In part 1 of this series, we explored the history and impact of the international bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda, and asked the question if there were other books that captured the “magic and mystery” of “old India”, particularly around the holy men, sadhus, fakirs, gurus that Yogananda.
Read Part I of the series here, which went over some background on Autobiography of a Yogi and the goals of this. After a number of books written by Indian swamis, it was suggested that I expand the list to include books about western seekers who have travelled to India.
In that vein, i’m starting with a spiritual classic, published in 1935, A Search in Secret India. It became a bestseller and pre-dates the other books that have been in this series, including AOY, which wasn’t published until 1946.
4. A Search in Secret India.
The author Paul Brunton (actually a pen name for the journalist Raphael Hurst) takes a trip to India in 1930, when the British still ruled India. As such it’s not just a travelogue of a spiritual seeker (one who is quite skeptical at times) but also presents the view of an educated Brit at the height of the British empire. As such, these might seem a bit odd for a modern reader (where Yoga has been adopted around the world) to appreciate, but I have no doubt that many Brits definitely thought this way: — about how silly a naked person in a loincloth is, when he could be contributing to society; about the poverty in India and all the great things the British are doing by bringing civilization to that ancient land where nothing ever changes; how troublemakers like Gandhi are only inciting the youth into “politics” which will lead India to ruin, etc. No doubt many of these attitudes would have made the book easier to sell in the West in the 1930s. But if you can get past those prejudices, this is a fascinating story of spiritual seeking all over India. The length and breadth of his travels is quite revealing — from Benares to Madras to Calcutta to Bombay and small villages and towns out of the way, where tigers and other animals still roamed free.
The story starts in London like many British travelogues where, in a bookstore, he meets a mysterious Indian who tells him that what he had called the “laggard East” had much to teach the West: “… thousands of years ago, our sages were pondering over the deepest problems while your own countrymen were not even aware that such problems existed.” This precipitates a friendship with Brunton (I will use his pen-name since that is the name he stuck with for all his books and professional organizations once this book became a bestseller), and tells him that he may be going to India someday.
Someday comes along and under some set of circumstances (which Brunton doesn’t explain) in 1930 he finds himself off to India for his first whirlwind trip. He wants to find out if there are any rishis, or sages that existed in India in the past, still left, and whether Yoga is the path to enlightenment. His background as a journalist serves him well, as does his sincerity which gets him into places that many Europeans wouldn’t even bother trying to get to. In fact, I get the sense that for most of his trip, he is the only European to be seen, and may be the only one that some of the Indians he interviews have ever met! This makes it an interesting “off the beaten path” kind of story.
This series is about “old India” with its wandering holy men, gurus, and miracles, and in this Brunton doesn’t disappoint, though he is on his own search he truly tries to understand what each contender is trying to tell him and documents it fairly well. He intervies them lie a journalist and gets their origina story.
Brunton is also quite skeptical about some of them — and believes others to be genuine. I’ll leave it to you to read and figure out which ones he thought that of!
Some of the yogis that he comes across are listed below. His book was the first western introduction to Meher Baba, and Ramana Maharshi, among other less well known teachers and yogis.
- Meher Baba, the parsee holy man who proclaims himself a new “messiah” and who later became well known in the west. When he was younger, Meher Baba was kissed on the forehead by a muslim fakir, and then started to have strange experiences, before meeting his guru.
- Brama — a yogi in south india whose tamil name was too long for Brunton to pronounce, whose path is the Yoga of Body Control, who gives one of the first overviews of physical yoga that was released in the West. He compares and contrasts western methods of exercise with Yoga — such a description is probably not as necessary today as it was in Brunton’s time when those in the West were unfamiliar with Yoga. Brama also demonstrates some amazing physical feats, including having his pulse come to an almost complete standstill, and then does the same with his breathing.
- An Egyptian Magician. Mahmoud Bey, an egyptian is visiting India and he describes himself as a magician, who is in control of some unseen forces, who shows him some tricks that are unexplainable, including having writing appear to answer a question that he hasn’t seen. Today this sounds a bit like the magic tricks some performers do, but to Brunton he became convinced there was no way he could have influenced things he had not contact with.
- There are several claims of meeting yogis of extraordinary age. While these are generally the “masters” of the yogi’s Brunton meets, someo fthe stories are extraorindary. Brama’s master, for example tells Brama that he clearly has memories of the Moghul Emperors and the Britsh coming to India, making reference to battles which took place in 1526 and 1757. This was in the early twentieth century presumably, so that would make him at least 200 years old, and calls a brother disciple of his, who was 80 years old, a mere “child”. Not surprisingly, Brama’s master often lived in the Himalayas in Nepal and Tibet. Later Brunton meets a Yogi who claims his master, who also lives in a remote area of the Himalayas, was over 1000 years old!
- Ramana Maharshi, who as a boy started wandering and lived in a cave meditating and other pandits started coming to him for spiritual advice. Brunton, thorough a set of coincidental meetings, gets pulled to the Hll of the Holy Beacon, where his ashram is. Though he demonstrates no miracles, meditating and being in his presence givesbrunton a sense of clam and peace. His instructions aren’t about any specific branch of Yoga, but to find the source of the “I”. Constant inquiry on who “I” am is enough to lead you back to the truth. I chant spoil the ending of the book but he plays a role.
- Many others in different cities across India.
While I haven’t listed them al, these adventures are a good read and very inspiring for anyone on the spiritual path. It also gives an overview of different paths and the fact that even in 1930s, when Brunton suspected that the “rishis”, the sages of old, were no more in India, he was still able to find extraordinary spiritual teachers and Yogis.