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Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Filmmaker Renate Keller on her documentary of Indian mystic and social activist, Vimala Thakar

"Only the flame of attention will take you to the other shore"

Vimala Thakar

3rd Space: Welcome Renata. You recently completed a documentary on the life and message of Vimala Thakar, called The Fire of Dancing Stillness – Reflections with Vimala Thakar. Could you tell us who Vimala is, and why you were drawn to make this film?

RK: Yes. Vimala Thakar was (I always want to say is, even though she died in 2009), born in 1921. She was a mystic, philosopher and social activist. She began her search for god, for the sacred, at a very early age. Born into the Brahmin caste, she had a very good education. Vimala’s father, a liberal scholar, entertained visitors from all over India, including scholars from various religious and philosophical backgrounds. So Vimala grew up in a very open-minded environment.  

She studied philosophy, including Western philosophy, and was in some ways a loner, always questioning life, questioning the way things are, including the religious structures around her. In her early 20s, she was selected to be a young leader at the Women’s UN, which would have meant working out of New York City. However, on hearing about the Land Gift movement in India instigated by Vinoba Bhave, a student of Gandhi,  she cancelled the UN appointment, and ended up being one of the leaders in Vinoba’s movement for ten years. 

3rd Space: Vimala went on to become an international speaker and thinker as well, right?

RK: Yes. In the end, you could say Vimala was actually a spiritual teacher. This is a tricky term because she deliberately did not refer to herself as this. She gave a lot of talks and for 30 years she travelled all over the world. Her books have been translated into a dozen languages. Vimala also travelled throughout India many times. She was walking two paths – a spiritual path and that of a social activist – her passion was to bring those two together, not only in her own life, but for those around her. 

Vimala Thakar around 25 years old

3rd Space: It seems Vimala was unique in this way. In the West at least, the spiritual path and that of the activist are viewed often as two separate tracks, usually attracting different groups of people.

RK:  Yes. I have a sense that social activism in the West is even more fragmented and separate – and becoming more science based. You have to go and study now, even as a social worker. You have to undertake some form of psychological study to engage in social transformation work. For Vimala, on the other hand, rather than the science of social change, it was about integrity – where do we actually act from? For her, integrity within the human being was the foundation for a holistic approach to life. For example, you can be a social worker, or a social activist trying to save the world, but inwardly you might still be fragmented. 

From her experience of working in the Vinoba movement, Vimala saw the importance of bringing these two together. The Land Gift Movement was one of the most advanced and  progressive movements in India. Vinoba was a deeply spiritual man. And yet she saw the small things that tend to happen in every movement – the biases, the mixed motivations…so I think seeing how corruption can start in small actions, integrity became her passion. She also questioned whether, when something becomes institutionalised, it actually impinges on a human being’s freedom. She wasn’t talking about anarchy. She was talking about a different, more organic way of being. 

Vinoba Bhave

3rd Space: So it’s not just about having a holistic system as in systems thinking? 

RK:  Right. Vimala realised we have to go deeply within, to actually come from a truly holistic place where the inner and the outer match. She was also made aware of the power of authorities from very early on. Her father always said, “Do not surrender to any authority. Find out for yourself.” Vinoba was seen as the leader and guru there. And as such, he was not to be questioned. But Vimala made it clear that she would participate, but not surrender to him as a guru.

3rd Space:  In the context of India in the 1950s this must have been very unusual.

RK:  Yes. But it was this that kept her free. 

3rd Space: Can you say a bit more about the Vinoba Land-Gift Movement itself? It was unique at the time, right? 

RK: Yes, that’s true. Kaiser [Vimala’s assistant and companion] says that it’s forgotten history that this is probably one of the only movements of its kind in the world so far – in terms of land re-distribution – in which that there was no bloodshed, no violence. Vinoba was very influenced by Gandhi, who saw that after the British left, there had to be a different structure in India, because there were so many large landowners and so much poverty. The only way to do this he said, was out of love, not force: to convince the landowners to give away their land, as if they’re giving it away to their brothers or their sons. And it was successful!

Vimala Thakar in the Vinoba movement

3rd Space:  That’s an important piece of history.

RK: Vimala describes how she walked into villages and knocked at people’s doors; I mean at landowners’ doors. Some of them were very intimidating. The Vinoba movement demonstrated again and again how you can move mountains with love. They were practicing this. They were not just ‘walking’ through India. This goes back to what we were discussing about social activism. They were praying, singing mantras, meditating. And they were walking barefoot in the Gandhian tradition. They had nothing. They had to trust that in the next village they would be fed. And Vimala did this three times. She walked across India three times. It was a radical movement. If you would translate this into today’s world, imagine convincing Facebook, Amazon – the big corporations – that out of love they give over a percentage of their profits to global issues, just because the world needs it, not just to save on taxes.

3rd Space: Hard to imagine.

RK:  But then you would have to have that inner power and Vinoba’s people had that. When Vimala stood up on a stage and spoke, people were moved. But it also took courage. She was only twenty-three and there were occasions when they were attacked, and had to be pulled away to safety. She was very exposed.

She re-defined the meaning of the Sanskrit term Ahimsa that Gandhi adopted as his methodology. She said it had been translated in the wrong way. She interpreted it not simply as non–violence, ie abstaining from violence, but as ‘creative love’. And that changes everything in terms of social activism. You’re not just fighting against something. You’re actually creating something new.

3rd Space:  I would like to ask you, what is it that motivated you to make this film?

RK: I describe in the film how I was on a spiritual path. I was also questioning what it means to be a woman.  In 2000 I met Vimala. It was only for three days but that meeting had a very deep impact. It has stayed with me ever since. Sometimes when things were very difficult or scary in my life, I would remember those conversations with Vimala. I think they have given me a very deep trust in life.

Renate Keller

It felt like a calling to do this film. At the same time, I continually questioned this, because Vimala never really did interviews, or wanted to be photographed. Only in the very late stage of her life did she reluctantly agree. So I thought, how can I do a film about somebody who shuns publicity?  But I felt this project kept knocking at my door. I took one step at a time, until I released the film. Even when I went to India, I didn’t know how people who had known Vimala would respond to someone making a film about her; whether they were going to be supportive or not. Everybody was. But, if they hadn’t been, I would have stopped. The main reason I wanted to do this, is because I feel Vimala’s voice is unique and timeless, and so relevant today. 

3rd Space: What is it that you think makes Vimala’s voice unique?

RK: Being an Indian scholar, Vimala studied the ancient scriptures in depth. She was also connected to spiritual adepts like Ramana Maharishi and Sri Aurobindo. In other words, she was deeply connected to spiritual scholarship, to the echelon of Indian knowledge.  But she didn’t subscribe to tradition. She wrote a lot of commentaries about the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita etc, and became a ‘translator’ of her own tradition. Usually it’s Western scholars who bring a modern interpretation to Indian texts and thinking. But Vimala actually translated these texts herself, and I think that’s why there is so much power in her work and message, because she’s rooted in this. She doesn’t deny tradition, yet at the same time she would never go into temples. She did not want to be involved in institutionalised religion. She engaged with the traditions from the perspective of consciousness, experimenting and researching the question – what is life about? 

Vimala Thakar

Many have interpreted the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, but what makes Vimala unique is the aliveness in her translation. She was very practical,  pragmatic. Demystifying the spiritual life was very important to her. She said we’re making such a mystical thing out of meditation, as if it’s not possible to attain enlightenment. But she considered this our most natural way of being.  

3rd Space: That’s really interesting. In Sanskrit there is a term for tradition, parampara, in which the revelations of traditional knowledge are reinterpreted through fresh insights, creating successive iterations of  timeless truths. 

RK:  Exactly!

3rd Space: The way you filmed this documentary – often with slow frames – captures something. The theme of silence comes through strongly. I wanted to ask you about this. To me it’s not only silence, it’s depth. This quality permeates India and is something that Vimala speaks about a lot. 

Renate filming on the Ganges at Varanasi

RK:  Yes. She has a way of describing nature, for instance, where you experience it directly, almost like a meditation. In the film, I wanted to transmit that sense of sacredness.

3rd Space:  Can you say more?  

RK:  Sacredness is the sense of beauty you receive when you’re in stillness. You cannot really receive beauty if your mind is like a radio station, with so much going on up there. This was something I learned when I visited India for the first time. When I returned to film, I was very aware that I needed to dive into that state myself; to not just technically film good frames, but to connect with the subjects I was filming. And it was in India actually that I became aware of the difference between Indian and Western consciousness. 

In the temples, and I am not a religious person, in all the celebrations, the holidays, the lights and colours, the relationship to food, to nature, there is a sense of sacredness. It’s obviously crumbling as India becomes more Westernised, but to bring that kind of lived sensuality and beingness back into the West is important. 

3rd Space: I wanted to ask you about something that initially appears to be a contradiction. I am referring to the way Vimala speaks about knowledge. Taken at face value, this could be quite controversial. Vimala, herself, was very well read, highly educated, and deeply familiar with both the Shastras and Western philosophy. She had extenseive knowledge, but at one point in the film she says definitively, “Knowledge has no value whatsoever”. 

RK: This is going to be tricky to really go into, so bear with me. When Vimala describes knowledge in this way, she is referring to how the world is structured. We have built up a lot of structures. She acknowledges that we have built institutions. We have created language. We have created religions. And it’s an amazing feat how far human beings have gone with all of this. But she also says we’re at the point where we need to have an organic relationship with life, where we re-align with the rhythms of the cosmos itself.  And it’s through knowledge that we’ve actually bungled this. We’ve separated so much from the natural rhythms of life. We have to go back into silence. This is all connected…silence, ahimsa or creative love. I’ll try to explain. 

Vimala says knowledge has no value because knowledge is limited. We know that thought is limited, and we also know that thought is mechanical, and it’s influenced by the past.  She states clearly that thought is irrelevant to discovering the ‘unconditioned’. Only in very rare moments do we actually experience a sense of space where we realise we are not thought. Usually we act out of thought very blindly, and not only thought, but also feelings. We carry the history of humanity and also the whole cosmos. Everything is within us, and this effects how we see the world. So, we have to see through our conditioned mind.

3rd Space: And our conceptual ways of seeing?

RK: Yes. Knowledge can become dry, abstract…. like dried herbs or vegetables. You can be engaged actively in a process of thinking, but when this process becomes static or fixed, it loses the connection to reality. As long as we keep knowledge open, it remains fresh and alive. That’s why Vimala was such a lover of dialogue. She would say we have to research, experiment and question – let’s keep exploring, so nothing is fixed. As soon as you fix knowledge, you actually kill it; even with the best of intentions.  

For example, in observing nature you may know the name of a particular tree or plant; you may know a bird has x number of sub species etc. It’s interesting to know these facts, but they are not going to give you the immediacy of connection, of shared being. Conceptual knowledge in itself, is dead. But let’s not forget Vimala had, I don’t know how many hundreds of books on world philosophies. I mean, if there is knowledge, she had a whole library full of it! 

3rd Space:  That’s what I love about Vimala.

3rd Space: In the film you mentioned the existential challenges that we face today; and in some of the footage you show Vimala speaking about the things we are losing – our connection to nature and to life itself; also the mechanical nature of human life, and the negative aspects of capitalism. I think she says at one point in the film, we are “nourished on the illusion of artificial prosperity”.  However, she then makes the point that it’s a privilege to be alive today. Unlike some current voices, hers is not a doomsday message. Could you speak about her response, in the light of the fact that we are facing an existential crisis? 

RK:  Yes. This really struck me too because she is so ruthlessly honest about the critical state of our planet. What I see Vimala as saying, is that it really is going to get worse. We’re going to lose a lot. But she talks about the fact that this doesn’t mean that human consciousness is just going to die, and that everything we’ve learned, and everything we’ve done, is going to disappear as some people are saying.  

I think we have to be realistic as to where we have come to in our development. It’s clear that something in human civilisation is not right, that something has to really fall apart. We’re facing the unbelievable mess we’ve created. That’s also part of the development of our consciousness. Talking in Vimala’s terms, it’s important to create oases, create places where we experiment with a future way of being, a future way of thinking. A lot of people are doing this. It’s happening in small ways. You don’t read about it in the news, but there are a lot of people, even within this corona period, who are thinking about the deeper meaning in life, and questioning what needs to be done. The privilege is that we can be part of a radical change. I think that is what Vimala was foreseeing.

3rd Space: What struck me in your film is that Vimala is showing a way forward; a way of accessing that part of our consciousness that is already connected to the sacredness of life. She is also pointing to the significance of silence and observation.

RK:  Yes. And I think it takes training to learn how to observe, but not in the formal sense. Vimala always said life is a teacher; every moment you have an opportunity to learn. But observing life, and then observing your own thought structures, you can actually see how in observation there is a sense of connection, of love. Because when you observe directly, you don’t judge. The more we get into the state of observation, it becomes almost like the cosmos observing itself, there is no separation.

A small example: if we look at an ant crawling over the kitchen table, the ant also feels that there is something there. It’s a very deep interconnection, a very deep inter-beingness. In the state of observation, you actually observe with all your senses, your being, you are one in relationship with life. And then I think if you let that in, it’s almost impossible to be a violent human being, because there is no separation in that connection. 

3rd Space: Yes. The theme of relationship runs through Vimala’s life and message. Even in the face of adversity, rather than recoiling or shutting down and separating, she is pointing to an unbroken relationship where everything keeps moving.

On Mount Abu, where Vimala Thakar lived.

RK: Vimala speaks of challenges like waves in the ocean. You go with them; you don’t resist them. If you have a posture of learning, you’re actually free. And in that, the I-sense – the centre of ‘I’ – dissolves. That’s how Vimala described her own experience, there was no I-sense anymore. She just had a deep sense of connectedness. 

Vimala’s meeting with Jiddu Krishnamurti (philosopher, writer and speaker, 1895-1986), was important regarding this loss of I-sense. After she met him she describes how something within herself dissolved. Interestingly, it was in the meeting of those two souls that the depth of her perspective got affirmed. It wasn’t just intellectual. 

Filming at Vimala Thakar’s home in Mount Abu

3rd Space: On another topic: Vimala was an interesting woman, because on one hand she cared very much about women, and was herself a powerful example of an independent, free woman. But she did not make anything special out of being a woman. Can you say more about the way she saw women, and what her message was for women at that time?

RK: I know she was always encouraging women to find their own independence. But as you say, she never had a sex consciousness. So even though she was a woman in a patriarchal culture, she never felt she had to fulfil a specific gender role. Her spiritual mentors were aware that this was a sign of a very developed human being. But according to convention, her mother was worried about the fact that Vimala didn’t want to get married.

Vimala once said that she was probably born into a female body so that she could support woman in their search for liberation. But she also supported them on a personal level. When women came to her in her home in Mount Abu from an abusive relationship for example, she just took them in. It wasn’t contingent on their being interested in the spiritual search. If someone needed to have a safe place, they could stay. Many did, and these women developed. Vimala supported people to find their own voice, in their own way. This comes out in the film. She doesn’t say women are poor victims. She says as long as women don’t find their own voice, they will never be free; no matter how many laws are changed. She insisted that you’ve got to be independent as a woman. You have to be independent from men.

In a way this comes back to ahimsa. Vimala was living that naturally. And what’s more, no man ever felt excluded. I’ve met so many men who felt that love in her.

Renate with two school girls at Vimala Thakar’s home

3rd Space: Before we end I have one last question. I know you’ve read Vimala’s books for years, and she’s been a guiding influence since you first met her. But in making this film, I’m curious how this deeper engagement has impacted you? 

RK:  Well, I think the biggest impact is to have gone out recently with the film into the world. I have been sharing my inner research with some people, but not many. And now that I’ve gone out with the film, I feel it’s almost like a wave coming back. I’ve become more conscious of the change in worldview that I have undergone. I’ve changed my lifestyle because of this, moved into the countryside. Right now I have a longing for silence, for going deeper, reading more of Vimala’s books. I’m also preparing seminars. I feel there’s something that I need to express, not just through the film. This makes me restless. There is a certain perspective on life that at times almost scares me to be honest, because it has implications. That’s how the film starts, “I’m taking you on a journey…” [smiles] This journey has implications. It has implications for me too.

For information about screenings of Renate Keller’s film on Vimala Thakar: https://inthefireofdancingstillness.com

Outtake: Vimala and J. Krishnamurti

3rd Space: Vimala was one of the few people Krishnamurti encouraged to go out and speak publicly. There is something you capture in the film in a brief dialogue between them, which is striking.  On one hand there are a lot of similarities in their thinking, but there’s also difference. Could you speak a bit about that?

RK: Yes. I did not want to compare Vimala, as a woman, with Krishnamurti or other male teachers. But something came through in that exchange. I read a lot of Krishnamurti in my life. He was an amazing thinker and I still admire him for what he did; how he stepped out of the Theosophical Society and renounced being a world teacher without knowing what was going to happen. He was very courageous. But I was fascinated in that dialogue by the way he says things to her like, ‘put bombs under these people’…’they don’t know what they are talking about’ etc. He sounded dismissive, as if no-one else sees things in the ‘right’ way. Vimala is very honest and replies how she is struggling with that [idea]. She rather wants to show people how to rebuild, not just destroy. 

Vimala didn’t want to copy Krishnamurti. Having listened to him for so many years, she was very aware that she could easily adopt his language. She also felt there was something missing in his approach. But she was very careful about this.  Later on in life, she became clearer about this distinction as she reflected on the different biographies they both had. But what really struck me is that she was constructive, practical and holistic. She wanted to find a language that encouraged people towards a full embrace of life. She always said, “I’m a lover of life and I’m a lover of human beings.” And I think that comes across in the dialogue.

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Comments 1

  1. Avatar

    What a powerful, comprehensive and in-depth interview. Thank you both. And what an amazingly autonomous woman and Human Being Vimala was. I love how she supported women to find their own voice without demanding that they adapt to her or her vision of life… that’s a very powerful and wholesome way of supporting others.
    Also, I love how Vimala talks about the importance to create oases where we experiment with ‘future ways of being’. It feels like an invitation, at least that’s how I ‘hear’ it 🙂

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