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



Ellen Schector

Vraja Academy

10th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

Ellen was the girl at the typewriter when I arrived yesterday. She is to give the next Interview, but as she offers me tea she starts making conditions. I know it’s a matter of nerves; I am told not to ask her this or that, or rush her, to be patient, not to call her by her Sanskrit name, to promise to send her a copy of the transcript. What else can I do but agree?

We move out of the shade into the pale winter sunshine. Sri Pad Baba passes carrying an armful of office files. No, no, everything is fine — I assure him — we really are, finally, well almost, ready to start…

Interview 14

I grew up in a family of Jewish atheists with strong humanistic values. The primary target of family jokes was God and religion. All this was in Chicago where I was born 31 years ago. I don’t trace my connection to India far back; it was more after LSD that I began to have longings beyond America and American life.

How old were you when you started LSD?
About 19. I tried it seven or eight times, had some profound experiences and some devastating ones — panic, extreme panic. The first two trips were nice and I wanted to have a repeat, but being immature, my ability to continue stopped quickly. I kind of used up all the positive effects I could get from the drug and moved into the negative aspect: anxiety and panic. But I had a connection to something more important than I had experienced up to then.

I had no idea what to do with my life or how to get to that level of consciousness I had tasted. I didn’t know if anyone else was having this experience or not or if one was supposed to talk about it. I continued taking the drug as I was eager to reconnect to the positive aspect of it but had more bad experiences. It came to the point when I had to accept that my survival depended on not taking any more. I tried getting back to that high with grass, but I easily flipped back into the negative state: Oh, my God! — I’m here again and I’ve always been here. The word flashed through my mind: Insanity — this is it! Although I was in a vulnerable state, I got back into college, studied, did some service with kids who were wards of the State and some work with old people.

A lot of my friends were moving into the country, building their own houses. I visited a friend and had the sensation of being in touch with myself; it was so quiet in the country I became aware of an inner dialogue. This was a turning point for me. I bought some land, and knowing that I would have to work making a garden, took to yoga to strengthen my back. At the end of the yoga class there was ten minutes meditation.

Where was this?
California. Very quickly I realized what was happening in those few minutes meditation. I responded. I was changing rapidly. I began reading Ram Dass: Be Here Now. The Only Dance There Is, and living a quiet life. What I began hearing in all the books — the thing significant to me — was that to take on this life one needs a teacher. I had bought the land but I knew I had to find a teacher and re-establish the knowledge I had experienced under LSD. I just knew I could get it through meditation. I found an Ashram I could move into, and for six or seven hours a day I was involved in meditation, yoga, chanting and sitting in silence with my guru.

Where was all this?
San Raphael, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. Now I should tell you that from the age of 16 until I was 19 I had a tremendously difficult period of emotional turmoil which led at the age of 18 to spending time in a mental hospital. That’s where I was introduced to drugs and did my tripping. The key feature of the turmoil I had as an adolescent was compulsiveness coming out in eating. I could put on 30 lbs in two months, and I did it many times. I went up and down punishing myself continuously and creating pain for myself. The whole trip of living in the country with peaceful people was a kind of benevolent way for me to live, and everything was coming together.

However, when I moved into the Ashram, the turmoil came back intensely, and was so unexpected — I never thought I would have to face that again. I had enough perspective to know it was a cleansing process. Every vulnerability within me was having to come out through meditation…to become strong one has to face every weakness. So in a way I was able to withstand it.

There was a song Ram Dass popularized: Rejoice in the Lord Always. I remember one night walking the streets singing this song, saying to myself: Rejoice always, not when you are happy but when you have to accept painful things…recognize it, tolerate it. I was crying, but I kept on singing. Twice I packed my things with the intention of leaving the Ashram — not that I had anywhere to go, but I knew I had to get out. I had reached my limit. But then something worse would happen, and I would stay. Things would ease up. Then the stress would come on again because the compulsion returned, and I was eating and eating and eating, gaining weight. I kept saying: I don’t want to get fat again, I can’t face it…that nightmare is over!

The critical point came when I learned my brother was to get married. I was so happy; there was no question, I would go to the wedding. But here I was getting fatter and fatter, and I couldn’t face being with the whole family obese. I couldn’t go, yet I couldn’t not go either. The pressure was building — I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I addressed myself to God: Whatever You want to make me go through, I’ll go through. It was a release…not that I stopped being compulsive. But I accepted the fact that I was going to be fat.

And I got fatter and fatter, fatter than I had ever been. I was very unhappy — that was the surface, the emotional state. I cringed if my friends wanted to be affectionate or to touch me. I couldn’t talk about my condition. But underneath all this I had a connection with myself, and the discomfort was surface: that gave me the ability to survive. If the inner connection would not have been there I know I would never have survived.

Living in that Ashram was nice but not fulfilling. After two years I was able to leave. I had wanted to come to India, so now I took a job, worked seven days a week to save enough money. Within a year and a half I bought the ticket and came.

What did you have in mind?
I was being pulled here; I knew I would get guidance; I knew I would meet people with spiritual awareness. I had read books by Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Ramana Maharshi, Yogananda, and I knew this culture was producing beings like that. Now I am here — it’s getting close to two years — it’s like the fulfillment of a dream.

Did you have any plan when you arrived?
A friend told me of a man who had walked round the world for the International Peace Movement — from Delhi to Moscow to Paris to London to New York. His story interested me. I went to Bangalore to see him. He invited me to travel with him, and we went to Vinoba Bhave’s Ashram. I was living a regulated life just eating Ashram food — whatever was served. Up till leaving America I was as compulsive as ever…

What sort of weight were you?
When I came I was about 175 lbs (79 kg)…

And now?
I range between 125 and 130, but I may go up to 133 — no more — I’m just not gaining weight. A compulsive fat person never believes she is ever going to be thin, and although I had seen some of my friends go to India fat but come back thin, I never thought I would ever be out of the nightmare. At Vinoba’s Ashram I was up to 185 lbs; then I became ill with tonscilitia with a fever of 105. They thought I wouldn’t get through; I decided not to take medicine, no antibiotics, no matter what. The time came when I said to the doctor: If I’m going to die you better tell me — I’m not afraid — I would like to write to my parents…He assured me I wouldn’t die, but I never believed him — I was burning! The fever broke, I spent weeks fasting but I still wouldn’t take medicines. They told me I was getting thin, but an Indian’s conception of thin is different from mine. Six weeks later I got out of bed — I knew I had lost weight — the scales said: 125 lbs! My goal had never been more then 135: I was joyful. I left the Ashram and decided I would have fun: I bought ordinary clothes — shirts and jeans — things I had never been able to wear as an adult. I knew this happiness was superficial, but for a month I let myself enjoy thinness.

But with all this new-found bliss, did you stop looking for the inner bliss?
For that whole month I was euphoric. Then I went to Bombay to hear Krishnamurti. The whole guru fantasy — the reason for coming to India — was suddenly shattered. Every conception I had about spiritual life had to be given up. Everything was taken away, and nothing was left. For some time I recognized this new turmoil was needed for growth and that something good was happening. So I spent some time in Goa trying to disconnect from everything. I put myself in a room, not reading, doing sadhana, and faced the stress of sensory deprivation. In a short time there was much growth.

But I started to long for the Himalayas. So I spent a month at Badrinath(1) and ran into someone who had a new book by Ram Dass on Neem Karoli Baba(2). I read it; it was a mind-altering experience. I felt a strong pull towards Neem Karoli Baba. This helped me counter the Krishnamurti concept of the guru-disciple relaltionship being void. I had no doubt how high a guru can be, so then I wanted to get close to Maharaj. This is why I came to Vrindavan — his samadhi is here.

But as Neem Karoli Baba left the body years ago, do you not feel the need for a living teacher?
My feeling about him is that his living in the physical body or not doesn’t matter for a relationship with him. I also know it’s possible to still have his darshan, although he’s left the body.

So India has proved to be a tremendous experience for you.
After only being here for a few months, I was given the gift of thinness. No one who hasn’t lived through a compulsive eating nightmare can understand what that means — the sense of freedom when it passes. People say anything can happen in India: we have all read about the miracles — well — that was a miracle, and it happened in my life.

Now that you are stable, do you still watch your diet?
I eat whatever I want. There’s no stress, so there’s no compulsion; there’s no extra weight. In the past I could gain 30 lbs in six weeks. At the most now, if I go through a slight strain period, I can gain 3 lbs — no more. I know there’s some force controlling things — it’s not subject to reason or logic.

As a final question can you tell me how you come to be staying at Sri Pad Baba’s Academy?
I have been here twelve days — it’s a new experience for me. I had been at the Neem Karoli Guest House near the Ashram, but the limitation period of seven days was up. I wanted to learn Hindi, so I was directed here and spoke to Sri Padji. He told me I could stay here, eat here, study Hindi — no charges — but what was really nice was as he knew of my connection with Maharaji, he asked me if had I read Miracle of Love?(3)

That was like a light flashing on, for that’s why I came to Vrindavan; and here was this other guru talking about it. Sri Padji told me someone had read parts of this book to him; he spoke warmly of it, then said: You can stay here if you want, or I can speak to the people running the guest house so that you can stay on there. That was the second light flashing on — he was giving respect to my relationship to Maharaj. He was saying: I’ll give you everything I have here, but if you want to stay there, I can arrange it. I moved here next day, started my Hindi, started doing some typing for the Academy, started to get to know Sri Pad Baba, and I would say that he is the first person I have met in India who fulfills my idea of the kind of teacher I wanted to learn from.

There have been so many turning points since I arrived in India, but now I am thinking: O.K. I’m here. It’s happened. This is what I came for.

Ellen is happy with the way the Interview went — she says she trusts me, there’s no need to send her a copy of the transcript. I can’t help thinking that if everyone is going to make such conditions I will have to get a secretary.

Radha Dasi has made me supper and we are waiting for Asim; he’s late, so she talks, not too freely but — well — perhaps she might let me press the magic button, but no. Isim is now so late we accept the fact that he is detained somewhere. Radha Dasi I see is firm… she is not moved to change her mind. She says:

Why not stay on an extra day and catch Asim tomorrow?

Good suggestion. I

I explain that I must catch the morning train to Agra as a friend has promised to meet me at the station so that I can stay with the family...and I do not have his address, so I really must be there.

I say goodnight and go up to my room. Vrindavan has an atmosphere of its own, but I am leaving with only three Interviews instead of the predicted four.

I set off in the morning never-the-less with a promise. When I tell Sri Padji he should verify or deny the many stories that are growing up around his extraordinary life, he replies: What I have to tell cannot be said in one hour — you will have to come back to Vrindavan again to hear all that.

Yes, God willing, that will be something worth going back for.

Sri Pad Baba

Ram Alexander has sent me the following description of the passing of this saintly sadhu:

Sri Pad Baba had been a child yogi often lost within himself in divine mood. He roamed freely around India as a young man filled with God-intoxication. He was closely associated with many holy men and also Anandamayi Ma, who at their first meeting when he was still a boy called him, Chhota Baba, little father. He was particularly drawn to the very young Swiss born Swami Jnanananda (Interview No. 6) who writes movingly and at length about their inseparable early relationship in his inspiring autobiography, “Transcendent Journey”.

Once on being told that winter was an unsuitable time of the year to pilgrimage to Gangotri as it would be under snow, Sri Pad replied: Real austerity means to be in the hottest place in summer, in the wettest areas during the monsoon, and in cold regions in winter. This was his youthful reasoning typical of his determined temperament. In early middle age Sri Pad became involved with the Vraja Academy which seemed to cramp his original free-wheeling paramahamsa life-style although he continued his ideal of distributing the art of devotion and the preservation of spiritual culture through the subtle charisma of his divine being.

In 1996 he suffered silently from a fatal illness, refused medical treatment, taking water only but meditating most of the day. During his last days he never lay down, and when it was time for him to leave, he remained in the sitting posture. He was 50 years old. His devotees immersed his remains in the River Yamuna at Vrindavan. The river was covered with flowers thrown by chanting devotees in boats. It is said that Baba’s face in the sunlight looked beautiful and shone with an ethereal splendour. He had returned home to the River of Love where he had bathed so often for hours on end.

The Academy is now closed, but in the garden some 100 cows are looked after by a Sadhu.


The silent Radheshwari

Radha Dasi returned to Australia not long after my meeting with her in Vrindavan, where I was told, she continued her Indological studies and married a musician.


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© Malcolm Tillis 2006