An Encounter With Vimala Thakar
Mar 21, 2009
After our walking pilgrimage in India, Guri and I spent a few days in Mount Abu. Almost out of nowhere, we remembered that a famous Indian saint lived in town, and so we asked about her whereabouts. "Oh, Vimala Thakar? Yeah, she lives in a bungalow in town, but she's quite old now, only sees a few people and that too, with appointments. You won't get to see her." We still went. And we walked.
Asking directions from one person to another, we reached the unassuming bungalow with a cream-and-red sign. No labels, no fan-fare, no one at the gate. We opened the gate ourselves, almost feeling like trespassers. As we meandered through the serene property, a woman in a white saree walks down a flight of stairs and kindly greets us. She tells us what we expected -- "Vimala-Tai doesn't see anyone on Sunday, unfortunately. Even otherwise, it's recommended that you make an appointment few months ahead of time. But you're welcome to read some of the literature in that room, for a little bit." We gladly took that opportunity. After some hesitation, perhaps feeling bad for us, she adds, "If you give me some identification, though, I will definitely let her know that you came." So we did, as we headed into a room with a couple cupboards full of her books.
I remember reading an article in WIE that called her the most awakened woman alive! It was a very powerful interview with her. On our pilgrimage, we also ran into a booklet of hers -- which is perhaps the most lucid, non-religious, and profound description of meditation I've ever read. And ultimately, she was a living reconciliation of Gandhi's activism with J. Krishnamurti's spirituality. We had never met her, but we were still fans.
Almost as quickly as that woman went up the stairs, she came down. "Vimala-Tai says she'll see you now," she says, almost not believing her own words. We were silently elated, and followed her upstairs.
Vimala Tai was seated on her chair. Her grace, poise and strength needed no introduction, as Guri and I sat on the ground.
To all of our questions, she responded with a penetrating clarity. What is the purpose of life? "To live." Is service internal or external? "It's all the same. I'm talking to you right now -- is that external? If I'm sharing with something, is that not an internal expression of love and compassion?" Is englightenment a process or spontaneous occurence? "Both." Where will spirituality blossom most, in the West or East? "Everywhere. Even in the Middle-East." Are we on the cusp of a collective transformation? "Yes. Not in my lifetime, but during yours." Does everyone need a spiritual teacher? "No." Is Gandhi relevant today? "Now more than ever." What is non-violence? "Science and spirituality." What is your message for the youth? "Arise, awake and act."
To write such Q&A almost trivializes it. When she spoke, there was a unique edge to it. It's hard to describe the power of that raw authenticity. And she had big eyes. Sometimes it felt like her eyes responded before her words were even formulated.
Despite her no-nonsense personna, though, she always felt welcoming. At length, she shared wonderful anecdotes from her life -- like when she was five and went out to the woods with a deep desire to find God. "What did you find?" "Nothing," she smiles, "But then one of my Dad's friends said, 'Come, I'll show you God.'" Not once, though, did she step into any mysterious or esoteric conversation. "I have no experience with such things," she'd say flatly.
In everything she articulated, she was very clear. Often, she would run out of breath but would continue her responses without skipping a beat.
We spoke a lot about Gandhi, Vinoba and J. Krishnamurti. Many years ago, Vimala-Tai had arranged a meeting of Vinoba and Krishnamurti; Vinoba later remarked, "We are like two eyes, pointing to the same thing. One for the atheists and rationalists and other for the thiests who can't find God amongst them." Vimala Tai is perhaps among the one or two people on the planet who could claim deep respect from both Vinoba and Krishnamurti.
Everything about Vimala-Tai felt unscripted. Her bungalow itself was received as a spontaneous gift from a friend; all her books were transcriptions of spontaneous talks; her words, her actions, her next moment ... all felt very spontaneous. At the time when we met her, she had banned all recordings, media interviews, and photographs for more than a decade. The cupboards of books in the downstairs room were gifted by people; they don't sell or even ship the books, and instead trust that whoever has a use for them will show up there. To say that she lived a gift-economy lifestyle would be an understatement.
Practically everything she said was quotable. Things like, "Every human relationship is a door for liberation. Don't hurt others, and if others hurt you, forgive. Strength of your forgiveness is your true character."
In her presence, we felt like a stream flowing through a mountain. And she was sitting like that mountain, without an agenda -- not even an agenda to leave our conversation. In fact, it was us who ended the conversation after seeing her fragile physical condition.
She didn't let anyone touch her feet, so we did a half bow of gratitude before we left. As we were preparing to leave, I couldn't help but ask: "You don't see anyone on Sundays. And we even came without an appointment. What prompted you to grant us this wonderful dialogue?" In a matter of fact tone, she replies, "Oh, today is Mokshda Ekadashi, a special anniversary of Geeta Jayanti. Today, thousands of years ago, Geeta was first spoken by Krishna. I am fasting today. Anyone who comes to my doorstep today is an offering from the Divine that I can't refuse." Wow. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
As we left, Guri -- who is not privy to being infatuated with spiritual leaders -- remarked, "The most powerful woman I've ever met." I couldn't agree more. For several hours after our meeting, both Guri and I felt unmistakenly elevated and grateful.
Last week, on March 11 2009, Vimala-Tai passed away. I'm thankful that she lived in our times.
[Disclaimer: all the quotes above are from notes that Guri and I jotted down after our conversation, and may contain some inaccuracies.]