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



Wilhelmina van Vliet

A timeless apartment

26th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

In the morning, Maggi finishes her Interview: she then takes me to Gorkond, another splendid Ashram guest house. This one is austere, built in the Japanese style. It has a superb manicured garden area of polished stones. Here there is breathtaking stillness. It has been arranged that I should come back, but not until the afternoon, to Interview a Dutch woman.

That gives me time to have a quick lunch with Lynn, an Australian interior designer I met a few days ago at the Theosophical Society. She explains she is taking the long route to see her guru, Sai Baba. The long route includes stops at several other Ashrams on the way. Well, goodbye, Lynn, we are surely going to meet again!

My Dutch lady has decided not to give her story in her room — visitors are allowed at restricted times -- one hour only in the afternoon. We are to go to a friend’s apartment where we won’t have to watch the clock.

This is my last day in Pondicherry and I still have to take another Interview as well as having supper with Dhruva and his wife. Watching the clock sometimes helps. And I can’t help thinking about the early bus I hope to catch tomorrow morning for the Ashram of Father Bede Griffiths. It’s the only one I can take.

But for now here we are in a light, modern apartment, the friend away, the place all our own, and we will not have to think about time. My Dutch lady is a smiley person with a deep expressive voice, and after every few sentences she says: Yaa? Very musical. And she’s smiling and I’m smiling and all sense of time has already been lost.



Interview 28

Spiritual aspirations were there since I was young. As a child I had flashes, being conscious of something greater than me, which were translated in terms of God. I was born into a Dutch Protestant family. We went through the German occupation and I was old enough to understand what was happening. It was during that time that I came into contact with Eastern thought through the Sufi movement. I got some books by Inayat Khan which opened for me a new world. I had the clear idea that there was somebody in India whom I didn’t know but who was guiding me somehow or the other. I was then 16 or 17.

I wrote poetry round this idea, this living presence. Then many things happened to cover all this up, although a sort of red thread went through my life and I never lost it. I worked, mostly social work, and being confronted with the problems of others, the quest started again. Through a member of my own family who had been to this Ashram, I was given a book by Otto Wolf; it was a comparative study on Sri Aurobindo, Ramakrishna and Gandhi. I hadn’t finished the first page on Sri Aurobindo, and like lightning — Yaa? — I knew this is what I had been looking for. In those years Mother was already very old, so I knew I had to go immediately. I started writing to Mother.

What year was that?
That was — let me think: I’m now here thirteen years…it must have been eighteen years ago. Then after a while I came. As I entered the main Ashram I knew I had come where I had to be — there was no doubt. It was straight, direct, open, immediate.

What had Mother written to you?
She never wrote long letters — she didn’t even give answers in words but would send us a blessing packet. She simply did. You felt something in your inner being had changed. You were given a force to overcome all difficulties. The experience, the relationship with Mother was fulfillment in itself. Especially when I went back to Holland. The certitude of having met somebody who is absolutely true, who really knows, who is absolute purity, absolute power, yet with a love and tenderness you cannot describe.

Why did you return to Holland?
Oh, just to wind up my affairs — I had already made the decision to stay if Mother agreed. She always gave us a trial year, and after that made the decision whether we could stay permanently. I came back in January 1968 in time for the inauguration ceremony of Auroville, which was one of the most impressive experiences I had. Then after the year passed, Mother allowed me to stay.

Was Mother present at the inauguration?
No, there was a direct radio contact with her room and the site. Mother read out the Auroville Charter (see previous chapter) in French which was relayed. Her presence was fantastic! I was the one who had to read the Charter in Dutch — it was read in every language — and as I went to the microphone, I got such a tremendous wave of this presence that it nearly knocked me over. I had trouble keeping myself upright.

Can you describe the work you were given?
At first I worked in the Ashram department called Fleurs en Flacon. The literal translation is Flowers in a Bottle — perfume. Simple work filling bottles, labeling them, selling them. But it was with great joy I did it. Everything you do here is part of your yoga. That’s why every aspect of life is represented. The Ashram is not an out-of-the-world place where we try to escape into a transcendental level of consciousness. Of course, that’s one of the parts belonging to this yoga.

Are you still involved with perfume?
I only did that for two or three years. At the same time I had already started work for Auroville — administrative work. Then I got permission from Mother to concentrate on the correspondence and translating for Auroville. That is my main work with a little simple work I do in the dining room — I like working with the mind and also the hands.

Do you spend any time in formal meditation?
For that I go to the Ashram at night. In the morning one starts with a kind of dedication, and for the rest of the day one tries to keep this at the back of everything one does.

You are obviously happy with your spiritual progress.
Definitely! Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.

What is the aim of integral yoga?
Essentially the transformation of man. That means the transformation of the world… the supramentalization of the world. We try by the way Sri Aurobindo laid out for us to come as near to that as possible. And this means we have to undo many things; it means you have to come to know yourself, to discover the inner being.

Do you keep in contact with the outside world?

Do you have a set daily programme?
Yes. I start by going to the Ashram — to be quiet — at 6.30. I take food at the dining room, go to the flower room — the Ashram has a special place in which flowers are gathered from all the Ashram gardens, and every Ashramite can take some for his room… which are meant to be placed in front of the pictures of Sri Aurobindo and Mother. Flowers have a special meaning here. Then I start work in my room: translations, correspondence, typing. Or I may have to take people to Auroville or guide them through the Ashram. Before lunch I spend half an hour working in the dining room. We have a siesta after lunch, then I work till about 6. At night after food I spend an hour in the Ashram before going to bed.

What are the blessing packets?
They are small envelopes with dried rose petals, mostly with a picture of Sri Aurobindo or Mother. People made them for her. Roses stand for surrender. She would concentrate on each packet — she gave it a sort of charging: and in that way she shared something with us. It was one of her many ways of helping us. It’s as if an unseen hand takes troubles away from you.

But do you never experience any difficulties.
Yes — definitely. But that’s mostly one’s own fault. We are all open to waves of depression or anger — yaa? These are the main difficulties. When you are in transition, when things have to be changed in you, those very things come to the forefront. All the nonsense in you becomes clear. Mother cleans us through relationships. In this way we come to know our weaknesses better. That is why work is important — working with others. That’s a real test — you see where you stand.

Did Mother give guidelines on how to get on with others?
The thing she stressed was harmony: not to expect from others what you don’t do yourself, understanding, humility, the ability to obey orders.

You have worked so long for Auroville. What do you think it will eventually come to represent?
In the beginning we were all enthusiastic about the idea of unity and harmony — creating something new for the world. But we were unaware of what it really means…it’s not just constructing a city. It means the constructing of another consciousness, and that takes more time, much more than we thought. It involves many more difficulties than we could imagine. But I see in the people living there an openness towards the future, a freshness and intuition towards the way they have to go. The struggle is to get out of the old world and find an equality based on an inner truth, an inner equality. What was your own feeling when you were there?

There was hardly time to see much — I was there for a day only. Anyway, would you like to tell me something about the benefits of this new life you found here?
A tremendous personal growth, a tremendous freedom, an environment in which you move as a fish in water, the best side of the Indian culture which has a wideness of approach and devotion. But the main thing is that I know I’m in the place in which I belong, and that everything has a purpose, a meaning. That can happen in the outside — Yaa? — but evidently it is the fulfillment of my being, to be here.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006