This Book is written by Arthur Osborne.
It was in 1936, my thirtieth year, that the change of course set in. It was high time, because the ship of my life, drifting uncharted, had got into the shallows and almost run aground.
In February Catherine was born, our first child. In the summer Martin Lings came to stay with us on his way back from Lithuania, where he had just given up his job. He made the impression on me of having grown argumentative. He tried to prove the Renaissance had been a calamity, which, of course, led to a historical discussion. Then he told me his outlook on history and civilization, and indeed, on life itself, had been totally changed by reading the works of a writer who had complete knowledge. I objected that in modern times knowledge is far too extensive for one man to possess it all, and he explained that he did not mean detailed factual knowledge but integral or essential knowledge. I did not understand what he meant by that and he was unable to explain. Looking back now, it seems extraordinary that he should not have been able 30 to tell us the simple essence of what a spiritual outlook implies: the Oneness of Being and the possibility of Self-realization. Instead he asked me to read the books for myself. This I was not prepared to do. I was writing a novel and had no time at present, I told him. He left two books with me, asking me to read them when I found time, and I half promised to do so. It was October before I got round to reading the books Martin had left for me. The one I took up first was a book of essays by Ouspensky. I still retained a critical mind and was by no means prepared to accept whatever ivory tower was offered as a refuge from a meaningless life. Some of the things he said interested me, but I made a list of dubious statements, contradictions and unjustified assumptions and sent it to Martin, saying that it was not even accurate or consistent, let alone complete knowledge. He wrote back with some humility, accepting my criticisms, admitting that he might have been wrong about Ouspensky, but asserting that it was the other writer whom he meant when he spoke about writing from knowledge. The other was one of the early books of Rene Guenon, I think Introduction generale a l’etude des doctrines Hindoues. There was no question of criticism this time. From the very first page I drank it in like some one so parched with thirst that he absorbs moisture through the very pores of his skin. When I came to the sentence ‘Being is One’ I felt physically, in my heart, not as a brain-thought, “This is true. I have always known it was true but didn’t know that I knew.” That moment, a moment I still clearly envisage, sitting alone in the room, in an armchair in my flat in Gdynia, was the beginning of the quest which I was never again to relinquish, from which I was never to turn aside. For Guenon left no doubt that it was a quest. If it had been mere theory it would have not interested me, but the implication was kept well 31 to the fore — Being is One; therefore you yourself cannot be other than the One Being, because there is no other; therefore to realize your true self is to realize the Supreme Identity with Absolute, Universal, Eternal Being: and this can be done.
So life had a meaning after all! It was not a mere inane trickle of events. My restlessness and discontent fell away. My ambition to become a writer evaporated. The goal and purpose of life was clear. Nevertheless a wave of caution rose up; I said to myself: “Are you prepared to undertake this? Remember that you are not psychic and do not have visions and ecstasy, and it means giving up pleasures that you know to be real for pleasures that may be real.” And immediately the answer arose in my mind: “It is not a question of pleasure but truth; I have to follow it because it is true; truth is its own compulsion and I have no option.”
Before carrying the story further I should say something about Guenon and his influence. In the second quarter of this century he wrote a series of books and numerous articles expounding the inner unanimity of the religions (or ‘traditions’, as he preferred to call them), the meaning of symbolism, the possibilities of initiatic training, and the true hierarchical basis of society or civilization. His teaching can be summarized as follows:
Being is One, and therefore by realizing your true Self you realize your identity with Divine, Universal Being. This is the essential teaching of all religions, although it may be proclaimed openly, as in the Eastern religions, or veiled and confined to esoteric societies, as in the Western. Therefore all religions are unanimous in their essence, although divergent and even incompatible in their more external applications, that is in doctrine, theology, ritual, and the social organization and code of conduct they sponsor. Every religion, so long as its full spiritual integrity remains, has initiatic organizations in which 32 the aspirant can obtain guidance on the path towards ultimate Realization of the Supreme Identity. These organizations, in order to be valid, must descend in an unbroken chain from the origin, each guru (since the word ‘guru’ has been accepted into the English language as signifying ‘spiritual guide’, I use it for the sake of convenience in this book, whether it applies to a Hindu guide or any other) being appointed by his predecessor. What the aspirant has to do is to find a guru, no matter in what religion, who has both vertical and horizontal authenticity, that is to say, who is a realized man and also the validly appointed successor to a chain of gurus, and seek initiation and guidance from him. However, having chosen any religion, he must follow it scrupulously in its outer organization of life and worship, its ritual and observances and moral code, as well as its more essential teaching, since each religion is an organic whole.
This for the individual, but for the organization of mankind in society he taught no less emphatically that normally and traditionally a spiritual purpose underlies, and a spiritual authority controls, the whole of civilization. Any civilization which breaks away from its spiritual roots and bases itself on rationalist and materialist values is a monstrosity and cannot have stability or endure for long. Therefore our modern civilization, far from being the highest achievement of mankind, is an aberration foredoomed to destruction by its very nature, while our modern sciences consist of such knowledge as traditional civilizations would not have thought worthwhile accumulating, since they have no spiritual basis and do not further the spiritual development of those who acquire them.
All this he expounds with brilliant lucidity, vast erudition, and unshakable conviction that he was right and scathing contempt for all who disagreed.
33 He usually was right but not always. For instance, he asserted that no Hindu believes in reincarnation, which he declared to be a travesty of Hinduism invented by modern Western misinterpreters. Even more serious — he dismissed Buddhism as a spurious religion. Bearing in mind his axiom that there is no neutrality in religion, that everything is initiatic or counter-initiatic or in plainer language, of divine or satanic origin, this implies the assumption that the whole of Buddhism, with all its saints and poets, its Arhats and Bodhisattvas is based on error and evil. He admitted, indeed, that such Buddhist currents as had passed through China had been purified and spiritualized by the Chinese influence, but this involved the assumption that the Chinese sages had chosen a satanic vehicle into which to pour their influence!
Before the end of his life he did indeed retract this error, though without admitting that he had previously made it and even then insofar as concerned Mahayana, which he declared, in defiance of history, to be the original Buddhism.
Strangely enough, even errors of this magnitude did little to impair the value of his work. So vast was its sweep, such an affirmation of truth pervaded it, that errors seemed swallowed up in the sea of truth. Not that any of us would have admitted at that time that there were errors. Even though there were, they were due to his faulty application of the principles he proclaimed, whereas the merit of his work was that he did proclaim true principles on which to base the conduct of life, the understanding of its meaning and the judgement of a civilization, instead of personal ideas and prejudices.
His influence was less widespread than his clear insight, lucid exposition and vast erudition would have justified. Perhaps this was due to his extreme militancy and refusal to compromise.
34 For instance, an orientalist who felt vaguely the sublimity of the ancient texts he was handling, without however grasping their meaning and implications with the clarity which Guenon demanded (and there have been many such) would not be disposed to learn from one who dismissed his whole science as ‘learned ignorance’. Similarly, a psychologist who was prepared to admit spiritual springs to men’s actions could obviously not express agreement with a writer who denounced modern psychology in toto as of ‘counter-initiatic’, by which he meant ‘satanic’, origin. Even social, political and economic reformers would find little common ground with one who denounced not merely this or that aspect of modernism but modern civilization as a whole, root and branch.
However, what his influence lost in scope it gained in profundity, for those who did accept his teaching did so whole-heartedly, many of them indeed, changing not merely their outlook but their whole attitude to life. And in the course of time some of them also began to write and to exert an influence in less tangible ways, thus carrying forward the influence that Guenon had originated.
For myself, I was predisposed to accept his teaching as regarded civilization no less than the meaning and the purpose of life for the individual, since, as I have already said, I had intuitively revolted against the mechanism, materialism and vulgarity of our age and had never really reconciled myself to it. Now at last I had the doctrinal justification of what I had long felt intuitively.
How far did the impact of Guenon immediately change me, and how far did it merely set in motion a lengthy process of change? The theory of conversion changing a man’s nature in a twinkling, as held in some Protestant sects, is too facile. 35 Deep-rooted tendencies and predispositions are not so easily eradicated. Only in the rarest cases, when a man is already concentrated and already, without knowing it, ripe for self- surrender, will a single mental conviction, a single vision, or even a single flash of realization (as in the case of the Maharshi) suffice to effect an immediate and permanent change. Normally the most it can do is to turn his mind in a new direction and convince him of the necessity of working to achieve the permanent change.
As for myself, it is necessary to differentiate between what were weaknesses of character and what were mere symptoms of frustration. The latter disappeared naturally with the eradication of their cause, the former had to be fought; and it was a long and arduous fight. And when I say that I never relinquished the quest or turned aside from it, that only means that I never doubted and never ceased to aim at the one goal; it does not mean that no harmful thoughts or wrong actions due to weakness of character ever intervened to create unnecessary difficulties on the path. They did only too often. To be more specific: the desire to be a famous writer, the horror of routine professional existence, the inclination to Communism and the longing to go off alone faded out naturally, not being qualities of character but merely symptoms of revolt against the meaningless life which I had hitherto faced. On the other hand, I was a very conceited young man and the quality of conceit, instead of being eradicated, was simply transplanted from my own supposed abilities to the truth of which I was now aware while others were not. Indeed, a certain arrogance which, in Guenon, might be the impersonal arrogance of truth towards error, was apt to infect even disciples who were less inclined that way by nature than I was. Like so 36 many new converts, I was agog with enthusiasm to convert others. Basically this was a warm-hearted eagerness to share with them the new wealth I had discovered, but it was tainted also with conceit, with the desire to prevail in argument and prove myself right. It would not be true to say that I proselytised indiscriminately — for instance, I did not try to do so with my colleagues or students at the college where I taught; but whenever I met any one who seemed able to understand I would try in some way or other to draw him into an argument, quite confident of my superior artillery and skill in using it once the argument started.
I also sent Guenon books to the few friends who I thought would understand. I sent The Symbolism of the Cross to Morgan. A few months later, when we were in England and I called on him, he simply said that he thought it able but not quite sound. I sent one (I forget which) to Rosamond and she wrote back that it was a nice book. Furious at such faint praise, I wrote her a scathing reply, but it was really I who was at fault. I ought to have sent her a careful and detailed explanation of what it all meant and then followed this up with one of the more elementary books. Perhaps I had the same inability at this time as Martin to give a simple explanation. Truth is simple, only men’s minds are complicated and seek complexity.
It was through Martin that my wife and I were drawn to Guenon and thereby indirectly to Bhagavan. Perhaps one cannot know what people will understand or, even if they show initial understanding, pursue the path to a good end. If a man’s life really rests on a spiritual basis, some air of serenity and power will radiate from him and draw those who are interested to seek guidance even without argument; that is to say, if it is his nature and destiny to influence people in this particular way, by drawing 37 outsiders into the circle. A Master may feel who are his people and draw them to himself, but even that is no guarantee that they will overcome evil: Judas was among the close followers of Christ and Devadatta among those of Buddha. And Mohammad was told: “You cannot save whom you will but whom God wills.” It has nothing to do with intellectual ability as commonly understood. A great scientist can fail to understand spiritual science, denying it altogether or having merely the exoteric faith of the simple churchgoer, or getting caught up in some freak occultism; a philosopher can be receptive to the Perennial Philosophy, reading spiritual texts without grasping their implication; a psychologist can remain ignorant of what underlies the mind. On the other hand, a spiritual master need not be an intellectual. Ramakrishna had the mind rather of a peasant than a philosopher. And Ignatius Loyola was temperamentally so averse to study that it required an immense effort for him to take his degree, and he was middle-aged before he did so.
It is also not a question of any special faculty comparable, for instance, to that for art or music. It is not a question of being psychic. There is nothing spiritual in psychic powers or in most that are called occultism and spiritualism, while, on the other hand, people who are not psychic can understand and take the quest. Psychic ability may be a help at certain stages of some types of path, but it is more likely to be a danger, since it can open the mind to various allurements which have to be left behind, like the sirens whom Oddyseus heard but against whom he made his crew plug their ears. If the pleasure of the physical world is seductive and hard to renounce, those of the subtle world are certainly no less so. Christ said that if a man attains to the kingdom of heaven all else shall be given him in addition; but that is after attaining. 38 If he seeks all else beforehand, he is not likely to attain. It is safer to have one’s ears plugged.
It might be said that what is required is willingness to open one’s heart to the truth, in fact to surrender oneself, to give up one’s ego, to conceive of the possibility of its non-existence. That is why the Quran speaks of unbelievers rather as perverse than ignorant, saying of them that even if an angel came down from heaven to explain to them, they would not listen.
From this it might be supposed that those who do understand and take the quest should be people of uncommon goodness, strikingly free from egoism. Some are, no doubt, and it is they who are on a good way, because, whatever the religion and whatever the path followed, it is a path towards liquidation of the ego, the individual ‘I’-consciousness with all its fears and cravings, its grudges and pettiness, and therefore the goal obviously cannot be attained while building up or even retaining the ego. However, it is by no means always so. In fact, many who take the path, many members of spiritual groups, will be found to be more egoistic than those one would be likely to meet in some group of people united for worldly or social ends — more jealous, more ungoverned, quicker to take offence, less generous, less inclined to give in. This is likely to come as a shock and disillusionment to one joining such a group.
One explanation that is given is that spiritual training (as is claimed also for certain types of psychiatric treatment) squeezes out the lower tendencies in a man, of which he himself was perhaps unaware, bringing them to the surface and thereby making them temporarily more obtrusive, so that an aggravation is a stage in the cure. When a devotee complained to the Maharshi that other thoughts arose more forcibly when he tried to meditate, he replied: “Yes, all kinds of thoughts arise in meditation. That is only right, 39 for what is hidden in you is brought out. Unless it rises up how can it be destroyed? Thoughts rise up spontaneously, but only to be extinguished in due course, thus strengthening the mind.” (The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi in His Own Words, Ch. 5). Once when people complained to him of the arrogant behaviour of an old devotee he replied: “That is his vasanas (inherent tendencies) coming out.” When a person first understands and sets forth on the spiritual quest one may see a new radiance overspread him, a sort of foreshadowing of his perfected state, making him altogether delightful. However, this will not last. It will be followed by a stage when all his lowest possibilities come to the surface and he seems to be worse than before. At this time patience is needed. However, this stage is also temporary, and therefore this cannot be the full explanation of the egoistic types that are often found in a spiritual circle, at any rate such of them as were arch-egoists before taking the path and remain so afterwards.
When Christ was accused of associating with riff-raff his reply was that it is those who are sick that need a doctor, not those who are well. There was probably a good deal of sarcasm in this reply (for Christ also was an extremely militant teacher and verbally he hit back hard when attacked); it can hardly be taken at its face value, because only those who have attained the goal are really well, certainly not the smugly self-satisfied who could ask such a question. However, it does indicate that it is often the misfits, those who have failed to adapt themselves to life, who recognize that they are sick and seek treatment. When the Maharshi was asked why we should seek Self-realization he would sometimes answer: “Who asks you if you are satisfied with life as it is?” When asked what use it is, he replied: “Why do you seek Self-realization? Why don’t you rest content with your present 40 state? It is evident that you are discontented and your discontent will come to an end if you realize your Self.” (ibid, Ch.7). This explains why it is the discontented who seek, but not why so many of them are unpleasant persons.
It may be because the quest offers much for the ego to grasp at. This may seem a surprising statement when its whole purpose is the liquidation of the ego, and yet it is true. Man in his present state possesses only a small part of his potential powers and perceptions. The process which goes on, often unconsciously, during the quest is a twofold process of expansion and contraction, symbolized by Jupiter and Saturn, expanding a man’s faculties while at the same time crushing him to the point of ‘self-naughting’, as the mediaeval Christian mystics put it. Christ said that a man must lose his life in order to gain it and that when a man attains the kingdom of heaven all else shall be added to him. This represents two successive stages: first contraction of the ego to nothingness and then infinite expansion. But in actual practise the two processes are seldom so clearly divided. The adding and subtraction or expansion and squeezing go on side-by-side; and that is the trouble. An aspirant may go through alternate phases of expansion, when grace floods his heart and the quest is a lilt of beauty, and contraction when he seems to have lost everything and be squeezed to the bones, when all is dryness and he is tempted to despond and can do nothing but grit his teeth and hold on with grim perseverance. But there is also the danger that the process of expansion may take the form of new powers and perceptions on the subtle plane which is likely to seduce him from his path, as Circe or the lotus-eaters did the comrades of Odysseus. Like Circe, they may also turn their victims into swine. A true guru will encourage no such things. Let them come after 41 the kingdom of heaven has been attained, as Christ said. The Maharshi cautioned that even when powers come unsought they should not be accepted. They are like a rope to tether a horse. Indeed, reference to them as a goal or reward of the quest is always a suspicious sign in a guru. Even without full knowledge, the ego has a premonition of the delicious fruits dangling on the trees ahead.
It is also a premonition of its own impending sacrifice. The premonition of expansion explains the many who are called and the queer company they are; the need for contraction explains the few that are chosen. The combination of the two processes explains the nervous tension that is often set up when, instead of complementary, they become opposing forces. It is no play-acting and no easy task. There will be no success until the ego is prepared to surrender and go to its own sacrifice, but on the way it may pass the trees I referred to, dangling with tempting but unearned fruits. The conflict between the two tendencies may be enough to overbalance the mind. I have seen such cases and at the least this kind of madness is always egoism pushed beyond the limits.
The question who can understand the supreme Goal and dedicate his life to its quest is, of course, not the same as the question who can read Guenon. At first I thought it was. In fact, I divided mankind quite simply into those who had read and understood Guenon and those who had not. Actually, of course, there are people who can approach the Truth but not through that gateway. I was driven to recognize this because my wife was one such. I never for a moment doubted her ability to understand, and I was therefore dismayed when she would not read Guenon. She simply said that she could not read a whole chapter about what could be said in a few 42 sentences. Although I did not appreciate it, she was of a more intuitive type, more the artist and less the scholar. Perhaps women in general tend to be; but one cannot generalize too far in this matter; I have known women who come to the path through Guenon and men who have needed a more direct or intuitive approach. In any case, my wife followed mainly through my explanations but without full conviction or wholehearted dedication. Only later, when she came to the Maharshi, the sheer power of his presence, the grace and beauty that shone in him, a single prolonged gaze from his resplendent eyes, was enough to remove all doubt, with no word spoken. Thenceforth she was as devoted as any. There also she found books which really did say things in a sentence, books such as the Avadhuta Gita and the poems of Thayumanavar, and became proficient in theory also until she could distinguish true teaching from false as clearly as any follower of Guenon. As for me, I flung myself ravenously on Guenon’s books, I subscribed to the French monthly in which he wrote and also obtained all the back numbers that were available. I devoured whatever books I could lay hands on, either in English or French, dealing with mysticism, esoterism, symbolism, no matter of what religion. Not only did I read but study. I kept an alphabetical card index on my writing desk, as my tutors had done at Oxford, with a card for each name, theme or subject, noting down allusions, references and information as I read.
According to strict Guenon theory, I am not right in saying that the quest began for me at this time, because he taught that it begins with initiation; and he himself was not a guru and did not give initiation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that some spiritual influence flowed from him to those who read his books and re-directed their lives accordingly. In any case the mere fact 43 of changing from an aimless, dissatisfied life to one directed consciously towards the supreme goal was bound to make an enormous difference.
Egoistical thoughts and actions might continue, but they were disapproved of; there was a constant struggle against them. A series of symbolical dreams bore witness to the inner change that was taking place. First there was a rectification of what the psychologists call the ‘flight from fear’, although I had not yet heard of it. The recollection came to me that in boyhood I had sometimes had dreams (not the same recurrent dream), which had threatened to turn into nightmare, but had avoided the frightening part by waking up. I felt that this had been the beginning of my loss of integrity and that I must go back into them and see them through to the end. When I determined to do so I found, to my surprise, that there was in fact nothing very terrible. It was only the determination that was needed. After that there were other symbolical dreams, such as a person gets at an important turning point in his life. Some of them brought before me the realization that the first stage of my route was a return to the comparative integrity of Oxford.
A person’s whole life is a path he treads, leading to the ordained end. If at some point it becomes consciously so, that is the great blessing which makes achievement at least an envisaged goal. In my case, before that could happen, I had to come down to the nadir, to an inner destitution where all hope seemed to have failed and all values become hollow; not a state of spiritual poverty, because there was no humility in it, nor of financial poverty, but of what might be called enforced poverty of life. The moment I reached the nadir Grace was manifested in a form making re-ascent possible, but this happened in two stages. To prevent my rushing onward to disintegration came 44 my marriage, a foreshadowing of Divine Grace, with its recall to happiness, integrity and aspiration and a return to professional work. However, even such an influence was too weak to arrest the trend, with the result that the current was flowing both ways, re-ascent and continued descent, a new purpose in life and an inner bankruptcy and lack of purpose, until Grace was manifested anew with my discovery of Guenon. If that was the first act in the drama of the quest, my marriage was the prologue to it.