An Austrian truth-seeker in India discovers Gaudiya Vaishnavism at a WWII internment camp.
By Satyaraja Dasa
A fortuitous encounter in a British holding camp in India during World War II heralds Krishna consciousness in the West.
The spiritual odyssey of Walther Eidlitz (1892–1976), an Austrian writer, poet, and Indologist who became a devotee of Krishna in the 1930s, is remarkable, to say the least. Decades before Srila Prabhupada’s success in establishing ISKCON, incorporated in 1966, Eidlitz was one of the few beneficiaries of Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s initial mission to the Western world.
In the early 1970s, as a young devotee, I had heard about two books that deeply stimulated my interest, both by Eidlitz. The first was an autobiographical account, Bhakta, eine indische Odyssee, written in German. The book was eventually translated into English as Unknown India: A Pilgrimage into a Forgotten World and published in 1952. It was then republished as Journey to Unknown India in 1998. Descriptive and well-paced, this may well be one of the most effective Vaishnava memoirs of all time.
The second book, Krishna-Chaitanya: Sein Leben und seine Lehre, had not yet, in my fledgling devotee years, been translated into English, but I had heard that it was used in universities throughout Germany and had won considerable acclaim among scholars worldwide. It was translated in 2014 by Mario Windisch, Bengt Lundborg, Kid Samuelsson, and Katrin Stamm as Krishna-Chaitanya, India’s Hidden Treasure, His Life and Teachings.
The book is historically unique. Rather than merely retelling the spiritual narrative of Sri Chaitanya’s life, Eidlitz’s text allows the original sources to speak for themselves: Murari Gupta’s Kadacha, Kavi Karnapura’s Chaitanya Chandrodaya Natakam and Chaitanya-charita-mahakavya, Prabodhananda Sarasvati’s Chaitanya-Chandramrita, Vrindavana Dasa Thakura’s Chaitanya Bhagavata, Jayananda Mishra’s Chaitanya Mangala, Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami’s Chaitanya-charitamrita, and so on – all are brought to bear to illuminate Sri Chaitanya’s life and teachings.
But before exploring Eidlitz’s inner and outer journey, I would be remiss to not introduce and credit His Holiness Sadananda Swami (1908–1977), his teacher and dearest friend. Sadananda was an emissary of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (founder of the Gaudiya Math and spiritual master of Srila Prabhupada), and, though this singular German disciple found himself incarcerated for years on end in a British holding camp during World War II,1 his life was imbued with deep and renewed meaning because of that confinement: He was able to extend the mercy of Sri Chaitanya to Eidlitz, who was also an inmate, and who, as it turned out, would be his prize student.
Sadananda Swami: The First Gaudiya Vaishnava in Europe
Sadananda was born Ernst Georg Schulze in Zittau, a city close to the tripoint border of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. In 1933 he met Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s disciples in Berlin. They had recently arrived to fulfill predictions that the name of Krishna would reach foreign shores. At the time, Sadananda had been developing a reputation as a scholar, having just completed higher studies in philosophy, theology, and the history of religion. His formidable erudition included proficiency in several languages, such as Hindi, Pali, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and classical Chinese. Eventually, in London, he joined the Indian sannyasis of the Gaudiya-Vaishnava Mission and took up the study of Sanskrit. The sannyasis, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s disciples, had established a center there and, under their guru’s direction received by letter, duly initiated Sadananda on his behalf.
Thus in 1934 Sadananda became the first initiated European disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. Within one year, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta invited him to India, and the eager student arrived there in September 1935. The two soon became quite close, eventually traveling to holy places of India together. In fact, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta once remarked in the presence of other disciples, “Sadananda, you and I, we have always been together.”2 Yet the fledgling devotee’s initial meeting with the Gaudiya Math, at least in this life, had only been two years earlier.
While in India, he served under Srila Bhaktisiddhanta directly for just over a year, until the guru’s passing at the dawn of 1937. But Sadananda continued to stay on in India, studying and serving his teacher’s mission, for another three decades.3
It was merely two years after his guru’s departure that he would meet Eidlitz. As already stated, Eidlitz eventually landed in an internment camp, where he was forced to live under severe and often intolerable conditions. By Krishna’s divine will, however, the prison offered a beacon of light in the midst of deep darkness: a luminous German-born Vaishnava named Sadananda happened to be in that same camp.
Eidlitz’s life story is a riveting transcendental narrative in which a spiritual seeker, having embarked on a boat to sacred India in 1938 in pursuit of peace and enlightenment, finds himself in an exotic land troubled by the eruption of World War II, a time of bloody war and disastrous upheaval.
His journey was to begin in the Himalayas, at the Manasarovar Lake in Tibet, where he had hoped to write two books focusing on the question “What does ancient India have to teach Germany and Europe?” Soon after arriving in India, however, he met Yogiraj Shri Vishwanath Maharaj Keskar of Nashik, Maharashtra, an Advaitin with whom he had been corresponding from Vienna. This sidetracked him from his initial goals in India, and he found himself studying Raja Yoga, soon becoming Shri Maharaja’s disciple. Thus, for the moment, he became thoroughly indoctrinated with Advaita Vedanta. Shri gave him the name Vamandas and taught him carefully. This Advaita Vedanta component would make Sadananda’s task more difficult when the two of them would meet as prisoners of war in the British holding camp. He would have to “unteach” Eidlitz all he had learned from his Sankarite guru.
A Savior in Saffron
Internment centers were created for “hostile aliens.” That is to say, if one were a citizen of Germany, for example, and happened to be in India during the war, one was considered an enemy of the State. Thus military officials in British colonial India would forcefully place citizens of Germany in holding centers, just as American authorities did with the Japanese during this same period.4
It was at the facility in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, that Sadananda first met Eidlitz. They were later transferred to a camp in Dehra Dun,5 where they became lifelong friends, even as Sadananda became Eidlitz’s spiritual mentor as well.
Dehra Dun, the capital of Uttarakhand, housed a conglomerate of internment camps at the Himalayan foothills. Double-fence barbed wire, armed guards, and maltreatment were everyday realities for all who lived there. Citizens of Germany, Italy, and some other countries who happened to be in India at the time were, if unlucky, placed in a holding camp as a matter of course, with no knowledge of when – or if – they might be released. The internees were kept in dark straw-roofed huts with little protection from the elements. Eidlitz studied under Sadananda in these conditions and gradually learned the truths of Krishna consciousness.
Sadananda was visually prominent at the holding camp, mainly because of the contrast between his white skin and the traditional saffron dress of an Indian sannyasi.
Eidlitz was drawn to him. In one of his diaries, Eidlitz summed up the time he shared a single room with his new guru: “For one year I was living together with him in a tiny room in the camp and yet I didn’t recognize him for what he was, i.e., sometimes I guessed it and instantly he hid himself again, as this belongs to the play. And it is grace, grace, grace when he shows his true nature.”
But Sadananda was not always easy on him, for Eidlitz had to be lifted from an impersonal understanding of the Absolute, garnered from Shri Maharaj in the Himalayas, to the personal philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which would not be easy.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was known as the simha-guru (“lion-guru”), forcefully presenting ultimate reality with ferocious passion, and Sadananda had adopted that same technique. “He wanted to wake me up by hitting the human ego that stood in the way,” Eidlitz wrote. “Indeed, I’ve come to call this method of teaching, ‘aggressive grace.’”6
From Eidlitz’s notes it is clear that life in the holding camp caused suffering in numerous ways, not least being denied the practice of his religion and access to vegetarian food. Nevertheless, he spent most of his time studying and chanting with Sadananda, and that gave him great solace. He became ill on numerous occasions, as did his teacher – they were both on the verge of death at one point – but forged on in the practice of Krishna consciousness.
The Indian camps, in which I lived for almost six years, were mostly good camps. There were no gas chambers, no cremation ovens and no torture- and punishment-rooms. These camps could not be compared in any way to those of Germany and surrounding countries. The simple food was good and sufficient, but consisted almost solely of meat, which diet was certainly not the fault of the authorities because in many parts of India there was actually famine. That I personally suffered and occasionally starved was my own mistake, because I selfishly endeavoured to follow the strict vegetarian lifestyle I had learned in the house of my guru. But despite the good treatment, there was no one in the camp (and I was no exception) who was not at some time overcome by despair and close to committing suicide to end the suffering, concerns and problems of a tortured world.7
They were released at the end of the war. In the summer of 1946, Eidlitz took initiation from Bhakti Hridaya Bon Swami, a disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, receiving the name Sri Vimala-Krishna Vidyavinoda Dasa. Many continued to call him Vamandas, despite his Vaishnava initiation, for, as he liked to say, “the older name simply stuck.”
Soon after initiation, he boarded a Bombay ship to London. Before long, he moved to Sweden with his wife, Hella, and son, Günther, whom he had left behind before his long Eastern journey. Keeping up his correspondence with Sadananda, he amassed a considerable amount of material for his writing, and a few years later, in the beginning of the 1950s, he returned to India for five months. While there, he and Sadananda visited holy places, such as Vrindavan, Mathura, Mayapur (Bengal), Puri (Orissa), and Benares, and in this way he deepened his knowledge of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and attachment for it.
Eventually, in 1975, Eidlitz received an honorary doctoral degree from the prestigious Lund University in Sweden. He is now remembered chiefly for his scholarly and insightful books on Gaudiya Vaishnavism, particularly his autobiographical Unknown India and his tome on Sri Chaitanya.
Eidlitz’s spiritual journey is particularly instructive for those of us living in the West. Let’s briefly examine some of the remarkable features of his spiritual evolution. Although his life began with a more or less conventional Judaeo-Christian background, upon arriving in India he had the first of his notable transformations when he met Shri Maharaj, from whom he imbibed the impersonal understanding of the Absolute – so antithetical to the Vaishnava identity he grew into. Thus he began his extraordinary inward journey that far outdistanced his external one.
Although often unaware of it, most of us in Western countries are beleaguered by such limiting conceptions of an impersonal Absolute, and we are therefore profoundly indebted to Srila Prabhupada. As his pranama-mantra proclaims:
“Our respectful obeisances are unto you, O spiritual master, servant of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Goswami. You are kindly preaching the message of Lord Chaitanya and delivering [liberating] the Western countries, which are filled with impersonalism and voidism.”
But as we have seen above, there is more to the Eidlitz story. His trajectory evinces an exceptional yet gradual shift from the impersonalism of Advaita Vedanta to the unequivocally personalistic culture of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. This specifically occurred when he entered the British holding camp in India and began studying under Sadananda Swami. History bears witness to the miraculous effect of the Swami’s spiritual association. He did his job well, systematically taking Eidlitz through various levels of spirituality – and placing him at the lotus feet of Sri Chaitanya. On a much grander scale, our divinely empowered Srila Prabhupada was able to manifest the same for many sincere souls in the Western world, and no less in the East.
The metaphor of imprisonment is telling in Eidlitz’s story. Sadananda and Eidlitz spent years in a holding camp cultivating Krishna consciousness. While the environment was in many ways a living hell, they were, in another sense, no worse off than most of us. Their unfortunate sojourn can be seen as emblematic of Everyman’s stay in the material world – we too are prisoners, of sorts, subject to the often seemingly arbitrary and cruel dictates of the veiled warden known as Maya, or illusion personified, and strictly bound by the bars of our own inevitable mortality. Indeed, if any of us are fortunate enough to meet a pure devotee and learn the art and science of Krishna consciousness, the odious prison cell of material confinement transforms into Vaikuntha, Lord Krishna’s spiritual kingdom, and the highest liberation awaits us.
Finally, Srila Prabhupada specifically referred to Sadananda Swami in written correspondence, calling him, “an intimate friend.” And His Divine Grace referred to Eidlitz’s book on Sri Chaitanya as “authorized” as well. These are words of highest praise that Prabhupada never used lightly.
A couple of years back, I spoke to Brahmananda Dasa, an early disciple of Srila Prabhupada who was traveling with Prabhupada when Eidlitz’s book was initially released. He remembered Prabhupada’s receiving the book through the mail – and Prabhupada’s reaction too.
“It was very interesting,” Brahmananda told me. “Prabhupada approved the book after Eidlitz sent him a copy, even though he couldn’t read the foreign language. He said it was ‘nice’ and ‘authorized,’ and he later wrote to me to send the three-volume set of Delhi Bhagavatams to Eidlitz in return. This was in 1968.”
Prabhupada’s “authorization” of the book was also confirmed during one of his lectures in Montreal, on July 28, 1968: “He [Eidlitz] has written a very nice authorized book on Lord Chaitanya in German language, and it is a very big book, paperback, five hundred pages. It is approved by the Sweden university, and he has sent me.”8
Prabhupada expressed appreciation for Sadananda Swami in a February 25, 1968 letter to (Prabhupada’s disciple) Mandali Bhadra Dasa (Mario Windisch), one of the translators of Krishna-Chaitanya: Sein Leben und seine Lehre:
I am very sorry to learn that my dear brother Sadananda is seriously ill and the doctors have advised complete rest for him. He is my intimate friend and God-brother, so although I wanted to open correspondence with him, I voluntarily restrain myself from doing so, taking into consideration his present health. I pray to Krishna that he may recover very soon, so that we may not only open correspondence, but maybe I can see him personally. . . . In Bombay sometimes we lived together and he used to treat my little sons very kindly. His heart is so soft, as soft as a good mother’s, and I always remember him and shall continue to do so. When you meet him next, kindly offer my respectful obeisances.
Further, in a letter to his disciple Hamsaduta Dasa on August 16, 1970, Prabhupada wrote,
Regarding my Godbrother, Sadananda Swami, I have heard many things about him as you have also informed me, but I think as he is old man we should not give him the trouble of teaching you Bengali or Sanskrit. . . . Please offer my obeisances to Sadananda Swami. He is my old friend and Godbrother, and so you should offer him all due respects whenever he comes, but do not try to engage him in some work in his old age.
It should thus be clear that Prabhupada thought fondly of both teacher and student, Sadananda and Eidlitz, and even specifically praised Eidlitz’s work on Sri Chaitanya. As a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, I can think of no better endorsement.
- The United Kingdom, along with many of its allies, declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, and since India was controlled by the United Kingdom, the powers that be set up internment camps to hold “enemy aliens” – civilians believed to be a potential threat because of their country of origin. Internees were not treated like prisoners of war as such, and were given more privileges, but their lives were difficult and their freedom was denied.
- See Journey to Unknown India (San Rafael, California: Mandala Publishing, 1998), p. 117.
- A quick summary of Sadananda’s life after meeting Eidlitz: In 1954 he received sannyasafrom Baraswami, or Swami Satyabastabya Brajabasi, who then belonged to the Gaudiya Math in Benares. Thus Sadananda became Sadananda Swami. In 1961 he returned to Europe, where he stayed until his demise in 1977. Throughout his time in India and for the rest of his life in the Western world, he continued to work on German translations from Sanskrit and Bengali. His stated goal was to help Eidlitz with his publications, lectures, and courses, and bring the teachings of Sri Chaitanya to the Western world. Although a sannyasi, in his humility he preferred to be called merely Sadananda or Sadananda Swami Dasa, as opposed to Sadananda Swami.
- “Japanese American internment” refers to the forced relocation of thousands of Japanese Americans to detention camps during World War II, resulting in massive ill treatment and deplorable living conditions.
- An interesting side note: As World War II began in 1939, Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer and traveler, was captured by British soldiers while on expedition in Kashmir. He was promptly interned at Dehra Dun, i.e., the exact holding camp in which Sadananda and Eidlitz found themselves. In 1953 Harrer wrote a book about his experiences, which eventually became the Brad Pitt movie Seven Years in Tibet, released in 1997.
- For the “aggressive grace” reference, see Journey to Unknown India, ibid., p. 123.
- Ibid., p.86.
Eidlitz, Walther. Bhakta. Eine indische Odyssee (Hamburg: Claassen, 1951).
––––. Unknown India. Journey into a forgotten world (New York: Roy Publishers, 1952), and republished as Journey to Unknown India (San Rafael, California: Mandala Publishing, 1998).
––––. Die indische Gottesliebe (Olten und Freiburg im Breisgau: Verlag Otto Walter, 1955).
––––. Der Glaube und die Heiligen Schriften der Inder (Olten und Freiburg im Breisgau: Verlag Otto Walter, 1957).
––––. Krishna-Chaitanya, Sein Leben und Seine Lehre (Stockholm University, 1968), translated into English by Mario Windisch, Bengt Lundborg, Kid Samuelsson, and Katrin Stamm as Krishna-Chaitanya, India’s Hidden Treasure, His Life and Teachings (h:ström, Sweden: Produktion & Tryck, Umeå, 2014).
––––. De glömda världen. Om hinduism and meditation. Ny utvidgad upplaga (second edition, Stockholm: Askild & Kärnekull, 1972).
Stamm, Katrin. “‘Be Careful With Bhakti’ Or, Why the Guru Withdraws: The Unconventional Life and Teachings of Svami Sadananda Dasa,” in Journal of Vaishnava Studies (25.2, Spring 2017): 131–150.
––––. “From Poet to Kavi: Walther Eidlitz’s Spiritual Odyssey,” in Journal of Vaishnava Studies (28.1, Fall 2019): 150–171.