David Godman is best known for his anthology of Ramana Maharshi’s writings, Be As You Are, which has become the standard single-volume reference on the great sage’s teachings. But not everyone knows that David has written nine other books. Two of them have just come out, providing a good excuse for an interview. Since David lives in Tiruvannamalai and the editor of this website lives in New York, the interview was conducted by email.
I wrote most of the questions in the interview but at my invitation, David added a few of his own. Both my questions and David’s are shown in red type.
Rob Sacks writing in 2001
You have just brought out two new books on Ramana Maharshi. Can you tell me something about them?
In the late 1980s I began to collect first-person accounts by people who had spent time with Ramana Maharshi. It was my intention to make an anthology of accounts that hadn’t been published before. To find original material I did extensive research on books that had appeared in various Indian languages but not in English. I also found some good material written in English that had never been published.
At some point during this research I went to see Annamalai Swami, a devotee of Sri Ramana who had moved intimately with him for many years. His account proved to be so interesting and so long, I ended up doing a whole book just about him. Then I went to Lucknow to interview Papaji. His story fascinated me so much, I spent four years in Lucknow and eventually wrote a massive 1,200 page biography. The original project got put on the back burner, and I only came back to it about a year ago.
I have changed my original criteria. I am now using some material that has been published before. However, since most of this material is rarely sold outside India, I think non-Indian readers of these books, even devotees of Sri Ramana, will find that most of the material is new to them.
What made you decide to take this particular approach to Sri Ramana?
Sri Ramana is all things to all people. There is no standard Ramana Maharshi who is the same for all people. People who approached him brought their minds with them, and Bhagavan, being a non-person with no mind of his own, magnified and reflected back all this incoming mental energy. So, different people saw him and experienced him in many different ways.
If I wanted to write about Sri Ramana myself, I would have to put my own editorial overlay on top of all these differing experiences and impressions. So, I thought, “Let people speak for themselves. Let people explain who their particular Ramana is.”
There is a fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, who appears in many of Agatha Christie’s books. In one story, when he was completely stuck, he just started talking to everyone who was involved, and spent many hours just listening to what they had to say. Poirot’s theory was, “If you let people talk about themselves for long enough, sooner or later they give themselves away.”
This was my approach. I didn’t want to edit or shorten anyone’s story. On the contrary, I wanted to make it as detailed as possible. So, I just let them talk and say what they wanted to say. If you give someone thirty pages to talk or write about their relationship with Sri Ramana, they have to reveal who they are in a very intimate way. This was my aim: to have a gallery of intimate portraits of Sri Ramana, each one drawn lovingly by a person who had a personal and very unique perspective on this great being.
Could you describe one of your favorite sections from either of these books?
When I made the first drafts of some of these chapters back in the 1980s, I circulated copies to all my friends in Tiruvannamalai. I asked everyone to give marks out of ten on how interesting they found each account. Some chapters that were given ten by one person would get zero from someone else. This illustrates what I was just saying: everyone has a different idea of who Sri Ramana is, and because people relate to him in different ways, they react differently to stories about him. My favorites were not so popular with many of my friends.
It’s fashionable nowadays to be very positive about one’s spiritual experiences. People like to jump up and down and exclaim, “I'm free! I'm free!” I prefer the refreshing honesty of a devotee, Sivaprakasam Pillai, who, after fifty years of being with Sri Ramana, was still lamenting about his faults and his lack of progress. This is the person who first got Bhagavan to record his teachings on self-enquiry in 1901. I admired his honesty, his humility and his integrity in admitting that he still couldn’t control his mind. I also enjoyed some of the teachings of Sri Ramana that were recorded by Sadhu Natanananda, whose account also proved to be not too popular with my friends. This is an extract that I particularly liked:
A certain lady who had a lot of devotion performed a traditional ritual for worshipping sages whenever she came into Bhagavan’s presence to have darshan. She would prostrate to Bhagavan, touch his feet and then put the hands that had touched Bhagavan’s feet on her eyes.
After noticing that she did this daily, Bhagavan told her one day, ‘Only the Supreme Self, which is ever shining in your heart as the reality, is the Sadguru. The pure awareness, which is shining as the inward illumination “I’, is his gracious feet. The contact with these [inner holy feet] alone can give you true redemption. Joining the eye of reflected conciousness [chitabhasa], which is your sense of individuality [jiva bodha], to those holy feet, which are the real conciousness, is the union of the feet and the head that is the real significance of the word “asi” [“are”, as in the mahavakya “You are That”]. As these inner holy feet can be held naturally and unceasingly, hereafter, with an inward-turned mind, cling to that inner awareness that is your own real nature. This alone is the proper way for the removal of bondage and the attainment of the supreme truth.'
I appreciate and applaud anyone who has devotion to Bhagavan’s form, but at the same time I love the purity of Bhagavan’s advaitic response to this woman.
David Godman (b. 1953) is the author or editor of nearly twenty books about Sri Ramana
Maharshi and his disciples.
Rob Sacks (b. 1953) is the editor and publisher of Realization.org.
Edited by David Godman
In our opinion this superb collection of extracts from Ramana Maharshi’s writings and dialogues is the best single-volume introduction to his teachings. This is the book we recommend to people who want to read about Sri Ramana for the first time. The editor, David Godman, is probably the foremost living expert on Sri Ramana’s teachings. David has gone through dozens of books by and about Sri Ramana and collected passages which most clearly state various points of his teaching. These extracts are organized thematically into chapters with higher teachings first and less important ones last. David has also provided informative introductions to each chapter and to the book as a whole as well as a glossary and notes.
By David Godman
This massive three-volume biography of H.W.L. Poonja, widely known as Papaji, is one of the most comprehensive attempts ever made to document the life and teachings of a self-realized person. Papaji was a direct disciple of Sri Ramana Maharshi. He is largely responsible for the satsang movement in the West because he helped hundreds of Westerners attain glimpses of the Self and then sent them home to teach.
Edited by David Godman
In this book, eight people who knew Ramana Maharshi tell in their own words how their lives were transformed by him. David Godman compiled the accounts by searching through piles of old documents, some previously unpublished, others translated into English for the first time here. His sensitive editing allows the distinctive voice of each person to come through. The book includes testimony by Rangan, Sivaprakasam Pillai, Akhilandamma, Sadhu Natanananda, N.R. Krishnamurti Aiyer, Chalam and Souris, and Swami Madhavatirtha.
This page was published on September 28, 2001 and last revised on May 28, 2017.