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



Peter Hoffman

A house by the
Indian Ocean

21st January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

Charan Das is still here. He now thinks it appropriate I should know he is indeed collecting material for a book – a spiritual guide-book, no less. He has been working on the project for the past 10 years. With his curiosity and gift for discovering lesser-known gurus, saints and holy men, and his instinctive flare for being able to arrive at the right place at the right time, what he has to tell us should make for lively inspired reading. His publisher is a patient man. Charan Das is a real sadhu; he lives to the full every minute of his roving experiences, and no right-thinking publisher is going to put a deadline on that. Charan Das knows all about devotional life. He also knows more real-life Ashram scandals than anyone else – he has, of course, been to more Ashrams than anyone else.

As I couldn’t go across the bridge with Charan Das to hear Krishnamurti’s lecture last night as suggested by Mr. Balfour-Clarke, Charan is explaining how he decided at the last minute to catch Sathya Sai Baba instead; this other heavy-weight spiritual power-house has also just hit town. No matter: I am due to visit Sai Baba’s Ashram in a few days.

Ever helpful, Charan Das is taking me outside the grounds of the Theosophical Society to a secluded house by the beach. It’s a long walk. He of course knows the owner, so”we” and I have been invited for tea and a swim; I am to Interview the imposing American who has been living here for many years. The walking gets slower and slower, we are enjoying the simplicity of nature. I try to warn Charan Das we are going to be late. Sadhus don’t rush. They saunter…a walk by the sea is food for the soul. We are over-doing the sauntering and arrive so late that our host prefers to get the Interview over first – he has dinner guests coming later – if there’s time, the swim can follow. A swim in January…and in the Indian Ocean!



Interview 21

Before you tell me about life in this superb beach house, can you translate the name given to your village?
It’s called Tiruvanmiyur… tiru means sacred place, ur means village, and Valmiki was the famous author of the Ramayana — so because he is supposed to have worshipped at the temple, the full name is Tiru-Valmiki-ur.

But before I talk about my present life I should tell you something about my background. I was brought up in a very well-to-do family in the USA. The only person interested in spiritual things was my mother who was basically a Christian Scientist. I majored in physics, but I realized I was not being taught what I wanted to know. I became more interested in literature. One of my professors had an interest in Vedanta and had been to India, and that influenced me. I read books on the New Thought Movement, and then I became interested in Buddhism. I quit Kenyon College after two years to study Buddhism on my own…that must have been in 1941 — yes — I’m 59 now.

My father wanted me to continue at university so I tried the Philosophy Department at Chicago University; but the courses were staid and stilted — no use to me — so I never went back to college. The war was on; I had done some flying, so I became a flying instructor in the Air Force, and this brought me to India. In 1945 I was stationed at Karachi, and it was there I discovered Theosophy in a book; it seemed to me a real, consistent, beautiful, logical, well-organized system of cosmology. But I didn’t know the Theosophical Society still existed. I didn’t even know there were other T.S. books.

Not until I was back in Indiana was I made aware that there were Theosophists actually living there; we got a group going very soon.

Did it take long before you returned to India?
It happened like this. Rukmini Devi is a great lady in her own right, but at the time she was the wife of the T.S. President — she was nominated a couple of years ago as President of India but she declined — well, it was she who invited me back. I could talk for an hour on her, how she married Dr. Arundale at 16, how she studied dancing with Anna Pavlova, how she revived and made respectable the ancient Indian temple dances and later founded Kalakshetra, an academy of the Arts in 1936 where Indian dance, vocal and instrumental music can be studied. But when the Republic of India was formed, she accepted a ten-year period in the Upper House of Parliament. I became her secretary and helped her most important work which was getting Parliament to pass an Act against cruelty to animals.

Did these political activities affect your Theosophical interests?
In a way they weren’t such a change in the interests I had. But since 1949 up to the present, I have traveled every year with Rukmini Devi on world tours…she is of course a well-known Theosophical leader. And I should say that every time I return to India I notice the difference — the magnetic difference — and I would like to stress that from my point of view, India is like the spiritual guru of the world. Each nation has a certain character, as each person is different and has his own unique value. The fundamental contribution India has made historically and is qualified to make in the future, is to be like a spiritual guru to the world. From the dawn of history, its sages and adepts have experimented with the forces of the human body and the depths to which human consciousness can go. In each generation, spiritual truths have been taught and confirmed by each succeeding generation. Unlike scientific experimentation where they experiment on others, the only way to experiment in spiritual life is to experiment on yourself.

Is this spiritual experimentation part of Theosophy or the work you are involved in?
That’s been one of the battles of the T.S. — defining this sort of thing. In the thirty or forty years I have been in Theosophy, my conception of it is to have an open mind searching for spiritual truths…and I think I’m a real Theosophist because I’m interested in looking into all spiritual truths, some of them even like Krishnaji’s [J. Krishnamurti] denying the value of all concepts. I can see colossal advantages to humanity accepting the principles of karma and reincarnation from our earliest school days, as a fundamental part of our basic thinking. Unfortunately, karma as a conviction is disappearing even in the East because people are committing all sorts of crimes even though they say they know there will be a karmic reaction. But if children are brought up with the cosmology of karma, reincarnation, evolution, spiritual progress and so on, many of society’s problems would be solved.

Can I ask you again if you will talk about your work here?
My work is mainly teaching — I have developed about a hundred cosmological diagrams, and have been teaching that for many years on my travels. I had a series of classes here at various times. I get invited to lecture once in a while. In February I have a two-weeks course in the T.S. school. One can’t tell anyone about the actual experience of what is called self-realization, or moksha in Hinduism, or salvation in Christianity. That’s an experience about a state totally unknown and incomprehensible to a brain developed in three-dimensional thinking. To teach spiritual values — in the sense that you think you can tell anyone how to develop the knowledge of the Self — can’t be done.

Yet teaching has a value in the sense that it helps people understand there is such an experience. People can be convinced that such an experience can happen to them and that it instantaneously solves their problems. There are no problems for those who have experienced that. One can also help others understand that we are not seeing this world as it is; we are seeing an illusionary projection of our own consciousness distorted by desires, likes and dislikes; nobody could call it objective. Most of our pains and sufferings come from this ignorance…so teaching can help achieve a higher awareness state. Teaching has value, at least that has been my experience.

Do you teach any form of meditation?
The course I’m giving is called: Kundalini and Meditation. There are many definitions of what meditation is, but if you don’t meditate there’s no way to go beyond the illusion we are in. Meditation helps us turn within and see differently what we are seeing now. This is so essential that most of us cannot achieve awakening, illumination — call it whatever you like — without that inner seeing.

But Theosophists don’t believe in the need of a living teacher. Or is this Krishnaji’s idea?
I have great respect for his teaching; he’s struggling with the essential points which will reduce human suffering and will transform society into one where spiritual growth is more possible than it is in this one which is rapidly degenerating. He has the key to get rid of that degeneration. His idea of not having a guru I don’t quite agree with. There are stages on the path where a guru is essential because one goes into a totally unknown territory with a body totally unprepared; you really have to get someone to help you. Gurus who can do this are scarce.

May I ask about the spiritual masters who have been guiding Theosophists? Have they actually manifested?
I don’t think they have been guiding Theosophists. If you look at the early literature you’ll find that people were constantly saying to H.P.Blavatsky and Col. Olcott: How is it you make so many blunders if you say you are pupils of the Masters and the Masters are behind the Theosophical Society? The Masters themselves explained in their letters: “We give help and general principles, but it’s up to you what you do.”

When I asked about a Master, I meant one in the body, one you can sit with and talk to.
Yes, I understood. I did much research and even wrote a book about that — it was never published; I never found time to finish it — but there’s absolutely no doubt that if you went into a court of law with all the witnesses that had met these Masters in person in their own physical bodies, you could establish their existence legally. Obviously no one would do that now. But those Masters do exist…there’s so much proof.

Why are there no reports of Theosophists contacting the Masters these days?
If you look at the Masters’ letters, there are things that have a bearing on that. In a letter to Mr. Sinnett, the Master said: I wish we could convince you that the last thing we want to do is convince everybody that we exist; that would cause our work to be much interfered with. On another occasion, the Master said: By a certain time, if certain things are not accomplished - I can’t remember the exact words - then every trace of the Masters will disappear.

Can you say how the Masters’ letters were sent into this material world?
These letters are definitely physical letters. In fact they are deposited in the British Museum. I was once able to examine them with a microscope and found that the words which seemed to be formed by ordinary hand-writing are actually formed by tiny lines, each one of which is separate and which couldn’t happen with a pen, although they look as if they have been written with a pen. There are, of course, people who don’t think these letters are genuine. The process of precipitation which the Master describes as helpful to the chelas is extremely fascinating. The Master may be riding a horse in Tibet. One of his disciples may be in the Indian plains, and that disciple will be instructed telepathically by the Master to take down a letter for him. The disciple places paper and ink powder before him which are used in the precipitation. The master then sends his thought into the mind of the disciple who then puts the thought into words which he materializes on the paper using molecules of the ink powder to embed it onto the paper. It doesn’t soak into the paper like ink; it’s sort of on the surface of the paper and is made up of a series of tiny lines if you look at it microsopically. I personally think the letters genuine. They have been published in book form as: The Mahatma Letters.

When were the last ones sent?
When we say the last ones, we are talking about the last ones published. The Masters are there and the chelas are there, so they are still being sent, I presume. One of the first published — I’m not an authority on this — came to Dr. Besant long after Madame Blavatsky died. Some people thought Madame Blavatsky was faking the letters, but this couldn’t be so.

So nothing has been published since the turn of the century?
One of the most outstanding letters we received came later; this story I can tell. But remember, it will be from memory, so the exact words and circumstances may be slightly off. One night before the 1925 Jubilee Convention, Dr. Arundale woke up, as he did many times in the middle of the night and had to write something down: his whole book, Nirvana, was written that way. He could apparently only hold the higher influences in his consciousness brain in the early hours when everything is still. Well, this message was taken down and in the morning shown to Rukmini Devi. They were inspired ideas, so they were shown to Mr. Leadbeater who declared it was a letter from a Great Being — a Master of the Masters — and it was sent specially for the convention. I will give you a copy…it’s very beautiful.

Thank you. May I ask you as a last question what you feel you have gained by choosing to live this life all these years?
Being in India one is in a kind of spiritual atmosphere — the country is spiritually orientated. In the course of my being here, I have been helped very much. I have reached a stage where I recognize that everything, even something that may make me unhappy, is the most valuable step that could be made for my spiritual growth. I know there’s absolutely nothing that could happen to me including violence and starvation that would make me feel upset because I would recognize it as an extremely valuable lesson life is teaching me.

With that conviction — that knowledge — that gives you a happy life. Even if you are unhappy, you are happy being unhappy.

I don’t have any regular meditation practices, although I agree with Dr. Besant who made this categorical statement: A man should take at least half an hour daily to bring down currents from the higher world, but I’m continually travelling so this is difficult for me.

Anyway, I do have an ideal in life and that’s to spend up till noon in spiritual studies, meditation and spiritual discourse. And there have been certain periods in my life here when I have been absolutely disconnected from all worldly obligations, so I’ve been able to do that. That is my idea of an ideal life. Now look, before the sun sets I think we just have time for a swim in the ocean; that’s if you’d like that?

Peter Hoffman is alive and well.


My last morning at the T.S. is spent buying some of their books, and looking for the letter the elusive newly-wed Ram and Parvati are supposed to have left for me (I never find it so I don’t know where they have disappeared to). I then fall into discussing the rest of my tour with the king of Ashram travellers, Charan Das. He is ridiculously over-generous with his hard-won Ashram information — who to avoid, who to placate, who to woo.

All this is being written down for me as we go to the bus station: I have decided to take the mid-day bus to the Ashram of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry so that I can arrive while it’s still light rather than go by the evening train which may be more comfortable but may involve me in another locked-gate-who-are-you?scene.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006