Hilda Charlton – a tribute

(Hilda Charlton was a spiritual teacher who taught meditation in New York City from 1965 to 1988. In her teachings Hilda stressed the importance of a life of giving and forgiving, unconditional love and remembrance of God. She Hilda Charltonuplifted the lives of thousands of people who sought her spiritual guidance. She was born in London and moved to United States along with her parents and two elder brothers when she was four years old. As a young student she learnt classical ballet dancing and from the age of eighteen for the next two decades she performed and taught dancing in the San Francisco area. But right from her childhood her real quest was spiritual. From 1947 to 1950, Hilda toured India and Ceylon as a dancer. After that she lived in India and Ceylon for fifteen more years, pursuing her studies of Eastern mysticism and meditation under the guidance of many great spiritual masters.

This story of Hilda is based on her autobiography, ‘Hell bent for Heaven’. All phrases and sentences in quotes are Hilda’s own words unless otherwise mentioned.)

Hilda was direct, simple and filled with life1. The then president of Gold Mountain Entertainment, Danny Goldberg said of Hilda, “When Hilda talked about saints, she began with a gushing enthusiasm I would normally associate with a teenage girl contemplating her latest heartthrob. Almost imperceptibly her tone altered from one of girlishness to a solemnity manifesting the holiness of the saints’ lives to the jocular familiarity of a next door neighbour. Only gradually, subtly, and with the utmost concentration did it dawn on me that she herself was one of them.”

When Hilda was six weeks old, D.W. Foote, a dynamic orator and leader of the Truth Seekers Society, an organization of agnostics, dedicated her to “truth, goodness and freedom for all mankind” in front of a large audience at Albert Hall. Hilda’s parents wanted to name her Harriet Martineau, after the great feminist writer. But in those days “Harriet” was used extensively in London by the costermongers, fruit and vegetable hawkers who pronounced it “‘arriet,” without the H. So her parents after much discussion settled for second-best “Hilda.” (Interestingly many years later when Hilda was in India she visited the Brighu Rishi Sastri Center in the small village of Hoshiarpur in northern India. At this center where kept the ancient horoscopes that were written by sage Brighu Rishi thousands of years ago and contain detailed events of every human being’s life. After looking through hundreds of pieces of parchment, Hilda found her name. There it was, spelled out: Hilda Charlton and not “Harriet”.)

Hilda’s father, Ernest Arthur Charlton was an idealist. He had an artistic temperament and was an aspiring songwriter who had already published a few songs. Though an agnostic he believed in the fundamental goodness of man. Once as a little child when Hilda asked him what her religion was he quietly said, “To do good is your religion.” Arthur did not want his sons (Hilda’s two older brothers) to grow up in a country like England where they might have to go to war (this was around 1905 before World War I). So when Hilda was four years old the whole family sailed for the new land, America. Being an agnostic Hilda’s father did not believe in the hereafter. He would say, “The only hereafter is that I will become part of nature again and come up as grass.” But Hilda said, “What a surprise Dad had when many years later he passed on at the age of fifty-seven and found that he still lived.” Few days after he passed away, one night when Hilda was in her room she saw a light and her father appeared as if looking through the light. “He looked about twenty three, was vitally alive and enthusiastic with the continuity of life.” He told her that he was doing all the things he wanted to do — painting, writing, composing music. He also said he was looking after Mother. Hilda observed, “A peace filled the room as the light faded and with it the vision of my father.”


Even as a four year old, Hilda was a very strong willed person. She was a born vegetarian and no body could budge her from her chosen diet. This caused much discord in her family as vegetarianism was not so prevalent in those days. Her mother would sternly say, “Eat that egg or sit there.” Hilda would sit there until, in a voice filled with desperation, her mother would release her with, “Oh, get up!”. From her early days Hilda had great faith in the goodness of life. Every morning when she woke up she would lift up her pillow and look for chocolate candies. As she later explained, “Every morning I was amazed that there were none under the pillow — amazed, not disgruntled. But I would look again the next morning. I was never daunted by the lack of them. There was always a tomorrow.” From the age of seven Hilda had an insatiable desire, burning within like fire, for perfection. Later in life, a friend called it being “hell-bent for heaven.” So one hot summer day as the seven year old Hilda was walking beside her mother holding her hand, she felt close and intimate with her mother and confided her inner feelings to her, “I am perfect, except my ears stick out.” On hearing this, her mother casually remarked, “We will get your ears fixed.” But when she announced the same news of her perfection to the school, the news was not accepted the way her mother had taken it. As Hilda observed, “In fact, it had a cataclysmic effect. The school kids chased me, surrounded me, yelled at me, “Yeah! Yeah! She’s perfect! She’s perfect! Let’s see your ears, come on, show your ears!”” Till then Hilda had only seen a few explosions but now she “felt the full impact of life”.

Like all kids of her age Hilda was also a sweet little kid full of fun and frolic — “kick-the-can, hide-and-seek, free movies in the Park in the summer, sleigh riding, ice skating on the lake in the park in winter”. But she was also “developing some strong quirks. Things were happening inside.” Multi-colored swirling rays of light were revolving inside her. She’d run to her Mother yelling, “Those lights, those lights!” and her mother would calmly say, “What lights?” That would end the subject and little Hilda would be “left worrying when they would appear again”. (Much later when she was into yoga did she realize that those ‘swirling rays of light’ were connected with the opening of the spiritual nerve centers, or chakras, within the body. At that time her agnostic family had never heard of chakras.) It was during this time that she was once playing the part of Joan of Arc in a play. During the performance she “saw a luminous white light, like a wide ribbon, shine down from the sky, and heard a voice. It said, “Je suis Jeanne d’Arc.” (I am Joan of Arc.)” The ray of light entered her. This experience had a phenomenal effect on her. According to Hilda till then she was a “weak worry-worm”. Now she became “a tiger cub”. She said, “One glance from me and that mean little neighbor boy would run as if I had a shotgun; the boy from whom I used to cringe ran like a coward behind his house.(This boy would often frighten Hilda by making faces at her.) I was amazed at the power I had… Fear had left… I was indomitable.”

When Hilda and her family came to America, they first stayed for ten years at Salt Lake City, Utah and then moved to Los Angeles, California. As a child Hilda had dreams in which she saw in vivid technicolor of herself dancing. At that time she had never seen dancing or even heard of dancing. When she was in junior high school her elder brother asked her to take up learning ballet dancing and he would pay for her lessons. He felt this would help her over come her awkward movements. In her childhood dreams she had seen herself leaping twenty feet in the air, floating and twirling on the tips of her toes. “Glorious! Divine!” But when she started to take the dancing lessons she realized it was not exactly “as the technicolor visions had shown.” It took her “some time to take an interest and for some understanding to click within” her. But once this happened she went “at it hook-line-and-sinker, an all-out job”. Hilda wrote, “I was in love: I had a love affair with Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance. It was my one and only love, until I heard about God years later…No one liked being in class with me. My goal was to leap higher, kick higher than anyone else, and I did. Plie, eschape, arabesque, pas-de-chat became my vocabulary. Biographies of Pavlova, Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, stories of Martha Graham, Nijinsky became my life. My leg was forever up on a chair or table, stretching… Life revolved around dance. Life had taken on a real meaning. I had a direction.” Much later it was dancing that took her to “the land of my heart — India” as she put it.

After graduating from high school in California, Hilda came back to Salt Lake City, Utah to study at a University. But she was not really into academics and a career. She did not finish her university studies. After a year or so she went back to Berkeley, California at the request of her father. She took up teaching dancing and taking lessons with a French dancing teacher. It was during this time, when she was living with two of her friends Wilma and Thelma in Compton, California, an incident happened that had a profound affect on the rest of her life. One evening they started playing a game where in one person would go out of the room, and those remaining would choose an object. The one would come back in and try to identify the object by going around the room and pointing to this and that. To every ones’ amazement, Hilda could walk right into the room and go to the object instantly. They played this game the whole evening. This had a disastrous effect on Hilda. As she later explained, “That which my soul had kept in abeyance while I grew up, my inner self of twirling lights I had known at four, was suddenly opened. Next day I could not cope with the world. I had opened up the psychic too soon; it was as if a veil had been ripped away, baring my inner self.” After this incident she returned home “to a time of great inner disturbance. The easy-going Hilda was no more. This was to be a time of trial and error.”

Soon after this incident Hilda’s father passed away. Hilda was still having a rough time getting herself in order. Finally it was a psychiatrist in San Francisco who found the cause of her stress. He told her that her breathing was too shallow and taught her to breathe deep from her abdomen. Hilda writes, “The psychic, opening so fast, had left me unable to cope with the body changes. The deep breathing was just the thing needed, for it was a preparation for the new life.” As she continued the deep breathing exercises she started feeling better and better. It was during this time she says God formally introduced himself to her. After Hilda’s father passed away her mother secretly started attending classes on the Bhagavad-Gita (Secretly because they were still supposed to be agnostics). Soon Hilda found out her mother’s hidden life. A few days later her mother told her that she was going to have a class at their home and that a teacher from the Orient would be present. Hilda’s mother also told her she could attend if she liked. Hilda chose to attend.  She was in the seventh heaven of delight. Later reflecting on her spiritual beginnings she wrote, “Life started, the life for which I had come to Earth: truth — freedom — liberation — God. My heart still jumps with joy at the remembrance of those days, days of struggle, days of striving, sleepless nights of meditation…”

The spiritual meeting at Hilda’s home was attended by the yogi, Sri Daya, from India. From the very first meeting Daya took special interest in Hilda and for the next three months put her through intense training. Hilda had complete faith in him. She thought that God was speaking through him and that he was the world teacher. For Hilda he was the law. She said, “If he said, “Stand still,” I stood. If he said, “Talk,” I talked. If he said, “Meditate,” I did… Daya was stern, relentless and dictatorial… He taught me discipline, emotional control and control of the tongue.”

At the very first meeting Daya commanded Hilda to sit on the floor and cross her legs. In fact it seems he unceremoniously pulled her legs over each other in a yoga lotus position and told her not to move till he gave her permission. Hilda kept sitting in that position for two hours. “The pain was excruciating.” Then he turned to her and asked if she was willing to give one hour a day for peace? Deep within Hilda felt she was about to make a very important decision in her life and she answered, “Yes, I will.” According to her, the moment she answered in the affirmative, a surge of energy went through her. She said, “It was not the hour I had pledged, but a way of thinking, a way of life.”

On Daya’s recommendation Hilda started reading books on the lives of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda by Romaine Rolland. When she started to read Vivekananda’s life she said, “an explosion took place within me; it burst forth as a desire to serve… Vivekananda’s words touched something within, and feelings I had never experienced — new thoughts and new ways of looking at the same old world — were kindled within me… Vivekananda’s comments on The Mother (the Mother of the Universe) struck a harmonious chord within. I drifted into a natural state of contemplation. Ideas and understanding of what life was all about seemed to flow from a reservoir within… I wasn’t learning; I was re-remembering. ”

Daya used unorthodox methods to train Hilda in physical discipline and emotion control. Once he told her, “Learn mind control. Look at that nail on the wall and don’t let your mind wander.” Hilda “stared at the nail with utter faith”; she did not let her mind wander even for a moment for the next hour. At another time when Daya was giving a lecture to his devotees out in the open under the trees, Hilda for a moment let herself be distracted by a flower at her right side. She turned her head to look at it when she heard Daya say, “Hilda, where is your concentration? …Meditate in that position until I tell you to move.” Hilda wrote, “My neck, in that uncomfortable position, began to ache, and an hour went by and still he didn’t give the sign to move. Each minute became an eternity… I began to feel an inner strength welling up from within to help me retain the position. I heard Daya say, “You may move.” My neck was stuck and it was hard to get it back in place.” To teach emotional control he would make Hilda stand up in front of a room full of people attending his lecture. He would start saying all nasty things about her. He made things up. If Hilda allowed herself to shed even a single tear he would shout at her after the meeting, “You fool, why did you react?”

Daya’s unorthodox methods would have easily crushed anybody else. But it was working very well for Hilda. She said that her mind was getting controlled, her emotions were becoming calm, and her meditation was bringing her closer to the goal. Her greatest asset was she interpreted all his teachings in a positive manner. Once Daya asked her to see him at 4 a.m. the next day. So at 4 a.m. the next morning (it was cold) she went to the house where he was staying. She then stopped at the door as usual to breathe in and out to be sure she was pure enough for “His Holy Presence,” and then walked in quietly. (Even in the most serious and difficult situations Hilda never lost her sense of humor.) Hilda observed that the teacher was in bed, comfortable and warm under the covers. It seems he acknowledged her long enough to say, “Sit down and meditate.” She obeyed as usual but she “was freezing while sitting there motionless.” Suddenly her kundalini seemed to be on fire. She writes, “It was as if flames were shooting upward in my spine. I thought I was going to die. I inwardly said, “Then let me die. I would rather die than give in.” With that, the energy shot up my spine and a divine peace came over me. My whole body was in ecstasy. Something wonderful had happened. The sun was just coming up as I lightly walked home, feeling two inches off the ground. The city was golden and so was I…”

Daya had siddhis or occult powers. But he was a pseudo-teacher. He did not live up to his teachings. He was not pure. When Hilda heard that he visited a lady disciple and drank wine, she almost collapsed in horror. As she aptly put it, “My Golden Hero had clay feet.” After the initial shock she said, “I picked myself up, brushed myself off, and marched on…When Daya’s visa was up and he had to leave the United States, I was ready to see him off without regrets. I was anxious to wave good-bye so that I could put into action what he had been talking about…” She wanted to know what Ramakrishna and Vivekananda had experienced, and above all, she wanted to know if the teachings of Jesus work for those who walk the Earth down here? Hilda also made a firm decision not to teach anything she had not experienced herself. She said, “I had seen the erroneousness of a pseudo-teacher, a pretender, instead of one who lived the message.”

Once Daya was gone Hilda was on her own to experiment. For Hilda the next few months were “to be times of hard work, overwhelming happiness and despair, success and failure.” She would spend the whole day teaching in San Francisco then come home at night and pause only long enough to say hello to her mother and go upstairs to start meditating. She would spend the whole night meditating. She was obsessed, “but what a wonderful obsession: God.” She always carried a notebook. Even on trains and ferries in the midst of crowds going back and forth to San Francisco, she would try to listen to the inner voice and write. Her meditation had a direction. She not only wanted to be enlightened but she also wanted to be clear and pure enough to share with others, to help others also to become enlightened.

Working the whole day in San Francisco and meditating the whole night at home, often times for many months at a stretch she did not have any sleep. She went through many mystical and yogic experiences. She said, “I had to learn to trust the inner force implicitly, and I began to understand the connection between the inner world and the outer. I became aware of my intuition, or what I learned to call my inner space.” Once after spending the whole night meditating she got ready to go to San Francisco to teach dancing. She wrote, “Another night had passed. Where had it gone? Time seemed to stand still. I was at peace, but tired: “Well, never mind, perhaps I will get some sleep tonight.””

With no outer teacher to help her, Hilda was on her own doing meditation and pranayama – breathing exercises. She was struggling day and night to still her mind and control her senses. During one such struggle she had a vision. She said, “wham! — in the corner of the room there appeared a yogi, with deep-set eyes half closed, sitting in contemplation in lotus position under a tree. Not a word was spoken, not a movement made by this yogi, yet grace came upon me instantly, and the breathing exercises and meditation became easy. It was a complete turnabout from the difficulties of sadhana into a peace. This vision encouraged me to continue striving. It gave me an impetus to carry on by myself.” (Many years later when Hilda was in India and went to see the spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Nityananda of Ganeshpuri she realized that it was Sri Nityananda who had helped her that night in Oakland, California. She even saw a picture of him sitting under a tree, exactly as he had appeared in her vision in her room in Oakland ten thousand miles away!)

Hilda had the power to heal people. She did not go out of her way to exhibit this power. It was not her intention to be a healer. When people in difficulty came to her she quietly did the needful. But her attitude towards this power to heal was very humble. She said, “I have always been in awe of healings and to this day do not know how they take place, but that I know it is not my power but His. I look on at the healings which take place with the same wonder as the healed.”

Once when Hilda was staying with a family in a large cabin up in the mountains near Santa Barbara, California, she was invited by a friend, Helen Bridges, to a meeting where Swami Paramahansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi) would be present. The meeting was held at Helen’s home in Santa Barbara. The day of the meeting as Hilda was walking to Helen’s home she inwardly felt that it was to be a special day in her life. Of Swami Yogananda, Hilda wrote, “His large eyes shone like deep brown pools of light, and long shiny black hair hung past his shoulders. He wore an orange silk robe. I gazed in awe at his beauty. He started to chant and all at once light from his eyes shot out and seemed to enter me. It was like two streams of light force. It seemed as though he were addressing all his words towards me… I was drawn to him like a magnet… As he sang, his songs went deep within me…” That night after the meeting as she walked home through the quiet streets of Santa Barbara (the air was filled with the fragrance of flowers) Hilda was humming one of Swami Yogananda’s songs, “I will make you Pole Star of my life…”

Hilda’s second encounter with Swami Yogananda was held under very unusual circumstances. One night when she was staying at the cabin in the mountains she became very ill. She was having difficulty breathing. As she struggled through the night she remembered Swami Yogananda and felt he could cure her. The next day she asked her friend to take her to Santa Barbara. Once they reach Santa Barbara, Hilda decides to go to the home of Helen Bridges. The moment they reached Helen Bridges’ home, Helen walked out and without even greeting Hilda made the following remark: “Would you like to go to Encinitas to Swami Yogananda’s? A car is here, ready to go, and we are waiting to see who Swamiji wants to have come to him. The back seat is still vacant.” It was a long drive to Encinitas. When they reached Encinitas, they were taken to their rooms. As Hilda waited in her room, still very sick, she heard a knock on the door. She wrote, “I said in a weak voice, “Come in.” The door swung open and there in the oval doorway stood Swami Yogananda with an effulgence of light emanating from him. He spoke, but I did not hear him…” The mere presence of Swami Yogananda healed her. All her inner turmoil turned into jubilant feelings. Before leaving he said, “Stay with me here and I will take you to Mount Washington in Los Angeles when I go soon. God has sent you to me.”   During her brief stay with him, at one point Swami Yogananda said to her that he would like to make her a center leader to teach Self-Realization work techniques and asked her to think about it. Hilda spent the whole night thinking about it. She wrote, “I balanced the scales in my mind and heart. If I stayed, I would know God, peace and security. On the other side of the scale, I wouldn’t know humans… I would not know the world of ordinary people with their passions, their likes and dislikes, and their discord. I would not know their fears. I knew that only if I went through the fire of hell and came out unburned could I truly say, “I love.”…” In her mind she goes on to address Swami Yogananda thus, “Swamiji, I say from my heart, though you asked me to stay, I cannot. I am like the wind which blows through the trees. The world is my home… You were a light in the night for a young girl. That searchlight will guide my way and will never die within my soul…” The next day she conveyed her decision to Swamiji and left.

Hilda’s routine of dancing, teaching and meditation continued. She was also giving classes on meditation. Sometime in 1947 when she was reading Swami Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ she was attracted to India. The feeling in her to visit India kept growing. She did not have any money but she was determined to go to India. Very soon she along with a few friends, who were also performing artists, started making preparations for a tour of India and Ceylon.  Finally after many weeks of preparation they were on their way to India on a freight ship. Many years later when she was back in America, Hilda wrote, “I went to India as a dancer and gave concerts throughout the country. I left here with a one-way ticket, with eighty dollars in cash, and with a million dollars worth of faith….”2 When the tour came to an end after three years, Hilda alone stayed back and for the next fifteen years travelled all over India meeting spiritual masters and learning. Often these spiritual masters understood her financial situation (without her telling them anything) and helped her financially either by giving her cash or through their occult powers.

Once Sri Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi advised her “Go beyond name and form.” During her nearly eighteen years stay in India, Hilda met many holy men and spiritual masters. Spiritually she received a lot from many of them. She had immense love and regard for each one of them. Yet she wondered who her real guru was. Finally she came to the conclusion, “I know without a doubt that my one and only satguru is the One and Only Within, the Absolute God, nameless and formless. My search is ended.” After returning to America sometime in 1965, Hilda settled in New York City and started to teach meditation. The size of her class grew from two students to more than a thousand in a short period of time.

On January 29, 1988, Hilda passed on in New York City leaving behind a legacy of love. Way back in California (before she went to India), as a young aspirant, Hilda once said, “What I had to learn was to love life in the midst of everything. My self-righteous attitude, my “I am S-p-i-r-i-t-u-a-l” spelled with a capital “S” was to be sandpapered off. I learned to love people no matter what.” She lived this way of life both as an aspirant and later as a teacher.

                                        “When Hilda laughs, the whole world laughs.
                                          When Hilda cries, the whole world cries.
                                           Angel wings softly stroke her brow…”
                                                                                     -Jan (a friend of Hilda)
Jan, 26, 2012



1. Saints Alive, Hilda Charlton, Page X
2. Saints Alive, Hilda Charlton, Page 18

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