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



Matthew and Joan Greenblatt


28th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

Although my spirit has been constantly enriched, I am only too aware that my physical body is now showing signs of exhaustion.

Supper is being served. I am not hungry. Iwould prefer to retreat to my simple room, but I am being led to the dining area where, in Indian-style, we sit in rows on the floor. This is followed by arati, chanting and prayers. Someone points out an Englishwoman who has just left everything to spend the rest of her life at this Ashram: she is over 70. The pull of the mystic East is not exclusively for the young.

Once again I have to brace myself for another early morning start for Ramanasramam. At the last minute as I am leaving, I am called back. A Spanish woman wants me to give a message to Juan in room 15: the message — a bit vague: Padre está aquí...

This journey is yet another stopping-at-every-village-along-the-way affair. Indian travel is full of surprises in that once you get telling people you are on your way to an Ashram it can lead to deep, involved metaphysical discussion. Nowhere else in the world can you be paying for your bus ticket and being asked at the same time: Does your guru give you the inner light? I have given up (for the time being) my train reservations, not because bus travel is any more comfortable -- it may be quicker -- but because in the South the buses are more reliable, more frequent.


Tiruvannamalai is finally in sight, rather the sacred hill of Arunachala at the foot of which, crowded between many Ashrams, rests the one named after one of the 20th centuary’s most revered sages: Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi. He was drawn here in 1896 when he was hardly 17 and never left. He lived in caves but eventually allowed his growing number of devotees to build him an Ashram at the foot of the hill. So powerful was his magnetic presence, he became a legend in his life time. Paul Brunton wrote about him in the 1930’s, and although it is now over thirty years since Ramana left this physical world, that great charismatic, mystic force constantly draws people from all over the world to this Ashram — many of them had not even been born thirty years ago. And thirty years ago I feel sure his Ashram was like himself, simple and compact. Now it is shining and sprawling with concrete and marble. No matter, the spirit pervading the entire place is extraordinary, vivid, magical.

I am given not only a private apartment in the compound across the road from the Ashram, but a Mr. N. who is to look after me and see that I Interview the “right” people. This makes me think there must be some “not-so-right” people who may be Interviewable. But not to worry, I know I will be Interviewing those whom I am meant to Interview, with or without the blessings of the helpful management.

I deliver the message to Juan in room 15 and ask if he is visiting the Ashram or is a permanent resident…it would be good to have a Spanish Interview. But, no, he is going back to the Spanish island where I used to live twenty years ago.

As Mr. N. will not have his approved list of candidates ready until tomorrow, and as I have already looked round the Ashram and gazed up at the sacred Arunachala, I am now listening to a young man explaining the teachings of Bhagavan (for this is how Ramana’s followers call him). A bus full of Scandinavian tourists has unloaded its captives for a thirty-minute stop at the Ashram. The young man has been approached by two middle-aged ladies: he is wearing white khadi, they are wearing expensive machine-made reproductions of Indian hand-blocked fabrics. They want to photograph him. He must be used to this. He tells them why he left the New York nightmare for Bhagavan. The tourists snap away and leave. I ask if he would care to tell me more. He says: Sure thing. We collect his wife, and off we go to their apartment. Why wait till tomorrow? Tomorrow may never come, at least not for these two unofficial selections.



Interview 31

Matthew: My wife and I both grew up in similar circumstances; we came from upper middle class families and had the luxury of college education, and are both college drop-outs. At 19 we were dissatisfied with the life we were living, and the studies we were into were not meaningful to us. We dropped out to avoid being hypocrites and to seek our education in life. At that point we didn’t know what we wanted but we knew it was more than earning money for bread and butter. We got involved in some social-political groups — anything but turning inwards. We thought we could find peace outside and by throwing ourselves into these movements. It was a step.

But after a couple of years we realized peace was not to be found this way. We became interested in yoga and mysticism. We took yoga classes, heard lectures by Krishnamurti, visited the Ramakrishna Centre and other places, but nothing clicked. One day a friend brought us to Arunachala Ashram in New York, and as soon as we entered we felt at home. Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi’s picture which has attracted so many all over the world, also had a strong pull for us. We didn’t know much about philosophy but the emphasis on the practices struck home immediately. There were no lectures, debates or discussions — just practice.

Through a steady course of discipline our lives became more and more in tune with a higher life, a more sattvic life, and the deeper meaning of the spiritual life. Slowly the old life began to wean away. A residential Ashram was then founded in Nova Scotia, Canada, and we lived there for five years. In 1973 we were able to visit this Ashram in India for two months.

Can you explain what attracted you to Bhagavan’s teachings?
Matthew: The directness. It bypasses the external and the more esoteric and occult things which didn’t attract us. Bhagavan’s teachings bring us straight to the heart. It’s simple, direct, and with a little earnestness for practice, anyone can experience this, the peace it gives.

Perhaps Joan can say more about these teachings?
Joan: They consist of two ways: Bhagavan says either surrender to the Divine, or ask — Who am I? They are both one path… you go to the source of your being. By surrendering you surrender everything to that source, and by enquiring — Who am I? You are enquiring into that source, who is the I. Both paths are at the heart of every religion, that which everyone is seeking through many names and directions. It is the Self, the Source. So whichever path appeals to each person, that should be taken. Some by temperament are attracted to self-enquiry; but it’s not a mantra: Who am I, who am I?… but as each thought arises one doesn’t get involved with the thought but asks: To whom does this thought arise? The surrender part is surrendering everything that isn’t the I, then you become the I. It’s like two rivers going to the same ocean.

Earlier you spoke of the practice. What does it involve?
Matthew: Joan has explained the teachings — well — we practice them by stilling the mind and turning it towards its source.

Joan: It hasn’t to be done at a set time because the enquiry and surrender has to be constant.

It’s a way of life?
Joan: Yes! Of course, we have a morning and evening meditation practice which helps to sustain the enquiry during the day. It’s a necessary discipline.

Matthew: Bhagavan never put emphasis on outward life but specified two things necessary for sadhaks. One was sattvic food; the other, satsang. This he applied to householders as well as sadhus — there was no separation.

But I seem to remember the high castes would sit apart from the lower castes in the dining room.
Matthew: That’s true. The reason was not that Bhagavan wanted caste-ism… he didn’t want people to use him as an excuse to break their own rules. He said if you dine with lower caste people at home, by all means dine with them here; but don’t say everything here is free then go home and dine exclusively amongst your own. That was his reasoning. As far as brahmacharya goes, he said: It means living in Brahman. So if one lives in Brahman — God — and finds happiness one won’t look outside for other sources of happiness. His path is natural and suited to modern times.

But as it’s an exclusive way of life, how did you adapt? Did you find it hard at the beginning?
Matthew: It’s not easy, but we found it easier as no external forms are necessary; the orthodox traditions imposed by many religions are absent. It’s a direct path… you have to deal with your own self. That’s the best discipline.

How did you spend your day in the Canadian Ashram?
Matthew: At 5.30 they recite the Sri Lalita Sahasranamam Stotram; it’s a litany to the Divine Mother. We listen to the Veda Parayana and have silence. In the afternoon we have the Veda Parayana for forty minutes. Then at 7, chanting, recitation from scriptures, readings of Bhagavan’s teachings, and prasad is distributed. Everyday is the same. People can’t meditate all day so they have jobs, and there’s plenty to do at the Ashram farm. Joan cooked for everyone; I worked outside, part-time.

The Ashram was supported by donations?
Matthew: Yes. And there’s no proselytizing.

When did you first want to come to live in India?
Matthew: After five years in Nova Scotia we returned to New York City with the purpose of saving money to come here. The director of the center, Arunachala Bhakta Bhagawat, had an idea to publish a pictorial biography of Bhagavan, and that job fell on our shoulders as Joan is a graphic artist and I was in the photographic line. The book has taken four years work, but we hope to see it through the press at Madras within a few months.(1)

With such an important commission, how did you find the conditions here for such specialized work?
Joan: It has been wonderful from the beginning. We feel we are serving Bhagavan, so we try to balance the work with the practices. The work is very concentrated… but we feel Bhagavan is working through us. We work in the mornings, do our practice in the afternoons, then go on the Hill.

You actually walk all round it?
Joan: No. Behind the Ashram is a path up the Hill. In the evenings, many of us do this — to walk around the Hill takes four hours. It’s a sacred place, so one gets benefit.

How did all this start, do you know?
Matthew: Geologists some years ago were interested in testing samples from this part of the country. They took samples back to Europe and found Arunachala the oldest they had tested on earth. Arunachala is mentioned in the Puranas; and the worship of Shiva started here. The story goes that Brahma and Vishnu were arguing about which of them was greater. Lord Shiva appeared before them as a pillar of light, and told them whoever can find the end of the column is the greater. Vishnu took the form of a boar and dived downward towards the bottom while Brahma took the form of a swan and flew up. They traveled in both directions but there was no end in sight. Brahma, as he was travelling upwards, saw a flower falling. He thought: I will deceive Vishnu by bringing this flower back and say I have been to the top to get it. This is what he did. But Vishnu, addressing Lord Shiva, said: Lord, I cannot find your beginning or end — you are limitless! Shiva, seeing that Brahma was conceited, cursed him saying no one will worship him.

The story is symbolical and represents the intellect which cannot gauge the infinite; if it gets puffed up and takes the form of Brahma, it ultimately becomes humiliated. If it takes the form of Vishnu and submits to the guru or the Divine, it is then able to see the Truth. So Arunachala is considered the earliest manifestation of Shiva. His light was so dazzling that the devas who were worshipping him said: Oh, Lord, we cannot look at you like this; could you not take a concrete form? He took the form of the hill of Arunachala, so that’s why this hill is considered to be Lord Shiva. Bhagavan said that Kailash is the abode of Shiva, but Arunachala is Shiva Himself.

I know that once Bhagavan came here he never left. But what brought him here in the first place?
Joan: When he was 16 he had an incredible death experience which although it lasted for only half an hour transformed him into a sage. He left his home to come here. In a verse he wrote later he said from the age of innocence, Arunachala had shown within his mind. From his birth there was a connection with this sacred Hill.

Do you also plan never to leave?
Joan: We have no plans. To us Bhagavan is everything, so to be away from his Ashram or disciples would be difficult. But there are the centers in America. We came to Bhagavan when we were 19. We are both 30 now and know nothing else. It doesn’t matter where we are as long as we are with him and doing our practice.

A last question. What do you have as the aim of life?
Matthew: To be fully absorbed in our own selves. Bhagavan is no ordinary guru — he’s a satguru. It’s like falling into the jaws of a tiger; one can’t escape. So once one has come to a satguru, it’s enough to follow the teachings and tread the path. When one looks at the world one sees how fortunate one is to be drawn away from it and given the chance of a new life. We go on with faith and trust in the satguru. Everything depends on him.

Today the Greenblatts head a publishing house in America, Inner Directions. It specializes in books on Indian saints and related topics.


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© Malcolm Tillis 2006