I WILL ALWAYS BE GRATEFUL TO PAUL BRUNTON, for it was his first book that was also my first encounter with the spirituality of the East. I vividly remember how, more than a quarter of a century ago, his Search in Secret India held me spellbound for months. I read it over and over again. The world it portrayed — of holy men and sages — seemed strangely familiar to me. His book laid the foundation for my subsequent lifelong professional and personal interest in India’s spiritual traditions.
Born Raphael Hurst in London in 1898, Paul Brunton pursued a career as a bookseller, as a journalist, and later as a magazine editor — occupations not normally associated with wisdom or spiritual adventure. But like Alan Watts, Christopher lsherwood, and Gerald Heard, Brunton was destined to become a pioneer of the East-West dialogue.
Despite his professional success, Brunton resigned his job in his 30s and headed in an entirely different direction: Following his long-standing passionate interest in spiritual life, he traveled widely in the East in search of answers to the kinds of questions that our busy postindustrial civilization tends to ignore and suppress.
Brunton’s spiritual quest had begun much earlier. At the age of 16, he experienced a series of ecstatic states as a direct result of having meditated regularly and intensely for six months. Although the immediacy of these mystical experiences waned after several weeks, their afterglow lasted for three years, and they decisively shaped the remainder of Brunton’s life.
The contrast between these blissful mystical experiences and the drab materialism of his environment threw the young Brunton into a state of utter despair. He resolved to commit suicide, but being an eminentJy rational person, he picked a date a fortnight away so that he could use the time to look up books on death in the local library. He chanced upon any number of spiritual books on the subject, which he devoured eagerly and which led him to postpone his suicide — indefinitely.
He married relatively young, and in 1923 his only child, Kenneth Thurston Hurst, was born. Brunton did not feel prepared for fatherhood but was told by a spiritual elder that the relationship to the unborn child was karmic and necessary. As it turned out, they had a loving relationship throughout Brunton’s life, and Hurst produced an excellent biography of his father, Paul Brunton: A Personal View (Larson).
In this book, Hurst recollects many fascinating vignettes. He mentions, for instance, that Brunton discovered early that he had certain occult abilities and even reveled in their exercise. However, he received an inner warning that if he wanted to grow spiritually he would have to desist from exploiting them. Heeding the warning, he took to seriously cultivating the art of meditation instead.
Brunton’s early spiritual efforts were aided by the British Buddhist monk Allan Bennett, also known as Bhikku Ananda Metteya, who was widely respected at the time and whom Brunton considered to be a bodhisattva, or saint. Another of Brunton’s early guides was an American painter named Thurston, in whom he saw an “advanced mystic.” A third influence was an unidentified Indian gentleman to whom Brunton referred as “the Rajah.” He predicted that Brunton would visit India one day, which came true in 1931.
In 1934, Brunton published his first book, A Search in Secret India, which was spectacularly successful. While completing the manuscript, he decided upon the pen name Brunton Paul for himself, but the typesetter accidentally changed it to Paul Brunton, and it stuck. His friends called him “PB.”
Over the years, Brunton’s fledgling book, which records his early adventures in India, won him a quarter of a million readers, drawn from among the growing circle of Westerners who, in their disenchantment with the Christian establishment, were turning toward the Orient.
In particular, Brunton’s book brought fame to one of the finest representatives of modern Hindu spirituality, Ramana Maharshi (1879‒1950), who must not be confused with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement. The description of his encounter with Sri Ramana in South India is perhaps the most enthralling part of the book. Here is a sampling of Brunton’s journalistic treatment:
“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… 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.”
At first, Brunton expects something to happen, and “the minutes creep by with unutterable slowness.” In the end, the sage’s total quietness communicates itself to him. Two hours later, Brunton is still in a state of deep restfulness and meditation. Someone prods him, reminding him to ask his questions. Yet the peace that has overwhelmed him has also wiped out all his questions — at least until his next meeting with Sri Ramana. Brunton goes on to have many animated conversations with the sage, in which he is always thrown back upon his own inner resources.
On Brunton’s last day at the ashram, Ramana Maharshi again chooses to be completely silent. He rests his peaceful eyes on the man from the West in what proves to be a profound initiatory gaze. As Brunton describes it:
“His eyes shine with astonishing brilliance. Strange sensations begin to arise in me. Those lustrous orbs seem to be peering into the inmost recesses of my soul… I become aware that he is definitely linking my own mind with his, that he is provoking my heart into that state of starry calm which he seems perpetually to enjoy.”
Time stands still. The hall empties, as one disciple after another quietly leaves. Then only the sage and Brunton are left behind.
“I am alone with the Maharishee! Never before has this happened. His eyes begin to change; they narrow down to pin-points. The effect is curiously like the ‘stopping-down’ in the focus of a camera lens. There comes a tremendous increase in the intense gleam which shines between the lids, now almost closed. Suddenly, my body seems to disappear, and we are both out in space!”
As Brunton later explained, in writing his early books he deliberately assumed a fictitious persona to make his works more accessible and readable. His own spiritual understanding, however, was far ahead of his writings. When he arrived in India, he did not come empty-handed, nor was he in need of learning the spiritual ABCs.
Some of Brunton’s disguised spiritual maturity is evident from his book A Search in Secret Egypt, which was a meteoric success when it was published in 1936. He met no sages in Egypt of the stature of Ramana Maharshi and the Shankaracarya of Kanshi, whom he revered. Yet he did encounter the ancient esoteric tradition of that country. His spiritual adventure in the Great Pyramid of Cheops ,vould not have been possible for an immature practitioner, who would have died from sheer fright. Brunton was the only European ever given permission to spend an entire night alone there.
Sitting in total darkness, hearing only his own breathing, Brunton entered a state of meditative inwardness. But the chamber would not yield its ancient secrets readily. He was assailed by monstrous appearances that filled him with fear and repulsion.
“In a few minutes I lived through something which will leave a remembered record behind for all time. That incredible scene remains vividly photographed upon my memory. Never again would I repeat such an experiment.”
Suddenly the onslaught stopped, and a new, benign presence made itself known. Brunton saw two tall figures in white robes approach. Then one of these awe-inspiring men, wearing the unmistakable regalia of a High Priest, spoke to him. This was followed by a striking outof-the-body experience in which some of the hidden wisdom of the ancient Egyptians was revealed to him. He was told that the mystery of the Great Pyramid is the mystery of his own self, that all the secret chambers and hidden records are to be found within himself.
Many readers questioned the veracity of Brunton’s account of what happened in the darkness of the King’s Chamber that night. But certain aspects of the knowledge imparted to him by the adept Ra-Mak-Hotep were later confirmed, including the subsequent important discovery that the Sphinx is in fact a monument to the Sun-God Ra, as the spirit guide had mentioned. For Brunton, the principal objective of the book was to introduce his Western readers to the ancient but largely forgotten notion that the spiritual realm interpenetrates our physical plane, and that spirit beings are indeed as real as we are.
Brunton incessantly worked on his inner growth. He never stood still, and it was hard for many of his readers to keep up with his rapidly unfolding philosophical wisdom. As he continued his investigation of spiritual life, he began to see the limitations of traditional Hindu doctrines and approaches. He expressed his newfound understanding that conventional mysticism was not the final answer in a book entitled The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga, published in 1941.
Those who had devoured The Secret Path, an inspired little volume about yoga, were dumbfounded. Suddenly they read that mysticism was not the answer after all. They learned that the spiritual path was more arduous than the earlier book had depicted.
In The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga, Brunton put forward a powerful critique of a conventional mysticism that seeks to abandon the world in favor of mere solitude and silence. He explained, “Meditation on oneself was a necessary and admirable pursuit, but it did not constitute the entire activity which life was constantly asking of man. It was good, but it proved to be not enough.”
His critique of ordinary yoga and mystical trance perplexed many readers of his earlier works and outraged many Indians, who could not understand his quest for a more integrated approach. In particular Brunton had expressed some criticism of the teaching of Ramana Maharshi, which many people misunderstood to be a criticism of the sage himself. Brunton was greatly pained by this misunderstanding, which his own works had provoked. His relationship to Sri Ramana was always one of purest admiration, gratitude, and spiritual affinity. In The Secret Path, he had called Sri Rarnana “the most understanding man I have ever known” who “possessed a deific personality which defies description.” Brunton always stood by this description of the sage he called his “Beloved Master” all his life.
After the publication of The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga, Brunton was no longer welcome at Ramana’s hermitage because of the machinations of certain disciples. During his later wanderings in India he would often travel within a few miles of the ashram but be unable to visit the master. “A lump would come into my throat and a choking sensation would seize me as I thought how close we were in spirit and yet so harshly separated by the ill-will of certain men and by the dark shadows of my own karma,” he wrote in his journal. He added: “That I was most unfairly treated by one ashram in particular and many Indians in general is a shameful fact, but nevertheless it was a fact which helped my own emancipation.”
Brunton’s relationship with Ramana Maharshi survived all these external difficulties. In fact, he had numerous visions of the sage, the last occurring about 15 months after Sri Ramana’s death in 1950. In that vision the sage announced that they had to part. Brunton had no further visions of him, but from then on began to experience him more and more as pure spiritual essence. He conjectured that Sri Ramana would have been perfectly able to continue to manifest to him, as he continues to manifest to disciples to this day, but that he, Brunton, had to take the next step on the spiritual path.
Toward the end of his life, Brunton was able to harmoniously diffuse the long-standing conflict with Ramana’s ashram — testimony, perhaps, to his own spiritual advancement. In fact, he was invited to spend his final years at the ashram, which, however, he was unable to do for practical reasons.
With the tremendous success of his books, which have sold over two million copies in 17 countries, Brunton found himself in the limelight of the Western spiritual arena. Since he was an intensely private person and had no desire to function as a guru to others, but preferred to point to the sages of the East and to stimulate philosophical inquiry rather than impose doctrines on others, he went into seclusion in Switzerland. His withdrawal from the public eye was so efficient that two major newspapers ran obituaries on him.
Until the end of his life, Brunton kept daily notebooks, in which he registered spiritual matters distilled from his own quest and relevant to other seekers. “I amused myself with scribbling mystical books to bore materialistic people, playing with queer thoughts which were thrown up into the air and caught on the tip of my pen,” he wrote with tongue-in-cheek modesty in the opening essay to the volume containing his autobiographical recollections.
At the time of his death, on July 27, 1981, he had amassed some 17,000 pages of notes, all carefully organized into 28 categories. The notebooks were intended for posthumous publication. This rich mine of Brunton’s personal experience, wisdom, and thought has now been made available in a fine edition of 16 volumes, published by Larson Publications.
Brunton’s philosophy, which he refused to label, is consonant with the philosophia perennis, the perennial philosophy. For him, philosophy was a matter not of ratiocination for its own sake but of wisdom, by which Truth can be approached directly. He understood philosophy as a practical orientation to life, the synthesis of religious veneration, mystical meditation, rational reflection, moral re-education, and altruistic service. The true philosopher is thus a spiritual practitioner of great maturity.
First and foremost, Brunton was a sage, who used his writing skills to bring clarity and philosophical depth to his inner explorations, to work out what he called his own “intellectual salvation.”
Secondarily, he was a writer who understood his vocation as a service to humanity. In his own words: “The best of being a writer is the opportunity given to show man his true worth, to lift up his own idea of himself, to persuade him that trivial aims are not enough.”
The 16 volumes of Brunton’s notebooks give us a rare insight into an unusual man who, without shedding his 20th-century skin, fearlessly and with heartwarming honesty explored the offerings of the East. Though Brunton laid no claim to it, he was surely one of the finest mystical-philosophical flowers to grow on the wasteland of our secular civilization.
Brunton’s message is of value for us all. We need not keep a photograph of him on our desk, as did the rajahs of Mysore and Kasmanda, but we surely would do well to delve into his written legacy. After all, he asked to be “read rather than revered.”
Copyright © 1992 California Yoga Teachers Association. This article is reprinted from the May/June 1992 issue of Yoga Journal.
Georg Feuerstein (1947‒2012) was the author and translator of more than 30 books on Yoga and related subjects.
By Paul Brunton
This book is a galloping adventure story, a sort of spiritual Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it's also an accurate description of spiritual experience and a summary of important spiritual teachings. It was a tremendous best-seller in many countries in the 1930s and 40s, appealing to the general public and not just spiritually-oriented people. The author, a young Englishman, tells the true story of his adventures travelling up and down India looking for a genuine guru. His search ends when he finds Ramana Maharshi. This is the book that made Ramana Maharshi famous outside India. Brunton’s description of Ramana’s teachings is still useful and accurate today. This book is much better written than most spiritual books — it was a general best-seller, not just a spiritual best seller — and it’s a lot of fun to read.
This page was published on May 12, 2017 and last revised on May 12, 2017.