindo emphasised strongly, has always been life-affirming.
In Thank You India, we find plenty of evidence for the life-affirming nature of Maria’s inner journeys. Even when she was completely immersed in her sadhana, staying close to a guru, or when visiting the places of deep religious or spiritual significance, she was never removed from the outer realities of the larger social-cultural context in which she was moving. She writes about the surprise and pain she felt when her long-standing assumption that every Indian must be knowing, treasuring and revering the great heritage of spiritual riches, was in fact wrong. She speaks of how this lack of appreciation and reverence has in fact impoverished the modern social-cultural life of India. She speaks of the pain she feels when she sees baseless and prejudiced attacks on India, Indian spiritual traditions, Sanatana Dharma and Indian culture.
While some of such commentary is dispersed throughout the book – for example, in the chapters on the significance of Ayodhya, the naga sadhus of the Kumbha mela, or the one where she writes about her meeting the Dalai Lama and her angst for the future of Tibet – the bulk of it appears in the latter part of the book which are an extension of some of her more recent writings over the last few years.
Maria speaks candidly about how generations of Indians have been kept away from learning about their own rich cultural heritage due to bad educational policies and the sway of an extremely narrow, rigid and materialist leftist ideology which shaped the entire social-political-cultural discourse in India since independence. This, according to Maria, is not only a loss for India but also humanity at large, because she believes what all great spiritual masters and rishis have said before – the problems of modern world will find their solution only in the light of spiritual truth, and for that India alone has the inherent capacity to show the way. But unless Indians are awake to this truth of India and her role for the destiny of the humanity, rest of the world will continue to search here and there for temporary, stop-gap solutions to the severest problems it faces – whether it is ecological imbalance, large-scale violence, terrorism, excessive consumerism or commercialism, wide-spread psychological illnesses, or anything else.
The last chapter of Maria’s book presents a remarkably candid and honest analysis of the current global crisis that is grounded in a faulty and false understanding of inter-religious conflict. She wonders why in the international political-cultural discourse there is so much attempt to cover up the exclusive and dogmatic nature of Abrahamic religions while at the same time one finds such senseless denigration of and attacks on the inclusive and pluralistic traditions of Sanatana Dharma. She doesn’t mince any words when she says that any religion which claims ‘this alone is the full truth, believe it or be damned’ is the basis for divisiveness and hatred. Such religions have caused so much bloodshed over the centuries, this truth need not be swept under the rug, she adds. “If truth is to win, we need to be truthful. We must not shy away from exposing unacceptable passages in the scriptures which proved to be a bane for humanity,” Maria writes (p. 312).
There is no better way to conclude this brief summary of Maria Wirth’s book than to borrow her own words by which she concludes this deeply moving and inspiring journey to the wisdom of yoga –
“Indian wisdom is practical and needs to be experienced. It is a genuine enquiry into truth. It is about discovering what we really are, apart from the ever-changing body and mind, and the ways for this discovery are manifold and joyful. No book is even needed, nobody needs to come and tell a story about what happened 2000 or 1400 years ago. The knowledge of truth is deep inside us.
“Conscious, blissful oneness is not somewhere up in heaven. It can be felt as one’s own essence. This essence can be called by different names, but the main thing is, that it is within everyone, including in animals and nature. So, we are all children of the same infinite Divine Presence. This truth provides the basis for a harmonious world, and it has another important benefit: it gives meaning to life. Life is about discovering our blissful essence.
“The motto of the Indian Republic is the Vedic dictum “Satyameva Jayate” – Truth alone triumphs. Many of India’s great personalities like Swami Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo predicted that India will be again the guru of the world, as it was in ancient times before the dogmatic religions mixed the truth of “there is only one Supreme Being” with untruth like “this Supreme Being likes some and doesn’t like others.”
“Truth has to triumph. Humanity needs to win over inhumanity. Imagine if the great majority of human beings would follow the Golden Rule again – don’t do to others what you don’t want to be done to yourself.
We could leave our doors and hearts open…
Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu
May all beings everywhere be happy.”
Cover image: Promotional image of the book, available from the publisher's website.