Johannes Baumgartner (Gopal Kripa Dasa) was born in Switzerland in 1976. His search for eternally living bliss finally led him to the Himalayas in India and subsequently into the mystical East of the country. There he spent many years cooking for monks in Indian temples and during that time collected many hundreds of recipes. Today Johannes Baumgartner inspires many internationally through lively cooking classes, exclusive caterings, guided trips to India, lectures, spiritual music and traditional fire ceremonies. On account of his remarkable art of cooking, he is recognized and respected by various head chefs.
How I became a Vedic cook.
Our family had always lived in the country and so I spent a good deal of my childhood and youth in nature – by mountain streams and in forest. My parents were devout Christians and had given me a deep trust in God, the Holy Scriptures and in prayer. From an early age I was convinced in my heart that there is a Creator who has miraculous powers, and so I had very early on developed a desire to discover the deep, hidden secrets of life. Although I was not unpopular with my teachers, I found school very stressful. The goals of today's society and the outlined possibilities for life that were taught to me in school seemed pointless and empty, and alien to my own heart.
Nonetheless, I was quite athletic and had many hobbies and friends. I was healthy, successful and outer wealth had never been lacking ... and yet the questions as to where I came from, what is the meaning of my life here on earth and what is my path in life, left me no peace. In my fifteenth year there awoke in me a desire to strive for unknown worlds, for higher joys and deeper life wisdom. Christoph, a close friend of my parents, frequently visited us. He lived very close to nature and, as they say, was somewhat “unworldly." He told me repeatedly that God's presence is always experienced in us and around us. His explanations were based on authentic transmissions of the ancient wisdom books of Christianity and even older writings from the Far East: the Vedas. Christoph's words were sincere and they touched my heart. They spoke directly to the part of me that was missing something.
I remember one day in the summer holidays when I visited this old friend of the family in his small cabin in the woods - I was just seventeen years old. The morning dew glistened in the sun like little gems, the birds sang the fairytale beauty of the mountain landscape and a pleasant wind roamed the valleys. I had the feeling that through the surrounds of his artful creation God smiled lovingly at me. Christoph and I sat down by the stream, drank some water and meditated a while. That day I heard his wise words like the voice of a long forgotten friend ... they were like an elixir that awakened me to life. I felt a joy that was incredible and timeless, and I was deeply inspired to search for its origin.
That day changed my life tremendously: I wanted to just go out into the world , leave the old life behind and find what my heart so much longed for. Everything else lost power and importance. I wanted to find the source of deep joy that exists beyond limited human consciousness. And so I worked for two months to build up some money for traveling. Among other things during this time I was involved in the repair of the roof of a slaughterhouse. As a result what I had to see and experience there was so unspeakably horrible that it aroused a deep sympathy for the plight of the animals ... and so since that time I have never eaten meat again. A short time later, just a few weeks before my graduation, I left the pre-vocational secondary school in St. Gallen, and then Switzerland as well - with my passport, very little luggage and my personally earned money. My empathetic mother could understand me, but my friends did not know what to make of my decision. But inside I felt confident that only good things awaited me. Within I said farewell with the thought "I'll come back when all the questions are answered and I have found the source of all joy."
To where and how long I would travel and when I would arrive, I was not sure. "... Somehow through Europe and to India," I thought. Maybe I would spend the rest of my life in some forest, in the mountains or in a distant monastery.
I was still very young and sometimes felt very scared, especially when I spent the night alone at the edge of a forest. But every day surprised me anew and I gained new insights daily. It was as if I was underway in a fairy tale, God's lovely creation in inconceivable diversity revealed to me: the endless starry skies, the magnificent sky above my head, the subtle forces of the plants, the rocks, the rivers and streams, all of the creatures that live nearby people, each existing in its own absolutely different kind of world. I could see that man is only a small part of creation itself, and that he does not see much that would be worth seeing. And I realized that I had previously never really seen the world, because I had always perceived it through the filter of my own mind, had seen only my little world and had thought that this was the world of all living things. This insight gave me the strength to go on my way cheerfully and full of confidence.
As previously mentioned I ate no more meat in order to live without violence and as harmoniously as possible. At home I never had to worry about my "daily bread" but now I had to learn to cook for myself. One thing I knew for sure: even my food had to be uplifting and invigorating. So began the path of my travels that made me a Vedic cook. I earned my money by selling my own paintings and cheaply acquired silver jewelry on the street. Sometimes I played self-composed songs on my guitar and got a few coins from passers-by in exchange. With this money I bought rice, flour, vegetables, fruits, etc. - just the food that I needed. I cooked on a gas burner or on a little fire. I tried to be in the now and to cook consciously and prudently, because yesterday was gone and tomorrow did not exist. Since everything is from God, and I had read in the holy scriptures that He can delight in a gift - even though he is eternally satisfied and fulfilled in Himself - I always presented him with the food first. I gladly invited travelers or people living on the road who crossed my path to dinner, for universal kinship and brotherly love for me were a key to higher dimensions. We sat in a closed circle, ate with the same spoon from the same pot and each chewed until the pot arrived back to him. I would not do it that way again today, but then it seemed like a good idea.
Often there was a sweet stew with rice, milk and fruit or a savory rice dish with vegetables, sometimes pasta and salad or just bread with butter and cheese and fruits at the end. When I awoke in the morning, I mostly made coffee or an herbal tea. If I happened to be in a conservation area on my travels, I searched for edible herbs, roots, wild fruits, mushrooms or milked grazing cows. Eating became a meditation for me, in which I discovered and absorbed into me the forces of nature. The forces of the food seemed to be as unfathomable as the creation. Each of my activities was useful to me as a tool on my way to the knowing of God.
In different countries and regions, and even between some individual villages there were different eating habits, and as seasons changed, the selection of available ingredients changed as well.
My route took me through France, across the Pyrenees and parts of Spain, and then to Italy and Sardinia. Then I wandered through Greece to reach Turkey. As I arrived there I heard of the turmoil in Iran and Iraq, but happily had an unexpected windfall: My late grandfather had left me money in his will ... so I took the money and a plane directly to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
Malaysia was a very strange country for me and the climate was completely unfamiliar. In the forest lived large lizards that looked like little dinosaurs and swarms of mosquitoes buzzed around. I carried a copy of the Bhagavad Gita with me, and on the last pages I found the addresses of Krishna ashrams and temples all over the world. I discovered one on a hot day when the air was filled with the enchanting scent of tropical champaka flowers and the tropical flora looked heavenly. I had severe abdominal pain on that day, but when I approached the Krishna temple in Kuala Lumpur, I felt a liberating, beautiful energy arise. The Indian monks greeted me in a very friendly manner, and brought me a big plate full of Indian delicacies. That was the last thing I felt like eating, what with my nausea. But even before I could say something, they said with a smile: "Eat this and you'll be fine."
I started to eat a little suspiciously, but also smiling because I did not want to offend these hospitable people. And surprisingly, the nausea went away after only a few bites. The food tasted better than anything I had ever enjoyed before, and not only was I not sick, I was also simply happy and satisfied. That food could have such an effect had hitherto been unknown to me, and I had never experienced such a deep satisfaction.
In the following nights I slept out in the vicinity of the temple, and after a week the monks asked me if I wanted to live as a monk with them. Their inner purity, their writings, their daily routine, their clothes, their meditations, their lifestyle and their food all impressed me deeply. I decided to stay with them ... and so began a new phase of life for me as a celibate monk.
I worked there most often as help in the kitchen, washed the pots, cleaned and cut the vegetables and cleaned the kitchen. The community with its older devotees and sages opened the door for me to a more beautiful world close to God, and I realized: the clearer the consciousness, the more fulfilling is any life experience.
Half a year later, I continued my journey to India with a heavy heart. I wandered through parts of the Himalayas, came to Vrindavan and finally reached Orissa, a state on the east coast of India. The Himalayas were so familiar to me, as if a home from a past life. In many places in India, I had a strong feeling of recognition. I felt very comfortable and at home in this distant land. When I finally arrived in Orissa, it was clear to me: this is my new home. Here I learned the Vedic cooking that had impressed me from the very beginning.
I lived in the temple of a remote village, surrounded by jungle and rice fields. Mornings, when the sun was shining into the kitchen of the Ashram and the birds sang their songs, we ground spices with a Shila (a flat grinding stone). So traditionally ground, the spices release their essential oils and full healing powers. The water we brought up out of the ground with deep water pumps, and in the beginning we still cooked on a wood fire, then later on with gas stoves. This old traditional way of preparing spices was a real experience for me - an experience that day by day became a part of my life. As the chef one day left the ashram I was made the new chef, although I really was not very experienced. The kitchen house was right next to a rice field. One morning I came into the kitchen thinking about what I could cook for the day, when a big huge snake appeared in front of me.
"Today can’t possibly be my last day ... no way!”, I thought, and took a stick in hand.
Then I remembered the story of a master who lived with a snake in a cave in the Himalayas. He met the serpent as a friend and saw God in its heart. Thus, the snake lived peacefully and without fear in his company. Now I tried to talk to the snake. For me, it was not possible to see God in its hissing face, but I did my best to remain calm and to consider it as a slightly different-looking sister. As the snake suddenly moved toward the exit, I gave it a cautious push with the stick so it fell back into the rice field. I often had such unexpected guests, and sometimes there were even scorpions.
Besides cooking, we monks studied the holy scriptures. Every day we listened to presentations of the Vedic wisdom from our spiritual teachers. According to the Vedas, the consciousness of God is the supreme consciousness. The awareness that God exists, that we can experience Him through control of the mind, and especially through loving service personally experience Him and thereby know the highest bliss, is the culmination of Vedic wisdom. And so all the food that we cooked was offered to God in devotion with Vedic mantras. The awareness that we cook not only for ourselves but also for our neighbor and for God, so to speak, is part of Vedic cooking training. And therein lies, I think, the secret to unforgettable good tasting Indian food: the food is cooked with love and devotion for others or even for God. The chefs prepare dishes with joy and are completely present while doing so. Here one does not simply cook as quickly as possible alongside other pursuits.
I fondly remember the saying: "You are what you eat”. For me there is absolutely no doubt that our food affects our whole health and all our being and thus has an important place in our lives.
Another unforgettable lesson for me was learning the art of perseverance. It happened one summer that was so hot that 1,300 people died of heat stroke in the district. Our kitchen had a roof of corrugated iron, and so it was heated to well above 50° C. I had to cook every day for eight hours in this kitchen. If I refused, there would be nothing to eat! After even five minutes the sweat ran pouring down my face; after I had cooked for an hour, the kitchen floor was wet from my sweat. It looked as if I had poured a bucket of water on it. And so I could not avoid the food becoming salted with a few drops of sweat.
The heat wave lasted for almost two weeks and one day it actually got even hotter. I suddenly had the feeling of not being able to breathe, and did not want to die of heat stroke. Although I still felt peaceful and secure and had no fear, I knew I had to do something as soon as possible. And so I staggered like a drunk from the kitchen ... Thank God there was a bucket full of cool water at the door. I grabbed the bucket and poured the water over my head. This bucket of water has actually saved my life. Then I went back to the kitchen and cooked further. As the head of the ashram, who was at that time abroad, returned after a week, he looked at me in astonishment and said, "You're still alive! Many Indians have died, but you have not. I really prayed for you. Krishna (a Vedic name for God) has probably made you heat resistant."
Thus passed five educational and adventurous years, until in 1999 I was inspired by one of my spiritual teachers to once again return to my native country, Switzerland. That actually was not my wish, but with confidence in higher guidance I went - this time by plane - back to the old country. After six years of my absence Switzerland was a foreign country to me, and I did not know what awaited me there. Even my mother tongue, German, was difficult for me after all those years. And so I stayed three months in Switzerland and then flew back to India. From that time on, I always returned from India to Switzerland and began also there to prepare local and additionally Mediterranean dishes in a vegetarian style.
As well, I regularly gave Vedic cooking classes, which were well attended. I was frequently asked by friends and cooking students to write a cookbook. Initially, however, I could not get really excited about it - until I had a clear vision in 2004, of how wonderful it would be to combine all the delicious dishes I had previously cooked in one cookbook. So I began to write down one recipe after the other. I wanted to sweeten the lives of friends and family and show them how they can easily and quickly understand and apply traditional Indian cooking techniques. From this idea “Cooking for Krishna” was born.
May my Vedic cooking techniques and recipes also decorate and enrich your parties and your daily life.
Copyright 2015 Johannes Baumgartner | Imprint