It’s as well that this Interview with Mr. Balfour-Clarke
was not filmed for as he spoke the words: And then I met a shy, sorrowful-looking
boy - J. Krishnamurti - a powerful evocation of that momentous meeting so many
years ago, caused me to burst into tears. It was totally unexpected and I became
helpless for several minutes. Mr. Balfour-Clarke then told me about Mary Lutyens’
book: “The Years of Awakening” which gives a truthful account of
Krishnaji’s tormented early life. He also
told me how I could go and see Krishnaji: he is still in residence nearby but
outside the T.S. estate.
But a little later, I meet Charan Das, a smiling though
seriously committed American sadhu
in his early thirties. Since I last saw him six years ago in Delhi, he has been
relentlessly on the move visiting a seemingly endless list Ashrams, Monastries,
holy men and the more hidden-away sacred retreats of India. I know he has spent
days alone in jungles with the famous chilum babas who sit around most of the
time smoking ganga, a mixture of tobacco and marijuana, who hardly talk, but
appear to be in a constant state of God-intoxication. Charan Das, as is his
pattern, is pausing here for a few days only, a place he perhaps considers somewhat
They know him well here so can’t be too surprised
by his free-wheeling. He has just left somewhere of unusual interest, is on
his way to meet someone even more interesting, and then on to visit a sadhu
he has just heard about which will undoubtedly turn out to be of even more interest.
This has been his life for the past 10 years.
Charan Das is a spiritual adventurer. Unmistakable,
unmissable, unforgettable. He is dressed in a white cotton dhoti and, as this is winter, a cotton
shawl; he carries a cloth shoulder-bag with his simple needs, and for the past
12 years hasn’t worn shoes. His smiling face is crowned with coils of
faded dreadlocks, and has been described as looking like a dandelion on acid.
He is constantly en-route from one excitement to another, constantly planning
further forays into spiritual wonderlands. He over-flows with hardly believable
Ashram anecdotes and the latest Ashram gossip. I can’t help feeling that
all this gathered information should be going into a book.
Charan Das is certainly not a secretive person. I get
the chance to ask: Could you not share some of your adventures and give me an
Interview? A long pause, more unfathomable smiling -- his reply: We will think
Charan Das does not use the conventional “I”.
He consistantly refers to himself as “We”. It takes time to get
use to, but then one has to get used to Charan Das with his Texan drawl (though
now much reduced), the fey unfathomable smile, his total immersion into the
Indian life-style, and his air of regal floating along the surface of the earth-face.
He has dedicated his life to a relentless endeavor to see, hear and meet even
the most obscure holy sages of India. No one is safe; he was born with a serious
gift for detection.
He has given me a rough outline of his current itinary
so that if our paths cross again during my own wanderings, he can share his
most recent news and views. This is no polite gesture: Charan Das has strong
feet that have taken him far, a sweet but purposeful air about him, but above
all, he has a warm shining heart. He knows I am a mere amatuer at this travelling
He also knows that before I started on this journey
I had no desire whatsoever to even enter the Ashram of another guru other than my own. I remind him
that’s where we first met, in Delhi, at the Ashram of Sant
I tell Charan he is the most uncharacteristic yet charismatic
of all theWesterners on a spiritual path I have met in India. I ask if it’s
true that he is not above taking initiation from some of the gurus he meets yet does not feel an obligation
to carry through any of their teachings exclusively. More enigmatic smiling.
I also tell him surely this is a unique opportunity
to unfold his full story here in this historic setting, so could he not reconsider
and give his Interview for New Lives now?
The Interview? Well…yes. Oh, yes — certainly.
But he reflects: We are still thinking about it…and
we think it perhaps better when we arrive in Mussoorie -- we are to spend the
summer there, did we tell you?
Well, that is near my home. I tell him Right, that’s
fine, I shall also be thinking about it. We are now both smiling. I love this
And I feel sure I’m going to see more of him
on the road. But I can’t help thinking about the Charan Das incrutable
smile: it can hardly come into the happy-smile category, certainly not the pleased-with-one-self
category. The smile, there most of the time, veils something which occasionally
peeps through, and strangely seems to have been caught when I photograph him:
a melancholy-ache smile?
Charan Das travelling light
For now though, here drawing up on her
faithful bycycle – Hello, hello! -- is the T.S. estate secretary, the
much-in-demand woman who gave me all the news of Ram and Parvati and their wedding.
She has agreed, with the slightest of friendly persuasion,
to talk about her own life and times. The Annual T. S. Conference has just ended.
She is behind with her work but relaxed and even amused at being asked to give
But wait… first…oh yes…I have
to cycle off…it will only take a minute or two…just round the corner
to make sure a guest-room is ready for the arrival of an old friend…yes,
yes…back in a minute…just read a book, dear, read a book!
There was certainly nothing of the Theosophical
ideals in my background. I was born on a farm in Michigan, a child of a poor
family doing the usual things, and as soon as I finished school I looked for
a job in Detroit. The ad I answered happened to be with a Theosophist, although
this had no meaning to me at the time. When I was told to come for the Interview,
there was a frantic to-do as I didn’t have any coloured stockings –
only white ones, which I tried to dye black but they came out a sort of navy
blue. Anyway, I was told I could start immediately although it was in the middle
of the week. Those first days pay enabled me to buy a new pair of shoes.
It was my first contact with a vegetarian,
and I thought he was exceedingly foolish. He had recently lost his wife so I
thought – Yes, no doubt she didn’t eat properly. After a while my
employer handed me the booklet, At the Feet of the Master, and in a very superior
16-year-old-way I said: I am not interested! But later when the bait was held
out to go to Chicago as he was to attend a T.S. convention, I accepted.
When we arrived, I found there was a reception
for Dr. Arundale, the T.S. President, and his wife, Rukmini Devi. But I couldn’t go in as I
wasn’t a member. So I said: All right, I will join and go. And that’s
how I became a member of the T.S. It was 53 years ago and I am still a member.
The time came when I had saved enough money
for a coat – I wanted so much to have a fur coat. But when my employer
heard about this, he said: I cannot allow you to come here dressed in parts
of dead animals! I was rebellious, so I asked advice from a Christian Scientist
who said: You can do what you like with money you’ve earned, and anyway,
God created animals to serve man. I was shocked at that sort of reasoning…I
never bought that fur coat.
A long time after I began working for that
gentleman, I learned he had given me the job because he thought I looked sickly:
he decided to make my last months on earth happy. I am now 72. Of course, having
joined the Society, I felt I had reached the top and there was no need for me
to study the T.S. books. But I regularly went to all the meetings and thought
I was doing my Theosophical duty by standing at the door shaking hands with
everybody. Theosophy at that stage meant being brotherly, and that was the most
brotherly thing I knew. Whatever study I did came later. When I went to the
World Conference of 1929 at Chicago, I heard Dr. Besant lecture on: Just Men
Made Perfect. It made such an impression that I began to be curious to know
who she was talking about. She spoke about the Inner Government, Evolution,
and the Great Beings helping guide the world. That did make me read more.
When did you come to
The East had no appeal for me. Rukmini Devi met many of the young people and
they all told her they longed to see India. She said to me: Norma, don’t
you also want to go? I said: No…I’m sure I won’t like the
food. That was in the early thirties at Wheaton the American Headquarters where
the Summer Schools were held. In 1935 when they were planning the Adyar Jubilee
Convention, some interest was aroused and as a message came from Dr.Arundale
inviting me, with a lot of palpitation, I went. I arrived here in October of
that year – 1935 --and as I came over the bridge at Adyar, I saw a glorious
sky with a wonderful moon coming out of the sea. I can never forget that.
What did you have in mind to do?
Actually, when they asked me to come it was with the idea that I should do secretarial
work for Dr.Arundale, the President. I was terrified. My typing wasn’t
too bad, but I wasn’t good at shorthand. On the boat coming over I spent
hours practicing every day. The idea of meditating meant little to me, but the
beauty of Adyar meant a tremendous amount, especially the knowledge that it
had been visited by Great Beings.
How did you spend your
time in those early days?
For 9 years I did the secretarial work; I also worked in the school. When the
war started we were rather cut off – few people came – we had to
make our own entertainment. I’m afraid mine was playing the gramophone
which probably disturbed everybody. In fact I have a friend in Australia who
says: Norma, even now I never hear the Cesar Franck Symphony that I’m
not back in the quadrangle with your gramophone. As the war came to an end,
many of the people here thought of going back to the West. Dr. Arundale asked
me: I said I wish to stay. But it happened that I left to take up employment
with the Gwalior royal family and it was there that I married my husband. After
several years we came back to the T.S., and we have remained here for the last
Is your husband a Theosophist?
Yes. He comes from Adyar, and we had met here but we didn’t marry until
1945, some years later.
Do you spend any time
in meditation? Or do you consider the time given to your service as a form of
If I’m honest I don’t. I’ll tell you, meditation as people
practice it sitting down has always been a struggle, and I got fed up. What’s
the use me always trying to catch my runaway mind and bring it back? I was very
pleased when I heard a lecture on meditation by Krishnamurti, for although what
he described was even more difficult it appealed to me. Now it’s dangerous
to quote him but I can say what it meant to me – I won’t make him
responsible. As I understand it, he said many things about what meditation is
not, but then the sentence which stuck mostly in my mind is that meditation
is leading a righteous life every minute of the 24 hours. It’s an ideal
which appeals to me, not sitting battling with the runaway mind for 15 minutes
and spending the rest of the day not remembering what you are doing!
Can you describe your
present work accommodating the many visitors who wish to stay here?
The work changes from time to time. I used to help with the conventions and
was appointed secretary to the committee which manages the estate. I became
a sort of letter-box…where everyone comes with complaints and troubles.
The committee was dissolved but I continued doing the same work. Now I deal
mostly with accommodating visitors. At one stage we became so liberal that we
were in danger of becoming a tourist hostel – people preferred to stay
here rather than stay in Madras hotels. We are following a stricter policy now
to make sure that those coming here have an interest along the lines of the
Society; they may or may not be members, but they must have a reason other than
it being a nice place to stay.
Are you actually employed
by the Society?
My husband and I are both honorary workers – we take nothing from the
T.S. We live happily on the small amount we have. I would be a misfit if I had
to go back to the West, and I don’t think we could afford it anyway. Living
here is a natural way of living. I can’t imagine another way. I should
tell you the Theosophist who gave me my first employment over 50 years ago remained
a good friend to the end of his life: he remembered me before he passed on,
and this has helped me be an honorary worker here.
Norma Sastri was active at Adyar well into
her nineties when she had a serious fall which rapidly led to her decline