David Godman is best known for his anthology of Ramana Maharshi's
writings, Be As You Are, which has become a popular reference on the
great sage's teachings. But few people know that David has written nine
other reference books, and each one is equally remarkable in its own
way. Two of these books have just come out, providing a good excuse for
an interview. Since David lives in Tiruvannamalai and the editor of this
website lives in New York, the interview was conducted by e-mail.
RS: You have just brought out two new books on Ramana Maharshi. Can
you tell me something about them?
DG: In the late 1980s I began to collect first-person accounts by
people who had spent time with Ramana Maharshi. It was my intention to
make an anthology of accounts that hadn't been published before. To find
original material I did extensive research on books that had appeared in
various Indian languages but not in English. I also found some good
material written in English that had never been published.
At some point
during this research I went to see Annamalai Swami, a devotee of Sri
Ramana who had moved intimately with him for many years. His account
proved to be so interesting and so long, I ended up doing a whole book
just about him. Then I went to Lucknow to interview Papaji. His story
fascinated me so much, I spent four years in Lucknow and eventually
wrote a massive 1,200 page biography. The original project got put on
the back burner, and I only came back to it about a year ago.
changed my original criteria. I am now using some material that has been
published before. However, since most of this material is rarely sold
outside India, I think non-Indian readers of these books, even devotees
of Sri Ramana, will find that most of the material is new to them.
RS: What made you decide to take this particular approach to Sri
DG: Sri Ramana is all things to all people. There is no standard
Ramana Maharshi who is the same for all people. People who approached
him brought their minds with them, and Bhagavan, being a non-person with
no mind of his own, magnified and reflected back all this incoming
mental energy. So, different people saw him and experienced him in many
If I wanted to write about Sri Ramana myself, I would
have to put my own editorial overlay on top of all these differing
experiences and impressions. So, I thought, "Let people speak for
themselves. Let people explain who their particular Ramana is."
There is a fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, who appears in many of
Agatha Christie's books. In one story, when he was completely stuck, he
just started talking to everyone who was involved, and spent many hours
just listening to what they had to say. Poirot's theory was, "If
you let people talk about themselves for long enough, sooner or later
they give themselves away."
This was my approach. I didn't want to
edit or shorten anyone's story. On the contrary, I wanted to make it as
detailed as possible. So, I just let them talk and say what they wanted
to say. If you give someone thirty pages to talk or write about their
relationship with Sri Ramana, they have to reveal who they are in a very
intimate way. This was my aim: to have a gallery of intimate portraits
of Sri Ramana, each one drawn lovingly by a person who had a personal
and very unique perspective on this great being.
RS: Could you describe one of your favorite sections from either of
DG: When I made the first drafts of some of these chapters back in
the 1980s, I circulated copies to all my friends in Tiruvannamalai. I
asked everyone to give marks out of ten on how interesting they found
each account. Some chapters that were given ten by one person would get
zero from someone else. This illustrates what I was just saying:
everyone has a different idea of who Sri Ramana is, and because people
relate to him in different ways, they react differently to stories about
him. My favorites were not so popular with many of my friends.
fashionable nowadays to be very positive about one's spiritual
experiences. People like to jump up and down and exclaim, "I'm
free! I'm free!" I prefer the refreshing honesty of a devotee,
Sivaprakasam Pillai, who, after fifty years of being with Sri Ramana,
was still lamenting about his faults and his lack of progress. This is
the person who first got Bhagavan to record his teachings on
self-enquiry in 1901. I admired his honesty, his humility and his
integrity in admitting that he still couldn't control his mind. I also
enjoyed some of the teachings of Sri Ramana that were recorded by Sadhu
Natanananda, whose account also proved to be not too popular with my
friends. This is an extract that I particularly liked:
A certain lady who had a lot of devotion performed a traditional
ritual for worshipping sages whenever she came into Bhagavan's presence
to have darshan. She would prostrate to Bhagavan, touch his feet and
then put the hands that had touched Bhagavan's feet on her eyes. After
noticing that she did this daily, Bhagavan told her one day, 'Only the
Supreme Self, which is ever shining in your heart as the reality, is the
Sadguru. The pure awareness, which is shining as the inward illumination
"I", is his gracious feet. The contact with these [inner holy
feet] alone can give you true redemption. Joining the eye of reflected
consciousness [chidabhasa], which is your sense of individuality [jivabodha], to those holy feet, which are the real consciousness, is the
union of the feet and the head that is the real significance of the word
"asi" ["are", as in the mahavakya "You are
That"]. As these inner holy feet can be held naturally and
unceasingly, hereafter, with an inward-turned mind, cling to that inner
awareness that is your own real nature. This alone is the proper way for
the removal of bondage and the attainment of the supreme truth.'
I appreciate and applaud anyone who has devotion to Bhagavan's form,
but at the same time I love the purity of Bhagavan's advaitic response
to this woman.
RS: Can we backtrack a little? Can you tell me something about your
own background… some details of your family and how you came to be
interested in Ramana Maharshi?
DG: I was born in 1953 in Stoke-on-Trent,
a British city of about 300,000, located about halfway between
Birmingham and Manchester. My father was a schoolmaster and my mother
was a physiotherapist who specialised in treating physically handicapped
children. Both of my parents are dead. I have one sister who is a year
older than me. She is a former professional mountaineer who now teaches
mountain and wilderness skills and occasionally leads groups to exotic
and inaccessible places. My younger sister, now 43, teaches in a college
in England, although nowadays she apparently spends most of her time
monitoring the competence of other teachers, which I assume doesn't make
her very popular.
I was educated at local schools and in 1972 won a
place at Oxford University, where I did very little academic work, but
had an enormous amount of fun. Sometime in my second year there I found
myself getting more and more interested in Eastern spiritual traditions.
I seemed to have an insatiable hunger for knowledge about them that
resulted in massive bookstore bills, which I couldn't really afford, but
not much satisfaction. Then, one day, I took home a copy of Arthur
Osborne's The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi in his Own Words. Reading
Ramana's words for the first time completely silenced me. My mind
stopped asking questions, and it abandoned its search for spiritual
information. It somehow knew that it had found what it was looking for.
I have to explain this properly. It wasn't that I had found a new set of
ideas that I believed in. It was more of an experience in which I was
pulled into a state of silence. In that silent space I knew directly and
intuitively what Ramana's words were hinting and pointing at. Because
this state itself was the answer to all my questions, and any other
questions I might come up with, the interest in finding solutions
anywhere else dropped away. I suppose I must have read the book in an
afternoon, but by the time I put it down it had completely transformed
the way I viewed myself and the world.
The experiences I was having made
me understand how invalid were the academic techniques of acquiring and
evaluating knowledge. I could see that the whole of academia was based
on some sort of reductionism: separating something big into its little
component parts, and then deriving conclusions about how the "big
something" really worked. It's a reasonable approach for
comprehending mechanical things, such as a car engine, but I understood
- and knew by direct experience - that it was a futile way of gaining an
understanding of oneself and the world we appear to be in. When I went
through my academic textbooks after having these experiences, there was
such a massive resistance both to their contents and to the assumptions
that lay behind them, I knew I could no longer even read them, much less
study them in order to pass exams. It wasn't an intellectual judgement
on their irrelevance, it was more of a visceral disgust that physically
prevented me from reading more than a few lines. I dropped out in my
final year at Oxford, went to Ireland with my Ramana books, and spent
about six months reading Ramana's teachings and practicing his technique
of self-inquiry. I had just inherited a small amount from my grandmother
so I didn't need to work that year. I rented a small house in a rural
area, grew my own food, and spent most of my time meditating. This was
1975. At the end of that year my landlady reclaimed her house and I went
to Israel. I wanted to go somewhere sunny and warm for the winter, and
then return to Ireland the following spring. I worked on a kibbutz on
the Dead Sea and while I was there decided I could have a quick trip to
India and Ramanasramam before I went back to Ireland. I figured out the
costs and realised I couldn't afford it unless another £200 appeared
from somewhere. I decided that if Bhagavan wanted me to go to India, he
would send me the money. Within a week I received a letter from my
grandmother's lawyer saying that he had just found some shares that she
owned, and that my share of them would be £200. I came to India,
expecting to stay six weeks, and have been here more or less ever since.
RS: I've always wondered about your name. Is Godman your birth name
or did you change it?
DG: It's my family name. I never had any desire to take a new name,
and no one has ever tried to give me one.
RS: You said that you spent six months practicing self-inquiry based
on your reading of Sri Ramana's books. Were you able to get a good
understanding of the method from your reading? I ask because this seems
to be difficult for most people. Did you need to modify your
understanding later when you went to Sri Ramanasramam?
DG: I did find it hard to practise self-inquiry merely by reading
books simply because I did not have access to much material. I had at
that time only managed to find Arthur Osborne's three books on Ramana.
Though they explained most aspects of the teachings quite well, I don't
think that Osborne had a good understanding of self-inquiry. He seemed
to think that concentrating on the heart center on the right side of the
chest while doing self-inquiry was an integral part of the process. When
I later read Bhagavan's answers in books such as Talks with Sri Ramana
Maharshi and Day by Day with Bhagavan, I realized that he specifically
advised against this particular practice. Overall, though, I got a good
grounding from these books. I had a passion to follow the practice and a
deep faith in Bhagavan. I think that this elicited grace from Bhagavan
and kept me on the right path. If the attitude is right and if the
practice is intense enough, it doesn't really matter what you do when
you meditate. The purity of intent and purpose carries you to the right
RS: If someone wants to learn self-inquiry, what should they read?
DG: I don't know what book I would recommend to new people who want
to start self-inquiry. Be As You Are is certainly a good start since it
was designed for Westerners who have had no previous exposure to
Bhagavan and his teachings. There is also a book by Sadhu Om: The Path
of Sri Ramana Part One. It is a little dogmatic in places but it covers
all the basic points well. Self-inquiry is a bit like swimming or riding
a bicycle. You don't learn it from books. You learn it by doing it again
and again till you get it right.
RS: Could you briefly describe what your life has been like in
Tiruvannamalai? What work have you done at Sri Ramanasramam?
DG: I spent my first eighteen months just meditating, practicing
self-inquiry, and occasionally walking round Arunachala. In 1978 I began
to do voluntary work for Sri
Ramanasramam. I looked after their library
from 1978 to 1985, edited their magazine for a short period of time, and
from 1985 onwards did research for my various books. In the later 1980s
and early 90s I also devoted a considerable amount of time to looking
after Lakshmana Swamy and Saradamma's garden. They bought land in
Tiruvannamalai in 1988 and I ended up helping to develop it. In 1993 I
went to Lucknow and spent four years with Papaji, where I wrote Nothing
Ever Happened. Since my return to Tiruvannamalai in 1997 I have been
writing and researching new books on Ramana.
RS: How have you supported yourself in India all these years?
DG: I didn't. Grace supported me. I have found that if you give all
your time to God and his work, then he looks after you. I came here with
$500 in 1976. I didn't earn money for twenty years, but I always had
enough to live on. Until I left Lucknow I gave the proceeds from all my
books to the various organisations that supported me while I was writing
When I first came to Arunachala I fell in love with the place and
wanted to stay as long as I could. I knew I didn't have much money, but
I wanted to make it last as long as possible. There was a meter ticking
away in my head: I have so much money, I am spending so much per day,
and that means I have so many more days here. Those numbers, those
equations were there all the time. Then, one day, as I was doing
pradakshina of Arunachala, it all dropped away. It wasn't a mental
decision. I stopped walking, turned, and faced the hill. I knew in that
moment that whatever power had brought me here would keep me here until
its purpose was finished, and that when it was time to go, it wouldn't
matter if I was a millionaire or not, I would have to leave. From then
on I stopped caring about money. In the period that I was worrying about
money, all I did was spend. When I stopped caring, complete strangers
would come up to me and give me money. Whenever I needed money, money
just appeared out of nowhere.
RS: Can you give me an example of how this worked?
DG: 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
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