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 Ananda Vandana

Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh Ashram

15th February 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

In the evening I get to know some of the Sisters running the modest Christa Ashram at which I am staying. What a contrast to where I am spending the day! In the room next to me is a friend of Charan Das: he was also born in America but now wears a grey Buddhist robe — he has spent many years in Korea living an austere monastic life. He has a larger-than-life story, and although he agreed to be Interviewed, he is not happy with it. He asks me not to use it.


The following morning back in Wonderland, Rajneesh’s lecture is even more outrageous than the day before. His devotees adore it, even though he is now aiming bombs at them. There is laughter of course but I can’t help feeling some of the laughter shows signs of being unmistakably pained and self-conscious.

Vandana is waiting for me in the office, the press-room section. I am a little late.

She is cool, mellow and charming, and I sense being interviewed, photographed and talking into microphones is no new experience for her. I sense she loves it. And I know the microphone will love her opulent sun-baked voice with its hint of studied projection, not of course too obvious: she has mastered the art of subtle control over her image. She is now on scene, she has a colourful supporting background, she knows her lines, she waits her cue…It’s perhaps not always easy to relate to all the people in this extraordinary Ashram, but they are vulnerable human beings enjoying a high, a high perhaps different to the spiritual high experienced in the more traditional Indian Ashrams where it is achieved through more austere, conventional methods with no fixed rates for courses or instruction.

I tell the patient Vandana why I am late: on my way to the office a dreamy girl, a symphonic poem in pale Sienna and ginger, stopped me to ask why I was wearing white and carrying a camera and tape-recorder. On explaining that white is a colour usually worn in other Ashrams, and that I am travelling from Ashram to Ashram to record Interviews for a book, she was surprised, alarmed.

She said: Are you saying there are other Ashrams here in India?

I tell Vandana how much I enjoyed this delightful if unexpected reaction.

Vandana’s assessment: Ah, the perfect devotee!

Yes…why would anyone disagree?



Interview 44

I was an actress. I was born in New Zealand but lived in Sydney, Australia. The lead-in to coming here was that I wanted to get out of acting, to look for something more. This took me briefly through the women’s movement, and my first guru was Germaine Greer, who I hear is in India and may come here…I’m very excited about that.

Then I read a book by Janov: The Primal Scream, and I knew I had to do that therapy. My life was intolerable. My marriage hadn’t worked, as an actress I wasn’t doing the right roles, or I didn’t have the right lover. Nothing worked. So I stopped everything, ditched my agent and went off with a silent hippie who was unlike all the people I knew who were making it.

You had been a successful actress?
I had been acting since I was 17. I went on the road with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Something instinctive in me was an actress. I threw in university to do it. I married a drama director, I did modelling…and that was another form of performing. But I would lose my nerve and withdraw – there was always this pattern for six months when I would become paranoid, gain weight, feel frightened. And then I would get myself together, get away from my husband, take a new agent and get back into the world. When I was out there I was very successful and everything came very easily – then the withdrawal would come. It went on like this for years. I could go to a voice studio for only 3 or 4 hours a week and make enough money, and the rest of the time, just space out. I could never work regular hours until I came to this Ashram. Somehow I was looking…there were all sorts of judgments going on in my head…but I was always looking for something…

And then I got a big part… a starring part…in a T. V. series when I was 22. I was on location on an island in an idyllic set-up. It was set for me to make it – my big break. And I was intolerable. The conditions, the trips, the way they over-worked us…I was not ambitious enough to swallow that shit! I started freaking out in a way I couldn’t conceal. Before all this, when I was into freelance work, I was able to put out a sort of good personality, be charming, do my work and then go home and be my neurotic self. But on location under constant observance – I was the only woman in the cast – I started to crack.

And they thought I was mad. In a way they were right. I couldn’t keep my behaviour together. They thought I was on drugs, which was rubbish. They couldn’t deal with me, and I could not or would not conform. They could have renewed my contract. They chose to drop me. Then it became difficult to work as I now had a reputation of being weird. I continued for some time. I never had enough push to make it as an actress in a big way. I just did fill-in work and commercials.

How long did this last?
Not long. Once I read Janov I dropped out completely. I went to the other side of the country, to my mother where I did some other kind of work – with retarded children – just trying to figure out how I was going to get the money: it costs a fortune to go through therapy. Finally I went home to my father in New Zealand and talked to him, saying: Look at your life – I am 25 and I don’t want to live my life as you lived yours, I can no longer live the way I have been living up to now, I would rather die if I can’t do this therapy.

So through Janov I saw a glimpse: he was saying you have to get back to the first 5 years of life: it’s during those years the damage is done. I ended up in America doing that therapy, and that was the first step to coming here, although I didn’t know it then.

Can you describe the therapy and the results?
It takes you out of your mind into your deepest primal emotions, your earliest childhood scenes where you turned off from being a fully functioning alive being and became what was necessary to survive in society, for your parents. That’s when you cease to be whole and become split. This is Janov’s classic theory. You do these hours of sessions going back, back into the past until there is a breakthrough, a release. And for me it was just joy – the first time in my life that I had been alive. I did it for about 3 months. Then that became claustrophobic; the people running it were sincere, it was true, it worked, but it wasn’t enough. I knew there was something more. I then heard of a technique called Enlightenment Intensive – which is done here also – so I went into that.

Can you describe what that is?
It’s an arduous structure…it’s one of the first groups people do when they come here. For 3 to 4 days, sometimes longer, you sit in pairs and you ask the question: Who are you? – 5 minutes back and forth. There is no answer to the question, but the process is like a Zen structure and you change over at the gong. Over the days the mind is emptied and you go through all your ideas of who you think you are…I was born here, my parents were dedardedardedar, and you find that’s rubbish, nothing. You reach points of blankness because of the intensity of the process. You start at 5 or 6 in the morning and go through till 11 at night! And it’s hard. I hated it. I got into such deep spaces in myself but would come out blissed-out.

This was all happening in America?
I started in San Francisco. Then I went to Spain to a growth Centre because I had to leave America because my visa expired. I had a long-term plan to go back to Australia as a trained therapist. But something again kept propelling me on. I knew there was something else…in each country I had lived in it was like living in an artificial community.

So then I went to England. And there I was into psychosynthesis – Assagioli’s trip: meditative, spiritual psychology. But it was then in Spain that I first heard of Bhagwan Rajneesh. A sannyasi therapist came there – she is now running the London Centre – and she did this bizarre dynamic meditation technique. And that’s when I heard this outrageous man’s voice on tape saying: You can do anything if you do it with awareness – anything. And it was like – what?—this is an Indian spiritual trip? And something in me knew I was really finished as soon as I heard that voice.

My mind was saying: Yes, India, but when you are 40, when you are through with wine and smoking and your lovers. Yes, yes, when you can sit still in meditation dressed in white. But then in London I met more sannyasis, and one day I met a guy who is here in our theatre group – he had just come back from Poona. I suddenly saw this flash of orange clothes. What was hitting me was: I am running from this? I was trying to get into all these new psychology techniques and keep busy, busy, busy. And suddenly I knew I couldn’t resist India any more: I’ve got to do this, and I don’t want to.

You see, Germaine Greer is in India right now and she is resisting it like me. I knew it would be the end. But I still tried to trick my way out of coming by writing to Bhagwan: Can you accept someone like me as a sannyasi? I think I was sitting drunk while I wrote that letter feeling sure they would reply: You are not quite the type, you have to do a little more cleaning up. But I got back this letter saying: You are a sannyasi. And my mala was brought back by Poonam, who was that first sannyasi I met.

Could you be made a sannyasi through the post?
You could then, I don’t know about now. I had sent a photograph of myself explaining I was not worthy – all that flagellating stuff. But I knew there was something with this Master, and that there was a sense of acknowledging I was at the end of my search. That it was the end of acting, the end of wanting to be a therapist, that I had come to India to get this thing round my neck.

That thing being the mala? So how long ago did all this happen?
It was in ‘74…seven years ago. It was not only the mala but the orange clothes. And I was so snobby I didn,t even want to go at first to the London Centre with all those people sweating through their mad meditation. But as soon as I had the mala and the clothes I knew I had to go to India, which was like an embarrassment to my other friends, friends who were on different spiritual trips. The feedback was like: We really dig you but do you have to go that far?...changing your name, dyeing your clothes, wearing those beads? It was too much for those in more restrained spiritual circles. The Rajneesh people were noisy with their sweaty kind of muddy meditation jumping up and down and shouting. The photos those days of Bhagwan – he looked mad with those demon eyes, and all those people with their arms up in the air. The ideal image even to me of spirituality in those days was Zen-like-sitting-crossed-legged-in-white.

But in those early days was Bhagwan known as the sex guru, or did all that come later?
I don’t remember. There was certainly a gutsy vibe in his voice that I didn’t associate with any other Indian guru. I heard awful things about him, that he put people into pits in silence for 7 days. He looked wild and I was scared.

So what did you find when you arrived?
When I arrived?...oh, my first darshan. I was afraid of him for about 6 months. I was in awe of the sheer power, and those burning eyes! He was gentle too, but there was this power. I was still miserable about myself. My self-image was in a low space. I wasn’t in a state of overflowing joy. But I got into the dynamic meditation, and almost got addicted to it. It shatters old concepts of oneself. It snapped something. The tide turned fast. And then I was asked to work in the Ashram, and work became a joy.

What work were you given?
Front reception at the beginning – that didn’t last as I started freaking out and I had to be fired. Then I began the encounter and primal groups, and I still had this trip wanting to be trained as a therapist: I had an investment in those techniques. So you see I was still full of ambition for power and control over people. But I didn’t have a therapist’s eye or heart for people. In fact I said this to Bhagwan, that I didn’t care about people at all. So the work I was given, and which I did for 5 years and which was so weird in terms of my self-concept, was editing Bhagwan’s books. I started by helping other editors…checking transcripts against Bhagwan’s tapes…proof reading. This led to doing the editing proper.

I hear that Bhagwan puts out 50 books a year…it must be an incredible industry?
I think more than 50. There are the Hindi books also. That work I loved. I could never call it work. Up till then, all my work had been outer…as an actress you put on an outer image. Yet here I would be sitting at a desk, and for 8 hours every day, typing, editing, and it was just delight.

During that period were you allowed to attend Bhagwan’s morning lectures?
You are allowed to go, no pressure though. I went, but every time I got too meditative, the rug was pulled from under my feet and I went sprawling like an arse-hole. It’s like that here. I remember a friend from Sydney came to the Ashram and wanted me to go back to make a film…he had made some very fine movies. They would have paid my fare – everything – and I would have only been away a month. I wrote a note to Bhagwan explaining I didn’t really want to go but at the same time I could see my parents, my husband, and to clean up old ties…and it would be fun and I could make a bit of money. The message was: No Need. Not No, not Yes, just there was no need for you to go. For me that was far out: it is finished, all that stuff, the family, the past…no need to talk it out with anyone, No Need! I went on editing.

Can you talk about what you are doing now?
Some people started reading a Shakespeare play – it was something to do in the evenings. I went to the first one and enjoyed it…it was far out to do it with sannyasis.

I remembered auditions, being terrified, frozen with fear. Then it was decided to put it on as a play. I thought about it and said: No, the editing work play is enough, I don’t need to do anything else. Then I was told: Drop all editing, you are in the theatre group. I was pissed off, really pissed off. You see, these ideas we have: I was this devoted, sterling servant-editor, good at the job, and I wanted recognition – at least a gold watch – or – We are very happy with your work but you can further serve the Ashram by…nothing like that, nothing. Just: Drop the editing, join the theatre!

That’s what he does. I used to get more personal juice, more connection through the editing work as I had to send in notes to him and would get his replies. Since I joined the theatre group there hasn’t been any personal contact at all. It was painful at first.

When did all this start?
About 2 years ago.

The theatre group has been extremely successful, hasn’t it?
Amazingly so. And I had such resistance to the whole thing. I didn’t want to be an actress again, it was all finished. We started with, The Midsummer Night’s Dream, and suddenly I found I was working with other people again. I had spent 5 years working with head-phones on at my typewriter. I didn’t relate to people much: I was into Bhagwan, being in the Ashram, doing the work. The image of myself as the serious spiritual seeker – an element of which was still there – was shattered. He said: Go play at being an actress again.

Getting back was painful, but what I’ve learned through it – well, I just had to work in a group of people again with no place to hide and with some of my trips ready to pop up again: not pretty stuff. It was the stuff that made me get out of the theatre in the first place when I looked at other ambitious, competitive, bitchy actors…I now wanted to be a beautiful devoted person. And what I found out was that it was still the central structure of my E-G-O….ha-ha! And I was not always beautiful, that I am in a sense an archetypal bitch actress, and this is what is still there, and all my years of playing the devotion part was shaking. It was like being thrown out of the nest of this Ashram into darkness. Rehearsals were outside the Ashram so we couldn’t come to the lectures and missed the evening darshan. This is what happens around Bhagwan: the carpet-pulling chaos, but also the chance to pull yourself up and learn.

Which role were you given?
Helena. Something was deeply instinctive there – it was a perfect role for me although I had never done classical acting before. But the fear was gone. The first time I walked on in the Dream there was something I knew: it was gratitude because he had given me this and I was for the first time in harmony. It was like dancing in champagne bubbles, and the stage was like my home as soon as I walked from the wings into the lights. And I was completely at peace. Years of meditation and deep breathing, with those long Shakespearian soliloquies, it was all happening. I was noticing it: the witness was there. There was no fear, no tension. And this has gone on happening for me more and more. This is it for me. This is where I disappear.

But do you now ever think of going back to the theatre in the West?
I would love to go back just to meet my agent and people I know. One day, years ago, I was in my agents and he was saying: Oh, that wonderful actress we had on our books, she’s gone to Hare Krishna, what a bloody shame, what a waste of talent! So I would love to go back because of the image they have of you in spiritual withdrawal with this kind of vinegar face and hand-woven clothes cramped up in the lotus position. When I think of all the insecurity, the doubt, the fear…well, all that’s gone. There are days here of utter peace. I feel it now. So this is why I could go back perhaps just to let them see the change.

We have been touring in India and I have also been playing Olivia in Twelfth Night. The standard of theatre is amazing – we were all professionals sitting quietly in the Ashram or doing gardening or something else, in my case literary work. But now these productions are magic. The audiences don’t know what they are getting, and we hardly know what we are doing. I do know that what happens on stage has nothing to do with my head: I open my mouth and watch the words come out.

Bhagwan has said: The actor has to be in a paradox; he has to become identified with the act he is doing and yet remain a watcher. Well, I am relaxed and now enjoy acting and am at home. The stage is my home



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006