Blanca Schlamm (Atmananda) (1904-1985)
Blanca was born on the 7th of June 1904 in Vienna, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman from a Polish family and her mother was from a Czechoslovakian family. There were early tragedies in her life. When Blanca was two years old her mother died after giving birth to a baby girl. This girl, Blanca’s beloved younger sister, died of diphtheria when she was 17 years old, shortly before Blanca’s 19th birthday. Blanca and her sister had been lovingly cared for and provided with the comprehensive education that their father wished for them. They had one tutor who spoke only French until the children were fluent in that language, and then another who only conversed in English. They had music lessons at a young age and were taken to concerts and operas. Aged eight, Blanca already showed outstanding musical talents.
The best available grand piano was bought for her and she took her practice very seriously, becoming a prodigy and giving her first acclaimed public recital when she was 16 years old. At an early age Blanca became interested in literature and read widely. Before the First World War, Vienna was the capital of a Central European empire, with a very rich cultural and intellectual life; the city of Freud, Klimt, Mahler, Kreisler, Mach, Wittgenstein and Popper. After the war, the empire was dismantled by the victorious allies and a poverty-stricken Austria was the result. Blanca’s family became poor and Vienna became the oversized capital of a small, mostly agrarian state. When she was 16, while walking alone through a park, pondering the senseless destruction around her, one of the defining moments of her life occurred. “Suddenly, all matter – trees, rocks, the sky, water – was vibrantly alive and filled with a divine light in which there was no separation between the seer and the seen, but only an ecstatic unity which was by definition eternal love.”
For one timeless moment all this was overwhelmingly revealed to her and this revelation was to be the driving force of her life from then on . It is interesting to note that the great Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (1838-1916), had a very similar experience aged 17-18, which completely shaped his subsequent life and philosophy.
Many people in Vienna were disillusioned and some had turned to the Theosophical Society (founded in 1875) to satisfy their thirst for knowledge and certainty. The leaders of the Society had proclaimed the young Jiddu Krishnamurti (JK 1895-1986) as the ‘Vehicle’ for the anticipated ‘World Teacher’. The Society made JK the head of one of their internal groups called ‘The Order of the Star in the East’. JK had been educated and trained by the Society to fulfill this role and had started his world travels, visiting Vienna in 1923. He was an intelligent, charming and attractive young man. Blanca had been brought up to critically examine statements and views presented to her, the mind being considered the ultimate arbiter. She had been attracted by the teachings of Theosophy, had joined the Vienna branch and had quickly reached the innermost circle of the branch. It was at that stage she decided to keep a diary to record her spiritual work and progress. The first entry is ‘Vienna 21st April 1925’ when Blanca was nearly 21. The diary was written in English and, with breaks, contains some 800 entries.
The Theosophical Society celebrated its 50th anniversary at its headquarters in Adyar, Madras in December 1925, with more than 3,000 delegates from all parts of the world. Blanca attended this, on her first trip to India. There she met the leaders of the Society and was enthusiastic about Theosophy and her progress in this system of belief. She returned to Vienna in February 1926 from where she moved to Huizen in Holland where she became organist to the Liberal Catholic Church, a Christian group in the Society. Nearby was Ommen, where the Order of the Star held an annual summer camp attended by members from all parts of the word and by the Society leaders including JK.
Blanca threw herself into the various activities of Theosophy including attendance at Ommen. She became more and more attracted to JK and his teachings. At the 1927 camp JK declared that he had become united with the ‘Beloved’ (the Universal), his individual self having been destroyed. At the 1929 camp, JK made his famous speech, declaring that “Truth is a pathless land and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever”. He then dissolved the Order of the Star in the East. At one stroke, JK had destroyed the foundations of the Theosophical Society, its hierarchical structure, as well as the search for and reliance on external assistance in spiritual growth. This iconoclastic approach, which JK followed for the rest of his life, caused enormous distress and division to members of the Society. Blanca was terribly upset at many of her previous beliefs being shattered, but she was very impressed by JK’s actions and words and decided to terminate her church commitments and returned to Vienna in 1930. The last entry in her diary for that period is ‘Huizen, 17th August 1929’.
To India as a Teacher (1930-1943)
The years 1930-1935 were spent in Vienna, giving piano lessons, performing, and continuing with the devotion to JK’s teachings. JK had started an experimental school situated in a beautiful pastoral spot on the Ganges on the outskirts of Benares at Rajghat, for students and teachers to live according to his philosophy. There was a shortage of suitable teachers, so Blanca was requested to go there. She arrived in India in 1935. Blanca’s teaching ability was highly praised. In addition she gave classical music recitals of piano on All India Radio. In trying to implement JK’s teaching, which denied all authority and gave apparent freedom to teachers and pupils, Blanca began to see the shortcomings of his philosophy. By the year 1939, when she saw JK for the last time before the Second World War (which JK spent in California), at his Rishi Valley school in South India, she had reached breaking point and felt she could not give him her previous full support. However, both his teaching and personality continued to influence her until the last time she saw him in 1961.
In 1942 Blanca decided to go to Tiruvannamalai, South India, to see Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, hoping that he would be able to give her the peace of mind she had been unable to obtain from JK’s teachings. She stayed for about six weeks. After an interval of over 12 years, her diary recommences with an entry ‘Ramanashram, 17th May 1942’. Whilst there, Blanca felt peace and the power of the higher Self; talked to other seekers; visited the mountain Arunachala and had various visions and dreams. She greatly benefited from the experiences she had there, but the mental obstacles caused by her upbringing, experience of Theosophy and JK’s teachings still remained. Aware of these obstacles and with tears in her eyes, she asked Ramana Maharshi why she could not get rid of her egotistical resistance to His teaching. His reply was: “Take the resistance into your heart and keep it there!” The entries in the diary show that Blanca did not fully understand that the heart was Ramana’s term for the innermost Self, whereas Europeans view the heart as the seat of the emotions. It appears that the latter interpretation was uppermost in Blanca’s mind and it would take many more years before she fully understood Ramana’s meaning. Throughout the rest of her diaries Blanca makes reference to Ramana with deep reverence and affection, but her destiny was to become the disciple of another guru.
Initial Discipleship and the Last 12 Years at Rajghat (1943-1954)
The guru whose disciple she was about to become was Shri Anandamayee Ma (1896-1982), referred to by her followers as Ma (Mother). She was one of the most outstanding religious figures in modern times, and was the last great representative of the Hindu renaissance that began with Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886). Ma was born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and had from her childhood exhibited the most amazing spiritual maturity and beauty. Her consciousness was completely non-dual and she considered her mission to be the preservation of genuine Hindu religious and philosophical traditions which were under attack from the materialism of the West. She had more than 30 ashrams in India and Bangladesh (after partition), and spent her adult life travelling and visiting each as the spirit moved Her. She had an ashram at Bhadaini in Benares, near to Rajghat where Blanca was teaching. Blanca wanted to visit Ramana Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai again, and possibly also Sri Krishna Menon, another highly respected guru who lived in Trivandrum, South India. However as she still had German nationality during the war (Austria having been annexed by Germany in 1938), travel restrictions were imposed on her by the authorities, and she could not go. In the summer of 1943, whilst Blanca was at the hill station of Almora, she was urged by a friend to visit Ma who was there with some of her devotees.
Ma addressed a few words to Blanca, but as the former spoke Bengali and not English, there was no opportunity for a conversation. Blanca noticed that she had not been treated as a stranger, rather as though she were an old friend and she was impressed by Ma’s joy and beauty, also the inward beauty and purity that shone in the faces of some of her devotees. Later that year, Blanca met Ma again in Benares, but Ma was in the middle of a large crowd of singing and dancing devotees, which disturbed Blanca; nevertheless she felt that there was something very special and fascinating about her.
Another person who played an important part in Blanca’s spiritual Odyssey, was Lewis Thompson, an English poet of genius and a spiritual seeker in the same age group as Blanca. His quest had taken him from Europe to Ceylon and India, where he had met and stayed with many of the outstanding gurus of the time. He had a very artistic, sensitive and unworldly nature, as well as a critical and razor-sharp intellect. As a result of his experience, he had an intuitive ability to distinguish between true and false gurus. In the winter of 1944, Lewis came to stay at the Rajghat school as he was anxious to resume his spiritual enquiries and to meet Ma and other teachers in Benares. He was the only other Westerner with Blanca at the school, so a friendly relationship started. This lasted till Lewis’s death in 1949 and had many ups and downs. Blanca admired her friend’s poetic ability and great spiritual knowledge, but was appalled by his changes of temperament and inability to look after his worldly wellbeing. Conversely Lewis was free in his criticism of Blanca’s spiritual endeavours, but supplied Blanca with sound advice on those spiritual topics of which she was ignorant. They were spiritual soul-mates and because of Lewis’s unworldliness, Blanca helped her friend financially like an older sister. It was Lewis who persuaded Blanca to pursue her relationship with Ma.
Through the good offices of a translator Blanca had her first lengthy and private conversation with Ma on 24th March 1954. Ma did not commonly give spiritual instructions but only to those persons with whom she felt a spiritual connection, a connection which was divinely inspired rather than the result of her personal desire or will. Under these circumstances, any instructions which she gave were designed to meet the specific needs of the enquirer. These instructions entailed the transmission of a subtle but quite profound power which the recipient would be enabled to follow. For Blanca this was the beginning of the guru-disciple relationship. Blanca first explained her spiritual history and background. She then asked questions as to how to resolve the conflicts in her mind; very similar to the question she had addressed to Ramana Maharshi. Ma explained that as long as the mind was turned outward to the world, conflicts were inevitable. It was necessary to turn the mind inward, dwelling on that which is permanent, to make it steady and quiet. She explained that at this stage of Blanca’s life it was not necessary to withdraw from worldly activities, but the time would come when solitude became imperative. For the present spiritual practice, Ma recommended meditation building up to three hours daily, breathing exercises, enquiry into what is permanent and what is fleeting and discrimination between these.
Blanca should keep a daily spiritual diary, recording her experiences, her feelings and the changes in her outlook. All her experiences should be viewed as a spectator, both the ups and the downs. Blanca was questioned about her attachments and told Ma that music was the strongest. Ma felt that this was not a problem. She also encouraged Blanca to discuss these matters with Lewis. Blanca had the impression that Ma wanted to help Lewis, using Blanca for that purpose. Conversely, it may be that Ma had asked Lewis to help Blanca. Blanca recorded in her diary after the interview that Ma was completely convincing. Blanca felt that it was not another person talking to her, but her higher Self talking with her normal self. Ma’s words were the outer expression of something taking place at a much deeper level. It was an experience beyond words, but all the more real for that.
Blanca immediately followed Ma’s instructions with some success, but within three days doubts arose in her mind, due to the conflict with JK’s teaching at that period, which deprecated formal meditation. The diaries now record her continuous spiritual practice, her frequent talks with Ma and Lewis, her frequent visits to various of Ma’s ashrams and her many difficulties. These difficulties arose because she could not reconcile JK’s teachings with those of Ma. Her European background was offended by the dirt and noise and by the lack of privacy and proper sanitation. Her classical music background initially prevented appreciation of the Indian devotional music and singing. Finally, the orthodox Hindu rules made her feel unwelcome and an outcast in some of the ashrams. There was much pain, and tears flowed on many occasions. Blanca had been trained since childhood to judge for herself and therefore found the requirements to obey the guru’s instructions, whether she understood the reason for these or not, to be contrary to her personality. This and what she considered to be the unfairness and unreasonableness of some of her surroundings, caused Blanca’s strong temper and anger to rise, leading to friction with some of the ashram’s inmates.
Sometimes she suffered from lack of sleep due to the lack of privacy and the constant travelling. In November 1945, Blanca experienced an inner change, which made her more reconciled to her many problems. She had an unearthly vision of Ma when she was in her company, which reminded her of her mother who had died when Blanca was two. Ma now became her mother and her beloved. She was the ideal of all her devotees and personified what Blanca had longed for, for the last 15 or 20 years. Ma gave her a new name, Atmananda; this is how she is referred to in the rest of this article.In May 1946 she was allowed 14 months leave of absence from Rajghat; she wanted to follow her quest more fully, without having to attend to her teaching duties. She started to live in the Calcutta ashram and to travel to various other ashrams with Ma. Atmananda who was fluent in English, French and German, started to learn Hindi and Bengali, so as to be able to talk to Ma and to integrate with the new life. She was given a mantra initiation by Ma and learned to treat outer events as part of an external drama. She was also able to converse inwardly with her guru, which helped her in the many periods when she could not be together with Ma. Gradually Atmananda’s ego began to shrink, although many difficulties still arose in daily living. Atmananda had many friends in India and the West with whom she conversed and corresponded. These friends followed her experiences with great interest and some of them wanted to know about Ma for themselves. At this stage she decided to apply for Indian citizenship, which in due course she obtained.
In July 1947 she returned to Rajghat. Because of her problems, she discussed JK and his teachings many times with Ma. Ma had no difficulties with JK’s teachings on self-awareness, observation and analysis, but for her this was only one of many important spiritual practices. Her view was much wider and deeper than that of JK. Ma’s advice to Atmananda was to continue with her spiritual practices and to remember that she belonged to Ma; apart from that she could read or think about JK’s teachings whenever she liked. At the end of the Second World War, JK recommenced his international speaking trips. In December 1948 he was in New Delhi and had a meeting with Ma in the garden of the home of Atmananda’s childhood friend Kitty, wife of the prominent Indian politician Siva Rao. The diary summarises the conversation between Ma and JK as follows.
Ma said, “Pitaji (respected Father), why do you speak against gurus? When you say one does not need any guru, sadhana (spiritual practice) etc., you automatically become the guru of those who accept your view, particularly as large numbers of people come to hear you speak and are influenced by you”. JK then replied, “No, if you discuss your problems with a friend, he does not thereby become your guru. If a dog barks in the dark and alerts you to a snake the dog does not thereby become your guru!” This conversation sheds light on one of JK’s peculiarities. At his public meetings he always emphasised that he was not talking at his audience, i.e. making a speech, but was simply carrying on a conversation with them. In most cases this was a ludicrous assertion, because JK’s talks were mostly one-sided leaving little opportunity for anyone to respond. Even if there was a response, JK nearly always made negative comments about any questions or remarks addressed to him. It seems that this policy of JK was the result of his claim that he was not a teacher, having abandoned that role in 1929. Ma by her remarks, showed to JK that this attitude of denial was a self-delusion.
In January 1949 JK came to Rajghat and met Atmananda for the first time since 1939. She had been terrified anticipating the meeting, but though they treated each other politely, she found him to be at a lower spiritual level than Ma. She felt that JK was the Theosophical Messiah, a Westerner who had only a limited understanding of the depth and breadth of the Indian religious and philosophical tradition. Later, JK made negative remarks about her association with Ma and suggested she should leave Rajghat. However, another five years were to elapse before this took place. In June 1949 whilst she was at Ma’s Solan ashram away from Benares, Lewis died in Benares. She knew he was penniless and believed he had died from overeating after a period of starvation. She was extremely upset and believed that for a period after his death he was still near her to give her guidance and comfort. Lewis had made her his executor and had left her a small image of the child Krishna. In 1950 Ma taught Atmananda the ritual of worshipping this image, using a mantra, sandal paste, water, fruit and flowers; she then performed this ritual daily. It brought to her memory that in 1929 when she left Huizen, she had said that she would never perform rituals again. She had clearly moved on since then. She adopted Indian dress, learned Hindi and Bengali, began to appreciate Indian music and felt less out of place in the ashrams.
Full Discipleship (1954-1985)
Atmananda’s increasing involvement with orthodox Hindu society inevitably changed her ability to continue at Rajghat. Exactly nine years after her first lengthy interview with Ma, on 24th March 1954, she was asked by the school manager to leave the school and join Ma in an ashram. Although this was her desire, the practical problems which such a move involved, i.e. no longer having a regular income, losing independence, facing the difficulties of living permanently with non-Europeans etc., had to be surmounted. After discussion with Ma, in whom she trusted completely, Atmananda, aged 50 in June 1954, left Rajghat and her professional life as a teacher and musician.
From that point on, her diary entries become less frequent. She continues with the life and travelling she has experienced since she accepted Ma as her guru, but there are new tasks which she readily fulfils. She becomes the editor of the English version of the ashram magazine, a faithful and almost single-handed duty which she carries out for 30 years. She also translates other publications of Ma and assists other authors concerned with Ma’s teachings. She inwardly thanked her dead father for having provided the foresight and means of learning so many languages. She became a translator for Ma of the many Westerners who more and more took an interest in Ma’s teachings, and of the smaller number who wished to join the ashram. When Atmananda first stayed at the ashrams, she had only Ma to protect and defend her against the problems which arose for her in the strange surroundings. Ma did this task carefully, but was not always available when the problems arose. Now when Westerners came into the ashrams, Atmananda with all her experience and ability, was able to smooth the path for others, to stand up for justice and fairness and help her Indian fellow disciples understand the difficulties which the Westerners faced.
She was at the centre of the small group of Western disciples. She was very glad to have that position, because she realized that the ability to converse and exchange confidences with people of similar background, was invaluable.The last entry in her diary describing her own views, is from Hardwar, 12th February 1962: “Much happens daily in terms of consciousness… To concentrate on the divine in everyone helps solve the problem, whereas reacting only increases the negativity. One should feel that whatever comes is sent by God. Nevertheless, I still get irritated at times. In the evening I could do good work on the new book. How rich life is – so much happens in a single day, although outwardly there is nothing special.”
The last entry in her diary is from Kishenpur (Dehradun) 23rd July 1963 and records a conversation between Ma and a French priest. In 1965 a Dutch devotee had a tiny but charming stone cottage constructed for Atmananda in Ma’s ashram retreat of Kalyanvan near Dehradun. It is situated at an altitude of around 2,500 feet in a beautiful tranquil garden surrounded by ancient pine and jackfruit trees, with a view of the mountains. This was all and more than Atmananda ever dared hope for and she remained delighted with the place until the end of her life. Every afternoon she would walk a mile or so to Ma’s Kishenpur ashram to lead the devotional singing which was faithfully attended by a group of local devotees. Dehradun is a fairly sophisticated community and she had many friends there.
In 1979, on Ma’s instructions, Atmananda went to the pilgrimage town of Gaya to attend the rituals there to mark her formal entry into the final stage of renunciation in which one is completely dead to the world. Outwardly though, she kept this a secret. Ma died on 27th August 1982 and was buried at her ashram in Kankhal (Hardwar). Atmananda was not distracted by the gloom which descended on many of the ashram inmates, but instead appeared to be fired by a new intensity in fulfilling her duties.In 1983, Atmananda’s book ‘As the Flower Sheds its Fragrance’ was published which dealt with her experiences of Ma. She was also responsible for translating and assisting with the publication of three volumes of Ma’s sayings in English. On 24th September 1985, aged 81, Atmananda died of diphtheria in the rest house for pilgrims near the Kankhal ashram; it was the same illness that had killed her younger sister aged 17 in 1923. She died in the sitting position on her bed, softly repeating the name of her guru. At her funeral, she was given the full traditional honours due to her as a Hindu renunciate and her body was submerged in a special area of the Ganges reserved for that purpose. She was probably the only Western woman accorded that honour.”
Hans Heimer, Blanca Schlamm – Atmananda (1904-1985): The Odyssey of a Western Seeker
Death Must Die gives an intimate first-hand account of a courageous woman’s spiritual quest in close association with several of India’s greatest modern saints. Ram Alexander, who was a close friend of Atmananda’s and a fellow disciple of Anandamayi Ma, writes with insight about the guru-disciple relationship.
Although written in a diary format, her story reads almost like a novel, beginning with her youthful involvement with Theosophy in the Vienna of the 1920s. In the 1940s she goes to Benares to teach at a school founded by J. Krishnamurti, a close associate. Here we encounter several of her friends and fellow travellers, in particular the English poet and mystic Lewis Thompson who exerted a profound influence on her. Drawn deeper into the heart of Indian spirituality, she encounters Ramana Maharshi at his ashram in South India and in 1945 she ultimately comes into contact with her guru – the great Bengali mystic, Anandamayi Ma, with whom she embarks on the great spiritual adventure of her life as told here-in, culminating in sannyasa, the ultimate renunciation. We are given an in-depth picture of her intense relationship with the extraordinary women. This book is a rare record of a remarkable spiritual odyssey. There are also photos of Ananadamayi Ma, as well of photos of Atmananda, Lewis Thompson , J. Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi.
“Looking at Her I felt that she is not a body, but just light. She seemed to see through me with all my shortcomings. All night I prayed to Her: Take possession of me completely, don’t let a particle of me remain.”
Atmananda, as the came to be known, was also closely associated with J. Krishnamurti, and a unique picture is given of him here in comparison with his peers and contemporaries within India. In her almost obsessive desire to “understand” J.K., as she calls him, she was driven ever deeper into the heart of Indian spirituality, encountering Sri Ramana Maharshi, as well as other outstanding Indian sages, before ultimately coming to the feet of Anandamayee Ma.
Although written in a diary format, Atmananda’s story reads almost like a novel, beginning with her youthful involvement with Theosophy in the Vienna of the 1920’s followed by her coming to Banaras to teach at Krishnamurti’s school. Here we encounter several of her friends and fellow travelers, in particular the English poet and mystic Lewis Thompson who exerted a profound influence on her. In 1945 she came in contact with Anandamayee Ma with whom she embarks on the great spiritual adventure of her life as told here-in, culminating in sannyasa, the ultimate renunciation. In particular, this book gives a true darshan (an experience of the presence) of Anandamayee Ma and the unique way in which she guided people of self-illumination.
About the Author:
Ram Alexander, who was a close friend of Atmananda’s and a fellow disciple of Anandamayee Ma, writes with insight into the guru-disciple relationship and the particular problems that arise when a westerner enters into this within a traditional Indian context.