Of Indian Wisdom and Cultural Reawakening: A Conversation with Maria Wirth (Part 1)

Home » Of Indian Wisdom and Cultural Reawakening: A Conversation with Maria Wirth (Part 1)

On February 2, 2019, I had an opportunity to speak with Maria Wirth about her new book, Thank you India: A German Woman’s Journey to the Wisdom of Yoga, and also about a few other related topics. We met at the Sri Aurobindo Society campus. The free-flowing conversation which lasted for more than an hour, published here in three parts, has been slightly edited (primarily for clarity and flow of thought).

Beloo Mehra: Let me first thank you for taking out the time to sit down with me for this conversation. I am really looking forward to it.

Maria Wirth: I am also looking forward to it. I am happy to be here. And thank you for reading the book.

BM: Oh, of course! I really enjoyed your book. It was a delightful read, really. Very inspiring too. Now I do have a list of questions here which I prepared, but I would also rather see how the conversation flows and enjoy the process of learning more from your insights than following a more scripted pattern. Hope that’s okay with you.

MW: Yes, absolutely fine.

BM: So, let me just begin with my first question right away which is about the book itself. One of the most intriguing things about your book is the way your outer journey gets so beautifully fused with the inner journey that you have been on, a journey into the wisdom of India as you say in the title itself. What inspired you to write in this way? And did you hope to reach a specific audience by presenting the narrative in this manner?

MW: Well, after I started living in India, I had been writing for German publications about what I was discovering and experiencing here, and also about the wisdom of India as I travelled to different places. I say this in the book also. But the focus was always more on the inner journey, the spiritual wisdom that I was seeking through my travels, my time in India…

And I am still seeking that, we are all seeking in a way. I primarily wanted to share this inner part with people in Germany. And then I started writing for Indian audiences too about this and also about some other topics. Some people suggested to me that I should put this down in a book, and I also thought it was a good idea. So, this book came about as a result of that.

BM: Did you keep notes about what you saw or experienced when you travelled to the various places that you mention in the book? Tell us a little about your travelling experience in India.

MW: Yes, I always kept diaries as I travelled, I put many details in those dairies. I used to travel with just two bags, one bag had my typewriter and the other had 4 changes of clothes. That was it. And I don’t I think ever stayed for more than 3 months at any one place…. Also, I would travel very simply, in second class train compartments, or in buses or whatever was available.

But then later I found out that the German magazine for which I was writing would have been willing to pay for my travel expenses. I didn’t know that earlier. So, then I could travel a bit more conveniently, e.g. in AC compartments etc.

You see, people in my generation, I am speaking of Europeans, who went to the university in mid- or late 70s, were very different from the Indians of the same generation, for example. Most of us didn’t really think too much about what we really wanted to do, or had that one specific goal or ambition. I knew I wanted to travel, that was important for me. So, I started selling crepes, I had this small business and I was making good money, it was honest money, … and I wanted to earn money so I could travel….

You know, when this whole thing came about recently about selling pakodas as a means for self-employment, I was so amused. …. (laughter)… I mean what’s wrong with that, I just couldn’t understand how some people could even think like that. I was doing exactly that so many years earlier. But I didn’t have the kind of money to spend for luxury travel or for staying at expensive hotels etc, so I travelled and lived very simply. And that was fine.

BM: You have been a close observer of the current discourse in India, particularly these recent debates, some would even say a sort of controversy, over nationalism or over whether one should say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and all that. Having grown up in Europe, Germany in particular, do you think that there is some fundamental difference between the Indian view of nationalism and the more western, rational-secular concept of nationalism?

MW: You know, I am surprised when people accuse Indians of being nationalistic. I mean, just look at the facts. India is how many times bigger than Europe, just in terms of population? And look at Europe – now Europe can’t even get along even within itself. And Indians of so many different religions, languages, groups etc get along just fine.

We have to see that India is not only a nation in the conventional sense, it is a civilisation. And I feel that if India is overrun by those dogmatic, monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam, then we have lost something very, very special. The world would have lost something very precious. So, you have to protect this civilisation, it is very important. And for that you have to stand up for Bharat Mata. You have to be nationalistic, if that is seen as nationalism.

You have to see what you are up against, because the others are very clear as to what they want. They want you to disappear. Indians are very generous. And that is one of the most beautiful part of this civilisation. But you can’t be unreasonably tolerant of intolerance. There are some groups which are not at all tolerant of the Indian, or the Hindu civilisational ways.

So, you have to protect this civilisation, protect India at all costs. You know, some people even call me Hindutva-vadi and all that, when they read some of what I write or speak. I don’t mind at all. We have to speak up and stand up for what Bharat Mata is.

You see, I know Christianity from inside, having grown up as a Christian. I know that it, I particularly mean the Church, it can make people hypocritical in a sense. I mean, the Church says that it is helping people get closer to the truth, but it is not really the truth that is within us. It claims that it can help people grow and connect with the truth but it is not that at all.

It is some kind of ideological, dogmatic belief, not the deeper truth within which is essentially within all of us, truth which is in the universe, which can unite us. This is not a religion meant for individual evolution in that sense, it has probably become a means for exercising power over other groups.

BM: Picking up from this last point you mention…. in your book also you speak of what you observed at Shantivanam, with Father Bede Griffiths. And you mention how from the outside it may seem like an attempt was being made here to synthesise or integrate the teachings of Christianity and Hinduism, but that is not really the case when we dig deeper.

MW: Yes, over the years I have also matured. In the beginning I trusted him. When I first met him, I really thought that he was really well-meaning and was trying to bring some kind of symbiosis between Christianity and Hinduism, that he was genuinely interested in doing that. But when I talked to him more or learned more, I could see that he firmly believed that Christianity is a higher way, it is the true path. He uses ideas and insights from Hinduism but it is very clear for him that Christianity is the only path.

And I also mention this in the book that he used to be very different when he would speak with us foreigners and when he would speak with the Indian nuns. With Indian nuns he was always very clear that they need to be very strong in their Christian faith, the element of indoctrination was very strong in the way he approached them. There is really no need to do that, you know, if he really believed that there is only one Great Power, one Great Truth.

BM: Hearing you say all this has made me think of the inter-religious or inter-faith dialogues that happen, especially in the US and perhaps other countries in the West as well. Hindu traditions there would be represented there, there will be a place for the table there for it, but the whole discourse on religion, faith etc – I mean the whole perspective through which religion is understood is generally pretty much Abrahamic, and as we know Hindu traditions don’t really fit into that narrow view of religion.

MW: Yes, exactly, that is what Hindus really need to understand. When it comes to Christianity for example, the doctrine is very clear. I also speak about it in the book – the indoctrination is very much there, that only Christianity is the one true path. It is very clear, you know. There is a certain indoctrination that happens in such religions, and that is not the case with Hinduism at all.


Hindu texts are so filled with deep knowledge, about so many things. Just because some Britisher told you that your books are nonsense you don’t have to give up this immense storehouse of wisdom… someone once translated for me the part in the Vedas where we find a mention of Earth going around the Sun.  I got goose bumps…

I remember, we were sitting near the Ganga in Rishikesh. And then we have Indian children learning that it was Copernicus who discovered this. I once asked an Indian woman – she was an educated, wealthy woman – I asked her if she knew who invented the decimal system. She had no idea …., and then in Europe we are taught that this was Arabic numeral system, … you know…

I sometimes get so incensed personally when Indian knowledge is ignored…it is as if they don’t want people to know how much India has given to the humanity. And I am only speaking from the little surface that I have scratched. One has to really know Sanskrit to get deeper to study the Indian texts. I once met this person in 1980s at Puttaparthi who was studying ancient Indian scriptures in some university in Germany, and he was studying not for spiritual knowledge but for scientific knowledge.

So, when I see that so many Indians feel that their traditions or traditional knowledge is not good enough and that they have to look to the West for modern scientific knowledge or they need this western style of liberalism or leftism or what have you…that is really sad, you know. They need to be educated about their own cultural knowledge.

BM: And I think, books like yours make an important contribution in the sense that they make readers aware of the richness of Indian knowledge system, the Indian wisdom. I also think your book really helps readers see why it is important for Indians to not only become aware of but also fully embrace our Indian cultural and spiritual traditions if we want to do good – for ourselves, our country and also the humanity in general.

MW: India helps us see that we don’t need religion in the conventional sense, religion in the sense of some dogma that you must believe in. We have a direct way to connect with the Supreme, and that way is within us. That’s what Indian wisdom tells us. India teaches us that there is a deep wisdom, deep Truth in the Universe, in all of us, but it is because of our ignorance that we don’t see it or feel it or live in it.

I mean look at it….we don’t even know how our liver functions. And yet there is a deeply hidden Power within us which makes it all function, which makes things work in the way they are supposed to work. You know it is very interesting….who knows how the planets, the stars are effecting us in what ways – there is such deep knowledge that the Indian Rishis had discovered through their sadhana.

I mean, when the Rishis said that all the deities are some hidden powers, hidden faculties in us…Surya has his personality, his power, no….it is all so profound, isn’t it? There is so much to discover, so much knowledge….and it pains me so much…. that here you are sitting on the pure gold, box of pure gold and you are still running after artificial jewellery.

Maria Wirth at SAS campus

BM: You know, just listening to you now, I am reminded of a line from Sri Aurobindo where he says that it is only an Indian who can believe everything…he was of course talking about belief in the higher sense, not in a narrow, dogmatic, religious way. Belief in the sense of being open to all kinds of possibilities of knowledge, of knowing, that is perhaps the essential way of being an Indian…

So he says that only an Indian heart, an Indian soul can believe in all sorts of possibilities…the reality exists on so many levels, we have to stay open to that limitless, infinite truth. Anyway, I just remembered this line when I heard you say who knows what all knowledge is there hidden in the stars…it is very moving to hear you speak.

MW: Yes, exactly, this openness…. the possibilities are limitless, we are limitless, no? And that is the best part, we can know, we can grow, reach out to so far…limitless indeed. And we can also ask help in the process. On the contrary, when a child is told right from the start – this is the truth, and you must believe in it, it is very limiting.

As children, okay they may believe, but when they grow up in those limiting traditions, it is a very good thing when they start to question. I couldn’t take it…. I questioned a lot of things in my Christian upbringing, which is good. That’s why I am here. In Indian tradition we see such emphasis on questioning, the whole Upanishads is about student questioning the master. It is wonderful, no?

BM: True. And then we also have Ram going to Rishi Vashishta with his questions, and then there is the Bhagavad Gita which is all about questions that come when Arjuna is in a deep state of turmoil, and in Mahabharata we see Yuddhishtar asking so many questions to Bhishma…

MW: Yes, and it is those answers that Bhishma gives which should be the basis for how India should be running things, not some borrowed secular knowledge from the West. I mean the Indian constitution should be based on these kinds of Indian knowledge.

BM: You said that Indians are sitting on the box of gold but do not recognise it. It is actually rather sad when we think about it. What can be done to address this situation? I mean, how can we shake Indians out of this brainwashing, out of this slavish mindset which prevents us to really know about and fully embrace the deep wisdom and knowledge of our culture, our traditions.

The mainstream education that we have at the present, that is certainly not helping…it may be making things worse actually by creating more cultural disconnectedness or up-rootedness in the hearts and minds of youngsters.

I remember in one of your talks you spoke about the role of sadhana in this context…and then we have situation like this recent issue with Supreme Court hearing the petition which challenges a Sanskrit prayer in schools such as asto ma sadgamaya….I mean how to work in this environment, to even bring up the role of a spiritual practice that can uplift the consciousness when there is so much hostility against it, so much ignorance, in the name of false notion of secularism? Do you have any thoughts on it?

MW: You know, when I used to travel in trains in the early 80s, I used to see a lot of people, especially women doing japa with the help of a māla. I asked people yesterday on twitter if people still witness such things in trains, public places, etc. And I get a lot of responses saying yes, naam-japa is definitely an important spiritual practice for many, many Indians. Many people also wrote that Indians are still very aware of the power of mantra. So that is a very positive thing, you know. This was just a small sample of people who responded to my tweet, but I am sure it is a widespread practice.

You know, I get emails from lots of people, and also on my blog. Many young people also write to me. I see that some of the cultural traditions and practices which people used to practice when I first came to India in early 1980s are still continuing, may be in different ways.

But there seems to be a renewed interest in the young people, may be still a small percentage, but there is definitely an interest in learning about these traditional practices, and doing whatever they can. Sometimes I feel even doing a simple mantra jaap like Om Namah Shivaya, if done properly and in the right spirit can be so powerful. That is because it is a powerful mantra given by the Rishis, you see. So much force is there.

And if people start even such a small spiritual practice, there is so much hope there, so much is possible. Now you also have these studies which say that Sanskrit has the power to clear the mind, the language has so much force, you see. So, chanting has immense powers, I am convinced of that.

BM: So, what you are saying is that not all is lost….

MW: Not at all…I feel very happy when I see comments from some young people on my blog, which say – O wow, I did not know this about my tradition, now I am really intrigued and I want to learn more. So slowly I see a change coming…it is still very slow but it is very much there.

But still Indians need to be aware of the danger that if they lose their own cultural tradition, if they don’t work to protect and learn about it and live by their cultural wisdom, there are forces which are trying very hard to eradicate it. So, we need to be very aware of this as we strengthen our practice, as we become knowledgeable of our traditions. But there is definitely a slow awakening.

BM: Do you think a sense of collective self-confidence plays some part in this awakening? I mean, do you feel that there is some truth to the claim that in the past few years, maybe a decade or so, Indians in general have gained a greater self-confidence in their collective identity as Indians? And even this aspiration to become an economic superpower may have had some impact on how Indians are beginning to approach this rich heritage of their cultural and spiritual wisdom? Is there any connection between the two, in your view?

MW: Yes, definitely, I think there is. India will be taken much more seriously if it is an economic superpower. That is how the world works, fortunately or unfortunately. So, you see, most of the time the Western press and media are writing such demeaning or negative things about India. Or they are totally ignoring it, which is strange because India is such a huge country, and even if we forget the cultural part for a minute….

India is a huge economy which plays an important role in the way things work in world economy. But that’s how it is – there is still a very strong negative bias against India in the western media. India as an economic superpower will have strong impact on this, I think. And I am happy that there is now a greater emphasis on this. World will listen when India speaks with strength, with greater confidence in her ability, her economic power.

Continued in Part 2 of the conversation…

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