When I see how my life has unfolded inevitably according to the circumstances of my family background, I cannot help but reflect upon the mysterious workings of destiny. I was born into a literary family and books and writing are in my blood, while the world of books was all about me as I grew up.
Upon both sides of the family, I was surrounded by writers, publishers and booksellers. My grandfather on my mother’s side was pre-eminent as a publisher of many of the leading authors of his day and was also a children’s story-teller.
Two of his sons followed in their father’s footsteps – and yet another son – my youngest uncle then living – became a bookseller. His young sister – my own mother – also opened her own successful bookshop and I have continued in the family tradition, working with my wife in the antiquarian book trade.
In 1944, the year before the end of the Second World War – and three years before I was born – a book was published in England, which by curious coincidence was to have considerable bearing on my own life. Entitled ‘The Razor’s Edge’, it was an inspiring novel about a young man’s quest for spiritual illumination in India.
The British author of this imaginative new work was William Somerset Maugham, one of the most popular and highly paid writers of his day. His publisher happened to be my grandfather, Charles Seddon Evans, the well-regarded Managing Director of William Heinemann, an independent London publishing house, then at the peak of its business fortunes.
Like many of Maugham’s works of fiction, this book – one of the most admired and successful of his career – was thinly disguised autobiography. It was the outcome of a journey the author made to South India in October 1938 where he met one of the most outstanding spiritual masters of the twentieth century. This was Sri Ramana Maharshi, who is still revered the world over as a great sage in the Indian Vedic tradition.
Maugham had a private audience with the Maharshi, who evidently made a deep impression on him. The meeting at the sage’s remote hermitage was a dramatic one. Maugham, possibly overcome by the tropical heat, fainted and Sri Ramana came to the room where he was staying and sat beside the Englishman until he recovered.
The Maharshi hardly spoke a word on this occasion – as was his way, he ministered to the author in gracious silence and Maugham never forgot the encounter. He was prompted to write this most vivid and convincing fictional account of the sage, by putting himself in the shoes of his main character – and using him as a mouthpiece for his own actual experience.
What is so remarkable as far as I am concerned is that just 30 years later, my brother and I found our way independently to the jungle ashram described by Maugham in his memorable novel – yet at the time we knew nothing of our tenuous family link with this great Indian spiritual teacher.
Sri Ramana himself was no longer alive when we both arrived at Sri Ramanasramam, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It was August 1969 and we had both travelled by train in the early morning from Madras – now known as Chennai. Bhagavan, as he was known, had passed away nearly 20 years earlier in April 1950, but in most other respects his ashram at the foot of the sacred hill, Arunachala, remained almost unchanged and many of his direct disciples were still resident there.
We were able to experience at first hand the extraordinary spiritual atmosphere, which had affected Maugham so deeply and which he had described so graphically for his countless readers in ‘The Razor’s Edge’.
At the time I was not aware of the book. When I finally did open it years later, I was surprised to find what a clear grasp Somerset Maugham seemed to have of Ramana’s essential teaching, which had attracted me so powerfully too in its direct immediacy.
‘What he taught was very simple,’ wrote the much-travelled English author about Ramana Maharshi with the acute powers of observation that belonged to his writer’s trade.
‘He taught that we are all greater than we know and that wisdom is the means to freedom. He taught that it is not essential to salvation to retire from the world, but only to renounce the self. He taught that work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and that duties are opportunities afforded to man to sink his separate self and become one with the universal self.
‘But it wasn’t his teaching, that was so remarkable – it was the man himself, his benignity, his greatness of soul, his saintliness. His presence was a benediction. I was very happy with him.’
These are the words of the fictional character named Larry Darrell – a young pilot seeking peace and resolution to his anguished questioning about the meaning of life, following his harrowing service in the First World War.
Yet Larry’s sober reflections ring true as greater than fiction and stand out from the narrative as particularly authentic. Clearly it is really Maugham speaking here from his own depths of conviction.
For my part, I find it amazing to consider how this Indian sage, who moved my grandfather’s celebrated English author so profoundly, has also been the focus and mainstay of my own spiritual quest. I never met Maugham, but my mother knew him as a child. I also never had the chance of coming before the Maharshi of course, for he died when I was only a three-year-old back in England. Nevertheless, the greater part of my life has been infolded by his intangible influence for good.
What more can I say? Everything in this world of manifestation is inter-related and I do not believe there is any such thing as coincidence. The origin of our individual lives and circumstances will always remain a mystery – but I am convinced that nothing happens without a reason.
Quiet Courage of the Inner Light
An excerpt from ‘Quiet Courage of the Inner Light’ by Philip Pegler
The world is evidently in crisis – and it is above all an existential crisis of perception. It constitutes a kind of entrenched misunderstanding, related to widespread confusion about human consciousness and identity, the true nature of which has not yet been apprehended by mainstream society.
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