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



Aviva Keller

Chinmaya Mission
Powai Park

11th February 1981

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New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

I now have the afternoon free, and as I have been explaining that I would like to go to the Ashram of Swami Chinmayananda some miles out of Bombay, Hari Das, one of the Hare Krishna monks who has a car at his disposal, calls the driver, and offers to take me there.

I am looking for a Viennese girl who lives there and whom Charan Das has already warned that I will come to see. She is all in white and rather shy about the Interview — finally agreeing that she will give it tomorrow.

I must now rush back to Bombay to be in time to meet H.H. Giriraja Swami, the President of the Hare Krishna Temple.

10 minutes before 8, the appointed time, I am waiting in Chitrakara’s office. I am under the impression someone has gone in to tell thePresident I am waiting. 8.15, half the Interview time gone, no one calls me. I get up and knock at the door. The President is talking to three secretaries, answering two phone calls and rebuking me for being late. How to explain?

Then when he is alone we talk; there is now no time for the Interview. Tomorrow? He may have to go to Madras. When will he know? At 5 a.m. Right, I will see him then to confirm Yes or No. Exit.

5 a.m. The President is not going to Madras. The Interview is for 11. At 11 as I go into the room — Horror!....

I told you to come at 11.30, he calls out.

Well, at least I am early this time and not doing anything too bad…I can wait outside.
No, no…He tells me to sit down, he must finish with his secretary. He is working under stress. He is about 30, yet he has much responsibility.

Then he says in a tired voice: I really don’t know if I can talk— I was hoping that at least I could rest on the way to Madras.

I tell him this Interview should not be any bother to him — but of course I would like him to speak.

Suddenly he aims a lot of questions: Am I interested in the Hare Krishna movement, do I have a guru, why? Then he announces: If I give the Interview I will have to criticise the many false gurus and false teachings.

I explain that is not the purpose of the book. He replies: I must speak the truth. I hold on: Speak the truth about your path and your guru, leave the others to drown if they are indeed drowning.

He doesn’t like that. I know why I can’t give you the Interview — he suddenly tells me -- it’s because I can’t change you!

This knocks me out. I say: I am willing to change to anyone else’s way if they can show me they have achieved enlightenment. Silence. I then make him smile a bit: And just think about it…I try to reason…if all the devotees in every Ashram I visit will only agree to an Interview on condition that I change to their guru or path, will I not end up a psychological mess?

He then asks if I plan to pass through Bombay at a later stage of my journey. That is my plan. We say: Hare Krishna! I bow, and we leave it at that — I will try again.


Aviva is again dressed in white — this must be her uniform. There is nowhere to go but outside the Ashram temple for the Interview. I am hoping that my batteries are working.

She pauses and asks if a copy of the Interview can be sent to her to check.

I agree. At least she is not so complicated in her conditions as H.H. The President.

But Hari Das who has again driven me to the Ashram is teasing her — he says: Only materialist persons are suspicious.

She is not amused. Then he tells us that he went to Moscow dressed in a businessman’s suit and changed into his saffron robes and took off the wig he was wearing to go into Moscow streets to chant Hare Krishna. He was arrested but released when he told the police he was singing a popular Western song.

Aviva loves that story and laughs and laughs and I not only am able to photograph her, but it puts her into a light, less suspicious mood.



Interview 41

I would prefer to avoid talking about my past activities because they are the roles I am trying to forget for a while. I can tell you I was born in Vienna, and from early childhood traveled a good deal. But my major concern in being in India is, one: to get away from all my old definitions of myself through society, through relationships with people I know intimately, and two: to study the Upanishads. Through hearing Swami Chinmayananda I felt there was much inspiration in them, and perhaps they were a means to achieve a very subtle intellect.

Where did you first hear Swami Chinmayananda?
In Switzerland, which was nice because I was not looking for a specific teacher. At the time I was 23 and felt: So this is adulthood, your mind gets duller and duller, you have some joys, some friends, but all that magic promised in childhood seems to totally evade one, and one gets resigned to this state. That’s when I first heard him — I was like that.

Can you explain what it was that impressed you?
Well, here was a mystic who was superbly logical in his approach to the scriptures, who allowed one to question everything, who answered all questions directly, who had translated the Sanskrit scriptures into modern terminology, who was unpredictable, and while travelling with him, seemed to live what he preaches, and show that it can be lived — which is important.

How did it affect your life?
When I first saw his picture at a friend’s house I didn’t like it — she was a great lady with a salon, a spiritual salon. When I went to hear him I went very critically as I had no intention of being brain-washed into a religious movement. The goal, as far as I could see, was to develop your own natural intelligence and freedom. But I was stunned by his logic and by the depth I felt was in him and by the fact that he does not seen to want to draw disciples to himself. He wants them to become independent after a time.

But what happened after that first meeting?
Not much. After hearing the lectures one feels inspired, but after a while the old problems and ways of looking at life recur. Not much changes, one remains what one has been. But he came back to Switzerland each year, so for a few years I just listened. Each time I found I could see more in life, not that I became euphorically happy… and then I had the opportunity to travel with him, a month in the United States. This was important because in Switzerland I always saw him in a first class hotel speaking of detachment, with people catering to him and his needs. But here I saw that really whatever the situation, he accepted it as it came — it was most important to me. But see, at this moment I would prefer the emphasis not to be on the guru/student relationship as I feel it a wrong emphasis for a person seeking, including myself. The teachings came through Chinmayananda but it is you who are changing, it’s you who don’t have to go anywhere — you have to find out how to do it yourself wherever you are. I believe it comes to you in the form necessary. Only because we are so blind do we need a specific human being, so the fact that I needed a guru I would consider blindness on my part.

But once you had found your guru, didn’t you want to follow him to India? Or did you prefer to work on yourself?
No, I originally had no intention of coming here. Slowly, slowly I began recognizing myself, my role as a woman in terms of the way I defined myself through society, through profession, through success, through marriage, through what you have and possess. Slowly I am seeing that really all that I am, as far as personality goes, is fragmentations of thoughts. And to accept this and let it be, not hold on to notions or the great fear of death or dying or being left in some abyss. Yet it seems only by leaving ones conceptions behind can anything new happen, or can one ever really truly feel alive. So although I’m still not living entirely in the present moment, through this meeting, and thinking of the problems of mankind and myself, and through the decision to at least temporarily give up possessing many things, give up friends, give up career, I’m able to try to see what it is that separates me from every other human being, that separates me from nature, that makes me feel as if I am alone and not fully alive.

I wonder if you could give me some idea of Swamiji’s teachings?
I don’t think I can do them justice. He uses the ancient method of transmission; his teachings come through his own guru, Swami Tapovan, originating from the ancient rishis. They are chiefly the interpretations of the Upanishads. Chinmayananda teaches Advaita Vedanta, which means non-dualism. He also interprets the Bhagavad Gita; however, in so doing he is very much aware of modern society, of each nation whose country he visits and its problems as opposed to former times: the mechanical life one is trapped in, the lack of time for enquiry, the tragedies the wars have left behind. He speaks to that mind of man who has gone through all that. As a modern individual he can reach one who is politically aware, seeing Europe once again turning to Fascism, terrorism, yet seeking God. Plus that, there is a personal teaching — he has a habit of saying a certain thing at the right time.

You have given a vivid picture of your guru. But why did you not want to at the beginning?
First of all, any confrontation with another human being, whether he be called a guru, a master, or a friend is subjective. Secondly, it’s the teachings applied to yourself which may or may not change you. Man has not changed much as a species through thousands of years. People tend to be very devoted to their gurus, and they may get a “high”, such as one has with opium, or other drugs, or meditation, but in actuality it’s hard to say whether they have a greater compassion for other human beings, other creatures, whether they “see” more than one who hasn’t a guru. So for others it’s not important who my guru is although he is a wonderful being to listen to, very humorous, very broad, stern but loving — it depends — but he is not the main part of change. He is the vehicle of change for those meant to meet him, and many will not meet him, won’t ever meet any guru. The idea is not to seek a human being, but to question. The validity of a guru is only if one feels he has transcended the problems of time and is able to be aware of the oneness with other creatures. If one feels that with him then he is a valid teacher for oneself — this I feel, someone else may not. A guru is not something one sells to someone else.

I see you are very realistic. As a Westerner, have you come across difficulties living an Ashram life?
I only know the difficulties in this Ashram. I am on a three year study course of Vedantic texts and Sanskrit. A Westerner coming here will naturally expect to find everyone interested in these subjects. But the Indians coming to Ashrams are usually conservative Hindus. There tends to be a lack of enquiry and blind acceptance of words. They are kind but rigid. It’s like living in a convent, but somehow the word Ashram has given a glamour to this connotation, so one doesn’t realize that in fact one is going into a cloistered school — males and females separate. That isn’t bad, but in their contacts with each other there is much unnaturalness. The philosophy we are all studying has nothing to do with this sort of thinking. The ladies and men have lived a protected life at home and have never had to be alone, so although one goes to an Ashram expecting solitude, expecting people to honour that solitude, instead, Indian society is so based on talking and being together that it’s like being in a village market at times.

In India there is no concept of privacy for most people, so in the beginning I was rather upset when anyone would ask what letter I am reading and then help me sociably by reading it over my shoulder. With time I see that’s the way it is. Plus, there are a lot of jealousies. Guru is a physical term no matter how abstract the philosophy — so especially with some of the ladies having no husbands, having all the problems with Indian society, though they may be true seekers — all these emotions get thrown onto the guru.

What is your daily program here?
This is not like a normal Ashram as we are here on a study course as I said for three years. The purpose is to train Indian missionaries to take this old knowledge of the Upanishads, which was confined to the Brahmins, out to the villages. Chinmayananda thought — although it is hard really to know what he thinks — that, India being in such a cultural decline, the only way is to train young educated people in their old traditions and values so that the knowledge won’t die entirely. So we have at 5.30 meditation till 6.30 and Vedic chanting. From 7:00 to 8:00 a Brahmachari will give a class on a Vedantic text and later on he will take the Upanishads in Sanskrit and English. We write notes daily which the Brahmachari corrects. Then there are Sanskrit classes which also requires about three hours home-work. In the evening we go to a lovely Shiva temple for bhajans and the Brahmachari will speak on a stotra or another topic. It’s a thorough, rare education on Upanishadic philosophy as seen by advaitins, with an emphasis on Adi Shankara’s teachings. There’s a lack of time for sadhana, but the young people here are expected to take the path of Karma Yoga — service — by teaching, and only then will they be considered ready for silent contemplation.

Swami Chinmayananda is not here at the moment?
No. he travels around the world — he is in his 60s — lecturing and collecting funds for his students, with the idea that they should not depend on whether they are wealthy or not. He is enabling people to give full time to study — it’s a rare gift. There are no fees. Even books are provided.

Even for the Westerners?
Yes, but there are only three here at the moment — a Swiss young man and a man from Canada and a young man from Reunion Island, apart from myself. In California there is another school of vedanta, part of this mission, which is paid tuition.

For a Westerner, what are the benefits of such a three year course?
You do get a clarity of thinking. You can ask many philosophic questions plus Sanskrit is a beautiful language. Then there’s the practice of living where you don’t need much, where you can’t go home when you don’t like someone, where you can’t choose your friends, where you have to face a culture which is sometimes hostile to you and at times seems ridiculous although often fascinating. Then there is the food which you might not like, the inconveniences, the climate is rotten, the air is polluted, there’s noise from the slum next door. That’s, shall we say, a lesson in forebearance, if you need it.

These difficulties — Ashram tortures — are usually there. They help our growth, don’t you think?
For me they are good as I tend to be a social creature when I like people. Here you can be silent when you want — if you enforce it — so eventually everyone will understand. You can watch yourself closely, there’s no one to blame as all the relationships are new — you make your own heavens and hells — the traps you are inclined to fall into. Then you are free — well, in my case — of the relationship of being in love, or the pursuit of love. You face your own loneliness, and you realize what projections and expectations you make on others.

Since you came to live in India, have you met any enlightened teachers?
I don’t feel competent to talk on the subject… my criteria for judging would be faulty, and as I haven’t traveled much in India I have met few teachers.

You are spending most of your time studying the ancient scriptures; can you say what are the advantages?
The subject dealt with in these scriptures is: Who am I? — the individual. What is the universe? What is the relationship between the two? What is sacred in life? These questions deal with a subject which is the basis of all religions, cultures and philosophic endeavours. These questions are relevant to everyone, not exclusively to Hindus. The Upanishads — i.e. the philosophical portion of the Vedas, reveal that a oneness between all beings exists, that a life based on this unity without inner conflict can be lived through a deep alteration of one’s vision or mode of thought.

The individual differences, conflicts, violence are known to me as I am part of this. But the concept of oneness, of universal love remains unknown to me (except superficially), and no secular science deals with these questions deeply as they are not subjective. Therefore, I found it well worth the time and enquiry to look into all this.

So this study can help the mind gain subtlety, the thought process becomes finer, quicker, more concentrated and objective. Of course, it is possible that someone else may attain all this by, say, painting or while working, or through the study of other scriptures, or by solitary contemplation. In that case, that’s fine. For if you are the type that gets hung up in scholarship, it’s dangerous, it’s beside the point… The important thing is that in some form or another each of us should come to terms and deal with these essential questions so that life does not become a mechanical, destructive process.

So can I assume that your life is one of controlled scholarship? As a final question, would you like to say what this new life has brought you?
I can say that my faith in the harmony of the universe has increased, and perhaps a bit of my selfishness has decreased. Let us say I think I am more able to see the whole of certain problems. I am slowly learning in whatever I do I should just take care of the moment, do my best, I needn’t worry so much about my own future; that things do happen when I need them to happen, and that all hells pass. I now know that life is magical. Slowly I am being convinced that losing what I thought of as myself is not so very frightening, that even this death is not frightening, that in fact it is the only way to be free.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006