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




Cottage Guest House

24th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

I haven’t heard Mozart in the open air since the mid-fifties when I attended the Aix-en-Provence festival. Until last year I hadn’t heard any Mozart for about ten years. I am now sitting in a baroque courtyard. It could be Italy, it could even be Salzburg - is it really part of India? The terrifying, unearthly opening to Mozart’s Requiem is dragging me back into a world of brooding magic on which I thought I had turned my back. Suffering, dejected Mozart; he lay dying penniless at the height of his creative flowering, struggling to finish this work destined to be his own Requiem. He started it as a commission from a mysterious stranger who offered money with the proviso that the completed piece would appear under someone else’s name. No wonder he left unable to finish it.

Early the next morning, an Australian I had already met in the dining hall and who had agreed to Dhruva’s request to tell his story, arrives at my room. I can see he has by nature a fiery temperament, but there’s also a sad gentleness, a resignation which is immediately appealing. The spiritual path is nothing but a struggle to transform one’s baseness, so each step – up or down – polishes, cuts away, scrubs, releases (especially the painful downward steps) until there’s equanimity and light.

I am speaking to Baruni and he is speaking to me as if we have known each other many years. Only when we have tasted helplessness, rejection, insignificance can we become one in sympathy with others.

Baruni’s name in the West was Brian Sutton which he never liked. He was given the name Baruni by the one person in the Ashram who befriended him when he first arrived, young, raw, serious -- serious enough to accept the lowest work, the work no one else in the Ashram would do.

In India cooking vessels are cleansed with dirt – earth – and this makes them shine. I would say Baruni shines not because he was born a sparkling vessel, but through jumping into, and being scrubbed by the dirt.




Interview 25

I am from Sidney, Australia. My parents are both Jews. My mother is coming from — I guess you would say — a very upper class family. My father — on the contrary — is coming from…well, his father was a tailor, but he is a doctor. After my birth they were divorced. I lived with my mother’s family with much wealth, but they were extremely unpleasant, which didn’t help to give me a settled upbringing. Attempts to harmonize with others, or making a family life — not that I was ever married — was difficult, so difficult that I broke free to find a greater harmony. I studied architecture at university for some time, but just before finishing, I felt compelled to leave: I couldn’t find any harmony with the people I was with. I went to New Zealand to live in a community, and there I was happy; in fact, before I came to India I had reached a point of being happy with myself and in harmony with others.

How old were you when you decided to come to India?
My early twenties… I’m now 35. I met some people who had been to this Ashram; that determined me to come also. I had to first undo the shackles of university and learn to live with people — I didn’t feel I was ready. I used to be swept along by something I couldn’t understand. Eventually when I felt ready to come to the Ashram, I got the news that Mother had passed away. That disappointed me, but I was determined to come; I knew there was something here for me — not just the physical Mother: I wanted to embrace the whole country.

Had you been studying the teachings?
I can hardly say studying…experiencing what I felt the teachings were. When I came to the Ashram I was disappointed in what I saw. Still, there was something magnetic about it. I went after a time to the north of India to study Burmese Buddhism, which helped me. On my return, I lived at Auroville; again it was difficult, but I was certain I had to have that experience. They ostracized me so I lived with the villagers: I embraced them as my brothers. When I came back to the Pondicherry Ashram — that was about six years ago — and was suffering from jaundice, an old man, whom I can hardly praise enough, helped me. He was untidy, not handsome, he fed stray cats and dogs. But after that illness I was in a clear state, and I asked him questions that had been with me some time. He was the first person able to answer them. For six months I had a fine relationship with him.

Can you say what the questions were?
I had seen a picture of Sri Ramakrishna holding his fingers in a certain position; I asked what it meant, and his answer satisfied me. He answered every possible question. One day he told me everything was settled for me to stay in the Ashram. I had asked some of the Ashram people if I could stay and would they support me. They replied: “Not at all!” — after Mother’s passing no outside people are to be supported! But it turned out as my friend said. I am one of the few who have been officially accepted and given everything to make me equal to the old residents. After those six months, he too passed away: I was eating with him — he had just finished his work in the Ashram dining room — he went to meditate, and just left the body. Just like that! Many people here suddenly go without any suffering, without pain.

In return for the support you receive, what work have you been given? Can you describe your daily routine?
I start by coming to the Ashram at 6 where I meditate for half an hour — more if there’s time. I take breakfast in the dining room; this is followed by a French class. At 9 I start work in the dining room right through till 2. I am pretty free until 8, so I can rest or study…I have become interested in wood-carving and painting. Late afternoon I usually go to the sports ground for physical activities — running, basket-ball. I then take a bath before my evening work in the dining room. About 10, finished, home, end of day.

How have you applied the teachings to your daily life?
It’s important to spend time in meditation — that isn’t difficult, I could easily spend more time in meditation, but I look at it this way: if someone asks me what I have offered Mother — well — I can say, my work. It’s the type of work no one wants to do here. It’s pretty messy. I wash all the vessels, when the servants don’t come, I clean the dustbins, sometimes the drains. If anyone is ill or drops a stool somewhere, I will clean it up — things most people here just won’t touch. I have managed to do all this without being involved in what I do. There are plenty of people who have come here to do what they want to do…to teach, to meditate, to study; they have all sorts of ideas. By starting at the bottom I found I have achieved something.

Can you explain what that is?
Recently someone said the outer cleaning is the inner cleaning, and the quickest way to cleanliness is to concentrate on the outer cleaning — they both go hand in hand. I have always been in a hurry, so this is a quick way and a harmonious way also; it makes me more patient with others. After all, I am stuck in the lowest, humblest work.

Do you see yourself staying here permanently?
It’s not up to me. Financially I’m not concerned. I wanted to be a great architect, but the more I found out what an architect has to do, I didn’t want to be involved in those things. I’m still interested in creating things of beauty, so this year I’ve taken to sculpture. I’m interested in designing for a better environment. But what will eventually happen, I don’t know. I wanted so much to meet Mother but she had just passed — but I was certain I was meant to come here. Sri Chinmoy was visiting the Ashram some years ago; it was his brother who was my old friend and helped me six years ago. I asked Chinmoy should I stay on here; he said: My brother was far greater then me — but you have the opportunity to be in such a place, don’t leave. I have become very close to the whole family — perhaps we were connected in other lives.

Do you have any contact with Auroville these days?
There is a basic difference in what happens here and over there; we living in the Ashram tend not to associate with those living in Auroville. We are very much concerned with overcoming the animal nature in ourselves...we don’t go in for sexual activity — even thinking about it is dangerous. Whereas in Auroville — well — let’s say it’s more lenient…

But surely the teachings are the same?
Yes…but here, you see, we had Mother’s presence. She so permanently put herself into everything that even now everything seems to run by itself. Auroville is a new creation and, well…something wonderful will happen there. But for sensitive people to mix among those there at the moment is difficult. I knew this yoga would change me, would change the most basic part of me as a new consciousness descended. At one time I was having experiences — they were happening even in Australia -- so I asked Mother to please stop them…

They were during meditation or sleep?
…everywhere, even while walking. I prayed to Mother: I don’t want this to happen, such a way I don’t want; I want to behave like a normal person, to walk in the street unnoticed, yet I still want to progress. Well, I now see that by working in the grossest matter she has put my feet on the ground — I don’t resemble a freak anymore.

It’s strange; many of the people I am friendly with here would be those people I would never have talked to years ago, and many of those I talked to — well — I don’t care for their company now: they’re too crude for me. Sri Aurobindo was an aristocrat, and Mother also; so I try to be like that. I don’t wish to use filthy words anymore, and I don’t wish to be with people like that, however truthful they are. I can be with them if I have to — I can have compassion for them, but I won’t live amongst them. Maybe I’m getting soft. Anyway, I don’t think about tomorrow. I’m careful not to make enemies here because that has some problems.
Should the whole thing fail and I’m asked to leave the country, well, I’ll be happy in the thought that I did something, and I know Mother will be there looking after me.

At the moment there are only seventeen Westerners living in the Ashram permanently. Many come to stay say for six months, many just pass through as there are visa problems. So you see, the number of those allowed to stay permanently is extremely small. Even those able to stay don’t always make it; the pressure is too much. Ashram life is not easy…it must be the same in all Ashrams, though.

In June 2006 Baruni wrote:
“I have been here continuously 32 years with a few trips to Oz to see my mum and one in 1986 to see my dad. I am now working in the drawing office, have designed a few buildings (hardly work in the dining room) but I’m now always measuring buildings for our ashram records and correcting drawings. I’ve also at long last started art classes with an excellent teacher, bought a nice apartment and am living with a nice Indian girl who has been here 27 years. We live completely by the rules of the Ashram - no drinking no drugs no politics no smoking no sex. Everything.”

Baruni also gave me the following news:
Norman Dowsett (Interview No. 29) passed away many years ago.
Regeni (Interview No. 24) also.
Wilhelmina (Interview No. 28) who is incidentally of royal Dutch blood though she keeps it secret, is still here, happy but no longer in a condition to converse.




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© Malcolm Tillis 2006