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



Jamie Smith

Kirpal Ashram
Vijay Nagar

31st December 1980

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

I have arrived at Old Delhi railway station by night train from Dehra Dun. It’s 6.30 a.m. Everyone is fighting for a porter, then for a taxi or auto-rickshaw. I get into one of the latter, a species peculiar to the East. This three-wheel contraption skids, and hoots, and thrusts its way unafraid, through bullock-carts, huge trucks and buses already pounding the overcrowded Old Delhi thoroughfares. The fumes are monstrous, the noise monstrous. I hold on to my luggage. Am I going to spend the next few months like this?
I know I am spoilt by too much mountain seclusion, but need I come down with such a thud?

As I nearly fall out of the contraption — an over-loaded bus has run us off the road — I pray to my guru: Need I go through all this — need I be the channel for this book?

I am comforted by the thought of my own guru’s selfless prayer to his guru, the noblest of prayers: Should any good ever come out of me, let me not know anything about it.

I dust myself down, breath deeply, nod to the shaken driver; we smile sheepishly, we plod on.

As we turn into Kirpal Ashram just beyond the university, I struggle out of the battered, limping vehicle a battered heap myself. There are many people here that know me but haven’t seen me for a long time.

Yes, yes — I am being told — there’s a room for you. The Ashram is a quiet, unpretentious haven named after Sant Kirpal Singh, who is my own beloved Sat Guru and where my wife and I lived in bliss until he left his earthly body six years ago.
Sant Kirpal Singh was born in the Punjab in 1894. In his early 20s he began seeing in meditation his future guru, Hazur Baba Sawan Singh who, when they met, initiated him into the Surat Shabd Yoga, the yoga of the inner Light and Sound. He became the perfect selfless devotee and was allowed to give Satgang, even initiation, in Hazur’s presence at the Dera in Beas.

On the passing of Hazur in 1948, after spending 6 months in retreat in Rishikesh, Kirpal Singh settled in Delhi where he started his Mission – Ruhani Satsang, The Path of The Masters – pouring out his loving teachings through regular discourses and initiations. By 1955 his fame had grown, and with so many new Centres having sprung up especially in the West, he set off on the first of his 3 world tours.

Two years later he was elected President of the World Fellowship of Religions, a role close to his heart as his teachings reflect his deep-rooted faith in the unity of all religions: he never tired of pointing out that they all embrace a common mystic centre. He travelled ceaselessly and gave discourses and initiation to tens of thousands, pouring out such loving concern for each of his followers that it penetrated the innermost depths of the soul. He wrote many books, but in his collected more intimate question-and-answer periods he dealt ever-patiently with the day-to-day problems facing his devotees. His whole life exemplified the noblest ideals of mankind: love of and service to all creation, and the attainment of self-knowledge and God-realization. Right up to his last days, although weak in body, with passionate vigour he delivered his message, every word becoming a poetic call for spiritual awakening. He died in his 80th year in 1974. His Mission is now carried on by his son and spiritual successor, the noble self-effacing Sant Darshan Singh, who is a poet-mystic steeped in the Sufi tradition although still very much a Sikh.


There are only two Westerners living in the Ashram on a permanent basis although the Mission has a world-wide following. I have come to see them, but they are busy and elusive and it will take time and patience to get them face to face with the microphone. But they have agreed to the Interviews. So I am now off to New Delhi to get a travel agent to make train reservations for the long journeys that lie ahead.

In the evening Jamie is free — Martha is far too busy — so he wants to start. I have long admired his quiet, withdrawn manner which almost hides his dry sense of humour. He and Martha often stay up all night doing urgent Ashram work. They are both rare examples of committed, selfless sevadars.



Interview 9

Jamie, I haven’t seen you for some time, but I remember coming to your marriage a few years ago…
Yes, that was in 1975 over in New Delhi.

It was so long ago? Would you like to start this Interview by telling me something about your early life and how you came to this new one?
Looking back at my childhood, this period in India is perhaps a natural sequence rather than an abrupt change or new life. Many changes of course take place at the feet of a guru, however.

Thinking of my childhood brings back the memory of experiences I had which were of a spiritual nature. They weren’t unique but they were profound. I was born Christian, sang in the church choir, but never totally accepted the church; there seemed to be so much more to be revealed. It provided a forum for prayer and worship, but not for realization. As an institution there is a disparity between what is taught and what is practiced.

At 16 or 17 the crossroads in my life became more and more distinct. The values inherent in the process of growing up: getting a good job, living comfortably in pretty houses didn’t win a solid place in my mind. Such a life was a journey with no meaning, no goal, short-lived. On graduation from high school I entered college in Vermont. This institution didn’t cherish traditions; there was a spirit of questioning values usually taken for granted. I found fellow students interested in a variety of spiritual disciplines, vegetarianism, health foods. I became a vegetarian, practiced hatha yoga, but was aware of searching for something profound, something I had had intimations of throughout my childhood.

I was becoming a member, whether I knew it or not, of a growing movement interested in spiritual awakening. It was exciting going to New York City to hear some Swami talk on higher consciousness, or listen to Dr. Richard Alpert who had transformed himself into Baba Ram Dass, or imbibe the teachings of a Zen Buddhist monk. Exciting, yes, but I couldn’t commit myself to any of it.

What to do? I left college after that first semester, my intention being to have a short leave to pursue an inner sabbatical. I withdrew from life’s mainstream to the sea-side to contemplate the nagging questions of life-death, and so on. The caravan of life proceeds so rapidly there’s no time to gaze at the landmarks as they pass or to seriously consider the goal of the journey. This was a time to gain distance between ourselves and the ephemeral world and our identification with machines and superficial pleasures so as to get concerned with more lasting values.

I got a job, lived alone, meditated and practiced hatha yoga. Nights were passed swithout sleep simply observing my thoughts. Days were passed without meeting anyone, without outer communication. They were interesting experiments using my own self as the laboratory. The results were startling. If the mind could be stilled as well as the body, would the inner force come to the surface? What is that inner force, what animates it, how does it relate to the outside world? What remains of it after death? These seemed to me the most pressing questions and yet strangely neglected. A painful gulf developed around me and those with whom I had grown up; I found it impossible to share or articulate my experiences. So much had to be rejected, so much became unexplainable.

On returning to my college, I came in contact indirectly — he wasn’t physically present — with my guru-to-be. A friend had found his spiritual teacher and was convinced he was a perfect saint. This saint, Kirpal Singh, lived in Delhi. My friend took me to a nearby Ashram managed by Kirpal Singh followers. Sense of time came to a halt, only the shades of day and night told their tale. I was uplifted.

My meditations were regular but I had no idea of what was transpiring. I needed a guide, someone who had the highest experiences and who could lead me to the goal. I thought of Kirpal Singh; a surge of confidence drew me into the arena of his love and grace. In February 1971 I received initiation from Sant Kirpal Singh. From that point onwards there were many changes in my life. My soul rose above body-consciousness and experienced God, or whatever you choose to call that power, in the form of inner light and sound, and I was able to see vistas in the realms beyond. The Master had the power to uplift the soul, and he being one with God, could give such inner experiences from any distance. He was in India physically at the time of the initiation; I had been accepted by direct correspondence.

Sant Kirpal Singh’s books point again and again to a unifying thread which links all faiths and teachings — it was the thread of spiritual awakening. To become his follower it was not necessary to renounce my religion. Instead he showed me how to become a better Christian.

Would you say something about the conditions attached to taking initiation?
Yes, why not? The prospective disciple, student, follower — whatever you may call him/her — must be a vegetarian for at least three months prior to taking initiation. There must be abstinence from alcohol, any form of intoxicant and drugs other than those for health. The seeker must live a chaste life except if a married couple wishes to have children. The seeker should be self-supporting and must be prepared to meditate daily for two to three hours.

And the reasons for these conditions are?
Those eating vegetables only become calmer, more serene. Everyone knows the vegetarian diet is a purer diet for it has none of the toxic effects associated with the eating of dead flesh. Meat-eating stimulates passion: sex, anger, and so on. For anyone seeking an inner life of harmony and peace, these have to be controlled. There is also the karmic aspect of the diet we take. The Master teaches that all actions meet with a reaction according to set rules which govern Creation. By taking life, life will have to be given in payment to the extent proportionate with the object. So if we take the life of a creature with feelings — say a chicken — as opposed to a vegetable which is almost devoid of feeling, we stand to pay more heavily.

The strength and well-being of the body lies in chastity; the life fluid, indiscriminately spent in sex, reduces the strength of mind and body, weakening the foundation for spiritual discipline. To be able to control the attention and direct it within during meditation for hours at a time is no small feat. For this a chaste life is absolutely necessary. We all know that alcohol dulls the consciousness and the taking of drugs deadens the spirit.

No fees are paid for this initiation, are there?
The only fee I had to pay was the declaration of my sincerity. No money was given. The Master used to say that his gifts were like the gifts of nature: air, sun, water are all free. The discipline is not imposed for its own sake, but for the seeker to progress on the path.

As you were only 19 when you took this initiation, how did it affect your life?
A new perspective or awareness within me developed which affected the way I saw the world around me. That subtle aspect of ourselves called consciousness expanded and with it my vision of life. My experience was in no way unique to myself…it doesn’t lend itself to words. Wordsworth tried, with difficulty I would say, in his ode, Intimations of Immortality, so how shall I proceed? This new awareness made life difficult at times. I wasn’t reading about consciousness and its expansion anymore — I was living it! I felt Sant Kirpal Singh’s presence with me. How was it possible? Well…

You hadn’t even met him physically?
No, I hadn’t! I just carried out the practices every day and the experiences increased.

Were there any difficulties? Can you say?
I had crossed a major threshold, so naturally I felt I was enjoying something incredibly unique. But this quality of uniqueness stimulated a feeling of isolation from those around me. While I felt a certain at-oneness with all, I knew my family or friends couldn’t understand it much. At times I felt like an island adrift from the stream of consciousness which dominates man. It seems a paradox, doesn’t it? How could I tell people that in meditation I rose above body-consciousness and had direct experience of God? For a while things were a bit awkward.

When did you meet Sant Kirpal Singh?
He arrived in USA on his third world tour — it was to be his last also — in September 1972. I was eagerly looking forward to meeting him, although I felt him near me all day long regardless of where he was. I had moved into a farm with fellow initiates. I would get up every morning at 3 a.m. to meditate for two or three hours. I was having good experiences — my soul was no longer lost in the maze of its physical frame. In the life of any disciple, the most dramatic moment in his life is when he meets his Master, and my meeting with Sant Kirpal Singh was overshadowed by many pre-conceptions.

Many of his followers from all over the country were waiting for him when he reached Dulles airport; it was an emotionally surcharged moment. He stepped through the doors, walked down the corridor, and I saw a man bigger than life, full of grace in his movements casting rays of love about him. How could I have expected more? But in the evening at the Vienna Virginia Community Centre as we all settled down to listen to his talk, it was here that he gave my soul that boost which fulfilled all my pre-conceptions.

I followed the Master on his three-month tour in the States, and I witnessed many thousands also receive a spiritual boost, something no one can get from books, however learned, however spiritual.

So when did you first think about coming to India?
Fellow disciples were always coming back from visiting the Master in India with stories of his love and the grace that flowed through him. He had returned to his Ashram in Delhi in January 1973; a few months later I requested permission to visit him. So off I flew in October.

In those days did you ever see yourself living in India permanently?
Frankly, no. Within a few days of my arrival, the Master began a tour of the Punjab, taking in many cities at a fast clip while addressing audiences of thousands. It was awesome. We who were visiting from abroad were allowed to accompany him. It was difficult for me to come to terms with the conditions; we tried to keep up with the Master in a hired bus. Everything was done to make us feel at home, but I found it hard to adapt. The climate, the food, the sleeping arrangements didn’t help my condition: I suffer from a form of diabetes associated with low blood sugar. Then I contracted amoebic dysentery. I began to think: I can’t stay long — I don’t know about the others — what to speak of living here. The dysentery became serious, so when we returned to Delhi I was put in hospital. The doctor said I would be well in a few days… it was the reverse. I wondered if my time was up: I closed my eyes and waited for the Master to tell me inside: Let’s go! But instead, there he was speaking to me on the phone, saying, You’ll be all right.

In a few days I was able to return to the Ashram, but in such a weak condition, I decided to fly home — it would be better. As I said good-bye to the Master, all the pain — the memory of it even — vanished; I was thanking him for his love, a thankfulness which welled up within me spontaneously. At that moment I could never have believed I would never see him again physically. A few months later he left this world. He was not confined to a body during his life — I consoled myself — why should it matter now? Our relationship would continue.

How did you come to accept Sant Kirpal Singh’s spiritual successor, Master Darshan?
After a few years I very much wanted to enjoy being in the physical presence of that eternal Master Power which works through a human form. The Power is the same although the body changes. I came to accept that if Darshan Singh was indeed my Master’s successor, there could be no difference between them. At that time Darshan Singh was still employed with the Government of India and lived in a small apartment in New Delhi.

I remember the first time I went to see him, my immediate impression as I climbed the staircase of a rather dark apartment complex was: How can a saint live in a place like this? It seemed so utterly normal to the point of being prosaic. It was my own pre-conceptions once again coming to the fore. When he came out, I saw so much in his face — I saw my own Master: I saw the Light of God emanating from him in such effulgence, his image was no longer visible — he had become all Light! But more than that, I met someone I knew could lead me to my own Master and who at the same time could relate to little me with my day to day problems.

I suppose it is the combination of God working through man which swept me off my feet and fired the desire to be with Sant Darshan Singh. On that visit I was on vacation and I didn’t want to lose my job, but at the end of my three weeks, I just could not go back. It was too beautiful, too special in those very early days waiting for the new Master to get back from his office; we crowded his small room, but he was so patient, so kind and we were lost in his brilliance. I contacted my employers: I was given three more months — there was a recession in the building trade!

It was during this extended stay that Martha and I married — you were there. During the Christian service, Sant Darshan Singh gave us one of his intimate talks, half poetry, half practical common-sense instruction. Except for a brief visit to the States we have been living at his feet ever since. We started compiling a pictorial biography on the life of Sant Kirpal Singh which is now almost finished .(1)

Your seva keeps you both very busy — Martha still can’t get away from her work with Master Darshan. How did you manage to get visa extensions?
How to pin it down? Was it the Master’s grace? Was it the kindness of the Indian Government? After the initial six-month period granted to us, the work on the book was far from finished; we have been allowed to stay on to complete it. Then I decided it was time to pick up the thread of my formal education, so I enrolled in the University of Delhi. I put in quite a lot of time on my studies, but Martha is free to do service in the Ashram. She will tell you all about that.

Can you say something about life in the Ashram?
The Master doesn’t advocate renouncing the world, so those staying here long periods must be doing some form of service. Living here is not easy but richly rewarding; there is always plenty to be done. But can we define sacrifice by any actions coming out of us? In the early days after my initiation the thought came into my mind: The Master has given me so much, can’t I give anything in return? I came to realize we can’t. There is so much suffering in the world, and as we move on we go further away from our base — from the love that’s inherent in our very nature. The guru reawakens that love, the love for God and all Creation. Who is there who can sacrifice something to enable that message of the guru to reach others anxious to hear it? Well, I have been allowed to do a little service -- yes -- there are difficulties living in an enclosed Ashram life, but I have never lost touch with those stirrings of his grace and my helplessness.

Did you find it hard to adapt to the Indian way of life and culture?
Have I really adapted to them? It is not easy for anyone who doesn’t have the culture in their blood. Look at the difficulties expressed in the writings of V.S. Naipaul as he searches for identity in a home not quite his own. But perhaps the capacity to adapt is not as important as the flexibility to receive the Master’s grace.

Have you studied Hindi?
Learning the prevalent vernacular is an important step as we begin to relate to a culture. India has a rich tradition of noble thought. This wealth alone should be revered by the entire world. I studied Hindi at the university, but even without that knowledge one admires the simplicity of the Indian way of life: India has not yet been overtaken by the total identification with material objects prevalent in highly developed societies.

I see you have placed service very highly. Do you have any other aim?
Service is the most important thing in my life. Happiness in this world is such a muddle; pain and suffering comes swiftly to sweep it off its feet. Happiness is flavored by suffering unless we are touched by some master-saint who frees us from the shocks of life, and places our feet firmly on the path. If you believe in something, won’t you support it? That is seva; holding the belief high so that those looking for a way out can see it.




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© Malcolm Tillis 2006