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 clearly have 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.
There must be two dozen or more published biographies available on Maugham, 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. David Godman, perhaps the most respected and foremost author on things Ramana, and who invariably presents the most thorough research, backup, and accuracy in his works, has one of the best pages on the net regarding the meeting between Maugham and Ramana. In his article, which expounds on the meeting and the timing of the meeting, Somerset Maugham and The Razor's Edge, Godman has only one click through link and that one link is to my page on who the person Larry Darrell really was in real life.
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.
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.
AWAKENED TEACHERS FORUM
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
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
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.
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.