Few books can be considered ideal starting points for someone curious about yoga as a spiritual path. A Search in Secret India (aff link) is one of those books. First published in 1934, it’s one of the earliest accounts of a Westerner’s spiritual quest undertaken in India. Paul Brunton, pen name for Raphael Hurst, was a writer and journalist by profession. He’d had a deep interest in Eastern spirituality from a young age and devoured every book available on the subject. Eventually, in 1930, he was drawn to their source, India. Setting aside his career and personal life, Brunton pursued the answer to what lies beyond day-to-day life.
Restlessness Can Be a Blessing
Normally we think of restlessness as an undesirable quality. Certainly, there’s no peace in it. However, restlessness for spiritual answers can produce the ultimate reward. This was the case with Paul Brunton. He spent years on the hot, dirty roads of India. A native to Great Britain, the weather had no small effect on him. His journey was sometimes delayed by illness. And he admits to the difficulties of travel and language barriers.
However, Brunton’s determination served him well. Wherever he went, whether bustling cities or tiny villages, he made inquiries with the local people. He sought adepts of any sect. By tagging along with the author, we meet a variety of spiritualists. Some of these self-professed yogis were practitioners of black magic. Many were charlatans, able to perform miracles. These “mystery-mongers,” as Brunton described them, made their living from the naïveté of unsuspecting tourists. But his discerning intellect recognized them quickly, and he moved on.
He had opportunities to interview sages of all types. Some were solitary, living in deep seclusion. Others were householders. Some were advanced yogis practicing independently from their teachers. There were teachers with masses of followers as well as those with a small handful of devotees.
Brunton discovered several genuine yogis on his travels. He met saints, like master Mahasya, Mahendranath Gupta, popularly known as “M.” Master Mahasya is the author of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (aff link), the principle source for Ramakrishna’s teachings.
Brunton interviewed these authentic yogis extensively. He spent time with them, absorbing and recording their teachings. In the end, however, even the most sincere yogis came short of his heart’s search.
Doubt as an Obstacle
The author admits, throughout A Search in Secret India, his lack of faith in the unseen. Despite his good fortune of meeting many genuine yogis, Brunton remained skeptical. At one point, he notes, “…I have no desire to become the depository of another man’s doctrines; it is a living, first-hand, personal experience which I seek, a spiritual illumination entirely my own and not someone else’s.”
Although he had met many authentic Gurus, his doubts kept him from accepting their paths. As a journalist, he had a keen sense of research, digging for hidden truths within everyone he met. He approached each yogi with an open mind, looking for answers—but was often disappointed.
Early in his travels Brunton turned to southern India. He hadn’t planned to take that route at that time, but a strange turn of events guided him. There, in this remote area, he met the sage who would eventually make the most significant impression of his life, Ramana Maharishi.
Brunton interviewed the sage with his usual tenacity, and the sage responded generously. Ramana Maharishi emphasizes the importance of inquiry on the spiritual path.
Ramana Maharishi: “Unless and until a man embarks upon this quest of the true self, doubt and uncertainty will follow his footsteps throughout life. The greatest kings and statesmen try to rule others, when in their heart of hearts they know that they cannot rule themselves. Yet the greatest power is at the command of the man who has penetrated to his inmost depth. There are men of giant intellects who spend their lives gathering knowledge about many things. Ask these men if they have solved the mystery of man, if they have conquered themselves, and they will hang their heads in shame. What is the use of knowing about everything else when you do not yet know who you are? Men avoid this enquiry into the true self, but what else is there so worthy to be undertaken?”
Brunton: “That is such a difficult, a superhuman task.”
Ramana Maharishi: “The question of its possibility is a matter of one’s own experience. The difficulty is less real than you think.”
At this first meeting, Brunton wasn’t yet ready to release his doubt and believe the saint’s words. After a few days’ visit he continued on his journey.
The Value of A Search in Secret India
A Search in Secret India is intelligently and artfully written. Brunton details the wisdom that India’s sages shared with him. On one occasion, while interviewing a wise old astrologer, he records their conversation about karma:
Astrologer: “The destiny of each race of people must be realized, just as the destiny of every person must be fulfilled. The Lord is omnipotent. Men and nations cannot escape from their self-earned fate, but they may be protected throughout their troubles and even saved from great dangers.”
Brunton: “And how does one obtain such protection?”
Astrologer: “By prayer, and by keeping a child-like nature when one turns towards the Almighty, and by remembering Him not on one’s lips, but in one’s heart, especially before one begins any action. In happy days try to enjoy them as a blessing of God, and in troubles try to think that it is very much like a medicine to heal your inner disease. Fear Him not, as He is all merciful.”
Many such meetings and conversations are included in the story of Brunton’s pursuit. His descriptions are colorful and clear. He expresses his inner thoughts almost poetically. It’s not difficult to imagine traveling along with him. We are never bored with his stories and conversations.
A Search in Secret India (aff link) is the story of one man’s spiritual journey—but it could be anyone’s. It could be yours. This is the value of the book. We are all seekers. Paul Brunton had clarity of vision. He had a sincere heart leading him in his quest. Eventually, his burning desire took him back to the sage who would lead him to the experience that he most sought.
When you read this book, try to imagine yourself in Brunton’s shoes. Start at the beginning of the book, and read to the end. This way, you can enjoy the journey along with the author. You will learn to be wary of false gurus and to search for the one who is meant for you. You will read of many spiritual principles and discover many paths. And you will be well on the way to your own experience.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.