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



Bill Eilers

Divine Life Society

1st December 1980

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

From Hardwar, Rishikesh is but a short journey, one hour by bus. As everyone knows, this sacred place by the River Ganges overflows with Ashrams and holy men. I have come here to meet Uma, a German woman renunciate who has lived in a cave many years. She had become such a tourist attraction, I am told she moved to Madras, a quieter place. Cities can be quieter than holy places.

As I wasn’t too sure how I would be received without having written in advance to request a room at the Sivananda Ashram -- The Divine Life Society -- I have booked a room in the nearby Government Tourist Bungalow. At the Ashram office I am about to ask the gentle orange-clad sadhu in charge whether they have any Westerners in residence, when a young Sikh bursts in, and addressing me, announces:

I need some dollars — I am to buy a Japanese radio — I will give good rate!

I explain: Not all foreigners are Americans…I don’t have dollars.

No go-ahead Sikh is going to be put off by excuses. He persists.

I appeal to the sadhu: Why do you allow this?

He says benignly: Holy Ashrams accept all.

Yes...of course…so could someone please show me to the room of one of your Western residents?

I am being taken through the main gate up hundreds of stairs to a one-room apartment. Here lives Bill Eilers; he was a successful Canadian businessman leading a happy family life. But before he agrees to be Interviewed, he suggests a walk in the woods above the Ashram — this is part of his daily routine, and he needs to hear more about the purpose behind the book. We walk, he listens, then out pours a wealth of advice about how the book should be put together. He is practical and not at all impressed with my notion of being a channel so that the book can flow the way it has to flow:

No, no, no! First of all you should have a card printed with your credentials so that people like myself can judge at once where you’re at!

When I was a musician I never had a printed card; when I was a designer I never had a printed card; as a writer I don’t have a printed card.

I ask: Would a printed card get me better Interviews in, of all places, an Ashram?

Well…it would save time.

I explain: I just tell everyone if you agree to be Interviewed, fine - if you refuse, also fine - my role is to ask, accept, and know what happens will be right.

This sort of reasoning is outstandingly unbusinesslike, but Bill likes its eccentricity.

All right - he says - we’ll go back now and start.

But be thinks it even more eccentric when he learns I have first to go all the way back to the Tourist Bungalow to pick up my tape recorder.

Surely - he protests - you could have brought it with you…to save time?

It’s not so easy to cover up one’s weaknesses. But although it appears to be acceptable to ask for dollars at holy Ashrams, would it not be considered slightly presumptuous turning up unannounced with a fancy recording machine and a batch of beautifully printed cards…I am here…take note?



Interview 4

When I asked at the office about these Interviews, the sadhu referred to you as Bill Swami. You are wearing ordinary Western clothes, but have you actually taken sannyas?
Oh, no, no! It is a nick-name my guru, Swami Chidananda, gave me when I arrived in the Ashram in 1974. At the time I thought I was here for a stay of six months. It was extended to eighteen months — now after six years I suppose I’ll be here indefinitely.

How were you drawn in the first place?
My background makes this location totally unlikely. I was born in 1925 in Canada, the son of a jeweller, and the jewellery business was my chief interest. By 1959 I had bought all the stores from my dad, but then I sold up everything and went into the investment business. I joined the leading local firm. It was about this time I met Swami Chidananda, in 1960, as he was touring the West.

Swami Sivananda was still alive in those days though?
Yes — he of course founded this Ashram, but it was Swami Chidananda who made the impact. It was so dramatic for me that had he said: Follow me!…there is no question, I would have done it. And by then I was married with four young children. Anyway, he didn’t say that so while I retained an interest in yoga, I turned back to the world of business.

In 1969 Swamiji returned to Canada; I was now a vice-president of the firm. Before he left he said quite casually to me: Come to India within the next few years, for a visit. I started making arrangements with my partners to be away for six months in the fall of 1973. I was then 47, but something told me inside that it wouldn’t work — I decided to resign. The Arab-Israeli war was on, but the stock market was very strong. I just announced at the end of our board meeting the next day I wished to retire and if they could buy me out, and so forth… It was a traumatic experience for me. The next day the New York Dow Jones went down 25 points and kept going down. Had I not quit that day I could never have quit.

I arrived in India in September 1974 with the intention of returning to my family in the summer of the following year. I was now retired but was not sure in which direction to pursue my life. Before I left Canada I was accepted for the Vancouver Theological School to start in the fall of 1975. But when I arrived at the Ashram and mentioned to Swamiji my plan to stay six months, he just said: At least! Only then did it hit me: My God, maybe I wouldn’t be going back. It was the first time the possibility ever struck me. I started wondering if I’d ever see my family again.

Just before the six months were up, Swamiji called me; he spoke about the hot weather and so on, then he said: I wanted to tell you you will be staying in India until March next year when you should go back to see your family and then return for my 60th birthday in September — it was his diamond jubilee celebrations. I managed to ask: Will my return here be temporary or permanent? He replied: It isn’t clear to me yet…we’ll talk about it again.

Well, we never talked about it again until I was leaving to get the plane to Canada — he said: You should make arrangements to return for an indefinite period. That was the first I knew about it. So here you see me…

What were your family reactions to all this?
I left them at first under false pretences — that was why I wanted to go back after the first six months, to feel honest inside. But when I arrived back they greeted me as if I was coming back after a visit: no one had the slightest idea I might go back to India. My wife was upset when I told her yet I could see something had changed — for 15 years she had fought yoga, but she now was able to accept it and that I would go back to India. She became the instrument for making it easier for everyone else — she would say: If I can accept it, so can you. When I left them there was no bitterness…it was a miracle for they all gave their blessings. I should say here that even had there been enmity I would still have left to come here.

May I ask if you have received any form of initiation from Swamiji?
I had taken initiation in 1960 during his first visit.

Do you spend much time in meditation?
I don’t know how to answer that.

Would you prefer to tell me how you pass your day?
I’m like a widow looking after my room: I cook my own meals, occasionally I attend a lecture, I will go for months without reading, I will go for months without any formal meditation…

You are not expected to follow an Ashram discipline?
This is a strange Ashram — everyone here does his own thing. If you talk to Simonetta — she’s Italian and I’m expecting her to call — she has been here for years but she’s a follower of Krishnamurti and she calls herself a Buddhist. I am a Christian although I study Vedanta. There was a Mohammedan here who died a year ago. This is a remarkable institution. And once you are accepted, there’s no charge: it is free, psychologically also.

But like most Ashrams it must be supported by donations?
Yes, but there’s no pressure to donate. A person is given permission to stay if it’s considered he will benefit by his stay in the Ashram. They are a bit short of space these days so it’s very much more difficult.

Does Swami Chidananda teach a form of meditation?
Not to me. He has never told me what to do or how to meditate. He has left me alone. But he is the embodiment of compassion and thoughtfulness. He is often away for long periods, but in the early days when I needed support he supplied support. As time goes on you require less support: he then withdraws his support. The love is never withdrawn. He teaches by example.

Are there any basic teachings?
Sivananda taught: Be good, do good. That’s 50% of yoga. Chidananda teaches: Be happy, make others happy.

What is taught at the lectures you sometimes go to?
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Indian philosophical history, bhakti yoga, comparative philosophy, yoga asanas.

Are you not expected to put them into practice?
They used to ask Swami Sivananda: Why don’t you have a meditation routine? His reply was: Who can meditate?

I was under the impression that a bell used to be rung at 4 a.m. and the Ashramites were supposed to meditate then.
Nobody ever turned up.

Why then was it listed in the daily schedule?
Because somebody wanted to conduct a class, so it was available. Even now there’s a meditation class at 6 a.m. Every night there’s satsang — it’s an active place — but there’s no compulsion. In other Ashrams you are expected to attend their programmes. Here you attend if you feel like. They don’t want you to use the place like a hotel, but if you fulfill the objectives of this institution, they are happy.

I presume one has to be a vegetarian?
Yes, 100%. I have been one since 1960.

When you first arrived here how did you spend your time?
At first I used to travel with Swamiji — and that’s all the travelling I ever did in India. I haven’t even been into Rishikesh for two years. In those days I was on a routine: up at 4, several periods of one hour meditations, yoga asanas, study — one thing after another. I would take a daily walk, but by the time my head hit the pillow at 10, I was out like a light. Coming off an active business life this was a life-saver. Now I spend my time learning how to do nothing. It’s one of the best spots in the world because it’s not easy to relax with all the noise — it’s noisier than the middle of a city. But if I ever go back, well… I am living a cave-type life here, but not with my ears.

Can you see yourself going back to the West and liking it?
I could go tomorrow, but whether I ever will, I don’t know. Sometimes I think I won’t be fit to go back until it doesn’t matter if I go back or not.

Did Swami Sivananda write many books?
Many? He wrote 200 or 300 — he was writing continuously. He was a repetitive, and by English standards, a poor writer. But I want to tell you that I only read half of one book, and the power of that book settled my mind into accepting what I’m now doing. He was basically a jnan yogi, but he wrote about health, philosophy, Vedanta, so many subjects. He was so generous that they used to call him Givananda instead of Sivananda. Someone said he was heart from head to foot. His many books are poor reading but they are power-packed. Scholastic books read well but do nothing for you: his do.

Have you learned Hindi since you came here?
I make a joke about that. After being here for six weeks I knew twelve words. Now I’ve been here six years I know six words but then everything in this Ashram is given out in English — the books, the lectures, and Swamiji speaks excellent English.

Do you ever feel lonely in this solitary life?
It is the inner life alone that supports the outer life. No. At times I am conscious of having little to do, but it somehow has a rightness about it. As I never get bored, I don’t feel lonely. I have said to my guru several times: I cannot understand my life — it makes no sense that someone with my background should be sitting in an Ashram. But then when Swamiji visited my family a few years ago, one of my sons asked him: Is father getting what he’s after? Swamiji apparently replied: He has already got it…he’s living the life he wants! Swamiji told me this for a purpose.

But could you not live this life with your family?
I believe everything is to a purpose. There’s no such thing as a spiritual life without austerity. By far the best type of austerity is that which life gives you, not that which you impose on yourself. Life has separated me from my entire background. Here I do not fast — none of the usual austerities — I am just here with the noises and all the other things jarring to Western senses. That in itself provides all the austerity I need. If I were to walk away from what life presents me, then I would have to take on — or life would give me — some other form of austerity, and that might be even less pleasant. We should all be content.

Now can I ask you a question?

I’ve asked you so many, how can I refuse?
In these Interviews, are you leaving off before you ask each person the number one question, before you dig right down to where they’re really at? All our social contacts are surface, but the readers of your book will want to know where your people really live.

You have raised a good point — yes — but can anyone really say where they live, where they’re at?
I don’t believe anything anyone says: people say what they want to think or what they want others to think. You have to get underneath all that — you have to scratch deeper.

I don’t quite see that as my role. I should tell you I have resisted doing this book — perhaps for selfish reasons as I loath travelling. I pushed the idea away two years ago, but it seems right to me now, and I know it hasn’t been tackled in defth before. I also know some good will come out of it. When I was 40 I decided I could never do any more work unless it was of some benefit to others. I have lived that way ever since. So although I do see your point I feel the book will fall into its own place, and the Interviews will also flow the way they have to, without anything I have to strive to say or do.
My experience with people is that they all live in a dream world. I agree with you that you have no right to disturb that illusion. But to probe in a sensitive way until you get down deep into the true meaning behind the words each person uses, well, that’s what I’m suggesting.

I do understand all that, and this surely will stay in my consciousness. The idea behind the book is to find out if Westerners by coming to India have come any nearer to God, to fulfillment, to realization. But can I ask that question coldly, directly, from each person I meet?
I think everything else meaningless.

Perhaps. But won’t the way those who speak about their new lives give an adequate picture for the readers to draw their own conclusions? Is it necessary for me to get the knife out and scratch? My guru taught me: Don’t be the doer! So what comes out from those Interviews will come out of their own accord… and it will be right.
But should not your first concern be the audience, the reader?

Of course, and that’s why I have started going from place to place, although meeting people with whom I would normally never come in contact has its own satisfaction and reward.
Now look, you just go on without losing any sensitivity, but if the person holds back, your next question may make all the difference between a successful Interview and a mediocre one. Most of us respond to questions if we are asked but don’t usually want to talk about ourselves too much unless we are on an ego trip. It’s a matter of being tremendously interested in what you are being told as a fellow seeker. The questions you ask are genuine, so your sensitivity will tell you if you are probing too deeply. This book will live only through you and your dedicated interest in every person you Interview. Each person’s story will have to be the most important story in the world to you — don’t forget: his story is the most important story in the world to him! He thinks about it all the time. To get that story out in its totality you will have to have that same interest. He won’t resent you having a genuine interest in him. So all I am saying is don’t quit before you’ve won. Jump in without fear.

All right… I am going to jump… now you tell me what’s the purpose of your life? That’s the last question.
The purpose? Well — yes — that’s good. Hmm! When you’re living by yourself, all the time some thought will absorb your mind. Then you let it go. This is wise — in life you can’t hold on to anything. Lately I have become absorbed in the idea that my entire mental process is geared to one thing: the avoidance of pain. Human beings are always seeking happiness and trying to avoid pain. The aim of my life is simply the avoidance of pain. If we are able to do this our basic nature is happiness — happiness is what’s left over.

But wouldn’t that be considered a rather selfish aim? If we look at the lives of the saints they are all full of sacrifice for the sake of the happiness of others.
True. A selfish man cares only for his own personal gratification until he sees that this destroys his relationships with everyone else. It then becomes less painful to become considerate to others. What we discover by becoming less selfish is really an enlightened self-interest. By avoiding the tremendous pain of total selfishness we suffer less. We chose the lesser of two evils. The more enlightened we become we see it’s in our own interest to be less self-concerned. By making painful mistakes we learn. Eventually we are driven into a changed life — the new life. It is a less painful way of functioning.

Don’t you think as we are drawn into the new life this enables us to accept the usual pains of day to day living? Anandamayi Ma says she is always happy because she rests in God’s will, therefore everything is right. Nothing is painful to her.
That’s not contradicting what I’m saying. Why does anyone rest in God’s will? Because it was too painful — disastrous — to rest in his own will. Don’t take what I’ve said as a negative statement. The mental process is a continual effort in trying to avoid pain. Sure, the final way to avoid it is to rest in God’s will and let go. Here is where we become free - totally, recklessly free: we have let go of the concern for our mind and body to rest in our inner nature. Of course, this can be tremendously dangerous if preached to everyone. The hippies did this but went to rack and ruin.

Eventually everyone has to learn that to avoid pain one has to let go. One starts by saying: I am going to trust God — everything must be His will. Then a stage comes when we are unconcerned, we rest in our inner nature. Finally, we become the witness of whatever the mind and body are doing. But I still contend we can only be driven in this direction by the desire to avoid pain at every stage. Through bitter experience we learn it is too painful to be sinful, too painful to be selfish. So I see it as a positive approach to my purpose of life, this attempt — this obsession — to avoid pain.

Bill Swami is considered very much a permanent resident of the Sivananda Ashram, and was given Sannyas in 1988 by his guru, Swami Chidananda. As Swami Atmaswarupananda he is now an esteemed senior figure there. He gives short penetrating talks in the Samadhi Hall to accompany collective early morning meditation sessions. A collection of these 85 talks, “Trust in God”, was published by the Divine Light Society in 2002.

In 1996 his daughter also took Sannyas, and as Swami Amritarupananda, they both work together collecting, editing and seeing through the press talks that had been given over the years by Swami Chidananda. Four major volumes have so far been brought out.

Bill Swami in his 80th year




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© Malcolm Tillis 2006