Mr. N. has been so much in heaven during this Interview
that – in between bursts of unquiet weeping at the nostalgia evoked by
Mrs. Osborne for their great guru – he himself asked Mrs. Osborne
a few questions. They were good questions so I have let then stay. Perhaps a
third book is on its way!
I have always found it difficult to sleep in Ashrams; it may be something to
do with the radiations. On this pollen-gathering expedition, the nights are
being spent reading, writing letters and making notes, the only time I am alone
and able to indulge myself. This morning I go early to the old meditation hall.
It has been left as it was in Ramana’s day, untouched by the face-lift
of polished marble and concrete blocks which seem to have sprouted all over
other parts of the Ashram. It is a small room charged by years of Bhagavan’s adoring presence.
For me this is the real Ashram as it was thirty
years ago. I could easily spend more time here. But Mr. N. has come in and coughed;
this is a sign that it’s time to visit the Ashram’s library. Here
a pale, solemn young man, the keeper of the books, is to break the chain of
In 1953 I was born in Britain — Stoke-on-Trent,
so I’m now 27. I had a standard education: State Primary School, Grammar
School, and in the early 1970s I went to Oxford. It was there I discovered books
on Ramana Maharshi. I had considered myself an undevout Christian, but for two
years in my late teens there was a period of spiritual revolution, a period
when I spent most of my income on spiritual books. The bibliographic search
ended in Blackwells when I found one of Ramana’s books. I read this book
and was hit with the conclusion: This is what I have spent the last two years
looking for. There was a clarity and simplicity which seemed to solve the problems
I was asking myself in a logical, tight, all-embracing manner, not by giving
answers to the questions but by pointing out that the questions were based on
false presumptions. After this I had a brief period of evangelism when I tried
to distribute large numbers of this book which I had bought, but discovered
it wasn’t so obvious to others.
May I ask the name of
Ramana Maharshi: The Teachings in his Own Words. There were only three Rider
books readily available in Britain; you had to look hard for the rest. I finished
off college though without pursuing the matter further. I then had a year in
Ireland to meditate. I rented a place on the West coast and grew my own food.
For the winter I went to Israel to work on a kibbutz. I planned to go back but
came here. That was in 1976. I have stayed here ever since.
You had the teachings
before you came, but did you not find it a disadvantage not having a living
I was a little troubled by this at first. I had been through all Ramana’s
books several times looking for quotations on the matter. I was happy with the
teachings but had a sneaking feeling I ought to have a living guru. After a year that disappeared.
Have you been the Ashram’s
librarian from the beginning?
No. For the first eighteen months I lived in a room in Mrs. Osborne’s
house. I spent most of every day in meditation — eight to ten hours. Then
perhaps more by accident I walked into this library, and the American lady looking
after it offered me the job.
Is the work voluntary
or is there payment involved?
No payment at all. I’m given board and lodging, of course.
After life in Oxford
and Ireland, was is hard to adapt to Ashram life?
Not particularly. My life-style there had more affinity with life out here —
I was considered rather eccentric there.
Have you met any outstanding
teacher since you arrived?
I have seen Nisargadatta Maharaj six or seven times in the last
few years. He is the greatest influence in my current spiritual activities.
Do you keep up with what
goes on in the outside world?
It’s one of my strongest mental attachments — I read the newspaper
every day. I used to subscribe to the Observer and read it from cover to cover.
Now I get an old Guardian Weekly third-hand. I’m interested but not through
any particular concern; I find it all rather entertaining. World news is comical.
Apart from laughing your
way through the papers, what else do you do?
After breakfast at the Ashram at 6.30 I usually meditate until I go to work
at the library, and have another session when I finish at 5. I also do editorial
work for The Mountain Path — that takes up a lot of time. I review new
books, and in my spare time bind books for the Ashram.
You are still so young,
do you ever miss your old life?
In 1979 I went back to England for two months — it was pleasant, but two
months were enough.
But what is the purpose
of your life here?
I came to get realized. But my perception of that particular state has altered
radically over the years. I now see it in unreligious, unspiritual terms. I
see myself as pretending to be what I am not all the time, and I see the only
way out of this problem is to be aware of these pretences as they go on from
moment to moment. That’s all I’m doing. I have no over-zealous urge
for realization any more. I stay on because I do want it, but there’s
not the desperate fire I felt when I first came here. I am quite happy from
moment to moment watching myself.
Have you made any close
attachments to anyone in the Ashram?
I have always been gregarious, so I go out of my way to meet the new people.
I do a fair bit of socializing. Some relationships get close, but not many people
stay full-time. At first I was looking for somebody to talk to — spiritually.
Until I came to the Ashram I had never met anyone with any feeling for Ramana.
All I had was from books. I was desperately wanting to talk about him. There
were few people here I could speak to, but I did sort out some things. As the
years pass I put less and less importance on words, dialogues, spiritual conversations.
It’s strange in a way because most of my day is organized around words
and books: giving them out, taking them back, writing reviews. But I’m
totally disenchanted with what they mean. I have no interest now in talking
to anybody about spiritual matters. I no longer feel anything they say, or anything
I say touches my understanding of my experience of myself. I think it an exercise
in futility. So I avoid that sort of exchange — I leave it at social chit-chat.
But you still take your
meditation seriously, surely?
Ramana never put emphasis on meditation. He told Paul Brunton: Meditation is
for the merest spiritual novice. Apart from that I’ve never heard him
be so extreme. I now see what he means. He also said: When you are doing things
in the world, the most effective thing to do is continually remind yourself
nobody is there; action is taking place, but nobody is doing it. I used to think
this a second-grade sadhana
for those unable to meditate. I now see it as the culmination of Ramana’s
teaching. It’s an attitude and an understanding I carry with me all day.
To be honest, I enjoy meditation, to be still, to quiet down the word-flow,
to let the being take over. I often have frenetic days here… it’s
like being in the West. So I need a spiritual bath twice a day to get the mess
How do you support yourself?
I also find that strange. I can only tell you what has happened — I can’t
give any explanation. I last undertook paid employment in 1975, so when I came
here a year later I had what I perceived to be enough money for six months and
then I would have to go back. I have given away more money than I have spent,
yet I now have just about as much money as when I first came here. The only
explanation I can possibly give is that if you are seriously engaged in spiritual
quest, whatever you need at any one time comes to you. At the beginning, as
I was attached to this place, I worried about the future, the lack of money,
the uncertainty. It all stopped. I used to go round the Hill every day before
I started Ashram work. It was the only time in my life I felt any love, any
devotion to any spiritual object outside of myself.
When you first explained what you wanted this Interview
for, I was uneasy because the idea of talking about devotees and devotion disturbed
me. You see, I have absolutely no devotion now to anything, not even Ramana
or the Hill. I see my spiritual path in terms of myself and my experience of
myself and nothing outside myself. I have no external deities, gurus, symbols at all. But there was
this one period when I had great love for the Hill. I used to chant Ramana’s
hymns in English as I went round it. Then one day it suddenly occurred to me
that whatever power propelled me here is also looking after me, and it’s
that power’s job to give me what I need. No more was I to worry about
it. From that moment I never even thought about the lack of money. I rarely
have any, but I never worry about it.
Three weeks after this experience on the Hill, I
was talking to someone in the Ashram. As he asked me how long I was staying,
I answered: As long as the money holds out. He replied: Is it only a matter
of money? And he pushed 3,000 rupees into my hand! But you see, this happened
only after I stopped worrying. That was the first of a whole sequence of events
that’s kept me here.
Only three months ago whatever money I had was stolen
and everything I possessed on planet earth. A total stranger came up to me and
replaced everything. This has happened to many foreigners. There have been about
a dozen staying here over the years with no visible means of sustenance. Yet
they managed. One boy came here at the same time as me disenchanted with Vedanta, and about to give it up. But
he fell in love with Ramana. He had no money but he couldn’t go home.
He was just about to telegraph his parents for money and admit defeat when they
telegraphed him instead saying: You are now 21 so we are legally obliged to
tell you your grandfather left you so many thousands; we didn’t want to
tell you before in case you used the money to stay in India. He is still here.
David Godman still lives in Tiruvannamalai, almost 30 years after he arrived.
He was the Ashram’s librarian for 7 years, then devoted himself to
writing and research. He is now the most important living writer of books
about Ramana Maharshi, and is best known for his anthology of Ramana’s
writings and dialogues called, “Be As You Are”. To date he has
published 11 books…and more are on the way.