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



Hamsa Johannus de Reade

A private house

30th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

Mr. N. is confused by the kind of Interview-talk I had with David Godman; it’s not the kind of cosy conversation he thinks I’m looking for. I assure him I want to give an accurate portrayal of all aspects of the path and not to sugar-coat it. David Godman’s clear-headed honesty is more important to me than he thinks.

But he is unhappy. He is even unhappier when he learns I have met someone outside the Ashram who has agreed to give the next Interview but who is absolutely not on the official list…

How could you arrange it? — he is protesting — I’ve been with you all the time?

After telling him that the same Power that propelled David Godman to the Ashram and is still looking after him could perhaps also be looking after me, we strike a deal: Mr. N. is to accompany me to my secret rendez-vous.

He’s ecstatic, I’m ecstatic, we shall all be ecstatic. With Mr. N. present what can go wrong?

We arrive at a large well-built modern house with a large superbly-kept garden and a spectacular view of Arunachala. But as soon as I get a glimpse of the owner, a powerful looking Dutchman dressed as a sadhu, I know he is going to tell me what he thinks I ought to know even though we are a threesome.

We are taken into the Dhakshinamurti shrine room, placed in comfortable chairs, given cool drinks — and before Mr. N. asks the first question, Hamsa nods his head very slightly. I press the recording button: we are off…



Interview 36

To start, I will say I was born in Java which was then a Dutch colony. My childhood was spent there but I went back to Holland for schooling. But my earliest memories are of being white amongst a mixed Melanesian-Indonesian population who had been mostly forcibly converted to the Muslim religion while keeping many of their Hindu customs and traditions. We as whites were supposed to be superior and looked down on the indigenous population as a little more than monkeys but less than us. It came as an interesting shock later to recognize Hinduism as the older culture. Of my 53 years I have spent few in Holland although I have lived in Italy and Switzerland.

Where did you spend the war years?
Mostly in Japanese concentration camps. It was a shock to get back to the world of so-called peace… I thought it worse than the camps. This was not the world I wanted. I was 18 when I was released; there were severe adaptation problems. It was symptomatic that I decided to study psychiatry at the University of Leyden, but I soon found that wasn’t the branch of science I wanted to dive into deeper. I switched to psycho-analysis and became a student of Freud.
To get a degree I shifted to the University of Amsterdam, but there I changed again; this time it was para-psychology. At this time I met Hermann Hesse, to whom I dedicated my early poetry. He invited me to visit him in Switzerland, which at that time — 1949-50 — was a rare opportunity as he was living in retreat. Through him I received the desire to visit India. At the same time, I met a Dutch research scholar in comparative religion, Dr. G.H. Mees who had started out as a student of law at Cambridge.

He was to become your teacher in India?
Yes. He had found the root of law was in religion, so he studied Buddhism, the Sufis and Ramakrishna Paramahansa. He took a degree in comparative religion at Cambridge and a doctorate at Leyden with a thesis called: Dharma and Society in which he went into the old caste system which wasn’t hereditary. I met him in 1951, and it was he who invited me to come with him to India.

In 1936 he had toured India as a young man of 33 but in the style of the British Raj with a huge seven-seater car, a cook, a secretary, a boy to open doors, and a man to cut wood and carry water at stop-overs. While travelling in this style at Bangalore, someone told him: There is a wonderful, crazy old man living at Tiruvannamalai whom you must meet. He went. It was Ramana Maharshi. Within 24 hours he knew his search was over… he had found his <a href="javascript:popUpWindow('../glossary.htm#Satguru',100, 100, 550, 80)" STYLE="text-decoration: none;">satguru</a>! He gave up his careers, his ambitions, and settled here at Tiruvannamalai. The climate didn’t, however, suit him for an all-year round stay. He found a property by the sea in Kerala from where he came to see Ramana regularly.

He did further writing and produced his great work: The Revelation in the Wilderness, consisting of three volumes(1) on comparative symbolism, born out of a panoramic flash of the symbolism of the world. He became acquainted with much of the material through a colleague, Dr. C.G. Jung, whom he in his turn had encouraged to visit India in 1938. Jung got as far as Madras but never visited Ramana because he had already seen the deep brown eyes of a small saint, and according to Jung, it wasn’t necessary to see more. All this is documented in Heinrich Zimmer’s: The Way to the Self, with a foreword by Jung himself.

Ramana must have left the body just before you arrived.
Correct. Hermann Hesse was pushing me to go but only when I was asked to accompany Dr. Mees and help edit his great work did I go. I had gone through a dying experience in a river near Amsterdam. Although I was a good swimmer, something went wrong; after that I knew what I had been doing up till then was a great nonsense. I broke off all contacts, burnt all bridges, accepted Dr. Mees’s invitation, and left Europe for good.

In India, Mees was better known as Sadhu Ekarasa. He took me to Tiruvannamalai, but purposely didn’t say anything about the Hill or his great teacher. He knew I was a keen psychologist of 24 not interested in religion. I saw all sorts of strange things going on in a place called Ramanasramam: people prostrating to a heap of earth and stones — the grave of an old man… I could have been interested in anything else but that. The conversation was beyond my field of interest. I asked Mees: How long are we to stay in this hole? He just said: Let’s see — may be a day or ten! I replied: Good grief! — ten days here?

Later I looked up at a brownish-greyish heap of boulders with sparse bushes, a sort of thing in between a hill and a mountain, of which I didn’t know the name, and more or less shook my first saying: For God sake, what am I doing here? I began wondering was this why I had given up my career? And I was far from satisfied by what I had seen of India so far. Then a strange thing happened, and since I’m not psychic and not interested in these things, it struck me as doubly funny: this hill-mountain hit me in the chest — plonk — like a rock. I was breathless, speechless, thoughtless.

I went to the Ashram and told anyone willing to listen to stop prostrating to the grave for I had discovered something really wonderful, and it was That Hill! People laughed mildly, and someone said: But this guru buried here came here because of that Hill. I did some rethinking about the buried man: If that Hill had spoken to him and had already spoken to me, he couldn’t be a complete fool… let’s see what more we have in common. I became interested in his teaching; within 24 hours things clicked and I knew here I would find the answers — perhaps the one answer — to the one and only question worth thinking about. In a nut-shell, that still is the position today.

You have since dedicated your whole life to Ramana’s way?
I have. I am satisfied that in Ramana’s sadhana there’s no such thing as progress… It’s impossible to say: Today I was closer to the Truth. I am also satisfied that the sadhana as given by Ramana isn’t a question of time, no such thing as coming closer to realization. To think you or so-and-so are nearly realized amounts to saying you have nearly jumped over a ditch full of mud — which means you are in the middle of the dirt now. I am satisfied that the sadhana is to be compared to Russian roulette: every time you sit down to dive could be the last time and you could finish your individual existence. The number of years spent at it is irrelevant because Ramana teaches that the ego, having fantasized the concept of space by the I-thought attaching itself to your body and simultaneously creating the fantasy of time, when realization is achieved, it must be inevitably found that the sadhana didn’t take place in time.

Muruganar, the poet and Ramana’s first disciple, confirmed this indirectly when-after eighteen years of praying, dabbling, toying with Who am I? — I asked him: “After all these years of searching for the answer there seems to be no progress.” He smiled and said: That is sadhana!

But your response to Ramana’s teachings must have changed your whole life.
I never stopped to think; perhaps it stopped me going all out for the usual things… career, comforts. Indirectly it changed my life by my interests becoming more centred on how I can most conveniently and most quickly die. I don’t mean just the death of the body but the death of all that makes you cling to wonderful experiences, beautiful thoughts, spiritual aspirations, and even the desire to see Light. As the desire to fall asleep has to be given up in order to fall asleep, likewise it’s in surrender — in my case to Ramana — that desire for liberation will also be given up. Whether or not that is any use, the inner guru knows. And to that inner guru who has brought me to Arunachala, to Ramana, and the one or two persons I regard as the shaktis of Ramana, I can’t be as stupid as I sometimes think I am. I must trust that instinct that holds me here in Tiruvannamalai.

In mentioning the shaktis of Ramana, may I ask who you had in mind?
As we choose to project our satguru into a certain form, that form is already the shakti. I think it can be compared to looking at Arunachala and Ramana’s form as the shakti of the satguru who is formless. In the case of Anandamayi Ma — who was the physical person I was thinking of just now — I can explain. I met her in 1952 as I took some Swamis in my car to her house and they said: You must come in and have darshan! I didn’t know what that meant but went in and had the most strange and wonderful experience of seeing eyes which were completely empty. Imagine the stupefaction of someone who throws a rock in a lake and there are no ripples. This is what happens near Anandamayi. She may react, but there’s no ripple. When I told Dr. Mees about this, he went also and he too was impressed. After three days we took leave and returned to Tiruvannamalai, but to our amazement, there she was in Tiruvannamalai.

She had come to visit Bhagavan’s Ashram?
Quite so. I had the feeling there were two camps: us, the grieving disciples of the guru who had just left the body; and they, who were in proud possession of their physical guru — Anandamayi Ma. This hidden feeling of rivalry was wiped away when she sat by the samadhi and said: Here is a daughter come to pay homage to her father… Then she sang Prem Bhagavan, Prem Bhagavan, knowing or perhaps not knowing that Ramana was always affectionately called Bhagavan by his devotees. Anyway, both camps melted in tears and that was the end of any rivalry.

After another three days, Mees and I again took leave to go to Trivandrum by car, and a day later she was there. Then after another three days with her, we took leave for the third time in ten days to go to our place by the sea. The next day we received a telegram saying she was coming to visit us. She stayed some time, and from then whenever I was short of Ramana’s direct assistance and I called for help, it was invariably provided by Anandamayi. In at least a dozen instances I have met her by just arriving casually at a place she would be arriving at the same day. That helped me to see her as the shakti of Ramana.

Can you recall any of the personal stories that Dr. Mees passed on to you which illustrate his relationship to Bhagavan?
Most of them have been amply documented and published, but there’s one small anecdote that comes to mind. Mees once asked Ramana about the background of the cow, Lakshmi: Bhagavan explained that she was probably the reincarnation of an old woman who had come to the Hill to bring him certain vegetables, and that this was one of the reasons that in her long life as a cow she gave birth to thirteen calves, eleven of which were born on Bhagavan’s birthday. This, scientifically speaking, is impossible. This is also why to us we know he gave her liberation. Bhagavan having explained all this, immediately began to tone down what he said about reincarnation.

You have been so closely associated with these great teachers, I wonder if you yourself are now teaching?
I have only one ambition and that is to do nothing whatsoever. After my thirty years here trying strenuously to achieve my aim, I find it impossible, so one does the next best thing… while striving to do nothing one observes what is being asked of one while trying to comply. This, of course, will never take the form of teaching, because no devotee of Ramana’s can do anything but repeat parrot-wise what he has with some humility understood of the teaching of his satguru. So what remains is listening, watching, which means that so long as the identification with the body is there, rent for the body has to be paid as work, as some kind of service with the minimum attachment to its outcome. This means as a designer-builder one builds, one lays out gardens and parks, one plants forests, all of which is the outcome of trying to do nothing.

Since Ramana has said: It’s not necessary to improve the world; it’s perfect as it is… you don’t see it as such — Where is the ambition to do anything of importance? So now you will ask what does my day consist of? Well — I will say: some work, some gardening, keeping in mind the Chinese proverb that he who wishes to be happy for three days kills his pig and eats it; he who wishes to be happy for three months, marries; he who wishes to be happy for all his life becomes a gardener. So I suppose gardening is an activity that doesn’t completely exclude the introspective business of watching who is doing. Then there’s some writing; some prose or poetry now and then bubbles out, so one watches that. One speaks, one sees, one hears while exercising a mild attempt to keep the four types of silence: that of speech, seeing, hearing, and the essential one, thinking.

Ramana’s teaching inevitably brings one to the exercise of how to act without thinking about it. Under those circumstances little activity is possible. One then comes to understand by way of humility that it’s impossible to follow the guru’s advice. That humility fortunately lies close to the center of all desire, which is the desire to surrender. The way to know is at the same time the way to surrender; the way to surrender is at the same time the way to love because that love is the Self’s love for Itself. Well — this takes place during most days. Dr. Mees, my beloved and respected teacher, put all that down in a poem called: The tear-drops in my eyes, I offer.

Having thrown away a brilliant career to live the life of a sadhu, is there any advice you can pass on to others?
Even a down-to-earth Pope like John XXIII said in a private audience one Christmas or other: This is the time of year when it’s fashionable to talk about peace, but when will we all realize that as long as there are two men on this earth and only one is not at peace with himself, so long will he try to provoke a fight with the other? He was saying peace cannot be organized but is an individual attainment. One person wakes up, the world wakes up with him. The rest is beautification of the dream. One wakes up only from a nightmare.

It is only out of deep grief that the desire for unconditional happiness is born. And those who desire that unconditional happiness can learn from the United States and Sweden, which both have the largest national per capita income, and which at the same time show the largest percentage of suicides, drug and alcohol addicts and people admittable to mental institutions. This shows that he who has bet on material well-being and has won it finds he has nothing!
Now you will ask how to escape? Those wanting unconditional happiness — well — tradition, including religion, used to serve a purpose… and it still does. But in those countries where tradition and religion have been reduced to superstition and have been thrown out, their children stand bare-handed under a naked sky and have to start afresh as in the stone-age.

In this sense, St. Paul said: We should serve in the oldness of the letter but in the newness of the spirit. It’s the newness of the spirit which can be rediscovered when we find the inner meaning of tradition and religion incorporated in the collective sub-conscious and popping out in our own personality. In that we can find guidance, because the sages who have rigged up ritual, mythology, mystic literature, tradition and religion knew how to reach us according to our individual temperament and have taken us in the direction of where we really wanted to go in the first place.

So instead of throwing everything overboard, I would advise a re-evaluation of the world’s traditions and religions. If a person feels the need to go beyond the one into which he was born, there’s no necessity to be converted. Ramana said clearly when people expressed the wish to become Hindus: When a Christian says: Yesterday I was a Christian but now I want to be a Hindu, it only means he has understood neither religion.

But is there any progress at all without a spiritually realized guide?
There’s no forcing one’s way into paradise. We have to relax. Ramana summed up his own teaching — the essence of the way to the Self — as the capacity to fall asleep, which ability everyone has. He said: To realize the Self you have to do practically the same as you do when you fall asleep, which everybody is not only eager to do but knows how to do. That is lovingly to take leave of the body, of one’s feelings, of the thinking process, of all hopes of tomorrow and memories of yesterday, and lastly and most important, to take leave of the desire to fall asleep in order to fall asleep.

This is the highway to relaxation; in other words, not to take despair, if ever it should come, seriously. Ramana has also said: Despair and the ego itself is in the Self — there can never be anything out of it! It’s our choice whether to choose the despair that goes with seeing the ego, or shifting the attention to the Self, and experience the ego as a funny accessory… a clown.

The death of Hamsa Johannus de Reade, as described to me in a letter from Ram Alexander, illustrates the perfection, the one-pointed surrender to the Divine Will of a Sadhu at the time of his passing from this earthly life.

"Hamsa became ill and slid into a coma. At this stage a close disciple felt he had no alternative but to rush him to the hospital even though Hamsa had given him instructions never to do this. Upon arrival at the hospital, Hamsa came out of the coma and demanded to be taken back home at once. A bed was prepared on the veranda of the beautiful house he had designed, from where, through the surrounding gardens which had been arranged to command a magnificent view of his beloved Arunachala, he spent his last few days gazing enraptured at the sacred mountain".
(The view can be seen in the background of his photograph).




I leave Hamsa moved and grateful to that Power that drew me to him.

But dear Mr. N. is now even more confused; we are walking away in silence until he remembers to tell me our tea with Mrs. Osborne is cancelled. As we return to the Ashram, someone hands me a note — we have been followed: Don’t leave Tiruvannamalai without seeing Sadhu Om. It’s signed…H. Perhaps a little intrigue is now called for.

There are no Interviews for my last day here so Mr. N. is taking me up the sacred Hill to see Ramana’s early Ashram and he is telling me — at every step — how peaceful it is. I can think of better ways to do this pilgrimage than with a guide.

We see the Ashram — Yes, very lovely. We walk down — Yes, lovely views. We call on the French lady — Yes, only for a minute… She says: Get hold of Kirsti, she will give you a fantastic Interview. I am leaving tomorrow morning and everyone is now telling me about the unofficial list…however, unknown to Mr. N., I am to be taken to see Sadhu Om a little later.

We arrive back in the main Ashram in time for the langar lunch, so I ask Doris Williamson about Kirsti. She is a girl from Finland, and Doris says she can get hold of her later.

At 3.45 I slip out of the Ashram. In a nearby farm-house on the upper floor a young Englishman talks to me about his guru — a direct disciple of Ramana. The guru comes out — humble, aware, sparkling: it is Sadhu Om. One is automatically filled with happiness in the presence of a high being. The mysterious young man who has brought me — H.’s messenger — is asking the Sadhu question after question. The Sadhu is all attentiveness, listens, reflects, smiles. The advice poured out is the advice, the teachings, of his own great guru, but it comes out fresh with tremendous living force. That’s the advantage of the living guru: there is direct, personal contact, however low we are, however lost, however hopeless.

Mr. N. is now seriously unhappy to find I wasn’t in my room as I try to creep in, but when he sees the book I’m carrying — I was able to buy part II of Sadhu Om’s: “The Path of Sri Ramana” — the cat is out of the bag.

I know where you’ve been! — Mr. N. is admonishing me.

What can one do? It’s a difficult moment, I can see it appears that I am being ungrateful for the help I have been offered. Come — I say putting my arm through his — Mrs. Osborne can’t give us tea… right?...but I can.

Smiles: Peace: Friends again.

But Kirsti arrives. She is so Finnish I can’t understand her lovely whispers. She’s sweet and gentle, and she pitches her fascinating Finnish tones so low, I know if I try to record her I won’t be able to use one word. But she is lovely, and Doris did her best, and Mr. N. is now slightly past caring. Nothing to do but smile, so we all smile. We are heading for ecstatic mode again. I love this place.

In the morning, after handing over my donation, I am given old copies of The Mountain Path. And as I leave, here comes Lynn, the Australian interior designer who is still on her way to see her guru, Sai Baba. I tell her I am leaving for Baba’s Ashram right now. Lynn will spend two days here first then we will meet at Baba’s. So goodbye Lynn, see you there soon!



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006