Michelle: Be As You Are was a big success. Most people who
have only read one book about Bhagavan's teachings have probably read that one. Why do you
think so many people bought it and appreciated it? There are many other books around on
David: The book did very well outside India because it had a
structure that made the teachings accessible and understandable. Bhagavan's teachings
can be very confusing if you don't have a background of Vedanta, or if you don't understand
that he gives different answers to the same question to different people. I think the book
succeeded because readers were given the right set of keys to understand all the different
things he said, all the different levels of the teachings.
When I went to see the editor in
London for that first meeting, she asked if I had a sample to show her. I didn't because I
had only dreamed up the scheme that morning.
I told her, 'I'll lend you my copy of
with Sri Ramana Maharshi. It's the biggest collection of his dialogues. I will definitely
be taking quite a few extracts from this book.'
When I collected the book a couple of days
later she had a bemused look on her face.
'I hope your book is better than this,' she said.
'I couldn't understand a word of it.'
This was a woman who was the commissioning editor of
the spiritual book division of a major London publisher. If people like her can't understand
Bhagavan's teachings by reading books such as Talks, it's a good guess that most other
people can't make much sense of them either.
The other thing that made it such a success
was Penguin's ability to distribute it so well. Throughout the 80s and 90s I was astounded
at all the different places I saw it on sale. If a bookstore only had ten spiritual books on
its shelves, that would usually be one of them. For many people in the West
Be As You Are was
their introduction to Bhagavan simply because this was the only book on Bhagavan's teachings
that ever made it to the shelves of their local bookstore.
I remember going with my father
and his second wife into a boutique in Pondicherry around 1990. They were hunting for
cheap clothes and souvenirs. Near the checkout counter there was a magazine rack and a
shelf that had four books for sale. One was a Delia Smith best-selling cookery book.
The next two were airport-style thriller novels by famous authors of that genre, and the
fourth was Be As You Are. My father was very impressed to find me in such company.
Judging by the comments he made to other people, he wasn't particularly impressed by the
life I had chosen for myself.
Michelle: How long did it take you to compile this book?
David: I suppose I did it in two or three months, mostly in my spare
time. When I went back to India, I took over the running of the Ramanasramam library again,
and that was a seven-day-a-week job. I did the editing in the evenings. However, saying this
is a bit misleading because I had spent the previous seven years reading and studying the
Ramana literature, and I had spent years doing self-enquiry quite intensively. In addition
to all this, I had had many long discussions and debates with other devotees on all aspects
of the teachings. All this matured into the understanding that I presented in the book. If a
musician tells you that he just spent a week learning a new piece of music, it is understood
that he spent several years prior to that week mastering his instrument. I put the book
together in a few weeks, but I can also say that it was the culmination of several years
of study and practice.
David: Not really. I didn't even own a typewriter. I had to borrow
one to type out the final draft. Before I started the work I bought copies of all the Ramana
books I thought I would need from the ashram bookstore. Then I cut out all the teaching
dialogues and put them in files. I arranged the clippings into subjects and then stapled
conversations to pieces of blank paper in an order that seemed to make sense to me.
It was classic cut-and-paste word-processing, but I did it with scissors and a stapler
instead of a computer. I don't think I even saw a computer until about five years later.
When I was satisfied with the order of the extracts, I wrote brief introductions to each
chapter and then typed the whole thing out. I had been given an 80,000-word limit by the
publisher. I wanted to go right up to that limit and have as much of Bhagavan as possible
in the book. That meant keeping my explanations brief and terse. It's occasionally good to
have limits like this. It makes you think about the essence of the teachings. Also,
summarising complex ideas in half a page is a good test of one's understanding.
David: I did do a lot of writing and research during this period but
none of it ever made it as far as publication, at least not in book form. I decided that I
wanted to edit a book about all the various saints who had been associated with Arunachala
over the last 1,500 years. Many great saints have lived and taught here during that period.
Their writings exist in Tamil and Sanskrit, but virtually none of their output has ever been
published in English. I decided to find as much of this material as possible and then find
people who could translate it for me. So many bad or weirdly inexplicable things happened to
the various people I co-opted into this scheme, I began to believe that this particular
project didn't have Arunachala's blessings.
All this happened a long time ago. Let me see if
I can remember it all. A friend of mine, Robert Butler, had learned classical, literary Tamil.
He volunteered to translate some verses for me, but since he was new to the Tamil translation
business, he wanted to have his material checked by someone who knew a lot more Tamil than
he did. I approached Sadhu Om, who was generally regarded as being the best Tamil poet and
scholar in the vicinity of Ramanasramam, and asked him if he would be willing to check a
few of the verses for me, just to see if Robert's understanding was good enough for him to
continue with his work. Sadhu Om said he was very busy on other work, but he promised
he would get round to it at some point. Weeks went by and nothing happened. Then Michael
James, who was his chief assistant, approached me and said that Sadhu Om had promised to do
them the following day. Michael had put the verses on his desk so that he could start work
on them the next morning. That night Sadhu Om had a stroke from which he never recovered.
He died a few days later.
Robert, meanwhile, had gone to England to see his family. While
he was there, visas were introduced for British and other Commonwealth people. He wanted
to come back with an entry visa that would enable him to stay full-time at the ashram where
he hoped to continue working with me. I got the president of Ramanasramam to sponsor him
with a signed letter that stated that he was coming to India to do voluntary work at the
ashram. These visas usually take about three months to process, but his application dragged
on for over a year, with no decision forthcoming from the government. Eventually, someone
in Delhi checked with Ramanasramam to see if the ashram really was sponsoring him. Someone
who didn't know anything about this arrangement wrote back saying that the ashram had never
heard of him, and that he was not coming here to work. That letter effectively left Robert
marooned in England because the Indian government was convinced that he had faked his visa
I then approached a famous Tamil translator called Vanmikinathan and was
delighted when he agreed to help me. I gave him fifty-three verses from the
had been composed by famous saints who had been associated with Arunachala in the sixth
to ninth centuries. It was tricky stuff to translate, needing expertise in that era of Tamil
literature. Vanmikinathan had already translated and published poems from this era, so
I was very happy to have him on board. After a few days I received a letter from him that
stated that he had completed the work, that he would make a fair copy of it and mail it to me
the following day. I was impressed with his speed. A few days later I received another letter
from him whose text went approximately as follows:
'Dear Mr Godman, I translated your verses
and left them on my desk, thinking that I would copy them out later. Then a gust of wind
came in through the window, picked up your papers and blew them out into the garden.
When I went outside to collect them, there was no sign of them anywhere.'
He ended up getting
into a protracted dispute with the Ramakrishna Math in Madras over another book he had
translated for them, and I lost his services. For a while I was being helped by Ratna
Navaratnam, a Sri Lankan scholar who was an expert on old Tamil and a devotee of Bhagavan.
I can't remember why she dropped out. It couldn't have been anything too bad, or I would
remember. Another foreign scholar was caught up in this drama. Marye Tonnaire was an
American woman who wanted to do a Ph.D on Arunachala Mahatmyam, the Sanskrit work that
records all the puranic stories and legends about Arunachala. She had a plan to move to
Tiruvannamalai with her son and do all the work here. She arranged for her son to do a
year of French schooling here by post. I arranged all the paperwork at this end. I got
her registered at Madras University and arranged for the professor of Sanskrit there
to be her nominal thesis supervisor since she couldn't do graduate work here without one.
I went to all this trouble because she had promised to do a translation of
Puranam for me while she was here. This is a Tamil work that records most of the stories
that appear in the Arunachala Mahatmyam. Everything was ready for her arrival but
the Indian embassy in Paris gave her the wrong form to fill in (a tourist visa application)
and when it was processed, it was turned down because one cannot do academic research
in India on a tourist visa. She had to abandon all her research plans and stay in France
with her husband and son. Once you have been turned down for a visa, you can't apply
again, even if it is the government's fault for giving you the wrong form.
Another resource gone.
While all this was going on, I was continuing to collect material.
I had found a version of the Arunachala Mahatmyam entitled Kodi Rudra Samhita in a government
manuscript library in Madras. Since it only existed on palm leaves, I had to engage a
pandit to copy it out for me in the library. The only person I knew who knew enough
Sanskrit to tackle this kind of job was a devotee called Jagadish Swami who lived in
Ramanasramam. I gave him a xeroxed copy and he said he would have a look at it and tell
me afterwards if he thought he would be able to translate it for me. Before he had a chance
to go through it, he died while he was meditating in his room. He sat cross-legged on a metal
chair, which must have been very uncomfortable, in the evening for his usual meditation,
and was found there the next morning, still upright, and still cross-legged, but definitely
dead. I suppose that it was a good way to die, but I really hoped that my manuscript didn't
have anything to do with it.
A couple of days later I did a pradakshina of Arunachala. I
faced the mountain when I reached the Ganesh temple and tank that is about a third of the
way round the hill.
I addressed Siva and said, 'Too many things are going wrong with this
project. If you don't want me to carry on with it, give me a sign.'
I should mention that
I had already asked Saradamma at Lakshmana Ashram if I should carry on with the work, and
she had refused to commit herself either way. She told me that she didn't want the
responsibility for it. I had already told her about some of the bad things that had been
happening. I should have taken this lack of enthusiasm as a sign to stop.
a day or so I received a bill from the man in Madras who had copied out the
Samhita for me. I think I assumed at the time that this bill had been paid long before.
It was a minor event, but I took this as the sign that I should stop.
Relative to the
other people who were involved in this project, I escaped rather lightly. I fractured
my femur around this time and spent twelve weeks in traction, but some of the others
fared far worse than I did.
Some of the work I did on Arunachala saints did eventually
appear in The Mountain Path, the ashram's magazine, but not under my name.
I was already contributing articles on Bhagavan under my own name, so when I had other
material to contribute I would usually use someone else's name. One man, for example,
had managed to get a study visa to come to India, but he wasn't doing any studying. He
was just meditating instead. I put a couple of articles in his name so that he would have
something to show the police if he ever got the midnight knock. Another friend of mine,
Nadhia Sutara, was staying at Guhai Namasivaya Temple on the hill. Since her tenure there
was not very secure, I put her name on two articles about Guhai Namasivaya and
Guru Namasivaya, hoping that the man who ran the place would be impressed enough to let
her continue to stay there.
Michelle: Amazing! You are lucky to still be alive.
What did you turn to after this project fell through?
David: I started to collect the reminiscences of old devotees of
Ramana Maharshi, particularly the ones that hadn't appeared in English before. I think the
aim was to produce a large, single-volume anthology in which each devotee would be given a
chapter to tell his or her story. I collected a lot of good material, but the book itself
didn't see the light of day until fairly recently. It got demoted in my priorities because
other projects came up that seemed more exciting, more appealing.
Around 1987 I approached
Annamalai Swami and asked him if I could interview him for this book. I knew he had worked
with Bhagavan in the ashram in the 1930s and I assumed that his reminiscences would probably
make a good chapter. Annamalai Swami's translator, who was a good friend of mine, lobbied on
my behalf but couldn't get Annamalai Swami to agree to talk to me. Several weeks went by
during which Annamalai Swami steadfastly refused to tell me his story. Then Sundaram, his
translator, had a flash of inspiration.
He told Annamalai Swami, 'David has already written
a good book on Bhagavan's teachings. Many of the foreigners who come here say that it is the
best book on Bhagavan's teachings.'
This intrigued Annamalai Swami because he himself spent
an hour or so every afternoon answering questions on Bhagavan and his teachings. He was
beginning to attract foreign visitors to his ashram, and he agreed to talk to them on
condition that the topic of conversation was Bhagavan. He didn't want to talk about anything
else. Bhagavan had told him not to socialise and to stay at home and meditate as much as
possible. People who just wanted to meditate with him were told to go and meditate in
Ramanasramam, but people who had questions about spiritual practice or Bhagavan's teachings,
were generally welcome, but only for as long as it took for Annamalai Swami to answer their
questions. He was a hard man to get to see, and it was even harder to get to spend a lot of
time with him.
Annamalai Swami instructed Sundaram to get hold of a copy of
Be As You Are
and read it out to him. Annamalai Swami didn't know much English, so Sundaram had to
translate as he went along. Annamalai Swami listened to almost the entire book before
finally deciding that he would be willing to talk to me.
When I finally managed to see him,
he told me, 'You have a good understanding of Bhagavan's teachings. I know that if I speak
to you, you will not misrepresent what I say.'
There was already a very bad book about his
life in Tamil by Suddhananada Bharati, and Annamalai Swami didn't want
bad version to appear.
Up until that time Annamalai Swami had not told his story to anyone,
or rather I should say that he had not told his story in a systematic way. He had told
Sundaram and a few other people odd stories, but he had never linked them all together.
For the next few weeks I went there every afternoon and interviewed him for about ninety
minutes. I soon realised that this was not going to be just another chapter in my book.
The material he was giving me was so astonishing, so extensive, I knew I had a full-length
book project on my hands. When the interviews were completed, it took me almost eighteen
months of steady, patient work and detailed research to put together the book
Living by the
Words of Bhagavan.
Annamalai Swami was something of an inspiration for me. He seemed to
epitomise and embody all the qualities that a good devotee needs when he is dealing with
his Guru and his ashram. I admired his integrity and his unshakable determination to carry
out Bhagavan's instructions, irrespective of the consequences. That's why I called the book
Living by the Words of Bhagavan. Annamalai Swami's whole life was dedicated to carrying
out his Guru's words.
When Sundaram read out the final version, Annamalai Swami was very
happy with it. However, when he arranged a second reading for the Tamil devotees who couldn't
understand the original English, some of them pointed out to him that a few of the stories
might get him into trouble with the Ramanasramam authorities. He agreed that this was
probably true. He sent for me and told me to hide the manuscript and not let anyone see it.
'When I am dead,' he said, 'you can do anything you like with it, but until then don't let
anyone read it. Bhagavan told me to lead a quiet life and not to see many people. I will not
be able to follow his instructions if lots of people come to see me as a result of reading
this book, and I don't want my life to be disturbed by people coming here to complain
about some of these stories.'
This was 1987 I think. I put it away and didn't take it out
again until 1994. That year, he changed his mind and allowed it to be printed. A year
later he passed away. I think he was right to put off the publication. When it came out,
it did attract a lot of new people, and several of them did come to complain about some
of the stories he had narrated.
In the last few months of his life there was a tape recorder
running while he gave his answers to visitors. At Sundaram's request I edited these new
dialogues into a new book, Final
Talks, which, I think, makes quite a nice supplement
to the original biography.
Michelle: We seem to have filled in some of the blanks on your
1980s map. What were you doing for the rest of the time?
David: I was collecting more information about old devotees of
Bhagavan and from about 1988 onwards I was helping Lakshmana Swamy and Saradamma with a
piece of land they had bought here.
Lakshmana Swamy had mentioned a few times that he wanted
to move back to Tiruvannamalai. Sundaram, Annamalai Swami's translator, and I were asked to
look for possible properties that might be suitable for him. We found a few, but every time
Lakshmana Swamy was taken to see them, they didn't appeal to him. At one point we actually
agreed to buy a piece of land near the junction of the pradakshina road and the Bangalore
road, but the owners backed out after a price had been agreed.
Then a piece of land came on
the market that was located behind the Government Arts College. Much to our surprise
Lakshmana Swamy gave the order to buy before he had even seen it. It seems that he had
been sitting on this land in the early 1950s when he had suddenly had a vision of himself
living there forty years later. The next time he came to Tiruvannamalai he looked at the
land and confirmed that this was the place where he had had the vision. He had let us run
around, looking at other properties and negotiating for them, but somehow he seemed to know
that he would end up living in the place where he is now.
I volunteered to develop the garden.
It was just an empty field when we started, so empty in fact that we had to get the
government surveyor in to determine where our piece of empty field ended and the neighbours'
empty fields began. We surveyed the land, fenced it, dug a well and started a nursery of
trees. The well didn't produce any water, so we ended up running a pipe to a neighbour's
well and buying from him. For about three years I put in several hours a day in this garden,
growing trees and flowers. It was a tough time to start a project like this because there was
a drought in the area. The monsoon failed several years in a row. A house was started for
Lakshmana Swamy and Saradamma, but work was halted when the water ran out. We could have
shipped water in tankers, but we discovered that it was too saline to be used in building
work. The water would have corroded the steel inside the cement. When the work stopped,
I ended up being the night watchman there. The house was full of tools and cement bags,
but there were no doors and windows to protect them. I think I slept on this building
site for most of a year, watching the property and waiting for the rains to come so that
the work could continue. For two summers in a row I bought water in tankers to keep the
garden alive. Every well in the neighbourhood was completely dry.
I was still living in Ramanasramam, working on my project to collect and edit the stories of Ramana devotees.
Sometime in 1990 I wrote to Papaji in Lucknow, asking him if he would be willing to
contribute his story to the book. He wrote back, saying that he would be happy to have
his story included, but he added that he didn't want to write it down himself. He asked
me to submit a questionnaire, and he would then do his best to answer it by giving
verbal answers that would be recorded on tape. This seemed like a good suggestion.
It took him a few months to get round to it, but when he finally did, he spent at least
an hour talking about his early life and his association with Bhagavan. There seemed to be
a few major discrepancies in his account, but when I wrote, asking for clarification, he
just repeated the same stories all over again. In 1992 I decided to go and see him in the
hope of getting his story straightened out. I spent a chaotic two weeks with him, chaotic
because his wife died about three days after I arrived, which meant a major disruption to
his usual routine. His family descended en masse, there was a trip to Hardwar to immerse
the ashes in the Ganga, but in between all these comings and goings I managed to get most
of the information I had been looking for. A lot of it came in a last-minute interview
I had with him about an hour before my train was due to leave. It was that kind of trip.
Back in Tiruvannamalai I went through all my notes and put together a fifty-page version
of his life that focused on his early life and the meetings he had had with Bhagavan. At
the time I wasn't interested in anything that came after 1950. I submitted it with some
hesitancy because there were still a few events that I couldn't place in the right order,
but he seemed to love it. He invited me back to Lucknow, telling me that he had many more
stories he wanted to tell me. I went back in March 1993, intending to stay for a short time,
but I ended up staying there until he passed away in 1997.