Douglas E.Harding


By Douglas E. Harding

THOUGH I lived in India from 1937 to 1945 I did not, alas, get to see Ramana Maharshi. In fact, I knew almost nothing about him at that time. Since then, however, he has become one of the great influences in my life. I would like to acknowledge in this article, with immense gratitude, what I owe to him.

But first I must set on record, briefly, how things stood with me when, in 1959 in England, I first came across Arthur Osborne’s books about Maharshi. I had already seen Who I was. Back in 1943, when I was still in India, I had noticed the absence here of anyone and anything. Leading up to that vision I had for some years been inquiring, with growing intensity, into my true nature. In the main, this research had taken the thoroughly Western form of investigating how I appeared to observers at varying distances — from the normal human range of a few feet all the way down to the angstrom units of physics, and all the way up to the light-years of astronomy.

Clearly what my observers (including myself standing aside from myself) made of me depended upon their distance from here, how far off they happened to be. At great distances they saw this spot as some kind of heavenly body; in the middle distance they found a human body; at closer range (when suitably equipped with microscopes etc.) they discovered infra-human bodies — cells, molecules, atoms, particles ... In some sense I was all this, and more. How marvellous, how mind-boggling! But it only underlined, and did nothing to answer, the real, question: what lies right here, at the center of all these bodily shapes, these regional impressions of me? What is the reality of which these manifold views are mere appearances? It seemed unlikely that the scientist would ever get to the ultimate particles or waves, the basic substance, but would just go on unveiling, layer by layer, progressively featureless manifestations of that ever-elusive substratum. Yet this substratum, if any, was me, and therefore absolutely fascinating. I was stuck. How to penetrate to this central Unknown, which defies the inspection of the most brilliant researchers, armed with the subtlest of instruments.

Then, suddenly, I realised how silly this question was. How could I be accessible to them; how could I be inaccessible to myself? What outsiders make of me is their business; what I, the insider, make of myself is my business. They are the experts on how I strike them at x feet; I am the expert on how I strike myself at zero feet. I had only to dare to look at this Looker, here! What I saw then was, and is, the clearest, the simplest, the most direct and obvious and indubitable of all sights — namely the Space here, speckless, unbounded, selfluminous, vividly awake to itself as at once No-thing and the Container and Source of all things.

In the years that followed this discovery I had it for breakfast and dinner and tea. I soaked it up, lived with it, explored it, worked out some of its endless applications and implications.

And I tried, by every means I could find or invent, to share my delight with others. How miserably I failed! Some folks were intrigued, even me a fairly harmless eccentric, if not actually crazy. But what did it matter? Endorsement from way out there of what lies right here — this was as pointless as it was lacking.

All the same, I confess I often felt frustrated, lonely, and (very occassionally) discouraged. Not that I could ever doubt the actuality of what I saw myself to be here, and certainly I never questioned my own sanity. It was the world’s sanity that I questioned! I got on as best I could, very much on my own.

And then, in 1958, I started reading seriously the early Zen masters — and felt lonely no longer. Here were friends who described what was unmistakably my own experience of myself as void. O joy! And, on the heels of this delightful company, came Maharshi himself.

Why, I ask myself, did he become so important for me? Why is he still, for me, superb? What, specially, have I to thank him for? Firstly, I have to thank him for the gift of encouragement, a precious gift indeed. Not for confirmation of what I see (only I am in a position to see what’s right here); not for his support (right here is the support of all things); not for friendship or even love (unless one can be friends with oneself). I am having difficulty in saying what I mean by the kind of encouragement he gave me when I needed it most. Perhaps I should call it - his darshan. Anyhow, from then on my dedication to the One I-am was complete. No more wavering, no periodical discouragement, no other real interests than This.

Secondly, I have to record my gratitude to Maharshi for his insistence on the ever-present accessibility, the naturalness, the obviousness, of Self-realisation. Many a time I had been informed, and had read, that Enlightenment is of all states the rarest and the remotest and the most difficult - in practice, impossible - and here was a great sage telling us that, on the contrary, it was the easiest. Such, indeed, was my own experience, and I had never been intimidated by those religious persons who were careful to tell me that I couldn’t see what I saw. Nevertheless it was for me marvellously refreshing to find that Maharshi never sent inquirers away with instructions to work for liberation at some distant date.

It is not, he insisted, a glittering prize to be awarded for future achievements of any sort: it is not for earning little by little, but for noticing now, just as one is. Other sages, of course, have stressed the availability of this, but here Maharshi is surely the clearest, the most uncompromising, of them all. How wonderful to hear, him saying, in effect, that compared with Oneself all other things are obscure, more or less invisible, fugitive, impossible to get at: only the Seer can be clearly seen.

I suspect that it was because of this renewed assurance - Maharshi’s insistence on the present availability of Self-realisation — that it became possible for me at last to share this realisation with a friend, and then with several friends, and now with many friends. Today, I won’t accept that inquirers can fail to see their Absence. I don’t any longer ask them whether they can see this, but what it means for them. My job is to point out the Obvious, theirs to evaluate it. It is true that among the many who see, only a few surrender at once to What they see. This is not, however, the end of the story, and in any case the words ‘few’ and ‘many’, are inapplicable here. The problem of sharing This with others never was a problem. What others? — as Maharshi would say.

Which brings me to my third debt to him. I thank him for his uncompromising attitude to people’s problems. For him, all the troubles that afflict humans reduce to one trouble - mistaken identity. The answer to the problem is to see Who has it. At its own level it is insoluble. And it must be so. There is no greater absurdity, no more fundamental or damaging a madness, than to imagine one is centrally what one looks like at a distance.

To think one is a human being here is a sickness so deep-seated that it underlies and generates all one’s ills. Only cure that one basic disease — mistaken identity — and all is exactly as it should be. I know no Sage who goes more directly to the root of the disease, and refuses more consistently to treat its symptoms. WHO AM I? is the only serious question. And, most fortunately, it is the only question that can be answered without hesitation or the shadow of a doubt, absolutely.

To sum up, then, I thank Ramana Maharshi above all for tirelessly posing this question of questions, and for showing how simple the answer is, and for his lifelong dedication to that simple answer. But in the last resort all this talk of one giving and another taking is unreal. The notion that there was a consciousness associated with that body in Tiruvannamalai, and there is another consciousness associated with this body in Nacton, England, and a lot of other consciousness associated with the other bodies comprising the universe — this is the great error which Maharshi never tolerated. Consciousness is indivisible.

The Value of Book Learning

Once some very learned Sanskrit scholars were sitting in the old hall discussing portions of the Upanishads and other scriptural texts with Bhagavan. Bhagavan was giving them proper explanations and it was a sight to remember and adore! At the same time, I felt genuinely in my heart, ‘Oh, how great these people are and how fortunate they are to be so learned and to have such deep understanding and be able to discuss with our Bhagavan. Compared with them, what am I, a zero in scriptural learning?’ I felt miserable. After the pundits had taken leave Bhagavan turned to me and said, “What?”, looking into my eyes and studying my thoughts. Then, without even giving me an opportunity to explain, he continued, “This is only the husk! All this book learning and capacity to repeat the scriptures by memory is absolutely no use. To know the Truth, you need not undergo all this torture of learning. Not by reading do you get the Truth. BE QUIET, that is Truth, BE STILL, that is God”.

Then very graciously he turned to me again and there was an immediate change in his tone and attitude. He asked me, “Do you shave yourself?” Bewildered by this sudden change, I answered, trembling, that I did.

“Ah, for shaving you use a mirror, don’t you? You look into the mirror and then shave your face; you don’t shave the image in the mirror. Similarly all the scriptures are meant only to show you the way to realization. They are meant for practise and attainment. Mere book learning and discussions are comparable to a man shaving the image in the mirror”. From that day onwards the sense of inferiority that I had been feeling vanished once and for all.