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



Ma Prem Leela
Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh Ashram

14th February 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

I am now on the road again, this time for Ganeshpuri, the Ashram of Swami Muktananda. I arrive once again in a state of exhaustion, and it doesn’t help matters when the Australian Swami who has been expecting me and to whom I give the letter of introduction I have been carrying since Agra, sees my condition. Instead of letting me rest, he puts me through the third degree:

Why can you only stay two days? — to imbibe the full atmosphere of this Ashram you will have to stay ten!

I try to explain it is not essential for me to imbibe the atmosphere of any Ashram because I am relying entirely on what the devotees tell me, which is far more reliable -- all he has to do is make whatever arrangements he wants, and the Interviews could be taken in one day! But I WILL stay two days.

But why can’t you stay longer?

Poor guy, I see he has put himself into one of those power situations and I’m too tired to help him out of it gracefully.

He then tells me if I stay in the Ashram I must follow the Ashram programme. I agree.

He then wants to know how many people I wish to Interview.

I will record just one or two.

What do you mean record?

Tape record.

That -- he says as if I have suggested something obscene -- cannot be done in this Ashram…NO tape recorder is allowed in!

When I tell him the obscenity is already in the Ashram with my luggage, the whole deal is off: I will have to get special permission from the secretary for that.

Oh Lord, another special permission.

Do you think -- I ask -- while you are getting it I could lie down?

This, he yells, is not…NOT… a rest home!

Well, how long will it take to get permission?

Not until tonight, the secretary is away in Bombay.

Another indispensable out-of-town secretary! (Does anyone have to stay in an Ashram for even two days to imbibe its atmosphere?).

There are very few residents staying in this Ashram; perhaps it’s because Swami Muktananda has been abroad for over 2½ years. I feel sorry for them. But I also feel instictively I will be out of this place without even having to unpack my recorder.

Torture-time, however, is not over. In spite of being ill, the Swami moves me on to the next scene: the passport office.

He says: leave your passport here, come down the stairs to the rent-room, pay for one night’s stay.

I have to surrender my passport — that means I can’t make an easy escape. I produce Rs.18 for the room plus washing fee for the linen, and receive a receipt saying I have made a donation.

The room is quiet; I rest for one hour, one hour only — I dare not miss the 11.30 chanting (I have been presented with a five-page typed Ashram Do’s and Don’ts with a minute-by-minute programme sheet). All day long, wherever I turn, there is the Australian Swami checking that I am not late or have missed something.

The Swami says in the evening that the secretary will not be back until the early hours.

I say: Fine — just knock at my door and tell me the decision — if it’s No, I will leave on the 7o’clock bus. Right?

At 5.30, just before the Guru Gita recitation and chanting, the Swami tells me he has not been able to get any decision.

I tell him not to bother any more — I will take the bus.

I can see he is upset; something in him has not been able to adjust to a situation that has become shabby. As we walk out through the courtyard I say:

What has happened between you and me, I do not intend to take as a reflection on your guru.

This whole unfortunate incident has much meaning for me in that it shows how the Guru-Protection-Syndrome can lead to power trips and victim abuse. I could just as well have been in the Swami’s situation a few years ago, although my Ashram work was fortunately editorial, behind the scenes work. However, what’s the use of coming to a guru if we fail to have compassion for a brother? I have written this incident not to put down the Swami but to show that Ashram life and conditions are certainly not easy: they are not meant to be easy, they are full of traps. I remember someone once described it like living in a hospital dormitory — we are all patients on view.


Something inside me can’t face risking the possibility of another scene like this one — I change the plan and instead of going on to Sri Goenka’s Ashram take a cross-country bus to Poona. I am to meet Charan Das there.

On arrival I ask a rickshaw-wallah to take me to the Christa Seva Ashram. Within ten minutes we are at the gates of yet another Wonderland. To rickshaw-wallahs or taxi drivers there is only one Ashram in Poona, and that is the exotic much ridiculed Ashram of Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh. He is still under 50, the most loved and loathed guru in India whose communes have sprung up all over the world.

Oh, well, I get out…I was coming here tomorrow anyway.

Bhagwan Rajneesh’s Poona Ashram is all lush gardens and elegant super-modern buildings. I ask for directions to the press reception office, find my way through strolling figures in glorious shades of red and burnt orange, maroon and faded ochre, some even in seriously sacred saffron. All followers of Bhagawan Rajneesh are obliged to adopt this colourful form of dress, and once he accepts them for initiation, to wear his mala with his photograph. At this stage the men receive the title, Swami, the women, Ma.

I reach the office, and here, also a wondrous image of vibrant colour, is Leela. Is she laughing at my bewilderment? Or is she sharing my delight at this cavnival of colour? She offers me iced fruit juice. She is head of the press office. She is ready to look after me. She is a Big Shot Ma.

My mission explained, Leela says: We do not mind what you people write about us — you are free, and we will help you in every way we can.

That’s reassuring. It’s realistic also. I suggest I would much prefer the Interviews to be heavily intellectual or outrageous or both, but if possible — as I have met a lot of Americans — no Americans.

No problem, says Leela, making notes, laughing even louder. We have diplomats and doctors and musicians and actors and even a royal prince - oh, sorry - I forgot, he just died!

I agree to come back tomorrow.

She gives me a free pass to hear Bhagawan’s morning lecture…the Interviewing will follow. I am then shown the cool private room, all glass and plants, which I can use. This is not like being in an Indian Ashram!

But for now, it’s late afternoon, the Ashram is crowded with milling devotees all swinging along in a whirl of colour. I approach the book-stall which has a selection of Bhagwan’s 300 books and videos on sale. And here is an unmistakable white-clad figure, a drifting snow-flake floating in a bed of zinnias: it is Charan Das!

He calls out: I have a room for you at the Christa Seva Ashram. We celebrate by going into the Rajneesh health-food restaurant. Over another cool drink he asks: Did you remember to give our message when you were at Swami Muktananda’s -- you know, we told you about our Australian Swami friend there…?

I am beginning to feel ill again: it is that same Australian Swami, the one who gave me the hard time. Had I not forgotten, could this message have changed the sourness of our meeting? Could there have been one or two Interviews on the teachings of Swami Muktananda? Irony meets sadness. But, no! All is surely going the way it has to go. I am more than ever convinced that this is so.

Charan Das is in great spirits: he has four other outstanding Interview possibilities lined up. But that’s enough speculation for now. We leave for our lodgings. I am now going to have an early night.

I am not going to have an early night — Charan Das has decided to take me to the nearby Iyengar Yoga Centre. Swami Iyengar is one of India’s foremost hatha yoga teachers; one of his pupils was Yehudi Menuhin. The idea is to try and fix an Interview, but the Swami’s daughter explains that no Westerner is living with them on a permanent basis. Well, that has been my task: to accept all suggestions and follow all leads — the results are not in my hands.

In the morning, at the crowded marble-floored air-conditioned Buddha Hall, Bhagwan Rajneesh is outrageous: there are practically no Indians at this lecture. What could they have made of it? Bhagwan throws bombs at every accepted tradition and belief — including his own. He is the iconoclast’s dream. Leela, however, is still laughing when I meet her — I notice most people here are laughing except when they are sad, and then they exhude a hardly contained aura of desperation.

Leela leads me to the architect-designed Interview room, makes sure coffee is served, then placing herself in a large easy chair, announces she is to give the first Interview herself.

And so, placing her notebook on the burnt-orange table, and having left instructions not to be disturbed, she starts her story.



Interview 42

I am 40. I was born in South Africa. My father was a Jew, my mother a Christian — conflict was there already: his family never accepted her. They separated. I lived with my mom. My father died when I was 8 but by then my mother was remarried to a Hollander. We lived in Durban which had a large Indian population, and from an early age I was attached to them. Then we moved inland as I had asthma very badly; in the Orange Free State it was drier, better for me. We were away from towns — it was the Veld — and I enjoyed being alone in the bush, unafraid. I went to a farm school with many Afrikaan speaking children; some of the kids came to school on horses, some on their father’s milk trucks, some barefoot. Later we moved to Johanesburg. Here I went to a convent school; this was an incredible contrast for me — it was a rich, classy school in a posh area.

Here I had to face the problem of not knowing what I was: I was baptized in a Methodist Church, but I knew my father was Jewish, and here I was in a Catholic school. So I was aware I didn’t fit in anywhere — it didn’t bother me terribly — I was just aware of it. In a sense it left me free, unattached to any particular dogma. The Catholic teachings were very frightening to me at the time. When I finished school, there was some work in a secretarial situation; then I married and had two children. I did the usual things: earned money, got a home together, had a car — the usual mundane that’s-what-everybody-did things. But there was always something more that I wanted — there was always a part of me stretching out wanting to go further. I felt there was dance in me, music in me; I felt an enormous potential bursting, yet nowhere to put it.

All this was going on in South Africa?
Yes, it was, until we finally packed up and decided to move to London. And it was as if the world was opening for me at last. I hadn’t been there long when I made contact through Shyam Bodhisattva with the meditations of Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh. I went to Shyam for acupuncture treatment, but he told me meditation would do me much more good. Indian mysticism was something I was not looking for — well, so I thought. But I went to see Veena who was running the first Rajneesh centre that had opened outside India. She explained the dynamic meditation, it appealed — Yes! — I have to let out, I’m boiling with unknown factors: I didn’t know what. So I started the course.

Our friends in London were into the Ronnie Lang therapies, so when I got into Bhagwan, they were saying: We have all finished with that — O.K. you do your little Eastern trip! I was the naive little lady from South Africa. But I just took off. From that moment my life totally altered. The baggage I was carrying dropped: the games I was playing with people, the fears, the peripheral garbage placed on one by society, parents, the Church — whatever — cracked. I listened to tapes of Bhagwan while doing these meditations, and it was a unique experience. He was talking to the core of my being: I sobbed my way through at least the first six. It was a relief at hearing something so intrinsically Yes! It was touching some part of me that had never been touched before.

You hadn’t taken Bhagwan’s sannyas yet?
I was not interested in that — well, so I thought: I saw myself as a strong individualist, so the idea of dressing in any type of uniform with a mala round my neck was absolutely out. But one day Veena gave me a book by Bhagwan on sannyas. I didn’t think too much about it, but at the Sunday dynamic I couldn’t get into it. At the end of the meditation, for the first time Veena said: How was it today? I was very grumpy and in front of me was a large picture of Bhagwan which I looked at very quietly for twenty minutes. Veena was there sitting by me, then I just turned to her and said: I want to take sannyas. It had not been in my mind. It just jumped out. Veena got up, fetched a mala and put it over my head. And as she did that it was as if an electric current went through me: I totally flipped out. I laughed and cried for an hour and a half.

Doesn’t Bhagwan have to accept you before sannyas is given?
I’ll explain. You decide to take sannyas, if the Centre has a mala they give it to you, then you write to Bhagwan, and he sends you your new name. When I took it I didn’t understand its significance: It was like a love reaction. I was so in love, so touched by what was happening to me. The mala round my neck was like a psychic connection with Bhagwan. Now I will tell you something about my name: Bhagwan spoke on the tapes, I heard about life being a leela — a play — and there was a strong connection to this word although it had taken me a week to learn how to say Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh. But I loved the word “leela” and the way he would use it: then back came Prem Leela as my name.

That means “love play” or “the play of love”?
That’s right.

When did you first meet Bhagwan?
I took sannyas in 1973 and I came out here for the first time two years later.

What did your husband and children think of all this?
Well, my dear… after that Sunday when I told my husband I had taken sannyas, he freaked out. He wasn’t into it, so I could understand. My children were fine — they had been coming to the Centre themselves and jumping about. They liked the feel of the people so they didn’t feel threatened. I was able to explain to my husband that this wasn’t a sexual situation — I have never seen Bhagwan that way: it has been something universal. Things did sort themselves out; and you have met my husband here: he has also taken sannyas and so have the two children now, and we are all living in the Ashram. My relationship to the children especially changed immediately because of what Bhagwan teaches: I had to rethink everything — I had to look at everything more tenderly with greater awareness.

Can you now describe your first meeting with Bhagwan?
Veena was then living in the Ashram so she was able to get me and the friend I had traveled with into the evening darshan. I those days darshan was only for twelve to fifteen people and not much conversation. I was excited but nervous. In those days he would sit in a chair and await you; as I caught sight of him it was as if I had been caught into an energy field — I stopped dead in my tracks, clasped my hands to my belly and started the most unfeminine bellowing sounds, really! Someone brought me forward but I was dissolved in a heap of tears, totally overwhelmed at his beauty and to what was emanating from him. Through the whole darshan I snivelled into Veena’s nice clean dress — I didn’t have a handkerchief.

He talked to me a little about the London Centre and there was a little chit-chat. He was so beautiful to me. I stayed in Poona six weeks, then returned to England, to my family and readjustment. I had done one group here called Enlightenment Intensive, and when I got back it was an incredible culture shock — I looked at people: they were grey, sad, dead, -- there was no life in anything, no joy, they were just churning the old wheel. I had so much bubbling in me that it was awful to see. But I came back more detached: my perception had changed.

You managed to integrate again with your family and work?
It took me three months. But we moved to live with a commune in Suffolk run by Shyam Bodhisattva. Everyone had their role there so I wrote to Bhagwan to ask what work I should do. He just replied: Help where help is needed; float and enjoy. This is what I did: I would wake up in the morning and not have a clue as to what I would be doing that day. I did float. I started doing massage for Shyam’s patients although I didn’t know anything about it. He said: Let it come from your heart and let your hands do what they have to do. It became a deep meditation for me and I worked on many people. Eventually, I was invited to Berlin for three groups. I was surprised at my “chutzpa” but somehow it worked.

But how long did it take before you wanted to come back here?
Towards the end of 1978 I knew it was time: the children were in school, my husband was making exquisite meditation stools which were selling well. Everyone was cosy except me again. There was an ultimatum — I’m going: if you come it’s beautiful — if not, I’m going anyway. I just wanted to live near Bhagwan. There was nothing more important anymore, and there still isn’t. But they slowly became excited by the whole project and we all came out together. They had over the years all taken sannyas. We arrived in January 1979 and have been here ever since.

What was the impact this time?
It was more difficult yet more beautiful; what you are asking is: why this? What are we looking for? Many people here have already been to many masters, having traveled all over India seeking, seeking. Here I was, having tumbled out of a black womb into the lap of light of Bhagwan. It was so clear and uncomplicated… this is where I had to be as if I had been with him before. I came directly to him. To live in this Buddha-field community is an amazing experience.

Leela, you have been here such a short time, yet you are in charge of such an important department — the press office?
Well, my work is only to see that the work flows. But all the work here is a devise for our growth — it is not work for work’s sake. I look at everyone in this office as potential Buddhas: I just have to see if the energy is flowing or not and help open it up if necessary.

How many sannyasis are in this office?
Altogether twenty-five. And I would say each person here does about double the work of anyone else in the West. Everyone works voluntarily. We send out news releases on Bhagwan in all languages on the controversial statements he makes… and believe me, he makes enough. But he is here to wake us up not to make us cozy and safe: he is knocking everything that needs a jolly good knock so that this repressive society changes. We deal with all the journalists that come and see they are made welcome and given the help they need. We show them the work happening here, then leave them to imbibe whatever they have to imbibe. We just give them the basic information.

I was particularly impressed when we discussed the Interviews for this book and how you said at once all doors are open and we do not mind what you write about us. Can you say why?
We don’t make any demands or conditions as to what journalists write about us. Of course, in your case, I could see at once you are not a journalist. But we know whoever comes to write about us will be affected in different ways; people are where they’re at, and they are going to write according to what they think is a positive article about them. It’s not being realistic or honest. We can only say our gates are open; it is up to you to make your own interpretation.
There is no way of telling what even a so-called negative article will do. It brings in those who have to be brought in. But I can tell you, this path is not all roses – it’s a hard road. Awareness is a jump into the unknown - it’s confrontation with yourself; it needs guts and courage. Many of the journalists that come here think this is a drop-out situation. They ask the question: This looks very cosy - what about the life back there where people are contributing? Well, yes, they are contributing, but on a materialistic level. And then they say: Why aren’t you doing anything about the paupers and beggars on the street? That’s not where it’s at – here we have to work with ourselves first, and what comes off as a result of honesty and awareness will be a real, permanent contribution to humanity, not this phony do-gooder stuff.

You told me your whole family is living in the Ashram. Are there many other families here?
Families in the sense of living together are not many, but a totally new depth of friendship has come about with the person they are married to. The children live here in a commune, so instead of just having a mother and father like the isolated unit — and I have seen this with my kids — they have hundreds of mothers and fathers here. Most of the marriage relationships that have dissolved have become warm, loving friendships without the dependency - all those sort of things are gone. We have become like one big family.

What happens with the sexual relationships?
All that’s quite a joke with us. You see, what happens with people who go deeper and deeper into meditation is that the energy which is at its animal level initially in sex changes. And the more meditative people become — which they do here, sometimes in spite of themselves — that energy is channeled to higher chakras. So sex here is not, like in the West, a compensation for the harassment of the day. But certainly, if people outside think that we have all come here to India with its climatic problems, diseases, and having left all Western comforts just to have sex, it just shows a lack of intelligence. You don’t have to come to India to have sex. Yes, you will see people hugging each other here, but it has no lust: it’s warm, loving friendship. Sex happens but it’s no big deal. Bhagwan says: The East is sexually repressive, the West is sexually obsessive. Bhagwan has been called the sex guru because there has been a liberating explosion within a sexually repressive society. But many who have come just for that see it is absolute nonsense.

Has this image which has grown around Bhagwan also something to do with his iconoclasm, his irreverence for generally respected public figures?
When Bhagwan beats somebody during his discourse and exposes them for what he thinks they really are, it’s a healthy thing. He is breaking through the garbage. Religion for most people is fear-orientated. So when he speaks about certain heads of religion — the Pope is a favourite — I don’t think it has to do with those people personally. I think it has to do with them symbolically and the hypocrisy they stand for.

However outrageous his statements may be I think they are coming from a space of total love. He has no investment in what he says: there is no personal gain involved. He is not on a power trip — there’s none of that. To me he is an enlightened being, egoless, but shocking us out of the conditioned way we think, act and react to everything. He has to do it.

Are you involved in producing Bhagwan’s books?
No. What happens is that every lecture he gives is taped. Cassettes are then made available and later the whole series is transcribed and put out in book form. 350 books have so far been published. I would say about 100 have been translated. And they are all beautifully produced here in the Ashram. We have won many awards. They are sold here and at all the major centres abroad.

Would you like to say something now about the methods — apart from the slapping down — Bhagwan uses in his teaching?
Well, he just likes to blow out norms. But his whole emphasis is on love, life and laughter. This goes into all the meditations, the music, the dancing. Since I came to the Ashram I have seen sannyasis dying; and the manner in which we celebrate death is a new experience. The body is borne into Buddha Hall, we sing and dance, then it’s taken slowly down to the river and burned. We learn about a whole other way of approaching death. Vimalkirti was formerly Prince Welf of Hanover and a nephew of Queen Elizabeth: he died here only a few weeks ago of a cerebral hemorrhage. They made a video film of the morning discourse by Bhagwan and the celebration — it was extremely moving. Watching Bhagwan on the film brought out the way he uses his hands and the expressions on his face; the words pour out but, you know, they could stop and it wouldn’t matter. That flow is just there for me now. Bhagwan relates to us on an individual basis. He says he hasn’t a following, although it looks like he has, and that we are connected to him individually. It is not a mass situation at all.

Is it true that no man is in charge of the various Ashram departments? And if so how has that come about?
The whole Ashram is run by women — every department. Bhagwan gives woman an awful lot of juice. He was saying in lectures the other morning that woman is always ecstatic, but man will only be ecstatic when he has transcended sex. And that he has given the Ashram into the hands of woman because they operate from the heart and through intuition and that they are graceful, and men have had a long enough chance but have made a mess — in 2,000 years there have been 5,000 wars. Then he said that we have enough ammunition on earth at present to kill ourselves 700 times over just in case we don’t get it the first 699 times. This is all due to male aggressiveness, so he feels woman should have a better chance. This is one of his experiments — giving the energy to woman. As men become more meditative and receptive, they become more able to also operate through the heart and by intuition. So all the decisions in this Ashram are made by women: it’s a unique situation.

In the lecture this morning Bhagwan said: The only consistent thing about me is my inconsistency. Does this sort of thing ever surprise you?
Bhagwan is a constant surprise to me because I cannot anticipate where he’s going; it’s like he creeps round one corner and says: Hi, here I am! And before you know it, he’s right round the other side before he has even left the other end. He’s one long total surprise.

You may be surprised, but you manage to smile all the time.
That’s because I’m happy. Look, it’s an amazing opportunity in this world of conflict and turmoil to be living in the environment of an enlightened master. Bhagwan says: The new man will not desire life after death but will live moment to moment in sheer joy; he will think of life as a gift and not as a punishment.
Thank you, thank you, thank you very much.

Sri Bhagwan Rajneesh


Previous   Next
© Malcolm Tillis 2006