8th February 1981
In the centre of Bangalore I am able to collect the three rolls of film I have left for developing. I study the proofs of the photos I have taken so far.
Relief — at least I know the camera is working! Lynn flies off to Bombay. I place myself on the train for Kerala.
It is another long journey. Just before lunch the following day I am arriving at Anandashram, near the town of Kanhangad.
And here is Swami Satchidanand who signed his welcoming letter to me, “Ever your Self,” greeting me. He is so relaxed I know at once I will get straight wholesome answers from him: Yes, they have been expecting me, and Mother Krishnabai knows about the book…Yes…but at the moment there are no devotees here…only two visitors…Mother has not thought it a good time for Western followers to come to the Ashram. He directs me to the canteen.
No devotees here? I’ve come all this way for a non-Interview? But a little distance ahead also walking towards the canteen is the back-view of a familiar form. It is my friend of the travelling road, Charan Das, who I last saw 3 weeks ago at the Theosophical Society, and who no doubt since then has catalogued at least another twenty worthy incidents for his monumental book. With him is Richard Willis, who is but a part-time traveller. He has known Charan Das far longer than I have; they took their first initiation from the same guru together, they spent much time floating about this huge country together, but it is the first time I am meeting them together face to face.
The three of us share the empty canteen and reflect on the many-splendoured wonders of Indian Ashram life. Within ten minutes Charan Das has filled me in with the latest Ashram gossip.
He has a list of ten more places for me to visit and at least six persons hidden away all over the country who, as he charmingly puts it: escaped the West. One was a nun who is writing a thesis on unknown women saints; another married a maharaja and has two gurus and a Romanian gypsy grandmother; yet another works as a doctor in one of the Ramakrishna hospitals and meditates all night; there are even two devotees of his own (main) guru teaching at a Christian Mission School — But, he adds quickly, you’ll have to be careful about them: the principal of the school doesn’t know about their being non-Christian.
Wonderful, but all that will now have to wait, perhaps later for a second volume — that’s if this one ever gets finished.
Then I ask: Surely you are both not going to allow me to leave this sacred place without taking even one Interview? — Charan, can’t you give yours now?-- Do we really have to wait until we meet in Mussoorie?
Much grinning and mumbling and excuses.
But I catch a light in Richard’s eye…he is quiet and reticent, his usual style; he says… Perhaps this evening?
But now we have to rush to see Mother Krishnabai; she only allows her few visitors into her room after lunch. She is not in good health but I see at once a radiant figure of self-contained stillness and peace. She gazes at me with much love and my heart is filled with pain; my mind stops planning, speculating. Back again to absorbing…such a quiet dynamic force is being released! And I remember the words of my own beloved guru, Sant Kirpal Singh, who often said to his Western devotees: Don’t dwell on the past, don’t speculate on the future, live in the living moment. This is the eternal beauty, the essence of which no words can do justice: the physical presence of a saint bathes one in a fragrance not found anywhere else.
Mother Krishnabai asks me about the book, about its length, about my journey, She speaks about her own great guru, Swami Ramdas who left this physical world nearly 20 years ago; she prostrates before his large photograph mounted on a white-washed wall; she presses one of his books to her forehead and presents it to me. She is the perfect disciple and consequently the perfect guru. There are no signs of rules and restrictions in this Ashram; it is all small and intimate and above all loving.
In the evening I walk alone in the simple grounds; it has a mellowness few Ashrams have been able to retain in the face of inevitable expansion.
But here is Richard, and he says there is herb tea for me in his room should I care for some.
Ah, yes! I will have to go back to my room and collect the tape recorder.
To start from the beginning. The beginning is childhood,
and we are now in an Ashram that is very much linking my feelings and thoughts
to that time of innocence, before the complications, before the spiritual trip
became a trip. I feel here a purity and resonance with that beginning.
From the age of 4 to about 22 I just have to skip
because I fell asleep. I have some memory of that time but I now know I was
in deep sleep. I found myself periodically awake for a few minutes, and of course,
there had been some experience with psychedelics, which were a powerful opening.
But I was preparing for a pure event — the meeting with Truth, one’s
I found myself working on a documentary film on Buddhism in America, travelling several times a week from Philadelphia to Freehold, New Jersey, where there were three Buddhist monastries. My work was at the Tibetan monastery. There was no interest in spirituality or religion as such — I had turned strongly against all of that conditioning — my interest was in how such a different cultural and religious group could thrive in America.
I filmed the pujas, the lamas, and as I sometimes had to wait up to six hours at the monastery before I could do the Interviews, I would listen to the chanting, the bells, the cymbals and the trumpets made out of lamas’ thigh bones. This I realize now was a kind of preparation. All this time I was fully asleep, moving mechanically through situations. It ended abruptly with such finality that I cannot now move back into that same state of sleep, where one sleep-walks, where one wakes up in the morning but is still sleeping.
But how did that dramatic
change take place?
I took the camera on my back, marched to the door, while the monk was pleading not to go in. I said: Well, if I go in and ask it will be alright. I walked in with my camera cocked ready and there was an ancient looking lama, nothing but bones and a white Chinese beard and moustache. He was sitting at a table upon which was a Kentucky fried chicken dinner from Colonel Sanders — he was having his lunch. He didn’t look up and I was just about to introduce myself — my physical presence was fairly demanding — but when he did look at me it was right at me, right through me.
He said quietly but with a force that almost knocked me over; There will be no movie today.
That stopped the whole mechanism of my own movie: I almost dropped the camera, and the whole fear of stopping the movie stopped. I was choked up, fearful, an emotional wreck. I put the camera in the car and drove away. It was as if the whole mechanism, the whole movie since childhood had ended.
This was your opening?
How did you meet your
guru, and what sort of age were you?
I was standing a bit behind her so I couldn’t see her face but I saw her whole body went into fireworks — I saw from the top of her hat a 4th of July firework display. Her hands went together in such a state of joy. I thought: If this man has been part of this in any way he must be something. Suzie was in a special state. Then the next day the Master was again moving through the crowd; he came towards me and extended his hand. We shook hands, there was some small talk, and as I was a little uncomfortable, I shook his hand again, and he walked off. Then people came up and said: Look what happened — that’s very special — he doesn’t often give his hand — do you know who this is? The whole mechanism that had stopped one month before I could feel beginning to wind back; I became resistant to any kind of interpretation of what was taking place.
But didn’t you
feel any attraction towards the Master?
Surely you must have
then been able to accept that as a real experience?
And that started the journey following the Master on what was left of his tour. It ended in Los Angeles, and I had been appointed to photograph him during a coffee hour there. At this time the ego mechanism and the divine mechanism were moving equally; I was able to now experience him as a being. I was moving about in the crowd very much like a sports or high-fashion photographer snapping, crouching, moving in and out. At one point I was focusing my tele-photo lens; I could see the Master in the box, his face was getting larger and larger, I kept readjusting the lens into short distance until he just went right out of the lens. I put down my camera and he was looking right at me. He said: Have you taken enough pictures? The camera again almost fell out of my hands. That was enough. They were his last words to me — he left the following day.
So you still hadn’t
I presume it was not
in the physical presence of the guru. Can you say how it was given?
Can you describe some
You prefer not to mention
your guru’s name?
How many hours did you
put in daily?
Did it take long to earn
What were your first
impressions of India and your guru’s Ashram?
Experiencing the guru who is Truth and Perfection, and somehow knowing that, the completion, the beauty of what the heart has been waiting for; yet almost equally, there was the mechanism which saw itself from such a distance from that, in a state of incompleteness and impurity. In the few days I was with him he seemed to activate both: the light was there, but behind it the tremendous darkness upon which the lie of our psychology is based — the separateness from that.
It came to a point where Charan Das and I went to see the Master for an Interview. We expressed our faith in him — and yet that was a lie because if you trust, you trust — the question was: What to do with the separation. Our question was to formulate this split: The guru is perfect but what do we do day-to-day? You will say meditate, grace is there. Yes… but… And it was that “but” that causes so much trouble. Guru is there, is there a need for a teacher? His reply momentarily stopped all of that — it may not be clear from the words but you may catch the feeling. He looked very sternly at both of us and said: Be straight with me, brothers, what is it you want? That question was like a knife: devastation! The question cut through the split many of us have. When we left we were crying.
You never tried to answer
Can you name some of
the teachers who influenced you, who helped you?
We sat in New Delhi three days looking at it. Then we heard that one of the Dalai Lama’s teachers was in Delhi, so through some Tibetan friends we went to see him. He was nothing but skin and bones. We prostrated. His eyes were closed most of the time, but there was a lovely smile. We had come with this great build-up of psychological confusion and to ask him what we should do. We were bubbling up to ask. What did he do? — Oh, do you know my friend in New York? Yes! Yes! I had to say — she was in my film. Oh, you know Geshe Wangyal? So we had small talk, but behind it was this tension — I need to ask this question!
At last, at last we could put out our dilemma. What did he do? — he closed his eyes, went into silence, then gave us some sweets — candy! I was raging. He made a motion that signaled it was time to leave — he still had his eyes closed. We started walking to the door, then he said: Think of others more than yourselves. The machine was saying: Yes, that is a very Buddhist thing to say — very nice — but… His eyes were open and he must have heard this mental chatter, so he said it again. This time it was like a loving wave with such a softness it bathed us completely, and all this thinking stopped. We walked out, got on a bus — you know Indian buses: 200 people in a space for 30 — and we had to stand in the front. And I remember looking back at that sea of faces, those clear eyes looking back at us; such a feeling of being right there. Yes, you give out or give up. It was the most beautiful bus ride.
But did that solve all
Have you not come across
some Ashrams lacking in organization, restrictions, rules and regulations? Look
how perfect this Ashram is.
You said you spent some
time in Europe. What did you do there?
So in fact a group was
set up and you had followers?
Since your return to
India, what have you been doing?
It is already 10 p.m. the time lights go out for the night in most Ashrams, but Charan Das is either moved by Richard’s life-story or by too much herb tea: he announces he will now give HIS Interview. Why wait till summer?
After midnight when we stop for yet more tea I realize we have only covered the first few years of Charan Das’ life in India. No use asking Charan Das to abbreviate; and why should he? No one else in the rest of this incredible country has passed through so many barely credible excitements. So meticulous is he, from time to time he pauses to make sure I write the correct spelling in my note-book of people and places he is talking about.
And one of the most intriguing of his mannerisms is the way he constantly refers to himself as “we”. Never: I did this and I found that…But: “We” left early as”we” needed… He has used this form for so long it comes natural to him and no longer surprises those who know him.
At 2.30 he has finished; we are all stunned, breathless, so much has been covered, and in such detail. For the past 7 or 8 years Charan Das has rarely stayed in one place longer than a week. Unlike most travelling yogis in India he is able to pay his way - his parents set up a trust fund for his use; if he lives rough, it’s by choice. He has much to describe, far more than anyone else I have recorded so far. But I am beginning to think Charan Das needs half a book to himself. I know I will be forced to trim some of the longer Interviews when it comes to transcribing them, but with Charan Das, he offers a different challenge.
Charan Das has had such a spectacularly eventful Ashram-to-Ashram, guru-to-guru life, and his memory being flawless, the smallest detail is treasured like the thrill a collector of rare stamps must feel on opening a half-forgotten envelope and a set of gems pops out. Somewhere half lost there’s a trunk full of Charan Das’ notebooks crammed with lists of dates, meetings, journies, but tonight there’s obviously no need to refer to any of them. His movements across this vast continent don’t simply cover all the major religious festivals like the Kumbha Melas he attended where up to 10 million pilgrims gather to bathe in the sacred River Ganges, but every bus journey or treck taken to the most isolated retreat so that he can get the darshan of a saintly figure he wants to meet. In the end, this dazzling display of detail tells us much of the adventure, risks, restlessness that makes Charan Das so fascinating, but one can’t help longing to hear more about the spiritual wealth he may have gained from this shopping-list of Ashram-hopping. The dizzy-making constant movement with its visual and mental stimulation, to say nothing of any spiritual nourishment, surely needs time to assimilate and digest.
When Charan Das, in his early days, received initiation into the Surat Shabd yoga from Maharaj Charan Singh of Beas, as a tribute to his guru he adopted the name Charan Das. This translates as The Servant of Charan. To serve one’s guru requires nothing except to obey his instructions, which in the Beas Radha Soami teachings, means purifying one’s life, standing on one’s own feet, and sitting still to meditate a fixed number of hours each day. As far as I understand, definitely not to jump about chasing other gurus, other teachings, or other places of spiritual interest. To collect and document what may be considered important material for a book certainly requires an amount of travel -- I am currently caught up in this myself. Charan Das has a noble project underway, but he has adopted this constant movement as a way of life and is unaffected by, indeed thrives on the upheaval. Somehow it seems impossible to imagine Charan Das ever reaching contentment through chasing after this endless cornucopia of excitements. But it is his chosen path. It must be right for him.
The marathon recording session now finished, I am longing to get to my room. But Richard is offering more tea, and Charan Das is starting to tell us another incident – one he missed.
The tape recorder has been turned off…but sorry…I
just have to crawl away, hit the stringbed, surrender to…Goodnight…
A few hours after Charan had given his marathon Interview,
bright as ever, he left by bus for Poona; I am to meet him there at the Christa
Ashram in a few days. He gives me a last-minute message of greeting to a friend
– an Australian Swami
– in the Bombay Ashram of Swami
Muktananda. This special friend will, he says, certainly be of help when I get
there. But first I must take the local train to Mangalore and from there the
plane direct to Bombay. It cuts out a circuitous tiring train journey; I am
feeling distinctive signs of physical exhaustion, the need for more time for
reflextion, and perhaps a little less excitement.
|© Malcolm Tillis 2006|