A dialogue between David Godman
and Maalok, an Indian academic now teaching in America
Sri Ramana Maharshi
Maalok: In my experience there is a tendency among many people to convert the 'Who Am I?' technique into a mantra and repeat it. Is this a good method?
David: In the Second World War American troops took over an isolated Pacific island that had never been exposed to western civilization before. They built a runway and flew in a vast amount of supplies for their military personnel. The locals, some of whom were still hunter-gatherers, ended up with many of the leftovers.
When the war was over, the Americans departed, leaving behind a runway and some abandoned buildings. The local tribals wanted the American bounty to continue, but they didn't know how to bring it about. They were clueless about geopolitics and technology. They had seen large birds descend from the sky and deposit an unimaginable amount of goodies on the runway. They had never really bothered to find out why these strangers were on their island, or how these exotic goods were manufactured and brought to the island.
They set up altars on the runway and started to perform their own religious rites there in an attempt to entice the big metal birds back to their island. These practices became a kind of religion that anthropologists labeled 'cargo-cult'.
I mention all this because many people try to do self-inquiry without really understanding how it works and why it works, and this lack of understanding leads them to do many practices that are not real self-inquiry, and which consequently will not produce the desired results. If I may pursue this analogy a little further, there is self-inquiry and there is cargo-cult inquiry, and to understand the difference between the two, you have to know how and why self-inquiry works.
In self-inquiry one is isolating the individual 'I', and by doing so one is making the mind, the individual self, sink back into its source and vanish. Any technique that encourages the mind to associate with objects or thoughts is not self-inquiry, and it will not make the mind disappear. On the contrary, it will make the mind stronger. When you repeat 'Who am I? Who am I?' the subject 'I' is concentrating on an object of thought, the phrase 'Who am I?' This does not lead to the disassociation of the 'I' from its thoughts; it keeps it enmeshed in them.
The same comment can be made about practices that associate self-inquiry with concentration on a particular place in the body. A lot of people have this misconception. If you are focussing on a place in the body, you are associating the subject 'I' with an object of perception - whatever spot you are concentrating on. This is not self-inquiry, and you will never cause the 'I' to vanish in this way. Any technique that puts attention on a thought or a perception or a feeling that is not 'I' is not self-inquiry. If you think it is, you are practicing cargo-cult inquiry. You are following a ritual or a practice that derives from an incorrect understanding of how the mind comes into existence, and how it can be made to disappear. Your likelihood of success will be the same as the islanders who tried to entice planes out of the sky with religious ceremonies.
Maalok: But doesn't faith and devotion have a role? What about the people who are doing things with deepest devotion and faith but perhaps don't have a good idea of what needs to be done (or undone in this case)?
David: I'm not criticizing faith or devotion here. I'm simply saying that there's an effective way of doing self-inquiry and an ineffective way, and that one understands the difference by understanding Sri Ramana's teachings on the nature of the 'I': how it rises, and on how it can be made to subside.
If you have complete faith in a realized teacher, and complete devotion to him or her, that in itself will take you to the goal. You won't need to bother with anything else, and you won't even care about anything else. The best example of this I have ever come across is Mathru Sri Sarada, a devotee of Lakshmana Swamy who realized the Self solely on account of her intense love and devotion towards him. In the 1970s she was doing
japa of his name and concentrating on a photo of him for up to twenty hours a day, and in the remaining four hours, while she was asleep, she would often be dreaming about him. This wasn't merely intense concentration; it was accompanied by an intense, uninterrupted flow of love towards him. Lakshmana Swamy has said that at times, the flow was so strong, it kept him awake at night. He once asked her to moderate the flow a little so that he could get some sleep, but she couldn't do it. That love was flowing continuously, twenty-four hours a day to the object of her devotion, and in the end, the power of her love brought about her realization.
You need that much love to realize the Self through this method, and if you are hoping to realize the Self through self-inquiry, you need the same kind of commitment and intensity on your spiritual path.
Maalok: It is said that Ramana Maharshi was clear that mere mantra
japa and mental imagery can be obstacles to Self-realization. Is this correct? Is it also true that he allowed and even encouraged many people to continue their spiritual practices even if they were not quite consistent with his strong preference for the method of self-inquiry? If he thought that self-inquiry was so beneficial, why did he not encourage everyone who came to him for advice to do it?
David: There are several different questions here. I will answer them one by one.
When people came to Sri Ramana for the first time, they would often ask for spiritual advice. Sri Ramana would generally reply, 'What practice are you following right now?' If they said they were worshipping some particular deity, or repeating a mantra, he would usually say, 'Good, you can carry on with that'.
He recognized that different people were attracted to different paths, and he knew that many people found self-inquiry difficult or uninspiring. He was not a dictator. Everyone in his ashram was quite free to follow any spiritual path. No one was compelled to study Sri Ramana's teachings, and no one was compelled to follow a particular practice.
Quite often devotees would find, after a few months, that they were no longer interested in their old practices. They would again come to see Sri Ramana and ask him what they should do. When this happened Sri Ramana might suggest self-inquiry, but he would never force a change.
However, some people went up to him and said, 'I am not following any particular practice at the moment, but I want to get enlightened. What is the quickest and most direct way of accomplishing this?'
I think that such a questioner would invariably be told to do self-inquiry.
There is a nice story about a group of villagers who came to see Sri Ramana in the 1920s. One of them asked for the best technique to realize the Self, and Sri Ramana advised him to do self-inquiry. A senior devotee later expressed a doubt that this advice was appropriate. He thought that such people ought to be told to do some form of
When Sri Ramana heard about this comment, he said, 'Why should I cheat people who come to me and ask for the best technique? He asked this question, so I gave him the right answer.'
If people wanted to do self-inquiry, Sri Ramana always encouraged them to do it, but if they felt drawn to other paths, he never tried to push them into doing something that they didn't feel comfortable with. If you go through the published dialogues that visitors had with Sri Ramana you can find several instances of Sri Ramana recommending self-inquiry to people who didn't seem enthusiastic about doing it. When he sensed their hesitation, he would ask them to follow some other practice instead.
This leads on to one of your other questions. What role did devotional practices, such as
japa or meditation on a visual image or symbol of God, have in Sri Ramana's teachings? He always said that there were only two ways to get enlightened: either do self-inquiry or completely surrender to God or the Guru. He never belittled devotion to names and forms of the divinity.
Many of the people who were following the path of surrender would do
japa of some holy name. Sri Ramana approved of this whole-heartedly, but he did on occasion say that such practices would only bring results if one had love towards the name that one was repeating, or the form that one was concentrating on. This is an important distinction to note. You can repeat a particular name of God all day, but this will only be an exercise in concentration if there is no love, no devotion towards the name that is being repeated. Such repetitions will make the mental muscles stronger in the same way that repeated exercise makes the body's muscles stronger. They will not make the mind disappear. However, if one can chant the name of God with love, not just with concentration, this will ultimately make the mind dissolve into God and become God.
Maalok: A curious thing happened the other day during my visit to Delhi. I accompanied my niece to a famous bookstore in Delhi. They had a big section on spirituality. I scanned the section carefully only to find not a single book on Ramana Maharshi. On inquiring, the bookstore manager told me that books on Ramana Maharshi are simply not popular and don't sell easily. Being the editor and author of significant books on Ramana Maharshi and his disciples, I was wondering if this has been your experience as well? If so, in your opinion, why?
David: They are not as popular as books by modern teachers such as Osho, nor do they have the appeal of the kind of self-help or new-age titles that seem to fill the 'spirituality' shelves in most bookstores. However, they do have steady, enduring sales. The standard texts that record Sri Ramana's dialogues tend to sell almost a thousand copies a year, every year, year after year. That means that a book such as
Talks with Ramana Maharshi, which was first published in the mid-1950s, has probably sold well over 40,000 copies by now, and it continues to sell. I should mention that this is a 650-page hardback, and it's not an easy read unless you have a good knowledge of Sanskrit spiritual terms. New people discover Sri Ramana and his teachings every year, and every year the basic titles keep on selling.
Ramanasramam, the publisher of most of the books on Sri Ramana, takes a rather passive approach to distribution. Its publishing and sales department fulfils orders that come in, but they don't advertise, and they don't lobby bookstores or distributors to take their books. That may be one reason why books on Sri Ramana don't often appear on bookstore shelves. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most bookstore managers, even in India, don't know that good books on Ramana Maharshi exist.
Having said that, I will also concede that books that attempt to codify or explain his teachings will never be very popular. I think they will always be restricted to a small market of discriminating people who have a hunger for spiritual liberation. In any generation that group will not be very large. Sri Ramana's teachings are not a 'feel-good' philosophy, nor do they offer quick fixes or instant experiences. They, instead, offer a tried and tested roadmap to those who want to pursue spiritual practice seriously. That kind of traditional approach is not so popular nowadays. People want instant results, not a prescription for hard work.
About twenty years ago I attended a talk in which an enthusiastic speaker said that he wanted to bring Sri Ramana's teachings to millions of people all over the world. The next man who stood up commented on this proposal by saying: 'I think this idea is misguided. The more accurately you explain Ramana Maharshi's teachings, the fewer people you will find are interested in them. If you succeed in finding millions of new devotees for Sri Ramana, that will only be a measure of the extent to which you have diluted his teachings.'
I think that I agree with this. Ramana Maharshi was an exemplary saint who transformed the lives of countless people. Books about the transforming effect he had on people who came to see him will probably always find a good market, but if you publish a book about his teachings, few people will be interested in buying it, and even fewer in putting into practice the teachings that it contains.
Maalok: On a related note, I noticed that, recently, you are publishing books independently with no affiliation to an ashram or organization. What led to this change? In my opinion your recent trilogy entitled
The Power of The Presence is very inspiring. Despite their obvious intrinsic merit, has it been difficult to distribute and sell these books by yourself?
David: Most of the books I wrote or edited in the 1980s and early 90s were sponsored by various ashrams or spiritual organizations. I did these books as
seva, as service to the teacher, and I gave all the royalties and rights away. In the middle of the 1990s Papaji, a direct disciple of Sri Ramana, encouraged me to start taking royalties from books as a means of supporting myself. Up until then the organizations I had been working for had generally supported me while I worked for them. Papaji had been a householder all his life, and he had supported his family through his earnings until he retired in his mid-50s. He liked people to be self-sufficient, and he encouraged people to support themselves. For the last few years I have been supporting myself by writing and publishing, and I am no longer sponsored or supported by any organization.
I like publishing my own stuff because I can choose any topic that appeals to me; I can write as much or as little as I like, and I have no deadlines. Having said that, though, I must add that I only publish material on Ramana Maharshi, his teachings, his disciples, and his Guru, Arunachala. I have no interest in branching out into other fields.
Selling and distribution can occasionally be a bit of a headache, particularly since potential customers are spread thinly all over the world. Having been in the spiritual book business for almost twenty years, I think I would be right in saying that it is much harder to distribute a good spiritual book nowadays than it was in the late eighties and early nineties. Spiritual bookstores are chronically short of money to pay their bills, and mainstream bookstores are primarily interested in bestsellers. Amazon, along with Barnes and Noble, are putting a lot of good outlets out of business.
My advertising budget is zero. I don't do book tours. I don't sit in shops and sign books. I don't go from city to city doing radio interviews. These are the standard promotional tools in the West. Many publishers nowadays won't even consider giving an author a contract unless she is willing to go on the road and promote the book for them. I have brought out three new books in the last eighteen months, and during that period there hasn't been a single night when I haven't slept in my own bed in Tiruvannamalai.
I have a good mailing list of people who I know are interested in my books. Whenever I have something new to offer, I notify everyone by email. Other people hear about my books from friends or from notifications on the Web. Nowadays, there are so many specialized web sites, if a new book comes out on Sri Ramana, news of it will appear on sites specializing in
advaita, gurus, enlightenment or Ramana Maharshi within a matter of days.
Hardly anyone comes across my books in bookstores nowadays because so few bookstores stock them. That doesn't bother me at all. There are several thousand people in the world who appreciate Ramana Maharshi enough to buy a new book about him or his teachings. Sooner or later my books will come to the attention of these people and they will buy them. I don't work very hard to find customers. I have a feeling that if someone is ready to appreciate a book on Sri Ramana, that book will somehow drop into his or her lap at the right time. I don't think it's my responsibility to try to foist my books on reluctant customers. When I was ready for Sri Ramana's words, the book was there, waiting for me. The same thing will happen when other people need to read about him or his teachings.
Last year a man I have never met volunteered to make a web page for me that would contain details of where to buy my books. 'OK', I said. 'Thank you.' He bought my domain name, made a simple site for me and paid the fees for two years. This year someone else I barely know offered to put in a lot of time upgrading it and adding lots of new material. 'OK,' I said again. 'Thank you.' People turn up when they are needed and the work gets done.
If any businessmen or women are reading this, they are probably scratching their heads in disbelief. However, it works. My books eventually find their customers, and from the feedback I get, the customers are generally happy with what they buy and read.
Maalok: Among the dozen or so books you have written and edited, are there any one or two that standout as being special for you personally?
David: Not really, I enjoyed working on them all. However, I think I got the most pleasure and happiness out of the biographies because they involved a lot of personal contact with all the subjects. Also, I enjoyed the research aspect of these books: tracking down little-known facts and incidents is something I always enjoy doing. Finally, once the research is over, there is the creative challenge of putting it all together into a seamless whole, constructing a narrative that enables the reader to enter into and be immersed in an astonishingly different world. I try to be as factual as possible when I do this, but at the same time I want to convey the reverence, the awe and the esteem I feel for these people. I write about these people because for me they are magnificent examples of how human lives should be lived.
Maalok: How did you gather the material for the biographies you have written? Did you use tape recorders etc. while conversing with the subjects? The reason I am asking is that on reading I am impressed by the degree of details in each one of them, which becomes especially astounding since several of them were written in the twilight years of the subjects.
David: I don't think I had a tape recorder when I interviewed Saradamma and Lakshmana Swamy. I suppose I ought to remember something like that, but I can't. I think I just took notes as they talked. I remember sitting with them every morning for about an hour, probably over a period of about a month. There was a lot of detail in that book simply because Saradamma had such a good memory. She had an astonishing recall. Lakshmana Swamy didn't have such a good memory about the years that Saradamma was doing her
sadhana, but her astounding photographic memory of that period more than made up for this. Lakshmana Swamy did, though, have excellent memories of his early life, his time with Sri Ramana and the years he spent as a solitary recluse. The two accounts complemented each other very well. There was no question of old age being a factor here because Lakshmana Swamy was still in his fifties then, and Saradamma was in her early twenties. She was describing events that had mostly happened five to eight years before.
With Annamalai Swami I had taped sessions every afternoon. I would fill most of a ninety-minute tape almost every day. I would transcribe it overnight, go back the next afternoon and use the same tape again for the next day's stories. I think it was an economy measure because I didn't have much money at the time, but looking back on it, I wish now that I had used separate tapes and kept them all. It would have been a nice record. I am sure there are now many people who would enjoy listening to him tell his stories. He was a good story-teller, and he had a captivating narrative style. He wasn't very good on dates or sequences of events - which story came before or after which other one - so I had to work all that out for myself later. That was an absorbing and fulfilling challenge: recreating his world, and populating it with all the characters and incidents he had told me about. I did a lot of Sherlock Holmes work, poring over old photos of ashram buildings, and going through old ashram account books, trying to match the stories he was telling me with the physical evidence of the buildings he was working on.
What I particularly liked about him was the way he would distinguish between stories that he had first-hand knowledge of and those that he didn't. If he had been present at some incident, he would tell me. If he had heard a story second-hand, he would qualify his account by saying that he only had indirect knowledge. He wasn't a scholarly man, but he understood the necessity of good scholarship. We were writing about his Guru, and to him the words and actions of his Guru were sacred. He wanted utmost accuracy wherever possible. Sometimes he would even give me what politicians would call 'off-the-record briefings'. He would give me opinions on why he thought certain people behaved the way they did, but then he would add, 'Don't print this because this is just my opinion. I am just telling you this to give you some background information on what the ashram was like at this time.' It was a pleasure to deal with someone who knew how to evaluate source material in this way.
When you talk to eighty-year-olds about their youth, there is always the possibility that they are misremembering things, but just about everything that was checkable from other sources turned out to be true. That gave me the confidence to believe in the reliability and accuracy of his whole narrative.
As I said, dates were not his strong point. Initially, for example, he was quite insistent that he came to Sri Ramana in 1930, but when I proved to him that Seshadri Swami died in early 1929, he had to change his mind because he had met Seshadri Swami on a few occasions. However, mistakes such as these were few and far between.
Papaji was also in his eighties when I collected the details of his life. He wrote out about 200 pages of answers for me in response to a massive biographical questionnaire I inflicted on him. It was sixteen pages long. All his satsangs were being recorded in those days, and during the hour or so he spent with visitors every day he often mentioned incidents from his early life. So, although I wasn't recording his stories directly, I had access to a whole archive of tapes that had records of him telling stories about various things that had happened to him over the years.
I contacted many people who had known him and moved with him at various periods of his life. Their information corroborated a lot of what he had been telling me. For example, when he was a child he said that Krishna would come and play with him in his bedroom, but apparently no one else in the family could see him. I spoke to two of his surviving sisters and they both remembered incidents in which a very young Papaji seemed to be playing with an unseen friend on his bed or in the family home. On one of these occasions he went into trance that lasted for hours.
Usually, when he told a story in response to a question, I got the feeling that he was often getting his information from his memory of the last time he told the story, rather than from the original incident itself. I think a lot of people do this. However, sometimes, he would spontaneously remember some incident and start talking about it. When this happened, the most astonishing details would come out. I remember him talking about a Muslim pir he met in Madras. I had heard the story before, but when he started telling me on this occasion I could feel that he was actually back in Madras in the mid-1940s, walking down the street and describing all the things he was seeing. He was talking about walking past particular shops and businesses and describing the sights and scenes as if he were actually walking down that particular street. These stories were very precious for me. It was like having a video replay of the incident, unobstructed by any of the subsequent retellings. I learned not to interrupt when he got into this kind of mood. If you asked a question, perhaps a clarification or an explanation, the look in his eyes would change and he would not be in the street any more. He would be back in his memory, telling the story in the way he usually did.
Overall, with all the people I have written about, I satisfied myself that I was dealing with reliable memories. With Papaji and Annamalai Swami, there were occasional discrepancies that no amount of research or questioning could sort out. The events they pertained to were simply too long ago. However, I am satisfied that, to the best of my ability, I have given reliable accounts of truly great people.