(First published in The Mountain Path, 1988, pp. 239-45.)
In January 1938 Somerset Maugham, the British novelist, visited Sri Ramanashram for a few hours. The brief contact he had with Bhagavan inspired Maugham so much, he decided to use him as the model for a fictional Guru in
The Razor's Edge, a novel of his that was published a few years later in 1944. Maugham also wrote a non-fiction account of his visit in an essay entitled 'The Saint', which was published twenty years after the event in 1958. The following account, which is taken from this essay, records Maugham's impressions of this meeting with Bhagavan.
In the course of my journey to India I went to Madras and there met some people who seemed interested to know what I had been doing in India. I told them about the holy men who had suffered me to visit them, and they immediately proposed to take me to see a Swami who was the most celebrated and the most revered then in India. They called him the Maharshi.
I did not hesitate to fall in with the suggestion and, a few days later, early one morning, we set out. After a dull hot drive along a dusty, bumpy road, dusty because the heavy wheels of ox-drawn wagons had left deep ruts in it, we reached the ashram. We were told that the Maharshi would see us in a little while. We had brought a basket of fruit to present to him, as I was informed that it was the graceful custom, and sat down to the picnic luncheon we had been sensible enough to put in the car. Suddenly, I fainted dead away. I was carried into a hut and laid on a pallet bed. I do not know how long I remained unconscious but presently I recovered. I felt, however, too ill to move. The Maharshi was told what had happened, and that I was not well enough to come into the hall in which he ordinarily sat, so, after some time, followed by two or three disciples, he came into the hut into which I had been taken.
What follows is what I wrote in my notebook on my return to Madras. The Maharshi was of average height for an Indian, of a dark honey colour with close-cropped white hair and a close-cropped white beard. He was plump rather than stout. Though he wore nothing but an exiguous loincloth he looked neat, very clean and almost dapper. He had a slight limp, and he walked slowly, leant on a stick. His mouth was somewhat large, with thickish lips and the whites of his eyes were bloodshot. He bore himself with naturalness and at the same time with dignity. His mien was cheerful smiling, polite; he did not give the impression of a scholar, but rather of a sweet-natured old peasant. He uttered a few words of cordial greeting and sat on the ground not far from the pallet on which I lay.
After the first few minutes during which his eyes with a gentle benignity rested on my face, he ceased to look at me, but, with a sidelong stare of peculiar fixity, gazed, as it were, over my shoulder. His body was absolutely still, but now and then one of his feet tapped lightly on the earthen floor. He remained thus, motionless, for perhaps a quarter of an hour; and they told me later
that he was concentrating in meditation upon me. Then he came to, if I may so put it, and again looked at me. He asked me if I wished to say anything to him, or ask any question. I was feeling weak and ill and said so; whereupon he smiled and said, 'Silence is also conversation'. He turned his head away slightly and resumed his concentrated meditation, again looking, as it were, over my shoulder. No one said a word; the other persons in the hut, standing by the door, kept their eyes riveted upon him. After another quarter of an hour, he got up bowed, smiled farewell, and slowly, leaning on his stick, followed by his disciples, he limped out of the hut.
I do not know whether it was the consequence of the rest or of the Swami's mediation, but I certainly felt much better and in a little while I was well enough to go into the hall where he sat by day and slept at night. It was a long, bare room, fifty feet long, it seemed to me, and about half as broad. There were windows all around it, but the overhanging roof dimmed the light. The Swami sat on a low dais, on which was a tiger skin, and in front of him was a small brazier in which incense burnt. Now and again a disciple stepped forward and lit another stick. The scent was agreeable to the nostrils. The faithful, inhabitants of the ashram or habitual visitors, sat cross-legged on the floor. Some read, others meditated. Presently, two strangers, Hindus, came in with a basket of fruit, prostrated themselves and presented their offerings. The Swami accepted it with a slight inclination of the head and motioned to a disciple to take it away. He spoke to the strangers and then, with another inclination of the head, signified to them that they were to withdraw. They prostrated themselves once more and went to sit among the other devotees. The Swami entered that blissful state of meditation on the infinite which is called
Samadhi. A little shiver seemed to pass through those present. The silence was intense and impressive. You felt that something strange was taking place that made you inclined to hold your breath. After a while I tiptoed out of the hall.
Later I heard that my fainting had given rise to fantastic rumours. The news of it was carried throughout India. It was ascribed to the awe that overcame me at the prospect of going into the presence of the holy man. Some said that his influence, acting upon me before I even saw him, had caused me to be rapt for a while in the infinite. When Hindus asked about it, I was content to smile and shrug my shoulders. In point of fact that was neither the first nor the last time that I have fainted. Doctors tell me that it is owing to an irritability of the solar plexus which pressed my diaphragm against my heart.
…Since then, however, Indians come to see me now and then as the man who by the special grace of the Maharshi was rapt in the infinite, as his neighbours went to see Herman Melville as the man who had lived among cannibals. I explain to them that this bad habit of mine is merely a physical idiosyncrasy of no consequence, except that it is a nuisance to other people; but they shake their head incredulously. How do I know, they ask me, that I was not rapt in the infinite? To that I do not know the answer, and the only thing I can say, but refrain from saying for fear it will offend them, is that if it was, the infinite is an absolute blank. The idea of theirs is not so bizarre as at first glance it seems when one remembers their belief that in deep, dreamless sleep consciousness remains and the soul is then united with the infinite reality which is Brahman…
The interest aroused by this incident, unimportant to me, but significant to Maharshi's devotees, has caused them to send me a mass of material concerned with him, lives, accounts of his daily activities, conversation with him, answers to the questions put to him, expositions of his teachings and what not. I have read a great deal of it. From it I have formed a vivid impression of the extraordinary man he
Major Chadwick has written about this visit on pages 37-40 of his memoir
A Sadhu's Reminiscences. His account of Maugham's brief darshan is substantially the same. However, he criticised Maugham for inventing a trip to the old hall that never took place:
After [giving darshan to Maugham in my room] Bhagavan returned to the hall [while] the rest of the party remained in my room for tea. After tea, Somerset Maugham, who was wearing a large pair of boots, wanted to go to the hall and see where Bhagavan usually lived. I took him to the western window through which he looked for some time with interest, making mental notes. He says in his indifferent and quite uninspired article
The Saint, published in a series of essays twenty years after the event, that he sat in the hall in Bhagavan's presence, but this is untrue, because he could not enter with his boots; he only gazed into the hall from outside. He has also tacked a certain amount of philosophy onto Bhagavan which Bhagavan would never have uttered in his life. But such is the habit of famous authors, to put their own opinions in the mouths of others.
In his recent articles Somerset Maugham says that because of his fainting fit, which some Indians regarded as a high state of
samadhi, which he denies, he has been sent a mass of literature concerning Maharshi. This may be true, but it is certainly true that he wrote to the ashram and told them that he was going to write about Bhagavan and asked for as much material as they could send. He pointed out at the time that, of course, if he wrote anything it would be a wonderful advertisement for the ashram and the Maharshi. As if it were needed!
There is one other brief account of Maugham's visit in
Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 550. That version concludes by saying: 'The author [Maugham] attempted to ask questions but did not speak. Major Chadwick encouraged him to ask. Sri Bhagavan said, 'All finished. Heart talk is all talk. All talk must end in silence only.'
This account was written by Annamalai Swami on the day that the
darshan took place. When I spoke to Annamalai Swami recently about this meeting he told me that he, Bhagavan, Chadwick and Maugham were sitting in silence for about half an hour in the room. He also told me that Bhagavan's remarks were uttered in English, rather than Tamil, because there was no interpreter there at the time.
Maugham left India about two months later and returned to his home in the South of France. In 1940, after Germany invaded and conquered France, he went to America and lived there for the remainder of the war. He settled in South Carolina where he completed the writing of
The Razor's Edge, the novel in which the fictional Bhagavan appeared.
The hero of the book, Larry Darrel, is a young American drifter who wanders around the world in an attempt to find peace of mind and answers to some of the fundamental questions that have traditionally perplexed spiritual seekers. He comes to India and finds what he is looking for in a South Indian ashram that is presided over by a Guru who is clearly Bhagavan masquerading under a different name. After staying several years at the ashram, a contented Larry Darrel returns to America at the end of the book with the aim of living, so far as it is possible in the West, the life of a
There has been considerable speculation among Maugham scholars as to whether the life and character of Darrel is derived from a real-life devotee of Bhagavan. The question appeared to be settled a few months ago when Wilmon Menard, an American author who has written a play based on Maugham's life, wrote an article that was published in the May-June  issue of
Namaskar, the in-flight magazine of Air India. Menard stated in the article that he had spoken at length to Maugham about the writing of
The Razor's Edge. In an interview that he gave in the South of France, Maugham apparently told him that he had met an American devotee called Guy Hague at
Sri Ramanasramam and had immediately decided to use him as a model for the main character in his next book. A friend of mine sent a copy of this article to a Mr Dennis Wills, an American researcher who had previously written to Sri Ramanashram asking for information about Hague's stay there and Maugham's brief visit to Bhagavan. I also wrote to Mr Wills since I had collected a few facts about Maugham and Hague that I thought would be of interest to him.
In his reply Dennis Wills told me that he had spoken to Wilmon Menard about his article. Wills wrote: '…any conversations between Maugham and Hague in this article are completely non-existent. Wilmon told me that the text used was from his play on Maugham, a work of fiction; but this is not the impression given in the article.'
In a subsequent letter he told me, 'I have suggested to Wilmon that if he receives any letters in response to his article he should indicate that his publication was based on a play he has written and that this was a work of fiction.'
Dennis Wills has been researching the lives of Maugham and Hague for many years. Although he clearly believes that Menard's dialogues between Bhagavan and Maugham and those between Maugham and Hague are fictitious, there are still a few compelling reasons for supposing that Hague was the person who had inspired the character of
Hague was an American mining engineer who travelled widely in many parts of the world before coming to
Sri Ramanasramam in 1938 for a stay of 2½ years; the fictional Darrel was an American who had travelled round Europe doing odd jobs, one of which was in a Belgian mine, before coming to India in the 1930s to spend several years at a South Indian ashram.
The similarities are striking but there is no evidence that Maugham met Hague either in India or anywhere else. Hague was not at Sri Ramanashram, or even in India, on the day that Maugham visited Bhagavan, and Dennis Wills informs me that despite intensive research he has been unable to come up with any evidence that Maugham met Hague in the years prior to the publication of
The Razor's Edge.
A few people have told me that Christopher Isherwood, the famous English novelist, was the model for Larry Darrel. Although he was neither an American nor a miner, he was a keen student of Vedanta who spent many years in California studying Indian philosophy with Swami Prabhavananda. When I mentioned this theory to Dennis Wills he told me that he had also heard the story and that he had taken the trouble to talk to Isherwood himself about it. Isherwood informed him that he had never visited Bhagavan, nor had he ever spoken to Maugham about Bhagavan's life and teachings. This testimony seems to eliminate him as a possible candidate. A few years ago I was shown a letter written by Paul Brunton's son in which Paul Brunton was put forward as the model, although, as with Isherwood, there is little or nothing to support this claim.
The current consensus among Maugham scholars is that Darrel is a composite character derived partly from different people Maugham had met and partly from Maugham's imagination. Maugham had been inventing characters who dropped out of the mainstream of life to pursue spiritual or artistic quests long before he began work on
The Razor's Edge. Most scholars now feel that Darrel is yet another fictional embodiment of a theme that fascinated Maugham throughout his life.
In his preamble to The Razor's Edge Maugham makes the following statement: 'To save embarrassment to people still living I have given to the persons who play a part in this story names of my own contriving, and I have in other ways taken pains to make sure that no one should recognise them.'
Bhagavan was still alive when The Razor's Edge was first published. 'To save embarrassment' he was renamed Shri Ganesha, and Sri Ramanashram was located on a lagoon near Trivandrum in Kerala, hundreds of miles away from Tiruvannamalai. Despite these disguises, and a few other minor distortions of facts, both Bhagavan and the ashram are clearly recognisable in many passages in the novel. The following extracts are all taken from the 1944 edition published by William Heinemann.
[Larry Darrel speaking] 'It was three or four miles from the nearest town, but people used to come from there, and even from much further, on foot or by bullock car, to hear the Yogi talk when he was inclined to or just sit at this feet and share with one another the peace and blessedness that were radiated from his presence as fragrance was wafted upon the air by a tuberose.
[Darrel in conversation with Maugham, the narrator]
'What was your Yogi like?'
'In person d'you mean? Well, he wasn't tall, neither thin nor fat, palish brown in colour and clean shaven, with close-cropped white hair. He never wore anything but a loincloth and yet he managed to look as trim and well-dressed as a young man in one of our Brooks Brothers' advertisements.'
'And what had he got that particularly attracted you?'
Larry looked at me for a full minute before answering. His eyes in their deep sockets seemed as though they were trying to see to the depths of my soul.
I was slightly disconcerted by his reply. In that room [in Paris], with its fine furniture, and with those lovely drawings on the walls, the world fell like a plop of water that has seeped through the ceiling from an overflowing bath.
'We've read all about the saints, St Francis, St John of the Cross, but that was hundreds of years ago. I never thought it possible to meet one who was alive now. From the first time I saw him I never doubted that he was a saint. It was a wonderful experience.'
'And what did you gain from it?'
'Peace.' He said casually with a light smile.' (3)
[Darrel speaking again] 'Everyone knew of him. For many years he'd lived in a cave in the hills, but finally he'd been persuaded to move down to the plain where some charitable person had given him a plot of land and had built a little adobe house for him. It was a long way from Trivandrum, the capital, and it took me all day, first by train and then by bullock cart to get to the ashram. I found a young man at the entrance of the compound and asked if I could see the Yogi. I'd bought with me the basket of fruit which is the customary gift to offer. In a few minutes the man came back and led me into a long hall with windows all around it. In one corner Shri Ganesha sat in an attitude of meditation on a raised dais covered with a tiger skin, 'I've been expecting you,' he said… I was surprised but supposed that my friend of Madura had told him something about me. But he shook his head when I mentioned his name. I presented my fruit and he told the young man to take it away. We were left alone and he looked at me without speaking. I don't know how long the silence lasted. It might have been for half an hour. I've told you what he looked like; what I haven't told you is the serenity that he irradiated, the goodness, the peace, the selflessness. I was hot and tired after my journey, but gradually I began to feel wonderfully rested. Before he'd said another word I knew that this was the man I'd been seeking.
[Darrel speaking]: 'I was given as a dwelling place the shack in which Shri Ganesha had lived in when he first came down to the plain. The hall in which he now passed both night and day had been built when disciples gathered around him and more and more people, attracted by his fame, came to visit him… I read a great deal. I meditated. I listened to Shri Ganesha when he chose to talk; he didn't talk very much, but he was always willing to answer questions and it was wonderfully inspiring to listen to him. It was like music in your ears. Though in his youth he had himself practised very severe austerities he did not enjoin them on his disciples. He sought to wean them from the slavery of selfhood, passion and sense, and told them that they could acquire liberation by tranquillity, restraint, renunciation, resignation, by steadfastness of mind and by an ardent desire for freedom. People used to come from the nearby town three or four miles away, where there was a famous temple to which great crowds flocked once a year for a festival. They came from Trivandrum and from far off places to tell him their troubles, to ask his advice, to listen to his teaching; and all went away strengthened in soul and at peace with themselves. What he taught was very simple. He taught that we are all greater than we know and that wisdom is the means to freedom. He taught that it is not essential to salvation to retire from the world, but only to renounce the self. He taught that work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and that duties are the opportunities offered to man to sink his separate self and become one with the universal self. But it wasn't his teaching that was so remarkable; it was the man himself, his benignity, his greatness of soul, his saintliness. His presence was a benediction. I was very happy with him. I felt that at last I had found what I wanted.
When The Razor's Edge was published it immediately became a best-seller. Wilmon Menard says that 1½ million copies were sold but I have read other reports that put the figure as high as three million. Whatever the figure, there is general agreement that it was Maugham's most successful novel. Shortly after it was published, he sold the film rights to Twentieth Century Fox for $250,000. Darryl Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, asked Maugham to work on the screenplay, and Maugham agreed. Maugham wanted to work for nothing, but Zanuck insisted on paying him with a Matisse painting. It was an expensive present because when the film was finally made not a single word of Maugham's dialogue was used.
Although Maugham's screenplay was not used by Zanuck, the film was a critical and financial success. It was nominated for four Oscars and it made so much money that Zanuck asked Maugham to write a sequel to
The Razor's Edge so that he could film it. Maugham, understandably disenchanted with Hollywood after his script was thrown away, declined the offer. He never worked in Hollywood again and never wrote a sequel.
Hollywood’s idea of what Ramanasramam looked like. The still is taken
from the film of
The Razor’s Edge. ‘Bhagavan’ is featured on the right with a walking stick.