A review of ‘Journey to Unknown India’, by Walther Eidlitz, published by the Mandala Publishing Group (1998)
(by Aniha das)
In the early years of the growth of Krishna consciousness in the West, little was known of the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition that His Divine Grace A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada represented. True, there were the names of the disciplic succession printed in the ‘Bhagavad-gita As It Is’, beginning with Lord Sri Krishna and coming down through Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura to Srila Prabhupada himself, and Srila Prabhupada’s books such as the Srimad-Bhagavatam gave a great deal of ancient Vedic history, but all in all most would have seen Srila Prabhupada very much in isolation from everything else.
Much has changed since Srila Prabhupada’s departure. Various biographical works written by disciples of Srila Prabhupada have enhanced our knowledge of the glorious history of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, which is like a many-branched tree emanating from the trunk of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The ‘Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta’ by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust), opened our eyes to the life of Srila Prabhupada before he left India in 1965, as well as giving us a history of how Srila Prabhupada introduced Krishna consciousness to the rest of the world. Other publications that have revealed something of the lives of previous acharyas and saintly Vaisnava devotees include ‘The Six Goswamis of Vrindavan’ by Steven Rosen (Folk Books), ‘Vamsidasa Babaji’ by Bhakti Vikasa Swami, and biographies of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and his son Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual master.
The great devotees who have appeared over the centuries are like brilliant suns illuminating the sky, and by studying their lives our hearts become cleansed. Srila Narottama das Thakura, a Vaisnava saint from the sixteenth century whose life is described in Steven Rosen’s book ‘The Lives of the Vaisnava Saints’ (Folk Books), wrote, “The water that has washed the feet of a Vaisnava gives divine strength to a person engaged in loving devotional service. Nothing else is more powerful than this. The dust of the feet of the Vaisnavas upon my head is the only decoration needed at the time of death.” (Prarthana 43). The student on the spiritual path owes a great debt of gratitude to the authors of literature that describes the glories of these great souls. One such book is ‘Journey to Unknown India’ by Walther Eidlitz.
Born an Austrian Jew, Walther Eidlitz made a spiritual odyssey to India shortly before the Second World War, leaving his wife and family behind in Germany. He travelled from Bombay to the Himalayas, and in the company of a yoga teacher and his disciples learned much about Indian life and Hindu culture. All this came to an end with the outbreak of war in 1939, when Walther found himself in an alien internment camp.
In a state of despair at his imprisonment behind barbed wire and beset by worries over the fate of his family, Walther prayed, “O thou hidden God to whom all turn…O thou God, of whom I know nothing – let me stand the test. Send me a helper, a guru, that I may learn what I have thus far neglected to learn of life: love.”
At this point the book takes a leap into the transcendental realm. Walther writes, “When I prayed to God for a guru, one was already very near. One day there stood a newcomer outside the kitchen barrack…He was tall and slender, and his head was shaved. Although he was a European, he wore the gown of an Indian monk. His name was Sadananda.”
This Sadananda, a disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, was the German godbrother of Srila Prabhupada. About Sadananda, Srila Prabhupada said, “When he came to India, he was my intimate friend.” (Room conversation, Toronto, June 17, 1976).
On the first night of their meeting, Sadananda Swami began teaching Walther Eidlitz the truths of Vedic knowledge, as conveyed in the line of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
from the fire of suffering in the world of change is not the highest
goal,” said my companion. “That delivery is only the first step on
the infinite path that leads into God’s forgotten world, the path on
which the guru who loves God leads his disciple.”
Sadananda displayed the characteristics of a sadhu, a genuine saintly person, despite the hardships of life in the prison camp. “He lived very uncomfortably. His neighbour was a musician who had become degenerate in the tropics, and who most of the time smelled strongly of liquor. He traded in all kinds of wares with his bed as his headquarters…But Sadananda was kindly disposed to this neighbour. He did not differentiate between people with civil virtues and the so-called asocial element. He even held that a criminal or a harlot often had greater prospects for a sudden and complete conversion than a law-abiding citizen … Every time I came to Sadananda during those days, a most frightful noise met my ears as I entered the door.
Bartering was going on from the bed of his neighbour, and, furthermore, card players sat around the only table in the barrack, slamming down dirty cards. Often, they got into arguments with one another. Sadananda did not seem to be the least disturbed by all this …”
Sadananda explained that he owed his coming to India to three causes. One was the longing of his heart, the second was his meeting with Bon Maharaja, a disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who, along with two godbrothers, had been sent by their guru to preach Krishna consciousness in the West in the 1930’s, and the third and most important reason was his reading of a book about Lord Chaitanya in the library of the University of Berlin. Though the title of this book is not mentioned, it is an intriguing possibility that this could perhaps have been ‘Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, His Life and Precepts’, which was sent by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura to Western libraries in 1896.
The author describes that when Sadananda spoke about his guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, he did so with great affection and tenderness. On seeing a photograph of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, Walther was startled at the close resemblance between the two. He writes, “It was not enough to say that they looked like brothers; it seemed rather to be the same person at an early and a later period of life. The same carriage, the same expression, the same inner strength expressed in a gesture of the hand.
“When I pointed out the resemblance to Sadananda he denied it with honest modesty. Gradually, as I learned to know my friend better, I noticed that he mourned the loss of his teacher, who had died in January 1937. There seemed to have been a deep spiritual bond between this guru and his European disciple. On one occasion, when Sadananda broke his customary reservation, he told me that Bhakti-Siddhanta Sarasvati had once uttered in the presence of a large audience (and to their great surprise), ‘You, Sadananda, and I – we have been together through all eternity.’ ”
Walther describes the struggles he himself underwent to meet Sadananda. He was a Jew, and Sadananda German. They lived in separate parts of the camp, and prison rules, together with the barriers generated by the fear and suspicion of the situation, made meeting between them difficult. But he was determined to learn, and Sadananda appreciated his efforts.
Sadananda instructed Walther in the science of Krishna consciousness, removing the various misconceptions he held concerning the nature of the Absolute Truth. “The impersonal Brahman is only the radiancy from the figure of the personal God … In God, the most unbelievable opposites are harmoniously united. God is simultaneously personal and impersonal. The world is separate from God, and at the same time not separate from God. The teaching of bhedabheda, of being separate yet not separate, as Krishna Chaitanya has explained it, is inexhaustible …”
Sadananda gave classes in the prison washroom while others played football outside. They were attended not just by Walther but also by various Europeans who wished to learn something of Vedic philosophy, including a small group of Jesuit priests. It is interesting to discover how the other prisoners regarded him. “Gradually, I learned that every word uttered by Sadananda was an expression of his soul, and all his actions, whether friendly or scornful – he could be extremely harsh and stern – were based on an effort to awaken the Atman in the people he contacted. In spite of his monks gown, which invited derision, the inmates of the camp respected him.”
Reading ‘Journey to Unknown India’, it is impossible not to be reminded of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura in the personality of his disciple, Sadananda. Not only does Sadananda repeat the Krishna conscious message handed down to him by his guru, but he also seems to display something of the mood and mannerisms of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, in as far as we know of them. Sadananda exhibited the exemplary behaviour of a renounced Vaisnava devotee, despite the harshness of his surroundings, and he saw the situation as an opportunity to give Krishna consciousness to others. When both were eventually released, Sadananda took Walther Eidlitz to Vrindavan, where he received spiritual initiation into the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra from Bon Maharaja, who had previously been instrumental in introducing Sadananda to Krishna consciousness.
we hear the glories of previous Vaisnavas, whether they are simple
devotees or great acharyas, and we see such variety in the lives of
these different personalities, it will surely contribute to the
development in ourselves of the proper mood of respect and veneration
for all Vaisnavas, past, present and future, that is required if we are
to make advancement in Krishna consciousness. Then, with sincerity in
our heart we will be able to pray,
ca krpa-sindhubhya eva ca
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto all the Vaisnava devotees of the Lord. They are just like desire trees who can fulfil the desires of everyone, and they are full of compassion for the fallen conditioned souls.”
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