W. Somerset Maugham

...the Wanderling

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 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 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. Maugham then departed by ship to Naples, Italy March 31, 1938. He never went back. World War II interupted any plans to do so and after the war the opportunity never re-presented itself.

So, who cares, what does it matter one way or the other when Maugham was in India anyway? To find out go to:

THE RAZOR'S EDGE: W. Somerset Maugham,
Sri Ramana Maharshi, Guy Hague, and Zen

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.



(please click)



FRANK H. HUMPHREYS: Sri Ramana's First Western Disciple

JULIAN P. JOHNSON: Path of the Masters





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.