A Portrait of a Modern Sage
An interview by Chris Parish
This interview was published in EnlightenNext magazine.
“I am a simple person, a human being who has loved life and who has seen life as divinity itself. I have lived in love with life, madly in love with the human expression of life as divinity!”
Her voice is deep and confident, ringing with an underlying passion. She enunciates each word very clearly and without hesitation, giving the impression of a person who meets life head-on, someone who is unapologetically and fully present. Her eyes are soft and fearless. She sits on the edge of her seat, alert and leaning towards us, dressed in a clean, crisp, white sari. Immovably still, she has an undeniable power, yet she is in a flash gentle and gracious as she serves us tea.
This is our introduction to Vimala Thakar, the well-known spiritual figure, who traveled the world teaching for over thirty years. I have eagerly awaited this moment, the chance to talk to and interview this unusual woman. I heard her speak once in London twenty years ago and her words left a lasting impression on me. It was my recollection of her integrity and understanding that made me recently resolve to meet her again. She is the only person, as far as I am aware, whom J. Krishnamurti, the great spiritual revolutionary, ever pleaded with to go forth and teach.
Together with my old friend Shanti Adams, I’ve sought out Vimala Thakar here in Mount Abu, a hill station in the remote southern corner of the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, where she spends the winter months. Her house, which has been donated, is tranquil, set among the huge rock formations that dot the landscape.
Vimala meets us punctually at 9:30 a.m. in a small study off the entrance hall of her house, and I mention the proposed interview. My heart sinks when she says that while she is more than happy to have a dialogue with us, she doesn’t wish to be published and photographed. “I’m socially dead,” she adds.
It’s a great relief to us when, after further discussion, she very kindly makes an exception and allows us to interview her for What Is Enlightenment?. It occurs to me that her dislike of publicity is one reason why she is not better known in spiritual circles. I have never seen an interview with her or an article about her. Yet she has traveled and taught in thirty-five countries, has students and friends in all continents and has published many books in a number of languages.
In 1991 she decided to stop traveling outside her native India. But at seventy-four years old, she is still busy seeing the individuals and groups who make their way to her at Mount Abu, or in Dalhousie in the Himalayan foothills, where she stays during the heat of summer. She conducts inquiry groups and meditation camps with people from all over the world, ranging from yoga teachers and Buddhists to industrialists and Indo-Pakistan peace activists.
“Let me live as an invisible teacher—not a master but a teacher,” says Vimala in a voice which commands your attention. “I have been exploring a dimension of the relationship between the inquirer and the enlightened one on the basis of equality. It’s an exploration in a revolutionary relationship. All my life it has been a sharing, like members of a spiritual family, on the basis of friendship, cooperation.”
Her words, spoken so distinctly and unwaveringly, seem to intensify the atmosphere of silence that I feel in the room. I’m aware of a single sparrow on the window ledge keeping up a constant background chirping.
Vimala Thakar’s background is an extraordinary story. She tells us about her childhood and how her spiritual search began at the unusually early age of five. Born into a Brahmin family in India, she used to see her mother engaged in the worship of God and wondered, “How can God be that tiny thing—that statue?” So she asked her grandmother, who told her that God lives in the forest. Vimala ran away from home to the forest, searching for God, imploring God to reveal himself.
She attributes her non-authoritarian approach to spirituality to her father who was a rationalist through and through. From a very early age he knew that her life would be dedicated to liberation. When she was seven he said to her that he didn’t mind her devotion to spirituality, but asked her to promise never to accept any human being as the final authority, since the light of truth was in her own heart. He encouraged her to go to ashrams, to visit every spiritual celebrity, and he himself arranged for these trips. Spirituality was accepted in her family, and her grandfather was a close friend of the famous Swami Vivekananda.
She experimented with spending time in caves doing retreats, exploring concentration and other practices. As a young woman she became involved with the Bhoodan Movement—the Land-gift Movement of Vinoba Bhave, which encouraged rich landowners to voluntarily share their land with the very poor. She toured India constantly, addressing public meetings for a number of years. It was on such a tour in January 1956, when she was in Rajghat, Kashi, that a friend invited her to come to a series of three discourses to be given by J. Krishnamurti, the renowned Indian spiritual figure.
The talks had a very powerful effect on her and she at once understood all that he spoke of. She felt carried to the fountainhead of life, and it didn’t feel like she was listening to a speech. Then she attended his talks in Madras and had private interviews with him, which deeply affected her consciousness, catapulting her into profound silence.
Of her meeting with Krishnamurti, she told us, “I was very glad that a world-famous celebrity was confirming what I had learned. Krishnamurti said nothing new to me when I heard him for the first time. It was a verification of the truth that one had understood, and I was very happy to have met such a person. The verification came through his life, through his communications.” As a result of this meeting, she ultimately felt compelled to give up her work with the Land-gift Movement.
Vimala’s small autobiographical book On an Eternal Voyage, written in 1966, contains a beautiful and moving account of her meetings and experiences with Krishnamurti. In 1959 she started to have terrible ear trouble with unbearable pain, bleeding and fevers. An operation didn’t help, and by the end of 1960 she was prepared for and resigned to death, although at the same time she felt strangely and impenetrably calm within. Her last hope was a trip to England to consult ear specialists there. At this point she met with Krishnamurti again and he offered to help her. He told her that his mother had often said that his hands had healing power. She had mixed feelings about his offer, somehow feeling that she might mar the purity of the reverence and affection she felt for him as a teacher if she were to feel obligated to him. But after reflection she did accept his offer, and his laying on of hands brought her immediate relief. The fever and bleeding ceased and she experienced precious freedom from pain. He gave her more sessions and her hearing returned to normal.
Vimala went ahead with her visit to England, where the ear specialists confirmed her cure, and then went to recuperate in Switzerland at the invitation of Krishnamurti. She spent time with him in the summer resort of Gstaad. She was concerned to understand what had happened in the healing. At the same time she was experiencing a great upheaval in consciousness. “Something within has been let loose. It can’t stand any frontiers. . . . The invasion of a new awareness, irresistible and uncontrollable . . . has swept away everything,” she wrote.
She felt this change was also associated with the healing and was uncomfortable with the sense of indebtedness to Krishnamurti that she felt. He had to convince her that they were unconnected and that he himself didn’t know how the healing had happened. He said, “You have been listening to the talks. You have a serious mind. The talks were sinking deep into your being. They were operating all the time. One day you realized the truth. What have I done to it? . . . Why make an issue of it?”
She wrote an open letter to her colleagues and friends in the Land-gift Movement to explain why she had left: “No words could describe the intensity and depth of the experience through which I am passing. Everything is changed. I am born anew. This is neither wishful thinking nor is it a sentimental reaction to the healing. It is an astounding phenomenon. . . . Everything that has been transmitted to our mind through centuries will have to be discarded. . . . I have dealt with it. It has dropped away.”
Vimala went to meet Krishnamurti in Benares in December 1961. He asked her what she had been doing and she told him that she spent most of her time speaking with friends who were interested in her life.
“That is quite natural,” he replied. “But why don’t you explode? Why don’t you put bombs under all these old people who follow the wrong line? Why don’t you go around India? Is anyone doing this? If there were half a dozen, I would not say a word to you. There is none. . . . There is so much to do. There is no time. . . . Go—shout from the house tops, ‘You are on the wrong track! This is not the way to peace!’. . . Go out and set them on fire! There is none who is doing this. Not even one. . . . What are you waiting for?”
This conversation shook her to the core, but she also felt that “putting bombs under people” was not the whole story. Surely, she felt, one must also show people the right line of action and point out the way to rebuild the house. Further talks with him convinced her, and dispelled ideas which she saw were holding her back—for example, the idea that she should have her own language before starting to speak publicly—and also her fear of making mistakes. This was a pivotal moment, and in her words, “the burning ashes became aflame.”
From this point on she started traveling and addressing meetings in various countries in Europe to which she was invited. She soon encountered opposition both from those who did not like the fact that she spoke on her own authority and not as Krishnamurti’s messenger and from those who accused her of plagiarism.
Krishnamurti was supportive: “I know the whole game. They have played it on me. They want authority. Is not the world sick? I was afraid you would have to go through it. I was hoping that you wouldn’t have to. . . . It is not easy to stand up alone. It is extremely difficult. And yet the world needs such sannyasins, true Brahmins who would stand up alone, who would stand up for truth. You know if I had money I would give it to you. But I have none. I go everywhere as a guest—I have not even a place of my own.”
After this she met with Krishnamurti now and then, but she felt the need to spend time with him was finished, “as you only want to meet a person who is away from you.” Since 1962 she has felt Krishnamurti’s presence within her. From then on she spent her life traveling all over the world giving talks, teaching wherever she was invited, up until 1991, when she decided to remain in one place. She now prefers conducting meditation camps to giving talks, finding the extended time with people a more effective way to share her understanding.
As I sip the lemon tea she has served us, I feel slightly unsure how to interview this powerful woman, but her naturalness and warmth quickly dispel my doubts. Vimala is completely available for any questions so I plow right in.
“Vimalaji,” I say, “these days a lot of people are interested in spirituality and yet it seems that only in very few is there a radical transformation of their consciousness and of their life.”
Vimala immediately responds, “My dear friend, they do not dedicate their lives to the truth they understand. They have desire for worldly pleasure, worldly recognition. Spirituality is one of the desires. It is not the supreme priority. Immediately start living the truth you understand!
“Intellectually people may aspire for emancipation or enlightenment but emotionally they love small bondages around them. They go on weaving the network of bondages. They want to belong somewhere emotionally—to the family, to their religion. In the name of security they create these emotional loyalties and a sense of exclusive belonging, while intellectually they aspire for absolute freedom, enlightenment. How can the two go together?
“They are incompatible, and yet human beings who become sadhakas, inquirers, live a double life. They are not dishonest—I’m talking about an inner division. They feel satisfied by knowing about liberation, reading about it, imagining it. They feel satisfied about this because the word ‘liberation’ has its own intoxication, the emotional feel about the meaning of the word has an intoxication. And they live by that intoxication. But there is no factual content. So this inner division causes the pathetic phenomenon that in the evening of their lives, their hands are empty. They only have the shells of words with them, not the inner substance of liberation.”
Her unequivocal words stop me short. They have the ring of truth, spoken by someone who is deeply intimate with the actual condition of human beings.
“What can a person do if they recognize this divided condition as themselves?” I ask, eager to find out what solution she has for this fundamental issue.
“One has to educate oneself. So first one discovers the division inside. Then, to eliminate the division, purification through education has to take place, because impurity is the only imbalance. Educate and sensitize and refine and purify the biological and the psychological aspects of our being—then I think the inner division disappears.” She suggests that seekers devote a minimum of three, and preferably four, hours each day to their spiritual practice.
We move on to the subject of attachment and I remark that often people can have an understanding of the truth and still remain strongly attached to certain things. Vimala stops me in midstream.
“If attachment cannot be dissolved by the understanding of truth, that understanding is only verbal. If you have had that, how can there be attachment?”
I pursue my point to clarify the matter. “I’ve heard you speak of all attachment just dropping away effortlessly when one understands the truth, but it often happens that someone has had some genuine understanding or realization of the truth and yet the totality of the attachment, all the conditioning, does not drop away immediately and completely.”
“Never mind,” says Vimala, brushing aside my objection. “Even after having understood the truth some people may cling to untruth for the sake of pleasure or security. People are afraid of living, they are afraid of dying. The intellectual aspiration for truth is there, but this fear of life and death is also there. That’s why the dropping of the attachments does not result. If that is the case then at least such a person should be conscious that there is a duality in him or her, that understanding of truth is there on one level and that attachment is also there. If there is a genuine desire that the attachment should be dissolved, eliminated, if that consciousness is there, it will work as a prick. It will keep him awake. Attachment will be there, he will act out of attachment, then he will feel sorry for it. For some time this goes on. It will be gradual. It depends on the earnestness.”
I bring up the fact that various spiritual teachings seem to view the final goal of the spiritual life as abiding in the Absolute and are then not at all concerned with the world of time and space, with relating to people. When one has discovered the limitless, how does one simultaneously live in it and relate to others and to the world?
She replies with passion, “Even after the discovery you are still there in your body, aren’t you? You have to feed it, you have to clothe it, you have to live in the world. So after the discovery, the understanding, then there is the awareness. With that awareness you behave in the limited world. Some people talk about escaping from it, withdrawing, but even after withdrawal you need a place to live.
“After the discovery of the truth—with that inner perfume of the constant awareness that life is a dance between the manifest and the unmanifest, the limited and the limitless, that which is measurable and that which is immeasurable—then you relate to both. With awareness you are related to the absolute and with your body, mind and thought you are related to the relative. Relative and absolute—there is no dichotomy, they are not opposites.
“The limited world and the absolute truth together form the wholeness of life. Life is indivisible, you cannot fragment it, you cannot divide it. So there is no problem in relating to the limited world. The crookedness, the violence—you see them as they are and you relate to them. You have to not cooperate with the violence, you have to discourage the hatred, the possessiveness, the domination. You have to encourage the sharing psychology, the attitude of cooperation, the value of friendship. By your life you do it, by living you do it.”
I ask her about living in relationship with others. Vimala has this to say: “The truth has to be lived in the movement of relationship, it can’t be lived in physical isolation. It can be appreciated, it can be talked about, but that’s not life. To live is to be related and when that truth is allowed to express itself without fear, without ambition, without the desire to assert and dominate, when the truth is allowed to flow in that movement of relationship, then there is the fulfillment that you call enlightenment. It is the consummation. It is easy to perceive the truth, it is very difficult to allow it to consummate in your life. It’s like an unconsummated marriage.” She laughs deeply and freely—whether spontaneously or because she is amused by her unusual analogy, I’m not sure.
I am interested to learn that several of her students live in her house with her and that this is a formal arrangement; they requested to live with her and she views her acceptance of them as a commitment which must be honored. “Commitments are a very precious thing—to say yes to someone, to allow someone to come and live with you. Then you have to understand the person, their likes, their dislikes, their weaknesses, their excellences.”
“Seeing the strengths and weaknesses of your students, is it part of your commitment as a teacher to respond to what you see in them?” I ask, interested to find out to what extent she is involved with students personally.
“My dear, one sees the inexhaustible potential contained in them of which they may not be aware at all. So you respond, you hit at their weaknesses so that their personality is free of that. You try to create situations where the best in them will come out. So the role of teacher and the honoring of the commitment requires that in the light of my perception I strike when striking is necessary and I cooperate where cooperation is necessary, whether they like it or not. If they don’t like it they go away, because there is no binding.
“It’s a very important question you ask, thank you. Because sometimes you have to be very strict. The purpose for which they come has to be honored. They don’t just come because they want a change of place; they come as inquirers. The relationship between the teacher and the student is something sacred. I am involved as far as correcting their imbalances is concerned. I am not involved if they cry. I just ignore their tears. If their ego is hurt, I just ignore it. I am involved to the extent that the purpose for which they come is not forgotten by them. It’s a beautiful way of living.”
I remark that while some people would appreciate this, I’m sure others wouldn’t like it.
“Some would withdraw, some would go away, that’s their right to do so. People do not like self-reliance. When I throw them back on themselves, many don’t like it, they can’t take it. They have come for security. And I say, ‘Look, if you do this, if you do that, this is the result. Now choose, make your own decision.'”
“The reflection that you’re giving reveals how truly genuine is that person’s interest in freedom,” I find myself uttering, more as a spontaneous comment than a question.
After a pause she says with gravity and feeling, “Yes, and if you come across two or three who are genuine, you have lived your life. It’s not the number that matters.”
The atmosphere in the room is vibrant. Amidst our dialogue a tangible current of meditation has come into being and the room pulsates with silence. It’s a rare experience to be with someone who is so present and available and who has such depth to share.
We discuss the value of a sangha, or community of inquirers, based on what she is speaking about. We talk about how much can be learned in such an environment, whereas on one’s own, one cannot receive an accurate reflection from others. In this way, I suggest, a spiritual community can become a very powerful vehicle for evolution.
“I would say the only one,” she says suddenly, stunning me with her absoluteness. Before I can consider the implications of this statement, she continues, “I would just go a step further because here in India, physical isolation and withdrawal have been overemphasized. Retreats and physical solitude are useful and are relevant as a process of education. They are necessary, but not as a dimension to live in.”
I suggest that if the individuals associating together in a community genuinely have a passion for the truth then it seems to me that there’s a possibility for a different dimension of relationship—it’s not just people getting together to escape something or to prop each other up because they are not strong enough to face life.
“That’s right,” she continues with passion. “If inquirers and explorers get together and begin to live together, then one presence fertilizes another presence. You’re vulnerable, exposed, so you are on your toes all the time, there is no self-deception.
“Truth is not a theory, it’s a fact of life. Truth vibrates in the movement of relationship. The perfume of peace can be there when you are with others. I have spent months alone in a cave. I know what that kind of peace means. And when we sit together, the perfume of peace that we feel in togetherness is a different quality. It’s alive.
“In spirituality there is nothing to acquire, only to understand the truth and live it. When you are honestly inquiring, truth reveals itself. The ‘I’ has everything to lose, not get. And in that sacred nothingness and nobody-ness, the wholeness gets revealed. So if the inquirers, those who live together in a sangha, realize that spirituality is not an acquisitive movement but a movement of learning, then it becomes easy. A new dynamic of human relationship will be brought about by this approach to spirituality.”
The morning has passed in what seems like a few moments and I suddenly become aware of the surroundings, of the bright sunlight glancing on the walls of the small room. I realize how enthralled I have been and looking over to my companion, I sense that this is not just my experience. What Vimala Thakar has just been speaking about—the perfume of peace that can be felt in togetherness—is literally true and palpable. And it most definitely feels alive.
Here is the companion interview The Challenge of Emptiness conducted by Shanti Adams for EnlightenNnext.
Here is a PDF of Vimala Thakar’s book On An Eternal Voyage.
In 2006, my wife and I met Vimala Thakar in Mt. Abu, Rajasthan, India. You can read my accounting of the meeting here in A Cup of Tea with Vimala Thakar.