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Obituary: Sri Madhava Ashish

Sri Madhava Ashish, as he became, was a distinguished Hindu mystic with many European followers, who began his life as a conventional member of the old officer class.

He was christened Alexander Phipps; his father was a colonel in the Indian Army. His great-grandfather had been a Scottish laird. His mother, who was a Campbell, had been born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon); the family also had West Indian connections.

Phipps was at a preparatory school at Hove with a navalist headmaster who was also a mountaineer; and went on to Sherborne, where he acquired a public-school accent and manner - in today's England regarded as old-fashioned - that he never quite lost. He grew to be over six feet tall, with dark hair and a handsome face; he had gentle manners and a radiant personality.

Instead of going to a university, he went to Chelsea Polytechnic to study aeronautical engineering, which interested him, and was thus in a reserved occupation when the Second World War broke out in 1939. His younger brother joined the Royal Air Force, and did not survive the war.

Phipps repaired aircraft for the RAF at Doncaster and at Brooklands in Surrey. He was directed to work in a factory building gliders, to carry the airborne divisions, and went out to India to pursue the same task there, at Dum-Dum near Calcutta. He found himself repairing Spitfire engines instead.

During a spell of leave in 1944 he visited the Ramana Maharshi ashram at Tiruvannamalai, south-west of Madras, and was profoundly impressed. At the end of the war's restrictions on his movements he stayed in India, and set out to find a guru. He was helped in his quest by Esther Merston, who years before had sat in Paris at the feet of the great Russian mystic Gurdjieff.

They found two, at a remote ashram in the Himalayas called Mirtola (near Almora) in the Kumaun, 7,000 feet above sea level and far away from anywhere. A Bengali saint called Sri Yashodara Mai, wife of the vice-chancellor of Benares university, had founded it in 1930 with an English disciple, Sri Krishna Prem, formerly, as Ronald Nixon, a Cambridge philosophy graduate and a fighter pilot in the First World War. She had died recently; her daughter Moti Rani had taken her place.

Phipps changed his name, on becoming a Vaishnav monk, and accepted the full austerities involved: no meat, no fish, no hot water, food seldom even warm, constant meditation, a perpetual struggle to subdue the flesh and channel the emotions. He "realised", as the discipline has it, in 1956. By then Moti Rani had been five years dead and Sri Krishna Prem followed her in 1965.

Ashish was thus in charge of the monastery; at one time he had nearly a hundred disciples, and many more hangers-on as well. He discussed the doctrines of Brahmanism, psychology, and theosophy; and, harking back perhaps to his great-grandfather, felt responsible also for the agricultural life of the tiny hillside communities within walking distance. The farm beside the ashram became a place where the local cultivators could come and learn new methods of digging, draining and planting and he played a substantial local part in keeping the Himalayan environment pure.

He wrote, as well as talking, on philosophy; several learned articles ("The Guru as Examplar and Guide to the Term of Human Evolution" was one), and two difficult books, one his own - Man, Son of Man, 1970 - the other with Sri Krishna Prem, Man The Measure of All Things (1969), about the world view of Helena Petrovna Blav-atsky, the founder of theosophy.

Sri Madhava Ashish had been working for some months on a full-length life of Sri Krishna Prem, but had not completed it before a protracted struggle with cancer killed him. No one who had the chance to hear him talk is likely to forget him quickly; an Indian obituary of him calls him "the last English saint".

M. R. D. Foot

From a shy, introverted youth Sri Madhava Ashish changed over the years under the guidance of Sri Krishna Prem to a man of certainty and strength, writes Penelope Phipps.

The life of the ashram seeks the razor-edge balance between the Inner and the Outer life. Meditation and a thrice-daily symbolic offering of the Elements and the Senses to the Source alternate with a practical life of milking, farming, carpentry, letters and accounts, all actions being done with concentration and love as an offering to the Inner - especially the preparation of food.

As far as possible the Mirtola ashram is self-supporting, growing wheat, barley, rye, sweetcorn and some fruit. The farm produces milk, butter and ghee. An airy cowshed facing south has wire-meshing to keep out leopards and Bhutia dogs with curled "up and over" tails wear spiked collars for the same reason.

Visitors made their way to this small, remote, high-up, simple ashram from all over the world, and left with more wisdom, direction and purpose.

"The old truths need expressing in new ways" said Ashish, and what was taught was universal to all religions - the truth of the biblical "I am that I am". The essence of his teaching is summed up in an extract from a letter:

The root of the mystery of being lies at the root of the awareness which perceives the universe. Every human being is or can be aware that he is aware. When that self-awareness is traced to its inner source, then only can the identity of the individual with the universal be found, then only can the mystery of being be solved. And only when there are enough such individuals can sanity return through them to our troubled world.

A book by him on dream interpretation is currently seeking a publisher.

In 1992 the Indian Government gave Ashish the Padma Shri award for Scientific Services to Agriculture. As a result of his work, agriculture is now taught in schools in the hills surrounding Mirtola up to year ten.

It is said that there is a comet in the sky when a great rishi dies. There was one in December 1965 when Sri Krishna Prem died. There is one now.

Alexander Phipps (Sri Madhava Ashish), mystic: born Edinburgh 20 February 1920; died Mirtola, India 13 April 1997.