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



H.H. Giriraja Swami

Hare Krishna Land

17th February 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

Back in the luxurious Hare Krishna Hotel in Bombay, there are instructions that I am not to be charged for the room. That is an unexpected generous thoughtful gesture. I go up to Chitrakara’s office to thank him and to ask about the chances of the much-delayed Interview with the over-worked President.

I am asked to wait; Chitrakara leaves the room. In a minute he is back: get your recorder right now -- but right now — he is saying it’s now or never!



Interview 49

From the beginning of my life I was attracted to God-consciousness — I was born in Chicago in 1947 — in fact, my grandfather was like a rabbi, and although everyone else in the family was attracted to sport, movies and other amusements, I was attracted to grandfather. He taught me Hebrew and the Torah and so many things. Everyone thought him old and dry, and they thought they were enjoying. But I preferred to be with him in the temple. My family, in spite of grandfather’s influence, thought God a concept created by primitive people to answer the questions they couldn’t answer about nature. Somehow this “modern” thinking covered my original tendency towards God and I adopted the same thinking until I reached my 8th grade.

There I had a religious teacher who was God-conscious: he gave so many arguments in favour of God’s existence that they defeated my doubting conceptions. I was then convinced of the existence of God and started seeing God everywhere: I would see him in the trees, the sky, the birds, in people — everywhere. Practically every moment I was aware of Him and thinking of Him. I was still not attracted to girls or parties or anything like that. Every Friday night I went to the temple for the services.

You were never attracted to any girls?
Fortunately or unfortunately in my junior year of high school I became infatuated with a young lady who was not at all interested in me. I was always thinking about her, and one night I was able to meet her at her house. I started revealing my feelings about God; she laughed at the whole thing. I was so infatuated with her that from that moment I again gave up believing in God. But I was still looking for the ultimate truth. I next turned to a book: The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm, and from that I got deeper and deeper into psychology and I thought the mind the ultimate reality. From psychology I went through Autobiography of a Yogi, and began thinking the impersonal conception of God was the ultimate reality. Only when I met Shrila Prabhupada did he deliver what was actually the ultimate truth, the absolute reality, which is Krishna.

Can you describe your first meeting with Shrila Prabhupada?
It was in April 1969 when he came to deliver a lecture on the Bhagavad Gita at Brandeis University, where I was studying. He was sitting on a magnificent chair, but the lecture had ended; he was surrounded by chanting and dancing American devotees. I felt like jumping up and joining them. As I was able to give some of the devotees a lift in my station wagon at the end, we talked. The more I heard about these teachings the more I wanted to hear their guru. This happened the next evening at their temple.

Srila Prabhupada was again seated in the same chair: he was quoting the Bhagavad Gita: Out of thousands, one may search for perfection, and of the few who achieve perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth. That struck me: Spiritual life is not cheap — that I have already learned. After he finished speaking there were questions from those gathered at his feet. I asked: There are so many paths and so many teachers with each advocating his own as the best, how can we find the right way?

Srila Prabhupada then questioned me: First of all, what is your goal? Do you want to serve God, or do you want to become God? If you want to become God that means you are not God now, and no one can become God — God is God, and He never had to become anything by any yogic practice: He already is God. If you surrender to Him you at least can become godly — He is ready to help you. If you want to serve Him, He will give you every facility. I realized at that moment that here was the teacher I was looking for, and that he could see right into my heart. Then he added: God is already in your heart, and if you water the seed of devotion by chanting Hare Krishna, He will give you all the sunshine to make it grow.

Every vibration in Srila Prabhupada’s voice entered my heart, and a little later when a huge plate of prasad was handed to him, he quipped: I cannot eat all this — I am not God — distribute it! It was the most delicious food I had ever tasted. I reflected that everything in Krishna Consciousness was that way: the philosophy, the prasad, the chanting, the temple, the devotees and their spiritual master. The next evening I again visited them, and this time I joined in the chanting and dancing: I began to sense that Lord Krishna was actually present, as He says, “within all living things”. This was the brightest moment in my spiritual life so far.

One night Guru Maharaj said something that I found especially illuminating: Our whole life is wasted in two activities: hankering and lamenting — either we are hankering after what we don’t have, or lamenting over what we have lost… the peace we are longing for life after life comes when all our desires are dovetailed with the Lord’s desires.

Did this mean you immediately gave up everything and moved into the temple?
I was able to ask Guru Maharaj one night when I was driving him to the temple: What should I do with the rest of my life? He replied: Just study our books thoroughly and chant Hare Krishna. I could then see everything would unfold naturally. But I did move into the Centre in Boston. It was very primitive — on the ground floor was the temple-room, and we lived in the basement. There were only about eight or ten centres in those days. We bathed in freezing cold water, slept on the floor, and that was our life.

What were your parents’ reaction to all this?
I joined the movement a month or two before my graduation, and my parents were looking forward to the day their son would graduate from Bandeis University… I was an outstanding student and was awarded my degree cum laude. I knew they would be upset if they knew I had become a devotee, so I concealed it as long as possible. They were not happy.

Can you now say how you were allowed to come to India?
After I joined the Boston temple I served for a year and a half. Then Srila Prabhupada was coming back to India to begin his preaching on a large scale here: he requested the governing body that he wanted the best man from each zone to be sent to India. I was selected from Boston. I took it as a special blessing from Lord Krishna, as of course, we all wanted to go. We were only about a party of twelve and we didn’t know what to expect when we got off the plane at Bombay. Cars were waiting for us — a royal reception. We were taken to a mansion on Marine Drive with its own temple. We were so thrilled we thought that everyone in India must be completely spiritual.

What would you say is the basic philosophy of the Hare Krishna Consciousness Movement?
It is simple: it is that God is great and we are very small, therefore it is our duty to serve Him — everything else is detail.

How do you relate it to the teachings you learned from your grandfather?
Our Guru Maharaj said that we had all been yogis in India, but because we did not complete our practice we had to take birth again: that is why so many of us were attracted to India even before joining the movement. In the Bhagavad Gita it says: One who has begun the process of yoga but has not completed it takes birth into a family of righteous people or into a family of wealthy aristocracy, and in that birth he continues his yoga from where he left off in his previous life — so without any effort he is attracted to the yogic principles. I would say it was not due to my association with my grandfather that I became attracted to Krishna Consciousness. Rather it was through my previous lives’ activities I was automatically attracted to God which brought me to Krishna Consciousness.

Perhaps at this stage Your Holiness could relate some of the many personal incidents you must have experienced of how your guru taught?
He was always kind and personal; he was just like a father raising us and taking care of us in every respect. One day I was walking with him along with other disciples: I was asking many questions, and I had many ideas. And Srila Prabhupada was encouraging me and I was more and more blissful. Finally at the end of the walk I decided to ask a last question. It was: Sometimes I feel I am not doing as much as I should for Krishna and I am not making enough advancement. He said: Oh, yes, that’s very good — a devotee should always feel like that. Then I said: But sometimes this thought turns in a different way and I fall into maya. Then he said: What do you mean fall into maya — you are always in maya! So it’s like after so many minutes he inflated me to such a point where I thought I was on top of the world, and then in one sentence he completely deflated me.

And as he and the other disciples walked on I bowed down and offered my obeisance on the dirt of the road. He always knew when to encourage in a particular way, and at the same time he was careful that we shouldn’t become puffed up or take Lord Krishna for granted.

Did he teach with humour…did he have a sense of humour?
He had a wonderful sense of humour: he was a jolly, blissful person and his sense of humour was inimitable. In 1971 my parents came out to see me – they wanted me back, so they offered Guru Maharaj a huge donation if he would let me go. The reply was: I am not keeping him here – perhaps you can offer the money to him if you think he would accept. Then they said they were worried about my health. So turning to me he said: Giriraja, you must take at least two dozen of these sweets daily! And then he handed my parents the most delicious sandesa – milk sweets – to try.

When my father, who is a successful Chicago lawyer, was leaving, he said: Your spiritual teacher certainly knows how to deal with people. And once when we were sitting next to Guru Maharaj in Mexico, we noticed some big mosquitos flying around. One devotee asked: Are the mosquitos biting you, Sir. No, was the reply. The devotee said: That must be because you are a pure devotee of Krishna…they are bothering me, but not you. Yes, said Srila Prabhupada, here they are respectful, but in Calcutta they make no distinction.

Would it be a good moment now to tell us how the teachings were taken to the West by Srila Prabhupada?
In 1966 he was already 69 years old and he just sat down under a tree in Central Park in New York and chanted Hare Krishna(1). And this elderly Indian gentleman attracted so many young American hippies and made them devotees of Krishna. He actually said that when he first thought of going to America in the 1960s, he imagined that when he started to give out the four principles: No eating fish, meat or eggs; no gambling; no intoxication including coffee, tea and cigarettes; no illicit sex, his audience would leave because these principles and theirs were opposite. So the fact that he attracted the younger generation is in itself a miracle.

To have accomplished so much in such a short time does appear to be a miracle. But I wonder if he ever performed miracles openly?
Once a newspaper reporter asked him: Swamiji, can you walk on water? He replied: That’s a 10 cent trick, because for 10 cents I can take the ferry. The so-called miracles are actually material, and we don’t want to increase people’s infatuation with the material; we want to divert their attention to the spiritual. A great devotee of one of India’s gurus known mainly for his siddhis in manifesting objects, when she met Srila Prabhupada said: You have done the greatest miracle by taking hundreds of thousands of meat-eaters, drunkards and woman-hunters, and turned them into pure devotees of Lord Krishna.

With your close association with Guru Maharaj, can you tell us what he considered man,s worst enemy?
He considered lust the greatest enemy because it is the all-devouring enemy of man which destroys self-realization.

How would you suggest people brought up to accept a life of self-indulgence turn towards a life of self-control?
Everyone is interested in their own self-interest, but they don’t know what their self-interest is. Their actual self-interest is to serve God and go back home. If one experiences a higher taste, then he automatically forgets the inferior standard and remains fixed in consciousness. So compared to Krishna Consciousness, material sense-gratification is actually like a dry chapati compared to a wonderful plate of blessed prasad. It is not a question of renouncing anything: it is a matter of gaining. Having a greater thing we give up the lesser.

How is the spiritual work going on now that Guru Maharaj has left the body?
He had appointed a governing body during his life to manage the affairs of the society. For the giving of initiation to future disciples, he appointed eleven of his disciples to accept that responsibility.

I presume you are the guru for this area?
No. The guru does not stay here but comes three or four times a year; he preaches and gives initiation – he is the ideal example of Krishna Consciousness in every respect.

Can you describe your position here? I have seen how busy you are with constant callers, phone calls and secretaries.
I am the President of the Bombay Centre, which means I’m the ultimate authority and responsible person here. But our concept is that Krishna and guru are the masters, and we are all servants.

We don’t discriminate that one is high and another less high; we see that all are attempting to serve Krishna, and by his arrangement different persons are placed in positions to perform specific functions. So one externally may be an administrator, someone else a humble sweeper. But if each is serving to his full capacity, then in Krishna’s eyes they are the same.

Srila Prabhupada said: Preaching is the essence, purity the force, books the basis, and utility the principle. These four principles make this movement unique. Of course, it was Srila Prabhupada who was unique, and because of him the movement became unique.

Srila Swami Prabhupada


The President has been mild; in spite of his threats he hasn’t criticized anyone. Perhaps he has accepted the fact that there’s room for other forms of devotion. We part with Hare Krishna smiles.

In the summer of 2006 having tried for several months to get news of H. H. Giriraja Swami, the following personal message arrived by email with permission to use a recent photograph which is taken from H. H.’s website:

”I have been sick—and otherwise preoccupied for some weeks. Kindly excuse my late reply.

From 1982 to 1998, I served as a member of the worldwide governing body of ISKCON and assumed responsibiliy for the mission in various countries in South Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Since then I have been based in Santa Barbara, California, to focus on my spiritual master's earlier instruction to me to write. One book, "Watering the Seed," has been published, and several others--some about my association with Srila Prabhupada and some about celebrating Krishna conscious festivals--are in various stages of production.

Personally, I am trying to chant the holy names of Krishna and practice bhakti-yoga with greater purity, to realize my constitutional position as the eternal servant of the servants of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead and Lord of Vrindavan.”

H.H. 25 years later





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© Malcolm Tillis 2006