A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID GODMAN
Interviewed by Reid Pierce
David Godman is one of the leading writers on the life and teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. While he was attending Oxford University in the early 1970s, he found himself drawn to the teachings of Sri Ramana. In 1976, he traveled to India, intending to make a brief visit to Sri Ramana Ashram. He is still there today. He has now edited or written fifteen books on Sri Ramana, his teachings, and his direct disciples, including the famous anthology Be As You Are.
I think that is a good segue into the teachings of Sri Ramana as that book was my introduction to Sri Ramana… Let’s discuss self-enquiry. This seems to be the root of his teachings, asking yourself “Who Am I?” Could you briefly explain this seemingly simple practice? I will, but in advance I will also say that while this is what he is most famous for, he never thought it was his principle teaching, or even his most important teaching. He frequently said, “My most important teaching is silence.” He said those who could sit quietly in his presence or think about him from a distance were getting the most direct form of communication, the unmediated teaching. If they couldn’t assimilate that silent radiating presence, or if they wanted something to do, a spiritual practice, he then might tell them to do self-enquiry. However, he wasn’t prescriptive in the sense that he never told anybody to take up a specific spiritual practice. If you went to him and asked for advice on what to do spiritually, he would probably ask you what you were doing already. If it was a reasonable practice, he would say, “Carry on.” He had no missionary zeal whatsoever. He didn’t have any interest in making people do self-enquiry. He did though think that it was the quickest and most direct way to realize the Self, to gain enlightenment. Despite this conviction, he had no agenda and no idea or feeling that all people should be following this practice. He just wanted people to assimilate what they could from his presence or being in the ashram. If you went there with a personal story, he would listen, be sympathetic and give advice. But he functioned on a whole range of levels depending on what you wanted and needed. Some people wanted to worship him as a form of God; other people simply wanted to use him as a Mr Fix-it. In India you go to a guru when you want a promotion, or if your wife wants a baby. If you wanted to talk philosophy, he might talk philosophy. And if you wanted liberation, then he might give you advice on how to do it. So, it is somewhat misleading to say that self-enquiry was his main teaching or even something that he recommended to everybody. It’s what he is most famous for, but he never pushed it on anyone.
I want to shift the conversation to your encounter with a master who was alive then—Nisargadatta Maharaj. He was also seemingly an ordinary man, a beedi (cheap hand-rolled cigarette) maker and seller, yet he was a jnani—a Self-realized being. Could you tell me about leaving Arunachala temporarily to be in his presence in Mumbai? How did that happen? And what was it like going from Ramana Ashram to being in front of a living master? I think that this was one of the questions I had when I went to see him—was it necessary to have a living human guru? I did question him a little bit about this. Maharaj always insisted on the necessity of a guru. He himself had had a guru, and he said that he attained realization when he put his complete faith in this guru. After struggling to understand what his guru had been saying to him, Maharaj finally accepted that his guru was not lying to him when he said, “You are the Self.” Before then, even though his guru had told him this, it puzzled him. These words were revolving in his head in a very unsatisfactory way. One day he suddenly thought to himself, “Why would my guru tell me something that wasn’t true? What he said must be the truth of who I am.” In that moment he accepted that his guru was telling him the truth of who he was, rather than giving him a puzzle to solve. Immediately, he got the full experience of the Self. It was simply necessary for him to have absolute faith in his master.
PHOTO © CHANTAL JUMEL