54 Interviews with Westerners
on their search for spiritual fulfilment in India

Compiled, Edited and Mainly Photographed by
Malcolm Tillis


Most of us dislike reading lists. We particularly dislike reading them if they include words, names and places in a language other than our own. In the list of names found in the Interview section of this site, you will find almost half in Sanscrit, Hindi or Tibetan. All the names belong, however, to Westerners, yet they will perhaps mean little to Western readers. So the question is: should there be further lists explaining (1) who these people were before the name-change, (2) the reasons for the change, (3) has the change changed them, (4) how I came to meet them, and finally, (5) the purpose behind why I wished to meet them? Would this added information help the reader before reading the Interviews themselves? If you think not, this is perhaps the moment to skip the rest of this Introduction and go straight to the Interviews. But if you are sufficiently intrigued to learn more about these people first - then read on.

So to explain: these Interviews were given by Westerners disillusioned by the material values worshipped, in the West. They tell us how they were drawn by an inner spiritual hunger to India, a country where they found fulfilment - a deeper meaning to their lives. As so often happens, and certainly in these life-histories, when a higher awareness is awakened, it may well be that spiritual guidance will be sought from the teachings, and indeed from living teachers, in India with its rich cultural heritage and where its age-long mystic tradition is as potent as ever. In India, unlike most countries in the West, to spend time and effort developing one’s spiritual life is an acceptable part of daily life: it can be discussed openly in tea houses, with strangers at railway stations, with taxi drivers. Most Indians admire anyone involved in spiritual practice, on a spiritual search. They are not shy to ask questions. Of course, you don’t have to talk about your inner self to anyone. If you do, no-one will think it odd, excentric, a waste of time. This is a country where the age-old culture of spiritual enquiry is alive, and very much alive.

During the eleven years I lived in India, from 1973 to 1984 as an initiate of Sant Kirpal Singh, I was often lent or sent books about other Westerners who had also come to spend extended time in India. But they were often about Westerners who had been drawn onto the guru-trail in search of an evolved being but who stumbled onto one which leads innocent victims into the hungry jaws of a white-bearded, impressively-robed monster who leaves them more spiritually - and often more materially - bankrupt than before. These accounts would often be amusing, sometimes they had reason to be bitter, but were made all the more readable by being slanted, prejudiced or misinformed. They made me wonder why hardly any serious in-depth studies had appeared dealing with the many Westerners who have taken the plunge, left the bright lights of home and are now living fulfilled lives in this vast, fascinating country. There is no shortage of books on India’s host of saints, seers and gurus, but what about their Western disciples? Why has so little appeared by them, or about their achievements? They may have taken to the simple life, but surely they are not all under vows of silence?

I felt so strongly about this that I eventually took courage, packed a bag and went out into the field to record their experiences myself. This collection of personal Interviews is the result. It is the outcome of a concentrated five-month journey/quest that took me all over India. Sometimes I had to travel under stressful conditions for days hoping to track down someone whose life-story is unique. I travelled alone, reluctantly at first, until after many setbacks I was given much needed strength and reassurance by being thrown headlong into the centre of a miracle. To my bewilderment I found myself on my way to Agra but unaccountably on the wrong train and on the wrong day. This life-enhancing incident, described in the narrative, has illumined the rest of my life.

My intention from the start was simple enough: to tape-record the personal stories of as many Western followers of different gurus, disciplines or paths as possible. This seemed to me the most accurate way to capture their histories, their adventures, the reasons why they changed their lives — and most important — the benefits India brought to the New Life.
Above all, my intention was to publish their accounts in their own words without superimposing my own preconceptions and values. It was not especially important to me how long each person had been in India, although I caught up with some who had arrived over fifty years ago. (Russell Balfour-Clarke’s ticket was paid for by Mrs.Annie Besant, the President of the Theosophical Society in1909, and thus he was given the remarkable task of teaching English to the thirteen-year old J. Krishnamurti).

The commitment to the New Life does not exclude dedicated followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition: Anil Bhai, born John Davis into an English Catholic family, and still very much a Catholic, is but one example. It was each person’s serious commitment to a chosen path, and above all why it was being pursued in India, which was the deciding factor for inclusion in this project.

From those attached to a guru or lama whether by vows or initiation, I soon noticed that truly dedicated disciples reflect at least some of their mentor’s consciousness. And that consciousness finds expression through the disciple’s life-style, speech and actions. It was because of this close attachment that several intimate portraits - seen through the eyes of a close disciple - capture the unique, personal qualities of some of India’s most celebrated modern-day saints: the French-born Vijayananda’s lyical account of the many years he spent at the feet of Anandamayi Ma; Maggi Lidchi weeping through her reminiscences of the Aurobindo Mother; the Polish-born Lucia Osborne, Ramana Maharshi’s last living Western disciple, on her great guru; Sir on the conrovertial Sathya Sai Baba; H.H. Giriraga Swami (the American President of the Hare Krishna Temple in Bombay) on Srila Prabhupada; and the English novelist, Kate Christie, on being drenched in love from Sant Kirpal Singh.

The printed word often veils the expressiveness and subtle shades of meaning conveyed by the spoken word. In the editing of these Interviews every effort has been made to retain each person’s individual speech rhythms and idiosyncrasies. As English was not always the mother tongue of the person Interviewed, this proved yet another challenge. It is, however, a sad fact that the shining quality and vocal expressiveness, which were often complimented by radiant facial expressions when the other-worldly beauty of the New Life was being described, cannot be transmitted through the printed word.

Anyone who can reveal to others their potential for experiencing the Divine within themselves is surely to be revered. Most devotees, nevertheless, are inclined to revere their own guru to the exclusion of all others. This often leads to suspicion, and to what can be called the Guru-Protection-Syndrome, which sometimes made communication and enquiry from an outsider difficult. It was particularly difficult at the Ashrams of Swami Muktananda and Sathya Sai Baba. At Muktananda’s, after twenty-four hours of pleading, placating, promises, I left without even unpacking my tape-recorder (they had agreed to the Interviews by letter). At Sai Baba’s I persisted, accepted all sorts of conditions, was treated to a personal mini-miracle by Babaji himself, but still had to creep away surreptioutiously at the crack of dawn with two “unofficial” Interviews and a bewildering 4-day experience I am not likely to forget.

However, most of those I met were far more approachable and co-operative although in some cases not easy to tie down. In one Ashram I was kept waiting five days before the person I wished to Interview could give me an hour of her time; but the Interview is unique as it vividly illustrates the whole meaning of selfless service, and what it is like for a Westerner to be close to a guru and serve him under conditions of great trust.

I was constantly aware of the contrasts created by the abandonment of the old life for the new. What was the former principal clarinetist of the Rotterdam Symphony Orchestra doing wearing flowing red robes, or the Italian priest editing a Sanscrit magazine, or a Californian dentist’s assistant caring for the hundred-and-four-year-old Sant Gulab Singh? I found the dynamic Simonetta, once Italy’s foremost woman fashion designer, resigned to sleeping on the floor of her Ashram room and using her simple bed as a table. Tenzin Palmo, a librarian from London, preferred living in a cave 12,000 feet above sea level. The Steiners from Australia had settled for a bungalow in the foothills of the Himalayas.

There’s no lack of variety covered in these Interviews: you may not like everyone you meet here or even relate to their life-styles. But there will be some you will never be able to forget, and others who make such a powerful impact, you will love them all your life. You will find a former Nazi youth supporter who served a jail sentence after the 2nd World War, two reformed heartbreakingly disturbed teenage rebels. There are also some exceptionally brave people who abondoned successful careers - even their families. A few, however, arrived in India with their married partners - one couple with their 4 children, all six committed Buddhists. You will also find ascetics living alone in isolation, and saintly souls who knew instinctively from childhood there was a richer life waiting for them to find and unfold.

Once I had gathered courage to start taking the photographs (only one person subsequently refused permission for his to be published) I was able to ask some of those who had been Interviewed if I could photograph them with their gurus. This also gave me the chance to ask them a few questions. H.H. Sakya Trizin patiently smiled his way through the photograph, but in a few powerful words, gave out the Buddhist teachings on present-day Western mind-conditioning. Swami Chidananda made a poiniant plea, which he said I should publish, about proper spiritual teaching children need, but are now, even in India, not taught seriously. The photograph I was able to take in the evening light of the saintly Anandamayi Ma shows her serene beauty, her inner smile, but conveys little of the magnetic aura emanating from her. This contrasts significally with the informality surrounding the legendary Sant Gulab Singh who, when I asked him if I could I go up onto the roof of his house with him, allowed me to sit with him as he dried his long silver hair in the winter sun. I didn’t dare ask the seriously ill Nisagardatta Maharaj anything after he had put me through an embarrassing public grilling which developed into a yelling scene and which left me fascinatedly appalled. In contrast, the gentle Sant Darshan Singh sitting on the floor attending to his correspondence, later asked me to stay for lunch. But here I was most fortunate indeed as I was on home ground as one of his father’s initiates.

All these dramatic contrasts encountered during this journey/sadhana helped me understand that just as there are so many paths leading to fulfilment, so are there travellers on the way. The many travellers who agreed to be Interviewed had in fact started off from 17 different countries in the West. For instance, Melita Maschman had been a journalist in Germany, Bill Eilers a businessman in Canada, Giorgio Bonazzoli was a priest in Italy, Swami Bodhisattva an orchestral musician in Holland, and Swami Prem Pramod a Scottish diplomat. The routes and goals they chose and the tests and obstacles they had to overcome are rich and varied. They read like human adventure stories, and embrace sects within Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, as well as the Radha Soami Faith, Sikhism, and a synthesis of Hinduism and Christianity as expounded by Father Bede Griffiths.

I encouraged all those whom I Interviewed to be frank about the difficulties which are encountered along all paths of endeavour. Some have been remarkably frank. Some spoke only on condition that a transcript would be sent to them before publication. Only in one case did the person, who spoke at great length, wish to conceal the name of his guru. A few have become well-kown as published writers - they have their own web sites. Seven, at least, have now become gurus themselves with their own devoted followers, a remarkable attainment in a country not lacking in home talent.

During my lengthy wanderings which a project of this scope entailed, much kindness was showered on me by complete strangers. Others were instrumental in encouraging and guiding me. To name them individually would be impossible. They know they have my gratitude.

Many of these extraordinary people have been an enduring source of wonder and inspiration. Some have since become close friends. Some of course, with the passing of time, are no longer in the physical body. All had come to India from diverse backgrounds, and those still here amongst us, may now indeed be treading diverse paths. Yet I see one unifying truth: once people pass through the gate in search of higher consciousness, no matter what manner of life-style they adopt, no matter where they choose to live, no matter if they eventually return to the West, they can never pass back through the gate into the old life.

Some of those you will meet in the course of reading these Interviews had adopted Sanskrit, Hindi or Tibetan names, and a few have been accepted as Indian nationals. But all of them though drawn to India, are out of Western context climatically, culturally, psychologically. So the question remains: in order to live the New Life was it absolutely necessary to make such a dramatic change? Let them now speak for themselves.

Malcolm Tillis
Mussoorie, India, 1981-1984

Shrewsbury, England.
January 2007