A dialogue between David Godman
and Maalok, an Indian academic now teaching in America
Sri Ramana Maharshi
Maalok: Were there any other constraints that made you decide what to put into and what to leave out of your books?
David: When I wrote Nothing Ever Happened I included many accounts that had been written by devotees themselves. I also interviewed many people who had known Papaji, and I included many of these interviews in the book. Whenever I did this, I would always show the author or the interviewee my final draft. If they wanted to make changes, they were quite free to do so. I wanted all the contributors to be satisfied that I had given a fair and accurate presentation of their views and their stories. The encounter between a Guru and a disciple is for many people a sacred one, and I didn't want to be guilty of misrepresenting or misrecording them through ignorance or inadvertence.
When Living by the Words of Bhagavan came out, some people from
Ramanasramam came to Annamalai Swami and asked him to change or delete some of the stories in subsequent editions. He had no problem with omitting stories about other people, but he adamantly refused to change any of the accounts of the exchanges that took place between himself and Sri Ramana.
He said, 'The words of my Guru are sacred. Everything he told me is sacred. Everything I saw him do is sacred to me. I have lived my life by following his words and his example. All these things are sacred to me, and no one has the right to change them. These are his gifts to me, and I accept them as his
prasad. To change any of these things would be to refuse his prasad or to throw it away. I will never do that.'
I think all devotees think this way about the encounters they have had with their Guru, which is why I don't want to be guilty of misrepresenting any of these meetings.
Maalok: Going back to my original question, do you ever feel that your reverence for your subjects prevents you from recording their stories in an objective way?
David: When I wrote the biographies of Lakshmana Swamy, Saradamma, Annamalai Swami and Papaji, the subjects were still alive. I worked closely with all them on their stories and always gave them the final authority to include something or to leave it out. I had enormous respect and admiration for all of them. I saw myself as a vehicle for them to get their stories out, not as someone who was sitting in judgement on them. I used my writing skills to express the sense of awe I felt when I encountered the stories of their lives and accomplishments. They were not hagiographies since I did my utmost to research and corroborate all the facts I was given, but at the same time I want to make it clear that in some sense these books were an act of worship for me, an offering to God. When I had finished writing
Nothing Ever Happened I put the following verse from Tukaram in my introduction:
Words are the only
Jewels I possess.
Words are the only
Clothes I wear.
Words are the only food
That sustains my life.
Words are the only wealth
I distribute among people.
Says Tuka [Tukaram],
'Witness the Word.
He is God.
I worship Him
This is how I feel about my writings. I worship manifestations of God on earth with the words that I string together. I don't worship by inventing stories or by suppressing them. I use my intellect to assemble credible, authoritative and readable accounts that I hope will imbue readers with a desire for liberation and a respect for Ramana Maharshi and all the teachers and devotees in his lineage.
Maalok: There is a prevalent myth among many people who don't know much about Ramana Maharshi that he rarely spoke. When these people see volumes and volumes of books written that claim to be
'Talks with Ramana Maharshi' they question the authenticity of these books. Were these talks real? How authentic are the sources?
David: Ramana Maharshi was silent for a lot of the time, but if you had a spiritual query to put to him, he would generally be happy to give you an answer, often quite a detailed one. I mentioned
Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi a little earlier. Someone who picks this up might come to the conclusion that he was a talkative man because there are over 600 pages of dialogues there. But have a look at the dates. The book covers a four-year period in the late 1930s. If you average that out, it comes to about half a page a day. That's not a lot of talking for a man who sat in public for up to eighteen hours every day.
The question of how authentic all the books about Sri Ramana's life and teachings are is a complex one, and, given time constraints, I will refrain from going into it on a book-by-book basis. A number of books of dialogues were published during Sri Ramana's lifetime, and all of them were checked and edited by Sri Ramana himself. These include
Maharshi's Gospel, Spiritual Instructions, and the talks that precede
Sat Darshana Bhashya. One must also put on this list the teachings Sri Ramana gave out that were recorded by Muruganar in Tamil verse. These have been brought out in a book entitled
Guru Vachaka Kovai. Though all of these works have Sri Ramana's imprimatur, they only constitute a small fraction of the published dialogues.
No one ever recorded Sri Ramana speaking because he refused to let any recordings be made. For many years the ashram manager also forbade anyone from taking notes in Sri Ramana's presence. This meant that many of the dialogues were written down from memory several hours later. There are always going to be errors in a system like this, but I don't think that there are many serious ones. Sri Ramana's teachings have been expressed very clearly in his written works and in the few books of dialogues that he vetted during his lifetime. The remaining body of work, which was not checked, is fairly consistent with these approved teachings.
Maalok: In one of the books you wrote or edited I remember reading that Maharshi's answers to similar questions by different devotees were not necessarily the same because they were guided by the state of mind of the questioner, rather than the question itself. Could you comment on this, based on your own experience of watching enlightened people teach?
David: If you drop ten people at random in a big city and have them ask people in their neighborhood, 'How do I get to the city center?' each person will be given a different set of directions, and all the instructions will be correct. People who start from different places need different instructions to get to the same destination.
If you sit in the presence of an enlightened teacher and ask, 'What do I have to do to get enlightened?' that teacher can immediately see where you are spiritually, and what you need to do to make progress. The reply will be based on what he or she sees in your mind, not on some prescribed formula that is handed out to everyone. In some therapy groups there are tried-and-tested techniques that are given out to everyone
- the twelve-step approach for recovering alcoholics is a good example - but you don't find that kind of approach with enlightened teachers.
That's one answer to your question. One can also say that enlightened people respond to the state of the mind of the person in front of them, not just to the question it asks. A person asking an apparently polite and respectful question may be hiding his true feelings. He may be trying to test the teacher; he may be trying to provoke him, and so on. Quite often, the teacher will respond to those inner feelings, rather than the question itself. Since only the teacher can really see what is going on in people's minds, replies and responses often appear to be random or arbitrary to other people who are watching or listening. Ramana Maharshi once quoted, with approval, a verse that said, in effect, 'The enlightened one laughs with those who joke, and cries with those who grieve, all the time being unaffected by the laughter and the grief'.
It is often the inner mood of a questioner that determines the emotional tone of an exchange with a teacher. There are records of Ramana Maharshi, who was normally quiet and unprovokable, jumping off his sofa and chasing people out of the room because he could see that they had come to him with a hidden agenda, perhaps anger, or a desire to demonstrate the superiority of their own ideas. Other people couldn't see this aggression at all because it was well hidden.
I watched a woman approach Papaji a few years ago with what appeared to be a sensible, spiritual question. He exploded with anger, said that she was only interested in sex and told her to go away. We were all quite shocked because this was her first day, her first meeting. Later that day I spoke to the woman she had come with and asked her how her friend had dealt with this extreme reaction.
She laughed and said, 'I'm so glad Papaji reacted like that. Every year she comes to India and goes to a new ashram, pretending to be interested in the teacher and the teachings, but every year she starts an affair with some devotee. That's the real reason why she comes. After a few months she gets bored and leaves. I'm so happy that someone has finally seen through her game.'
I have witnessed countless strange reactions such as these in the teachers I have been with, all of them caused by hidden thoughts and desires that none of the rest of us could see.
There is something else that is going on when you sit in front of a true teacher. There is an effortless transmission of peace that stills the mind and brings an intense joy to the heart. None of this will be recorded in the dialogue that is going on between the two of you. It is something very private, and only the two of you are in on the secret. Words may be exchanged but the real communication is a silent one. In such cases the teacher is often reacting to the temporary absence of your mind, rather than the question you asked a few minutes before, but who else can see this?
Let me give you an example from my own experience. In the late 1970s I sat with a little-known teacher called Dr Poy, a Gujurati who lived in northern Bombay. On my first meeting I asked him what his teachings were and he replied, 'I have no teachings. People ask questions and I answer them. That is all.'
I persevered: 'If someone asks you ''How do I get enlightened?'', what do you normally tell them?'
'Whatever is appropriate,' he replied.
After a few more questions like this, I realized that I wasn't going to receive a coherent presentation of this man's teachings, assuming of course that he had any. He was a good example of what I have just been talking about. He didn't have a doctrine or a practice that he passed out to everyone who came to see him. He simply answered all questions on a case-by-case basis.
I sat quietly for about ten minutes while Dr Poy talked in Gujurati to a couple of other visitors. In those few minutes I experienced a silence that was so deep, so intense, it physically paralyzed me.
He turned to me and said, smiling, 'What's your next question?'
He knew I was incapable of replying. His question was a private joke between us that no one else there would have understood. I felt as if my whole body had been given a novocaine injection. I was so paralyzed, in an immobilized, ecstatic way, I couldn't even smile at his remark.
He looked at me and said, 'There is no such thing as right method, there is only right effort. Whatever technique you choose will work if you follow it intensely enough. You asked for my teachings and here they are: ''Part-time
sadhus don't get enlightened.'''
On one level this was a statement that one had to work hard at one's
sadhana, but at the same time the experience I was having there clearly indicated to me that it is the powerful presence of the teacher that effortlessly quietens the mind. So much is going on in a teacher-student encounter that is not picked up by other people who are watching it take place. Just about everyone I know who has been with a real teacher has had experiences like this, experiences that have little or nothing to do with the words that were going backwards and forwards.
Maalok: It is interesting that you bring up the idea of peace in the presence of a realized person. Sometimes, people talk about feeling very happy or bubbly in the presence of such people and not as much about peace. In your understanding, are happiness and peace equivalent?
David: Sri Ramana sometimes described the state of the Self as being peace, and sometimes he would say that it is happiness. I have used these terms frequently in talking to you because these are terms that most people can relate to. Most people claim that they have experienced peace or happiness at some point, but this is not what Sri Ramana is really alluding to when he says that the Self is peace or happiness. He is attempting to describe a state in which there is no experiencer at all. That state is impossible to convey in words, but the terms 'peace', 'stillness', 'silence' and 'happiness' were words that he often used to indicate the nature of the final state.
What you describe as 'bubbly' experiences, feelings of ecstasy or joy, are pleasant mental states. They are not the true awareness of what remains when mind itself has completely gone.
Maalok: Above all other traits, Maharshi used to emphasize humility the most. But humility is one of the hardest things to get. In fact if you try to be humble, often, it has the opposite effect. From your research and meetings with
jnanis can you share with us some of their teachings that would help a seeker in this regard?
David: I agree with you that Maharshi prized humility. He himself had a natural, effortless humility, and he frequently stressed that humility was necessary for spiritual development. But how to practice it? This is a big problem because attempting to be humble is just the ego adopting a new behavior pattern. If it's done deliberately, it's not true humility.
Lakshmana Swamy, a direct disciple of Sri Ramana, also stresses humility, even occasionally saying that humility alone will be enough to attain realization of the Self. However, he defines humility as 'the mind humbling itself before the Self'. This, for me, is the true humility. To whatever extent your mind has surrendered to the Self within, to that extent you are humble. It is nothing to do with how you behave with other people. If the inner humility that comes from an attenuated mind is there, then true humility will manifest in outer behavior. Humility is egolessness, and egolessness is attained by making the mind subside into its source, the Self.
Let me give you an extract from a book,
Sri Ramana Darsanam, that I recently edited. This is Sri Ramana speaking about the necessity of humility:
The power of humility, which bestows immortality, is the foremost among powers that are hard to attain. Since the only benefit of learning and other similar virtues is the attainment of humility, humility alone is the real ornament of the sages. It is the storehouse of all other virtues and is therefore extolled as the wealth of divine grace. Although it is a characteristic befitting wise people in general, it is especially indispensable for
Since attaining greatness is impossible for anyone except by humility, all the disciplines of conduct such as
yama and niyama, which are prescribed specifically for aspirants on the spiritual path, have as their aim only the attainment of humility. Humility is indeed the hallmark of the destruction of the ego. Because of this, humility is especially extolled by
sadhus themselves as the code of conduct befitting them.
Moreover, for those who are residing at Arunachala, it is indispensable in every way. Arunachala is the sacred place where even the embodiments of God, Brahma, Vishnu and Sakti, humbly subsided. Since it has the power to humble even those who would not be humbled, those who do not humbly subside at Arunachala will surely not attain that redeeming virtue anywhere else. The Supreme Lord, who is the highest of the high, shines unrivalled and unsurpassed only because he remains the humblest of the humble. When the divine virtue of humility is necessary even for the Supreme Lord, who is totally independent, is it necessary to emphasize that it is absolutely indispensable for
sadhus who do not have such independence? Therefore, just as in their inner life, in their outer life also
sadhus should possess complete and perfect humility. It is not that humility is necessary only for devotees of the Lord; even for the Lord it is the characteristic virtue.
In the final paragraph of this extract Sri Ramana mentions that God Himself derives His greatness from His humility. This is a point of view I have never found expressed by other teachers. We all imagine God as a being who has infinite power. Sri Ramana is on record as saying, perhaps somewhat whimsically, that God got His job because He was the most humble being in the universe, not because He was the most powerful. Here are two of his statements on this topic:
One's greatness increases to the extent that one becomes humble. The reason why God is supreme to such an extent that the whole universe bows to Him is His sublime state of humility in which the deluded ego never rises unknowingly.
Is it not on account of His behaving so humbly, as one ever in the service of every creature, that God stands worthy of all the glorious worships ever performed by all the worlds? By seeing Himself in all, by being humble even to devotees who bow to everyone, and by naturally remaining at such a pinnacle of humility that nothing can be humbler than Himself, the state of being supreme has come to the Lord.
All this may sound very eccentric unless one understands that humility equates with egolessness, rather than with a kind of 'nice' or socially acceptable behaviour. God is God because he is utterly egoless, utterly humble, and not because He is omnipotent or omniscient.
Maalok: Ramana Maharshi himself never had a physical Guru - I mean no living person. Is it correct to say that he often encouraged people to be connected to the Guru within, the Self, instead of the physical Guru? On the other hand, his direct disciple, Sri Lakshmana Swamy (who realized the Self in presence of Ramana Maharshi) says that a
living physical Guru is necessary for Self-Realization. Can you help clarify these apparently contradictory viewpoints? What is your best understanding on this issue?
David: Sri Ramana himself never had a human Guru, but he is on record as saying that the mountain of Arunachala was his Guru. In his devotional poetry he says that Arunachala was his Guru, his Self and his God. So, his Guru did have a physical form, even though it wasn't a human one.
Sri Ramana always taught that a Guru is necessary for everyone who wants to realize the Self. When he spoke on this topic, he would usually say that the Self takes the form of a physical Guru who instructs the devotee and supervises his progress. At the same time, the Guru is also the Self within. That inner Self, that inner Guru, pulls the mind into itself, and if the mind is mature enough, the inner Guru dissolves the mind completely. Both the inner and the outer Guru are required to complete the work.
You have cited Lakshmana Swamy as someone who says that a living human Guru is essential for devotees who want to realize the Self. He is on record as saying that in a few very rare cases the Self within can alone serve as the Guru and bring about enlightenment. He puts Ramana Maharshi in this category. The vast majority of people, he says, need a physical Guru. I don't think that this is too different from what Sri Ramana said on many occasions.
The Saiva religion of South India speaks of three categories of seekers. Those in the first and biggest category need a human Guru because they have a large amount of impurities or spiritual impediments. The second category comprises devotees who are much more pure. These people can realize the Self by having God appear to them in the form of a Guru to instruct and enlighten them. Many of the old Saiva saints, whose writings and stories now form part of the Saiva canon, fall into this category.
In the highest category there are those very rare souls who can realize the Self through the power of the Self within.
In my opinion, the number of people who can realize the Self without the aid of a living human Guru is very, very small.
Maalok: Surrender to God or the Guru is rare in today's times. But you have mentioned that in your life quite often you simply had to surrender. Could you give some incidents from your life that illustrate the feeling of surrender to destiny?
David: We all think that we are in charge of our lives, that we are responsible for our well-being and the well-being of our dependents. We might acknowledge at a theoretical level that God is in charge of the world, that God does everything, but that doesn't stop us planning and scheming and doing. Sometimes, we find something we can't control - a child may be dying of leukemia despite the best medical treatment - so we turn to God and ask for divine intervention. This is not surrender, it's just more doing. It's seeking an extra resource when all the traditional ones have failed.
Surrender is different. It's acknowledging that God runs the world every minute of every day, that He is not just an extra resource, a
deus ex machina, that one turns to in times of need. Surrender is not asking that things be different; it is acceptance and gratitude for things being the way they are. It's not a grit-your-teeth stoicism either; it's the experience of joy in God's dispensation, whatever it might be.
About twenty years ago I read a Christian book entitled
Thank You God. Its basic thesis was that one should continuously thank God for the way things are right now, not petition Him for things to be different. That means thanking Him for all the terrible things that are going on in your life, not just thanking Him for the good stuff that is coming your way. And this should not just be at the verbal level. One needs to keep saying 'Thank you, God,' to oneself until one actually feels a glow of gratitude. When this happens, there are remarkable and unexpected consequences. Let me give you an example
There was a woman featured in this book whose husband was an alcoholic. She had organized prayer meetings at her local church in which everyone had prayed to God, asking Him to stop this man from drinking. Nothing happened. Then this woman heard about 'Thank you, God'. She thought, 'Well, nothing else has worked. Let me try this.' She started saying, 'Thank you God for making my husband an alcoholic,' and she kept on saying it until she actually began to feel gratitude inside. Shortly afterwards, her husband stopped drinking of his own accord and never touched alcohol again.
This is surrender. It's not saying, 'Excuse me God, but I know better than You, so would You please make this happen,' it's acknowledging, 'The world is the way You want it to be, and I thank You for it'.
When this happens in your life, seemingly miraculous things start happening around you. The power of your own surrender, your own gratitude, actually changes the things around you. When I first read about this, I thought, 'This is weird, but it just might work. Let me try it.' At that point in my life, I had been having problems with four or five people whom I was trying to do business with. Despite daily reminders, they were not doing things they had promised to do. I sat down and started saying 'Thank you Mr X for not doing this job. Thank you Mr Y for trying to cheat me on that last deal we did,' and so on. I did this for a couple of hours until I finally did feel a strong sense of gratitude towards these people. When their image came up in my mind, I didn't remember all the frustrations I had experienced in dealing with them. I just had an image of them in my mind towards which I felt gratitude and acceptance.
The next morning, when I went to work, all of these people were waiting for me. Usually, I had to go hunting for them in order to listen to their latest excuse. All of them were smiling, and all of them had done the jobs I had been pestering them for days to do. It was an astonishing testimonial to the power of loving acceptance. Like everyone else, I am still stuck in the world of doing-doing-doing, but when all my misguided doings have produced an intractable mess, I try to drop my belief that 'I' have to do something to solve this problem, and start thanking God for the mess I have made for myself. A few minutes of this is usually enough to resolve the thorniest of problems.
When I was sixteen, I took a gliding course. The first time I was given the controls, the glider was wobbling all over the place because I was reacting, or I should say over-reacting, to every minor fluctuation of the machine. Finally, the instructor took the controls away from me and said 'Watch this'. He put the glider on a level flight, put the controls in the central position and then let go of them. The glider flew itself, with no wobbles at all, with no one's hands on the controls. All my effects were just interfering with the glider's natural ability to fly itself. That's how life is for all of us. We persist in thinking that we have to 'do' things, but all our doings merely create problems.
I am not claiming that I have learned to take my hand off the controls of life and let God pilot my life for me, but I do remember all this, with wry amusement, when problems (all self-inflicted, of course) suddenly appear. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I found myself in the middle of a publishing drama that seemed to be utterly insoluble. It was such a mess, I didn't even try to talk to all the people involved. I went instead to Sri Ramana's
samadhi, put the manuscript in front of it, and explained what had happened. I thanked him for the drama and added, 'This is your responsibility, not mine'. I had my eyes closed when I said this. When I opened them, an old friend was there, offering me some chocolate-chip cookies, something that had never happened before. I took them as Ramana's
prasad. Later that day the problem was solved in five minutes. All the protagonists (who had been immovable antagonists the day before) came together and the work was completed amicably in record time.