By Rob Sacks
Can we backtrack a little? Can you tell me something about your own background… some details of your family and how you came to be interested in Ramana Maharshi?
I was born in 1953 in Stoke-on-Trent, a British city of about 300,000, located about halfway between Birmingham and Manchester. My father was a schoolmaster and my mother was a physiotherapist who specialised in treating physically handicapped children. Both of my parents are dead. I have one sister who is a year older than me. She is a former professional mountaineer who now teaches mountain and wilderness skills and occasionally leads groups to exotic and inaccessible places. My younger sister, now 43, teaches in a college in England, although nowadays she apparently spends most of her time monitoring the competence of other teachers, which I assume doesn’t make her very popular.
I was educated at local schools and in 1972 won a place at Oxford University, where I did very little academic work, but had an enormous amount of fun. Sometime in my second year there I found myself getting more and more interested in Eastern spiritual traditions. I seemed to have an insatiable hunger for knowledge about them that resulted in massive bookstore bills, which I couldn’t really afford, but not much satisfaction. Then, one day, I took home a copy of Arthur Osborne’s The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi in his Own Words. Reading Ramana’s words for the first time completely silenced me. My mind stopped asking questions, and it abandoned its search for spiritual information. It somehow knew that it had found what it was looking for.
I have to explain this properly. It wasn’t that I had found a new set of ideas that I believed in. It was more of an experience in which I was pulled into a state of silence. In that silent space I knew directly and intuitively what Ramana’s words were hinting and pointing at. Because this state itself was the answer to all my questions, and any other questions I might come up with, the interest in finding solutions anywhere else dropped away. I suppose I must have read the book in an afternoon, but by the time I put it down it had completely transformed the way I viewed myself and the world.
The experiences I was having made me understand how invalid were the academic techniques of acquiring and evaluating knowledge. I could see that the whole of academia was based on some sort of reductionism: separating something big into its little component parts, and then deriving conclusions about how the “big something” really worked. It’s a reasonable approach for comprehending mechanical things, such as a car engine, but I understood — and knew by direct experience — that it was a futile way of gaining an understanding of oneself and the world we appear to be in. When I went through my academic textbooks after having these experiences, there was such a massive resistance both to their contents and to the assumptions that lay behind them, I knew I could no longer even read them, much less study them in order to pass exams. It wasn’t an intellectual judgement on their irrelevance, it was more of a visceral disgust that physically prevented me from reading more than a few lines. I dropped out in my final year at Oxford, went to Ireland with my Ramana books, and spent about six months reading Ramana’s teachings and practicing his technique of self-enquiry. I had just inherited a small amount from my grandmother so I didn’t need to work that year. I rented a small house in a rural area, grew my own food, and spent most of my time meditating.
This was 1975. At the end of that year my landlady reclaimed her house and I went to Israel. I wanted to go somewhere sunny and warm for the winter, and then return to Ireland the following spring. I worked on a kibbutz on the Dead Sea and while I was there decided I could have a quick trip to India and Ramanasramam before I went back to Ireland. I figured out the costs and realised I couldn’t afford it unless another £200 appeared from somewhere. I decided that if Bhagavan wanted me to go to India, he would send me the money. Within a week I received a letter from my grandmother’s lawyer saying that he had just found some shares that she owned, and that my share of them would be £200. I came to India, expecting to stay six weeks, and have been here more or less ever since.
I’ve always wondered about your name. Is Godman your birth name or did you change it?
It’s my family name. I never had any desire to take a new name, and no one has ever tried to give me one.
You said that you spent six months practicing self-enquiry based on your reading of Sri Ramana’s books. Were you able to get a good understanding of the method from your reading? I ask because this seems to be difficult for most people. Did you need to modify your understanding later when you went to Sri Ramanasramam?
I did find it hard to practise self-enquiry merely by reading books simply because I did not have access to much material. I had at that time only managed to find Arthur Osborne’s three books on Ramana. Though they explained most aspects of the teachings quite well, I don’t think that Osborne had a good understanding of self-enquiry. He seemed to think that concentrating on the heart center on the right side of the chest while doing self-enquiry was an integral part of the process. When I later read Bhagavan’s answers in books such as Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi and Day by Day with Bhagavan, I realized that he specifically advised against this particular practice. Overall, though, I got a good grounding from these books. I had a passion to follow the practice and a deep faith in Bhagavan. I think that this elicited grace from Bhagavan and kept me on the right path. If the attitude is right and if the practice is intense enough, it doesn’t really matter what you do when you meditate. The purity of intent and purpose carries you to the right place.
If someone wants to learn self-enquiry, what should they read?
I don’t know what book I would recommend to new people who want to start self-enquiry. Be As You Are is certainly a good start since it was designed for Westerners who have had no previous exposure to Bhagavan and his teachings. There is also a book by Sadhu Om: The Path of Sri Ramana Part One. It is a little dogmatic in places but it covers all the basic points well. Self-inquiry is a bit like swimming or riding a bicycle. You don’t learn it from books. You learn it by doing it again and again till you get it right.
Could you briefly describe what your life has been like in Tiruvannamalai? What work have you done at Sri Ramanasramam?
I spent my first eighteen months just meditating, practicing self-enquiry, and occasionally walking round Arunachala. In 1978 I began to do voluntary work for Sri Ramanasramam. I looked after their library from 1978 to 1985, edited their magazine for a short period of time, and from 1985 onwards did research for my various books. In the later 1980s and early 90s I also devoted a considerable amount of time to looking after Lakshmana Swamy and Saradamma’s garden. They bought land in Tiruvannamalai in 1988 and I ended up helping to develop it. In 1993 I went to Lucknow and spent four years with Papaji, where I wrote Nothing Ever Happened. Since my return to Tiruvannamalai in 1997 I have been writing and researching new books on Ramana.
How have you supported yourself in India all these years?
I didn’t. Grace supported me. I have found that if you give all your time to God and his work, then he looks after you. I came here with $500 in 1976. I didn’t earn money for twenty years, but I always had enough to live on. Until I left Lucknow I gave the proceeds from all my books to the various organisations that supported me while I was writing them.
When I first came to Arunachala I fell in love with the place and wanted to stay as long as I could. I knew I didn’t have much money, but I wanted to make it last as long as possible. There was a meter ticking away in my head: I have so much money, I am spending so much per day, and that means I have so many more days here. Those numbers, those equations were there all the time. Then, one day, as I was doing pradakshina of Arunachala, it all dropped away. It wasn’t a mental decision. I stopped walking, turned, and faced the hill. I knew in that moment that whatever power had brought me here would keep me here until its purpose was finished, and that when it was time to go, it wouldn’t matter if I was a millionaire or not, I would have to leave. From then on I stopped caring about money. In the period that I was worrying about money, all I did was spend. When I stopped caring, complete strangers would come up to me and give me money. Whenever I needed money, money just appeared out of nowhere.
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.