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 Aitken


20th December 1980

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New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

The next day I am at the local bank asking for travellers cheques in preparation for the descent into the world. The manager smiles: We are out of them…it will take a week! Right, that means I’m supposed to leave in a week.

Meanwhile, as I’m sorting out my things — it’s cold in Mussoorie but will be warm in the south — we have an amusing visitor. He has lived in India many years having past through many Ashrams and many scenes which have turned him into an eloquent if rather biting raconteur. He agrees to let me record his reminiscences, but what appears here is hardly one third of what he has to say.


Interview 7

According to my birth certificate I was born on 31st May 1934 in Tullibody, Clackmannamshire — the smallest country with the biggest name in Scotland. Our back yard ran straight up to a mountain 1,375 ft high. I remember sitting there listening to the drone of the universe and watching the sheep: I was anti-social from an early age. I hate cities and love mountains, so, Malcolm, this is why I have taken the trouble to struggle up here to see you.
My father was a coppersmith but he moved to England, so I was educated in Birmingham and at Leeds University where I studied comparative religion. My professor was a Baptist minister who in spite of himself liked Hinduism; he was, however, disappointed when Hinduism charmed me more than his own Baptist line.

I was going into the Church as a minister, but I was too honest — I didn’t have the call. I was all set to come to India as a missionary to teach. I was doing an M.A. in Indian Philosophy and Mysticism, one of those airy-fairy refined nonsense courses that modern universities in their learned ignorance specialize in. As a student I went conscientiously to the services of every denomination each week — I had holy communion with the Quakers, the Mormons; I went to the High Anglicans, the Low Anglicans — Leeds has everything. Now I had been brought up as a Presbyterian Calvinist, but it was one of my professors who answered my questions: Was I cut out to be a Christian?

A guest speaker from France who was a faith healer gave a moving sermon. I was thrilled. Because my Presbyterian professor was in the chair, at the end of the sermon he officially denounced it as against the Presbyterian beliefs. I forget what they are now, but I thought: Well, if that didn’t move you, brother, then you have no bowels to be moved. It was then I decided to look elsewhere. I was in my early 20s; I turned more towards the Gandhian studies.
I loved Yorkshire, and Leeds had marvelous symphony concerts on Saturday nights. I must have heard you, Malcolm, when you were playing in the Halle Orchestra with Sir John Barbirolli.

Yes, I was in the Orchestra in those days.
In those days the only thing going on in Britain was Bertram Russell, and he seemed rather dry. For three summers I went to the Island of Iona - there was a Social Consciousness Christian community there. But in those days I liked Gandhi’s teachings the best.

When did you actually decide to come to India?
After I did my M.A. I felt a filial obligation towards my parents, so I took a teaching job to be near them. But as I was an indignant Scottish Nationalist, I would wear the kilt and never stood up in the cinema when the National Anthem was played. I had this pointless rebel instinct which just wore one’s own psyche down and achieved nothing. As for teaching…No! Life was beckoning me — there’s more to it than being a faithful son. And the world seemed to be in a mess: I wanted to do something about it. My friends all said: Forget it, nothing will change. The Director of Education said: Don’t you know if you leave at 24 you’ll commit professional suicide — what about your pension? I thought: God brought me into this world. He’s beckoning me, He’s not saying: Your pension, my boy, first get your pension.

It was then I decided to hitch-hike round this fabulous world wearing the kilt.
I passed through the Middle East and was to return via Australia and America after staying some time in India. I arrived in India twenty years ago but somehow never got round to moving on. I found my guru, so eventually I became an Indian citizen.

Were you looking for a guru?
Not consciously. When I arrived, I was taken up with the Vinoba Bhave movement: he was walking all over India collecting land for the landless. I walked with him for six weeks all over Assam, until my health broke down. I took a job teaching English in Calcutta, but during the vacations I started visiting Ashrams. I was drawn by the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, and in Calcutta I met Arthur Osborne, Ramana’s biographer. I stayed with him at Ramana’s Ashram: here I got a taste of Ashram politics — Ramana had left the body in 1951.
I also went to see Sivananda, a huge man, but although I accepted his hospitality, I came away criticizing him, which was mean.

But Bill, what did you intend doing with your life? Did you just fall into this thing of looking for a guru?
No. I was a big-headed academic gangster trying to get big qualifications with as little work as possible. My idea was to go back and be respectable, teach, nothing more. Though I would have said: No! No! I am looking for God… I wish to offer myself. I always had a monkish trend, and my father called me an idealistic prig. I never liked organizations; my way was to go against the stream. So after I finished in Calcutta I went to stay with a similar type: Sarla Devi. She won the Bajaj Peace Prize only last year for her Gandhian social work.

But before that I realized that if I were to stay in India I better learn Hindi. I came up here to the Landour Language School and stayed with the missionaries. It was hell… these prim and proper London suburban ladies telling me Buddhism is all wrong and Hinduism — the 4,000 years of Hinduism — is lived in vain. How could they know? When an Indian Christian sadhu came, they wouldn’t let him in! Hilarious people; the end of the Raj.

There was something about yoga and yogis that appealed to me, and before I left England I was told about an Englishman who was living as a yogi in the Himalayas. He had been a professor at one of the Indian universities. He changed his name to Krishna Prem… and was living in an ice cave miles from human habitation. Actually, I found I only had to walk a mile from the bus stop and there was a comfortable, well-established Ashram almost like an English county club. And Krishna Prem far from being a shaggy yogi with long matted hair was more like a beaming English curate with his shaven head. My first impression wasn’t too good — but he was to become my paramguru. My actual guru — Ashish Maharaj — was also there. They were both English six-footers, sticklers for Hindu ritual, and they were both dressed in orange.

They immediately floored me every time I opened my mouth. I asked if I could stay, but after they gave me lunch, they escorted me out. I took away a negative impression, but even then they had been my mentors: they recommended I go to the Gandhian school run by an English woman disciple of Mahatma Gandhi — Sarla Devi.

She came to India in the late thirties. She is one of the few people I have ever met who sincerely practices everything she preaches. Her preaching is austere: Up at 4 a.m. even in winter, bathing in the mountain spring, not eating salt — the typical, Gandhian faddist diet. It was a terrific introduction to village India…not typical, because the nature cure thing was taken to excess. When I joined my guru’s Ashram four years later, Ashish Maharaj tried the usual persuasion to get me to eat salt. I thought Sarla was right, but he said: Look, you are now living here doing puja to Thakur — Thakur (Krishna) is the deity — and he likes salt in his food, so you better like it too! I am still learning to find a balance; I am one of those awkward customers who swims the wrong way.

You haven’t said why you left Sarla Devi?
There was a sexual crisis in my life, and in the Gandhian movement it is all brahmacharya, a distorted sense of celibacy. Celibacy has much to be said for it, but obviously God has given one sex for a reason. Anyway, I was running into embarrassing possibilities, and the crisis came when I hovered between life and death with typhoid. Sarla treated me homeopathically, and I fasted for 40 days. I was about to peg out — I had bequeathed my sleeping bag, the only thing I possessed — when I had an extraordinary experience, the sort of thing one reads about the medieval mystics — all is One and One is all.

It completely opened my eyes: life is not what we are taught it is — it isn’t the rat race…we are taught by people who don’t know what it is. They mean well, they haven’t seen, that’s all. The scales dropped from my eyes: I saw what a glorious thing human existence is; I experienced this engine of the cosmos beating by the crude force of Eros and there is nothing to be ashamed of. But as soon as I recovered, I lost it when I started eating — I had received this experience in an out-of-the-body state. I knew I had to find it again. Gandhian ideals were fine, but now irrelevant to me. I had to move on. This tantalizing glimpse, call it divine - it was real - changed my life: I was going to be a wandering sadhu! It sounds like bravado, but that’s how it was then.
I would rather die in a ditch looking for this, I was telling myself, than stay on doing good work changing others. Then Sarala said: All right, become a sadhu, but first go back and get advice from Krishna Prem, he’s lived like that for years. She, being a social worker could not bear sadhus. She regarded them as bums. So this was like a communist advising one to confess to a priest.

I walked the 30 miles across the hills to the Ashram. Krishna Prem was the only holy man of any denomination I have ever met who treated every subject as fair: nothing was taboo. His mind was a mirror of nature: nothing is small, nothing is great, nothing is good, nothing is dirty. We talked. My ideas and beliefs were crushed, I was punched into the ground. He was just telling me: You are running away…you ran away from England…you ran away from Sarla…when are you going to stop running?…you are standing in your own light! I was knocked down, kicked in the ribs and stamped upon.

Then I was shown my room. It was 10 at night, end of March, snow falling, 7,000 feet, no bedding, a wooden bed with a mat. My aim being to become an instant sadhu, I only had the clothes I stood up in. I can still escape - I started consoling myself, this is no place for me, I am misunderstood! But common sense told me if I did, I probably would never see morning. One of the things Krishna Prem told me was that wandering sadhus are lazy; the whole of their lives are devoted to looking for their next meal; how can they do sadhana or serve God? He also told me to go back to teaching so that I won’t be living off anyone, but to do meditation and keep at the inner work. When the body is frozen, common sense arises. In the morning, a much subdued Bill went to Krishna Prem, and said: What you told me is right. He replied: Before you go back and get a job, stay for a few days — you can help in the kitchen.

This was the last six months of his life. Staying with him was the greatest privilege in my life: he had no hang-ups, he understood everyone’s deepest feelings. He reminded me of the dervish who was asked: How is it you understand people’s problems without them explaining anything? He replied: My mind is still, like a clear lake; they look in and see their reflection.
That is the whole thing about the living guru…you can’t get it from any book.

What happened after that? You worked in the kitchen?
Yes, I was given three books to study: Blavatsky’s Light on the Path, Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, and Zen and the Art of Archery. The story of my life was encapsuled in the last book. It was at times hellish living in the Ashram.

But you were told to stay for a few days. How long did you stay?
Seven years. Seven Years!

All the time in the kitchen?
All the time.

What happened when Krishna Prem passed away?
I was given initiation by Ashish Maharaj, his successor. He is also very British, but when he came to India he also never went back. First he went to Ramana, whom he describes as the shining sun, because if you sit in the sun’s presence you are warm, but when you move away you lose it. He wanted the give and take of the guru-disciple relationship; this he found in Krishna Prem. All this was about 1942. He now himself teaches, although he’s not interested in what he calls stamp collectors, those jumping from Ashram to Ashram.

What were the teachings?
Traditional Hindu. This included dream analysis which was rediscovered by Freud and Jung. We had to take the study of our dream life seriously, as being nearer the real realm than the physical. There was work on the farm — or in my case, in the kitchen from 6 a.m. till 10 at night without a break.

Didn’t you have to take part in the rituals?
Yes. There were three aratis a day, and I had to make the meals for Thakur and offer them to him.

With your stormy nature, was it not difficult to accept a guru and Ashram discipline?
The idea insulted my whole being, but call it the grace of God or whatever, I came to see a strict guide was necessary. And obviously you never choose anyone unless you fall in love. Trust and love are close. In choosing a guru, you have to be bowled over first.

Can you say anything about the spiritual disciplines?
Gosh, you’d have to define spiritual. Realization and the world are the same, it’s mind that divides: This is spiritual, this not spiritual.

What was your daily life like? Can you say?
Murder! Really, because there I was, a foreigner, having to do everything in an Indian mode: the agony of sitting on the floor with rickety knees trying to make my chapatis round. My guru was like one of those harsh Zen masters: He believed in throwing one into the deep end to make you swim. On the first day, Ashish said: “You make the chapatis.” I said: “All right, you show me how to make the first one.” He said: “If you want to learn, do it!” I started making shapes like South America or Iceland. I was disgusted. I had to learn.

How many Westerners lived in the Ashram in those days?
In 1965 only an Australian boy and myself. I was in the kitchen, he ran the farm. There was an Indian couple and Ashish, and that was the entire population. Fellow disciples came and went, of course.

Oh, Bill, I would have loved to see you in those days. How did you get on with everyone?
I should have thought that was self-evident. Such dramas. Such Brahmanical rituals and laws: this hand to be used for this, that one for that….don’t let your shadow fall on this, total awareness of how you eat, ritual bathing in freezing water. There were all sorts of tantrums, explosions and emotional heart-burn, feeling sorry for oneself and wanting to stab the guru and run away. Life in an Ashram brings out every gamut of human experience and emotion.

But you stayed all those years. How did you maintain yourself?
The four years I spent with Sarla I worked as a handyman, in the garden, and so on. One’s expenses were small, so they were met by the school. But what could you buy apart from toothpaste? …which was frowned upon… and soap, which was also frowned upon: one washed with reeta, a local fruit, and cleaned one’s teeth with soot. For the seven years in the Ashram, I was given an honorarium for service to Thakur, who would also pay my bus fare once a year for a holiday in Nainital.

Bill, you have been here twenty years, how did you adapt?
I am still adapting. My breakthrough into Hinduism came when I stayed with a Punjabi printer in Allahabad who took me for the customary morning bathe in the Ganga. It was winter, chilly; we stripped off. I could see flotsam and jetsom and cigarette cartons and all sorts of muck bobbing about. He plunged in, calling: “Come! …this is Ganga Mai.” “You don’t expect me to jump into this” — I yelled — “it’s filthy!’ He replied: “It’s not the water that’s filthy, it’s the dirt!” Suddenly, like Zen satori, I knew he was right: I jumped in too. And from that moment I’ve never had typhoid or those things. I’ve had immunity — psychic immunity. You can’t stay in India on boiled water; you have to come round to the Indian way — if you get a bug, it’s for a purpose. It’s easier to live that way, too.

Lama Govinda must have lived near you at the Ashram.
Yes, he was a dear man, the most Buddhistic of men. His wife was different. Lama would invite you for tea in a mild and scholarly manner, but the wife would brow-beat him. She never butted into his scholarly activities, though. They were so beautifully dressed in their Tibetan costumes that the local residents used to say that before setting out for their evening constitutional, they would turn to one another and say: Do we match?
There was another great character living nearby: Sunya Baba — Sorrenson, who left Denmark in the thirties and came to India as a landscape gardener.

Was there anyone else besides your guru whom you admired?
Admired? Don’t say admired — I feel love is the only touch-stone that rings true to all men. So did I love anyone else? Yes. I fell in love with Prithwi, a fellow disciple, and that’s why I left the Ashram. I had my guru’s blessings, for he said if I couldn’t find what I was after through love, I should give up. So I am now following that path. I left in 1972 and have no regrets. As you know, I work as a private secretary to a Maharani. One thing my guru taught me when I started was: I won’t promise you anything, but you start on this and you will never have any regrets. He never lauded anything -- this will be seen inside, that will eventually be attained — but whatever he said has rung true. The teachings have been right for me.

Have you found an inner peace you didn’t have before?
Am I less prickly than before? I suppose with age…it’s just a fact of life: you give up writing to the editor. I’m just as awkward as ever, but it’s less apparent. Stir me and I suppose it will all come up again.

Do you still meditate?
Not in the sense of sitting down and conjuring up nothingness, but in the sense that one is all the time reminding oneself that one is here for a purpose — to see the One behind it all. So no formal meditation. In the Ashram one sat all night in special postures, strapping oneself up; all that jazz. What is it all about? Even in trance states, does it change anything? You zoom up, but then you have to come down.

Can you ever see yourself living again in the West?
Because I was put through the excruciating Ashram mangle — the washing machine — I could live anywhere. My guru taught me the inner path is facing things you have always been afraid to face. So he said: Get back into life, have a bank account, pay income tax. How can you understand the One that encompasses all when you are terrified of the irritating aspects of the establishment? Conquer the establishment, be part of it, then say it’s not there…there’s no less the One in the market place than in the Ashram.

So thanks to my guru giving me the boot, these last nine years have been just as excruciating – that was the mangle, this is the rolling machine. I couldn’t care about going back to the West — I could go to Soviet Russia having read Solzenitizin and how he managed to stay cheerful. I don’t say I would succeed, but equanimity would be there in the face of drastic change.
In this age of enlightenment, the West has lost the validity of the inner search. In India the inner search goes on — you can talk to almost anyone here and he will not think it strange if you say you have come here to be with a guru. India has managed to retain a balanced attitude towards possessions — renunciation is a mental attitude, not a forced dropping of everything. Indians are just as acquisitive as Westerners, but they don’t have the same attachment; they don’t cling and are not in such a mad rush to achieve. The real India is the inner India, so you can carry that away with you. It’s nice to have the hygiene and comforts of the West with all its efficiency, but not if we forget what we are striving to have them for.

Bill Aitken may have arrived in India in 1959 having hiked over-land in a kilt. He is now in his early seventies but has never left. He describes himself as a Sufi Scotsman, a lapsed monk, a tireless traveller, a prolific writer. He has in fact built up a fine reputation as a successful author having published several books about his adopted homeland.




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© Malcolm Tillis 2006