54 Interviews with Westerners
on their search for spiritual fulfilment in India

Compiled, Edited and Mainly Photographed by
Malcolm Tillis

  1. Vijayananda
  2. Melita Maschman
  3. Brahmachari Gadadhar
  4. Bill Eilers
  5. Simonetta
  6. Swami Jnanananda
  7. Bill Aitken
  8. Bramacharini Atmananda
  9. Jamie Smith
  10. Martha Smith
  11. Radheshwari
  12. Omkara Das Adhikary
  13. Gopi Jai Krishna
  14. Ellen Schector
  15. Paul Ivan Hogguer
  16. Giorgio Bonazzoli
  17. Anil Bhai
  18. Russell Balfour-Clarke
  19. Norma Sastri
  20. John Clarke
  21. Peter Hoffman
  22. Dhruva
  23. Maggi Lidchi
  24. Sz. Regeni
  25. Baruni
  26. Michael Zelnick
  27. David and Sally
  28. Wilhelmina van Vliet
  29. Norman C. Dowsett
  30. Father Bede Griffiths
  31. Matthew and
    Joan Greenblatt
  32. Lucy Cornelssen
  33. Doris Williamson
  34. Lucia Osborne
  35. David Godman
  36. Hamsa Johannus de Reade
  37. Sir
  38. Joachim Peters and
    Uli Steckenreuter
  39. Richard Willis
  40. Chitrakara das Adhikary
  41. Aviva Keller
  42. Ma Prem Leela
  43. Swami Prem Pramod
  44. Ma Amanda Vandana
  45. Swami Anand Bodhisattva
  46. Swami Nadama
  47. Sister Arati
  48. Francis Reck
  49. H.H. Giriraja Swami
  50. Jean Dunn
  51. Raymond and
    Maree Steiner
  52. Bhikshu Ngawang Samten
  53. Ani Tenzin Palmo
  54. Kate Christie



Omkara Das Adhikary

Krishna Balram Temple

9th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

I leave Chandigarh a few hours later on the night train in such high spirits that the descent into Delhi this time hardly affects me. I have to collect my three-page printed itinerary from the travel agent: it’s a nervous traveller’s panacea for all ills replete with name and number of each train on which I have firm bookings, alongside numbered seat reservations and much other information. It’s immaculately typed-out, and in duplicate! How can anyone go wrong?

Then off to catch the Taj Express — No. 80 UP — for Vrindavan… but not before meeting a friend and gurubhai, Pritam Singh Nagpal. He not only insists that I stay with him in his family home when I reach Agra (where I hope to meet a Dutch boy who has an extraordinary story, and where I am to arrive in a few days) but after consulting my magnificently typed itinerary, he promises to meet me at the Agra station and then take me to his home.

I board the train for Mathura filled with gratitude and happiness, and within a short time we are arriving at this sacred region associated with the childhood of Lord Krishna. The train itself dashes on to Agra packed with tourists on their way to see the Taj Mahal; I do the rest of the journey to Vrindavan by local bus. Vrindavan is the heart of Krishna-land, a place of pilgrimage, a place full of temples and Ashrams.

I don’t know who will give Interviews here, but I am going straight to the tiny house of Radha Dasi, the first Western girl to be allowed to live here. I don’t hold high hopes that she will be Interviewable as she has already written to me saying: Yes, come, but I prefer not to talk about myself. Fortunately I have a note for her from her friend, the laughing Radheshwari who gave the last Interview, so I am hoping she will change her mind.

Radha Dasi is Australian by birth and has lived in Vrindavan many years. I watch her read the note, but from the sweet melancholy expression on her face I can see it hasn’t moved her to reconsider her decision.

She has been asked — whatever happens now will be right. She says: You may stay in the room next to the temple upstairs…I will be happy to take you to someone who will help you: but I cannot speak about my own life.

We get into a cycle-rickshaw, the only mode of transport through the narrow, twisting Vrindavan lanes where every house seems part temple, part palace. We get down at the Jaipur Mandir, a huge palace. Here is housed a rare collection of thousands of manuscripts, ancient paintings and much else associated with the history and legends of Krishna’s life spent in this region. It is called the Vraja Academy; it was founded three years ago, not by an academic for other academics, but by a young mystic with matted hair who is draped in a woollen blanket. This is the Sri Pad Baba spoken of so warmly by Radheshwari and my Swiss friend, Swami Jnanananda

Sri Pad Baba is the guru of Radha Dasi; she is taking me across the beautifully proportioned, if somewhat neglected, arched courtyard to meet him. He has folders and papers in his hands and is dictating a letter to a girl at a typewriter. He appears to be in his mid thirties. The sight of a tyagi sadhu renunciate with dreadlocks and a blanket as winter covering, but with a secretary, could cause bewilderment…it fills me with joy.

He is also smiling, perhaps having sensed why I am amused. He greets me, and when he learns about the book and that Swami Jnanananda has told me much about him, he sends the secretary away. We talk. He is thrilled to know who my guru is — he has asked -- then makes a plan to help me.

He says: You will be able to take four Interviews here in Vrindavan…and Radha Dasi will give one — but, I can’t help seeing she has turned her head away.


Sri Pad Baba


And so, after lunch, which we eat sitting crossed-legged on the floor, Radha Dasi takes me to my first port of call, the nearby Hare Krishna Temple, introduces me to Omkara, then slips away.

The Hare Krishna movement — ISKCON — at this stage is hardly 15 years old, yet its founder, Srila Prabhupada, has turned it into a world-wide organization. Omkara is the head priest of this temple and he speaks with a pronounced French accent, all the more attractive when he launches into Sanskrit phrases.



Interview 12

I was born in France in 1944 into a Christian family which followed the Christian rules. I was called Christian Roblot-Coulanges. After the Christian form of initiation — the Confirmation — I decided I could not accept it. I was 12 when I reacted against the Church, and this went on for many years. I became a decorator and designer, and success came my way… money, fame, so many things. But in my heart I was never satisfied — you cannot be satisfied by material things. I turned my back on the success: I went to live in the country to live a simple life on a farm. We had no electricity for many years, and to get water we had to walk a mile. I started thinking about God, how to find God. I tried many ways…many people showed me many ways. But I was not happy. Then twelve years ago I decided to come to India — 1969. I met teachers. Finally, I gave my heart to Shiva, and followed the teachings as given by my guru in Almora. But soon I found that I couldn’t accept Shiva as God.

Did you live in an Ashram then?
No. You see, I never took that guru as guru — more like a teacher. I tried to serve him, but eventually I returned to France. I took another farm as an Ashram so that friends could live together a simple life of devotion. But I never found God. My wife became unhappy with me: I wanted to go back to India to find a real guru. But at this time the person who gave us the farm wanted to take it back. I said: I must not be attached…I will give it all up. In Avignon there was a festival of handicrafts; I went to sell my things so that I would be able to come back to India. But I heard some people chanting Krishna’s name. I was attracted to it, so I told them if they didn’t have a place to stay they could take food with us and stay a few nights. One man came. He was a Hare Krishna devotee but he never told us, he never preached to us.

As it was Krishna’s birthday, he wanted to take my small son to Paris and show him the Krishna temple and celebrations — I hadn’t been to Paris for many years and I didn’t want to go. But a car stopped at the farm, the driver said he was on his way to Paris, and somehow we all got into the car and drove off. We arrived five minutes before the deities’ darshan at the temple. There were about 300 devotees; even in India I had never felt so deeply the spiritual atmosphere — so powerful, so potent. When I saw the deity in the form of Krishna I knew I had found God. I had found what I wanted. Three days later I shaved my head and stayed in the temple. At the time my wife would not agree to this new life — 300 devotees in a small building after living independently in the country! But what does tapas — austerities — mean? Surrendering everything to Krishna; it means giving up everything you like best. That’s how to serve him.

After I had been in the temple seven months I asked for initiation. Srila Prabhupad was in London. I wanted to go, I wanted to meet him. But they told me there was no need, I could have it right there. He sent me my new name — Omkara is the personal name of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead; Das means servant — so the full name means the servant of Krishna. Later when I met Srila Prabhupad I was completely surrendered to him and I had a deep association with him.

How long did it take to meet him?
I came back to India in 1974, straight to Vrindavan. But I met Guru Maharaj in Mayapur, the place where Lord Chaitanya appeared on this planet.

When was it decided you could stay in India?
First I was not allowed to stay. When you want to live in a temple you have to get special permission from the authorities. I never wanted to go back, but only if He wants you is it possible. It seems that He wanted me.

You don’t have visa trouble?
Visa is a material thing. It all depends on Radha Rani and Krishna — it’s by their grace I stay. Look, Prabhupad said so many times, people want to come to Vrindavan; they buy their tickets, get passports, but something happens — they never come. No-one can even enter this sacred place without the mercy of Radha Rani. No-one can stay without her mercy. I have been here six — no, seven — years now. You can’t do that on a three-month tourist visa.

How many Western devotees live in the temple?
45 to 50. There is also a school with 60 children from the West.

What is your daily programme?
From the beginning I wanted to serve Krishna; I had to learn. In one year I became a pujari — head priest of the temple. This means I am the personal servant to Krishna. I wake him up, give him food seven times a day, bathe him, dress him. I get up at 3 a.m., take my bath, chant some japas, wake Krishna at 3.30, dress him in fresh clothes, offer him fruit, milk and sweets. Then there’s mangala arati in the temple till 5.30 — I have to look after that. Then I give Krishna his ceremonial bath with the other deities, dress him again in fresh clothes and garland him with flowers. More food is offered — it’s all made by devotees. At 2 o’clock he takes rest for two hours. There’s another arati ceremony in the temple in the evening during which he gives darshan. At night I undress him, put him in night-clothes, and then to bed. That’s the end of my duties.

Am I right in thinking you have designed all the deities clothes and that they are made here?
Yes. But I am a demanding person, never satisfied; I want the greatest opulence — only the best — for Krishna. One day my guru called me and said: You have the experience, why don’t you take charge of the wardrobe? — you could design the clothes for all the ISKCON temples. For the last few years I have done this service — it’s very blissful. I have many orders for clothes now; when I sit at my desk, Krishna gives me all the ideas.

Do you have many assistants? The clothes are so elaborate, especially with so much appliquéd jewels and sequins?
When there’s much work we have 50 to 55 helpers — sometimes 70 — but usually only 35.

Are they all devotees?
They are all local people born in Vrindavan — everybody here is a devotee of Krishna. There are a few Muslim families; it’s considered bad karma to be born Muslim in Vrindavan.

Can you give a brief account of Krishna’s teachings?
He says everything you do, everything you want to do, should be offered to him without thought of reward. It’s the path of bhakti yoga — the path of devotion. We are to transfer all desires, all actions into service to Krishna. This is the way to purification, the way to become transcendental. This of course is a very brief summary.

But what is the purpose of all this service?
To serve God. We have passed through so many forms of life; only by Krishna’s grace do we get the human body. As animals we knew no better than to eat and have sex. In the human body we have discrimination; we are to reach for the higher life by using this discrimination. We are to understand we are not the physical body or the senses, but a spiritual being living in this body using the senses. To stop further samskaras — impressions carried over from one life to the next which cause us to come back over and over again to this world — we have to use the gift of discrimination. By serving God, knowing we are part of His great Spirit, we become liberated. We never ask for anything for ourselves; we do everything to please Krishna.

You are all strictly vegetarian?
Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: I can accept your offerings of flowers, fruit and water. He never says we are to offer meat or eggs. Devotees only eat prasad which can be offered to him; we never actually cook anything for ourselves — we offer everything to Krishna first.

What are the other rules?
There are 4 basic rules — religious principles. No intoxicants — this includes no tea or coffee. No meat, fish or eggs. No illicit sex. No gambling. These are not great things really, it’s a matter of giving up attachments.

What are the benefits you have found in this new life?
I have learned never to ask for anything. A true devotee doesn’t mind even if he has to take birth again. I only want to remember Krishna all the time — I want to be his eternal servant.

In that way your life has become higher, fulfilled?
I hope so.

Did you find it hard to follow the Indian rituals and the Sanskrit teachings?
I found it difficult to follow the Western rules and rituals…it’s easier for me to live this life. Whenever I think of the past I wonder how I ever managed to get through that life. My only prayer to Krishna is to allow me to live this way here. Look, I wear these simple dhotis. As for the teachings, they have all been translated into English and French and so many other languages. Prabhupad was asked many times about studying Sanskrit; he replied: No, if you are French, take the teachings in your own language — they have been translated for you. If I ever have to go back to France it will be to teach — that’s the only thing I’ll do. We must preach. It’s our duty. All disciples have that to do. And it’s better to do it in one’s own language.

Do you keep up with what goes on in the West?
I was never interested… so it’s less now.

But could you adapt should you have to go back?
Definitely. Remember, for six years I lived there like a tyagi sadhu, without light or water. I only wanted to live as a human being. It would never be a problem now. But to me Vrindavan is the highest place in the world to live. One has done much austerities in one’s past to be able to live here. All demi-gods pray to Krishna for rebirth in this place — they are waiting to come here.

In some Ashrams fees are paid for initiation. What is the custom here?
Everything is free. The ISKCON knowledge, teachings, living — all are free. But there are rules. Anyone can stay here for three days without obligation; after that there’s a choice: you can either become a bhakta and follow the Ashram rules and give whatever service is required at the time. Or you can move into the guest house and rent a room.

How is this large organization maintained?
By donations and the sale of Srila Prabhupad’s books which are sold all over the world. There are thousands in print in all languages.

Can you tell me the significance of the painted tilak on your forehead and the special way you drape your robes?
Tradition. The tilak is the symbol of Vishnu. I wear white because it shows I am a married man. I don’t have to think what to wear and how to wear it — it’s the same every day.

I know your family is living with you here, but does your work take you away from them when you travel?
Only when Krishna asks me. I may go to Jaipur for one or two days to order materials for the deities. I never actually go far.

Have you come across many Western seekers since you came to live in India?
Oh, yes. They are looking, looking. They have to find a bona fide guru; that’s the only way to find Krishna. I have explained how I had to search and how I was never satisfied until I found Krishna. The real guru practices what he teaches, for where a guru goes, that’s where he takes you — he can only take you that far.

Your great guru left the body some years ago. How is the spiritual work going on now?
For me Srila Prabhupad is eternally my guru. There’s no need for me to look for another. One day when Prabhupad came back from the West he was sick and I was serving him: that was my duty in Vrindavan. I was washing his feet. He had changed so much, his body was so frail. I started weeping. He saw me and touched my head, saying: Don’t be so attached to my body. I will be eternally here! And he pointed to his books. I have never felt that he has gone. I’m thinking all the time a telegramme will arrive saying he is coming back from a tour, please set up his room. But his room is all ready as if he is here — I can show you. He can come right now and everything is ready. For the new devotees, however, Prabhupad nominated eleven elevated devotees to continue to teach and initiate. He made all this clear.

You get on well with them?
Of course. They are my God-brothers, I have known them for many years. I respect their knowledge but as they are my God-brothers I can also argue with them. The relationship between God-brothers is very high and special. Srila Vishnupad, the Acharya for Vrindavan, is known to me for many years. He is at this moment in Australia as he is also the initiating guru there. If you want to go to the top of a mountain and you don’t know the way, and if you see someone already at the top you can ask him the best way up. That’s the work of the guru: he tells us the way back to Krishna, he shows us the supreme aspects of Godhead.

As your wife and little boy have just come in, I would like to take a photograph of you together. But first can you tell me a little about your family?
Apart from my wife who lives here with me there is my son of 11 years old and my daughter who is 16. Two years ago she was married with all the orthodox rites; she is the first Western girl in ISKCON to be married in such a proper way, at an age which the Vedas advise before puberty. Her husband is the temple president although he is only 28. Three months ago she gave birth to a boy.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006