Harish Johari Showed How to Make the Divine in Us Happy With Vedic Art: Pieter Weltevrede

Harish Johari Showed How to Make the Divine in Us Happy With Vedic Art: Pieter Weltevrede

Sanatan Society is an initiative of the students of Harish Johari. The objective is to create and maintain a platform that allows people to continue to study, apply and teach the Indian Vedic and Tantric traditions as he did.

When Pieter Weltevrede met Harish Johari in 1977 in Holland his life changed fundamentally. He says he is grateful for the opportunity to study Indian culture. He came into close contact with many sadhus and babas who showed him “how to make the God in us happy."

Pieter says there are so many ways to do that. “To keep it simple: all arts and crafts are doing that. When doing (female) and thinking (male) are focused on one subject, one is happy. When that subject is God, He or She is happy. Just following the path is what remains!”

Pieter Weltevrede will be speaking at CSP’s conference Namaste 2020, a Global Utsava of Indian Soft Power in August in the panel ‘Frozen Moments.’

How did you meet your guru and what change in direction did your art take because of him?

In 1977 I met my guru Sri Harish Johari (we called him Dada), when he was teaching in the Netherlands. I was then student social sciences at the University of Nijmegen. There I got a little frustrated by the non-discussable assumption, that the human being is bad, cannot be trusted and needs to be controlled.

From friends I heard about Harish Johari and that sounded very interesting. So, we went to one of his many talks. One of his favorite subjects was: how to live in harmony with nature. It all made sense and was logical. And most important: the human is good and can be trusted! And that is the main difference between western and Indian philosophy. India believes God is love, the west believes that God makes mistakes. India also believes God is nature. And in the west nature is our enemy.

He introduced us to the philosophy of the chakras. I could not repeat that talk. So, I understood, that I had more to learn. Soon after he introduced us to the painting of yantras. One of his statements was: “If you do yoga, you have to do something with art.” That woke up the artist in me, which was always present in my youth. One day he gave me the Vedic square (a formula to create infinite crystals or mandalas) and said: “This is for you, since you are an artist.” Then I visited an exhibition of his deity-paintings in Amsterdam and fell in love with it. As an autodidact I started copying them. One day there was an opportunity to show him and he said: “I can save you time.” That was 1980 and I became his student.

How did he initiate you into Indian art and what were your earlier impressions. He mentions in his interviews that he does not do a new kind of art but follows the art of ancient Indian sculptures and paintings.

After a while he asked me: “Why do you want to paint the Indian deities?” A little nervous I answered: “I don’t know anything about them, I just love them.” Then he said: “You just said the right thing.” I guess this was my initiation. As a child I studied the old masters in Europe. How they lived as children, how they became students and finally masters. This system has gone in Europe. In a way I had given up the idea of becoming a master-painter. But Dada gave me the opportunity to learn from a master, old style.

And I jumped in without hesitation. Since I loved his style and painting technique he explained the origin. Before being a painter he was a sculptor in the ancient Indian sculpture style. He was very inspired by the sculptures of Elephanta, Ellora, Khajurahu and the painting style of Ajanta. When his art teacher Sri Chandra Bal saw his sketches, he said: “I want to paint them”. Then Dada replied: “No! I want to paint them. Teach me.” Chandra Bal knew an old wash-technique with watercolors, that got evolved by Rabindranath Tagore in Shanti-Niketan. This technique was not used for Indian deities before. So, they started playing and Dada started changing the technique due to the availability of better paints, brushes and paper. Then with the help of Chandra Bal he introduced silk as a canvas. It was all classical, but nevertheless also new.

Who were the spiritual teachers that you met during your first visit to India and what kind of conversations did you have with them?

Dada was my main spiritual teacher and my guru. In the first 10 years he explained chakras, tantra, Ayurveda, numerology, swar yoga and massage. He was a more than excellent cook and taught us how to cook Ayurvedic food. In the beginning I refused to go to India, because God is everywhere. But for the colors I had to go to learn from Chandra Bal.

In 1988 I went first time to my guru’s hometown Bareilly and got lost in the Indian culture. I met my first Baba: Baba Dwarka Das. A very beautiful, simple and extremely friendly sadhu, who did everything with just one simple mantra: SitaRam SitaRam…… Five years I was allowed to enjoy his company before he left his body. Just being in his presence made me happy. I also met more saints in Bareilly, that were connected to Dada like Baba Santosh Das (a very simple and devotional Baba) and Baba Devgiri (a guru brother of my teacher and head of the Ananda accara). Especially with the last one I realized, how much the teachings of my guru came from the old Indian culture.

Harish told me one day: “If you want to find my teachers, the babas are my teachers.” In 1999 my guru left his body. It felt like India lost its head. In 2001, I went with my wife to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Baba Devgiri was for me most beautiful there and received us as an uncle. From there we roamed around and met a very loving German Mataji Narmada Puri and her husband and yogi Baba Santosh Puri of the Juna accara. Santosh Puri was a perfect yogi and a very good sitter. With him I was sitting three hours without changing my asana, which was his habit. With him I had my shortest friendship. He left his body two weeks later. I became close friends with Mataji and her children, who are now the running most beautiful ashram in Haridwar.

In the Kumbh we met his guru brother Baba Indrajit Puri. After a long talk about what to do in the first class he told us to just continue with our practices. It looked like Dada had given us good teachings. That was a great experience. I was very curious about what India still had to offer and it was very inspiring.

After that we went to the Kumbh Mela in Nasik where I met my dearest friend and teacher Sri Avadh Behari Das Kathiababa, who offered to show me Krishna. This would take15 years. One could say, that Krishna is life itself. It’s full of love and mystery and one can surrender. I call it the secret of India. I see the Kathiababas as the heart of Sanatan Dharma. They radiate the love of Krishna. They withdraw in the jungle to see if that love is also there. When they have found it, they return to society.

Kathiababa with Pieter (pic courtesy Pieter)

From him I learned to just follow the path. He was a gyana-guru and I learned a lot from him. One of his last teaching was: “In Santa Dharma there are no others!” With him we did four Kumbh Melas and we met a lot of saints. Too many to mention. He left his body in 2017. We still visit the ashram in Indore and his student Raja Ram Das Kathiababa. Together with him we went to the Kumbh in Haridwar in 2018. With him we meet a lot of young Baba’s and of course old ones, who are protecting and teaching the young ones.

What were your thoughts on your first glimpse of the Holy Ganga? You have illustrated a book on ‘The Birth of the Ganga’, did Dada give you directions or were they your own creations?

I really became an artist, when we made the book “The Birth of Ganga”. We made 50 paintings on silk in less than one year. Chandra Bal showed me as a father all his tricks, which I enjoy up to today. In 1995, in Europe I did the finishing with Dada. His desire was to do the paintings. He gave me a lot of confidence by never really changing my compositions. He only made them much better.

He really loved Ganga and would hear only slokas, when he was near Her. Every year (except when we were working on the book) we went to Haridwar. We would stay in the tourist bungalow with Ganga right in front of us. It was a very special feeling to be in this holy town, where everybody treats Ganga as a Goddess, not as a river. Finally in the last years of his life he moved to Haridwar and I enjoyed my first Kumbh Mela (in 1998) there. After he left his body we visited Badrinath, Gangotri (with Goumukh) and Yamnotri. Without any doubt it is the most beautiful I have seen. Also I love Ganga and I still have to do some more work on the paintings in my old days, which are arriving. I look forward to disappear in Her once more.

How do Yoga, Tantra and Mantra relate to art in his teachings?

Before my teacher came out, he did a lot of heavy and intense sadana with all the asanas and pranayama exercises. He never showed this to us. He more or less showed the easy way: art and crafts or Saraswati. She has in Her the secret of happiness. When thinking (male) and doing (female) are focused on one subject, we are happy. When ida and pingala are working at the same time, sushumna opens. To get there a spiritual artist has to follows the eightfold path of Patanjali. Yama and Niyama are the foundation or the moral code that brings us nearer to our inner immortal Self.

One needs an asana to be able to work for long time. I sit on the floor for 12-14 hours daily. Also breathing has to be under control. When working kumbakh (stopping of breathing) can happen. One has to withdraw from the world of the senses. That means no distractions. Then full concentration can come, which can bring one in a meditative mood, where there is no more time. Samadi is a present from God or guru.

This way painting (and any other art or craft) can become a bhajan and sadana, that can last for 12-14 hours a day. In the beginning Dada told me: “If you want to do this spiritual painting, you also have to do some spiritual exercises”. Since Tantra is Yantra (form) and Mantra (sound), I also had to practice japa or repetition of mantra.

I once asked Dada, why he is promoting Tantra. He answered: “At least one learns to do japa!” And I did indeed a lot of japa for planets, Mahavidyas, Shiva, Ram and others to end up with just one all the time. In the end all the Gods and Goddesses are not only outside us, but also inside us. If we make them happy, we also make the one inside us happy. Also Patanjali recommends to study all different energies or deities. In the end everything is One. All the Gods and Goddesses are just different faces of the One that has no name and no form. Unity in diversity.

While painting and being in high concentration there is no ego. The question is: who is painting? The answer is: the deities themselves or the divine in us or our immortal Self. It does not mean the paintings are perfect. Perfection is impossible, but one can try to achieve self-perfection. We humans however have a duty to make mistakes, otherwise Gods and demons have nothing to do. And I made many mistakes and Dada and Chandra Bal had to show me all the tricks to correct them. Without mistakes there would not have been teachings. That is also Indian wisdom. I am still fully enjoying this path and try to improve every day.

Dhanvantri Mandala by Pieter

You have also illustrated 'Ayurvedic Massage'. You turned to vegetarianism. Do you also follow an Ayurvedic lifestyle?

The highest form of art is the art of living. All the arts and crafts can help to achieve that. To improve the art and craft one has to work on one’s lifestyle. That is unavoidable! Getting up before dawn and consuming vegetarian food are obvious. Fasting is also a healing habit. But maybe most important is one’s mental world. Never worry and never feel guilty. They really can make one sick. I studied one year economy at the university and Dada knew that. So, one day he said: “Now I will teach you a different economy. Lakshmi! You get, what you deserve. So, don’t worry”. Worries are indeed for an artist killing, because one does not produce anything with that. Being with sadhus also helped a lot in learning how to keep the mind calm. Again: japa is here a great tool.

Pieter with his wife Geva

Please could you share a few anecdotes with Guruji.

And now a story, that shows how much influence a painting of a deity can have. Chandra Bal did not believe in the Divine. He had many discussions with Dada. One day Dada decided to teach Chandra Bal a lesson. He made a sketch of Shani (Saturn) with the eyes looking straight at the person in front. Every astrologer knows, that where Shani is looking, it is bad. Then he asked Chandra Bal to paint it. After several days Chandra Bal came totally in panic. Everything was collapsing. In the school no students, there was no selling of paintings and trouble with his wife. Immediately Dada went with Chandra Bal to the art school and asked him to show the painting. Then he changed the eyes in such way, that they were looking next to the person.

And all came back, the students, the selling and also his wife calmed down. When Dada told this story, Chandra Bal had a big smile on his face. My first experience is also worth mentioning. I was the only one in the Yantra workshop, who did not start with the Ganesha Yantra (against the advice of Dada). And I was the only one that got a parking ticket. Dada had to laugh. And I was very surprised, that Ganesha was reacting. Nowadays whenever I need a parking place in Amsterdam, I do japa for Ganesha. Mostly I find one before the mala is finished.

Please could you share a few thoughts on your art workshops at Haridwar?

When I finished my study of social sciences, I said to myself: “I will only help others, if I can help myself!” Soon I discovered, that art and crafts is the therapy that humans used as long as we can remember. People in the Netherlands started asking me to teach them how to make yantras and mandalas. Besides the fact, that they are related to all kind of energies, they have a centering effect on the mind. And I saw, that this is a great way to help people.

When I went to the US in 1998 I started also there to teach yantra and mandala. Because I was there sometimes for weeks, I started also to teach the painting of deities in the wash-technique. That takes more time. Soon after workshops were also organized in India. Especially teaching in the house of my teacher in Haridwar with Mavis Gewant and Seema Johari were a great experience. Being in Haridwar is already very special and painting makes it even more special. It was like Dada himself was present. Later on I also had workshops in Mumbai and got into contact with Indian artists. I was very surprised to see their cultural ‘luggage’, when they were creating mandalas. Teaching always has been a joy. Whenever I meet an art teacher, first thing I will ask: “Are your students happy?” They always confirm. I have taught many people and some of them became good teachers and some of them became very good artists.

Do you find that Indian Knowledge Systems are trans disciplinary? How do they connect?

Harish Johari introduced me to Tantra as a science, that includes and connects everything. Something that makes it different from the west is, that Tantra is subjective, not objective. Tantra is an elaborate study of the human being’s dynamic nature and the important role of the principle of desire. Desires are directly related to the six psychic centers known as Chakras. Tantra provides practical methods of applying the principles of truth, compassion, benevolence, patience, self-sacrifice, disinterested consideration for others, pure affection, endurance and forgiveness. Tantra helps to stop the fluctuations of the mind and establishes the habit of one-pointedness. Tantra does not believe in one way. As many heads, so many opinions. In Tantra forms and sounds are universal. The Yantra is made with square, circle, triangle and point. And most of the Mantras are just sounds without meaning. According to the quality of our temperament we have to choose from what all is available. In all these different disciplines one has to find one’s own way. As a spiritual painter I can say, that everybody has to make his own image of God. And that’s very subjective! I am still working on it!