Swami Gauribala Giri, 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.
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. He dedicated the work, including the Geheimes Deutschland ("Secret Germany") written in 1922, to Berthold Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who, in 1944, took part in the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
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. Nyānaponika 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. Nyānatiloka, who ordained him as Nyānakhetto together with Nyānaponika, another German Jew.
They donned the ochre robes at the Island Hermitage near Hikkaduwa. Later Nyānakhetto's younger brother Malte came and was ordained as Nyānamalita.
World War Two
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.
Nyānakhetto 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 Swāmi Gauribāla 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 come face to face with 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-1970'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. Nyānaloka (another disciple of Nyānatiloka), 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.
Courtesy: The Sunday Times of 16 September 2007