An Interview with David Godman

By Rob Sacks

Page 3

Can you give me an example of how this worked?

When I volunteered to look after Lakshmana Swamy’s land in the late 80s, I had about $20 to my name. Somebody in Canada whom I had spoken to for about ten minutes two years before got out of bed and suddenly felt that he should give me some money. He sent me $1,000, which was enough to get the garden going. I lived like that for years. When you work for Gurus, God pays the bills. That’s my experience anyway.

It was Papaji who encouraged me to start working for myself. He himself was a householder who spent decades supporting his family. He generally wouldn’t let anyone give up his or her worldly life until retirement age, which in India is around 55. When I started work on Nothing Ever Happened, I assumed that all the proceeds would go to him, or to some organization that was promoting his teachings. At some point during the research though, he let me know that he wanted me to accept royalties from the sale of the book.

Nowadays, I am not supported by any institution, so I publish my own books and live off the proceeds, which I have to say are minimal. I can live fairly comfortably in a third world country such as India, but if I tried to live in America on what I earn from my books, I would be several thousand dollars a year below the poverty line.

David Godman

David Godman

What effect do you feel in the presence of Arunachala?

Arunachala brought me here in the same way it brought Ramana here. And it has kept me here for most of the last 25 years. I have occasionally left to be with teachers in other places: Nisargadatta Maharaj in Bombay, Lakshmana Swamy in Andhra Pradesh, Papaji in Lucknow, but Arunachala has always brought me back here afterwards. It’s my spiritual center of gravity. I can make an effort to be somewhere else if I feel I would spiritually benefit from it, but when I stop making that effort, the natural pull of Arunachala brings me back here again. It’s the only place in the world that I feel truly at home.

Arunachala has been attracting people for well over 1,500 years. Ramana liked to quote a saint of about 500 years ago who wrote in one of his verses, “Arunachala, you draw to yourself all those who are rich in jnana tapas.” Jnana tapas can be translated as the extreme efforts made by those who are in search of liberation.

There are dozens of teachers nowadays who tour the world touting their experiences and their teachings. Many of them trace their lineage back to Ramana Maharshi via Papaji. And where did Ramana Maharshi’s power and authority come from? From Arunachala, his own Guru and God. He explicitly stated that it was the power of Arunachala that brought about his own Self-realization. He wrote poems extolling its greatness, and in the last 54 years if his life, he never moved more than a mile and a half away from its base. So, it is the power of Arunachala that is the true source of the power that now appears as “advaita messengers” all over the world.

For me, this is the world’s great power spot. Arunachala has brought about the liberation of several advanced seekers in the past few centuries, and its radiant power remains even today as a beacon for those who want to find out who they really are.

Have there been living people whom you regarded as your Gurus, or who had an especially strong impact on you spiritually?

I think the four key spiritual figures would be Lakshmana Swamy, Saradamma, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Papaji. I have to include Ramana Maharshi on this list, even though I never met him while he was alive. I feel him as strongly as I have felt any other teacher. The Self that took the form of Ramana Maharshi is my Guru. He lit the lamp of enlightenment in the Heart of a few of his devotees, and when I sit in the presence of these beings I am receiving the luster, the light of Ramana Maharshi through them. So I will not say that my Guru has a particular form. I will say that the light of Arunachala became manifest in Ramana, and through him it was passed on to Lakshmana Swamy, Papaji, and Saradamma. When I bask in their light, I am basking in the living, transmitting light of Arunachala Ramana.

Nisargadatta does not belong to this lineage, but he was an enormously beneficial presence in my life in the late 1970s and early 80s. I used to go and see him as often as I could. He repeatedly told me “you are consciousness” and on a few rare, glorious occasions I understood what he was talking about. He was not simply giving me information, he was instead describing my own state, my own experience in that moment. That was his technique. He would talk endlessly about the Self until you suddenly realized directly, “Yes, this is what I am right now.”

Have you used any practices in addition to those associated with Sri Ramana?

No. From the moment I first encountered Bhagavan and his teachings in the 1970s I have never found myself attracted to any other teachings or practices.

I often wonder whether Westerners misunderstand Ramana Maharshi. What are the most common misconceptions about his teachings?

I am not sure how much understanding there is of Ramana Maharshi and his teachings in the West. He is an iconic figure to a vast number of people who are following some sort of spiritual path. I think that for many people he epitomizes all that is best in the Hindu Guru tradition, but having said that, I think that very few people know much about him, and even fewer have a good grasp of his teachings. Not many people read books about him nowadays — I know that from trying to sell my own — and even fewer would profess themselves to be his devotees. I find there is very little interest in his teachings even among the people who come to visit Ramanasramam. Nowadays, many of the people who come are spiritual tourists, pilgrims who just travel round India, checking out all the various ashrams and teachers.

About twenty years ago I met a foreigner here who had come to the ashram for advice on how to do self-enquiry properly. For several days he couldn’t find anyone who was practicing it, even in Ramanasramam. The people he asked in the ashram office just told him to buy the ashram’s publications and find out from them how to do it. Eventually, he had what he thought was a bright idea. He stood outside the door of the meditation hall at Ramanasramam, the place where Sri Ramana lived for over twenty years, and asked everyone who came out how to do self-enquiry. It transpired that none of the people inside were doing self-enquiry. They came out one by one and said, “I was doing japa.” or “I was doing vispassana” or “I was doing Tibetan visualizations.”

How can there be misunderstandings among people who have never even bothered to find out the teachings in the first place, or put them into practice?

I think that some people who are now teaching in the West are creating misunderstandings about his teachings. Some of them seem to confuse glimpses of nonduality and feelings of relative selflessness with Self-realization. Since a number of these teachers trace their lineage back to Sri Ramana, their students project the ideas of these teachers onto Sri Ramana. What do you think about this?

What are Sri Ramana’s teachings? If you ask people who have become acquainted with his life and work, you might get several answers such as “advaita” or “self-enquiry.” I don’t think Sri Ramana’s teachings were either a belief system or a philosophy, such as advaita, or a practice, such as self-enquiry.

Sri Ramana himself would say that his principal teaching was silence, by which he meant the wordless radiation of power and grace that he emanated all the time. The words he spoke, he said, were for the people who didn’t understand these real teachings. Everything he said was therefore a kind of second-level teaching for people who were incapable of dissolving their sense of “I” in his powerful presence. You may understand his words, or at least think that you do, but if you think that these words constitute his teachings, then you have really misunderstood him.

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

Related pages on this site


Recommended books

David Godman, Be As You Are

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

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.


See it on Amazon.

David Godman, Nothing Ever Happened

Nothing Ever Happened

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.


See it on Amazon.

David Godman, The Power of the Presence, Part One

The Power of the Presence, Part One

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.


See it on Amazon.

This page was published on September 28, 2001 and last revised on May 28, 2017.


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