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Ramana Maharshi

Meher Baba and Dr Brunton

By Charles Purdom, Meher Baba, Paul Brunton, Ramana Maharshi

Meher Baba, 1930; Paul Brunton in India

Paul Brunton wrote the book called A Search in Secret India (1934). This became a bestseller. Reprints were eventually adorned with the credential of Dr. Paul Brunton. The British author became regarded by many as an authority on Indian religion. 
I have talked with people who are under the impression that Secret India is a reliable document. Any suggestion to the contrary can be met with incredulity and outright denial.
In my early years, I met two persons of a literary ability who were able to analyse Secret India, though in different ways. The first was a teacher of English (at Cambridge) who found Brunton’s style deficient, a style which he associated with low grade journalism as distinct from scholarship. Indeed, he laughed at some phraseology he found. This academic was nevertheless inclined to believe a popular view that the contents were accurate, because of the doctoral status claimed. 
The other analyst had actually met Paul Brunton (1898-1981). This critic denied the validity of Secret India in relation to Meher Baba. Charles Purdom (d.1965) was a literary man who had daringly ventured into biography of Meher Baba, despite the relatively marginal Western interest in his day. Purdom wrote that Brunton, “then known as Raphael Hirsch, came to see me in London some time after his visit” to the ashrams of Meher Baba. On that occasion, Brunton “said he had no doubt [Meher] Baba was false, as he, Raphael Hirsch, had asked him to perform a miracle but Baba could not” (Purdom 1964:128).
In brief, Purdom had deduced that restraint from performance of a “miracle” is no proof of falsity. On the contrary, he believed that Brunton’s attitude was confused and misleading. Purdom was also very sceptical of the  doctoral status advertised by Brunton’s publisher. The background of the Ph.D. credential proved exasperatingly obscure.
Purdom was a follower of  Meher Baba, very closely acquainted with how that entity lived and taught. He early wrote a biography, published in 1937, that was overshadowed by Brunton’s commercial “Secret.” Purdom’s book is today cited by commentators who can discern that he was attempting an objective report of his subject. The sub-title is The Life of Shri Meher Baba, revealing the idiom in which the subject was then known. 
Many years ago, I researched the Brunton problem, discovering materials that Brunton had omitted from his book. The missing data, and loss of context, invalidate Brunton’s report of Meher Baba to a very substantial extent. 
Secret India is noted for a rejection of Meher Baba (1894-1969) in favour of Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). Both of these figures are now famous twentieth century mystics, associated with rather different teachings. There is no indication that Brunton actually understood the teaching of Meher Baba; however, he did assimilate Vedantic emphases of Ramana. Indeed, to such an extent that he eventually became notorious as a plagiarist, with the consequence that he was banned from the ashram of the Advaita sage in 1939. 
Paul Brunton can scarcely be gauged without reference to his background in Western occultism. During the 1920s, he was part of the avant garde “bohemian” scene in London, strongly influenced by Theosophy and numerous “esoteric” trends, some of these so dubious that even the enthusiasts rejected them. Yoga was a fashion to which Brunton became very partial. The subject of Yogic siddhis (powers) excited Western occultists. Brunton believed that he himself early gained occult powers and abilities. According to his own report, he was able to miraculously extinguish lighting at the lecture hall of an opponent. 
Brunton’s business as a “freelance journalist” failed in 1929. The following year, he travelled to India as an enthusiastic follower of Shri Meher Baba. He visited two ashrams of the latter, and in between, he undertook a tour of various places at the instruction of Meher Baba. At Madras he ventured a public declaration of his purportedly “telepathic” experiences concerning Meher Baba. In a subsequent letter sent from Calcutta to his inspirer, Brunton mentioned that he was looking forward to “receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands.”
These are some of the realistic details. A major problem for unwary readers is that Brunton, in his bestselling book Secret India, omits crucial reference to the context. Presented instead is a deceptive narrative in which Brunton was a sceptical enquirer; he demeans the two non-Hindu ashrams he visited, writing as if he conducted the tour of his own volition, with the objective of visiting Yogis possessing hermetic knowledge. Relevant documentation is scrupulously missing. Brunton’s travelogue is undated, assisting the impression of a lengthy search in “secret India” that actually lasted only a few months. Brunton also supplied a very misleading description of Meher Baba’s facial appearance. 
As a consequence of these varied flaws, the book A Search in Secret India cannot be taken seriously as an accurate report, only as a testimony to what can go wrong in accounts deriving from pique and attendant emotions of a suspect nature.
I contributed a book including a confrontation with the Brunton problem. Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988) was the first published account to divulge what Brunton omitted, and to reconstruct what really happened. The responses were mixed. Some followers of Brunton were prepared to concede that he had made a mistake in his assessment. However, they were unable to accept the overall implications, instead affirming that Brunton’s lengthy Notebooks of a later period were a redeeming feature. 
Some American devotees of Meher Baba unofficially banned Iranian Liberal because of some (relatively mild) criticisms of their own spokesmen (I am not a devotee of Meher Baba). They consigned to oblivion the only published account vindicating the reputation of their own figurehead in the face of “Secret India” opportunism. 
Very briefly, Paul Brunton effectively associated Meher Baba with Yoga, together with the desired powers and experiences that he was so fixated upon. Meher Baba was not in fact a Hindu and never taught Yoga; he was an Irani Zoroastrian with a teaching sometimes described as eclectic. Meher Baba was opposed to any occultist pursuit of siddhis. In his early years he wore his hair long; this trait doubtless assisted certain “hermetic Yogi” impressions in Brunton’s mind. The visitor wanted “spiritual” experiences; he triumphantly aired his telepathic prowess. Telepathy is a Yogic power, as Brunton knew very well. For reasons that are not too difficult to fathom, the Irani mystic disconcerted the expectations. 
The frustrated British occultist chose to depict his former host and inspirer as an obsessive messiah figure who promised him powers, but could not supply them. The Irani is made to look so ridiculous that readers are led to believe he was a hopeless fraud. That version of events made Paul Brunton, in commercial estimation, the great British critic of Secret India. 
The popular writer produced further books such as A Search in Secret Egypt and The Secret Path. These confirmed to critics that Western occultism is not basically secretive, whatever the mysteries proclaimed; the secrets exist to be disclosed or advertised, and perhaps even exploited. In this trend, the supposed adept of Vedanta eventually wrote The Hidden Teaching beyond Yoga (1941), a book including controversial criticisms of Ramana Maharshi, from whose ashram he had been banned. 
Followers of Brunton have celebrated his association, in the late 1930s, with the milieu of Krishnaraja Wadiyar (d.1940), the Maharaja of Mysore. At the court of this royal celebrity, Brunton gained servants and material assistance. His new counter-ideal to Ramana was apparently the Maharaja, whose family derived support from British colonial power. The Maharaja favoured industry and technology. A tutor of the Maharaja was Subrahmanya Iyer, a neo-Vedantin brahman associated with modernist ideas and Western philosophy. In the company of Iyer, Brunton represented for partisans a new Plato at the court of a philosopher king, dispensing The Wisdom of the Overself (1943). This doctrine has elsewhere been considered eccentrically mentalist, with elements of Theosophy implied. 
A major drawback, in critical estimation, is that the Wisdom teacher opted to claim a Ph.D, enthusiastically advertised by Rider and Company. Brunton’s books were now unassailable, in commercial theory at least. The lofty credential was subsequently revealed to be a deception. When pinned down on the issue, Brunton claimed a Ph.D. from Roosevelt University in Chicago. No record of this credential could be found in university precincts (Masson 1993:161-3).
A “doctoral” certificate later appeared online, dating to 1938. What Brunton actually acquired was a spurious degree from a very commercial correspondence school, on the basis of a short book lacking annotations. This “school” was launched by McKinley-Roosevelt Incorporated, not Roosevelt University. The corporate name of McKinley-Roosevelt University was a rank deception. None of the commercial staff were qualified to teach the numerous subjects for which they received payment from clients like Brunton. The devious and unscrupulous enterprise had to be closed down by the American government in 1947. The superficial tag of Dr. Paul Brunton is meaningless in the academic sense, fitting only the make-believe scenario of  fashionable occultism and mentalism.

This presumed esotericist and hermetic philosopher also claimed to reach the end of the spiritual path. At one point, Brunton even called himself Jupiter Rex, signifying king of all the gods. His American secretary defected, becoming a follower of Meher Baba, who claimed the non-academic status of avatar (a Hindu word) from 1954 onwards. The Irani mystic is not associated with royal courts, technology, the British Raj, or Theosophy. He might nevertheless be relevant for study, a consideration which is perhaps even a necessity for the British sector as a foil to Brunton’s caricature. The literature on Meher Baba is now extensive; the primary sources do not include A Search in Secret India.
Bibliography at website article.
Bibliography of Works Cited Above
Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).
——–The Hidden teaching Beyond Yoga (London: Rider, 1941).
——–The Wisdom of the Overself (London: Rider, 1943).
Masson, Jeffrey, My Father’s Guru: A Journey through Spirituality and Disillusion (London: HarperCollins, 1993).
Purdom, Charles, The Perfect Master: The Life of Shri Meher Baba (London: Williams and Norgate, 1937).
——–The God-Man: The life, journeys and work of Meher Baba with an interpretation of his silence and spiritual teaching (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988). 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 61
Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Ramana Maharshi

By Advaita Vedanta, Paul Brunton, Ramana Maharshi, Ramanashram

Ramana Maharshi

A version of Advaita Vedanta was taught by Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). Report of him was pioneered in India by Narasimhaswami, and in the West by Arthur Osborne and others. Ramana was subsequently assimilated to some controversial American versions of Nondualism. The Western “neo-Advaita” has aroused scepticism.

Ramana was the son of a brahman (a member of the Hindu priestly caste) who worked as a lawyer at Tiruchuzi, a village in the Tamil sector of South India. His real name was Venkataraman Iyer. After his father’s death, some of his relatives moved to Madurai, a city in Tamil Nadu. Here in 1896, while still sixteen, Ramana underwent an experience variously described in terms of “awakening” or “death.” The belief subsequently developed that he gained “enlightenment” or “realisation” at this time. Another phrase used is “sudden liberation.” Different accounts exist of this episode, together with fragmentary reminiscences of Ramana himself in much later years. “There are many interpretations of Ramana’s teaching, and of the nature of Ramana’s enlightenment experience itself” (Friesen 2006:2).

Caution is required. “Later followers subsequently rationalised this event as a sadhana [spiritual discipline] which lasted half an hour and was completed on the spot. They wanted to believe that he [Ramana] had gained the ultimate realisation known as sahaja samadhi in this brief period of awakening, though he himself did not say that” (Shepherd 2004:153).

In an early biography, B. V. Narasimhaswami  reported that divergent interpretations of this Tamil Advaitin were current: “He speaks little and only as to what is asked. His works are cryptic and are capable of diverse interpretations. Shaktas go to him and think he is a Shakta. Shaivas take him for a Shaiva. ShriVaishnavas find nothing in him inconsistent with their Vishishtadvaita ideal. Muslims and Christians have found in him elements of their ‘true faith’ ” (Narasimhaswami 1931:197-198).

According to Dr. Friesen, Ramana was influenced by Tantra and neo-Hinduism, also Christianity. “Ramana should not be regarded as a traditional advaitic sage” (Friesen 2006:5). This theme has been strongly resisted by partisans of Ramana, who urge that his “realisation” is the sole gauge for his teaching.

Ramana did have some previous knowledge of meditation prior to his experience as a 16 year old, and he derived his teaching of Self-Enquiry from books that he read before he wrote any of his own. Even more importantly, Ramana did not himself have the certainty at the age of 16 that his experience was permanent. And he later disputed the necessity of a state of trance for enlightenment. (Friesen 2005:37-38)

Narasimhaswami supplied a description of the 1896 “death” episode, implying a  sadhana of control on the part of the subject. Ramana actually said: “The fact is, I did nothing.” The influential version of Narasimhaswami resorts to the first person “I” in statements attributed to Ramana. However, the author does acknowledge his innovation by informing: “The exact words have not been recorded.”

Ramana retrospectively referred to his “absorption in the Self [atman].” There is the complexity that he also described his “awakening” in terms of possession, apparently his early reaction to the experience, which he conveyed to his first biographer Narasimhaswami (David Godman, Life and Teachings).

The “awakening” occurred at Madurai, where Ramana was afterwards in the habit of visiting the Meenakshi temple, associated with Shiva-bhakti and the sixty-three Shaiva Tamil saints of the nayanmar tradition. “After the Awakening I went there [to the temple] almost every evening” (Osborne 1954:23). He had read a book (the Periya Puranam) on those saints which inspired him. In his later life, he acknowledged the significance of bhakti (love, aspiration), which is something quite different to the Advaita doctrines. Indeed, his own report states, of his continuing visits to the Meenakshi temple (after his “awakening”), that he would sometimes pray for the descent of divine grace “so that my devotion [bhakti] might increase and become perpetual like that of the sixty-three saints” (Osborne 1954:23). This is not the language of Advaita, contradicting the much later devotee insistence upon an immediate non-dual “enlightenment.”

At the end of August 1896, Ramana experienced “a deep state of absorption in the Self” to quote a popular online version. He soon left home, journeying north to the pilgrim town of Tiruvannamalai, there staying in temple precincts while subject to an abstracted state. He eventually settled in caves at nearby Arunachala Hill, strongly associated with the deity Shiva. The basic feature of that early period is one of acute introspection. He was no longer a brahman, having jettisoned the sacred thread signifying caste status. He was now an ascetic sadhu wearing a loin-cloth, not the ochre robe of Vedantic renunciates. Ramana was not an official Vedantin or sannyasin.

Devoted attendants saw to his simple needs and protected him from intrusions, diverting unwanted sightseers who thronged the pilgrim locale of Arunachala. At first, his introspection was so acute that food had to be pressed into his mouth for the purpose of keeping him alive. Afterwards, he is reported to have accepted only a single cup of food daily; he was accordingly emaciated. For years (until circa 1906) he would not speak to visitors. Indeed, he is reported to have lost his ability to speak normally until that juncture. A different kind of problem was jealous sadhus, local holy men who resented his increasing fame.

A visiting group of sadhus expressed an extremist belief that their own distant sacred hill was home to a rishi who had been practising austerities for thousands of years. This entity had purportedly told them to abduct Ramana for initiation, after dramatically preparing him for the attainment of occult powers or siddhis. “Whether hemp addicts or alcoholics (or both), they evidently entertained some of the more fantastic and predatory ideas associated with Tantric Yoga” (Shepherd 2004:155). Ramana is reported to have made no response to these visitors; he never expressed esteem for siddhis, which are an unhealthy preoccupation.

Ramana was reputed to be in samadhi, signifying spiritual absorption; the word samadhi comprises a diffuse blanket term in popular usage. The basic event discernible is that Ramana emerged from this absorption over a lengthy period, gradually normalising in his response to the outside world (while retaining his spiritual awareness, according to his own account). “At some obscure date he began to walk about the hill instead of sitting motionless” (ibid:154). He would refer to himself as a jnani (knower), not as a Yogi. Ramana warned about the pursuit of siddhis. He was averse to Yogic exercises, which he evidently viewed as a complication.

Ramana Maharshi at Arunachala

In 1922 he moved down to the foot of Arunachala Hill, taking up residence at the site which became known as Ramanashram. By 1926, the increasing crowd of visitors and devotees was sufficiently large to hinder his customary daily walk around the hill, which thereafter ceased, apparently because nobody wanted to stay behind at the ashram without him.

The concession to public spotlight, at an ashram, was accompanied by some unusual characteristics. Ramana retained a very simple lifestyle. He did not refuse visitors, but could seem indifferent to company. His statements tended to brevity; he seems to have abbreviated his jnani emphases if he considered that the audience was uncomprehending. Preferring informal conversation, he was notably averse to giving initiations, an accepted part of the popular Hindu spirituality.

Ramana was often requested by admirers for permission to adopt the life of renunciation. He generally opposed this desire, a persistent trait which caused puzzlement. According to him, the effort needed was internal, and nothing to do with the formal vow of sannyas (renunciation). He evidently regarded many of the renunciates as distracting sources of misinformation. 

He favoured the discipline of vichara (self-inquiry), which he advocated to many visitors in the spirit of Advaita (non-dualism). He disliked the customary expositions of Vedanta associated with pundits, who exercised a rote learning of scriptures. Ramana was completely independent of organisations like the Shankara Order.

Vichara is viewed as an innovative feature of his communications, relating to the “realisation of the Self,” a Vedantic theme prone to abuse and facile interpretation. The protractedly introverted and normalising “realisation” of Ramana, in his early years, contrasts with glib assumptions about achieving “Nondualism” and “Self-realisation.” Those contractions are frequently encountered in both India and the West. The fantasised “short cut” is not convincing to some analysts, though very appealing to overnight gurus. The facile scenario of effortless enlightenment is well known in relation to the American guru Andrew Cohen. Ramana’s emphasis on the constant practice of self-enquiry is often abbreviated to slogans like “Be as you are,” singularly convenient for exploiters. Related mantras have become pervasive in the “new age” of commercial mysticism.

A lop-sided view of Ramana Maharshi in his later years, as an abstracted contemplative, has been corrected by partisan writer David Godman. Ramana industriously prepared food at his ashram for about 15 years; he also closely supervised building work during the 1930s. He was evidently not too keen about having to sit in the audience (darshan) hall where he received all visitors; he often referred to that hall as his prison.

Although an unusual teacher (and one who did not describe himself as a guru), Ramana was not venturesome in the area of social reform. According to a well known commentator, he “did not disapprove of orthodoxy in general” (Osborne 1954:77). Ramana certainly did not condemn caste norms, which were reflected to some extent in the emerging ashram management run on conservative lines. The leader of management staff was his brother, a renunciate who wore the traditional ochre robe. The increasing number of visitors, during the 1940s, imposed changes, including the building of a new and more imposing audience hall to which the sage was averse.

“A brahman code prevailed in the kitchens, where only brahmans could prepare the food” (Shepherd 2004:156). However, free food was dispensed to sadhus and the poor on a daily basis. The formalism of management officials is reported to have been resented by visiting devotees; there was even a request that the management be removed (Osborne 1954:120).

The ashram dining hall was partitioned, the orthodox brahmans sitting to one side, while on the other side sat the lower castes, non-Hindus, and liberal brahmans. “Sri Bhagavan [Ramana] says nothing to induce Brahmins either to retain or discard their orthodoxy” (Osborne 1954:133). Nevertheless, “he often turned a blind eye when devotees violated caste rules” (Godman, Bhagavan the Atiasrami). His perspective is described in terms of: “He had no opinions on these scripted events [occurring in the world], and no desire to change their course” (Godman, Bhagavan and Politics).

This situation can easily disappoint. However, Ramana did make certain gestures in defiance of caste biases. During the daily recitation known as Veda parayana, he allowed all visitors to attend. This was “a flagrant violation of caste rules,” because only the higher castes were entitled to hear scriptural chants. Ramana ignored related complaints from high caste persons. A visitor from North India once disapprovingly confronted him on this issue. Ramana “curtly told him to sit down and mind his own business” (Godman, Atiasrami, linked above).

In some of his statements, Ramana appeared to endorse the political career of his contrasting contemporary Mahatma Gandhi. These two entities never met. Untouchables (Dalits) were not allowed into Hindu temples, including the strongly resistant Shiva temple at Tiruvannamalai. Gandhi attempted to change the conventional high caste attitude. He was murdered by a brahman assassin.

After the death of Ramana Maharshi, the belief developed amongst devotees that the saint “guides whoever approaches him” (Osborne 1954:194). Such beliefs about posthumous guidance are also found in relation to other deceased Indian saints like Sai Baba of Shirdi. Hagiography easily accumulates in such climates of expectancy.

“Current Western gurus, influenced by the Ramanashram, have insisted that vichara (self-enquiry) is the ideal approach for all seekers” (Upasani Maharaj and Ramana Maharshi). This contention is not universally agreed upon. The popular Advaita movement in the West has favoured a notion that atma-bodha is “directly experienced by everyone,” a contradiction to the effort mentioned elsewhere. Be as you are, thoroughly lazy and needing improvement. The commercial network urges that everyone is a jnani, a simplistic belief very convenient for predatory gurus. The misleading tide of “nondualism” literature has done nothing to create discernment. 

Paul Brunton in India, 1930s

Ramana has been credited with a unique teaching, a theme disputed by others. Adding to confusions was Paul Brunton (1898-1981), a British occultist whose commercial books became famous. There are partisans of Brunton who extol his spiritual connection with Ramana; the evidence confirms something less exemplary.

Brunton early joined the Theosophical Society, from which he later parted company. However, strong Theosophical influences are discernible in his output, along with other related currents of the middle class British “esotericism” of the 1920s. Brunton claimed powers of clairvoyance and clairaudience, including astral travel. He composed numerous articles for the enthusiast periodical Occult Review. The British occultist became fixated on the siddhis (powers) of Yoga, including telepathy. “It seems that one of Brunton’s disappointments with Ramana was that Ramana did not impart more special powers to him” (Friesen 2005:17).

Brunton (then Raphael Hurst) visited the ashram of Ramana for two weeks in January 1931. He moved on to see other teachers and celebrities. After making a second visit to Ramana, he returned to England. Brunton believed that he had experienced samadhi for an hour at Ramanasramam. Yet Ramana himself seemed critical of the account found in Brunton’s A Search in Secret India (Friesen 2005:20). That book is notorious for omissions and misreporting (Shepherd 1988:146-176). The British writer made a “later confession that he used Ramana as a ‘peg’ for his own ideas” (Friesen 2005:22).

Frederick Fletcher, alias Bhikku Prajnananda

In Secret India, Brunton wrote as though he were an objective and critical narrator. Analysis of the underlying situation reveals strong Theosophical, British occult, and Yoga influences upon the astral traveller. His tangible travelling companion in India was Frederick Fletcher (born 1877), an Englishman who had become a Theravada Buddhist monk, assuming the name Bhikku Prajnananda. Fletcher was a fellow ex-Theosophist whom Brunton had met in London years earlier. The monk acted as a guide for Brunton and introduced him to Ramana (whom Fletcher respected). Brunton could not speak any Indian language.

As a consequence of his later story told to a press reporter, Fletcher gained celebrity as the Buddhist adept who had lived for a year (in 1922) at the major Tibetan Mahayana monastery near Shigatse (“British Major, Buddhist Monk,” The Age, December 1941). The report is revealed as being exaggerated. In reality, Fletcher was part of a small British scientific expedition to Tibet, having the role of a geologist and transport officer. 

Fletcher invented Theosophical auspices for his secular expedition. The misleading title of Lama Dorje Prajnananda is associated with him. He was supposedly ordained as a Gelukpa novice at Shigatse. If so, he subsequently returned to Ceylon in 1924 (or later), where he took the ordination of bhikku in a Theravada community. A Sergeant-Major in the British army during World War One, he had been upset by the suffering he witnessed, gaining incentive to renounce the world. He subsequently established an “English ashram” at Rangoon in Burma (the details are very vague).

Bhikku Prajnananda is typically missing from Secret India, despite being a major figure in the obscured cast. Brunton instead refers to this companion as a “yellow robed Yogi” named Subramanya (In Search of Brunton’s Secret). The impression was conveyed of an Indian Yogi. This identity switch was probably a result of Brunton’s preference for Yoga and siddhi auspices, anglicised Theravada being much less sensational (cf. Brunton 1934:117-18, 132-3). Nothing in Secret India can be accepted as the truth unless corroborated by other sources. The vaunted colonial esoteric expert was  very unreliable (in contrast, Fletcher did commit himself to a monastic discipline, unusual in such circles).

The foil to Brunton’s deception is found in another account of his first visit to Ramana. This relevant alternative identifies the companion as Fletcher, who founded “the English Ashrama in Rangoon.” The key report was published, in September 1931, by the Peace magazine of Swami Onkar’s Shanti Ashrama in Andhra (Friesen 2005:22-24). That was three years before the innovative Secret India appeared.

The supposed academic status of Dr. Paul Brunton has often been used to deflect criticism. The reality is not flattering. In 1938, he obtained a correspondence degree from a fraudulent diploma business in America created by McKinley-Roosevelt Incorporated. This enterprise was subject to government proscription, leading to  closure in 1947. Brunton’s spurious “doctoral degree” has no academic relevance whatever, being part of the commercial fantasy he projected. Many thousands of readers were deceived (including those at Ramanashram, or Ramanasramam). Brunton’s publisher Rider was tireless in broadcasting the impressive credential of Ph.D.

Ramana remained silent when introduced to Brunton and Fletcher (alias Subramanya) in 1931. Deceptions were created by Secret India. The suspect account of Brunton is embellished. “We have every reason to distrust what Brunton says, since he has admitted that he was only using Ramana for his preconceived ideas” (Friesen 2005:25). Another factor is urged:

Not only did Brunton interpret Ramana through his previous Theosophical ideas, but he in turn influenced Ramana and his disciples to interpret the [Advaita] experience in the same way. (Friesen 2005:46)

Brunton gave the impression that he achieved an enlightenment at Ramanasramam. His subsequent books do not confirm his pretension. He continued to be fascinated by occult powers or siddhis. His Search in Secret Egypt (1936) is a bizarre showcase of British neo-Theosophical speculation. For instance, Brunton believed that spiritual adepts from ancient Egypt were still alive in their tombs via a fully conscious trance. He also evidently believed that occult masters with great powers existed in the Himalayas, an influential theme of Blavatsky. The Irani mystic Meher Baba (1894-1969) repudiated this theory in a conversation with Brunton: “You will find nothing but dust and stones in their supposed abodes” (Brunton 1934:60). This denial was probably one reason for Brunton’s hostility to the Irani in Secret India. Certainly, Meher Baba was wrongly depicted by the occultist as having a receding forehead indicative of deficient thinking (ibid:48).

Brunton became notorious as a plagiarist of Ramana. He was banned from Ramanasramam in March 1939, by the managerial brother of the Advaita sage, who resented the fact that Brunton had copied so many sayings of Ramana as his own. An elementary factor should be grasped: “Brunton’s philosophy is not nondual” (Friesen 2005:84). Brunton was a stranger to Advaita, a teaching he confused with Yogic powers.

The British occultist was evidently proud of his ESP achievements. He even stated, in a book, that he sent telepathic messages, instead of written replies, to some letters he received (Brunton 1937:65). He evidently  believed that he surpassed Ramana, expressing a public criticism of the Tamil sage in his book The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (1941). Brunton had now transcended Yoga and Ramana in his speculations on the Overself, a favoured term that was not a translation from Sanskrit. Brunton apparently derived this new European (and American) word from a 1932 book by Gottfried de Purucker, a leader of the Theosophical Society who was here expounding The Secret Doctrine of Madame Blavatsky (Friesen 2005:7-8).

Brunton’s book Wisdom of the Overself (1943), gaining several reprints, was one of those to display the credential of Ph.D. on the title page. He claimed that “hundreds of texts were examined in the effort to trace and collate basic ideas.” Another description used by the author reads:  “An exposition in such an ultra-modern form was until now quite non-existent.” Brunton even writes: “It would have been more self-flattering to parade the breadth of my learning by peppering both volumes with a thousand Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese quotations, names or words” (Brunton 1943:7ff; cf. Shepherd 1988:173-4). The phraseology could imply that Brunton was familiar with these languages.

A subsequent critic, Dr. Jeffrey Masson (having a Ph.D. in Sanskrit from Harvard), revealed that the bogus academic Brunton had no knowledge of Sanskrit or other Eastern languages. “He could not read the alphabet, any Indian alphabet, nor a single sentence in Sanskrit…. He was completely ignorant of the language” (Masson 1993:162). Many years later, in 1967, the occultist fraud was forlornly attempting to deceive a private gathering with his ruse of causing a heavy oak table to levitate. Brunton “was now nothing more than a charlatan, reduced to attempting carnival tricks for what he hoped would be a gullible audience” (Masson 1993:165).


Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).

——–A Search in Secret Egypt (London: Rider, 1936).

——–A Hermit in the Himalayas (London: Rider, 1937).

——–The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (London: Rider, 1941).

——–The Wisdom of the Overself (London: Rider, 1943).

Chadwick, A. W., A Sadhu’s Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi (1961; Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1994).

Friesen, J. Glenn, Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi (2005).

——–Ramana Maharshi: Hindu and Non-Hindu Interpretations of a Jivanmukta (2006, online).

Godman, David, ed., Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1985; Penguin, 1988).

——–An Introduction to Sri Ramana’s Life and Teachings.

Masson, Jeffrey, My Father’s Guru (London: HarperCollins, 1993).

Narasimhaswami, B. V., Self Realization:  Life and Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1931; fourth edn, Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 2002).

Osborne, Arthur, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge (London: Rider, 1954).

Osborne, Arthur, ed., Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi (London: Rider, 1959). 

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).

——–Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2004).

Venkataramiah, Munagala, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi (1955; Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 2003).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 24th 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 35

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