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



Norman C. Dowsett

Sri Aurobindo Ashram

26th January 1981

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New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

I am running to my next appointment — the penalty for having over-induged in too much lost sense of time. In India, fortunately, if you are 15 minutes late, you are on time. No Indian will make a fuss or appear to be put out at lateness, usually considered in the West bad manners. Once in Rajpur we were expecting a Delhi friend to stay for a visit: he wrote saying he would arrive on Tuesday. Tuesday came and went; Wednesday and Thursday came and went. When Saturday came we gave up hope. But he arrived the following Tuesday saying he had been delayed a little, so sorry!

Norman Dowsett is waiting for me in his office, but waiting in a very British way: appearing not be be too concerned, not too put out, but slightly suprised by my lateness. He is civilized enough to assure me it is of little consequence. When one gets to over 70 one perhaps has spent much time waiting, especially if one is a public figure. He is the Director of the Sri Aurobindo Society’s Department of Educational Research and Development, and he is also a prolific writer and poet.

His most recent book: Psychology for Future Education reaches beyond the usual concepts of education by presenting a revolutionary look at what education should be. In his preface he asks: What should people expect from education? Firstly, to come to know themselves in relation to the world they live in. Secondly, to be free from ignorance, and in consequence, fear. Thirdly, to come to know more and more of what is expected of them.

His simple message is to affirm the urgent need to evolve our inner potential more fully. Of all those I have met in Pondicherry, Norman Dowsett has been here the longest — so long, in fact, that when he arrived Sri Aurobindo was still alive.



Interview 29

I suppose I should tell you a bit about my early life in England where I was born 72 years ago. I was born in Richmond, Surrey, near the school Sri Aurobindo went to school — St. Pauls; in fact, the actual place is now part of the school. I didn’t know anything about that, but at 14 I was asking such questions as: What is Truth? I never had a satisfactory answer. My father gave me the option of going from Harrow to Oxford but I chose to go to the Lycée in France. But my education came alive later at Valladolid, Spain.

Three people influenced my life there: all were looking for the answer to my own question…What is Truth? I stayed at the house of Don Tomas Lopez, a great painter. He was a free-thinker. His friend was Father Xavier, a Jesuit priest. The only other Englishman in the town, a Mr. Grey, was an Evangelist missionary. These three met with me after supper every night, and every question under the sun was pursued.

As I was being prepared for the wool trade, at 18 I was sent to Germany — in those days it was necessary to be initiated into the mysteries of wool-buying before one went on the London Wool Exchange. After a rigorous training, I went back to London where I lost everything in the wool slump of 1926. So that was the end of that! I went back to Spain, lived in Valencia, and wrote for a royalist paper, La Voz.

This must have been just before the Spanish Civil War?
Yes, indeed. And when the student uprising started, I had to go into hiding. I couldn’t get out for another year. I went through a difficult time which I prefer to forget, although many friends helped me. I was still seeking the answer to my question, so I thought it my destiny to fight at the time. But I soon saw it was not. By the time the World War started in 1939, I was married and had joined the Royal Air Force. I found myself stationed in Madras. We had leave; some friends saw an advertisement in the local paper: Hotel d’Europe, Pondicherry — French cooking! We had been eating such bad food out of tins, we decided to go there for a few days. At the railway station, I found a small booklet of Swami Vivekananda: Talks in America. This enthused me so much that at the Pondicherry hotel I asked the manager if I could find other such books. He said: At the Ashram there are many. I didn’t know what an Ashram was but I took a rickshaw there, and at the gate a lady came out with blue eyes and fair hair. It was Nishata, President Wilson’s(1) daughter. She took me in to the library where I found Sri Aurobindo’s: The Life Divine. Only when I asked whose book it was, did I come to understand it was by the founder of the Ashram.

Sri Aurobindo was, of course, alive at that stage?
Indeed he was — this is about forty years ago. I sat and read the book in a small room…I wasn’t allowed to take it away; I became so absorbed, as I had never read anything like it before, that when someone came in and asked me had I been to lunch, I replied: Lunch?…what time is it? It was 3.30 and I had been there since 10! Well, you see, here was the answer, the answer to all I had been looking for. The librarian then arranged an Interview with Mother for the next day. I bought some books and was full of expectation.
But when I saw her — she was dressed in a beautiful saree, there was a gold band round her head with a huge ruby, gold anklets were on her feet and rings on her fingers and she was made-up like an actress — and I thought: No, no…this is not a spiritual person: this is NO divine mother! She was kind, but I went back to the hotel disappointed. I threw the books down on the bed, but one fell open at the words: The Divine cannot be judged by outward appearances.

Well, I cannot describe the incredible experience I had at that moment — it was a kind of inner opening accompanied by floods of tears coming out of my whole being. I knew I had made a blunder. I wanted to take some roses to Mother — at that time they didn’t grow in Pondicherry, but I found some from Bangalore, bought the lot, and presented them to her. She said: I understand; we have been waiting for you. Now although she said this I didn’t know what it meant until ten years later when Mother saw a poem I had written on a psychic experience and asked me if I could remember the first time I had this experience. I couldn’t, so she said: Think about it and let me know tomorrow. Not until the third day could I remember; Mother said: That was your psychic opening when you read those words. She had remembered something I had forgotten although my life since childhood led up to this culminating point where the heart opened. This is the Fourth Dimension of the psychic mind which links it to the spiritual aspiration. This was the Truth I sought.

When the war ended, were you allowed to return?
Mother intimated that Sri Aurobindo said I was to continue in the Air Force — I had no intention of making it a career; but then she added: It has been decided that you will return after the war. And indeed, this was made possible in spite of the normal three years reserve which should have been spent in England. I was able to fly back to India on an R.A.F. plane; my family followed by boat. That was Christmas 1945.

Did you start teaching at the school immediately?
At first I did proof-reading and that sort of thing at the press. But very soon Mother put me into the school, saying: You are to do your sadhana with the children; and I want you to live with your family as a brahmachari although you are not to divorce yourself from family responsibilities. The word responsibility reminds me that at that time I started a flood of poems; one was published in the Ashram magazine. Mother saw it and asked me: Is this your poem — you have put; by Anonymous…Why? I explained I thought it more humble. What humbug!…she replied, then added: Don’t think you can achieve humility that way: you must take responsibility for everything you write…that way is false humility!

My whole life was with the children at the school, which was being built. Life was very strict at the Ashram in those days; it was built around monastic rules. We were not allowed to speak to another sadhak without Mother’s permission except to do one’s work. One couldn’t go into another sadhak’s room without permission.

In those days how many Western disciples lived in the Ashram?
Three or four only. Pavita had come in 1935 with Paul Brunton; she was his secretary but he abandoned her here — she stayed till about 1970. Arjuna, an Englishman, had died here. There was Nishata, whom I told you about; she was Margaret Wilson, and when she was reading The Life Divine in the National Library, New York, she was locked in over the week-end…something analogous to my experience; more drastic though. She happily read away until they opened up again on the Monday morning. She also died here. Pavitra was a Frenchman who arrived about 1932 through China and Tibet. Nat Pearson arrived at the same time as me.

Can you talk about the passing of Sri Aurobindo in 1950? You must be one of the few left who were in the Ashram at the time.
In 1950 the Korean War was at its height. Ten days before Sri Aurobindo left the body he made this statement: This crisis may blow up into a world conflagration; this must not be as it would put my work back 2,000 years. Mother made this statement two days after he left: Sri Aurobindo has promised to remain in the earth consciousness until the work is finished. These are very significant statements. On the day of his passing it was an experience unprecedented in the Ashram history; you thought people would go about weeping — a few old women did — but there was expectation in the air. Mother had sent for us with the news; in the dark at 4 a.m. we went from our different houses to the Ashram. We had been rehearsing the December programme, and although Mother knew how serious Sri Aurobindo was, she herself took part. Nothing stopped. It was as if he waited for the programme to finish so as not to interupt. Then on January 5th he left. We went up to have the last darshan of the Lord, and I can say I have never seen anything like it: the body was enveloped in golden light, and there appeared to be golden bars across the body which others also noticed.

A stream of people came all day long up to the 9th — everybody in the town, even ricksha-wallahs. People flew in from Africa, England — everywhere — to see him. In Pondicherry there is a rule that a dead body must be cremated or buried within 24 hours because of decomposition. The doctors found no trace of that, and even on the 9th when Mother decided he must be interred in the samadhi in the Ashram, there still was no sign except the light had faded. We had been digging a hole in the courtyard. My wife was in charge of soup distribution.

Did you find his physical absence affected you at the Ashram?
After Mother’s statement about him remaining in the earth’s consciousness unimpeded by the limitations of the physical body, we began to see this was necessary to let the Supramental light come down. Mother reassured us there would be no world war, that it would be contained in a process of fragmentation. We have seen that fragmentation over the years…there have been wars here and there but no world war. It will go on like that because the Divine has decided this, not man.

Many predictions indicate that within a short time there will be tremendous chaos all over the world.
Yes. Mother also intimated this…it has come quicker than she thought. The holocaust will not be an atomic war; it will be destruction of man’s ego, the destruction of his old values, his religions, his social life, his worthless mores. These will be destroyed. The creative thinkers of today: Oliver Reiser, Jean Gibser, Roberto Assagioli, Teilhard de Chardin, have all said in a similar voice what Sri Aurobindo and Mother have been saying about their own work.

Could you briefly explain that work?
It’s the work of transformation. And that’s what makes it different from other yogas. If we go back to the Vedas and come down through Kapila, Patanjali, Ramakrishna, all have contributed something to this synthesis. Ramakrishna for instance embodied all world religions within himself as an inner experience. And his great disciple, Vivekananda, declared in his great speeches for world peace that a synthesis has to come.

It is said that in Pondicherry alone there have been 108 saints who have had their asan here starting with the Rishi Agastya 4,000 years ago. In Agastya’s own words — they are written in stone — he predicted that a saint would come who would embody a world yoga. Ramalingam, who died only 100 years ago in Pondicherry said the same thing: A great rishi would come from the north, meet a Western yogini, and establish in Pondicherry a Shiva-shakti synthesis of East and West. This can be verified in the translated works of Ramalingam. So my question: What is truth? was not answered by a written word of Sri Aurobindo but by a direct experience of what I now call the fourth dimension. That is the psychic mind which sees every problem in its entirety, its inner and outer aspects. Man has to establish this next step in his evolution if he is to answer the problems of life which physical mind has made but cannot solve.

What would you say is man’s worst enemy?
Fear. Fear begins in the mother’s womb. In experiments we have found the mother absorbs fear and transmits it to the child in the womb. Environment and vibrations are important during the time the mother carries the child. Six months after birth, the child begins to absorb emotional vibrations from people — this is when the vital mind is born. Not until the child is 10 does the mental mind open.

What do you consider the purpose of life?
The only purpose we understand here is for the Divine, and if one doesn’t live for that, one is living for all kinds of trouble. Mother was asked by the children how they could help with the yoga. Everyone roared with laughter. Mother didn’t. She was serious, and said: Be happy! They replied: But Mother, we’re always happy. Ah — she said — I mean consciously happy; that way you’ll be on the right path. That is the purpose of life. Live for the divine and you will always be happy because you are living for the highest perfection you can envisage.

Many young people have turned to the East searching for a better life. Can you offer any advice?
Since the last war there has been an unprecedented flow of people from all over the world. We called them beatniks, flower children, hippies — all sorts of names — but they were seeking Truth. They couldn’t accept the blind faith of their parents’ religions or social life to which they were supposed to conform. They had no faith in that. They tried many experiments like drugs. They didn’t want the old things but haven’t found anything to put in its place. What advice can I give? One thing: there has to be discipline if one searches for Truth. In this way one finds one’s inner being. The true guru is within oneself. It’s the psychic being, the fourth dimension I have spoken of. Once that is found, all is found. But how? Through discipline one can purify oneself — not sexually — but so that the physical, vital and mental minds are not mixed in a chaotic mélange. Through discipline only can the psychic come forward; then you see the totality, the holistic factor of Truth.

You have mentioned the vital mind several times. What is it?
It’s concerned with everything emotional.

I see. What would you say should be our goal in life?
People give it different names, but I say it should be to realize the Divine in oneself. The rishis said this. In Nalanda University in Bihar where they had 40,000 Buddhist students, over the ancient portals was written: Atma vidya — know thy soul! In the temple of Apollo in Greece was written: Gnothi seauton — Know thyself! We haven’t done much about it. We know everything outside our self. We have been able to go to the moon. Where can we go from there? The kingdom of heaven is within us: that’s the psychic, that’s the Truth, and it’s inside. Once we realize that, we realize happiness. That’s the goal.

I have seen your recently published book: Psychology for Future Education (Full details can be found in the prelude to this Interview). Could you share with us some of your ideas and vision for the new education?
If a child is to be introduced to its true self — which should be the only aim of education — it must have a foundation which gives this a chance. It should have an environment where love and security are a foundation. Then one can create an ecology without fear. The child will then grow up with love, security and without fear. Throughout our lives these three things are what human beings want. If they are not given as the foundation of the future education, then we are wasting time repeating what others have done.

To take humanity one step higher towards a greater potential — and that potential is enormous — yoga and sadhana have taught us there is an unlimited possibility in man. There must be some experimental schools where these three foundations, these fundamentals can be put into a practical framework. That framework, I may suggest, must be a new psychology. Not based on the Freudian, negative psychology of the West, but on the positive one to be found in Sri Aurobindo’s work: Synthesis of Yoga. These are not only his thoughts, ideas and exegis, but they have come down through the Vedas, Kapila of the 7th century, and Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras. Sri Aurobindo has put all this into practical language which everyone can understand. This is a guide to what the education of the future should be.


My work in Pondicherry finished, I am having dinner — something rare for me as we rarely eat in Mussoorie after tea-time — but I want to spend my last night with Dhruva. Later, I am not only able to listen to his recording of Mother’s voice but also the deathless voice of Johann Sebastian Bach. I am thinking much these days about Mozart and Bach and how their utterances are as sacred and timeless as those of the saints. I leave Pondicherry reluctantly but feel something will draw me back again.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006