Madhavi lives and teaches Bhakti Yoga in the tradition of their teacher Radhanath Swami. A conversation about the way of devotion, about the role of the Guru, working on personal shadows – and the long shadow of the Hare Krishna movement.
Interview: Stephanie Schauenburg and Christina Raftery
For the keyword Bhakti yoga one thinks first of kirtan, mantra and perhaps various ceremonies.What makes you the core of the practice?
Everything is ultimately based on the first three processes of bhakti, which are described in the ancient text Srimad Bhagavatam: The first is hearing, in Sanskrit the Shravanam is called. Kirtanam, the second process, is singing or even talking about these subjects. The third is Vishno Smaranam, the memory.One wants to reconnect to its origin.
How does this work?
There is a verse of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, to which our bhakti line refers: “The sacred name, that is, the sound of the mantra, is erased. (Note: A late-medieval Indian mystic, who is considered an incarnation of Krishna) The blazing fire of material existence and refreshed the soul. “So you can better see who you are-and thereby understand your connection to the origin (or God). The mantra is like a blessing. At the same time, however, one’s own efforts are always needed. Just because I chant mantras, I’m still far from my whole emotional crap freed and recognize me as the radiant self, which I would like to be. So the other side of the coin means that you have to be ready to look at your own issues.
Since in Bhakti much of love, gratitude and compassion is spoken, one must ask oneself: What happens to the shadows? Do not you have to deal with them?
Absolute! This is noticed by everyone who practices asanas or meditates. This makes a lot of things and can be frustrating, because you think: Why is it so painful now, I have been trying so long! At the same time, one can see that the instruments have also been put to work to meet these challenges. It can be understood that these are not just stumbling blocks, but development stages. In the “broadcast with the mouse” it is very nice: If I fall on the nose, I still make a step forward.
Where does this path lead?
What is very important to me about bhakti yoga is the question: What is my true nature? The soul longs to return to this nature, to return to this connection. This longing has everyone, consciously or less consciously. When you come back to this origin and realize, “Yes, I am,” positive qualities such as gratitude, humility, or compassion are a matter of course. I am grateful because I realize that I am much more than my outer coverings. I become humble because I realize that I have the same qualitative qualities as God, but quantitatively I am a small drop in a huge ocean. And when I awaken the love of God, I also love all other creatures and feel compassion for them. Bhakti can also be translated as a devotional service. Our nature is to give from the fullness of the heart – to love.
But what happens to the shadows?
I experience my anarthas, the unwanted properties. It is not a bending or pushing in the sense of “I can not be that”, but it is about being honest with myself: I am now straight, and these are the things I want to work on. This is the point that removes sentimentality. By going into the process and accepting this proposed sadhana, the focus is automatically removed from the unwanted qualities, and I identify myself with the qualities that make me.
Where did it get you? Who were you when you came into contact with Bhakti Yoga?
I had a relationship with God all my life. As a youngster, I went to a Methodist church, then I tried everything for a while. During my studies, I met a festival at Bhakti-Yogis. The mantra meditation took me immediately. The missing puzzle part was just the philosophy. Suddenly I noticed: So much that has happened in my life so far makes sense now. Two weeks later I met my teacher, Radhanath Swami.
Radhanath Swami is part of the Hare Krishna movement, which became very large in the West in the 1970s, but then fell into several scandals …
(Sighing) I believe that every movement has it very hard to adapt the principles from a different cultural circle and integrate them into one’s own culture. This was also the case with Hare Krishna or the Iskcon (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). In the beginning, it was not so natural, but perhaps rather fanatical and not at all comprehensible. What do I think of it? I think it’s human, that mistakes happen. Even someone who follows this path is not immediately released.
It is interesting that you say that this cultural translation of a system into another tradition is a stumbling block. How much India was necessary for you to find an effective practice?
When I was in India for four months after my studies, I absorbed everything that belongs to this culture: the music, the instruments, the cooking, it was wonderful. But is it necessary? I think it is quite natural when one has a relation to culture. You do not need it. I find it simply beautiful, and for me it belongs to it.
Why should a modern, enlightened European turn towards a so religiously shaped form of yoga as this particular bhakti direction is?
For this, I have a picture that also stands for what Bhakti Yoga brings me personally: You go through a jungle, it is quite adventurous and there is an incredible lot to see. Then you come to the spiritual path and leads to a ravine, over which a wooden hanging bridge goes. Underneath you can see the roaring river, the bridge is slippery, but there is a strong rope you can hold onto. I think the tendency nowadays is: Why should I go over there at all? It’s all super great here, we can just go swimming, I do not have to hold anywhere, I’m free. It is not understood that the rope is not a constraint, but is here only to give help so that one can reach its goal. I’ve decided on this rope, so I’ve adopted a particular practice, and I stick with it until I reach the goal. Nevertheless, I have, of course, the free choice. Practice is an aid which gives you freedom. You fall, but you can hold on. And I am so grateful that I have this rope …
What is the role of the Guru? This is also very critical in the West.
We always want to be free and think we are freer when we have no rules. The Guru is for me like someone who takes me by the hand and says: “Guck mal: Here is a street and there is a traffic light.Green, these are the things that help you get to your goal. And with red, you’d rather stick. “I still have the freedom to make it or not.
Is it possible to decide freely from a certain degree of devotion to a Guru? Can I say, I can not go over here, even if he says, “Come on, it’s green!”
Of course, you always have the responsibility for yourself. And before you trust your Guru, you’ll get to know him as best as possible. You decide only for him when you feel he can take you where – but of course you can be wrong. The Vedas describe exactly what qualities a Guru should have. Among other things, he would not say of himself: I am a guru, but simply pass on what he has learned from his own teacher. He also does not say: You have to do this and that. It is not meaningful that one does not go through one’s own processes. But you should get a clue and this can not be done by reading only books.A doctor can not operate if he has only read the specialist books. He must have been in the operating room, and an experienced doctor must have told him. This is the role of the Guru: He goes through the process himself.
But there are also quite different gurus …
Therefore, keep your eyes open! If you want to have a Guru, it is wise to know how to be, so he can help you. Somehow you’ll know if you can trust someone. I feel like I know what I’m doing. I do not trust blindly, because there is enough knowledge that I have as a back-up. Bhakti Yoga is a scientific process.You do not have to believe anything at all, but you can experiment right away: How is it when I mantras with the Mala chante, how is it when I sit in the Kirtan? What does it do to me? What do the scriptures do when I read them? These experiences were really magic for me.