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




Prasanthi Nilayam

4th February 1981



Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

The bus has broken down so who knows if I will catch up with Lynn? I am standing by the road in the middle of nowhere — can it be a desert? There are kindly directions:
Just wait for any bus going this way, change at the next village, ask for the direct bus to Bangalore, you can’t go wrong.

Night-fall and I am finally limping into Bangalore having squeezed myself into a series of local buses. I am to stay with old friends here: Raj is a brigadier so their house in the cantonment is imposing with military status; Sarla is the daughter of Bhadra Sena whom I have known and revered from the moment I first set foot in India.

The imposing house is alarmingly draped in darkness until I see a brightly lit car moving down the landscaped drive. Raj and Sarla are going to a party; even brigadiers have to do these things: Sorry - yes - I am four hours late.

They pull me into the car, not in the slightest put out, reverse, switch on twenty lights, show me my room, order hot water, and again into the Bangalore darkness they disappear.

This isn’t an Ashram so I sleep well — too well — for in the morning Raj has already done his research. The necessary Sai Baba information I need is ready; there is no point going all the way to Baba’s Ashram to find he is out of town. And should this be the case, all his Western devotees will be with him. No Interviews will be possible.

But Baba IS in Puttaparthi, his birthplace and where his main Ashram has been built engulfing his whole village and indeed the surrounding area. It is 180 kms by road from Bangalore, a journey which I do by direct bus. Practically everyone on the crowded vehicle is a Baba devotee — all shapes and ages, all joyous and carefree, all wide-eyed in anticipation of Baba’s blessings and darshan. Cocooned in a whirl of blissful expectancy, they are off on a sacred pilgrimage their hearts over-flowing with devotion. There is singing of bhajans, chanting, repetition of mantras. Some of the older devotees indulge in light-hearted banter. Sweetmeats are passed round. Everyone is basking in their good fortune to be on their way to see their beloved Baba. Even the driver surrounded by his own collection of Baba photographs is not just a hired guy doing a job, he takes part in the chanting and the good-natured banter; he is very much part of this roller-coaster of travelling bliss.

After five bumpy hours – will I ever get used to this? -- we are approaching a stage-set dream city sprung up in a quasi-desert. Everything is sparkling pink, vibrant blue, sunflower yellow. At sunset this mirage of Mediterranean colour is hedonistically Daliesque. As I tumble out of the bus someone points out the colleges, hospitals, huge blocks of accommodation for the devotees, the temples, student hostels, the bank, Baba’s house, Baba’s gardens. There’s an enormous open space where Baba gives his walking darshans twice a day. The Ashram even has its own post office; this, though, I only discover later.

Everyone has rushed from the bus to the accommodation office where two unrushable clerks are doling out keys for rooms.

I explain my mission.

Yes — just fill out the forms read the instructions don’t leave the Ashram until your visit is up and you have to share a room.

Err…Right…but don’t you have a single room?

That will be extra.

Right, thank you.

But another thing don’t eat outside the Ashram get your meal tickets at the other office pay in advance now.

Right…yes…but can you tell me who to approach about the Interviews?

Pause. See the American gentleman in room C-629 he will know.

And he does. He has been in the Ashram some years, knows who is talkable to and who isn’t, and I can’t help seeing he has an alarming number of mattresses piled up in his room. Picking one up, he then guides me to my room which is large and newly built and has nothing in it but four walls, a floor and a ceiling. This really is simple living. He throws down the mattress — all for me? — and gets down to business: he can arrange for me to meet several resident Westerners, but no Interviews can be given without permission from Dr. Bhagavantum, Baba’s secretary. But — he says casually -- he left the Ashram this morning for a day or two, or maybe three!

I ask: But if such an important person is away there must be a deputy secretary one can approach?

Of course not!

Deadlock. Then brainwave from new friend — (I can’t give his name because he eventually gave the first Interview himself on this condition, as well as several other conditions, so I now call him Sir, which does not displease him).

The brainwave -- Sir says: You ask Baba yourself for permission when he comes out for his darshan later on.

Yes. Great. Wonderful.

Sir helps me write a note which I am to pass to Baba should Baba wish to accept it — well — what can I do but hold it out and try? The note requests his blessing for the book and permission to Interview a few of his Western disciples.


Baba is beginning his slow-walk-progress along the segregated lines of breathless, expectant disciples. The discipline here is extraordinary; there is no pushing. (Males and females are much separated here — they don’t even eat together in the huge hangar-like canteens). Baba is wearing a cerise kaftan in heavy silk. He is slightly built but his Afro/American hair style adds inches to his height.

He moves serenely like a floating lotus through a pond of bulrushes. He is smiling and gracious and is actually taking my note.

Sir gasps with delight.

Baba says: I’ll see you later.

Baba is all sweetness. He floats on.

In response to a devotee’s plea for something or other, he stops, and makes a circular movement with his out-stretched hand which is turned downward. From his fingers, and right in front of my eyes, fine powdered ash falls into the open palms of the blissed-out devotee. Baba smiles at me again and moves on. It is one of those mini-miracle manifestations long associated with Sathya Sai Baba. He doesn’t repeat this throughout the rest of his fifteen-minute perambulation, although thousands of open palms are silently, imploringly held up to him as he passes.

Did you see that? — Sir later yells blissed-out himself — he did that specially for you!

I’m trying to be practical, so ask: What will happen now?

You’ll see — he knows everything…he didn’t have to read the note: He knew!

Quite, but — I can’t help being practical — when can we start the Interviews? And what did he mean when he said he would see me later? After many interpretations, we decide it’s safer to wait and see.

But how late is later?

After four hours excruciating waiting and not altogether convinced that good Sir is correctly interpreting the Divine Will, Sir has proposed another plan: I am to hand Baba a further note during his morning darshan. I’m ready to try anything, but all I need to be told quite simply and plainly is Yes, or No!

Baba this time walks unsmiling right past me: he ignores the note, he doesn’t even perform one tiny mini-miracle anywhere near me. Have I done something wrong? But optimistic Sir is telling me everything’s just fine and Baba knows all and all I have to do is hand Baba during his afternoon darshan… Not another note?

Yes, why not?

Well… at last Sir gets the message; he is thinking deep, real deep. Dr. Bhagavantum never returned, may never return, and here we are offering notes but apparently getting nowhere.

Sir now has a new plan…he is not the sort of person who will let a friend down. He makes yet more conditions — after all, living in any Ashram calls for noble sacrifice — then off we dash to his room before he changes his mind: he has offered himself as the first victim - he will give the first Interview and THEN get permission.

Breathless we reach the room not daring to glance at each other, not daring to think what such boldness may bring.



Interview 37

I was born on the East coast of the U.S.A. At the age of thirteen I joined the local church. At that time I was under the impression that a person was a body, your parents had produced you, and that you were lucky you were not born a human-cabbage. I had no personal experience of the Soul. Earlier, when I was about 9, a friend of the family developed mental trouble, so my mother took up psychology to try to understand why — this was at night college. After the class she would come home and tell me what her professor said. I ended up with an education in psychology from about the age of 9 to 15. But when I later studied psychology at college I found that in fact it was nothing like my mother had presented because she had screened out information she didn’t think valid. Anyway, I soon found that this subject was a waste of my time as no two psychologists seemed able to agree. Each had his own brand of psychology. It was a subject of endless debate.

So I went into higher mathematics and the sciences, in this I could do well. I finally decided I’d better study finance because in that way at least I would have money. But at the same time I became interested in hypnosis thinking I would be able to help people understand the mind. One day a psychiatrist who was a hypnotist asked me why I was interested in hypnosis. I said: I want to help people. He said: Don’t tell me that — no one wants to help people! I was disillusioned with that.

All this was while you were at University?
Oh yes. That all happened twenty years ago. But after four years of it I went to England to visit a distant relation who was studying a new kind of psychology; I was very impressed because all the people involved agreed on certain basic spiritual tenets. It offered some hope. For some years I had many ailments. Any ailment coming along, I would get. I always carried pills with me. I started studying in this new college, testing each piece of data that came my way. My idea was to become self-sufficient. Then I found my health improving, and I became aware that the body, the mind and the soul are different. I experienced this. After five years studying these therapies I left to work on my own spiritual evolution.

But I was soon asking people: Do you know of anybody who manifests spiritual abilities today as Jesus did in His day, who has the same character as Jesus and is performing miracles? Many names were offered but they were quickly disqualified by human weakness.

Finally, someone told me about Sai Baba. I was able to read a book about him. Then that night in meditation a light came. So I wrote to Swami — I call Sai Baba Swami, it means someone who is aware of his higher nature — and as I was writing, my body became warm and a high feeling of love descended. I asked if I could come to visit him in India.

Afterwards, during meditation, a blue light came into the room, a light on another dimension: my attention and that light took the same space and became one. This continued for some time and I was able to re-experience that light regularly in my meditations. After six months I knew that Swami and the light were one and the same. That was over eight years ago and I am still doing the same form of meditation.

Did Swami answer your letter?
I got the reply this way. I met a man — I began to go to a bhajan group in London — and almost the first thing he said was: Do you have a passport? You must go to see Sai Baba, I am going in two weeks, I will meet you in India. Don’t worry about money. If you can’t arrange it, I will. He helped me with my plane ticket and I took this as evidence of an invitation from Swami. I arrived two weeks later; that man kept his promise. He met me, helped me and even gave me some money. I first saw Swami in Bangalore — he just smiled at me then — but two weeks later here at the Ashram when he came out for darshan, he said to me: Go! I thought: Oh my gosh! He’s looked into my past, seen my imperfections and he’s sending me away. I was very upset. He looked at me, I turned black. Then he said: Go inside! And I realized he was calling me in for an Interview.

Inside, he told me things about my past nobody could have known, then started treating a nerve in my leg which had been injured years before. He actually materialized some oil and rubbed it on the exact nerve. Then he told me he loved me. I wasn’t sure what that meant, coming from London where some consider it quite normal to have unusual relationships, and there he was with bushy hair and a red dress on. But I have found over the years that Swami is in no way sexual — he is beyond sex. I was happy about this because one of my spiritual awarenesses was that people like Jesus are not sexual. All the great teachers were wrapped up in love but not wrapped up in sexuality. Nor were they grabbing after money. I had come across many people involved in spiritualism and mediumship able to do unexplainable materializations.

You had witnessed that sort of thing?
There are cases of whole trees appearing in a room with the door locked and the man tied to his chair. Anyone can see, touch and photograph these things. But all these people have character failings. They feel self-important or they are interested in money or they can’t do miracles all the time, and when they can, they are weak for days. They often are heavy smokers or drinkers or sexual deviates. Being near Sai Baba I saw he is able to do miracles ten times a day or more without the slightest sign of effort. I remember hearing his first discourse — he showered so much love that I thought he won’t be able to do anything for a week! And in fact I retired to my room to meditate and benefit from this uplifting experience.

Three days later when I came out I was told Swami had been asking for me but no one knew where I was; he had called everyone in the day after the discourse, and materialized all kinds of things. I felt like a real dog at that point. Maybe once in a year he asks specifically for a new person by name. But it proved to me that he is not in any way a normal psychic who had marshaled some power to be used now and then. Swami has constant power. There is no limit. He does seem limited in this sense — he says: I cannot do anything wrong. I can do no action that will cause pain or injury to others. Of course, he doesn’t always give everybody what they ask for — over the years you have to work for the right.

How long did you stay that time?
A year. I had little money so I didn’t want to go, thinking I might not be able to return. I had come here for something not physical. I looked at it this way: we are dealing with an entity who has the power to know what we are doing in another country and gives us what we need over there — there are so many instances of this. How much more can we benefit by being here?

Can you give an example?
One man was trapped in an elevator shaft in a burning building. He didn’t believe that Swami is all-powerful Divinity. He had studied different religions and began praying to all the gods. Finally, he had to lie down in the elevator floor as smoke was filling the place. He suddenly thought of Sai Baba, called his name, and immediately the elevator moved, reached the next floor, and he was pulled out. He asked: How did you know I was down there? They said: Some man told us. But when they checked, nobody could have known. He then came over to see Sai Baba who said: I’ve seen you before. The man replied: No, no! This is the first time — I’ve never been here before. Then Swami said: “I saved you in an elevator shaft.” This sort of thing happens over and over. Personally, I wasn’t after a material gift — I had a few remaining ailments, but they didn’t bother me. I felt that if one honours He who is in command of the physical then He will care for you. One need only ask to be like the Divinity wants you to be.

Did you actually ask Swami for anything?
I once handed him a note about this very thing: without reading it he placed it on a chair, and as there were about six of us, he asked them all what they wanted. When he came to me he didn’t ask — he said: You want only God, materialized some ash and rubbed it on my chest. He hadn’t read the note, but that is more or less what I had written. He showed me many times he knew what I was thinking, and he would give me what was right for me, I never had to ask. Through meditation I knew one could gain strengths of various kinds but my problem was having the wisdom to use the available power for the benefit of others in an appropriate way. So what I really wanted was the gift of insight into doing the right thing at the right time.

He told me three things to do, right? He told me: Don’t go outside the Ashram, don’t talk too much, don’t mix with the other people here. They are going all different ways. A few days later Swami came up to me and said: You are going outside, stay inside. And again later on he said: You are talking too much, stop talking. Then another time he saw me and said: You are mixing with people, keep to yourself. About three months later he called me inside and talked to me privately, and he said: what did I tell you? You disobeyed and now you are sick — what did the doctor say was wrong with you? It was hepatitis. So he gave me a fruit juice diet with fat-free yogurt mixed with water and salt. He said that was to go on for some days, but I found `some days’ went on for three months. I could eat no solids. He didn’t call me in for seven months; I felt I had committed a grave sin. Well, I had been praying for someone on a high spiritual level to tell me what to do; after showing me that he was on a high spiritual level he told me what to do and I disobeyed.

How did you support yourself in those days?
Yes, well, I had to go back to U.S. I worked so as to save money to come back. Then I was allowed to come for the summer school in 1978. It is usually held yearly for thirty days, and each day there are about five lectures by noted scholars in different fields, or people who have had high spiritual experiences. They discuss world spirituality and Indian culture and how all religions stem from one basic truth. In the evenings Swami gives his talk for about an hour; this is translated into English. Each summer school is on a different topic. For instance once Swami took the Bhagavad Gita, each day he covered a different aspect of the Gita and actually quoted the original, word for word, as Krishna gave it. The great thing about summer schools is having the opportunity to have Sathya Sai Baba seated before one for two or three hours every day. This doesn’t happen any other time of the year.

Are they organized on an international level, and are there any fees to be paid?
An interesting question. No fees are charged. Those permitted to come are usually given board and lodging. It is mainly for Indian college students. They are selected from all over India through Sathya Sai Baba organizations on a meritorious basis — it’s strict, not on who-likes-who lines. Westerners are sometimes permitted to come through the Sai organizations which are established all over the world.

What happened after that? Did you stay on?
I stayed only three months; Swami didn’t pay any physical attention to me then. My plan was to return in a year or two, but events happened which caused me to come back only three months later. That time Swami called me in about eight times within the first few days because I was helping with some video filming. The American who had brought over the equipment arrived late at night and demanded tea; everything was closed so I took him outside to the only place I knew that was open — I had no intention of taking anything. He wouldn’t hear of that and insisted that I order something. Two days later at an Interview, Swami pointed at me and told the others: He still eats outside! This was three years after he had first given me those instructions. I considered it an interesting level of omniscience.

Has Swami given out what his mission is?
Oh yes. He says that his mission in this life-time is not to create a large number of secluded ascetics living in the hills; on the contrary, he wants his followers to live in society but at the same time to keep their attention on the spiritual aspect. This is to quietly set a positive example to society and help it to turn away from all violence and immorality. He also says he has come to start the Golden Age, and that there is no doubt that it will reoccur. Swami in his last life was Shirdi Baba who told his devotees that he would take his next birth here in this State.

When Swami was only 13 he announced who he was; he grew up in this village, Puttaparthi, and that is the reason there is so much power here, it being close to where he came to Earth in this incarnation. He has also announced that he will live to be 94 in this life. He has even materialized a picture of himself in his next birth — he looks like one of the Christian Fathers. He says he will be called Prema Sai Baba — Prema Sai Baba — Prema means love. Sathya means truth, and Sai Baba means divine father. He has said about his mission that it is to revitalize the truth which is at the heart of all religions. He says he is not advocating a socialism where everybody is given equal, because he explains that not everyone can receive equally until they have earned an equal amount of good traits. He teaches that those who have an exceptional share of good qualities and therefore attract good fortune must reach out and provide, in a positive way, help to those having less. He gives various formulae for living a decent life. He says things like: Money comes and goes, morality comes and grows.

Did Swami continue chastising you if you did wrong?
Oh, yes. But he stopped telling me with words. He used signals. Whenever I had done something peculiar he would look at me in a peculiar way. Then came the day when he gave me a very peculiar look; I reflected and realized I had started something new he didn’t approve. I quickly cut that. He gave me an identical look a month later, so I knew I had to cut that same thing again as it was creeping back. All this happened as he walked by giving his darshan. There are some people who claim that Swami is an avatar — a full Avatar. Now this means he is the complete manifestation of the unmanifest in human form. Well, gosh, I don’t know any way to test that! I can’t evaluate it, but I can say he has proved to me to have compassion, love and omniscience beyond that of any being I have come across. I feel that he is an Avatar. But who can prove it?

Has he not refered to himself as the Avatar of the age?
I’ve heard several things; he was once talking to some Christians and said he was the figure mentioned in Revelation — I looked it up, its Revelation 19 — It says his name will be Truth, and Sathya means that. It said he would have a blood red robe, he does wear a blood red robe. It said he would have a crown of many diadems, and he pointed to his crown of hair. It said he would be on a white horse, well, he always rides in a white car driven by horse power. It said he would have a sword in his mouth to smite evil, and he says that is the sword of truth and that he is salvaging humanity from the grip of evil.

This morning during his darshan he stopped in front of us to manifest ash for a devotee. Has he explained why he does this?
He says he does these things not to show that he can do them but to show us that it is possible for these things to happen. A friend of mine who was a New York stockbroker came over; he said all his life he had struggled to acquire valuable objects. What did Swami do when he saw him? He manifested handfuls of gems and then threw them into a hole being prepared for the foundation of a new building. My friend saw the things he had worked hard to acquire created and being thrown into a pit as if they were unimportant. This changed his life; he went home, got rid of the things he had been grabbing and changed his values. Now this was not due to Sai Baba talking to him, lecturing him; it was because he was shaken by seeing things he had considered precious thrown into a pit. All of Sai Baba’s miracles are for our spiritual advancement.

I take it that you are now living at the Ashram on permanent basis.
No one can be sure that he is permanently here. I certainly enjoy it here. I have no interest in being anywhere else. It took me a number of years to progress from a stage of having no faith to suddenly experiencing God. Scientists come to see Swami and say: we have to accept that there are other laws governing this entity. The greatest miracle to me is that he is so available to the people — he says in fact that it has never happened like this before in history. He says that his every action is for our benefit.

Over the years there has been quite a lot of controversy in the press about Swami. How did this start?
That’s an interesting point. I’ll do my best to answer this, in an unofficial capacity of course. I happened to be here in 1976 when a national newspaper was publishing unusual stories about Swami. Some professors had gotten together in order to prove or disprove that Swami could perform miracles. The test was published many weeks in a row: it was for Swami to come out in public to be photographed materializing a large pumpkin - the idea being that he couldn’t hide such an object inside his robe.

After several weeks of these articles, the editor of the newspaper came personally to see Swami. Swami’s spokesman told me what follows: he [the spokesman] went in to tell Swami, intending to get permission to have the editor shown off the premises. Swami said: No, no! Show him in. He was allowed in and Swami told him about his past life and then manifested a ring for him — all this actually appeared in the next issues of the paper.

But when he left, Swami’s spokesman returned to ask why so much kindness had been shown to a man who had been so unkind. Swami’s reply was: You treat people differently, I treat everyone the same. A little later another devotee asked Swami: why is it you allow untruths to be published about you — you could easily stop it. Swami said: It is this way. Some people read nothing but negative press reports, scandals and rumours. They read about me only because my name is printed in these columns, but sooner or later someone prints the truth about me which they also read; this is the chance they have for spiritual salvation which otherwise they would not have. So even these publications do some good service to mankind.

Is Swami often challenged by skeptics?
Once he said in a discourse: When Rama came to earth as an avatar he built a bridge to Sri Lanka for his army to cross. Later when Krishna came he lifted a mountain with his small finger to protect the people. No one said that Rama was not an avatar because he didn’t lift a mountain, and no one said that Krishna had nothing to do with God because he didn’t build a bridge to Lanka. But in all the history of avatars, never has there been an interest expressed by anyone in the avatar materializing common vegetables. In my day, I will support whole mountain ranges. My actions are to show there is an ultimate beyond the physical so that people may turn towards God. God however, does not accept challenges for mere publicity.

The very young Sathya Sai Baba


Previous   Next
© Malcolm Tillis 2006