4 July 2010

Interview with David Godman

With the kind permission of David Godman, below is an abridged extract from an interview with him conducted by Rob Sacks. David Godman is regarded as the foremost living authority on the life and teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi and has written and edited a number of books in this respect.

“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.

David Godman, Tiruvannamalai June 2010

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 Pounds 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 Pounds. I came to India, expecting to stay six weeks, and have been here more or less ever since.”


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 place.

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.

Arunachala brought me here in the same way it brought Ramana here. And it has kept me here for most of the last 25 years. I have occasionally left to be with teachers in other places: Nisargadatta Maharaj in Bombay, Lakshmana Swamy in Andhra Pradesh, Papaji in Lucknow, but Arunachala has always brought me back here afterwards. It's my spiritual center of gravity. I can make an effort to be somewhere else if I feel I would spiritually benefit from it, but when I stop making that effort, the natural pull of Arunachala brings me back here again. It's the only place in the world that I feel truly at home.

Arunachala has been attracting people for well over 1,500 years. Ramana liked to quote a saint of about 500 years ago who wrote in one of his verses, "Arunachala, you draw to yourself all those who are rich in jnana tapas." Jnana tapas can be translated as the extreme efforts made by those who are in search of liberation.

There are dozens of teachers nowadays who tour the world touting their experiences and their teachings. Many of them trace their lineage back to Ramana Maharshi via Papaji. And where did Ramana Maharshi's power and authority come from? From Arunachala, his own Guru and God. He explicitly stated that it was the power of Arunachala that brought about his own Self-realization. He wrote poems extolling its greatness, and in the last 54 years of his life, he never moved more than a mile and a half away from its base. So, it is the power of Arunachala that is the true source of the power that now appears as "advaita messengers" all over the world.

For me, this is the world's great power spot. Arunachala has brought about the liberation of several advanced seekers in the past few centuries, and its radiant power remains even today as a beacon for those who want to find out who they really are.

If you ask people, ‘What are Sri Ramana’s teachings?’ who have become acquainted with his life and work, you might get several answers such as "advaita" or "self-inquiry." I don't think Sri Ramana's teachings were either a belief system or a philosophy, such as advaita, or a practice, such as self-inquiry.

Sri Ramana himself would say that his principal teaching was silence, by which he meant the wordless radiation of power and grace that he emanated all the time. The words he spoke, he said, were for the people who didn't understand these real teachings. Everything he said was therefore a kind of second-level teaching for people who were incapable of dissolving their sense of "I" in his powerful presence. You may understand his words, or at least think that you do, but if you think that these words constitute his teachings, then you have really misunderstood him.

I have come to the conclusion that Bhagavan brought me to Tiruvannamalai to write about him and his disciples. I have learned this the hard way. I went back to England twenty years ago, hoping to earn enough money to come back to India and not do any work here. Nobody was willing to hire me to do anything. I even flunked an interview for picking up litter in the London zoo. But as soon as I had the idea of writing a book about Bhagavan, everything fell into place. Though I had never written anything in my life, I was given a contract by a major publisher and sent back to India to write about him. That's how, ‘Be As You Are’ came into existence.

Whenever I do work on Bhagavan or his disciples, everything goes well. Whenever I try to do something else, so many problems come up, nothing ever gets accomplished or completed.

Having learned this from experience, I have now surrendered to this destiny. I enjoy the work, and many, many people seem to appreciate the books. I asked Papaji years ago whether writing all these books on Bhagavan was a distraction for the mind.

He replied, "Any association with Bhagavan is a blessing." I took that as an instruction to carry on with the work.”

To read more about David Godman and to view a list of his published works, please visit his website at:


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful article featuring David Godman. This has been your most interesting posting to date.

Anonymous said...

Very nice..

BTW, the truth about arunachala seems very true. A recent work by the Goce satellite shows that gravitational forces are not uniform at all places and south india has a particularly different level from the rest of the world.


Meenakshi Ammal said...

Thanks for sending the link regarding discoveries of the gravitational differences on the earth’s surface. It will be fascinating to follow the progress of the findings of the GOCE project over the coming years.

If you are interested in finding out more about theories of what makes a place sacred, you might like to check out a fascinating narrative by Martin Gray who is author of the popular website http://www.sacredsites.com

His narrative starts: What Makes a Place Sacred?

”Thus far I've recognized 20 distinct factors that contribute to the localized energy fields of sacred sites. Those can be divided into three main categories: influences of the Earth; influences of the structures that humans have built at the sacred sites; and influences caused by the accumulated power of focused human intention.

The first main category—Earth influences—relates to the geophysical characteristics of the sacred sites, including localized magnetism, radioactivity, geothermal activity, the presence of underground water, ionization, and ultrasound. The aesthetic qualities of the sacred sites can also be included in this category. Beautiful and unusual surroundings have always had transformative effects on humans . . . “

To continue reading go to link:


Om Prakash said...

We have been devotees of Bhagavan for a few years. Recently my brother had occasion to meet Mr Godman and it was a fantastic spiritual experience for him. I hope to meet David and learn from him.
Dr Om Prakash, Bangalore