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BETTINA BÄUMER AT THE LABYRINTH
PHOTOS: SARAH EICHNER
On the occasion of FIND’s 2017 Forum on “Normativity and the Margins: The Question of Tantra”, the eminent Indologist Bettina Bäumer (one of the highest authorities on Kaśmir Śaivism in the West and also a spiritual figure of our times) visited the Labyrinth and participated in the workshop organized by Adrián Navigante (FIND Intellectual Dialogue) and Andrea Acri (FIND’s grantee and maître de conference in Tantric Studies at the École Pratique de Hautes Études), providing a great opportunity for a long discussion of her life and work, of which the highlights are published here in the form of a dossier.
From 21 to 23 October 2017, FIND Intellectual Dialogue hosted the fourth issue of the “Transcultural Encounters” Forum on the subject of Normativity and the Margins: the Question of Tantra. This was the ideal occasion to invite Bettina Śāradā Bäumer who, like Alice Boner and Lilian Silburn, embraced India rather early in her life, both intellectually and spiritually, delving into its religion, philosophy and poetry in a way that is not typical of Western scholars.
Bettina Bäumer’s path towards India was dynamic, creative, integrative and transversal. It was characterized neither by blind fascination and identification, nor by prejudiced distance and critique. She was early on inspired by Western authors who represented a turning point in the history of interreligious dialogue and the way of conceiving the spirituality of Hinduism: Raimon Panikkar and Henri le Saux. Once in India, she shared many years of work and experience with Alice Boner in the sacred city of Kāśī (Benares), and was initiated into Shivaism by a great mystic and scholar of Trika Shaivism: Swāmī Lakṣmaṇajū.
The human background that shaped Bettina Bäumer’s experience already includes intellectual, artistic and spiritual elements. There is also a non-human (that is, trans-individual, metaphysical and/or divine) background supporting processes and experiences revolving around the fate of an individual, but that is much more difficult to deal with in words. The fact that Bettina Bäumer has remained in India and is fully integrated into that culture is something that many Hindus would put down to her saṃskāra-s (impressions from former lives). However, this does not imply a rejection of her Western back ground, but rather a process of inner enrichment, finding a way of living, learning and growing through a peculiar combination of cultural factors. The result of this significant process is a synthesis of two worlds, a construction of a very tolerant and integrative philosophy of life.
Bettina Bäumer’s stay at the Labyrinth has also been an act of recognition on her part of the work Alain Daniélou has done about India. Although Alain Daniélou belonged to another generation and followed a dissimilar path within the ample and diverse spectrum of Shaivism, both spirits shared the love of India, an honest and open approach to its challenges and mysteries and a special way of looking that does not aim at constructing intellectual categories to make a homogeneous and manageable object out of boundlessly multiform experience.
Q | Bettina, this place called “The Labyrinth” is said to be a very special, sacred place. Alain Daniélou himself referred to the Etruscan layers and the power of an ancient, pre-Christian religiosity that seems to be preserved here by the very disposition of the place and the presence of Nature. Do you feel something similar here?
A | I do feel the special spiritual power of the earth around Rome and maybe especially at Zagarolo, although I cannot really compare. The place created by Alain Daniélou has a great aesthetic quality and a lot of potential for cultural and intellectual dialogue between India and Europe. About the spiritual quality I cannot say anything, the time was too short and we were too busy to meditate!
Q | When we look back on your life-experience, you seem to have been deeply influenced by both the Western and Indian sides. Raimon Panikkar and Henri le Saux belong to the former, Swāmī Lakṣmaṇajū and your relationship with Hindu scholars, poets and saints represent the latter. Did you experience any difficulty in reconciling those “poles”? We know for example that Raimon Panikkar had no problem whatever in dealing existentially with Advaita Vedānta and Roman Catholicism, but that was not the case of Henri le Saux, who in spite of his Hindu initiation went through a very hard process of self-discovery towards the achievement of a type of wholeness that did not rule out painful contradictions and deep conflicts. On the other hand, Hindu mystics are usually impermeable to Christian influences, at least in terms of any external religious standpoint producing some sort of conflict with regard to their own path. How was that inter-cultural experience in your case?
A | My intercultural experience was at the beginning strongly influenced by my teachers Raimon Panikkar and Abhiṣiktānanda (Henri le Saux) in their very different ways. Through them, I could dive deeply into the Indian and Hindu world without having to give up my Christian roots. But then I had to proceed on my own path of integration and discovery. I was spared the inner struggles Abhiṣiktānanda went through thanks to them. But in a way, I knew I had to go further, culturally, spiritually and intellectually – not in the sense of criticism but of finding my own way. And I found it in Kaśmīr Śaivism and in Swāmī Lakṣmaṇajū, who became my ultimate Guru and through whom I could really enter the tradition. This again involved not only spiritual acceptance, but also had cultural and philosophical implications. The great advantage of Kaśmīr Śaivism is its openness to other traditions and its non-exclusivity, or rather its inclusivity. Swāmī Lakṣmaṇajū was also completely open and never showed any negative attitude to other religions or traditions and he had excellent relations with Christians and Sufi Muslims. I found that Hindus are interested only in the mystical aspects of Christianity, not in its dogmatic or historical aspects.
Q | What was your relationship with Hinduism before your immersion in the Indian experience and how was it taken by Western scholars around you? You wrote a PhD thesis at the University of Munich on Creation as Divine Play (Schöpfung als Spiel), but your mentor at that time was neither an Indologist nor a Yoga master, but the famous German theologian Karl Rahner, well-known for the active intellectual role he played at the Second Vatican Council back in the 1960s and the Heideggerian tones of his theological writings. Were there tensions around your tendency to delve into and even embrace the Indian paradigm of thought and experience?
A | None of my Professors at Munich, including Karl Rahner, objected to my attraction to Hinduism. They somehow trusted my Christian roots. There were no tensions as far as I remember. Tensions occurred only with my Professor of Indology at Vienna who thought I had gone too far in my immersion in Hinduism.
Q | There are many people who have a close relationship with India, but only a few remain there to the point of changing their lives’ focal point. When did you realize that you would remain in India? Was it at the very beginning or was it a gradual process in which you were never fully aware of something that was taking place by itself?
A | At the beginning of my life in Varanasi in 1967, I did not know whether I would remain there for life. I only knew that there was so much to learn in that culture that a short stay even of a few years was not enough. Later, friends advised me to spend six months in Europe and six months in India, but I found that this amounted to schizophrenia. I had to have a focal point and remain connected with Europe by shorter stays and engagements, teaching, etc. I feel more relaxed at having chosen India as my centre of gravity, in spite of problems with climate, pollution, etc.
Q | The fact that your Indian (dīkṣā?) name usually appears between your name and surname wherever we see a reference to your person emphasises its considerable importance. “Bettina Śāradā Bäumer” brings to mind not only your own human person but also a divine presence, that of the goddess Sarasvatī. Was there a radical change in your person and your attitude to life, identifying a “before” and “after” your initiation, or would you say – like Alain Daniélou / Śiva Śaran – that the effects of an initiation are imperceptible and gradual, that nothing really changes, contrary to what many people say, immediately after the event has taken place?
A | Śāradā is not my dīksā name. There is no tradition in Kaśmīr Śaivism of getting a new name at initiation. But when I applied for Indian citizenship there was an option to officially add an Indian name. I asked the close disciple of my Guru, Prabhā Devī, and she felt inspired to give me the name Śāradā, the Goddess of learning, of wisdom and music. The reason for adding it now is secular: it is in my Indian passport! As far as dīksā is concerned, I am sure that life ‘before’ and ‘after’ is substantially different. It may be imperceptible from outside, but spiritually it is the turning point towards divinity, a point of ‘recognition’.
Q | Your seminars and workshops at the Abhinavagupta Research Library in Benares are well-known as a combination of intellectual and spiritual work. There you combine readings in Sanskrit with different kinds of spiritual techniques. When did you start those activities and how do you reconcile both the intellectual aspect of understanding sources and the bodily/spiritual acts leading to the realization of a doctrine?
A | My so-called retreat-seminars, whether in Vārāṇasī, in Himācal Pradeś, in Ṛṣikeś or in Śrīnagar (to mention only places in India), combine serious textual study with meditation, silence, and musical recitation. The participants enjoy this combination which is enriching, and which is actually traditional, e.g. Buddhist teachers follow the same method. I started this combination from the beginning of my teaching, maybe from 1981 or 1982, when I was teaching the Upaniṣads in Europe. There is no question of having to reconcile the intellectual and the spiritual aspects of the scriptural text, they belong together and get separated only in a dry academic context. One Israeli student, after a seminar on some Tantra, told me that she had studied Tantra at Hebrew University, but she felt that it was like “learning to swim on dry land”!
Q | At the 2008 international conference in honour of Raimon Panikkar, which took place in Venice, you said that the only possibility of survival for mankind is mysticism. I suppose you mean that mysticism is the only way to inwardly reconcile what in the outer world creates and appears as “tensions”. However, not all human beings are mystics. Do you think that a mystical attitude to life can be taught and learned?
A | According to my teacher Panikkar, all are mystics, only they do not know it. To be a mystic or aspire to it consciously is of course a great task which demands total commitment. But by saying that mysticism is necessary for the survival of mankind, I mean 1) a deepening of our self-understanding and connecting to our divine source, however we may call it; 2) a way of overcoming all kinds of tensions, divisions, conflicts, dualism and separation – between people, between communities, between cultures, and – most important – between Man and Nature. An ecology that is not based on a mystical union with Nature remains only scientific and political and cannot lead to a complete change in our attitude to Nature. Can a mystical attitude be taught? Yes, because it connects to a deep longing in every man and woman, and it only needs to be awakened. The awakeners, of course, have to be mystics themselves, with a sense of compassion.
Q | Still another question regarding mysticism. You take it as a way of reconciling seemingly unbridgeable divergences, for example differences in doctrine (dualism or non-dualism), opposed ways of thinking (monotheism and polytheism), ostensible cultural contrasts (Christian morality and African tribal habits) and so on. But it is also true that even a mystical attitude crystallizes in a context of habits, modes of behaviour and concrete inter-subjective practices which are not the same in different cultures. Taking your own personal case: how did you develop this habit of reconciling different paradigms? For example, what does the place where you pray and meditate look like? Can you easily combine Hindu and Christian iconography (like Kālī and the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and Shiva), without any feeling of contradiction, or do you choose one single cultural and religious framework as a guiding line to avoid syncretism?
A | As far as cultural adaptation is concerned, I accept the context of a tradition and live with it as far as possible. For instance, the culture of Vārāṇasī, which is very much determined by a Hindu way of life with its sacred times and spaces, festivals and rituals, has become my way of life. When I am in Kaśmīr I adopt the life-style and cultural habits prevalent there. Of course, when I am in Europe, I have no problem because I have grown up in that culture. But generally I feel at home in a cultural environment with a predominant sense of the sacred, and I feel displaced in a materialistic and consumerist type of culture. Religiously I would not call it syncretism, but I do keep different religious symbols in my meditation spaces which I find meaningful and inspiring. In my meditation room in Varanasi there is a Śivaliṅga with Nandi, a Russian icon of the Virgin Mary, and of course a photo of my Guru. In my place in the foothills of the Himalaya I have built a stone-and-mud meditation hall where I also keep a photo of my Guru, a photo of a Śiva in meditation from Vietnam, and in the small niches there are icons of the Devī, of the transfiguration of Christ, and at the entrance a Ganeśa and a Nandi. They are not meant for worship, but are symbols of my belonging and love for the traditions represented. All images, whether mūrti or icon, are pointers to that which transcends all names and forms. We often recite a verse in Sanskrit on Śiva which calls him:
- We praise the One who has eight forms,
- The one whose form is the universe,
- The one who is beyond form,
- The one who is embodied in the Mantra,
- The one who is an embodiment of pure Consciousness.