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



Norma Sastry

The Theosophical Society Adyar

20th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

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 conventional.

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 about it.

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 game.

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 Kirpal Singh.

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 guy.

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 an Interview.

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!



Interview 19

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 India?
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 24 years.

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 devotion?
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 and death.


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© Malcolm Tillis 2006