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



Joachim Peters and Uli Steckenreuter

Prasanthi Nilayam

5th February 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

Sir’s Interview surely will make any guru’s secretary triply proud to read. Sir is doing fine. But he still refuses to allow his name to appear, and as for the photograph I have just taken:

No, no, absolutely no!

However, he does have a young Italian lined up for the next round. But with all its lyrical sweetness and sincerity the Interview is flat, muddled and one of those misfires. As an alternative, Sir has two Germans lined-up — but not until tomorrow.

I ask: Can’t we have one Interview from a woman?

A woman? No, certainly not, we would have to get special permission for that.

How special?



Dr. Bhagavanantum still hasn’t returned. Sir is beginning to have second thoughts about his boldness. Why should it get him into any disfavour?

I say: Look, I am prepared to sign a paper saying I have taken these Interviews on the condition that before publication I will submit them to you for approval.

Sir is happy with this and says the transcripts will be returned within a few days.

I have had plenty of experience with Ashram paper-checking, so I suggest that if they are returned within two or three weeks that will be fine with me.

So yet another deal is struck.

In the morning — Baba for some reason hasn’t appeared for the usual darshan — so I am introduced to Joachim, mellow, polite, polished; and Uli, much younger, much jokier and less polished. We laugh a lot about our unofficial Interviewing permissiveness — I presume they usually live quiet, unexcitable lives. As far as they are concerned, they couldn’t care less about checking their Interviews: they know, I suppose, they are going to tell me nothing but positive printable stuff.

I must say, some aspects of The Guru Protection Syndrome one sometimes meets in Ashrams can be tiresome. I had, however, to come all the way here to Puttaparthi though to hear about a scandalous book recently published about Sathya Sai Baba, so I do see that poor Sir is right to be cautious. (And little did I imagine that this was but the start of much controvertial speculation as to Baba’s sexual activities). In spite of this, couldn’t someone in an official position take responsibility in Dr. Bhagavantum’s absence and come up with a decision and deal with my Interview requests?I need only to be told Yes or No.

In the afternoon darshan, Baba floats past me again — he is very loving with old people in wheel chairs. Occasionally, he stops and allows someone to say a few words to him.

At the end of Baba’s perambulation, I see coming towards me Lynn, the intrepid Australian interior designer I first met at the Aurobindo Ashram several days ago, or was it at the Theosophical Society? – she has finally made it to see her guru at his own Ashram, but not by the shortest route having called at many other Ashrams on the way here.

She waves when she catches sight of me, but here in these Ashram grounds we cannot speak to each other let alone go to each other’s rooms. I need to talk to someone, to get another perspective on what might be going on – but Lynn is a woman!

She whispers as we pass: Meet me in the X Café in half an hour.

What? – I think to myself – go out of the Ashram precincts? Such temptations! Of course I do understand the whole idea of such restrictions...if you go to any Ashram to see your guru why even think about going outside? But in this case nothing else can be done.

We meet. We see others unlawfully talking, smoking, tea-drinking — I can’t see any other vices; they too have sneaked out.

Lynn’s first question: Aren’t you by this time sick of all these Holy Ashrams? She doesn’t wait for a reply — I can’t bear them -- I love Baba -- but this Ashram! She says no more.

We have tea. She tells me that she is taking a taxi in two days back to Bangalore. That fits my plans as I have a berth booked on the night train so I must also get back to Bangalore.

So yet another deal is struck…we will share the taxi no matter what happens, permissions or no permissions!

Like conspirators a bit too pleased with ourselves, we sneak back into the Ashram, carefully staggering our arrival.

Dr. Bhagavantum has still not returned... But it’s now time for the German Interview.



Interview 38

As you both wish to give the Interview together, let’s start with Joachim as you are older, right?
JOACHIM: Uli is like my son. We are both from Germany. I am 52 years old, but when I was 24 I had a strange spiritual experience — it suddenly happened although I didn’t know about these things. I fell down unconscious one afternoon and was in an ocean of light. In this light slowly a figure appeared and I knew it as a divine being; first I saw it from the backside, turning; the face was brown and the eyes made me afraid. I thought it was Jesus but couldn’t understand why he had a dark complexion. From then I knew there were other levels of consciousness, and I started reading much about spiritual things. That went for some years together with my professional life.

Can you say what it was?
I was an actor. In 1972 I decided to stop the reading and go to India for a guru, a divine incarnation. I came to Sai Baba almost immediately and I had the feeling: I have found my guru. So quick! After a few nights I had a dream — I didn’t know then that when one dreams about Baba, Baba really appears; he says nobody can dream about him if he doesn’t want it. In this dream I sat on a prayer mat, Baba stood beside me and gave me something to drink — it was tasteless — then we both went up to the sky like two flames merging in a cloud of bliss and love and incredible joy. In the morning I was told that the day before was a special day, and in former years Baba distributed amrit but this year he didn’t. I didn’t grasp the dream properly nor the meaning of the drink although I was told it was the nectar of immortality.

A week later I had my first Interview with Sai Baba — it was with a group. He materialized things and was all love; he asked if I had any questions, so I said: Yes, one. He said: You want to talk? Come. And he took me behind a curtain, and there he turned completely into the Divine Mother full of sweetness. I didn’t have to narrate my dream, he knew — he said: No birth again! I couldn’t grasp it still. He repeated: No birth again — moksha, liberation. I was so happy I started weeping. I felt Baba had taken loads of karma off my shoulders. I was a changed being.

Did you have to go back to Germany?
I went after a few weeks. But Baba was with me. I wasn’t able to get work but was in a blissful state. Then every year for eight years he brought me back, coming, changing, changing my character. Sometimes he gave me some “treatments” — he never looked at me for half a year, but the very moment I was back in Germany I was brimful of bliss so that I would know the Baba in the body was part of the Baba in the heart; and he filled me completely. Now this last year Baba has told me not to go back, to stay permanently. I hope I will become less and less and merge in him like those two flames in the dream.

When you said your character changed what did you mean?
I was a chain smoker, drinking alcohol, with many love stories, and I was eating meat.

Can you now give an account of Sai Baba’s teachings?
He says in the end there is nothing but God. He puts stress on thinking good, seeing good, speaking good, doing good. He says we should do sadhana and sadhana and sadhana, but I have the feeling it is Baba who does the sadhana for us — he is working from day to night on us. He changes and shapes us inside by dreams and so on.

He pays your karmic debts?
He destroys them. Once we were all singing bhajans on Maha Shivaratri; at sunrise he came into the hall, delivered his discourse, but this single sentence remains in my mind: “This night I have taken sins from you.” He washes away much dirt. Many people here get diseases and we are never bothered about it as we see it as a form of purification. Should he wish it he can take it all away. I used to think I knew Baba — now I know nothing — yes, I know he is love incarnate. He is always caring for us. When I had to look for a place to stay here last year I was walking in a street and a man on a motorcycle asked me: Do you want a flat? I saw it was a newly built house so I rented it immediately. Just like that.

How do you spend your time? Do you do any seva?
No. I used to read like a rat; this habit has stopped. Baba makes one think of him 24 hours a day — I am always busy with Baba, busy being quiet, listening to the heart, to the peace, to the bliss. That’s the occupation one can see from the outside. Oh, I should tell you that the vision I had when I was 24 - when I lost consciousness - was Baba: he himself told me so.

Now should we hear what Uli has to tell us?
ULI: I am 27 now. After school I didn’t know what to do so I ended up in the police force in Germany. After two years I was sick of the discipline and having read Herman Hesse, I said: Enough! Let me go to India — just like that. I was 18 and didn’t know about saints but after five days in India I ended up with a saint — the teacher of Ram Dass, Neem Karoli Baba. I stayed with him for two months; I didn’t do any sadhana but he changed my whole life. I didn’t even have any devotion for him. I just went because I had met someone who said: Let’s go there, he is nice and we can eat free. I had an incredible experience there. I never spoke to him — rather he never spoke to me except after six weeks.

He said: What’s your name?

I said: Uli.

He said: Cooli? Ah, work!

That was the only conversation I had with him. But he was working on me on subtle levels. He understood what was in my mind, what I wanted — there was some communication there. But at that time I didn’t know who he was. Through my cultural background I was very narrowed in. He just opened me up. I then spent time in America, sort of free life, but I met some Sai Baba devotees whom I liked.

When I came back to Germany I met more Baba devotees, and as Neem Karoli Baba had died, I decided I should come to India again. But first I saw other saints, then came to see Baba. At the first meeting he just looked into my eyes and I knew he was the highest being I had met. (I had been with about ten saints.) But he never talked to me, like Neem Karoli Baba. He manifested lockets for others but ignored me.

Eventually, he asked my name, and when I told him, he said: Cooli? Ah, work!

I stayed with him four months and that was the only conversation I had with him. No, I remember I did have one other — the summer course was going on and everybody had to have a badge to get in. There were a few without badges — I was one — so we couldn’t get in; we were sitting outside waiting for Baba to arrive and help us.

He came, looked at us, told someone: Give him a badge, him, him, and so on— but again he ignored me. He was so godlike, I was so shy, I could never approach him, but he lingered as if to let me know that if I wanted to speak, speak! All I could say was: Summer course! He said: Achha? As if to say — oh, you can talk, but also at the same time it was like an embrace.

You mean he never gave you a badge?
No! I had to stay outside. You just can’t get in without one. Anyway, I had to go back to Germany, but after three months I was back again. Again he completely ignored me. Then I started thinking: I need another guru, I need a guru who talks to me, I need a guru I can relate to — this is nothing! I even remember once he was driving by in his car; to the person left of me, to the person right of me he smiled and waved, and he didn’t even see me. What’s wrong with me, what’s wrong with me?

Then I was very sick, stomach trouble and depressed, and about to leave and look for another saint. I was sitting at darshan really down physically and mentally: Baba came out but I thought: Well, you are God — I can’t go to a doctor because you can cure me if you want to in an instant.

He looked at me — in the area of my stomach — and said: Go in! and he gave me an Interview.

From then on for a year he gave me so much attention, talked to me, made me feel I was close to him. He made me this locket I wear — even the chain, at that first Interview, and said:

You have pain — I’ll take it away — you want to talk to me this evening?

I was so happy, but all day long I was also confused by this sudden love. In the evening he said: How are you now?

I said: A little confused. Confused?

He said, if you are confused I won’t talk to you.

He started to walk away.

I yelled out: It’s much better now, so he came back saying:

Don’t be confused, be happy!

From then on he has given me many Interviews and made me this special ring.

JOACHIM: You should tell how he wanted to get you married.

ULI: Baba was marrying an American couple, blessed them, made them rings and showered them with rice — brown rice — coming out of his fingers. After he had given them a talk on what marriage means, he turned to me saying: Now you are going to get married. I cried: Baba, no, no! I don’t want to get married — I really don’t want to. He said: I am going to marry you to God!

You must have many other illustrations of Baba’s sense of humour.

JOACHIM: There was a thread ceremony; on the platform three or four pandits were reciting mantras, but Baba was walking up and down spraying from his finger tips flower petals and such things. The pandits became excited and called out: Shiva, Shiva! And Baba turned round and asked: Yes?

Baba has been wearing his special curly hair-style, and some people get a shock when they see it for the first time. Two Westerners were talking about it saying you have to be careful with such a style not to get lice. Some days later they had an Interview with Baba, who said as he bent his head: You have to be careful with such hair — it’s so easy to get lice. And there they could see innumerable small snakes.

ULI: Oh, do you remember when two brothers were talking about Baba actually wearing a wig? That evening at darshan, as he passed them he tugged at his hair and then went on. And when on another occasion he took out a white handkerchief as he passed someone, rubbed it very hard against his lips and showed it to the person without any mark on it. That man told me later that he had actually been telling his friend that Baba uses lipstick. He does these funny things but they always have significance.

JOACHIM: Once Baba said that Krishna wore his hair like he does, but with a cloth round it. He put a towel on his head like a turban to show us, then he waved his hand and produced a huge emerald — about the size of a small egg — saying: This stone belonged to Krishna’s grandmother. He placed it on the turban and then handed it around so that we could all see it. Then taking it back he said: I have to send it back, it is part of the crown Jewels and the guard will get in trouble if someone notices that it is missing. It disappeared from his hand, just like that.

Have any of these objects been verified?
JOACHIM: There is a good example in Howard Murphet’s book about Baba. A New York gentleman was over here and Baba materialized an expensive piece of jewelry which had a shop label and price tag on it. He gave it to the man who on his return to New York immediately went to the shop on Fifth Avenue. He showed the piece of jewelry and asked if the record of sale could be shown to him. Surely enough it could be traced, and the assistant said: I can never forget the man who bought it — he had his hair sticking out in all directions and was wearing a red robe and he paid cash. The date of sale was the same as the day Baba had given the piece to him.

I suppose Baba manifests objects to teach you something.
ULI: Ach, all the time. Baba made a ring appear. He showed it to someone and asked: What kind of ring is this?

He said: It is gold with an emerald. This was confirmed by other people there.

Then Baba took it back, blew on it — phuur! Showed it to everyone, and they all said:

Oh, it’s now silver with a diamond!

He did this several times — blowing and showing — and the ring had changed every time.

Then Baba said: See, Baba can change any material in the universe into another, but to change one of you Westerners is very hard.


Before I go to my barren room for the night, Sir takes me to meet the English woman who was a music teacher in London but who now lives at the Ashram teaching bhajans to the many Westerners who come here. She agrees to an Interview but, again, not until there has been official permission. Dr. Bhagavantum is still not back. I go to sleep.

This is now my last day. Nothing more to do but wait. There are hundreds of Westerners staying here, some have been here for years, some own apartments, but what is the use even trying to talk to them without permission? Sir is still sure all will work out, and even if the respected doctor does not arrive this evening something will make me stay on. I keep telling him I have to take tomorrow night’s train for the Ashram of Swami Ramdas in Kerala.

Baba has been away all day, so no morning darshan. When he comes back in the late afternoon, I decide it’s my turn to be bold: I walk right into Baba’s private house. Of course, I don’t get far: an elderly pandit-doctor stops me. I explain I have been here three days, must leave tomorrow and all I want to know is Yes or No about the Interviews — and if I can take one from a woman disciple?

He says Dr. Bhagavantum is the only person who can go in and ask such a question.

Yes, yes, I do know that, but can no one else help me? When you pour out your heart to an Indian he always responds.

He says: Dr. Bhagavantum will surely come back tonight!

I reply: It will be too late.

The learned pandit then says: There is only one thing left — you go across the road, over there, to the post office, and send Baba a personal telegramme stating the case: he must open that himself! With a wave of his hand he points the direction.

This at least is better than just sitting about waiting; Baba said he would see me later — it is getting very late. I find the tiny P.O. hardly a minute’s walk away, take a telegramme form from the postmaster, and ask:

Is it possible to have it delivered to Baba before the evening darshan?

Lovely smile from the postmaster: It will be delivered by me -- me personally!

I write, pay, bow, and leave, now totally enchanted with the situation.


Baba will surely say something to me when he comes out for his evening darshan walk. It’s time to get in line. We all sit waiting in neat, long lines. The discipline is extraordinary, as is the silence and patience of this huge congregation. There is an air of restless anticipation.

Baba is one hour late — he must have received the telegramme! But I am now in such a euphoric state I can’t understand if it’s because of the comic-opera situation with the possibility of the baritone rushing up to the tenor-hero in the last act with a telegramme proving that the much abused rival who is about to be banished is his long-lost brother…

Or could it be some supernatural resignation and bliss that has descended?

Baba is here, there’s a ripple of loving anticipation as he moves slowly towards where I am standing. The devotees are pranaming, ecstatic. I have the note in my hand, but I can’t hand it to him: I am filled with a tremendous happiness — I am laughing inside -- I only hope it doesn’t show outside. During these solemn moments it is not only important to observe propriety, but to be seen observing it.

Baba glides past.

All is as it should be. The note is still in my hand. The comic-opera won’t have a hammy ending: the rejected one, of his own accord, will retreat without causing more trouble, resigned to his wandering fate, but happy to find the faithful Australian soprano waiting ready to mount the taxi with him.

And so Lynn and I bid farewell to this colourful Wonderland of bitter-sweet conundrums. We drive away into the morning sunrise.

Several hundred books have been written about Sathya Sai Baba since, at the age of 14, he declared himself the Avatar of the age – a living god. His powerful mystic projection and ability to perform countless miracles has dazzled and attracted an estimated 30 million devotees from 165 countries whose devotion and donations are responsible for the building of schools, universities, temples, and a modern 500-room hospital, the finest in the whole of India.

He has undoubtedly the largest following of any modern-day Indian saint, but he is also the most controvertial. Allegations over many years of “miracle trickery” and more seriously, of sexual abuse and harrassment, allegations not only made in print (the first book appeared back in 1976 by Tal Brooke called Avatar of Night) but during a one hour BBC TV documentary called, The Secret Swami, in 2004. In no way does this seem to have lessened his magnetic spell-binding hold on the vast majority of the faithful who see him as “An ocean of love only capable of doing good.”

At 80, Baba concentrates on delivering his spiritual teachings which follow the timeless, classic Hindu tradition. Storms pass. By his own estimate, he still has many years to go. One can’t help remembering the power and reverence the ancient Greek gods commanded in spite of their well-known nefarious activities! Who can claim to even begin to understand the Leela - the divine play - of such Beings?



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006