Pradeep Krishnan interviews Vanamali Mataji, an ardent Krishna bhakt, who runs an ashram in Rishikesh.
My wife and I had a chance meeting with Vanamali Mataji, known in her poorvashram as Devi Menon, during our spiritual sojourn in
Rishikesh about a decade ago. On our return from Vasishta guha, Sage
Vasishta’s cave situated on the banks of the river Ganga, we saw the
board, Vanamali Gita Yogashram, and stepped in. The scenic beauty of
the ashram, located on the banks of Gangaji, instantly made us cheerful
and happy. Even though she was meeting us for the first time, Mataji at
once showered us with love and affection, as if she had known us for
years. For years, Mataji’s innocent and smiling face, simple manners and loving gestures lingered in our hearts.
Mataji is a beautiful singer, having several bhajan CDs to her credit. Her melodious Krishna bhajans, yearning for the
Divine, lifts the listener to a different plane of existence. Interestingly, she herself has written the lyrics and composed the
music for all her bhajans. Recently, when I learnt that Mataji was in
Thrissur, her native place in Kerala, to record her bhajans, I sought
Sitting in the cozy drawing room of the house of her college classmate Smt. Nalini Chandran, adorned in a violet cotton saree,
her childlike nature, joyful smile and simple manners instantly made me relaxed and calm.
Born to Shri KMR Menon and Smt Ammaluamma on December 11, 1939, in Guruvayoor, a place synonymous with the
famous Sri Krishna temple, Devi, as she was named, was a pure Krishna bhakt right from childhood.
In time she passed out with a first rank in MA Honours degree in philosophy from the University of Madras. Later, she
joined a college in Thrissur as lecturer and subsequently became a professor. However, the Divine had other plans.
Looking back, Mataji says that her whole life had been shaped by Lord Sri Krishna, as part of the cosmic plan. “I had no
aim, I am fulfilled and contented. I have never planned anything. In my life everything happened the way it had to happen.”
At the invitation of her devotees, Mataji holds spiritual sessions in India and abroad, on different aspects of sanatan
dharma. A prolific writer, she has written several books on different aspects of Hinduism. Her latest book, The Science
called Hinduism, is a systematic and logical analysis of the philosophy.
In addition to conducting regular puja, satsangs and meditation sessions, the ashram is engaged in social service projects.
They have adopted the small village, Gaja, located in Garhwal
Himalayas, and take care of the health, and sanitation needs of the
In all ashram activities, Mataji is assisted by Br. Mohan, who joined her about 38 years ago after relinquishing his job in
Thrissur. Mataji considers Br. Mohan ‘her dearest brother, friend and companion’ whose unstinted support and
dedication has contributed much to the running of the Vanamali Gita Yogashram.
Mataji & Br. Mohan, Dwarka Pilgrimage (2011)
Excerpts from the interview:
Mataji, tell us about your journey from Devi Menon to Vanamali Mataji?
It is an inward journey, not just a change of name, but the journey of the soul towards the Self. When my husband left me
to marry another lady, initially I was shocked and perplexed as I did not know what to do. However, soon difficulties
turned into blessings. After my daughter got married and my son finished his studies, I just resigned from my job, and left
home without any plan, preparation or programme. I wandered all over the Himalayas searching for some place to settle.
Eventually, I came to Rishikesh and then somebody offered a beautiful
place overlooking the Ganga, a unique place for me to stay,
where the Vanamali Gita Yogashram has now come up.
Mataji spreading love and light among the children of Rishikesh (2015)
Tell us about your guru.
Kedarnath and Badrinath Temple at Vanamali Ashram
My guru is Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal of Kanchi Kamakoti peetam,
who initiated me to the path of advaita. Again, that was not
my choice. After leaving home, I was earnestly searching for a sadguru.
Even though I met several gurus in Rishikesh, some incident
or other always stopped me from accepting any one as my guru. Once when Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swami was on his pilgrimage to
Kedarnath and Badrinath on foot, I saw him passing near the ashram, and
ran after him to request him to come to the ashram. Swamiji said
that he would on his return journey.
As promised, on his way back, he came to the ashram. Later, when he was staying in the Dayananda Ashram, Rishikesh,
I regularly attended his morning classes, and puja. One day, I appealed to Swamiji for initiation. When all the others had
left the hall, Swamiji initiated me with a Vishnu mantra without
any ceremonial offerings or rituals. On hearing the mantra,
tears rolled down from my eyes and I fell at his feet as it was quite astonishing that Swamiji had initiated me with a mantra
that I had been using for several years or perhaps lifetimes.
After some years, when Swamiji was searching for a place somewhere in Rishikesh to build temples for Shiva and Vishnu,
symbolising the temples of Kedarnath and Badrinath, our premises were offered as guru dakshina. Swamiji consecrated
the two temples in the year 1984. I consider it as my poorvajanma sukrta. I still keep in touch with my guru and seek his
advice on spiritual matters.
The spiritual path that you follow?
All paths ultimately lead to advaita, unity with the One essential truth. I follow the bhakti marga based on advaita as
bhakti without jnana leads to fundamentalism as is happening now all over the world. That is why bhakti yoga comes only
after jnana and karma in the Bhagavad Gita.
You say to overcome duality, one must go beyond attachment to joy and sorrow and accept life as it is. How does
one do that?
Generally, we don’t accept that the world is made of dualities. Like electricity, positive and negative are integral parts of
life. We crave only for the positive, resulting in friction within our mind. The moment one accepts that life consists of both
and learns to accept the good and bad, the negative and positive, life becomes easy, happy and comfortable.
What, according to you, is liberation or moksha? Practical tips?
The purpose of human life is attaining liberation from the samsara
sagar. Liberation does not come from the outside. It is discovering
one’s own self or rather removal of the veil of ignorance. The
unawareness of connecting and identifying with the mortal body acts
as a hindrance to our self-discovery. When we ponder deeply we find
that the question of liberation does not arise at all because we are
already liberated. The practical method I suggest is to accept and
understand the dualities of existence with a calm mind and constantly
be aware that we are immortal.
How do you view life?
Life is a leela; joyously play it. I follow the philosophy of Lord Krishna, who is utterly incomparable. He is the only great
spiritual yogi who laughed all the time. Whatever the situation he was placed in, Krishna
stood like a lotus leaf on water. When light passes through a crystal, it emits so many colours. Likewise life also gives
different colours, shades and many facets. Accept everything as it comes, and live happily and blissfully.
What is your concept of God?
The moment you say God, it becomes a mental concept. God is not a mental concept. It is an eternal and all-pervading
energy that the mind can never conceive of. That is why sanatan dharma has innumerable gods. The human mind is not
capable of conceiving a god which is formless, and eternal, that is never born and never dies. It is non-dual, but capable of
giving duality. Now modern physics says that every matter is nothing but energy in a different form. This is exactly what
the rishis had perceived thousands of years ago. They described the world as maya, for the world that we perceive
through the senses is deceptive. They showed that the world is not the way you think it is. Quantum physics affirms tha
all is energy in motion. All is interconnected.
What is your message to seekers?
Understand the God that you are seeking. Sanatan dharma insists that everything, every creation, is God. God has many
names and forms, but is actually nameless and formless. First try to intellectually understand that energy/force, so that
experience naturally happens at a later stage. For a bhakta, japa is the best. For a person inclined towards work, karma
yoga is the best. For an intellectual, jnana marga is the best. Whatever be the path, spirituality should lead one to love
humanity. Once a path is chosen, don’t have any doubts about it. Obviously one chooses a path that one is mentally
inclined towards. Realize that all the three paths, bhakti, karma and jnana, ultimately merges into one.
Vanamali Garden Overlooking the Ganga (2015)
About the author :
A seeker based in Trivandrum, Kerala, Pradeep Krishnan is deeply attracted to the
teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.