From ‘Secret Germany’ to Secret Lanka
The life and times of German Swami
Swami Gauribala, better known as ‘German Swami’, was among the most colourful figures of 20th Century Sri Lanka. A consummate entertainer and prankster, he was also deeply immersed in a spiritual journey, his Grail Quest, that animated his study of sacred power, especially at Kataragama and Sigiriya.
In researching this article, information has surfaced that sheds new light upon Gauribala’s background and inner spiritual life.
Born as Peter Joachim Schoenfeldt on September 15, 1907 (or 1906) to an upper middle-class Jewish family, he grew up in Berlin in the Roaring Twenties. It was the heyday of the Weimar Republic, a time when Berlin was a hotbed of intellectual and artistic ferment.
|This is a rare photo taken at Dehra Dun internment camp in 1943 of three of Swami's fellow German monks, all seated. Left to right: Rev. Nyanaponika, Lama Anagarika Govinda (in Tibetan Buddhist robes), and Rev. Nyanamalita (German Swami's younger brother Malte). Note that German Swami himself is not present. By this time he had left the Buddhist order and escaped to Tibet.
Young Schoenfeldt was an apprentice bookbinder at a small press where poets had their poems printed and bound. Through meeting them and reading their poems, Schoenfeldt entered the circle of young intellectuals around Stefan George (pronounced ‘gay-or-gah’).
Considered Germany’s greatest symbolist poet, Stefan George (1868-1933) was among the most influential of all German poets. His poetry was to German literature what Nietzsche was to German philosophy. Nietzsche expressed the essence of German identity; George's poetry explored the Germanic soul.
George believed his destiny was to change the world. By the mid-1920s he was considered to be one of the world’s most influential people. Even today he is ranked among the greatest German poets, along with Goethe, Hölderlin and Rilke (all of whom influenced German Swami).
George foresaw the coming of a priest-king who would make the “secret” or spiritual Germany a reality (many Nazis saw this personified in Hitler). In Das neue Reich (1928) George describes the mystic kingship he hoped would revivify Germany.
As his fame grew, George became more reclusive. Youths who subscribed to his vision of "Secret Germany" gathered around him and sought to transform that vision into reality. Among them was young Schoenfeldt.
George’s elite circle had its own hermetic mysticism and rituals. Followers even had to take a 'loyalty oath' to George swearing their unconditional allegiance and agreeing never to reveal his inner teachings.
Against his will, George was acclaimed by the Nazis as their champion and forerunner. When Hitler offered him the position of President of the Nazi Academy of Letters, George refused and retired to Switzerland, where he died in exile.
Schoenfeldt, meanwhile, was being attracted to Buddhism. He and others, including the future Rev. Nyanaponika and Lama Anagarika Govinda, concluded that the true path was one of self-transformation rather than political transformation.
For Schoenfeldt and other Jews, flight from Germany would soon be the only alternative to imprisonment or death. He sailed to Colombo in 1936, and was received by the renowned German bhikkhu Ven. Nyanatiloka, who ordained him as Nyanakhetto together with Nyanaponika, another German Jew.
They donned the ochre robes at the Island Hermitage near Hikkaduwa. Later Nyanakhetto's younger brother Malte came and was ordained as Nyanamalita.
World War II
When war broke out in 1939, all Germans were arrested and detained at Diyatalawa. After the Japanese captured Singapore, they were moved to the massive internment camp at Dehra Dun in the Himalayan foothills.
Nyanakhetto eventually disrobed, escaped (on his fifth attempt) and spent the rest of the war in a remote Tibetan monastery. This is said to be the period when he was first initiated into tantric practice.
When the war was over, he returned to India and was ordained into the Dasanami monastic order as Swami Gauribala Giri.
Gauribala wandered across India meeting saints and sages including Ramana Maharshi, but found no spiritual solace. The turning point came when he returned to Ceylon.
As he was browsing through the 'spiritual' section of the Lanka Book Depot on KKS Road in Jaffna town one morning, an old and rather wild-looking stranger suddenly snatched the book from his hands and said, "You bloody fool, it's not found in books! Nee summa iru!"
Swami Gauribala had met his guru, Yogaswami of Nallur.
Taking seriously this upadesam, he spent a lifetime penetrating the mysteries of summa iruttal, of 'being still'.
German Swami sometimes corresponded with close friends, but he never published the findings of his “Mu research” as he called his study of sacred geography. However, he did meticulously assemble and publish his Summa Irukka Suttiram, a compilation of ancient verses expounding the significance of summa iruttal.
German Swami never gave straightforward discourses or explanations, except at times to children, naïve visitors, and householders. To many who met him, it seemed that he was being variously entertaining, outrageous, facetious, or even vulgar.
True to his parampara, Gauribala did not rely upon words alone to convey truths. Rather, he made free use of the emotions and his keen familiarity with mental and spiritual states to goad, or even deceive, those who came looking for instructions or guidance, as Zen masters do.
German Swami, his circle of initiates, and other sannyasins had only praise for Yogaswami. The sole exception was a consensus that Yogaswami had got ‘caught’ by householders and turned into pious ‘Saint’ Yogaswami.
Neither Chellappa Swami nor Kadai Swami had permitted this to happen in their times. German Swami did not wish to share that fate, and deliberately steered the pious away.
Swami used to explain to me (usually when he was about to partake of a glass of brandy) that one should be moderate in all things, and avoid excess.
Excessive piety, he explained, is as undesirable for the sadhaka as excessive indulgence. He used to cite the example of Yogaswami as a case of excessive piety. Pious acts, company with ‘high’ people, partaking of sattvic foods, etc. were what he termed ‘vitamins’.
Swami was careful to add, however, that one should always balance ‘vitamin’ intake with an intake of ‘mortamins’, like brandy and association with low and earthy classes of people, which mortifies conventional observers and ensures that the recluse will remain aloof and alone, fearless and indifferent to praise or blame.
In this way, Swami vigorously dissuaded anyone from regarding him as a saintly person, and anyone who did was destined to be shocked.
As a shakta (his name ‘Gauribala’ means Child of Gauri, the resplendent Goddess), Swami adored the divine Feminine Power, or shakti, that pervades daily life but manifests especially at sacred power sites.
Like Yogaswami, German Swami also walked in the pada yatra from Jaffna to Kataragama. He walked it, in fact, not once but 25 times, ceasing only in the mid-70’s when his once-robust frame could no longer take the strain of the two-month walk.
I first met German Swami in February 1971 in the company of Alan Marlowe, an American Beatnik poet turned Zen Buddhist. Alan suddenly turned up one day at the Island Heritage where I was training to be ordained under Ven. Nyanaloka (another disciple of Nyanatiloka), saying he was on his way to see ‘German Swami’.
Marlowe and I visited Swami’s ashram “Summasthan” at Selva Sannidhi Kovil in Jaffna. He was dressed in the ochre robes of a sannyasin and, with his grey beard and German accent, was the very picture of an eccentric hermit—which indeed he was!
He claimed to be preparing to undertake a journey to the centre (or top) of the world.
He showed us maps of the high Himalayas where, he said, the name of a pass would reveal itself as the way to Shambhala, the mythical (and invisible) Buddhist kingdom where resides the Shambhala King. According to ancient legend, he will lead his army to engage and defeat the Dark Forces just as they are poised to overrun the entire world.
As preposterous as it might seem, Swami nevertheless was serious. Would we like to join him on this expedition, he asked?
At once I replied in the affirmative, adding, “When do we start?” My former resolve to become a Buddhist monk suddenly went up in smoke. And Marlowe, too, dropped his world travel plans in order to join us.
That journey, my trial and initiation into sacred geography and spiritual travel, lasted until my return to Summasthan six months later. Suffice it to say that the trial or journey satisfied German Swami and left me hungering for more. I was not to be disappointed.
Swami’s interest in mythical power centres, like Shambhala, and real ones, like Kataragama and Sigiriya, began with his association with Stefan George and the poetry of Goethe, Holderlin and Rilke, with their sense of personal destiny and devotion to the German fatherland.
Later, the writings of Rene Guenon and Ananda Coomaraswamy would elevate his quest to the universal level of the Philosophia Perennis.
German Swami’s iconoclasm often shocked those who knew him casually. His sense of wonder, mystery, and humour left a lasting impact upon those around him—including diplomats and beggars, academics and seekers, foreigners and locals—that continues even today. We, his admirers, salute him.
Patrick Harrigan was an associate of Swami Gauribala from 1971 until his passing in 1984.
|Getting to know a Swami...
Continued from last week
It was Swami who introduced me to the mature writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Rene Guenon, and Frithjof Schuon. In 1981, when I found myself in the United States with Prime Minster R. Premadasa I abandoned his entourage to meet Schuon who was living in Bloomington, Indiana with Whittal Perry. He rarely granted interviews but his curiosity had been aroused when Rama Coomaraswamy told him that I knew Gauribala Swami whom he had also met.
I made my way to see him delighted at the prospect of meeting the last of these three men who wrote mostly on the Perennial Philosophy. I left my one-hour meeting with Schuon, who was dressed as an Arab Sheikh, and wired Swami thanking him for having turned me on to this school of thought.
|"Garden of the Soul”: Swami at Sigiriya in the 1960's.German Swami's research transformed the way scholars interpret Sigiriya
Swami wired back asking me to return at once to Sri Lanka. When I returned I asked him why. His response was “You need to be turned off from traditionalism.” He then showed me an article by Schuon that was titled ‘The Problem of Sexuality’ and asked “Do you have a problem with sexuality? Is there a problem with sexuality?” He then smiled and stated in Tamil the famous Yogaswami dictum “Oru Pollapum Illai” meaning ‘Not one problem exists’. Years later we are now witnessing the re-branding of the Perennial Philosophy as ‘Traditionalism’ and its adherents as ‘Traditionalists’.
Caves and Siddhasthanas
At one time the Ariya Sangha occupied caves in many parts of Sri Lanka. I remember when Islamic Bawas were keeping the flame lit, occupying caves in Jailani or Kuragala. Inscriptions in many parts of Sri Lanka state that caves have been donated by the laity to the ‘Sangha of the four quarters of the world, past, present and yet to come’. The Sangha referred to were not just the Theravada Bhikku Sangha. Knowledge and wisdom defined the Ariya Sangha and enlightened seers did not need robes to set them apart. Culture was apparent everywhere around them. Labels, exclusivity and religion were not in their vocabulary. The Buddha himself was a Maha Siddha in this tradition. Some consider this southern revelation also as Dakshinamurthy which means southern form.
There were once several Siddhasthanas in Sri Lanka. Since Siddhas chose anonymity these Siddhasthanas were originally in dense forests. Swami Gauribala who knew Sri Lanka better than anybody I have met so far took me to a few of these Siddhasthanas in various parts of the island. The oral legend was that there were three circles around every Siddha. The outer periphery was the Kaela Miniya or the Forest Dweller also called Vedda. This man dealt with the villagers bordering the forest and traded honey and dried meat. He alone had access to the next circle which was normally composed of disciples of the Siddha. They grew plants of use and were guardians of the labyrinth that protected the centre from strangers. Beyond the labyrinth there was always an ascent. The horizontal turned into the vertical. Here there was silence and nobody. If fortune permitted it would lead to the Siddha who was the embodiment of solitude. The Dhamma revealed itself in silence. Speechlessly spoken wisdom with show of hand (mudra) led to a silence that contained it all. This is how the oral tradition describes this transmission.
The kuttis or cubs
Gauribala Swami like his very German name Schonfeldt was himself a shining field. Even when he was a Buddhist monk for a while at Polgasduwa he was called Nyanakhetto. He like the bitch or ‘Petta Nai’ in season attracted those interested in the chase from the four quarters of the world.
“Drink Puppy, Drink.
Let every Puppy, Drink.
That’s old enough to lap and to swallow.
Here’s to the fox and here’s to the hound.
And here’s to the chase that we follow”.
This was his refrain as he walked to the Menik Ganga for his daily ablutions followed by the rest of the puppies Haro Hara Amma had named. The son of the last British Governor General of Ceylon Yannai Kutti, Narri Kutti an Australian Architect, Punnai Kutti or Adrian Snodgrass, currently one of the world’s most respected Buddhist scholars and of course Sam Wickramasinghe, the well known raconteur who was Pulli Kutti.
The way and the Sangha
Gauribala was an iconoclast. His lineage was of iconoclasts. Summa Iru or Nikang Inde was at the core of this dispensation. Thoughtlessly being, empty, nobody, breathing in and breathing out, now here yet nowhere was the experience. It was not in books, not in scriptures, could not be articulated except as the chin mudra in art. Mudra was the teaching method that the Siddhas used where all contradictions were resolved in the present. Time and space converged hence everything was perfected. This language transcended speech and belonged to every traditional race on the planet. Symbols and hand gestures told the whole story that could not be stated otherwise.
Thanks to this lineage a few of us were privileged to glimpse beyond the veil. All suffering being dependent on ignorance was understood for what it was. One automatically began accepting whatever happens as happening right, like a true Muslim accepting always the will of the Divine.
Gauribala acolytes are today everywhere. Rose Collingwood, a girl I introduced to Swamiji in 1971 returned in 1984 and had the privilege of performing the last rites on a man who willed his own death. He was perfectly alright when Rose walked into ‘Summasthan’, his Selvachchanithi Ashram. He greeted her as “Padma” which has the same symbolic meaning as Rose. They had not met in more than a decade. She came in response to a dream not even knowing if Swami was alive.
Having recognized her after so many years his next statement was “Now that you have come I can go”. He attained Maha Samadhi having given her specific instructions on what was to be done thereafter. Rose carried out his wishes in detail.
Her first stop after carrying out the last rites as expressed was to visit the late Bhikku Sumedha, to hand him a small trunk full of books in German. Her second stop was my home. To me was left his note books and life study - the Summa Iruka Suttiram or the art of self naughting – the Mu Copy. I had also been given another copy by Swami himself. This was inscribed from Bala to Bala. I gifted one copy to Patrick Harrigan.
The Ariya Sangha
The great error is assuming that Sri Lanka only had a Theravada Buddhist dispensation. Every dispensation that either arose or came to India found its way to Sri Lanka. Mahayana Buddhists, Tantric Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sufis, Nestorian Christians were all present in traditional Sri Lanka and this is evident in cultural practices that still exist, as well as in inscriptions, monuments and the oral tradition.
Gauribala Swami who would have been 100 on September 15 had he lived was a living exponent of what the Ariya Sangha stood for. He passed this knowledge in a traditional manner to a few of his acolytes who still revere his name. As for others who did not really know him, like all Siddhas he will be dismissed as a great fraud and trickster, a label he would have enjoyed.
A siddha passes
As he lived Swamiji died. He did not want a Samadhi built by ignorant lay folk like they did with Yogaswami which in turn became an Army camp. When he decided to die, he spent three days preparing Rose for his departure. She thought it a joke at first as he was in perfect good health. However, after three days of talking when he suddenly turned into an invalid she proceeded to do as she had been instructed. After the life force had left, she got rid of all evidence that there had ever been a Gauribala. A few months later his ashram was bulldozed by the Sri Lankan Army as their Vadamarachchchi campaign went right through his compound. Rubble was all that was left of Summasthan. This is exactly what this Siddha would have wanted since he knew that a great hunter leaves no trail.
He experienced life as Yogaswami had taught him. He told him Virupinapadi Sey – “Do as you please” - there is no further birth for you. To live as a free man he could not have done so in the official robes of a sect with rules. He had been there, done that and wanted no more of it. People around him in both Jaffna and Kataragama held him in great respect, since they were accustomed to Siddhas and their ways. Traditional people were used to a tradition in which Gnanis or Siddhas were permitted anything. They knew that there were multiple meanings in every action; hence they never judged such men.
In this world the only war is internal and victory is liberation from delusion. Thanks to Gauribala Swami I often visited such a world in the Jaffna peninsula considered the bottom of the social structure in 1971 -1984. In these traditional communities, bhakti (devotion) and Gnanam (wisdom) ruled. Cultivators, fisher folk, toddy-tappers, tom-tom beaters, palanquin bearers and all the little people worship Amma or the Earth Mother. They are summa. Their lifestyle is summa. Summa is a state of being, where tranquility and serenity replace paranoia and fear.
Gauribala Swami was always summa iru as tattooed on his left arm and this was what he left as a legacy. All traditional people are summa or nikkan which explains their detachment and placidity in the midst of chaos. It is this detachment that has permitted charlatans to dominate sometimes since everybody knows that all manifestation is subject to change.
(The Living Heritage website www.kataragama.org is another source of information about Yogaswami, Gauribala Swami and this lineage)