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



David Godman

The Library

30th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

Mr. N. has been so much in heaven during this Interview that – in between bursts of unquiet weeping at the nostalgia evoked by Mrs. Osborne for their great guru – he himself asked Mrs. Osborne a few questions. They were good questions so I have let then stay. Perhaps a third book is on its way!

I have always found it difficult to sleep in Ashrams; it may be something to do with the radiations. On this pollen-gathering expedition, the nights are being spent reading, writing letters and making notes, the only time I am alone and able to indulge myself. This morning I go early to the old meditation hall. It has been left as it was in Ramana’s day, untouched by the face-lift of polished marble and concrete blocks which seem to have sprouted all over other parts of the Ashram. It is a small room charged by years of Bhagavan’s adoring presence.

For me this is the real Ashram as it was thirty years ago. I could easily spend more time here. But Mr. N. has come in and coughed; this is a sign that it’s time to visit the Ashram’s library. Here a pale, solemn young man, the keeper of the books, is to break the chain of female-dominated Interviewees.



Interview 35

In 1953 I was born in Britain — Stoke-on-Trent, so I’m now 27. I had a standard education: State Primary School, Grammar School, and in the early 1970s I went to Oxford. It was there I discovered books on Ramana Maharshi. I had considered myself an undevout Christian, but for two years in my late teens there was a period of spiritual revolution, a period when I spent most of my income on spiritual books. The bibliographic search ended in Blackwells when I found one of Ramana’s books. I read this book and was hit with the conclusion: This is what I have spent the last two years looking for. There was a clarity and simplicity which seemed to solve the problems I was asking myself in a logical, tight, all-embracing manner, not by giving answers to the questions but by pointing out that the questions were based on false presumptions. After this I had a brief period of evangelism when I tried to distribute large numbers of this book which I had bought, but discovered it wasn’t so obvious to others.

May I ask the name of the book?
Ramana Maharshi: The Teachings in his Own Words. There were only three Rider books readily available in Britain; you had to look hard for the rest. I finished off college though without pursuing the matter further. I then had a year in Ireland to meditate. I rented a place on the West coast and grew my own food. For the winter I went to Israel to work on a kibbutz. I planned to go back but came here. That was in 1976. I have stayed here ever since.

You had the teachings before you came, but did you not find it a disadvantage not having a living teacher?
I was a little troubled by this at first. I had been through all Ramana’s books several times looking for quotations on the matter. I was happy with the teachings but had a sneaking feeling I ought to have a living guru. After a year that disappeared.

Have you been the Ashram’s librarian from the beginning?
No. For the first eighteen months I lived in a room in Mrs. Osborne’s house. I spent most of every day in meditation — eight to ten hours. Then perhaps more by accident I walked into this library, and the American lady looking after it offered me the job.

Is the work voluntary or is there payment involved?
No payment at all. I’m given board and lodging, of course.

After life in Oxford and Ireland, was is hard to adapt to Ashram life?
Not particularly. My life-style there had more affinity with life out here — I was considered rather eccentric there.

Have you met any outstanding teacher since you arrived?
I have seen Nisargadatta Maharaj six or seven times in the last few years. He is the greatest influence in my current spiritual activities.

Do you keep up with what goes on in the outside world?
It’s one of my strongest mental attachments — I read the newspaper every day. I used to subscribe to the Observer and read it from cover to cover. Now I get an old Guardian Weekly third-hand. I’m interested but not through any particular concern; I find it all rather entertaining. World news is comical.

Apart from laughing your way through the papers, what else do you do?
After breakfast at the Ashram at 6.30 I usually meditate until I go to work at the library, and have another session when I finish at 5. I also do editorial work for The Mountain Path — that takes up a lot of time. I review new books, and in my spare time bind books for the Ashram.

You are still so young, do you ever miss your old life?
In 1979 I went back to England for two months — it was pleasant, but two months were enough.

But what is the purpose of your life here?
I came to get realized. But my perception of that particular state has altered radically over the years. I now see it in unreligious, unspiritual terms. I see myself as pretending to be what I am not all the time, and I see the only way out of this problem is to be aware of these pretences as they go on from moment to moment. That’s all I’m doing. I have no over-zealous urge for realization any more. I stay on because I do want it, but there’s not the desperate fire I felt when I first came here. I am quite happy from moment to moment watching myself.

Have you made any close attachments to anyone in the Ashram?
I have always been gregarious, so I go out of my way to meet the new people. I do a fair bit of socializing. Some relationships get close, but not many people stay full-time. At first I was looking for somebody to talk to — spiritually. Until I came to the Ashram I had never met anyone with any feeling for Ramana. All I had was from books. I was desperately wanting to talk about him. There were few people here I could speak to, but I did sort out some things. As the years pass I put less and less importance on words, dialogues, spiritual conversations. It’s strange in a way because most of my day is organized around words and books: giving them out, taking them back, writing reviews. But I’m totally disenchanted with what they mean. I have no interest now in talking to anybody about spiritual matters. I no longer feel anything they say, or anything I say touches my understanding of my experience of myself. I think it an exercise in futility. So I avoid that sort of exchange — I leave it at social chit-chat.

But you still take your meditation seriously, surely?
Ramana never put emphasis on meditation. He told Paul Brunton: Meditation is for the merest spiritual novice. Apart from that I’ve never heard him be so extreme. I now see what he means. He also said: When you are doing things in the world, the most effective thing to do is continually remind yourself nobody is there; action is taking place, but nobody is doing it. I used to think this a second-grade sadhana for those unable to meditate. I now see it as the culmination of Ramana’s teaching. It’s an attitude and an understanding I carry with me all day. To be honest, I enjoy meditation, to be still, to quiet down the word-flow, to let the being take over. I often have frenetic days here… it’s like being in the West. So I need a spiritual bath twice a day to get the mess off.

How do you support yourself?
I also find that strange. I can only tell you what has happened — I can’t give any explanation. I last undertook paid employment in 1975, so when I came here a year later I had what I perceived to be enough money for six months and then I would have to go back. I have given away more money than I have spent, yet I now have just about as much money as when I first came here. The only explanation I can possibly give is that if you are seriously engaged in spiritual quest, whatever you need at any one time comes to you. At the beginning, as I was attached to this place, I worried about the future, the lack of money, the uncertainty. It all stopped. I used to go round the Hill every day before I started Ashram work. It was the only time in my life I felt any love, any devotion to any spiritual object outside of myself.

When you first explained what you wanted this Interview for, I was uneasy because the idea of talking about devotees and devotion disturbed me. You see, I have absolutely no devotion now to anything, not even Ramana or the Hill. I see my spiritual path in terms of myself and my experience of myself and nothing outside myself. I have no external deities, gurus, symbols at all. But there was this one period when I had great love for the Hill. I used to chant Ramana’s hymns in English as I went round it. Then one day it suddenly occurred to me that whatever power propelled me here is also looking after me, and it’s that power’s job to give me what I need. No more was I to worry about it. From that moment I never even thought about the lack of money. I rarely have any, but I never worry about it.

Three weeks after this experience on the Hill, I was talking to someone in the Ashram. As he asked me how long I was staying, I answered: As long as the money holds out. He replied: Is it only a matter of money? And he pushed 3,000 rupees into my hand! But you see, this happened only after I stopped worrying. That was the first of a whole sequence of events that’s kept me here.

Only three months ago whatever money I had was stolen and everything I possessed on planet earth. A total stranger came up to me and replaced everything. This has happened to many foreigners. There have been about a dozen staying here over the years with no visible means of sustenance. Yet they managed. One boy came here at the same time as me disenchanted with Vedanta, and about to give it up. But he fell in love with Ramana. He had no money but he couldn’t go home. He was just about to telegraph his parents for money and admit defeat when they telegraphed him instead saying: You are now 21 so we are legally obliged to tell you your grandfather left you so many thousands; we didn’t want to tell you before in case you used the money to stay in India. He is still here.

David Godman still lives in Tiruvannamalai, almost 30 years after he arrived. He was the Ashram’s librarian for 7 years, then devoted himself to writing and research. He is now the most important living writer of books about Ramana Maharshi, and is best known for his anthology of Ramana’s writings and dialogues called, “Be As You Are”. To date he has published 11 books…and more are on the way.


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© Malcolm Tillis 2006