I am quite a regular on the Lonely Planet's Indian Subcontinent Discussion board. Apart from the queries on whether it is safe for a woman to travel in India, and where to see tigers, every other week, I am amused to see someone posting a question on where enlightenment is available for the seeker and how to go about finding a Guru to this purpose. I visualize these posters landing at the Mumbai airport and coming out dazed into a smog of assorted voices and noises, finding no Shanti, Shanti on the streets. However, much before the hippie hordes invaded Goa in search of love, sex and nirvana (not necessarily in that order), there were some Westerners who had started to explore the ‘mysteries of the Orient’ as they were clubbed together in those days.
Paul Brunton’s A search in Secret India is one such book which documents the authors travels in India in the early years of the twentieth century. The language of the book naturally falls into the style of the Raj, with a slight meandering tone to it and a tendency sometimes to make simplistic classifications of the ‘natives’. Still, it is an interesting example of a spiritual travelogue if there is such a classification. Brunton travels to various parts of India, meeting different men who call themselves yogis, rishees or spiritual gurus of other kinds. He records in detail the impressions that these holy men make on him (some of them later revealed to be conmen or just harmess pretenders). His journey through many cities and towns, is parelleled by the journey in his own mind, as he moves from interested seeker to probing sceptic to ending his quest at the Ramanashramam in Tiruvannamalai.
Possibly Brunton is one of the first Westerners to have met the Maharishi in person, and his recording of his first meeting is highly readable.
“ There is something in this man which holds my attention as steel filings are held by a magnet. I cannot turn my gaze away from him. My initial bewilderment, my perplexity at being ignored, slowly fade away as this strange fascination begins to grip me more firmly… One by one the questions which I have prepared in the train with such meticulous accuracy drop away. For it does not now seem to matter whether they are asked or not…I know only that a steady river of quietness seems to be flowing near me, that a great peace is penetrating the inner reaches of my being, and that my thought-tortured brain is beginning to arrive at some rest”
Aptly enough, I read this book on a pilgrimage of my own, to Shirdi!