This article was re-edited and reprinted with a special introduction for our 15th anniversary edition.
Click to read the new article or to view the full issue.
The Indian spiritual master Vimala Thakar, whom we featured in our Fall/Winter 1996 issue of What Is Enlightenment?
, is best known in Europe and the US as a strikingly independent and powerful teacher of spiritual awakening. Indeed, we at What Is Enlightenment?
believe that she is perhaps the most enlightened woman in the world today. But what many may not know is that Thakar is also a passionately committed social activist. Deeply influenced by the teachings of both J. Krishnamurti and Mahatma Gandhi, Thakar embodies the essence of enlightened consciousness and
social responsibility—the two usually divergent streams of personal awakening and social advocacy seamlessly blending into the one indefatigable torrent of her life. And in both spheres, not unlike her mentors, she is a complete revolutionary. Her life and her teaching burn with the fire of the inner revolution of spirit that she feels is the only true foundation for a revolution of society.
Born to a middle-class Brahmin family in central India, Thakar's passion for the spiritual life began early. "The awareness of 'something beyond' dawned on me at the age of five," she writes, describing how she ran away from home into the forest searching for God, imploring God to reveal himself. Her father, boldly independent and free-thinking, encouraged her spiritual interests, supporting her in visiting ashrams, studying the scriptures, and experimenting with spiritual practices. She continued her spiritual pursuits in earnest throughout her youth and young adulthood and did an extended retreat in a cave in the Himalayas at nineteen. Her many unusual experiences during these early years have the epic aura of Mahabharatan tales.
As a young woman, Thakar became involved with Vinoba Bhave's Land Gift Movement. Bhave, Gandhi's spiritual successor who is considered a saint in his own right, furthered Gandhi's mission and vision of a new social order, and in his years of working closely with Thakar, instilled in her Gandhi's passion for, as she describes it, "a radical change in the very structure of human society as well as a radical revolution in the very substance of the human mind." Thakar worked tirelessly in the Land Gift Movement—a program that secures land from the wealthy and redistributes it to landless farm workers—traveling from village to village the length and breadth of India for eight years.
In 1960 Thakar was invited by a friend to attend a series of talks a visiting spiritual teacher was giving in Varanasi. The teacher was the legendary J. Krishnamurti, and he immediately took note of the unusual young woman listening so attentively at the back of the
hall and offered to meet with her. Their talks and private interviews sparked an upheaval within Thakar's consciousness, catapulting her into profound silence. "Something within has been let loose. It can't stand any frontiers," she wrote. "The invasion of a new awareness, irresistible and uncontrollable . . . has swept away everything." Within less than a year, Krishnamurti not only confirmed her spiritual realization but urgently implored her to begin to teach: "Why don't you explode? Why don't you put bombs under all these old people who follow the wrong line? Why don't you go around India? Is anyone doing this? If there were half a dozen, I would not say a word to you. There is not time. . . . Go—shout from the housetops, 'You are on the wrong track! This is not the way to peace!' . . . Go out and set them on fire! There is none who is doing this. Not even one. . . . What are you waiting for?"
At this point, she says, the "burning ashes became aflame," and she left the Land Gift Movement and the sphere of social action to take up her role as a spiritual teacher, traveling the world to give talks and lead meditation camps. In an open letter to her friends and former colleagues, she explained her reasons for turning her attention now exclusively to the inner revolution: "No words could describe the intensity and depth of the experience through which I am passing. Everything is changed. It is as if I am born again! . . . My association with the movement is over. Today it strikes me that the true problem is the internal problem of complete freedom! . . . The only salvation for mankind appears to be in a religious revolution of the individual
. . . . As the source of all evil is in the very substance of our consciousness, we will have to deal with it. Everything that has been transmitted to our mind through centuries will have to be completely discarded. The momentum of a million yesterdays is not easy to overcome or to discard if we try to tackle it in a casual way, or if we don't touch it at all."
For the next twenty-two years, Thakar traveled and taught in more than twenty countries, and scores of books of her teachings were published in twelve languages. While she always stayed keenly attuned to the political, environmental, and social currents throughout the world, her teaching for the most part remained focused on the inner revolution of the spirit. In 1979, however, Thakar rekindled her social advocacy and curtailed her global teaching tours for three years to stay in India, once again traveling from village to village, talking with people about local problems and founding centers for educating villagers in agro-centered industries, sanitation, local self-government, and active democratic citizenship. After this hiatus, she began traveling abroad again, with the focus of her teaching now more fully encompassing her passion for both inner and outer revolution. When California meditation teacher Jack Kornfield asked her why she returned to development work and to helping the hungry and homeless, she replied, "Sir, I am a lover of life, and as a lover of life, I cannot keep out of any activity of life. If people are hungry for food, my response is to help feed them. If people are hungry for truth, my response is to help them discover it. I make no distinction between serving people who are starving and have no dignity in their physical lives and serving people who are fearful and closed and have no dignity in their mental lives. I love all life."
Now seventy-nine, Thakar no longer travels outside India but remains busy seeing individuals or groups who make their way to visit her at her home in Rajasthan or in Ahmedabad where she stays during the winter. Here she meets with people from all over the world, ranging from Buddhists and yoga teachers to industrialists, ecologists, Indo-Pakistan peace activists, and members of Parliament. "Spirituality is the seed," says this awakened activist, "and social action is the fruit born of it." Thakar's words have the authority and authenticity born of a life wholeheartedly and holistically devoted to total revolution of the human spirit.
Quotations from: On an Eternal Voyage, Vimala Thakar (Vimal Parivar: Bombay, 1994) and Vimalaji's Global Pilgrimage, ed. Kaiser Irani (Vimal Prakashan Trust: Ahmedabad, 1996)
The following article is excerpted from Vimala Thakar's Spirituality and Social Action: A Holistic Approach (Vimala Programs California: Berkeley, 1984).