2.2 Brief Encounters Brunton’s Indian encounters, so important for the formation of his world view, might be arranged in the form of a triangle, its three points corresponding to three human types: the mystic, the man of action, and the savant—all three, in spite of their apparent diversity, are animated by the same philosophic outlook. Brunton would meet these three in the persons of, first, Ramana Maharshi, then, several years later, the Maharaja of Mysore, and finally, pandit Subrahmanya Iyer. It is interesting to observe that these three individuals corresponded as well to the three aspects of Brunton’s final definition of the ideal "philosophic life": contemplation, selfless service, and study. We will see that if, in the end, Brunton distanced himself from Iyer as well as the Maharshi, his attitude towards the Maharaja remained unchanged. This might be explained by the fact that the latter exercised only an indirect influence over him, whereas the other two impacted directly his spiritual and philosophic outlook. Brunton dedicated a volume to each of the three: to Ramana, the brief and succinct Message from Arunachala, a denouncement of the ills of the contemporary West; to Iyer, his one work in academic style, Indian Philosophy and Modern Culture; finally, to the Maharaja, The Quest of the Overself.
But these major, decisive encounters did not magically occur the moment Brunton set foot on Indian soil. The author was led to these key figures in the course of his long wanderings about the subcontinent (well described in Secret India). There were other, briefer encounters with great individuals, at least three of which were of particular importance for the author’s life and vision.
2.2.1 Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram
The Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram is presented in Secret India as the sixty-sixth title holder in the venerable lineage which began with the celebrated Shankara of the eighth century. His meeting with Brunton, fleeting as it was, was crucial to the author's future direction. The episode is described in the chapter entitled “With the Spiritual Head of South India,” in the intimate tone which makes the book so charming. The meeting took place in 1930 in the village of Chingleput; the two men were introduced by the Indian writer Venkataramani. It was the first interview granted to a European by the Shankara, who had been enthroned in 1907 at the age of twelve. Brunton was favorably impressed by the master’s tolerance and broad-mindedness. The sage had moved beyond narrowly orthodox attitudes of superiority:
Sri Shankara does not decry the West in order to exalt the East, as so many in his land do. He admits that each half of the globe possesses its own set of virtues and vices, and in this way they are roughly equal! He hopes that a wiser generation will fuse the best points of Asiatic and European civilizations into a higher and balanced social scheme.81
This balanced view attracted Brunton; opposed to the fanaticism and sectarianism so often found in religious and esoteric circles, he wished to maintain a harmonious balance in his thinking and way of life. In his interview with Shankara, Brunton asked for his advice in finding a yoga master. He was given two names: the second was that of Ramana Maharshi. However, Brunton was already planning to leave South India. Shankara abandoned his usual reserve to firmly insist that the writer change his plans: Brunton must meet the Maharshi before leaving. Surprised, Brunton promised to prolong his stay, and that same evening he decided to visit the Sage of Arunachala.
This momentous interview with the spiritual heir of the philosopher Shankara foreshadowed in many ways the subsequent unfolding of Brunton’s quest. First of all, it was Shankara who placed him directly on the path to Ramana—the first intervention of destiny in the existential adventure of Brunton's quest. Much later, Brunton learned from an Indian friend the following prophecy which Shankara had given him: “Your friend will travel all round India.... But, in the end, he will have to return to the Maharshi. For him, the Maharshi alone is the right Master.”82
On the other hand, the serene figure of Sri Shankara, haloed in spirituality, bathed in the light of a perfect interior knowing, prefigured the character of Ramana Maharshi himself. Brunton in his memoirs placed both sages on the same highest plane of spiritual realization:
Both His Holiness Shankaracharya of Kanchi and Ramana Maharshi were met within the same month of 1930. I had prepared myself by nearly two years' intensive study, principally with the help of the secretary of state for India's library in London. Now more than fifty years have passed and there has been sufficient time to get a little more knowledge and understanding of these two sages and to watch the effects of their persons and teachings upon others.83
Later on, in his search for a way beyond yogic mysticism, Brunton would turn to the writings of the original Shankara, the illustrious founder of the lineage of Shankaracharyas.
2.2.2 Sahabji Maharaj Another figure encountered by Brunton was Sahabji Maharaj, leader of the Radha Soami sect. The sect was founded in 1861 by a banker of Agra, Radha Soami Dayal, who was from a Vishnuite family of the ksatriya caste. Sahabji Maharaj was the fourth guru in the lineage.84 Who were the Radha Soamis? We might first note the parallel drawn by Farquhar between them and the Theosophists:
Nothing is more noteworthy than the many points in which Radha Soami and Theosophical doctrine and practice coincide. The most important items are: the unknowable Supreme, the spheres and their regents ... reincarnation, the use of methodical exercises ... of a hypnotic character for the development of the spiritual powers and of the photograph of the guru in meditation, the worship of gurus, the supernatural powers of the gurus, the claim that the teaching of the sect is scientifically accurate and verifiable in every particular, esoteric teaching, secret practice, and all the talk about astral and higher planes, adepts and such like.85
Knowing that Brunton had been for two years a member of the Theosophical Society, it is easier for us to understand his enthusiasm for the Radha Soamis: they were close to the Theosophists in their wish to bridge the religions of East and West, and in their readiness to reconcile mysticism and modern science.
An entire chapter of Secret India is devoted to the Radha Soamis and their spiritual leader. In addition, the latter is mentioned in two other places in Brunton’s writings:
… when I re-visited Dayalbagh, near Agra, last year (in 1936) in the company of my friend, Major Francis Yeats-Brown, his Holiness the late Sir Sahabji Maharaj was kind enough to remark, when all three of us were at lunch, that my published account of interviews with him had evinced an amazingly accurate memory.86 And also:
I called the Viceroy. His Excellency had read my book A Search in Secret India and, as a direct result, has made a visit to inspect Dayalbagh, the cooperative city founded on spirituality to which I devoted a chapter. He was so satisfied with what he saw of the founder of the city, Sahabji Maharaj, that he made him a knight when the honorary list of the new year was published.87
These remarks show that Secret India was widely read and appreciated in India, by Indians as well as in British official circles.
How did Brunton come in contact with the curious universe of the Radha Soamis? As always, by means of certain minor characters who seemed to abound in the labyrinth of his quest—in this case, two disciples of Sahabji Maharaj: Sunderlal Nigam, met in Lucknow; and Mallik, encountered “at another place and time.” The two spoke with him about their master, who had “conceived the astonishing and interesting notion of combining a yoga discipline with a daily life based on Western ways and ideas.”
Brunton was intrigued by this synthesis, which in a way foreshadowed the path he himself would take. He received an invitation from Sahabji Maharaj, the “uncrowned king” of Dayalbagh, a colony of the sect near Agra. Brunton was favorably impressed by this model city, founded by S. Maharaj in 1915. It had 12,000 inhabitants, and was considered the headquarters of the sect, which had some 110,000 members dispersed throughout India. During his stay, Brunton divided his time between interviews with S. Maharaj, visits to factories and schools, and participation in spiritual gatherings of the Radha Soamis. The city was founded on a cooperative principle: the welfare of the community came before that of the individual. The lands, houses, farms, businesses, and schools were community owned. The colony’s inhabitants were educated pioneers, willing to make the needed financial sacrifices out of love for their spiritual ideal.
Sahabji Maharaj had met with Gandhi, but refused to join his campaign of civil disobedience. He disagreed with the Hindu nationalist leader on two crucial points: for Sahabji, the practical regeneration of the individual came first, before political action (this was also Brunton's position); and he rejected Gandhi’s economic ideas as utopian and impractical. Sahabji Maharaj advocated a moderate industrialization of India which would avoid the mistakes of both capitalism and socialism—and which would safeguard spiritual ideas and practices.
In his first interview with Sahabji Maharaj, Brunton expressed to him the admiration he felt for his disciples. The response of the Radha Soamis’ leader summarized his world view:
I am attempting to show the world … that a man can be perfectly spiritual without running away to caves, and that he can reach the highest attainments in Yoga while carrying on with worldly avocations.88 The view is close to Brunton’s. According to Sahabji Maharaj, man has a triple nature: the body, which was put to work on Dayalbagh’s farms and in its trades; the intellect, to whose development were devoted its colleges and libraries; and the spirit, which unfolded and flowered in communal chanting, meditation, prayer, and the gatherings led by S. Maharaj.
If Brunton was struck by the unique character of the Radha Soamis, if he intensely admired their mixture of pragmatism and spirituality, he was positively transported with enthusiasm for Sahabji Maharaj, “a brilliant and breath-taking man.”[v] He was not yet dreaming of his decisive meeting with the Maharaja of Mysore, and wrote with a trace of sadness:
Nowhere in India, nowhere in the entire world, may I expect to meet his like again.89 [v]
The only negative note in his exalted sojourn at Dayalbagh was that Brunton did not have a spiritual experience with the Radha Soamis, and it was for that that he had come to India—not to report on Indian communities, as admirable as their realizations might be.
In the same way that Sri Shankaracharya prefigured Ramana Maharshi as an embodiment of the Sage of Supreme Realization—in the same way, Sahabji Maharaj prefigured the Maharaja of Mysore, a philosopher-man of action, the philosopher king who had yet to appear in Brunton’s life.
2.2.3 Sri Krishna Menon (Atmananda) A third individual encountered by Brunton, Sri Krishna Menon (also known as Atmananda) was, like Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram, a figure of prime importance in the spiritual landscape of the waning British Raj. In several ways, Krishna Menon resembled Subrahmanya Iyer, the great pandit of Mysore. Like the latter, Krishna Menon was a grihastha (householder). He occupied an important post in the police force of the state of Travancore (and in fact had written their Code). Like Iyer, he taught an intellectual form of Advaita which appealed exclusively to reason; also like Iyer, he felt that religion and yoga were inferior stages on the path of jnana (knowledge), and that meditation was superfluous. Both of them based their teachings on the fundamental tenets of avasthatraya (the three states of consciousness) and drg-drsya viveka (discriminating the knower from the known); both favored the Astavakra-Gita.90 But in this case, Atmananda did not prefigure Subrahmanya Iyer: it is probable, in fact, that Brunton did not meet Atmananda until 1940, i.e. after the crucial period in Mysore. Brunton would return two more times to South India after its independence: in 1952, to participate in an initiation given by Atmananda to a group of his disciples in Trivandrum; then in 1953, to Bangalore, where he saw the master again, probably for the last time. After that, it appears that Brunton was no longer seeking out spiritual teachers.
Atmananda's fundamental position did not seem to differ from Iyer’s save for a more extreme idealism in which there was no place for practical wisdom or altruistic ideals. Thus Brunton noted:
From the heights where Krishna Menon stands, the prospect of a world war means little: an illusion within an illusion!
The suffering humanity of a dream does not expect our help, nor does the sage see any service to render to a world which does not exist!91 We will not attempt to get into the details of Atmananda’s teachings here—his ideas are similar to Iyer’s, and will be thoroughly analyzed in later chapters. It suffices here to say that he takes the position of monistic idealism or mentalism, reducing everything to an entirely homogenous, sole Reality—Mind. The body, the senses and their objects, mental life, are nothing but ideas, which are in their turn, reducible to pure Consciousness itself, the only Reality. The "direct road" of jnana, Knowledge, leads to the realization of this truth. The "cosmological path,” that of religion and yoga, also leads to Reality, but by a more indirect and lengthy road, for it considers the world, the soul, and a personal God as real.
Brunton notes that Krishna Menon approved of the majority of Ramana’s teachings.
In addition to a mentalist teaching which confirmed and overlapped Iyer’s, Krishna Menon gave Paul Brunton a number of practical techniques for the spiritual life. For example, in order to become detached from external objects, he suggested undertaking a pointed analysis of the provisional happiness which results from satisfied desire: this happiness is nothing other than the dissipation of the mental agitation engendered by our desire for the object, and a return to our natural state:
The happiness which seemed to come from the object, in reality came from the Self. I am myself pure Peace and Bliss.
When this truth is deeply assimilated, a permanent weakening of our desire nature follows, and our ego ceases to be prey to compulsions or samskaras.92 How to be in the world but not of it? Krishna Menon advises us to adopt the Witness point of view as often as possible—i.e. to disidentify with the role that one plays in life. However:
This witness position cannot be taken in the midst of work or activity, because work would suffer from it.93 Adopting the neutral, impersonal point of view of the Witness also helps us transcend time. In fact, memory of the past, knowledge of the present, and projection into the future require the existence of a consciousness which is in itself outside time. This cognitive principle in us contains simultaneously the three times: by training one’s mind to return to the Witness position as often as possible—in the gap between two thoughts—one can transcend time, or at least reduce its grip on us.
Another practice suggested by Menon, which was also given by Iyer to the Maharaja of Mysore, consists of attempting to reduce external objects to thoughts. The first effect of this practice is a lessening of the impact of events on our mind. In the next stage, we train ourselves to ask where these ideas dwell. The answer we arrive at is: in me, the Self, the atman! Thoughts come and go; what remains after they vanish is the atman which contains them. It alone is Real.
Let us now examine Brunton's criticisms of Krishna Menon’s teachings—criticisms which could also be applied to Iyer’s. First of all, Atmananda rejects the practice of formal meditation, and Brunton categorically disagrees with him on this point. Drawing from his own personal experience and Indian tradition, including the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and the Buddha himself, Brunton declares that meditation remains necessary as long as Enlightenment has not been attained, and cannot be abandoned except temporarily. Brunton also disagrees with the opinion of Menon and Iyer that the highest state attainable by yoga is no better than deep sleep, and that the work of the intellect can by itself lead to Realization:
It is only when a disciple is dissatisfied with the intellectual stage of jnana, as previously he was with the stage of meditation, that he is truly ripe for philosophy.94
Brunton's second criticism of Atmananda was for his hyper-intellectuality and his lack of spontaneity. The fact that Atmananda arranged his lecture tours and programs well in advance offended him: “It smells too much of professional spirituality: did Jesus, Buddha or Maharshi schedule their lectures six months in advance?”95 As Brunton saw it, Krishna Menon talked too much about Truth, piling thought upon thought, whereas “a glance, a touch or a mental image do more than lectures for those who are ripe and ready.”96
2.3 Major Encounters: Ramana Maharshi The first of the three figures who played a major role in shaping Brunton’s Indian experience was none other than the Sage of Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi. As he has become well known in the West, we will not linger to repaint his portrait. What concerns us here are the circumstances of Brunton’s meeting with Ramana, the nature of their relationship, and the Maharshi’s influence on Brunton.
Although it is well known that Paul Brunton introduced the Maharshi to the West through A Search in Secret India, it is not so well known that he also revealed the existence of the Sage to the Indians themselves:
… it is amusing to me to remember that when I first made tentative enquiries about the Maharishee in the city of Madras several years ago, no one had ever heard of his existence, and I could discover nothing at all about him prior to making my visit. Today one may ask almost anyone in the same city about the Mystic of Arunachala and a great deal of information will quickly be forthcoming. It was left for me, an infidel foreigner, to make the Maharishee famous in his own country.97
As for the circumstances of their meeting, they seemed arranged by destiny from the beginning. Arriving in Madras, Brunton encountered on the street a disciple of Ramana who obstinately followed him and insisted on taking him to his master. Brunton, who had already made plans to leave for North India, refused the offer, only to hear it repeated even more emphatically several days later by Sri Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram. The events that followed have already been related here.
As a result of his rupture with Maharshi's ashram in 1939, Brunton was never again to see the Sage. He passed near the ashram many times, musing with some bitterness over the obstacles that separated them—obstacles perhaps due to his own karma, he would say one day. But he confessed that the close spiritual tie which united him to Ramana was never severed, and he remained in telepathic communication with him until the Sage's death in 1950. Brunton received Ramana's blessing by telegram on the eve of his departure from India after the Second World War; and every year, on New Year’s Day, Brunton wrote or sent a message to the Sage. In 1952, more than two years after Ramana’s death, Brunton again visited the ashram at Tiruvannamalai, and discovered within 24 hours that he and the ashram leaders had nothing to say to each other.
Nonetheless, Brunton's privileged relationship with the Maharshi seemed to continue unbroken:
Death had not ended our relationship or barred our communications. He still existed in my mind, life, as a veritable force, an entity bereft of the flesh but clearly present. And then one evening which I shall never forget, about a year and a quarter after his physical passing, he said that we needed to part and that he would vanish from my field of awareness. He did. I never saw him again.98 At first, Brunton believed that this disappearance of the Maharshi’s mental image had occurred for the sake of his own development. A short time before his own death, he spoke about it once more. As the editor oftheNotebooks writes:
In 1981, P.B. said more about this "next step." He said that while the inner contact had never in fact been broken, he had lacked the ability to recognize this at the time. He had to stop looking for the contact through any sort of imagery, and learn to recognize its presence as pure essence rather than [a] personalized image.
If the reverence and love that Brunton felt for Ramana are undeniable, he nevertheless retained during the second part of his life a certain ambivalence towards the mystic of Arunachala: was Ramana Maharshi, undoubtedly a great mystic and a great saint, also a master and a sage? In an article written for The Mountain Path forty years after their first meeting, Brunton calls him "a pure channel for a Higher Power." The Maharshi, who behaved during the day like a completely normal human being, in his moments of meditation would become the receptacle for an impersonal Presence, purely spiritual and radiant. But why then was Ramana content to remain a passive spectator to injustices committed under his own nose? Why this indifference to human suffering, particularly during the war? Brunton noted with a certain disappointment the absence in the Maharshi of an ideal of active service. This ideal, which he already held in himself in a latent way, would be stimulated and confirmed following two crucial encounters in Mysore, during the years when the world was passing through the tragic ordeal of the war. Brunton ended up regarding the mystic of Arunachala as a perfect yogi, but not quite a sage. His ideal of the sage had come to more closely resemble that of the bodhisattva, who sacrifices his own well-being in order to help others, taking on a part of their suffering:
For the sage the suffering of others is his; for the yogi it is not. The Maharshi was an adept in mysticism—that is, yoga—but his idea of truth needs to be disputed. He says that the sage can watch with indifference the slaughter of millions of people in battle. That is quite true of the yogi but it will never be true of those who have sacrificed every future nirvanic beatitude to return to earth until all are saved; they alone are entitled to the term sage; nor can they do otherwise, for they have found the unity of all human beings. They would never have returned if they did not feel for others.99
The full complexity of Brunton's attitude towards Ramana Maharshi is perhaps best summed up in this remark:
My deference to the dead master's status and reverence for his worth are great and unshakable. His pure life was an inspiration and an influence but it was not an example to imitate in all matters.100 What was Ramana's influence on Brunton? We have already mentioned that Ramana had confirmed, more than introduced to Brunton, the possibility that one could attain a superior state of consciousness and firmly ground himself in his own inner being—his only true Self. In the presence of Ramana Maharshi, Paul Brunton "met himself"—he attained this inner, higher Self, distinct from his personality; he took possession of an intimate spiritual inheritance, for which he had been prepared by the more illusive experiences of his youth.
We could perhaps say that in the Maharshi, Brunton found the truth of the Self; in Subrahmanya Iyer, he discovered the truth about the world; and in the Maharaja of Mysore, he perhaps saw the truth of an integrated, fully developed human life. Of course, in reality, events unfolded in a much more complex manner. Still, these individuals were the measure of what was possible on the paths of Brunton’s unfolding quest. They corresponded to three existential questions: Who am I? What is the world? How should I live? Concerning the first, the predominant influence was the Maharshi’s. He gave Brunton a method called atma-vicara, "inquiry into the Self." Brunton summarized it in this way:
Pursue the enquiry “Who am I?” relentlessly. Analyze your entire personality. Try to find out where the I-Thought begins. Go on with your meditations. Keep turning your attention within. One day the wheel of thought will slow down and an intuition will mysteriously arise. Follow that intuition, let your thinking stop, and it will eventually lead you to the goal.101 One could say without exaggeration that The Secret Path, a large part of The Quest of the Overself, and certain passages of A Hermit in the Himalayas and The Inner Reality were born of this message.