The history of the Ramakrishna-Vedanta movement in Germany goes back to the days of Swami Vivekananda when he visited professor Paul Deussen of Kiel in Germany in 1896. There were many prominent German scholars in the past, like Schopenheur, Max Mueller, Paul Deussen, and others whose contribution to Vedanta is immense. In recent times, Kurt Friedrichs made a lasting impact on Vedanta movement. He has written or translated many books on Ramakrishna-Vedanta literature also.
In the year 1933 an official centre was started with Swami Yatishwarananda as the head of the centre at Wiesbaden. But due to some unavoidable reason it was closed down in 1938. However, the work of Vedanta Centre of Wiesbaden was revived from 1959 with Kurt Friedrichs, a disciple of Swami Yatiswarananda, as its president. Since then this society has been publishing books on Vedanta and bringing out a quarterly journal called ‘Vedanta’. Later on in or around 1995 some enthusiastic devotees and students of Vedanta formed this Society and bought a spacious three-storied house at the present location. At the request of the Society the Ramakrishna Math headquarters at Belur Math, India, has affiliated its spiritual activities in November 2004.
It was a cold, wintry day when we arrived at Frankfurt. Clutching on to our warm jackets we wheeled our bags out of the central station and to the taxi rank. To our surprise we noticed hundreds of beige coloured “e class” Mercedes Benz cars running as taxis. But then we understood that we were in Germany – home to the MB family!
As we drove to the hotel, I could not help but notice the contrast between old and new buildings, with the modern skyline and its glass skyscrapers set on one side, and the historical old town opposite. we were looking forward to reaching the hotel as the body needed a hot drink.
The Flemings Deluxe Hotel – a truly regal building, was a welcoming sight after the four and half hour train travel from Paris. After lunch I contacted brother Swami Baneshananda, the Minister-in charge. He was profoundly regretting that he could not meet me at that hour as he had urgent meeting at Berlin and hence he was leaving Mühlheim as early as possible.. He had, however, made all arrangements for us to be received by his Assistant Swami Bhaswatananda at Mühlheim ashram the next day.
Mesmerising Mühlheim Ashram
A one hour journey from Frankfurt to Mühlheimwas indeed scenic; we drove along the beautiful country side with rivers and lakes along the way, lots of parks and quaint apartment buildings with well manicured gardens to be marvelled at.
Our ashram building is a 3-storey building with a small compact shrine on the first floor which was really beautiful. Swami Bhaswatananda welcomed us warmly and offered us hot tea and snacks. We had a short satsang, some reading and then the Swami gave us a little history about the Mühlheimand Berlin centres. We were treated to a sumptuous lunch. It was a pleasant meeting of an India born volunteer who was expert in culinary and we learnt that he prepared our tasty meals! He was pursuing his higher education while staying at the Centre.
Cooking vis-a-vis pure mind
I was pleasantly reminded of the incident in the life of Swami Vivekananda about the art of cooking. Saratchandra Chakravarty, a disciple of Swamiji in his famous work “Swami-Shishya-Samvâda” in two parts recounts how Swamiji was appreciative of good cooking and connects it to the pure mind… I give below the passage from this book :
For some days past, Swamiji has been staying at Balaram Bose’s house, Baghbazar. There will be a total eclipse of the sun today. The disciple is to cook for Swamiji this morning, and on his presenting himself, Swamiji said, “Well, the cooking must be in the East Bengal style; and we must finish our dinner before the eclipse starts.”
The inner apartments of the house were all unoccupied now. So the disciple went inside into the kitchen and started his cooking. Swamiji also was looking in now and then with a word of encouragement and sometimes with a joke, as, “Take care, the soup (The Bengali expression has a peculiar pronunciation in East Bengal which gives the point of the joke.) must be after the East Bengal fashion.”
The hungry monk
The cooking had been almost completed, when Swamiji came in after his bath and sat down for dinner, putting up his own seat and plate. “Do bring in anything finished, quick,” he said, “I can’t wait, I’m burning with hunger!” While eating, Swamiji was pleased with the curry with bitters and remarked, “Never have I enjoyed such a nice thing! But none of the things is so hot as your soup.” “It’s just after the style of the Burdwan District”, said Swamiji tasting the sour preparation. He then brought his dinner to a close and after washing sat on the bedstead inside the room.
While having his after-dinner smoke, Swamiji remarked to the disciple, “Whoever cannot cook well cannot become a good Sâdhu; unless the mind is pure, good tasteful cooking is not possible.”
As we were leaving the ashram, drops of rain washed our faces…a true blessing from Thakur!
Sight-seeing the spots
Directly opposite our hotel was the one of Germany’s finest relics the Eschenheimer tower from Frankfurt’s old town walls which was built in the 1400. It’s a hugely impressive structure at 47 meters high.
What was the best way to view the city? The Swami at Mühlheim advised us to take the open bus, as the extreme cold weather would not permit us to walk leisurely in the city. That was the right decision.
In the heart of Frankfurt’s old town (Altstadt), the Römerberg is an irregularly shaped square with the justice fountain at its center. As the tourist guide described it was not only Frankfurt’s most picturesque public square, it’s the city’s busiest pedestrian zone, home to numerous tourist attractions. One can see a variety of shop structures, from its many Kulturschirn, a form of open-fronted shop once common throughout the old town, to the Römer, a complex of 11 lovely old buildings from the 15th to 18th centuries. The old town hall (Altes Rathaus) with its imperial hall (Kaisersaal), once the scene of splendid banquets was another attraction.
Man with a hammer
As the bus I was sitting was winding its way I noticed a sculpture that kindled my imagination. It was right on the pavement of the road leading to Trade Fair grounds.
A man with a hammer was that sculpture I noticed. I remembered the English proverb “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”! He can fix up all broken frames. He can “create’ whatever remain to be done. Did not Swamji say, “You are the creator of your own destiny”? It signified the tremendous efforts put up by Germans to ‘create’ a new nation, as it were, after the war ravages. The splendour and prosperity that we witness today comes from that hard work of the industrious German people.
Saying farewell to Frankfurt we left for our next stop in Europe – the snowy Switzerland.
I left our dear readers at Amsterdam! Of course I wanted to continue narrating my Travel story but in the meantime so many events took place so successively in our Singapore ashram where I took charge on the 26 June 2015. My apologies to all my readers of the blog for not continuing my travel summary for so long. This is the Second Part of the continuing series that describes my tour of Paris…
We alighted from the high-speed Thalys train at the massive Gare du Nord station in Paris at 2 pm. All the information boards were in French. Taxi drivers of course spoke English. I understood that in Paris, photographic opportunities are abound at every head’s turn. We passed by monument after monument, road after road, church after church, I thought : Elegant? stylish? beautiful? chic? – in one word – picturesque!
Pulsating with positive vibrations
A quick snack and 30 minute rest was enough. The hotel called for a taxi. The young driver was originally from Andhra; but born and brought up in Paris. Hence except using a few words, he couldn’t converse in Telugu. His English with heavy french accent was amusing to listen. He went on enthusiastically explaining all the hallmarks on the way. On entering our Ashram campus , situated in Gretz, a suburb of Paris, we noticed the wide pathway that led to the central building. The place seemed pulsating with positive vibrations. A few devotees at the entrance received us. We went straight to the Minister In-charge monk Revered Swami Veetamohanandaji Maharaj. His cordial conversation relaxed us. The shrine had the framed pictures of Holy Trio. He announced that just evening arati was about to begin. So we all assembled in the shrine.
Revered maharaj requested a bhajan from our SA devotees. They sang ‘parama dayaal…‘ to the delight of our French devotees there. The dining table was laden with an array of mouth-watering dishes. He made me sit in front of him. The Swamis together with all the devotees and children sat to partake of the sumptuous meals. The light banter, harmony and love among the Swamis and devotees made us all feel right at home. After supper, we had interesting discussions with the local devotees too.
Gazing at the grand
The Arc de Triomphe is the city’s second most iconic monument after the Eiffel Tower. History has it that Napoleon Bonaparte started building this monument. But unfortunately did not live to see the completion of the Arc. There is a tomb of an unknown soldier, which lies under its centre. Above is an eternal flame that is relit in a solemn ceremony every evening. In ten minutes walk we could reach the Arc from the hotel. We used to walk back and forth to take the metro rail that was near the Arc. And thus had am ample opportunity to witness it from different angles.
Next stop was the Louvre …The world’s largest museum. It is a city within the city. It is famous for its artistic glories. The reflection of the sun on the pyramid of glass seems like a myriad of diamonds across the entire glass top. A most spectacular sight!
Notre Dame was our another point of interest. This is the picturesque city’s geographical and spiritual heart. Between 1163 and 1334 this ancient gothic structure rose into prominence. This ancient building reminded me of the ancient temples in India.
A boat cruise along the River Seine was a cherished dream of any visitor. The roof top glass boats enables one to see the many monuments on the banks of the river Seine. So we took a boat. It moved on through the almost still waters of the river. We could see the top of the Eiffel Tower from a distance away.
Eyeing an Engineering marvel !
It has a prestige of being most visited monument in the world. What the guide said sounded funny! He said that the Eiffel Tower was built for the World Exhibition in 1889 and the authorities had plans to dis-assemble it once the Exhibition was over! This Exhibition was in celebration of the centenary year of the French Revolution in 1789. The construction was only meant to last for the duration of the Exposition. It looked a veritable poem made on steel. I wondered who would think of dismantling this engineering marvel! Our boat came near the tower. Everyone was eager to rush to view the grand and magnificent structure. Finally we were there standing in front of it. It is astonishing to see the ingenuity of the Mr Gustav Eiffel, the man behind the Eiffel Tower. The iron and steel structure was indeed breathtaking.
Charming Christmas bazar!
We also had an opportunity to visit the Christmas market in Avenue des Champs-Elysees. This is a 2 KM long road. Both the sides plenty of restaurants and shops. Stalls with arts, crafts, chocolate and food are aplenty. Everywhere it was a festive atmosphere. The decorated stalls with lights had an inviting look. Our visit would have not been completed had we not visited one of the gigantic malls in the city! One can easily get lost within minutes in the vast mall. We savoured delicious coffee and croissants.
We gazed admiringly at the circular architecture of the building with its ornate carving, fancy furniture, stunning paintings. The layout of the mall was incredibly beautiful. Paris is an amazing city and yes! therein beats the heart of an ancient, brilliant bygone era.
Next morning we headed back at the station to board our train which was to take us to yet another fascinating city in Europe – Frankfurt.
Swami Vivekananda arrived at the Amsterdam Central Station with Dr Paul Deussen, a renowned German philosopher of those days, and the English couple, Captain and Mrs Sevier. The group booked two rooms at the Victoria Hotel This was where they stayed for the next three days. Swami Vivekananda visited several museums. Of them, the Rijksmuseum was one… Swamiji also visited the Tower of Tears (Schreierstoren) and the Royal Palace… Swamiji enjoyed seeing the canals in the city. The party left Amsterdam and Holland on 16th September for England.
Courtesy : http://www.vedanta-nl.org/history.htm
Cycles, cycles, cycles galore
That was the evening of Sunday 31 December 2014. My Emirates flight A380 landed at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The Christmas and New Year deco lights were bright and twinkled like stars. As I stepped into the arrival hall I could immediately feel the festive mood, but there was a sense of quietness at the airport. It seemed that the travellers were less. Perhaps celebrating the New Year’s eve with family and friends?
The airport shuttle bus took us through the town. The narrow, cobblestone streets somewhat reminded me of the old Howrah city of Kolkata. Hundreds of whirring bicycles almost flew past us. I saw a massive parking garage. To my astonishment it housed thousands of bicycles not cars! The streets were lined with gabled houses, colourful markets occupying the fronts. A wonderful sight for tired eyes!
Support from a stranger!
The weather was extreme chilly. We had to adorn thick warm clothes. I thanked mentally the devotee-couple from Durban who equipped me with the right winter garments! We travelled to the ashram by tram. We were sure that we were in the correct vicinity of the ashram. We however got off on the wrong platform! It was a desolate road in Amstelveen.
The address slip was in my hand. But whom to enquire? The road was empty. While standing for some time we saw a small car going past us and we all gestured the car to stop. To our surprise the driver offered to help us by asking us to ‘jump’ into the car. Happily we all squeezed into the small car and started searching for the ashram. All attempts to locate the ashram failed! The driver was almost tired and was about to give up; he saw one old man with his pet dog, walking on the pavement. On enquiry, lo! he could exactly specify where the house was.
What a relief when we arrived at the right spot! Glad to see the monogram of the Ramakrishna Mission. To show our deep appreciation, we offered the driver a few Euros, to which he very politely refused and said in a friendly tone, nodding his head, “will not someone help me in case this happens to me somewhere? ” I was nonplussed and said “God bless!” We were standing on the road till that small car disappeared from our vision! Humane feeling lives. What more do we expect in a strange land from a stranger who understood the unspoken law of karma? Did not Holy Mother remind us that no one is ‘stranger’ in this world?
Munching the marshmallows
My brother monk Swami Sunirmalanandaji is the Minister-incharge of this centre. He welcomed us cordially. The Amsterdam ashram is a three storey building. It looks like any other house in that locality. The shrine is on the ground floor. While kitchen is on the second, the monks’ quarters is on the 3rd with an office in the mezzanine floor. That was the 1st January, the most welcomed New Year Day. That was again the auspicious Kalpataru Day. The Swami in the morning had done worship with flower offerings. Bhajans and reading from the Gospel were over. We relished a sumptuous and most delicious lunch prasad prepared by himself. He didn’t forget to include the tasty Amsterdam marshmallow sweets.
The Swami prepared an itinerary for sightseeing. Our first tour was the well-kept Rijksmuseum which is a work of art in itself. Swami Vivekananda visited this museum in September 1896. The museum houses ancient artefacts of Nederlands and the world. I enjoyed viewing the part where Asian images are displayed. Especially of Hinduism and Buddhism. The image of Lord Shiva in the dancing pose of Nataraja was really captivating. Who could believe that we managed to get a few pictures thereof?
Madurodam is another marvellous place that held our attention. Visit to this place is a must if one is interested in miniature objects. I read one review about this : The models are beautifully constructed and very accurate, and the grounds are landscaped with lawns and gardens and hundreds of bonsai trees, many of them 6o years old but only 1/2 metre high! The models are exact replicas of real buildings in Holland. if you are having a trip to the Netherlands it is really worth checking out some of the interesting buildings you might see by going to see them in Madurodam first! Utrecht cathedral, the canals of Amsterdam,many historic houses, the Dutch houses of Parliament, palaces, castles… all accurately reproduced in landscapes. But also windmills, flower markets, industrial buildings, concert hall, all kinds of engineering projects, and some beautiful up to date trains, it has a massive train and transportation system. Many of the models move. You can even get the chocolate factory delivery truck to deliver you a sweet!
In the shivering cold I enjoyed seeing these miniature marvels.
Next day the Swami joined us for the breakfast at the hotel. He took us on a cruise through the Unesco World Heritage sights. We saw the oldest building which is a church. We passed by the famous Anne Franks House. We also saw the Royal Palace of King Willem and his family, the city centre of 17th century canal houses etc.. And it was charming to see many more ancient buildings in the evening. Among them to our great delight we reached a spot that is nothing less than a place of pilgrimage.
That was Victoria Hotel. Herein Swami Vivekananda stayed for three days in 1896. Standing at the Reception of the hotel I had a feeling of blessedness. Never did it occur to me that one day I would have the golden opportunity to visit the faraway land – the very place that Swamiji blessed! All by His grace!
Sunirmalanandaji handed over as our padkos somedelicious sandwiches and aromatic coffee in a huge flask. We thanked the Swami profusely. As the Swami bid farewell to us, we both uttering “Durga Durga”, the train began to move on.
I settled on my comfortable seat. The soothing subdued sound of wheels clacking down acted as a musical lullaby. My mind went on floating to those olden days – who were those blessed people who saw Swamiji and his group of devotees off ?
South Africa joins the comity of nations in celebrating the International Mother’s Day on the ensuing 11th May. A Happy Mother’s day to everyone! Last Tuesday at our Glen Anil Main centre we handed over gift packets to a group of mothers from Greenbury Project.
Today is Sita Jayanti. The Hindu culture has iconic mothers in plenty, but there was never “another” like mother Sita, in the words of Swami Vivekananda.She was found when King-sage Janaka furrowed the land for cultivation. She is the Divine Mother Mahalakshmi incarnate on the earth. Four quotes from Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works:
The Miracle Medicine
It is not without any reason that our sages in the past had described this ‘samsaara‘ – the cycle of birth and death – as immensely vast as (bhava saagaram) the ocean. They have even detailed in the most frightful terms how difficult it is to cross over this ocean. When you are almost on the verge of losing hope some other saint compares this samsaara with a mere river. But not an ordinary river, forsooth. He calls it ‘rana-nadi‘ – a ‘battle-river’ – whose waters are infested with terrible crocodiles and alligators all living in its forceful current that produces strong whirlpools! And lo! just imagine how dangerous it would be to attempt to cross such a river not to speak of the ocean! How many of us have in real life have even thought of attempting to cross such river or ocean?
Tulsidas, of course in his saintly way makes samsaara a little less fearful. He calls it a disease. If that can be wisely diagnosed, it can be well treated too. This brings us some kind of relief in knowing that my disease is curable and the condition is that I should take proper medicine. Does taking medicines indeed bring about the cure of the disease? Not necessarily! We have experienced in our lives that many a time the medicines not only fail to have any curative effect but to our chagrin add some disturbing side-effects.
If samsaara is a disease, then is there any medicine? Yes, there is, declares Tulsidas. While expressing the greatness of the life of Mother Sita he considers her life story as nothing but a ‘medicine’ for the ‘worldly disease’. No one likes to take medicines as the chemical compositions generally make them bitter in taste. But this medicine, he adds, is exceedingly sweet. Normally after taking medicine one requires plain water to clear the throat. Here of course the very nectar is itself given! So Tulsidas opines that those that drink nectar of Sri Rama’s name, are indeed ever blessed! Yes, the story of Sita is a miracle medicine.
Sita in Sundarakandam
The holy book Ramayana is divided into seven kaandams. The fifth division called Sundarakaandam has gained much popularity among the devout Ramabhaktas. I do remember once when I was young, my mother was advised to recite Sundarakaandam verses with love for 41 days to ward off certain evil effects in the family. She gained such an unshakeable conviction about the marvel of this scripture that all problems got resolved within that period of paaraayanam.
What does Sundarakaandam teach? It speaks about in large measure the valour of Sri Hanumanji who undertook the work of Sri Rama in searching for and finding Mother Sita. Scholars of Ramayana say confidently that Sundarakaandam is all about Sri Hanumanji. Though I am not a scholar in Ramayana, purely from the point of view of a devotional angle I offer my two cents: I prefer to look at this way viz., that Sundarakaandam is all about Mother Sita.
Whenever I had the opportunity to read this scripture (of course I didn’t read it for 41 days like my mother!) my mind was thrilled no doubt at Sri Hanumanji’s heroic sports. A great veneration swelled up in my heart that made me to remember him as an ideal for my monastic life. But more than that what was fascinating to me in this magnum epic – especially in Sundarakaandam – was the character depiction of Mother Sita. Swami Vivekananda was in awe of Mother Sita and exclaimed, “What to speak of Sita? You may exhaust the literature of the world that is past, and I may assure that you will have to exhaust the literature of the world of the future, before finding another.” I find her simply unique. In another place Swamiji says, “… the character was depicted once and for all. There may have been several Ramas, perhaps, but never more than one Sita.”
– Her dealing with King Ravana was indeed so majestic; in spite of his great offering of material temptations, she nonchalantly turned down his advances.
– Her interaction with her demoness guards especially with Trijata has no comparison; the care and concern for Trijata‘s welfare even though she had been appointed to spy over her, singularly exhibiting her divine compassion.
– Her polite refusal to Sri Hanumanji’s proposal to carry her away stealthily from Lanka and proudly speaking about her husband Sri Rama’s necessity to win the battle with Ravana and then only she would be ready to return with him in all glory.
In this Sundarakaandam Sita is not a mere loyal wife only to toe the line of her husband; she comes out in her own right (and in the absence of the physical presence of Sri Rama) that amazes me as I see her personality looming large into a bright towering one that demands not only an adorable worship with love but also absolute surrender at her feet.
Sita and Sarada
Thus, devotion to one form of Mother, if cultivated from a young age does not preclude love for other forms of Mother. Rather it definitely helps in transposing one’s devotion easily on another form of Mother, if needed! The variety of names and forms of Mother in Hinduism may bewilder anyone who is not acquainted with the philosophy of Vedanta. But a devotee in this tradition accepts the Divine Mother as ‘ananta roopini, ananta gunavati, ananta naamni girije maa’ – O Girije Ma! thou art infinite forms, infinite qualities and infinite names, says a poet-devotee.
Hence the transition from Sita to Sarada was smooth enough in my life. Ma Sarada’s experience in the Rameshwaram temple vouchsafes that she is no different from Ma Sita.
When Holy Mother visited Rameshwaram temple, Tamil Nadu in 1910, she was directly taken to the sanctum sanctorum and was allowed to worship Lord Shiva in the form of uncovered Shivalingam. The Mother offered 108 golden leaves shaped like the real leaves of the bel (vilva) tree. She stayed in that small town for three days and every morning and evening she would visit the temple and perform worship with flowers, chandan (sandal) and vilva leaves. The Holy Mother observed all customary traditions of the temple.
It is said that Brahmachari Krishnalal who was an attendant to Holy Mother heard Mother uttering in a mood unaware of the external world: ‘It is just as I had left.’ After a few weeks in Kolkata when once Kedar babu enquired of Mother about her visit to Rameshwaram, she uttered once again, ‘He is just as I had left Him, my son!’
Swami Gambhiranandaji in his authoritative biography – ‘Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi‘ – explains thus. “The devotees believe that the same personage who incarnated in the Treta yuga as Sita, the ever faithful consort of Ramachandra, descended again as the all-enduring and ever gracious Holy Mother, so that the sudden sight of the uncovered image carried her mind unconsciously across the vast span of thousands of years and the past appeared as a vivid present; and forgetful of her immediate environment she made that spontaneous remark.” Swami Abhedananda, one of the Direct Disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, in resemblance to the ‘worldly-disease’ mentioned in the beginning of this post, follows the footsteps of Saint Tulsidas. What is the remedy? Abhedanandaji goes on to say that the remedy for this ‘bhava-roga‘ – worldly disease – is to sip the honey flowing from the lotus of the Mother’s feet.
On this Mother’s Day, let us take a vow to surrender at Her holy feet!
May Mother Sarada who is no other than Mother Sita fill our hearts with her sterling qualities!