Much has been said about W. Somerset Maugham’s travels in India, especially in light of his theme on eastern mysticism in his novel The Razor’s Edge and his meeting with Sri Ramama Maharshi. Some of what has been presented has been accurate, some basically fabricated, some just plain wrong or untrue. Why so much myth and legend could have grown up over such a small thing is unclear. My effort here is to clarify some of the facts.
Maugham in “A Writer’s Notebook” cites 1938. In the essay “The Saint” published in his book “Points of View” he cites 1936. The person Maugham calls Major C. in “A Writer’s Notebook” is actually Major A. W. Chadwick. Chadwick wrote a book published in India titled “A Sadhu’s Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi” in which he states “In March 1939 Somerset Maugham came to the Ashram.” Mercedes De Acosta writes in her book Here Lies The Heart:
The Sage in Somerset Maugham’s book The Razor’s Edge is supposed to be Ramana Maharshi. It is possible that this is so as a few weeks before my visit to the ashram, Somerset Maugham had been there. I was told that an English author had come to see Bhagavan and had fainted when first coming into his presence. I asked his name but they did not know how to pronounce it. One of the disciples retired and came back with Somerset Maugham written on a piece of paper. A few years later I saw Mr. Maugham in New York and inquired if he had actually been to see the Maharshi. He said he had, but I did not feel I should trespass on a possible spiritual experience by asking if it was true that he had fainted.
De Acosta writes that Maugham visited the ashrama “…a few weeks before my visit…” She was there three days, November 22,23,24, 1938, giving the implication that Maugham was there late September to early November 1938. I have seen dates for Maugham being in India ranging from as early as 1933 to as late as 1940 with Maugham himself quoting both 1936 and 1938. If such inconsistencies are the case, then when was Maugham there?
Actually it is very easy to confirm. There are several personal handwritten and dated letters in Maugham Archives around the country composed by Maugham and mailed from India, for example to Sir William Rothenstein, Jan. 11, 1938 (Harvard); to Karl Pfeiffer, Feb 26, 1938 (U of Texas); etc., etc. Maugham’s itineary is fairly well documented if one ferrets out the information. He arrived in Bombay by ship in January 1938. On his 64th birthday, January 25, 1938 he was in Madura at the southern tip of India. From Madura he went north to Madras, then a few hours by car to Tiruvannamalai and the Ashrama. Then back to Madras and on to Hyderabad, Bidar, and Nagpur. By February 26, 1938 he was in Calcutta, then Benares, a short boat trip on the Ganges, then on to New Deli arriving there by March 15, 1938. He then returned to Bombay departing by ship to Naples, Italy March 31, 1938. Maugham never went back. World War II interupted any plans to do so and after the war the opportunity never re-presented itself.
The following excerpts are from ‘A
Sadhu’s Reminscences of Ramana Maharshi by Sadhu Arunachala
Publisher: Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai, 1961.
Alan Chadwick, a retired British military officer was one of the first European devotees of Ramana Maharshi. He came to his Guru in November of 1935 and stayed until Ramana’s passing in 1950 (April 14, 1950 at 8:47 p.m.). He had the remarkable experience of being intimate with Ramana on a daily basis which gives this book it’s unique insight into the day to day life of this great Sage of Inida.
Sadhu Arunachala passed away in April 1962.
In March 1939 Somerset Maugham came to the Ashram. Many accounts have been given on his visit and all of them different. As I was the principal person concerned in looking after him, I have decided to give my own version. He was brought to the Ashram by a friend of mine, Mrs. Austin, wife of the Collector of Madras. The party had fist gone to the Dak bungalow to take their lunch, but finding it full, had come on to the Ashram. They asked me if I cold find somewhere for them where they could have the meal they had brought with them. I arranged for one of the small rooms near my own. As I had already had my meal, at their request I sat and talked with them while they ate. Somerset Maugham asked innumberable questions about my lfe and the Ashram, apoligizing for his inquisitieness.
At the end of the meal, whic they had taken on the verandah with Somerset Maugham sitting more or less in the sun, he fainted. Many absurd stories were circulated to account for this; that he had seen Bhagavan and this was a state of Samadhi brought on by the meeting, and such like. Actually he had not seen Bhagavan at all. It was probably a slight sun-stroke, though he himself said that he had been liable to such black-outs occasionally since birth.
We carried him to my room and laid him on my bed. I then when to Bhagavan and told him what had happened and asked him, when he went out for his stroll at about 2 o’clock, to come to my room and see Somerset Maugham who was not unfit to come to the Hall, and Bhagavan agreed.
I met Bhagavan on the way and as we approached my room Somerset Maugham was just coming out. He said that he now felt better and was on his way to the Hall. told him to go back into the room and sit down as Bhagavan had come to him there instead. Bhagavan and Somerset Maugham sat opposite to each other for about half-an-hour without uttering a word. At the end of which Somerset Maugham looked nervously across in my direction and said, “Is there any need to say anything?” “No,” replied Bhagavan, “Silence is best. Silence is itself conversation.” After some further period Bhagavan turned to me and in his child-like way said, “I think I had better be going, they will be looking for me.” As no one in the Ashram knew where he had gone ecept the attendant who always accompanied him, this was correct. After Bhagavan had returned to the Hall the rest of the party remained in my room for tea. After tea, Somerset Maugham, who was wearing a large pair of boots, wanted to go to the Hall and see where Bhagavan usually lived. I took him to the western window through which he looked for some time with interest, making mental notes. He says in his indifferent and quite uninspired article “The Saint” published in a series of essays twenty years after the event, that he sat in the Hall in Bhagavan’s presence, but this is untrue, because he could not enter with his boots; he only gazed into the Hall for the outside. He has also tacked a certain amount of philosophy onto Bhagavan with Bhagavan could never have uttered in his life. But such is the habit of famous authors, to put their own opinions into the mouths of others.
PAUL BRUNTON: Gentle Sage (PDF file)
Items on or about Ramana Maharshi on Beezone
Talks With Ramana Maharshi | The Heart | Do Guru’s Feel Pain | Ramana’s Appearance | Chadwick’s First Darshan | Saints Turn Into Light | Somerset Maugham | Mercedes D’Acosta | Ramana’s Teaching According to Adi Da | Published from the Ashram | The Seer and The Seen | Mandukya Upanishad | Three States of Consciousness | The Five Great Elements | India and Peru | Ramana’s Will