This Book is written by Arthur Osborne
A small group of us came to Guenon at the same time; I think the others were all younger than myself and all unmarried. I was to meet one and another of them under various circumstances on the path, but at the time I knew only Martin, or had just met two others as visitors to him. He, I think, knew them all. I do not mean a group in any organic sense, for that we never were — the only grouping Guenon would have approved of was that of guru and disciples. Just a number of people who were drawn from the circumference towards the centre at the same time and in the same way.
Read with understanding, Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ is a very sad story. The whole noble company of knights were gathered together at Arthur’s court for the feast of Pentecost, and while they were seated at the Round Table the Sangraal passed through the hall on a beam of light, but veiled so that none actually saw it. They were asked who would undertake its quest and all alike pledged themselves and rode forth with courage and high hope. Some, however, soon turned back, finding the tug of the world too strong; some perished by the way; some were daunted or overthrown by the dragons of the ego; some bewitched or cast into dungeons by enchanters, the false guides who beset the path; some turned aside to lesser adventures or settled down in castles along the way; some attained a single vision of the Sangraal and recognized that, for them, that was sufficient achievement for this lifetime; and out of all that noble company only three pursued the quest to the end.
Guenon had said that the only thing to be done was to find a guru, in any religion, who had both horizontal and vertical authenticity, that is to say who was both the validly appointed successor to an initiatic chain and a realized man, and to seek initiation and guidance from him. Therefore it was a matter of mere expedience to us what religion we joined. It simply depended where we could find a guru — an easy matter, we thought then, in our simplicity. However, he had also said he had failed to find any Christian organization which still combined full theoretical understanding with spiritual potency; and therefore we decided that it would be necessary to look farther afield. Technically he may have been right, and certainly my earlier failure to find an opening in Christianity inclined me to accept his verdict; however it may be possible to attach too much importance to technical considerations in spiritual life and not enough to the Grace that bloweth where it listeth. Later I was to come upon evidence of spiritual currents in the Christian West, some of whose representatives seemed by no means inferior in power and understanding to Westerners who had transplanted themselves to Eastern religions. Nor were such signs of life confined to the Catholic Church, to which alone Guenon would allow some technical legitimacy. In view of this it does not seem absolutely necessary for Western aspirants in general to seek a path outside their ancestral religion and even less so to take on themselves the burden of a foreign orthodoxy. It is, moreover, to be remembered that the spiritual power of any religion or church is not a fixed quantum but a living, vibrating force, continually radiating with greater or less intensity, attaining an incandescent heat or cooling down and growing inert, according to the fervour and sincerity and understanding of those within its orbit. And since every thought, every action, every aspiration has its repercussions, those who draw sustenance from a spiritual body thereby also increase its potency, while the reverse is also true, but those who devote their lives to its services, asking no reward, thereby draw sustenance.
Some undoubtedly will be drawn to an eastern religion or to the formless path of Self-enquiry which will be described later in this book, and this cannot be considered regrettable. The characteristic of our age being the mutual acquaintance of doctrines and paths which had previously remained isolated, it is a good thing that those of the East should have representatives in the West to temper the obtuseness and smug superiority to which the Western intellect is so prone. On a more profound level also, the existence of various spiritual currents side by side cannot but increase the present fermentation and renewal of spiritual life. For this is a time of renewal: even more, it is a time of division between those who have completely rejected the mild religious restraints of their ancestors and those who seek something more vital with fuller understanding and stronger purpose.
And about myself? If I had learnt of the life and testimony of the Christian mystics and came upon their modern followers when I was searching so vainly at Oxford, should I have found a home there and avoided the ten barren, wasteful years that were to follow before I discovered Guenon? Such a hypothetical question is always unreal, since things could not really have happened otherwise than they did. Certain it is that it was only Guenon’s mode of expression which could fully satisfy my intellect, and, much as I revere the beauty and profundity of the various paths, Christian, Islamic and others, only the quintessential doctrine of Non-duality and the Maharshi’s path of Self-enquiry based upon it corresponded with my needs and temperament and offered me perfect fulfilment.
Moreover, people’s destinies are so interwoven as to make any might-have-been illusory. If I had found an opening in England I should not have drifted to Poland and therefore not to have met my wife and snatched her, from the chaos that Europe was to become, to Arunachala, at the feet of the Maharshi, where she also was to find the only fulfilment this life could offer.
At that time, however, I, like the others of our group, took Guenon’s verdict unquestioning and simply presumed that it was necessary to abandon Christianity and seek farther afield. I could not avoid a feeling of regret that, whereas the others were all free to go to the East in search of a guru, being unmarried and for the most part, sufficiently well-to-do, I had no prospect of leaving Europe. However, as it turned out, within a year I was in the East while many or most of them were still in the West.
A person’s destiny is not an accident. It is not something extraneous to him. From one point of view it is the outcome of his thoughts and actions, an inevitable, automatic system of repercussions which can be called reward and retribution, and from another point of view the milieu necessary for his development. What obscures this from sight is the wrong habit of considering worldly happiness or prosperity the purpose of life, whereas it may often happen that the reverse is what a man’s development needs. It is understandable, therefore, that once a man has recognized Self-realization as his conscious goal and turned in that direction, his destiny should become more recognizably beneficent and meaningful, even though it may involve hardship.
After four years at the Maritime College I left Poland for Bangkok where I took up the post of lecturer in English at the Chulalongkorn University. Having taken a degree in one subject and drifted into teaching of another created difficulties in my academic career. This proved a blessing in disguise in our case as it prevented us from being caught up by the Nazis in Poland a few years later or by the Communists in Lithuania. In one way or another all the members of our little group were brought safely through the war. The lower reality of events does not condition but subserves the higher reality of the quest. That does not mean that no one who has dedicated himself to the quest can die before its conclusion but that his worldly success or failure, prosperity or privation, even life or death, will be such as his progress on the quest demands.
I liked Siam, as I had liked Oxford. I liked the Siamese — a cheerful, easy-going, friendly people; and yet Siam was the second great wave of disappointment to me, as Oxford had been the first. I had built up a dream-picture of Oxford which the reality could not substantiate; I had come to Siam imbued with Guenon’s descriptions of the traditional East, where political and social conditions subserve the spiritual discipline, where authority rests, openly or secretly, with the guardians of tradition, where the quest of Realization is recognized as the goal and the purpose of life; and instead I found a nation tumbling over itself to acquire the materialist civilization which I was trying to discard, and flinging away with both hands that to which I had dedicated my life, turning their back on it, trying to forget that it had ever existed. I had already known one Siamese, Seni Pramoj, a great-nephew of King Chulalongkorn, after whom the university was called, who was Siamese Minister in Washington during the Second World War and Prime Minister after the war; he had been Denzil Batchelor’s room-mate at Oxford. He was a dapper, practical little man whose great interest in life was tennis and he thought Denzil and I mad for our preoccupation with poetry and ideas. He was typical of his people.
Even before the quest started I had found kindred souls in England opposed to modern civilization with its materialist values, its divorce from nature, its rush and noise and superficiality. But when I got to Poland I found the viewpoint of Eastern Europe was quite different. There modernism and industrialization still had a glamour. The term of contempt for a slum, for anything dirty or old-fashioned, was ‘Asia’, while the national pride was a coalmine or a steel foundry. If I even mentioned my viewpoint I encountered the suspicion that I was the cunning Englishman who, having industrialization in his own country, was trying to beguile East Europeans into putting up with backwardness in theirs. I was to find the same spirit in the East. In fact, I was to find that it was in the West, among those surfeited with materialism, that the renewed search for spiritual meaning was arising, while the East was rushing headlong into modernism.
I found that even the traditional arts and sciences, about which Guenon wrote so much, were disappearing. The last generation of Siamese architects had refused to initiate apprentices, saying that the age of tradition was ended. As a result, modern buildings in the Siamese style, such as the university in which I taught, were mere imitations planned by Italian architects.
True, there were the Buddhist monasteries in Siam, and I might have made a more careful investigation of them, but so far as I could gather from talks with my students and colleagues there was no very potent spiritual current there. Yes, there had been a Buddhist monk in the north who was said to be very holy and many people had visited him, but he was dead now. No, there was no one else. Incidentally, I recently saw, as a sort of confirmation, on reading The Wheel of Life, the autobiography of my postwar successor at the university, John Blofeld, who is a Buddhist, that he found no living current in Siamese Buddhism but had had to go to Sikkim to seek a guru.
Guenon’s description of the East, I found, would have been idealized and doctrinaire even in an earlier age; today it simply would not apply.
We soon heard from Martin that he had taken up a post as English lecturer at Cairo University. Guenon also was living at Cairo and Martin got to know him and gradually became a sort of unofficial secretary to him.
Before long Martin wrote to us that he had found a Muslim guru, approved of by Guenon, became a Muslim, and had been initiated by him. He also expressed the opinion that we should probably eventually be driven to join the same religion and even to follow the same guru.
With Guenon’s approval, our group had undertaken the translation of his books, each selecting one. Martin was translating Orient et Occident and I its sequel, La Crise du Monde Modern which appealed to me as a beautiful, condensed and fundamental work. I finished the translation just before the war spread to the East, and I am told that Luzac published it under the title The Modern Crisis. I never saw a copy; I was cut off by the war at the time, and later I never troubled to get one.
One of the benefits of this work was that it enabled us to correspond with Guenon, who was very punctilious about the details of translation and about preserving his long sentences and careful system of punctuation. In the periodical for which he wrote he had inserted an announcement that he could not answer personal letters or give advice or guidance. Perhaps this was necessary to avert a flood of correspondence in answering questions and explaining points of difficulty.
I took advantage of this correspondence to tell him of the disappointment I had experienced from the contrast of the present reality of Siam with his idealized picture of the East, and it was partly as a result of my representation that he, or Martin Lings for him, explained in the English translation of Orient et Occident that eastern countries of today do not correspond with his description of the traditional East. Such an explanation was, however, inadequate; the books should have been revised throughout to make it clear that it was not the East as it is that was being described but an ideal.
Driven by impatience, I followed Martin’s example in becoming a Muslim. In my case, however, this ran rather counter to Guenon’s injunction that one should first find a valid guru before making a change of religion. It might be said that I had indirectly found the one followed by Martin of whom I was told that Guenon approved; however, especially in view of the war, there was no knowing how long it would be before I was able to approach him directly; and if I had meanwhile discovered a Buddhist or Hindu or Taoist guru it might have put me in an awkward position of having to change my religion a second time. Theoretically, if I required any emotional support before finding a valid guru, I should have sought it in the religion in which I had been brought up. In actual fact, however, it would have been hard to revive a jaded piety, whereas I did find immense support in Islam.
In Bangkok, I appreciated the occasional evenings of Arabic song and incantation that my South Indian Muslim friends held in a large hall above a cloth merchant’s offices. There is one of these that still rings in my head at times. In translation it would be: “I ask pardon of God for what (in me) is not God; and all things say ‘God’!” The first phrase is an enunciation of pure non-duality, of the Supreme Identity, regarding all ‘otherness’, all separate individuality (or illusion of it) in oneself as a sin for which to ask forgiveness. This is, in its deepest sense, the sin of shirk, of associating any ‘other’ with God, which is described in Islam as the one unforgivable sin— naturally, because when this is finally overcome there remains no other-than-God and therefore no sin or sinner to forgive. The second phrase describes the entire utterance of the name of God. And the men who spent their evenings in this manner were neither scholars nor men dedicated to the spiritual quest but simple merchants. It was amazing and very refreshing to feel the warmth and depth of their faith and to see the naturalness with which they regarded their religion as an absorbing reality and a constant topic of conversation, so unlike either the normal Western indifference or the truculent assertiveness often found in those who are religious. Here at last I was coming in contact with the traditional East, even though their standards may have fallen far short of what tradition demanded. Theoretically at least they recognized the supreme goal, as the incantation translated above testifies. In practise they received initiation and followed a discipline though without full understanding or complete dedication. Even among them some of the younger generation were becoming lax both in life and worship.
I began harmonising my breathing with my pulse beat. With a little practise it is easy to feel one’s pulse internally without putting one’s finger on any spot; and harmonising it with the breathing helps to rhythmetise one. When walking I kept my footsteps also to the same rhythm. To enhance the vibration it is very helpful to repeat silently a mantra, a ceaseless inner prayer attuned to the breathing and heartbeat like ‘Arunachala Siva’ or simply ‘Om’. In Islam one would repeat the shahada, the Islamic confession of faith, silently — ‘there is no god’ while breathing out and ‘except God’ while breathing in — so that every exhalation becomes a denial of the ego and every inhalation an assertion of the One Self.
Years later I discovered from reading that this was a form of the ceaseless inner prayer, which in one form or another, is practised in all religions. Perhaps the best-known illustration of it is the constant prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’, also attuned to the breathing and heartbeat, used by an anonymous Russian pilgrim, as described in The Way of the Pilgrim (English translation by R.M. French, SPCK). It may not suit all wayfarers or every path. At that stage of the path it was most useful to me. It maintained a living spiritual rhythm and also helped to guard against sins of forgetfulness.
There is no rigid barrier between the physical and spiritual. The spiritual current can be kept up during our daily activities as a sort of substratum and then the work performed will not only not suffer but will go on more effectively because it will be more spontaneous. Rhythmic movements during prayers, prostrations and rituals emphasize this and one may feel intuitively the need to extend the rhythmetisation to the body also. Indeed, mental, moral and physical harmonisation is the threefold basis of spiritual development. It is true that physical harmonisation alone does not lead to spiritual growth, but neither does mental understanding alone nor moral rectitude alone; it is the combination of the three that is needed. On the direct path, total harmonisation is produced spontaneously and such disciplines leading to it can be ignored; but that was a path to which I had not yet been led.
Early in 1939 news came that two of our group, who had been travelling about in India for some time, had at last found a guru. It is easy to remember the date, because it was less than a fortnight after the birth of our son that my summer vacation started, and my wife, knowing how much it meant to me, raised no objection to my going.
As soon as I reached India I had the peculiar feeling of being at home for the first time in my life. I had never felt really at home in England but had always intended to make my living abroad. Neither had I felt at home in Poland or Siam. It was not that I preferred the Indians — indeed, the gay cheerfulness of the Chinese shopkeepers in Bangkok was something I missed in the Indian shops. Nor were the parts of India I then visited particularly beautiful — dusty, sun-bleached plains, dilapidated villages, bleak, white-washed houses. There was simply the indefinable feeling that I belonged here, that this was home.
I stayed in a middle-class hotel in a hot, white-walled, dusty town through the worst of the summer heat. A single-storey hotel, no fans, very cheap by European standards. I shared a room with my two friends — I had not met them before but they immediately became friends, companions on the quest. There is a hadith, a saying of the Prophet: “There is no friendship but only companionship-in-Islam.” At night we and our neighbours in the hotel took our beds out into the courtyard to sleep — the Indian charpoy, a light wooden framework with cord criss-crossed between it and a mattress only about an inch thick thrown over.
I adapted myself easily, and here again I appreciated the atmosphere: mostly business and professional men — no women as far as I could see — many of the men devotional, most of them imbued with pride of Islam. They never doubted that it was the finest of all religions. Naïve? But does a Christian professor of comparative religion or a Buddhist abbot ever doubt that his is the finest religion? And is this not equally naïve? However, on the contingent level of dogma and social application the religions necessarily differ, like the sides of a mountain. Each represents a different viewpoint, and therefore each must seem best when seen from its own viewpoint and from this viewpoint every other must seem either wrong or at best inferior.
On the purely spiritual level all religions are unanimous. They cannot be otherwise, since Truth is One. It is like a mountain approached from different sides; the nature of the terrain differs on every side, and the paths run in different and even opposite directions, but the peak is one and they all converge on it. This is beginning to be widely appreciated nowadays and there have been a number of books either expounding it or illustrating it by means of comparative quotations culled from the mystics of the various religions. What is needed is simply to attend to one’s own religion or to see each from its own viewpoint. Throughout most of history the former has been the preferable attitude: so long as one sincerely followed one’s own religion it was quite unnecessary to know about any other. The average Christian, for example, hardly knew that there was a religion called Buddhism, so why should he study it? Today however, with the expansion of a uniform modernism over all the religions and over the previously diverse civilizations which they sponsored, such an attitude is rarely possible for the intelligent and enquiring. Too much is known about the existence and surface disagreements of other religions. Therefore the second attitude becomes necessary for many people: to understand and explain each from its own viewpoint. Those who claim to be authorities on religion should facilitate this process, not obstruct it, as they so often do. Because if it is not done, the observer is faced with the dilemma that all the millions of followers of another religion affirm what his own denies and deny what it affirms. Simply to brush the problem aside by saying: “We are right and all the others are wrong” is too superficial an attitude to hold the intelligent student.
As an example of what I mean by viewpoint, there is an able and learned book by F.H.Hilliard called The Buddha, the Prophet and the Christ (Allen & Unwin) which examines the views of their followers on the divinity of these three founders of religions. It is more fair-minded and impartial than most such books; nevertheless it must inevitably suggest the superiority of that religion which is based on belief in the divinity of the Personal Saviour, that is to say Christianity. From the Islamic viewpoint the essential comparison would be between the Quran, the Gospels and the Pali Canon, and the scales would come down in favour of the only one of the three religions which is based on a divinely revealed scripture, that is Islam. From a Buddhist viewpoint it might be a comparison between the Noble Eightfold Path, Christ’s injunctions to his followers and the Islamic shariah, and Buddhism would come first as the only one of the three religions whose founder had himself laid down a clearly formulated path from suffering to Beatitude, from ignorance to Light, from samsara to Nirvana. Obviously, then, a really useful and instructive comparison would be one which showed the equivalence of personal saviour, revealed scripture and clearly demarcated path; and such a study would not need to grade the religions but to simply indicate the different modes of approach.
I was taken to see the guru (or murshid) in the cool cloister of an old stone house, looking out on a dusty courtyard. He kept me waiting a few minutes before entering: a short, broad man of about sixty, white-haired, bearded and bright eyed, with a brisk, alert manner and a look of keen intelligence. He was wearing a skullcap, gown and pyjama trousers, all of gleaming white cotton, freshly laundered and ironed. It was always so that I saw him. He asked general questions about my life, my work, my circumstances, touching on nothing spiritual. I felt a strong wave of disappointment. I had no impression of spirituality but put it down to my lack of psychic receptivity — the spiritual power must be there or my friends would not have recognized it. One of them, after two years ineffectual search, when he heard of this murshid had cancelled his ticket. The other had met Martin’s guru but was more attracted to this one. Neither had any doubts.
It was some days before I received initiation. One day, during this interval, I was alone in the hotel when two of our neighbours came across to speak with me, professional men of about my age. After speaking about the pure doctrine of non-duality (which so many Indian Muslims, imbued with Sufi teachings, understand as clearly as Hindus) they suggested to me in a tactful way that I might not be very wise in my choice of a murshid and showed me a pamphlet in English by their own. I was not impressed by it and disliked his transliterating his name in such a way as to make it look English. Nor did I approve of their proselytising for a guru. I decided that rivalry was at the base of their warning and ignored it. In fact, I willed myself to believe in my murshid just as I had willed myself to be tragically in love at Oxford. Simplicity and sincerity are seldom natural qualities; they have to be acquired.
It was not into one Sufi order alone that I was initiated but into the group of great Indian Muslim orders, my murshid being entitled to represent them all. The spiritual exercises I was given are such as are only revealed on initiation; there was, however, one meditation among them which there is no harm and some interest in speaking about. There is a verse in the Quran: “He is now as He was”; and I was to meditate on the two in conjunction. If there was God alone and if He remains as He was, utterly unchanged, if the creation of the universe and all that it contains has not limited Him in any way, has not touched even the fringe of His Being, then all other-than-God is an appearance without intrinsic reality; He alone is the Real. Therefore whatever is the essence or reality of me cannot be other-than-God. I cannot say “I am God” but I can say “I am not other-than-God”; there is an enormous difference, for the former might deify the ego, the individual in me, while the latter denies its very existence; and when all the illusory other- than-God is denied, what remains? Only God, Who is now as He was. This is a good example of how the Sufi saints read the highest meaning into the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet. There have been Western scholars who have questioned their right to do so, maintaining that no such meaning was intended. This is preposterous. What it comes to is the implication that men whose whole lives are a quest for Truth, some of whom have attained the supreme super-rational Truth, have built their work on a foundation of error or falsification; also that the founder of one of the world’s great religions had himself not seen beyond the exoteric wall to the deeper meaning of his message. It is ignorance criticising knowledge. People who do not understand the universal truth, even in theory, but look upon Sufism as a mere set of philosophical ideas may accept such a view, but not those who have understood that Truth is one and universal.
Why, then, is the truth of non-duality not explicitly taught in Islam, as it is in many Hindu and Buddhist texts? Why should it be necessary to seek it in hidden and symbolical sentences? A religion has to be adapted to an entire people, not only to a spiritual minority, and the type of adaptation required varies from the age and community. The various religious traditions teach that there is a process of diminishing spirituality in the history of mankind, and therefore the latest religion revealed has to be the most hard and exoteric in order to hold the masses, which means that its higher implications will be veiled in the most cryptic and symbolical form. That is the case with Islam.
But how does belief in the existence of Sufism from the very origin of Islam, in fact as the very essence of Islam, fit in with the evidence which historians and philosophers profess to find of its gradual development and of the influence on it of neo-Platonism? There is no doubt that neo-Platonism did exert an enormous influence on the formulation of Sufi philosophy. Modern philosophers could, therefore, hardly help regarding Sufi philosophy as a derivative of neo-Platonism once they made the initial error of considering it a philosophy at all. Of course it is not; it is a path, which is something quite different. Some of those who teach or follow a path may like to give a philosophical exposition of it, but there is no necessity to do so. Studying a philosophy is quite a different type of activity from following a path. Those philosophers who study neo-Platonic or Sufi philosophy today are not Sufis, are not even training to become Sufis, since they are not following a Sufi path, whereas I, on the other hand, when I set foot on the path, was not expected to study neo-Platonic or any other philosophy. No disciple of the Sufis is. A basic understanding of the theory of non-duality is expected, but that is simple; and after that practise, not theory, is needed.
Even if the philosophers had never formulated their theories at all, if there were no other texts, no books, no theories, the basic meaning is contained entire in the shahada itself: ‘There is no god but God’; and according to Islamic tradition this has been used with full understanding, as a weapon for fighting the ‘greater holy war’, from the beginning. It is the same as that tremendous sentence from the Bhagavad Gita: “There is no existence of the unreal and no non-existence of the Real.” Whether philosophers write books about it or not, whether they agree with Plato or not, does not concern the spiritual wayfarer, whose task is not to theorise about it but to use it.
I had not long returned to Bangkok before I received a letter from Martin saying that his guru had seen photographs of my murshid and some letters written by him and was not happy about him, in fact did not consider him a realized man. My wife had already formed such an opinion prior to this as soon as she heard my account of the guru and saw his picture. This started a general correspondence among those concerned that at times became acrimonious. My murshid revealed a talent for abuse that embarrassed me. Two more members of our original Guenon group were able to come to India despite the war; they met him and were not impressed. Martin wrote reminding me of Guenon’s teaching that there were two grades of initiatic organization: that where the guru had only ‘horizontal authenticity’, that is to say valid appointment in succession to an unbroken chain of gurus, and that where he had ‘vertical authenticity’ also, that is direct connection, through realization, with the divine source of initiation. Initiation into the former should bestow a certain grace but could not lead to realization; for that the realized guru was necessary. This made a deep impression on me, for never at any time was I willing to relinquish pursuit of the Supreme Goal. I held out for a while, partly out of loyalty to my murshid, but largely also from reluctance to admit that I was in the wrong; but eventually I gave in, convinced of my error.
Years later I perceived how futile the whole dispute had been, when I appreciated at last the significance of the term ‘Realized Man’, and when I found that Martin’s guru (whom I never met) was explaining that the guru need not be realized, while Martin himself was telling new aspirants that there was no hope of Realization in this lifetime. This is not mere pessimism but a sinking to the exoteric level. It betokens a failure of the basic understanding of non-duality required for the quest, and therefore, on the spiritual level, it is an error. It is itself an impediment to realization, since it vests the unreal with a temporary reality by asking when and whether it can cease to exist. Forgetting that ‘there is no existence of the unreal and no non-existence of the Real’, it substitutes the exoteric fallacy that there is a temporary existence of the unreal, which may be replaced by the Real on some future occasion. To put it quite simply, saying that you cannot attain Realization in this lifetime means asserting what you should deny — the existence of a ‘you’ who can or cannot attain — and thereby closes the door to Realization. The question whether you can attain or not ought not to arise; it ought to be dissolved in the real question: who is it that seeks to attain?
I did not grasp all this clearly at the time, but was quite determined not to remain on a path that did not lead to the Goal. Was there any benefit from the initiation I had rushed so impatiently to acquire and all the exercises I had done? Such a question is not always easy to answer. A man is ill, he takes medicine and gets better; but is it because of the medicine or in spite of it or independently of it? There seemed to be an increased depth and subtlety of understanding after the first initiation and of spiritual vigour after the second. It may be said that there was benefit from the determination and enthusiasm that made me seek.
So far as my murshid goes, I was never really wholehearted; perhaps that was what made it comparatively easy for me to abandon him. Others have been less fortunate, becoming attached to gurus who were not merely incomplete, lacking Self-realization (in that there is no harm so long as they recognize their limitation) but false and deluded, misguided and misguiding others. It is a sign of the times — the time of false Christs and false prophets of which Christ warned his followers. Some such are widely known and publicized, others almost unknown. They make the highest possible claims for themselves, or allow their disciples to make them: this one is Christ at his second coming, that one is God Incarnate. How far they are self-deluded and how far consciously deluding others is usually very hard to say. A man may spend years in solitude, practising yogic discipline, as a result of which various powers may develop, both internal powers such as vision and audition, and outward directed powers such as telepathy and hypnotism. Then the ego, forgetting that its own immolation is the ultimate goal of the process, may pride itself on what it has acquired, regarding this as realization. In some cases this capital, accumulated during the time of training, may be gradually exhausted, like an overdrawn bank account, and the guru survives on his former reputation, if at all; but in other cases it may continue or even grow with the growth of the ego. For the ego will grow; there is no food on which it flourishes more than the adulation of disciples. The seeker needs to use great caution in estimating not only the guru but also the purity of his own motives, for any impure motive may be reflected outwardly in an imperfect guide. And then not only will he not be led forward into greater purity but will be infected by the imperfections of the guide, drifting into a worse state than before; for qualities of the ego are as infectious through psychic contact as a disease is through the physical.
Some time during my stay at Bangkok I stopped reading. I had read voraciously ever since first discovering Guenon; but the time came when I felt: “I know the theory now; it is practise that is needed.” It was not just an option but also something deeper. I felt an actual aversion to the books which had so attracted me. This was a sound intuition. In almost all cases some doctrinal understanding is necessary at the beginning, and this needs to be more or less elaborate according to the temperament of the seeker and the nature of the path followed. From the beginning I was drawn to the direct path, which I will describe in a later chapter. Because this is known as Jnana Marga or Path of Knowledge, some have supposed it to be more theoretical than other paths, but the opposite is true. What is meant by ‘Knowledge’ is not learning but direct intuitional understanding. In fact, the more direct a path is the less theory it requires; it is the indirect paths, such as hermeticism and tantrism, that are based on elaborate theory.
In any case, whatever the path followed, there is no benefit from learning and re-learning once the mind is convinced. Not only does it not help, but also it is one of the ways in which the aspirant can be sidetracked, turning away from spiritual effort to the easier alternative of mental exertion. Not only individual seekers but communities also deteriorate in this way. Often the followers of unscholarly ecstatics become scholars, but it marks a spiritual decline. This is a mode of decline that is apt to be found in all religions — from the saint to the scholar.
Apart from providing an easy alternative to spiritual effort, excessive study can actually do positive harm by breeding pride in one’s learning. I have even seen people reading to enjoy the self-satisfaction of feeling that they understood better than the writer.
The Maharshi was immensely learned but he became so unintentionally and without valuing learning. Devotees brought him books to read so that he could expound them, and his memory was such that he retained whatever he read. But he warned against barren erudition.
“What use is the learning of those who do not seek to wipe out the letters of destiny (from their brow) by enquiry ‘Whence is the birth of us who know the letters?’ They have sunk to the level of a gramophone. What else are they, O’ Arunachala? “It is those who are not learned who are saved rather than those whose ego has not yet subsided in spite of their learning. The unlearned are saved from the relentless grip of self-infatuation; they are saved from the malady of a myriad whirling thoughts and words; they are saved from running after (mental) wealth. It is from more than one evil that they are saved.” — The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi By the ‘unlearned’ he means, of course, the simple-minded, not merely the ignorant, and by ‘the learned’ those who value and accumulate learning, not all who possess it.
For some years after this I scarcely read a book. To read books of no spiritual value — travel, fiction, politics and so forth — would have been even more a turning aside from the quest, degrading it to the level of a hobby or a part-time activity or an activity among others, one aspect of life, instead of the goal and the purpose of life. Therefore I did not read at all. Does this mean that I was a fanatic? No more than a man climbing Everest is a fanatic for not indulging in violin practise at the same time. I was one- pointed, not fanatical — and not one-pointed enough or the progress would have been greater. I never objected to reading in principle or tried to persuade others not to read; but I had an objective in life and did not want to distract my mind from it. The question has often been asked why men want to climb Everest, reach the North Pole, descend to the ocean’s depths, tread the face of the moon, or in general attain the almost unattainable, and why they undergo all manner of hardships and face death in the attempt. The true answer is that all such cravings are blind physical reflections of man’s innate urge to undertake the supreme quest for his lost homeland, for the utter freedom and perfect bliss of his true state. That is the real adventure, the well-neigh impassable road to the unattainable goal. The least the adventurer who dares attempt it can do is to be one-pointed in his enterprise. It is no idle ramble.
When I started reading again it was a different way and for a different reason, as I shall explain later.
Early in 1941 my original contract with the Siamese (by now renamed ‘Thai’) government lapsed and was replaced by a permanent one. Between the two I became eligible for six months home leave. If it had not been for the war we should probably have gone far enough West to seek initiation from Martin’s guru, but under the circumstances this was impossible. It also proved unnecessary, because Martin wrote that his guru now had a delegate in India who was authorised to give initiation in his name.
We had heard of the Maharshi by this time and had received some of his writings and some photographs of him, which made a tremendous impression on us. However, one of our original Guenon group had been to Tiruvannamalai to investigate and had reported that the Maharshi was not a guru and did not give initiation or spiritual guidance. This report had been relayed to us and it made it seem not worthwhile going there. Of this more later.
We were travelling now as a family of five. We spent some time in Rawalpindi where we enjoyed the keen, invigorating air and the scent of pine-trees, then up to Murree, a beautiful hill station, then on to Kashmir to meet the delegate. I was afraid to take a houseboat, as most visitors to Srinagar do, because the children were small and the two eldest like quicksilver, and we should have been constantly anxious that they would fall into the water. However, we were fortunate enough to get a rambling old house with a large garden stretching right down to the shore of one of the lakes. It was a delightful holiday.
When we arrived there were wild irises by the roadside and luscious red cherries in the shops. One kind of fruit and flowers succeeded another through the summer. The two eldest children were at a delightful age — Catherine five and Adam two — only Frania was still too young to be very interesting. Catherine was as intelligent as she was lovely. Strangers would stop to ask who she was. When I tried to put her off by telling her that I would explain something when she was older, she would say: “All right, Daddy, but try now, and if I don’t understand I’ll tell you”. She usually did understand. Adam was still enjoying the adventure of walking and talking.
There was no question this time of recognising a spiritual master because the delegate was not even supposed to be such. Some spiritual force seemed to be transmitted. There seemed to be an increase of vigour and power, as with the previous initiation there had been of subtlety.