Bill has given me much to think about, much to
question about my approach to collecting these Interviews. He is now making
me a hot drink. I am thinking deep, but not for long. A knock at the door: a
dramatic contralto with basso profundo overtones is declaiming the horror of
Indian bus travel. The awaited Simonetta is back from a day in horrid Dehra
Dun. The aria continues molto staccato: it includes a denouncement of Ashram
politics leading into a brilliant caballeta on the well-known theme —
The Tortures of Ashram Life.
Simonetta, Roman, aristocratic, totally unforgettable,
rises to a renewed pitch of excitement as Bill explains I am longing to meet
her so that her Ashram news and views can be included in a book I’m writing.
Just compiling, I correct weakly.
But you writers — she goes on— never
tell the truth about Ashram life and…
I quickly interrupt -- compilers can only publish
the information they are given --
(We have been waiting for the sound of a car outside
which would denote Swami
Chidananda’s arrival for satsang
and which would be our cue to rush out to the lecture hall so as not to miss
a word, but without any preliminaries, without asking permission, I turn on
the tape recorder, molto rapido)…
…and…I keep telling, and nobody
is believing — when will someone write the truth?…the truth that
Ashram life is hell! I am also telling — but I know you will never write
this — it is not one hell: it is five hells — FIVE! And I can name
them all — I have experienced them ALL. Through all the Ashram hell regions
have I passed! Is your recorder taking all this down, it’s working?
It is, but there’s
not much tape left.
Very well. The continuation can be tomorrow!
Bill, so practical, so helpful, is disgusted at
another sign of my all too obvious inefficiency. I have left Hardwar without
taking photographs of the persons who gave the first three Interviews; it’s
years since I used a camera so I see it as an intrusive weapon, a weapon of
aggression I hope to get used to. I am busy trying to cover up my further weaknesses
when the sound of a car outside saves me; it is the cue for all the Ashramites
to march up to the hall like the tail-end of the triumphant chorus in Act 1
Chidananda is already sitting serene, eyes closed, still: he has the most ascetic
face I have ever seen. The radiation of a saint can be overwhelming if one absorbs
too much —I know all too well it can make you want to go home and stop
compiling accounts, however dynamic, however accurate of the rich variety of
scenes from Ashram life. But this Swami
is light and joyful and is making me want to hear even more of everything Simonetta
threatens to let loose. Or is it that I have lived long enough in an Ashram
to share some of her joy and discomfort, her trials and moments of supreme bliss?
…Now as I was trying to tell you last night…and
are you listening?...Ashram life is never portrayed honestly. It is because
of the protectiveness of the disciples — protecting the guru, protecting the system — that
is at fault. We all know about the blissing-out part. Who ever writes about
the frustration-ego-smashing side? There are some marvelous people who are naturally
spiritual: there’s no effort, there’s great simplicity, great humbleness.
They don’t have to go through the conflicts and excrutiating tests we
have to go through. We are going through hell; they have bypassed it. The truth
I am saying bold and loud.
Perhaps devotee writers
feel it their duty to sugar-coat the life-in-the-Ashram pill. Before you take
me on a tour of all the Ashram hells can you tell me how you landed in this
I came only for Swami
Chidananda. I met him in Paris in 1969. He was attending a conference. I had
just left the Catholic Church for the Russian Orthodox, and my priest was so
open-minded that as he knew I was interested in Hinduism he took me to see Swamiji. I had only been converted for one
month. The moment I saw Swamiji walk into that crowded room, I don’t
know what happened — it was all finished. You cannot explain this sort
of thing: you have to pass through it.
Swamiji was the embodiment of everything I
dreamed of: the love, the light, the purity, the beauty. I heard all his talks
for the next two days. It was a bewildering experience. Then he disappeared.
I looked for him everywhere. I could not find where he had gone. Swamiji just disappeared out of my life.
Now I was a very famous fashion designer, and I had
a contract with a chain of stores in America for the past eleven years. I had
to go there for publicity tours twice a year. I was breaking away from all that
so I could concentrate the work in New York: fashion shows, Interviews and so
on. My contract was finishing in June 1970, but when I arrived in New York they
wanted me to do Chicago and San Fransico also. Fashion didn’t interest
me any more so I didn’t want to go to California. But in New York I called
up the Divine Life Society to see if they knew where Swamiji was. He was in San Francisco! So my
contract — which was to be my last in America — brought me to Swamiji again.
Swamiji returned to India in December 1970,
and I flew back to Paris to wind up my affairs. By January 1st I was with him
in India. I didn’t know anything about the Ashram: I came only for him.
But why do you find Ashram
I don’t find it hell — I find it five hells. Are you listening?
I tell them to you? The most obvious hell is the lack of minimum comfort…there
are buckets of water, and like policemen who have dates for changing into winter
and summer uniform, we have dates for hot water in winter. It can be freezing,
but until a certain date, no bucket of hot water. Then we have lovely noise,
and dust, and food that comes in which you have to heat up — that’s
if the electricity is working and the stove hasn’t bust. Here the power
fluctuates with much enthusiasm, so everything breaks. There are the pigeons
who like doing their nests in the fuse box which also makes it dangerous to
interfere with their strange habits.
There is always something extraordinary happening.
But all year round we are sure of one lovely unmovable fixture: the food is
the same — rice and lentils with a bit of vegetables. At least we are
able to boast that food has no longer any importance. Oh, my God, there are
so many hells! The animals — we have zoos in our rooms: monkeys and famished
dogs trying to get in; ants, scorpions, cockroaches and flies already installed
inside; mosquitos having feasted to their fill, wanting to get out. Oh, I forgot
the wasps: they also come in to nest. We have to get accustomed to all this.
And I must not forget the mice. They are very small, and as no doors fit properly
or touch the ground, they stroll underneath: you suddenly see a grey thing that
has the cheek to stare at you…he is not even afraid.
But then there is a much subtler hell, a more difficult
hell: it is having to live with other people. You have to get along with them
and not indulge in likes and dislikes, not to get caught up with emotions and
sensations generated by them but to relate to them in a detached way. We are
collected together for the same reason but from different backgrounds and cultures.
It takes much patience to look on everyone as your brother or sister.
Now do you begin to see what I mean about the hell
regions? The more I go on, the more hells come into my mind. Another is —
these reflections are all personal, for we are all at different stages of evolution
— yes — the loneliness of Ashram life. Suddenly you find yourself
living in a community with people you don’t know and with whom you would
never have even met in your ordinary life. There is lack of communication: it
is not easy. In this solitude comes the lesson — most important —
how to live with yourself and not depend on people and objects.
Would you like to say
something now about the benefits of Ashram life, or something about Swamiji’s teachings? Swamiji doesn’t give any teachings —
that was my big surprise: he only gives silence — at least to me. Let
me begin from the beginning. Having worked for twenty-five years in fashion,
I couldn’t see myself sitting on the banks of Mother Ganga doing nothing.
I asked Swamiji if I could look after the orphans.
He never answered. I had even written to him about this from Paris. Silence.
Silence. Silence. By the end of 1972 I was rather demoralized. Someone suggested
I try looking after the lepers. I was so wanting to work that lepers and children
were all the same to me. Swamiji said I should draw up a programme
and join him in the south where he was on tour.
This Ashram here in Rishikesh is surrounded by three
leper camps, mostly beggars cut off from human contact, rejected by society.
They were waiting for death, passive, sad. I made up a programme, and joined
Swamiji. He never looked at the programme,
he never called me. I was to fly to Paris, so at the last moment he pulled out
the papers, but said there was no time to discuss it - so many devotees were
waiting for him. He suggested I extend my visa and wait for him at the Ashram.
When he returned we visited the lepers together. We started by taking away all
the begging lepers and put them in a camp: Swamiji then measured symbolically the first
From that day that group never had to beg. They have
food, medical care and clothing.
At the other camps we started handicrafts — they weren’t obliged
to work, it was absolutely voluntary. I then flew back to Paris where I got
rid of everything — I had already sold my fashion house after the first
trip to India. I was back in the Ashram a few months later, and from fashion,
destiny gave me lepers to take care of. I took charge of the medical side: there
was no compounder, no dispensary, no doctors — nothing. I learned how
to give injections, medicine dressings; it was not easy for me. The dirt —
the most horrible wounds that had been neglected, rotting: the sweet smell that
never left you, worms eating away mutilated flesh, eyes eaten away by white
ants. It would have been impossible for me to have done that work unless I had
devotion and love for Swamiji. He was working through me: nothing
could I have done alone. Only now can I tell you, as you have asked —
that was Swamiji’s teachings.
Later, when everything got settled in the camps,
and as I was still full of illusions and believed a guru should give so-called spiritual
instruction, I started going to someone else for Vedanta instruction. I love philosophy,
I am not really a bhakta. I heard Krishnamurti and was fascinated with what
he did with people’s minds — he takes the mind and puts it on a
higher level; so I decided it was time for me to look for gurus and teachings. I went to the Himalayas,
everywhere from Sikkim with Karmapa and Kalu Rinpoche
in Darjeeling to Muktananda to Krishnamurti, who became my obsession. I even
had the nerve to go to a great lama and tell him I had come to learn
so that I could understand Krishnamurti better.
May I ask who you consider
your guru or gurus?
Chidananda who opened me up to spirituality — and I must say whenever
I’m in front of him I am a total idiot: I can only say — Yes —
Yes, Swamiji — Yes… Secondly, my other
guru is Krishnamurti, who for me is the
living Buddha — he is unique. I am very
lucky. I have had a lot of gurus — whoever teaches you something
is a guru. All my initiations have been from
Tibetan lamas — Swamiji has never initiated me.
Now I should tell you that Swamiji told me years ago: This Ashram is
your spiritual home in India… you can leave your things here… you
can travel and do whatever you want… but remember, this is your home.
This is what happened. I have traveled all over this country, but I always come
Bill told me you are
building a small house in the Ashram.
Only yesterday Swamiji gave the blessing on the plot of land
which had been chosen in 1973.
I see in this room of
yours you sleep on the floor and use the bed as a table. You must have lived
a very different life before you came to India.
Different it was. Italy was discovered as a fashion center after the war, and
in the fifties and sixties I had one success after another. I was practically
the queen of Italian fashion. I was constantly travelling round the world. I
had everything I wanted: beautiful houses, luxury which I adored, success which
I adored, and I made a lot of money which I adored. Then came the change in
In 1962 Christian Dior died. Capucci, the Italian
designer opened a fashion house in Paris. It was a success, so he persuaded
my husband — who was also a fashion designer, Alberto Fabiani —
to also open in Paris. In Italy we had separate houses: his was Fabiani, mine,
Simonetta. But we merged our businesses in Paris next door to Balmain, Dior
and other big houses. More success. But Paris became the bridge to the East.
Our marriage broke down — he was always flying round the world that way,
and I was flying the other way: we never met.
I was a tremendous success but all alone. I had three choices: to go to a psychiatrist,
throw myself in the Seine, or take to yoga. I met a hatha yoga teacher, and for several years
he helped me. But of course, when one starts meditation one’s life begins
to change; the things that had appeal and glamour fall away. I started going
to the Russian Church — I had always reacted violently against my own
Church with its hypocricy, its system of banging fear into children –
fear of hells, fear of heavens, fear of sins: it’s disgusting what they
do! For many years I couldn’t step inside a church.
Do you want me to leave
all that in?
For me you can put anything that’s against the Catholic Church —
I am violently against it. With great difficulty I am only just getting over
I ask because…
Yes, yes — I know one shouldn’t, but I’m still very violent
you see: I still have strong feelings about this. When I was 14 or 15 I had
great spells of fear, and it took years to get rid of them. That is why I have
such resentment against the Church.
Would you rather talk
about the positive side of Ashram life? I’m sure there’s much that
you have enjoyed here.
This Ashram is unique as an organization. We have lovely monks. It is a bit
like a sea-port; people come and go. It‘s good for beginners as there
are lectures, a library, three-month courses. Residents are allowed to follow
their personal sadhana.
It doesn’t matter from which country you belong if there’s a deep
involvement in the search for the inner life. Since I came here Swamiji has drained me of all my love —
I can’t love any more. He has taken it all. I think of him as a fisherman
throwing his net all over the world in his travels and catching new fish to
bring to the path. Only after many years did I understand what he taught me
— there are no teachings, but he taught through his silence.
I have also found that we must learn to be aware
of everything during the day; that is a form of meditation. Meditation does
not mean to have a rosary in your hand and have your eyes closed. It means to
live here and now, to be aware of what’s happening inside and outside.
Krishnamurti gives what I call teachings: clues and directions, how to look
at ourselves, at things. He gives no conclusions; on the contrary, he puts questions
with no answers.
Do you keep up with what’s
going on in the outside world?
No, no, no! I don’t read newspapers any more. The only books I read are
on philosophy. At first I couldn’t stop reading — it was like a
folly. Now I read much less. All books say the same thing — practice!
Through practice, I am finding out, the doors open slowly and you get a glimpse
that every teacher is showing you the same way in different words.
Bill gave me a lecture
last night, so I am going to plunge deep. In your old life you had much fame,
wealth, happiness and much misery also. Now, in spite of the Ashram hells, have
you made any inner progress?
Progress? Many times I’ve watched a fascinating thing: we are always the
same. We don’t change. Maybe with realization there’s a complete
transformation. Through our practices we become aware of our emotions, and look
at them: but they are there. They are more quiet, they are sleeping instead
of awake. So what is progress?
Well, should you have
to go back to the West would you be able to re-adapt?
It would be a good exercise. I do go on short visits and arrive peaceful, calm
until one has to meet other mentalities, problems. You see that the East has
been teaching you, now the West is teaching you: you are always given teachings
wherever you are. Once you can take all teachings under all circumstances, then
you know you have arrived. But once you have lived in the East and you have
loved the East as I do, it is extremely hard to even think of ever living in
the West again. You see, I have one big wish left — that is why I have
asked for that tiny house here. I want to die in India… to be burnt here
and have my ashes thrown into the Ganga.
Apart from this wish
do you have a goal in your life?
There is no goal.
Why are you here?
You start looking for the goal, then you learn there’s no goal. There
is no seeker, there are no teachings, there are no teachers.
That sounds like Krishnamurti.
Yes — yes — yes, but you have to understand all that. The path is
divided in two: first is the ego trip — one wants progress, one forces
oneself into all sorts of disciplines. But all that’s the trip of the
ego. Second part: we come to realize there’s no “I” —
we are just energies, there is no goal, there are no teachings.
You say we are energies,
does that mean you don’t believe in karma and reincarnation?
I am studying all that — meditating on what reincarnates. I don’t
believe in a stable entity that reincarnates. It’s a mixture of energies
that at a certain point crystallize into a human being, and with death, they
dissolve. What reincarnates, I don’t know. This is my Buddhist training
and ideas. We are still in the field of the mind, so we each project and receive
within the field we are working in or believing in.
But isn’t spirituality
something apart from the mind?
We speak about spirituality as a thing which can be acquired. It is a gift.
All spiritual experiences are given as a gift; we do not achieve them. The spiritual
life is to get rid of the ego, the “I”, and to awaken perception
and intuition. We all have that potential within us. But for Westerners especially,
our minds are so clear, quick — our brains are working all the time: we
function through the mind not the heart. Sadhana
means to get out of the mind so that perception and intuition can develop. It’s
a slow process. People come to India searching, searching. It’s so hard
to judge what’s in their hearts, if they are only frustrated or afraid
of life or facing responsibility. There are so many problems.
Do you have a problem
with your family? Do you ever miss them?
At the beginning my mind wandered from the East to the West like a pendulum.
But one has to pull it back into the here-and-now. My son was only 16 when I
first came here. It’s an extremely long process getting rid of everything;
attachments, material things — they grasp you. It’s not enough to
say: I will throw everything away! They cling to you. Mental detachment is all
right, but the practical part takes time. It is not difficult for me to stay
here — I was never at home anywhere in the West.
At the beginning when we started talking last night
about the Ashram hells I missed out one important hell. It is a hell that lies
in store for us. It is the hell waiting for us if we ever go back to the West.
You see, we suddenly find we do not belong there. That can be a traumatic shock
— we don’t know where we ought to be, who our friends are; so much
has dropped away — old habits, our old way of living, the old way of thinking.
We find ourselves as alone in the West as we are in the East. Yes — we
may now have a lovely hot bath, some chocolate, all the things one used to love,
but they have lost their meaning. Clothes have lost their meaning, all the things
one cared for have lost their meaning.
The taste of the West after many years in the East
is a serious hell because it attracts and repels at the same time. The only
way is to find the famous MiddleWay, the way of detachment.
Simonetta was able to get her own
dream house built over-looking the Ganges. Now in her eighties she divides
her time between Rome and Paris with visits to India to see her guru, the extremely frail Swami
Chidananda who is almost 90. She has completed her autobiography, which
without doubt will be colourfully frank, stimulating and controvertial.
It is still to be published.