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 Ramana 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, in her book Here Lies The Heart, speaking of the Sage Maugham calls Shri Ganesha in his novel, writes:
"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 Ramana ashrama 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."(see)
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 handwritten and/or typed and dated letters in Maugham or Maugham related archives around the country composed by him personally and mailed from India. For example, one to Sir William Rothenstein, January 11, 1938 (Harvard); to Karl Pfeiffer, February 26, 1938 (U of Texas); etc., etc. It doesn't matter what date Chadwick wrote in "A Sadhu's Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi" in which he states "in March 1939" Maugham was in India, or Maugham himself in the essay "The Saint" from his book "Points of View" citing 1936, both dates are not only incorrect, but inconsistent to each other. To cite either as proof when Maugham was in India is to continue to create a long running falshood. In my research on Maugham, Ramana, and The Razor's edge I have personally seen, held and read both letters mentioned above and both have clearly been mailed from India, postmarked and/or dated in 1938 --- again the letter to Rothenstein January 11, 1938 and the one to Karl Pfeiffer February 26, 1938. Those letters, along with many others are in legitimate university archives and available (sometimes with restrictions) to any serious Maugham researcher. It is not likely that Maugham, in writing casual letters to friends or cohorts while in India would put dates written or typed in his own hand on the letters that were not accurate.
Maugham's itinerary 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 being entertained in a visit to Shi Nisargadatta Maharaj, a disciple of and one of two major followers of, the greatest of the "unknown" Indian sages, Shri Sadguru Siddharameshwar Maharaj. Siddharameshwar had died in 1936, a year and a half before Maugham arrived in India. Maugham, always the consummate researcher, had hoped to meet both of the Sadguru's major disciples, Sri Nisargadatta and, especially so, Sri Ranjit Maharaj because of a connection known by Ranjit that existed between Siddharameshwar and the person Maugham was to write about in his novel The Razor's Edge, a connection known as Vihangam Marg (the birds' way). A meeting with Sri Ranjit was not to be. However, the writer did meet with Nisargadatta several times in and around his smoke shop that marketed bidis, a handmade country cigarette he sold for a living. Although I never met Nisargadatta, in an interesting turn of events, I did in fact meet his designated successor, a long time Nisargadatta follower and one time Sri Ramana devotee, an American woman named Jean Dunn. On March 31, 1938, after three months on the Indian sub-continent, Maugham departed India by ship to Naples, Italy. He never went back. World War II interrupted any plans to do so and after the war the opportunity never re-presented itself.
When in comes to Maugham in India, and while there visiting the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, there are two camps of writers. One camp focuses on Maugham generally and includes his visit to India and seeing the Maharshi, the other camp focuses on Ramana as the main topic and includes Maugham's visit as a sideline.
There must be two dozen or more published biographies available on Maugham in the first camp, some written by people that knew him personally, some researched from the afore mentioned university collections, and some from personal interviews with family and friends. Some biographies simply used each other as their sources, and of which if thus done in such a manner, a gradual degrading of accurate information occurs. Although a small thread of truth runs through all of them relative to Maugham's trip to India and his visit with the Maharshi, for the most part they are all over the map. In the second camp, except possibly for Arthur Osborne, the father of Adam Osborne, Adam being a childhood friend of mine I ran around with at the Ramana ashram as a kid, David Godman is perhaps the most respected and foremost author on things Ramana. He invariably presents the most thorough research, backup, and accuracy in his works and has one of the best pages on the net regarding the meeting between Maugham and Ramana. Before Godman completely revamped his article into an engaging, new, and updated format, an article which he expounds on the meeting between the Maharshi and Maugham, Godman had only one click through link on his page to another page and that one link was to my page on who Larry Darrell was in real life and what happened to him post novel as linked at the bottom of the page.
There is a massive 1749 page two volume book set titled "Ashrams of India" that explores over 500 ashrams, temples, and other significant sites of eastern religious and spiritual interest located throughout the Indian sub-continent. The compilers have backed up their explorations with reems of classical, historical, and recent background information. In a section regarding westerners known to have historically visited the ashram of the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi the following is presented:
"(S)ometime in the late 1920s a young traveller from America bumped into Swami Ramdas one night at the Meenakshi Temple in Madura, the two of them had previously met in the caves of Elephanta three years earlier. The young American would eventually gain fame, albeit anonymously, in W. Somerset Maugham's 1944 novel The Razor's Edge. Given the name Larry Darrell by Maugham in the book, that same American, in real life following the advice of Ramdas, went to see Ramana Maharshi. Through the grace and light of the Maharshi, the anonymous American awakened to the absolute."
Not so much the contents of this page per se,' but me being a tad bit more controversial than possibly being associated with now days re Ramana-wise or Maugham/Larry Darrell-wise, the now no longer there link from Godman's page or not, the above quote is what I have been saying all along in my works.
People along the path, especially so westerners who are interested basically in meditation or possibly learning the Way of Enlightenment a la Advaita Vedanta (the non-dualistic school of Hindu philosophy), or via Buddhism, Zen, and/or Zen outside the tradition, often start with or turn to Maugham and The Razor's Edge, many times as their first step. They find themselves uncomfortable when such concepts as translocation, bilocation, or the ability to fly are introduced into the mix --- although both translocation and the ability to fly maintain a rare but high profile in the history of the aforementioned philosophies or religions. When I write about such things as the Incident at Supai or The Mystic Aztec Sun God, it is bad enough, but translocation of gurus thousands of miles from India to America is too much for a lot of people even though it is not without precedent.
When most people come across such phenomenon as translocation, bilocation, or the ability to fly, even if they do stop and consider them as potential possibilities they still pretty much reject them as actually having transpired in reality. They think of it at the most as a tall tale like the myths of a dragons lost in the mist of time, a trick, a hallucination, or simply a misinterpretation of facts down through the ages by people on and off the scene. Even in the context of a Zen or Buddhist legend most people would say that it just could not happen. When any minor relinquishing of their doubts do creep in they usually morph into some sort of a questionable spiritual miracle category.
While it is true that throughout his life the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi never exhibited even the slightest interest in Siddhis, occult abilities, or psychic powers to outsiders, he did have a number of recorded fully conscious bilocation experiences he rarely discussed wherein he was translocated from his ashram in a matter of minutes to the presence of others many, many miles away., even to other countries.
THE MEETING: AN UNTOLD STORY OF SRI RAMANA
Quite frankly, most run-in-the-mill Sri Ramana supporters don't like to discuss translocation or bilocation. Many Ramana supporters even express surprise when I remind them of well documented similar circumstances surrounding such high-powered spiritual adepts as Ganapathi Muni and Paul Brunton as well as the low key and little known Ramana adherent, Robert Adams. In the weight of such circumstances, transpiring as they have, it may be easy for some to simply blow off myself or possibly even Adams as being weird, but Muni and Brunton are somewhat more difficult.
Serious researchers, authors, writers, and reporters pretty much disregard what I have to say about Maugham, The Razor's Edge, and who Larry Darrell was in real life and what happened to him even though the amount of evidence I provide through research, footnotes, and sources is almost insurmountable, with a whole lot of my research done personally at a number of Maugham university archives around the country.
A huge amount of flack has come my way regarding what has been presented about Maugham, The Razor's Edge and Larry Darrell. What upsets most people, not so much the regular folk, but mostly the literati and sometimes the Maharshi in-crowd, is that the Larry Darrell character ended up not being "someone." They don't like the idea that Maugham would have used somebody that was a nobody. However, all anyone with any amount of acumen has to do --- lay-person, fan, critic, or intelligentsia alike --- is just sit down and read what Maugham has to say and the whole thing becomes clear. It would defeat his purpose and overall thesis if Darrell was in real life a major personage of sorts. In the very beginning on the very first page of the novel Maugham writes "The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be." Then, after the whole novel unfolds, all the trials and tribulations and all the adventures and misadventures are over, in the closing pages of the book Maugham solidifies his whole thesis and writes of Darrell and his Awakened state, presenting to reader and critic alike, the following:
He has no desire for fame. To become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than just himself. He is too modest to set himself up as an example to others; but it may be he thinks that a few uncertain souls, drawn to him like moths to a candle, will be brought in time to share his own glowing belief that ultimate satisfaction can only be found in the life of the spirit, and that by himself following with selflessness and renunciation the path of perfection he will serve as well as if he wrote books or addressed multitudes."
David Godman's online page "Somerset Maugham and the Razor's Edge" first appeared in print, published in The Mountain Path, the official arm of the Sri Ramana Ashram, Volume 24, Number 4, October 1988, long before any internet craze. However, with the rise of the internet as a viable means of disseminating information, like millions of others, Godman switched his article online.
The official date that original article first went online isn't clear, but it showed up for the first time in the internet archive May 1, 2003. By that archived date Godman had already listed my site on the page using my old, albeit at the time, valid GeoCities URL. That particular URL had been archived as early as April 5, 2001, after having been transferred there earlier from another free server (possibly fortunecity.com, freeyellow.com, or angelfire.com). In April 2009, GeoCities announced they would be closing their services and by October 26, 2009 it was shut down. Sometime after their initial announcement my wanderling.com version went online and somewhere in that timeframe I notified Godman. Almost immediately, or at least by November 29, 2009, he had switched to my new URL.
You will find that by going to the original version of his page my site had the honor of being the only outside click-through link. When his new version went online, and a fine version it is at that, the link back to me, much to my dismay, was not retained, and in my view, at a loss to his readers. If you would like to see Godman's original Ramana-Maugham-Razor's Edge page that had the link back to me please visit the following:
SOMERSET MAUGHAM AND THE RAZOR'S EDGE
The graphic below, from the black and white 1946 movie version of The Razor's Edge, shows Larry Darrell, the central character in the story, meeting with the holy man for the very first time. To see a short video excerpt from the movie of that meeting and what Maugham reported the holy man had to say to Darrell that changed his life, and possibly could yours, please click the graphic below:
WHAT THE HOLY MAN TOLD DARRELL, IT IS HIGHLY RELEVANT
(please click image)
W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM'S THE RAZOR'S EDGE: True or False?
FRANK H. HUMPHREYS: Sri Ramana's First Western Disciple
JULIAN P. JOHNSON: PATH OF THE MASTERS
WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
THE REAL LIFE LARRY DARRELL
Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.
ZEN ENLIGHTENMENT IN A NUTSHELL
ON THE RAZOR'S
The following is a clarification regarding the above remarks by Mercedes De Acosta concerning Maugham having fainted in the presence of the Maharshi:
On first day at the ashrama Maugham passed by the room where Sri Ramana was seated with his devotees. He didn't enter because he was wearing big klunky boots and, because he was tired from his long journey, was not up to taking them off (you are not allowed in with boots or shoes on). Maugham simply peeked in and observed the scene, then went to his room. Ramana was aware of his visitor, and the next day went to Maugham's room for a private meeting. As was Ramana's practice, he simply sat in silence gazing at Maugham. Maugham became uneasy and nervous after the first few minutes and asked "Is there anything that I should be doing now. Is something supposed to happen?" (an understandable western apprehension and expectation) and apparently at some point Maugham became quite overcome and fainted.
Maugham described the events in his 1958 essay The Saint:
"I was carried into a hut and laid on a pallet bed. I do not know how long I remained unconscious, but presently I recovered. I felt, however, too ill to move. The Maharshi was told what had happened, and that I was not well enough to come into the hall in which he ordinarily sat, so, after some time, followed by two or three disciples, he came into the hut into which I had been taken."
Maugham recalled as well the following about the incident when he opened his eyes and saw Sri Ramana:
"He bore himself with naturalness and at the same time with dignity. His mien (i.e., bearing, appearance) was cheerful, smiling, polite. His eyes with a gentle benignity rested on my face. His body was absolutely still. He smiled and said, 'Silence is also conversation.' "
To show the depth of Maugham's meeting with the Maharshi the above quote is used as the opening paragraph in the most excellent biography of Sri Ramana Maharshi, originally written in India for the SRI RAMANASRAMAM by T. M. P. Mahadevan, M. A., Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, University of Madras but now edited and presented for a much wider audience by the Wanderling.
SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI: THE LAST AMERICAN DARSHAN
THE MEETING: AN UNTOLD STORY OF SRI RAMANA
SRI RAMANA AND SOMERSET MAUGHAM
THE HOLY MAN, LARRY DARRELL, AND THE RAZOR'S EDGE
During the summer between my sophomore year and junior year of high school I met the person I call in all my writings my Mentor. He had been a pilot in World War I, having crossed over into Canada and joining the military at age sixteen by lying about his age. An American, he flew for the British against the Germans and was wounded twice.
At the start of the same war William Somerset Maugham, who chronicled my mentor's life, joined a Red Cross unit in France and served as an ambulance driver, becoming one of what later became to be known as the Literary Ambulance Drivers. In August of 1917 the U. S. Army absorbed the ambulance units. Up to that time the volunteers had been treated like officers. Under the army's umbrella they would be no more than privates, so a good portion of volunteers either left or transfered out, including Maugham.
In The Razor's Edge Notes as well as found in the novel, Maugham, again, chronicling my mentor, mentions the wounds only briefly. The nature of those wounds or how he received them are not discussed --- nor did my mentor ever mention any such wounds. However I came across him meditating in the living room of his house one afternoon and I noticed his left front chest shoulder area was covered by scar tissue as large as a man's hand that looked as though it had healed from a burn. One day when I inquired about the scar he simply replied, "Jousting with dragons." Later I figured out, in that he had been a pilot in World War I, he meant doing battle with the giant hydrogen filled airships called Zeppelins.
(please click image)
I have speculated that in the process of one or the other or both wounds my mentor was picked up by Maugham PRIOR to Maugham's departure from the ambulance service. Now Maugham might not have remembered him, but my mentor most likely would have "remembered" Maugham --- at least enough to recognize him on sight. Any army medic, or Maugham as an ambulance driver, could have, in the process of their duties, assisted hundreds if not thousands of wounded, and in turn, most of those wounded would eventually become not much more than just a blur. The opposite would happen to the person wounded. I say so because of my own experience being found in a ditch unconscious with my stomach ripped open. The very second I saw the staff sergeant that found me for the first time after recovering from the incident, even though I knew I didn't "know" him, I "recognized" him instantly.
When the gist of the above paragraph was discussed in conversation between my mentor and me one day, neither Somerset Maugham nor The Razor's Edge came up. However, without elaborating the extent of his wounds or how bad he was hurt he did mention a medical orderly in his recovery he remembered quite well, a man by the name of William Rothenstein. Rothenstein was an official war artist for the British Government War Propaganda Bureau. He was in the Somme in France covering a good part of the British Expeditionary Force's bloody eight and a half month battle to make it over the 19 km between the French town of Albert and it's objective Bapaume. He then moved to the British Fifth Army during the German Spring Offensive of 1918. It was during the Spring Offensive he was recruited as an unofficial medical orderly, and most likely when he and my mentor crossed paths.
In 1927, nine years after the war, Rothenstein showed up in the United States for a short period teaching art history for a semester or two at the University of Pittsburgh. A few years before that my Uncle had began formal study under the artist John Sloan even to the point of following him back and forth to Santa Fe, New Mexico before finally deciding to stay permanently. My uncle had attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh studying art on the studio side of things and somewhere along the line he heard about Rothenstein, an accomplished portrait artist teaching art history at the University of Pittsburgh --- two areas my uncle felt he was weak in. Liking the idea of a studio artist teaching art history my uncle began sitting in or auditing Rothenstein's classes whenever the chance arose. During that period he heard about Rothenstein's friendship with Rabindranath Tagore and that he knew Albert Einstein.
The most interesting part of it all is that Maugham, as his first letter from India, wrote and sent one to Rothenstein dated January 11, 1938. In so saying, it is quite clear that Maugham KNEW Rothenstein, at least enough to write him. If he knew Rothenstein in the manner I have so suggested is not known.
"Sometime in the spring of 1982 and a year or so after being gone two years in the Peace Corps, a very good friend of mine, a onetime philosophy major that I had known in college, but somehow now having morphed into a big time computer geek, contacted me.
"She told me the man she loved was on the waiting list for a heart transplant at Stanford University and that she had moved to a small studio apartment in Campbell, California to work in Silicon Valley and be within driving distance to see him. She wanted to know if there was some way I might be able to console him as he was wrought with anxiety almost to the point of a total breakdown --- inturn adversely impacting his health and preparedness for the transplant. Before a new heart with his match was available he died."
ADAM OSBORNE: PERSONAL REMEMBRANCES. Childhood, Adulthood and the Maharshi
The quote above, as so cited, comes from a page on Adam Osborne, the son of Arthur Osborne, one of the foremost and well received chroniclers of the Bhagavan Sri Ramana, having written and edited many, many books on the Maharshi. Arthur's son Adam and I were childhood friends, having met at the ashram of Sri Ramana. The above quote shows up in the Adam Osborne page because during my efforts to help my friend whose love of her life was dying of a heart condition I inadvertently ran into Adam, the first time either of us seen each other since we were kids at the ashram.
Even though in the above main text of the Osborne page I state that the several days of my intended stay turned into several weeks, then several months and in so saying encompassed a period of maybe nine months, I wasn't there totally from day one through to my departure. During that period I was sort of operating out of the area, coming and going doing a number of things. For most of that period my friend had a day job and was mostly unavailable during working hours or being able to put several days together off over an extended span. In any case, even though I also state, that in those days I pretty much kept mum about being in India on a general basis, on a personal basis I still pursued India-based things.
While in Campbell I made a couple of trips over the coast range to a town in California's central valley called Vacaville, having done so in order to meet with a woman by the name of Jean Dunn, reputed to have been a disciple of Ramana and having sat before him in Darshan. She had only just returned from India after having studied many years under another major venerated Indian holy man, Nisargadatta Maharaj. My interest in Dunn however, was her experiences with Ramana, experiences I thought we shared at a very close in time period. She sort of skirted most of my comments without much elaboration, even when I said that I might be able to get Adam Osborne to join us in another meeting, figuring as I did that she most likely had met Osborne's mother at one time or the other. The meeting was not to be, mainly on Osborne's unavailability and busy schedule.
It should be noted, although Dunn greeted me with open arms and seemed as though she was glad to have me there, that not long after she left India and just prior to the period of time she and I were meeting on-and-off in Vacaville, her guru, Nisargadatta Maharaj, died (1981) --- which could account for some of her remoteness. For more regarding Jean Dunn from my perspective please see:
SRI RAMANA'S WESTERN DISCIPLES
THE BEST OF THE MAUGHAM BIOGRAPHIES:
THE RAZOR'S EDGE: TRUE OR FALSE?
- WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
Good biography. Lots of Maugham graphics, from early childhood to late adult.
- W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM: A BIOGRAPHY
- MAUGHAM IN INDIA
- LITERARY AMBULANCE DRIVERS
Everybody knows Hemingway drove an ambulance during WWI, nobody knows Maugham did.
- THE ART COLLECTION OF W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM
SPIRITUAL GUIDES, GURUS, AND TEACHERS INFLUENTIAL IN THE RAZOR'S EDGE: