Long decades ago, the Englishman Paul Brunton was consumed by a luminous quest: to locate the rishis or holy men that had once made India sparkle with their mystical teachings and pronouncements, and then to relate his discoveries to the West
Brunton was more than just another run-of-the-mill writer-journo in search of sensational material, for his secret yearning was to find an authentic master who would dissolve all his troubling questions and lead him to peace. Against many odds, he traveled across the seas to India in the last years of British colonial rule. I believe it was his pure heart that finally led him to Ramana Maharshi, the entrancing copper-skinned Sage of Arunachala. Interesting to note that, of all the illuminating and bizarre experiences Brunton was privileged to experience during his rather lengthy exploration of this ancient world, it was the radiant and blissful Maharishi who left a lasting imprint on his spirit.
I’ve discovered that years of intervening study and practice can reveal new facets of a book one has already read, and this is what happened to me as I plunged again into this fascinating saga. As before, I was cynically amused by the “white man’s” smug and blinkered view of India. For instance, early in the book, Brunton laughs at the ridiculous notion that great Western nations would bother to hark to the wisdom of meek brown men. (Just consider Trump meeting with Mahatma Gandhi!)
Clearly, despite his own magnetic attraction and respect for the East, Brunton too was a victim of the archaic and insidious idea that all Indians without exception are a credulous, old-fashioned, superstitious and easily-dominated lot. But, in truth, as my mother used to say, India is so rich, vast and variegated that one could spend entire lifetimes trying to figure it out and still manage to touch only its iridescent rim. In my opinion, no sane or open-hearted person can make generalizations about this country or its people, for they range from the highly refined and educated to the illiterate, with every shade in between. As for the arrogant assumption that all Indians are small, meek and brown-skinned, Brunton clearly never met those tall, fair, stalwart and imposing Indians, some with green, gray or blue eyes, who also inhabit this amazingly diverse region.
The Enlishman’s genuine yearning for spiritual knowledge prevented him from being blown away by the range of incredible fakirs and gurus he met on his travels, many of whom revealed to him marvels of which no ordinary Westerner could dream. Instinctively (more likely from past lives spent in the sub-continent) he knew that there was more to the whole business of enlightenment then what are known as “siddhis” or extrasensory powers. Despite chronic insomnia, a variety of physical illnesses and a thousand other inconveniences, he kept resolutely on, until he met the Shining One who had fused his finite egoic self into his grand and immortal Self, and then stayed on to show us how to accomplish the same incredible goal.
Years ago when I lived in an affluent suburb of Washington DC, an American friend asked me why I wanted to return to India. I mulled over her question and said, you know, when I take my daily forty-five minute evening walk to that fabulous park, there are times when I don’t encounter a single human. That may be because most of the residents here work in the neighboring cities, but still, it feels eerily like a ghost town to me. Sometimes as I walk along that long road a curtain rustles in one of those big houses and I know that I am being peered at from a safe distance. But even when I get to the park, where people are walking their dogs or exercising their own bodies, and except for those predators on the prowl that one encounters everywhere, most are too scared to smile or even make eye contact.
Now, this would never happen in most of India. Yes, there are wealthy secluded areas where it could, but, for the most part, India is bursting with all manner of humans willing to engage with you on all levels, and brimming with energy, color, sound and light. One need never feel disconnected or lonely here.
Besides, especially for the seeker, all the terrible things that Gautama Buddha warned us are the lot of all human beings—old age, illness and death—are out in the open, and not carefully hidden behind closed doors as often happens in the West; and so it is much easier to digest the fact that, no matter how opulent our lifestyles are, nothing in relative reality can make us permanently happy or peaceful. For me, this is the great teaching of India and why so many foreigners imbued with a true longing for truth are hooked for life when they first come here, despite their initial revulsion for much they encounter.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who helps us transcend the flawed notion that living the worldly good life can bring us even a millimeter closer to the luminous and blissful Self that we truly are!