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



Chitrakara Das Adhikary

Hare Krishna Land

10th February 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

From Bombay airport I take a taxi, and in ten minutes arrive at the Hare Krishna Temple. I book a room at the super de luxe hotel attached to the Temple. The service here is a model of perfection; I soon meet the project manager who is Swiss and a disciple of Srila Prabhupad. He is busy, much in demand, but is keen to know about the Interviews I have already taken and agrees to ask the President of the Temple if he will give one. The President, who is an American, is also busy but can fit in half an hour at 8 this evening.

Meanwhile, my new Swiss friend is telling me about his own life, and I stop him and ask: Look, why don’t you also give an Interview?

No, no! I am not important…

But he is because he is full of humility and not at all like a businessman even though I can see he is very much at home behind an executive desk in a sparkling well-equipped office.

I tell him I haven’t met anyone from his country in India except my friend Swami Jnanananda who left Switzerland nearly thirty years ago and lives near me in the foothills of the Himalayas.

He then agrees, not because of this, but because he feels it important to represent all walks of life, all backgrounds, all callings.



Interview 40

I was born and raised in Switzerland in a small village. My father is an executive of a mill. Later on I went to college, studied the arts, but before I decided on which profession to take up, I shifted to another school — the Arts School of Zurich — and took photography and film-making for three years. After I graduated there, the school itself employed me, so I was able to work in the Art Museum of Zurich which was attached to the school. After one year I started travelling, and it was about nine or ten years ago I first came to India — I was 21 then. I was looking for some ideals in life. Even in my Zurich days I had come into contact with Eastern philosophy, mostly Taoism, and I read several books on it. I had even taken some yoga lessons and I had more or less given up meat-eating. When I arrived in Delhi I decided to go from village to village on a tour, and for that purpose I purchased a bicycle.

That’s a very original way to see the country. How far did you get?
I wanted to see the villages on my way to Bombay — that’s about 1,000 miles away — but I never made it. It took me almost a day just to get out of Old Delhi… there were no road signs. After ten days of cycling with stops in between I felt this wasn’t the best way to travel. I looked at my map for the next town — it was Mathura — and went there to sell the cycle. There was only one hotel — very small, very nice, on the banks of the Jamuna. I stayed there, but became attracted by the river and the sadhus sitting by it and the atmosphere — it was all overwhelming. I remember taking a bath in the river and just sitting there, and I had an immense experience of satisfaction just by sitting in that peace. My ideal had been the Chinese way of Buddhism so I couldn’t understand why the river affected me so much. I tried to analyze where this happiness was coming from: it wasn’t from the company of beautiful girls, I hadn’t smoked any marijuana, and I didn’t have a good meal behind me — there were none of the usual sense-gratifications.

My conclusion was that it was the river itself that was the cause of the incredible happiness, and it must be very special. I wrote a poem on the beauty of this river which was giving me so much peace and sweetness. Then as I walked through the streets some sadhus approached me and said: You know this is the birthplace of Lord Krishna? I asked: Who is Lord Krishna? — I really didn’t know. They took me to see Krishna’s birthplace and told me to go to Vrindavan as that was also associated with him. I went by bus; I still couldn’t figure out who was this Krishna everyone was talking about. As soon as I got out of the bus I had fifty beggars on me. Still I was able to see some of the temples — of course they don’t let Westerners inside. I was fascinated but I didn’t relish all the beggars.

You didn’t stay there?
No, I went south as I planned, but I was always remembering Mathura and the river, I was telling everyone if they go north, go see Mathura. Then I arranged on my way back to be in Mathura for the festival of Holi which is very famous there. There was this huge procession through the bazaar, with bullock carts and white bulls covered in purple, green and red powder, and people throwing colour everywhere — it was out of another world. I was pulled onto one of the carts where they were singing bhajans and playing instruments, and I was given some cymbals which I had to also play with them. Afterwards when I got down from the cart I had to dance with the people. Then I got pulled onto another cart which had two big barrels of coloured liquid and two boys were dressed up as Radha and Krishna in fantastic costumes, and they had two pumps [for squirting coloured water] which I had to keep filled from the barrels. As we rode through the streets, the crowds got splashed with this colour. There were elephants in the procession ridden by sadhus. At one point one of these sadhus passed me and gave me such a long look that I nearly took off — I was so excited, so out of this world.

Were any other Westerners there at the time?
No, not one — I was the only one in the town and the people appreciated that. You probably know that during this festival everyone embraces each other and puts colour on you; well, I had about one inch of colour on me by the time it was all over. My clothes were completely finished. I went to the bazaar to get new things. Here I met a small old man with glasses and a stick — it is still a mystery to me who he was. He tapped me on the shoulder — and this in itself was like an electric shock. Later I understood he must have been a vaishnava sannyasi. He spoke to me in perfect English and started preaching to me — he said: You have been drawn to the place of Lord Krishna; you should always pray to the Lord and you will reach perfection. He went on like this for five minutes and told me I should chant the holy names of God and that I could come to see him at his Ashram. I very much liked him but he turned around and walked away; I could see all the people paying obeisance to him. For two or three days I tried to find out who he was but I never did and eventually I left Mathura with this wonderful impression.

You stayed on in India though?
No, I went back to Europe, and as soon as I got there I wanted to travel again. Instead of buying a ticket for the East I landed up in Canada thinking, as I have seen the East I should now see the West. I thought maybe I would work there, but although I got an immigration standard visa I didn’t like it, and moved on to the United States which was a tremendous cultural shock, especially California; the society was so animalistic. I met all these characters, they were so burned out. I became depressed and decided I would never come back to this place. After only ten days I went back to Canada, to Vancouver Island, where I got a job in a studio and wanted to save money so that I could come back to India; I was so home-sick. A little later I met some Hare Krishna devotees in Winnipeg; they had just started a Centre there. They gave me a Back to Godhead magazine, and as I felt homesick for India I went with them to their temple. I had read some books of Srila Prabhupada but no one had preached to me. In the temple I was told I should chant sixteen rounds of Hare Krishna mahamantra, and they explained the principles. From that moment on I followed their program and attended all the pujas. I felt at peace and relieved, and after only three months I received my first initiation.

In those days Guru Maharaj was still alive. Can you say how you were given initiation and what it signifies?
The temple president felt I was qualified for initiation, so after consulting with the zonal secretary they sent a letter explaining everything to Srila Prabhupada who accepted me. He gave me my new name; a fire ceremony was performed and a japa mala which Srila Prabhupada had sent specially for me was presented. It is usually not given until after six months but in my case it was given in less than three. I still had a great desire to come back to India, so every day I would pray in the temple: Dear Guru Maharaj, please arrange that I can serve you in India. Ten days later at 6 in the morning a phone call came from the zonal secretary saying he had just received a letter from Srila Prabhupada asking that two boys should be sent immediately to India. I was selected. At 11 the same day I was on the plane to Toronto, then two days later I was on my way.

How old were you then? Was Guru Maharaj actually in India?
I was 23 — oh yes, he was here in Bombay. I was so happy as it was my first meeting with him.

Can you describe what he was like and how he taught?
He was very grave — yes — that is the right word, but in his activities he was unmatchable. For example, at 6 sharp every morning we would walk with him on the beach, and even for us young boys it was hard to keep pace with him — he was so fresh and walked so fast. He was already over 80. The walks were wonderful because he taught us at every step; he was very frank and yet intimate.

How many of you would go with him?
Here is a picture on my desk of us altogether from those days — only five or six. He would preach all the time; wherever he looked he would see Krishna, and take everything he saw in front of his eyes as a spring-board to teach. Whatever he was doing during the day would be turned into a lesson. I remember once we passed a tree by the road and at one placed under a branch was an accumulation of bird-droppings. He stopped and said: Just see, even birds are attached to their home — they will only sit on a particular branch — so not only are humans attached to family and home, but birds also. And he used it to preach about the strong pull of attachment to this physical world. Whatever he saw he would put in relation to the human plight and would preach. After the walk we would go to the temple for guru puja and the darshan of the deities. Then he would go to his quarters where we would serve him breakfast before he started work on his correspondence — his instructions are there in thousands of letters.

He had over a hundred centers all over the world, so you can imagine how many letters are brought in. At noon he took prashadam followed by a rest, for about one hour. After that he gave darshan for visitors till about 7 when he went to the temple to deliver the lecture. In the evening he would speak to his disciples until about 10.30 when we would go to rest, but that was the time he stayed up to translate his books. At the most he took one or two hours of rest during the night — so except for the other hour of rest during the day he was either preaching or translating

During that period he was working on his seventeen-volume translation of the life and teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. So many different persons came to see him, yet each one felt Srila Prabhupada relating to him; he was so encouraging, so personal. It was all so rare and wonderful.

Were you able to take any further initiations?
After a few months he personally gave me the second initiation. This is given when a certain amount of preaching has been done by the aspirant. At the second initiation the Brahmin thread is given to him, which signifies that he is now a preacher, and from that time onwards he is allowed to do puja in the temple. It is usually given about one year after the first initiation — it may take longer, it depends how one makes progress. Then a silent mantra is spoken into the right ear of the disciple and the guru puts the tread on the disciple’s body. From then on I was engaged in preaching in Bombay.

Did you accompany Guru Maharaj on any of his travels?
No, I stayed back in India.

Now can you tell me how this great temple was built?
We were facing difficulty obtaining permission, but it came in 1975 and the temple was built and finished within two and a half years. Our Guru Maharaj was eager to complete it quickly, so work went on day and night. Three or four hundred people were chipping marble the whole time until it was finished, and even today I can hardly believe it was done so quickly.

You have the title of Project Manager. What does that mean?
After all the building stopped, the question came up as to who would manage the administration. Some of us had to sacrifice part of our preaching and I was asked to do the administration for the guest house. By Krishna’s grace, it has become very successful and we receive guests from every part of the world. Our fifty rooms are nearly always booked all year round by people like you who come here already interested in spiritual life. That is our aim - to provide facilities for serious persons who wish to have the right atmosphere, but of a high standard. The dining room has also become popular with the people of Bombay and many take the chance of eating Krishna prasadam.

We are also setting up a model Krishna consciousness community, a whole village, because we are always preaching about the ideal way of life so we want to practice it and demonstrate that it can be done. I spend three days a week outside Bombay on this project. The village will be self-sufficient. There is so much we have to do as hardly anyone anywhere is giving spiritual education, so we are spreading Krishna-conscious culture — the need is great and our work small, although we get up before 4 each morning and keep going till 9 or 10 at night.

You would never change your life now or go back to Switzerland? After all, it’s the cleanest, best-organized country in the world.
If I ever think about it, just to put my feet outside India, I get cold shivers down my back. Once one has tasted a little Krishna consciousness or any other spiritual consciousness, there is just so much more space in India, and the environment is more conductive to living a real life. In the West it is more difficult for an individual to pursue any of his ideals. That was the main reason I joined this movement: I was an idealistic person but I always found myself in the position of a hypocrite because I couldn’t live up to the standard of my philosophy. So when I met that first Hare Krishna devotee I sensed: This person is not a hypocrite, he is living up to his teachings. When I joined I had a feeling of great release.

After living here for eight years I have become so used to the culture, the environment and the people. Sometimes I have to go to the airport to meet someone and am shocked by the Westerners — they are so gross, I cannot relate to them. You have met my wife — she is an Indian devotee and we have a boy of one year old now. I would never even like him to see the Western countries as they are now. For that reason I have actually applied for Indian nationality.

Chitrakara Das now divides his time between living in Bangalore manufacturing Ayurvedic products which he imports to Switzerland and where he also lives. He gives lectures on Ayurveda and Krishna Consciousness.




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© Malcolm Tillis 2006