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By Sanjay Sivadas, travel writer, 2014

2014 marks 80 years since A Search in Secret India; one of the great classics of spiritual travel writing came out.

“I know that at any moment I shall be standing outside things, on the very edge of the world’s secret. Finally it happens… I find myself outside the rim of world consciousness. The planet, which has so far harboured me, disappears. I am in the midst of an ocean of blazing light…” recounts Paul Brunton in A Search in Secret India.

In the autumn of 1930, Paul Brunton had embarked on a voyage to India. He traveled across the length and breadth of the country exploring a side of it, largely unknown to the outside world, then. He returned back to his country, a year later. Due to a protracted illness, he was not able to start work on his book until 1933. A Search in Secret Indiawas an instant success when first published in 1934. It continues to remain popular to this day.

In A Search in Secret India, the author takes his readers along with him as he travels extensively through India seeking out people who could give him answers to the meaning of life. The high point of his trip to India is the several days he gets to spend in Tiruvannamalai in the close proximity of Ramana Maharshi; a man he describes as ‘one of the last of India’s spiritual supermen’.

Upon arriving at the hermitage of Ramana Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai, the author finds him sitting motionless. He seats himself in front of him. “I look full into the eyes of the seated figure in the hope of catching his notice. If he is aware of my presence, he betrays no hint, gives no sign. Not once does he catch my gaze, for his eyes continue to look into remote space, and infinitely remote it seems” he writes. A question crosses the author’s mind once or twice ‘Is this man merely posing for the benefit of his devotees?’ But he rules it out. It is not until the second hour of being in the presence of Ramana Maharshi that the author becomes aware of a silent change taking place within his 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” he writes.

The following day, the author throws a volley of questions at Ramana Maharshi. “You say I want to know. Tell me, who is that ‘I’? asks Ramana Maharshi. “I am afraid I do not understand your question” comes the author’s reply. “Is it not clear? Think again!” he is asked. The author is puzzled. An idea suddenly flashes into his head. He points a finger towards himself and blurts out his name. “And do you know him?” asks Ramana Maharshi. “All my life!” replies the author, smilingly. “But that is only your body! Again I ask, ‘Who are you’?” comes the query. The author is, by now, at his wit’s end. Ramana Maharshi continues “Know first that ‘I’ and then you shall know the truth.” He tells him to pursue the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ relentlessly. And, assures him, that if he did it in the right way, the very attitude of enquiry would eventually draw the answer to him out of the depths of his own being.

Ramana Maharshi rarely spoke. But on one occasion when the author is utterly confused, he tells him “Will it be clear if it is put in this way? All human beings are ever wanting happiness, untainted with sorrow. They want to grasp a happiness which will not come to an end. The instinct is a true one. But have you ever been struck by the fact that they love their own selves most? Now relate that to the fact that they are ever desirous of attaining happiness through one means or another, through drink or through religion, and you are provided with a clue to the real nature of man. Man’s real nature is happiness. Happiness is inborn in the true Self. His search for happiness is an unconscious search for his true Self. The true Self is imperishable; therefore when a man finds it, he finds a happiness which does not come to an end.”

Paul Brunton was accused by some of his critics of having embroidered the stuff of truth with the coloured wool of fiction. One person even went to the extent of saying that he was quite sure that Ramana Maharshi did not exist outside the imagination of the author. The latter had this to say to them “A Search in Secret India is a faithful and honest narrative written to record truth without the dullness. I have every right, if I choose to do so, to break away from the manner of conventional travel books in order to present my material as interesting as possible. I do not see why I should render these reports in the dullest, most colourless and bloodless style I can find. I do not see why I should refuse to make my experiences as living to the reader as they were to me.” It must likewise be remembered that Paul Brunton was no stranger to some of the things he experienced at the hermitage of Ramana Maharshi. He had deliberately omitted these facts from A Search in Secret India. As he puts it “The principal reason for this procedure was that it constituted a convenient literary device to secure the attention and hold the interest of western readers, who would naturally give more serious consideration to such a report of the “conversion” of a seemingly hard headed critically-minded Western journalist to yoga.”

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