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



Sister Arati

Christa Prem Seva Ashram

16th February 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

It looks as if I will be able to have a quiet evening at the Christa Ashram. Charan Das has moved on, ever-adventurous, ever-exploring the hidden depths and glories of the travelling spiritual life. We will meet again during the summer as his plans still include that promised visit to Mussoorie. But before he left, he captured a fellow drifting sadhu like himself whose roving life and times, he assures me, are as eventful as his own. Is that possible?

But before the captive speaks, he says he wants to listen to the Ashram’s own Sister Arati’s life story. He knows her well, and I can see there is deep mutual respect although their lives of devotion are so different.

She is clear, centred and one-pointed about her calling, her simpler life-style and vocation. The stability of her situation in this Christian Ashram exhudes a quiet strength in her surrender to and worship of the Divine.



Interview 47

My full name is Kathleen Lucy Barter Snow; I was born in England — Birmingham — in 1903. My father was an Anglican vicar and also the director of a book publishing company. My mother was the daughter of a general in the Indian Army. So we had close links with India. We were a happy family. When I was 6 we moved to the Cotswolds — Broadway — a delightful village. I was educated at that early stage by governesses. I was six years at school at Cambridge, then a further four years at the University. I was extremely happy there. I did part one of the English Tripos then changed to the Oriental Language Tripos for Arabic and Persian. Unexpectedly I got a first class in my M.A. After that I went for a year to Cairo to study post-graduate Arabic at the American University.

As the daughter of a vicar, can you say something about your early spiritual and religious life?
Both my parents were deeply religious; incidentally, my mother was an author — she wrote about thirty books. They were not all religious books, several being novels, but she found great scope for her faith in her writing. I can say that as children our spiritual life was happy — we were not taught to be afraid of God, we thought of God as the loving Father, and Jesus as our friend. But at Cambridge I went through a crisis; after a period of darkness I recovered my faith but at a much higher level. When I was about 24 — yes — in 1927, I decided to offer myself to work in East Bengal and joined the Oxford Mission to Calcutta. I had studied some Bengali. I was there nine years. For a time I was head-mistress of a village school, and at Calcutta, warden of a hostel for University students. Then when I was on leave in England in 1938, I went through the second crisis of my life: I could no longer remain an Anglican. I found it extremely difficult to reconcile the idea of helping Indians to become members of the Church of England as there were so many different parties within it — High and Low and Liberal. They were all teaching different forms of Christianity. I minded that very much, but I also had other reasons for becoming a Catholic.

Did you spend the war years in India?
I spent those years in Ireland, but came back here in 1948 and joined the staff of Sophia College in Bombay.

Having changed your religious beliefs, did you find a great difference?
I did. I had solved the problem that had been troubling me and I felt much freer as a Catholic. I saw myself as a citizen of a wider world than that contained in the Anglican world.

So can I take it that you have lived in India permanently since 1948?
Yes, I have been back two or three times but only on leave.

Can you now tell us more about this Ashram and how you came to adopt it as your home?
I was on the staff of Sophia College for over twenty years, partly as vice-principal, most of the time as head of the English Department, and also as a lecturer. I feel absolutely at home with students. I retired in 1971 and came here as a volunteer the next year.

This Ashram has an interesting history. We knew it had been founded in 1927 by the Christa Prema Seva Sang — that is the Society of the Service of the Love of Christ. It was started for men by Father Jack Winslow who was very forward-looking: he realized that if people were going to be real Christians there had to be absolute equality between Indians and English people. So that was one of the principles on which this Ashram was built. Jack Winslow came back to India in 1973, aged 92, and stayed here in the Ashram for a while and was simply thrilled to find the place alive again — it had not been used for years. One of the reforms he made was to change the presentation of Christianity to Indians in a Western form, which is an anachronism and almost an insult to India. So the members of the Ashram were dedicated to a life of service to India and adopted an Indian life-style — we eat Indian food and wear Indian clothing, and most important, study the Indian classical spiritual writings: the Upanishads, the Bhagawad Gita and so on.

But how did the Sisters come to take over the Ashram?
The place had been empty for years, and the then Anglican Bishop of Bombay was looking for someone to live in the Ashram. He could find nobody. Meanwhile the head of our group, Sister Vandana, was in Poona searching for a place for us — we were seven Catholic Sisters. She met the Bishop and it was arranged that it would be made Ecumenical and we could share it with some Anglican sisters. That is how it happened.

So you have been here since that new lease of life?
Yes, I usually say I and the dog were the two foundation stones.

This afternoon in the library I was able to read parts of Sister Vandana’s book on Ashrams. How did she come to write it?
Oh, yes… Gur, Christians and Ashrams. Before we came here she had already visited many Ashrams in different parts of India. She kept a record of what she saw and experienced, and by the time we settled here in 1972 she had visited a large number of Ashrams. She had all these typescripts, and through a friend they were offered to a publisher. I have been told an Indian edition is coming out. It has been written for people from the West coming to India, as you will have seen, to advise them where to stay and which Ashrams are the most worthwhile visiting, from her point of view.

What I found remarkable was the openness and warmth in her summing up of each Ashram. She must be a remarkable person.
Yes, indeed. And she has had a remarkable career. She was a student at Sophia College. When she was 18 she went off to the Catholic Archbishop of Bombay and was baptized; this resulted in a terrific effect on the members of the Senate of the University; the College was nearly closed. She was a Parsee, and a large number of Parsee girls left. Her family was heart-broken, but she braved the storm. Later she joined our Society, and I first met her when she was a novice.

Sister, did you have any connection with this other writer, Gita Mehta, whose book Karma Cola everyone seems to be reading at the moment?
She was also a student at Sophia College for four years — I knew her very well. She is a brilliantly gifted person — witty — I met her two years ago in Bombay when she was collecting material for that book. I haven’t read it though one of the sisters has just acquired a copy I believe.

Could you say something about your daily life in the Ashram?
We get up about 4 a.m. — I don’t know of anyone who gets up before. The first Offering of the day is the arati at 5.20 — each day a different person leads the prayers and litany. Then there is meditation followed by Mass at 6.30. Then some of us do yoga till breakfast; after that there is a period when we are all chopping up vegetables or cleaning the place — everyone staying here gives a hand. The three youngest Sisters are engaged in social work, so they then leave and return in the late afternoon.

Sister Sara Grant, the acharya, has a great many interests and occupations; she writes articles and prepares papers for seminars, so she is usually very busy. One Sister is responsible for the house-keeping and catering. Sister Brigitte, who was originally from Germany, helps receive our visitors — you may have noticed there is a constant flow of visitors. I will go on with the rest of the day: at 12.15 there is midday prayer — arati; it is done in the Hindu form - light is offered to the Lord. Then comes lunch which is taken sitting on the floor; we all take part in the washing up afterwards. A siesta follows as we all get up so early. 3.30 is tea. Then in the evening between 6 and 7 is a silent hour for prayer and meditation — we are at present experimenting with a Buddhist form of prayer taught us by an American Buddhist monk, Heywon, who comes to visit us. Supper is followed by another arati in the chapel, and after that about 8.15 in the library there is satsang. There is nothing specially structured about our satsangs: if we have an interesting visitor we ask him or her to talk to us about themselves or their search or their particular Path — I believe you have been asked to talk to us tonight about your visits to the various Ashrams in connection with this book you are compiling.

We get a lot of variety that way. Should there be no one new with us, then Sister Sarah talks about her favourite subject: Abhishiktananda, the French philosopher and mystic — we keep his books in the library. The satsangs are very informal. It is most interesting as we have visitors from all over the world. That ends at about 9 when we are free to go to bed if we wish. There are no lights out. On the whole we are very unstructured.

And I would say very open.
Yes. We get people just dropping in for meals who have heard about us.

Is the Ashram run on a voluntary contribution basis?
We are often asked that. We have no endowments so we are in no way supported by the Church. We are dependent on what the people staying with us can offer for the food — we never charge anything for accommodation because we are here rent free. We just manage to balance our budget at the end of the year.

Sister, can you say something about your work as the Ashram’s librarian?
Quite frankly, it is the least important of my duties although that may seem odd. Our visitors much appreciate the books here — they are of course, as you know, on all aspects of spirituality.

Would you talk about your other interests?
The subject in which I am most deeply interested in is Sufism and Islamic mysticism, an interest which goes right back to my Cambridge days when I was privileged to study with professor Reynold Nicholson as my guide and guru.

Was he not the distinguished translator and interpreter of Rumi?
He was indeed. Since then I have kept up my interest by reading, and I am commonly known as a Sufi Christian or a Christian Sufi. I have a Dutch friend who is in exactly the same situation — she stayed with us this year — but she has been initiated as a Sufi in Amsterdam. I have not, but I have many friends who have. I take great joy in reading the mystic writings of the Sufis.

Have you not come across any Sufi masters in India?
Yes, I have here in Poona; he came to attend a seminar and he spoke on how he became a Sufi. Briefly it was that he had failed a university exam and the result was so disastrous — his father was so angry — that he turned to God in his anguish, prayed all night, and had a sort of vision. From that time onwards he became a mystic. Although his actual profession is superintendent of police.

That’t very Sufi-ish.
I haven’t been to see him lately. The most remarkable meeting with a Sufi I ever had was with Faeq Biria. He told me from the age of 5 until he was 15 his Russian Sufi grandfather trained him in Sufi ways of prayer and taught him countless Persian couplets of the Islamic mystics which he has never forgotten. He lives his life of recollection and prayer; one can sense he lives his life very close to God. He stayed in the Ashram about a month. He was entirely educated in France.

Have you met any advanced teachers in India?
Ah, yes. I met many but I never got to know them all intimately. I know Dr. Radhakrishnan. Cardinal Gracias of Bombay is a great person. In the 1930s I had the privilege of spending the week-end at Shanti Niketan and having a personal Interview with Rabindranath Tagore — it was at the end of his life. One sensed instinctively the greatness of the man — that was one of the great moments of my life, my Interview with him. Of course, I have met Swami Chidananda Ji of Rishikesh — he came to take part in that seminar I mentioned. I have had a darshan and a few words with Muktananda Ji. I have also attended a discourse by Rajneesh within the last few years.

Have you had many young people from the West during the past few years staying at the Ashram?
Yes, but not so many. The reason they come to India is because they are seeking something, for reality, for some experience of God they cannot find in their own country or in Christianity. It often comes out in conversation that it is the way their parents behave towards religion that they find disappointing. You see, one person said: My parents call themselves religious but they don’t live as Christians, and that is what is such a shock for us. I suppose the whole of Western society has become too permissive, so young people come to Indian Ashrams to find someone to help them. Having rejected the moral support of their parents, they are looking for someone else to guide them.

What sort of advice do you give them, Sister?
That God is far more generous, greater, than most people with our narrow conception of the Deity can imagine, and that the presence of God can be found in many religions. In the Bible it says: God has never left Himself without a witness. He is to be found in the most unexpected places. In the great classics of India, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and in many of the mystic writings of the Hindus and Muslims, there are undoubtedly revelations of God’s Truth, Goodness and Beauty. We can find traces of His creative hand everywhere if we look for them. And it may be that He reaches souls searching for Him in such ways. It frequently happens that these young people find what they are looking for — the guidance and help — possibly through a non-Christian religion. But God is the same, and He is not limited.

Sister, can you tell us what your aim in life has been?
I would say to respond to the call of God which I originally heard when I was quite young: that is the immense attraction of enjoining myself to Him. People sometimes wonder why we live a life like this. The answer is I am tremendously conscious of God’s love for me and of my love for Him. It is a love affair. I don’t feel it as a burden or a compulsion or a matter of keeping rules and so on — yes — it has been a love affair. It has been a tremendously happy life although I have gone through various crises, as most people do. My conclusion is that I have learned that the secret of that happiness is to trust God wholly and entirely.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006