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



Melita Maschman

A picturesque dharamsala

29th November 1980

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

As there are no facilities for visitors to stay in any of Ma’s Ashrams I took a room in a nearby dharamsala. It was empty except for a string bed. Someone gave me a broom of twigs and a candle. Parvati(1) , whom I used to know as Janaki before she met Ram Alexander, gave me a mattress.

After the Vijayananda Interview, Parvati made me a late-night mint tea which may have helped cancel my resolve to make an early morning escape and to abandon further work on this book. The morning pale sun is filling me with resignation and hope, and anyhow, what has a channel to fear? Absorb what there is to be absorbed and swing along.

I am swinging into the next Interview — Ram has again put in another good word for me — with such renewed spirits that at the end of listening to a breath-taking 45 minute saga, when it comes to turning over the cassette, I find nothing has been recorded. Oh, no — not another sign: brother, go home! And Atmananda, my latest Interviewee whom I have known and admired for several years from the time when I lived near her in Rajpur, is saying coyly: I told you I didn’t want to talk into that machine! Frustration and incompetence met by even more confusion.

But Atmananda is not heartless, and she knows her story is unique: She says, if you can come to see me in Rajpur next month, may be…? And to give me another boost she points across the courtyard, saying: Look, there’s Melita — she’s a bit difficult, but once you get her to talk it will be fascination.

I am running, but Melita won’t speak. She is in a bad mood. She is also a writer, and writers don’t always feel like spluttering out gems they can use themselves. Instead she gives me a published article she says I can use…but... No, you can’t take it with you: copy it, dear, copy it!

I am really definitely — and right now — about to take the bus back to Mussoorie. But Melita is snatching back the papers, saying: All right, you be here at 1:15 — my bad mood, it MAY change. Melita is so volatile, who can tell?

So now there’s time for lunch with friends, and like sweet and true devotees they are telling me all about Ma and they are stretching it out, and I am 10 minutes late. And Melita is in a worse mood. She has written me a note saying: ”TOO LATE!” She is pinning it to her dharmasala door. But the sight of a hopeless breathless incompetent trembling interviewer (dharamsala stairs are steep and many) makes her roar with laughter — the bad mood, it changes. She lets me in. We start, and quick....



Interview 2

First… I never came to India looking for gurus. Ma I met accidentally. How? — you will ask. Then it is for you to listen. In 1962 I was working in Afghanistan as a journalist. Journalists have holidays, so I wanted to spend three weeks with a German family in Mussoorie — that’s where you live, right?

We started from Kabul — all fine — but by the time we reached the nice Himalayan foothills, the rains washed away the road. That meant their fat Mercedes couldn’t move. I got out, took my bundle and went to Dehra Dun, making myself independent. After passing a boring hour there I asked somebody what would be interesting to see. He said: Take this bus standing at the corner, it goes to Hardwar — that’s a lovely place of pilgrimage. I looked round Hardwar… not so interesting, so I asked someone else on the street. Is there something really nice to see? Much, much — I was told — take a rickshaw to Kankhal: it has an old Shiva temple, and today a fair is going on.

O.K…Right…Fine. There I found a children’s picture-book temple: it is near Ma’s Ashram. I remember this was the first impression of Indian poverty. The fair was going on but there were hundreds of beggars sitting along the lanes, among them many lepers. A little time before, I had changed a 100 rupee note into a clean bundle of one rupee notes; I started distributing them(2). This caused five thousand beggars to jump at me. I felt as if my last minute had come, oo-ha! Later someone told me that in the same place two years before a Rani had been mobbed to death by these violent people. With their half-eaten faces and hands they were pulling at my bag — they spat in my face: it was shocking. But suddenly two ladies from south India jumped into the crowd, and with great energy howled and pushed and beat these people. They saved me and my handbag — I suppose the poor things thought there must be millions in it. The ladies scolded me terribly — yes, quite terribly — not to give money, otherwise they run after you.

Anyway, they had saved me. Then as they had just come to Hardwar we stayed in a nearby hotel together. We had a nice talk — not too long — they jumped up saying: We have to quickly go to our Ashram to see our guruji — wait for us, we shall be back in an hour. They pointed to the Ashram — in those days it was the nucleus of today’s Ashram. I had never even heard of an Ashram or a guruji: I thought may be it’s a dentist or something like that.

You live in India so you will know whenever anyone says ‘wait for me one hour’, it means between one and four hours: it does not mean sixty minutes. After waiting one hour and ten minutes I became worried so I went to the door through which my lovely ladies had vanished. I knocked hard till an unfriendly young man came out and chased me away by banging the door against my nose. After another twenty minutes I knocked again — I thought perhaps they were in trouble, so late they were. This time one of my ladies saw me and made them let me in. So now although I was inside, I could see everyone was quite content to wait a few more hours, but at least I found out they were not waiting for the dentist but their spiritual teacher. I was much relieved.

One very old lady then came out and offered me a glass of water; someone told me she was the mother of the guruji, Didi Ma — but by myself I would not have been able to make out if it was a man or woman so old was she with a shaven head, sannyasi clothes and toothless smile — a sweet smile. Eventually we were allowed to go up to the roof where we again prepared ourselves for more lovely waiting. We were about twenty-five people.

Then suddenly Ma came out and went up and down, up and down. It was my first intensive impression of this type of people I had ever had — they were a category of entities I had not met before. They started bowing down — pranaming — ecstatic, and Ma chatted with them, laughed with them. Someone forced me to put a question — I had no desire to ask anything — but somehow something came out. The reply was translated by one of the sadhus. It was in such a nice Indian-English that even one syllable I did not understand: to this day I do not know what Ma said to me at this first meeting.

What I did know was that I was absolutely fascinated by what I saw although I had no idea of its significance. I am from a Protestant background, and that anyone saintly is moving amongst us in a physical body seemed to me quite out of the question.

When we got back to the hotel, the two ladies asked if I had an alarm clock: they explained they had to go back to the Ashram so they must be up by 4 a.m. I laughed and said: I will be your alarm clock because I hardly sleep. The fact is that for years in spite of taking heavy drugs I was unable to sleep soundly. That night after seeing Ma was a great turning point for me in many ways, and one of them was that the annoyed ladies had to wake ME at 6. Since then I have never had to take anything to encourage sleep.(3) Now I had nearly 3 weeks before I had to go back to Kabul, so I decided to circulate round this saintly phenomenon and study it.

I was told to carry out the process at Ma’s Ashram in Dehra Dun where she was to arrive in 3 days. Here I would be able to look at her closer for, they said, fewer crowds come. By then, Atmananda, who is Ma’s oldest Western devotee, had given me some information and said: “You ask Ma questions and you will see how wonderful are the answers!” I had no desire to do this but when I started I made a list of 15 philosophic questions.

Then a funny thing happened: when I came into Ma’s room, there was a lady and a boy involved in an intense angry talk – it seemed to me a non-problem: should the boy drink tea or coffee? I thought….Oo-ha!...all this fuss about so little. But I sat down with Atmananda; Ma was lying on her cot watching everything, but she said to Atmananda: What’s all this?

Atmananda showing all the question-papers said: Ma, she has a long list of questions. Ma said sweetly: Bolo, bolo! (Speak up!). So it started. By the way, this was all eighteen years ago so I don’t remember any of those questions, but Atmananda prepared, held the papers up, and out came number one question! (4)

When Ma heard it she started roaring with laughter. I was slightly irritated, but anyhow… Atmananda read on. Number two question. Then three and four, but not one got answered — Ma just laughed loud, played with her hair, her toes, looked out of the window; she was just laughing, laughing, laughing. This went on from question to question. I got more and more angry until about question number nine… I thought: Either they are fools or I am — I’m not in the right place here, let me go!

Taking my unwanted questions from Atmananda, I said bye-bye, and out of the room I went straight for the Dehra Dun railway station where I made a reservation for the night train to Delhi. It was a long wait, so by the afternoon I thought: Let me go back and see what is going on with these laughing people? I slipped in a bit shy as I didn’t want to get nailed down, but I found Ma sitting with a crowd in front of her — she was giving darshan. She saw me, made intensive movements: Come here, come here! She pushed the people away and made me sit down. So I sat for some time and I must say I again found it as fascinating as before: the way she was with the people. Their devotion and bowing down was strange to me, but I was caught again. From time to time Ma threw a quick glance at me from the corner of one eye, and each time, out came the laughter again.

In spite of this I never took the night train: I stayed the full three weeks with Ma. Now although she must have seen me several times each day, every time it was like my appearance caused a button to be pressed and burrrr… here was the laughter again! Well, I thought, it can’t be helped. I couldn’t understand why I produced all this merriment in her and I have never asked her. In course of time — Oo-ha! — this stopped being our only form of communication.

When my three weeks were up I decided to wind up all my work in Germany for some length of time — one or two or three years, to be near this exciting phenomenon.

I believe you have written a book in German on Ma.
Yes. I was a journalist for long years and had written a few books. After I had stayed a year with Ma I found my daily notes just required a little editing and they were published in that form.(5)

When did you decide to stay on?
I never decided. After one year I said it’s too little, after two years I stayed three. Then after about four years I didn’t think about it — it just happened that I am here now eighteen years.

Can you speak about the spiritual discipline?
Everyone is given their own form, but Ma stresses that we are not to speak about it, not even among ourselves — it’s secret.

I see you haven’t adopted any special form of dress.
I have met so many crooks in religious robes, in the West as well as in India; I have no desire to share their uniforms. I have a great aversion to uniforms. In the generation which grew up with Hitler we were all pressed into uniforms. In the beginning I did wear a white saree here, but I found them unpractical — I always fell about on the staircases. I just wear clothes that are comfortable now. Anyway, I do not live in the Ashram but in this nearby dharamsala. Only two or three Westerners are permitted to live inside. I have never been fully identified with any community — I am not fully identified with this one either. I am an outside insider.

You have now lived here all these years, is it because you are still fascinated by Ma?
That wouldn’t last eighteen years. It’s something deeper, something impossible to describe. After I had been with Ma for some weeks, one day I said to her: I did not come here to love you, I came to learn how to love God — to love God better through you. At that time — yes, of course — I was very fascinated by her, so much so that it tortured me to part from her at night to go to my hotel room. For anyone in her middle forties, such an experience is confusing. But I have seen this happen to newcomers of all ages and both sexes from East and West. It takes time to understand Ma’s irresistible power of attraction; it has only one purpose: to draw towards God those whose lives have but one center of gravitation.

A friend once said to me after having a first darshan from Ma: You are all like fish struggling on her line. Well, that was not a nice comment, but true in a certain sense. I have often thought Ma has thrown a hook into my heart — if I try to get away, it tears painful wounds. If I follow, its pull draws me nearer to her. Suddenly the point is reached when the external senses recognize Ma unchanged and the inner sense sees only the presence of God.

Perhaps one can say she awakens the ability to love in people’s hearts with the purpose of turning them towards God. I found this turning caused by her as a revelation within me, a liberation. Fascination freed me from its compulsion. To love becomes a source of inner peace, of joy and hope which is free of fear.

Ma is so beautiful because her body is transparent due to the divine light which is the source of all beauty. Years ago I said to her: I am such an extrovert that I cannot see God within myself, but sometimes I see Him in your face. That night I made a note in my diary: During the evening darshan, Ma glanced at me; suddenly her face which had looked tired became radiantly beautiful, irradiated by the inner light. For an hour she sat silent without moving on her couch. No one dared to talk. Each cell of her body vibrated in the joy of mysterious Presence. Is it allowed to try and interpret such a situation? But perhaps when Ma glanced at me she remembered my remark that morning: Sometimes I see God in your face. And there He was, called by my loving longing to see Him.

Can you give a brief description of Ma’s teaching?
She wants everyone — inside or outside Hinduism — to follow their own way but to follow it to the ultimate goal. She is keen that Christians should become better Christians, and many find through Ma they understand the Bible better than before. This makes her happier than someone saying he wants to become a Hindu. She is very conservative, so there is no possibility of this — you have to be born into a Hindu caste.

Are you ever lonely living this new life?

What are the advantages of being with Ma?
As we progress we begin to see there is more peace, more joy, one is able to control desires, fears, the naughty mind — that is some proof that you have the right teacher.

Are you still interested in literature and the arts?
The interest is there but there is no time, and the intensity of interest has left me. If I see some modern painting — yes — I look, but the interest is on the periphery, that’s all.

Do you keep up with what’s happening in the world?
Only superficially — it’s enough. Months go by without me seeing a newspaper. Perhaps you can tell me what’s going on?

Me? Oh, I don’t know either. I live 1,000 ft. above Mussoorie — that’s 7,000 ft. up in the Himalayas — so I never know anything. We don’t even have a radio, but somehow one can live without the news. I am wondering with your temperament if there have been difficulties in your life since you came to live in India?
How can one answer that? We don’t know what would have happened had we remained in our old habits. The difficulties depend on the community in which we live, and ours is especially difficult because as you know Ma follows to a high degree the laws of the Bengali orthodox Brahmins. This makes communication between Indians and non-Indians, the caste and the non-caste….we Westerners are non-caste….most difficult. There are always little miseries which hurt through these laws and we get angry and there are tensions. For me there is only one difficulty, and that is that I cannot have such a close relationship with my guru as those born inside caste. It is the cause of much pain at times. But it may also be Ma’s way of rubbing our egos, and I think she makes nice use of it.

Anyway, I sometimes taste a joy unlike anything else I have ever tasted — and I have gone through all the scales of taste. For many years it was a source of suffering that I was not allowed to live in the Ashram, but this dharamsala is only five minutes away so I am outside all the involvements. I am an explosive person so it is possible I would have created trouble for them as well as for me if I had lived inside the Ashram.

One last question: have you done much travelling in India?
Oh, yes — lots — but only following the procession of Ma; she travels, we travel. I have done no sightseeing, though. When I came to India, you see, my time for sightseeing was over.

In the mid-ninties Melita had to leave India through ill health and deteriating memory. She returned to Germany after having been in India for over thirty years. She now lives in an old-folks home in Darmstadt.




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© Malcolm Tillis 2006