A Search in Secret India

from Hinduism Today
December, 1991
Volume 13, Number 12
International Edition

In Search of Paul Brunton

Paul Brunton, thinking of a refreshing cup of tea, stepped through the doorway of his adobe hut out in the scrub brush near the sacred hill of Arunachala, South India.  As if in slow motion he watched his foot come down inches from the flushed hood of a cobra.  Neither panicked.  But they both froze, Brunton’s brown eyes locked into the pure onyx eyes of the reptile.  Brunton was a mystic adventurer / writer from Britain, whose masters included an American spiritualist, an Englishman Buddhist abbot, a Hindu aristocrat, and now Ramana Maharshi, the stratospheric sage of Arunachala.  The cobra was a symbol of the mystic power of kundalini.  However, that wasn’t what Brunton was thinking about as he broke off the frightening communion with the cobra and back stepped awkwardly into the brush.  An advanced disciple of Maharishi came along and actually petted the cobra, before it slithered off.

This scene is from Brunton’s A Search in Secret India, the page-turning chronicle of Brunton’s scouring of India for yogis with supernatural abilities or presences.  A Search, first published in London in 1934, skyrocketed to popularity and has since sold 250,000 copies worldwide.  Along with Autobiography of a Yogi and Christopher Isherwood’s Ramakrishna and His Disciples, it continues to be one of the most inviting, exciting gateways to the mystical Hindu environment.  A Search was Brunton’s first book, written after two years of ranging across India with a supply of pens, notepads, a typewriter, Kodak camera, and a video camcorder-like mind when he was thirty-two years old.  His search ended—personally and narratively—at the sun-and-advaita furnace of Ramana Maharshi’s ashram.

A neurochemical of nomadic wandering filtered into his blood at this turn in his life.  Even in A Search Brunton describes his surreal encounter with an alabaster pale, reclusive brahmin astrologer in Benares who fingers numerous crinkly charts and softly says, “The world will become your home.  You shall travel far and wide, yet always you will carry a pen and do your writing work.”  Brunton wrote that at the time he couldn’t measure such prophecies.  But he did end up roaming the mystical roads across Asia and the Middle East and writing thirteen books until 1952.  These included A Hermit in the Himalayas and The Secret Path, which in 1990 was put in audio cassette form by actor Christopher Reeve of Superman movie fame [see Hinduism Today, July ’91].

After 1952 he dropped out of published writing and recorded bursts of flash insight on napkins, envelopes, and any odd scrap handy on his walks, and he later re-crafted those into private journals.  At a special horseshoe-shaped desk in his home in Switzerland he kept up streams of correspondence with inquirers and close students, for by the '60s he, the seeker, had become to many the sought-after master, though he heartily discouraged such a relationship.  In a night vision in 1963 a supernova erupted in his psyche, what he knew as final enlightenment.  It was intensely private, and he only told his son and student, Kenneth Thurston Hurst, about it in 1979, two years before his death.  Hurst recalls in his biographical book on his father (Paul Brunton: A Personal View) the eighty-year-old’s words: “My own final illumination happened in 1963.  There was this bomb-like explosion of consciousness, as if my head had split open.  It happened during the night in a state between sleeping and waking and led to a deepening of the stillness: there was no need to meditate.  The verse in the Bhagavad Gita that mentions that to the Knower the day is as night and the night is as day became literally true, and remains so.  It came of itself and I realized the Divine had always been with me and in me.”

In his winter years Brunton had aged into a philosopher’s handsomeness, a kind of Celtic sage with currents of compassion in wide open eyes, a short white beard and fine onion-paper skin.  He died on July 27, 1981 in Vevey, Switzerland.  His son listened to a death rattle thrice, then a sigh of release.

Brunton wasn’t born Paul Brunton.  In a London suburb in 1898 he was born as Raphael Hurst.  Trained in the metaphysical art of positive thinking and timing, he chose a new name for himself when he wrote A Search in Secret India.  It was his first book, a time of new career navigation.  His choice was Brunton Paul, a concoction he thought elegant.  But his typesetter thought it was backwards and in a gesture of undisclosed helpfulness reversed it to Paul Brunton.  Ten thousand copies rolled off the presses and Raphael Hurst chuckled at the karmic inversion—and happily accepted it.  To his friends and students he became PB, a trimmed down appellation that reflected his trim mustache and innate modesty.  To judge Brunton solely by his book A Secret would be misleading.  In real life he was a far more spiritual man than Brunton the mystically curious journalist and occasionally annoyingly skeptic of A Search.  True, he was both seeker and scientific literate.  But his narration in A Search seems an exaggerated guise to create credibility in a book of yogic transhuman testimony that also meets scientific prove-it, how-does-this-work scrutiny.  He shrewdly noted the Hindu’s tendency to accept any claim as true.  Years later Brunton humorously remarked that as his books ascended into higher strata of philosophy his audience shrank proportionately.

His mother and younger brother died when he was a little boy.  By age sixteen Brunton had reached his full height—a short man, which he was slightly self-conscious about, but with a high forehead.  He habitually noted mystically advanced people’s precipitous foreheads.  And by age sixteen he was seriously meditating—indeed he was almost a doppelganger to the youthful Ramana Maharshi, eighteen years his senior, who underwent a transformative samadhi at age seventeen.  Brunton records in his private journal, “Before I reached the threshold of manhood and after six months of unwavering daily practice of meditation and eighteen months of burning aspiration for the Spiritual Self, I underwent a series of mystical ecstasies.  During them I attained a kind of elementary consciousness of it... It was certainly the most blissful time I had ever had until then.  I saw how transient and how shallow was earthly pleasure by comparison with the real happiness to be found in this deeper Self.”

The ecstasies retreated after several weeks, but the afterglow left a refinement in his nerve system lasting for several years.  By his own intentions he may not have lived into future years.  He resolved in his teenage diary, “Commit suicide a fortnight hence.”  The sooty, caustic vibrations of London so bothered him that he resolved that the only solution available to a young spiritual seeker was a swift exit from Earth.  Apparently, moving to more congenial environs wasn’t a realistic option.

In what would be a good Dickens plot, plans were set.  And questions bubbled up.  What would happen to him at death’s door?  Curiosity carried him to the British Museum Library where the reference librarian steered him to the shelves on spiritualism subjects.  A stack of books on the astral worlds hefted in his hands, he went home and read.  Two weeks sped by, and he noted the suicide better be postponed.  With new-found knowledge of the realities of reincarnation and astral existence, the idea of suicide died.

Brunton formed a Bohemian parlor society of spiritual seekers, attended London Theosophical Society meetings and joined the Spiritualist Society of Great Britain.  He found as a tributary of his meditations that occult powers were eddying into his consciousness.  When Brunton learned that a well-known public speaker was practicing black magic, he attended the next lecture.  When the address began, Brunton psychically cut the light power.  When the power was switched on again, he projected such a force it blew the light bulbs into shards.  Fascinated, he plunged headlong into these waters, but an inner message flung him to shore: either continue the sidetrack of psychism or the central path of spiritual realization.  He agonized, but chose the more important path to the Self.  The powers subsided, though he kept an intuitive sensitivity aglow.

His son, Kenneth, recounts how he brought his fiancé to meet his father for dinner in a restaurant to secure his blessings for marriage.  Brunton sat in withdrawn, stony silence the whole time, leaving the son exasperated.  Brunton later explained that it was necessary to become absorbed in his Higher Self—requiring a meditative stillness—to feel out the prospects for the union.  His feeling: not a good match.  A while later the girl left Kenneth for another man.

Brunton’s own marriage came with a flickering karma of divorce.  Three years after his son was born, Brunton’s wife came to him and said she had fallen in love with Leonard Gill, a fellow member of the Bohemian spiritualist circle.  Without hesitation, and perhaps sensing some kind of providential release, he offered a divorce.  He was amicable with his wife and Gill for life.  Celibate bachelorhood suited him well from then on.  And this, in large measure, contributed to his magnetism in later life.

Three times a day, as reliable as the old West’s pony express teams, Brunton sat for meditation.  And he was a strict vegetarian, for health, conscience, and spiritual refinement reasons.  His favorite dishes were rice-and-curries from India, which as A Secret tells in the opening chapter Brunton was introduced to the mysterious “rajah” of London.  Brunton eventually learned to cook curry like a Madras master.

Not surprisingly, Brunton’s vocations orbited around publishing, either selling or writing.  He sold books door-to-door, managed Foyles, then the largest bookstore in the world, and was half owner of a bookstore near the British Museum.  It was at this bookstore that the turbaned and very urbane “rajah”—one of Brunton’s three gurus—walked in and invited Brunton to a dinner that would change his life.  Brunton never identifies the rajah by name, even in his private journals.  Years earlier a charismatic American painter named Thurston entered the bookshop and also suggested a dinner engagement.  Thurston served as mystic mentor to Brunton for three years.  Brunton wrote of him, “He was a phenomenally gifted clairvoyant and adept in the better sense who passed through the world quietly, unobserved but unforgettable by those he helped.”  Thurston predicted that Brunton would uncover and widely broadcast ancient mysteries.  It is the rajah who casts the first spell of enchantment with India’s yogis over Brunton.  He even tells him that he will definitely go one day.  Brunton then and there is ready to book ship passage to Bombay.  It is years though before he voyages to India and meets a stone-like yogi, the Shankarachariyai, Ramana Maharshi, a swami who consumes poison and many others.  Success, the magazine, got in the way.

To be continued in the January 1992 edition—article incomplete; the second part was not published (as far as we know).

This article is accompanied by the following excerpt:
Encounter: Brunton and the Maharishi

I fold a thin cotton blanket upon the floor and sit down, gazing expectantly at the silent figure in such a rigid attitude upon the couch. The Maharishee’s body is almost nude, except for a thin, narrow loincloth, but that is common enough in these parts.  His skin is slightly copper-coloured, yet quite fair in comparison with that of the average South Indian.  I judge him to be a tall man; his age somewhere in the early fifties.  His head, which is covered with closely cropped grey hair, is well formed.  The high and broad expanse of forehead gives intellectual distinction to his personality.  His features are more European than Indian.  Such is my first impression.

The couch is covered with white cushions and the Maharishee’s feet rest upon a magnificently marked tiger skin.  Pin-drop silence prevails throughout the long hall.  The sage remains perfectly still, motionless, quite undisturbed at our arrival... I look full into the eyes of the seated figure in the hope of catching his notice.  They are dark brown, medium-sized and wide open.  If he is aware of my presence, he betrays no hint, gives no sign.  His body is supernaturally quiet, as steady as a statue.  Not once does he catch my gaze, for his eyes continue to look into remote space, and infinitely remote it seems.

It is an ancient theory of mine that one can take the inventory of a man’s soul from his eyes.  But before those of the Maharishee I hesitate, puzzled and baffled.  The minutes creep by with unutterable slowness.  First they mount up to a half-hour by the hermitage clock which hangs on a wall; this too passes by and becomes a whole hour.  Yet no one in the hall seems to stir; certainly no one dares to speak.  I reach a point of visual concentration where I have forgotten the existence of all save this silent figure on the couch.  My offering of fruits remains unregarded on the small carved table which stands before him.

My guide has given me no warning that his master will receive me as I had been received by the Sage Who Never Speaks.  It has come upon me abruptly, this strange reception characterized by complete indifference.  The first thought which would come into the mind of any European, “Is this man merely posing for the benefit of his devotees?” crosses my mind once or twice but I soon rule it out.  He is certainly in a trance condition, though my guide has not informed me that his master indulges trances.  The next thought which occupies my mind, “Is this state of mystical contemplation nothing more than meaningless vacancy?” has a longer sway but I let it go for the simple reason that I cannot answer it.

But it is not till the second hour of the uncommon scene that I become aware of a silent, resistless change which is taking place within my mind.  One by one, the questions which I have prepared in the train with such meticulous accuracy drop away.  For it does not now seem to matter whether they are asked or not, and it does not seem to matter whether I solve the problems which have hitherto troubled me.  I know only that a steady river of quietness seems to be flowing near me, that a great peace is penetrating the inner reaches of my being, and that my thought-tortured brain is beginning to arrive at some rest.  I surrender myself to the steadily deepening sense of restfulness until two hours have passed... I begin to wonder whether, by some radioactivity of the soul, some unknown telepathic process, the stillness which invades the troubled waters of my own soul really comes from him.

Comes the first ripple.  Someone approaches me and whispers in my ear, “Did you not wish to question the Maharishee?”  The spell is broken.  As if this infelicitous intrusion is a signal, figures rise from the floor and begin to move about the hall, voices float up to my hearing, and—wonder of wonders!—the dark brown eyes of the Maharishee flicker once or twice.  Then the head turns, the face moves slowly, very slowly, and bends downward at an angle.  A few more moments, and it has brought me into the ambit of its vision.  For the first time the sage’s mysterious gaze is directed upon me.  It is plain that he has now awakened from his long trance.

Excerpted from Paul Brunton’s A Search in Secret India, c. Kenneth Thurston Hurst, 1985 (New York, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1989), pp. 140-142.  Used with permission.