For it is in India that Larry Darrell finds what he is looking for. The Benedictine monks, he felt, were too preoccupied with sin; they had no satisfactory answers to the questions that perplexed him. So he visits the caves at Elephanta, roams amidst the ruins and ancient carvings, and spends time with renunciates. And from there to the ashram at Travancore, where he becomes the disciple of a holy man (whom Maugham bases on the real-life sage Ramana Maharshi), reads, meditates, takes long walks in the forest, and spends periods of solitude in a bare-bones log cabin in an attempt to merge his individual personality with the Absolute. He encounters the doctrine of reincarnation, the soul's transmigration in various bodies through the cycle of birth and death in endless recurrence, a view held by two-thirds of the world and nearly all Hindus. But he feels something is lacking in the belief in multiple lives; he cannot himself uphold the view that life on earth is something to be escaped through spirituality, which seeks to end the cycle of birth and death, illumination representing the end of the soul's journey, liberation from "the weary wheel of endless becoming."
He tells his friend, "The Aryans when they first came down into India saw that the world we know is but an appearance of the world we know not; but they welcomed it as gracious and beautiful; it was only centuries later, when the exhaustion of conquest, when the debilitating climate had sapped their vitality so that they became a prey to invading hordes, that they saw only evil in life and craved for liberation from its return. Why should we of the West, Americans especially, be daunted by decay and death. The spirit of life is strong in us."
Darrell vowed to stay on with the sage until the sage either died, or till he received illumination. He got his wish. After relating a particularly magnificent experience he had while watching the sunrise, an illumination not unlike those experienced by sages, and which authors would call a mystic experience, or the dawning of cosmic consciousness (Maugham must have read Maurice Bucke, or had such an experience himself to narrate it so convincingly) he goes on: "I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. I felt in myself an energy that cried out to be expended. It was for me . . . to live in the world and love the objects of the world, not indeed for themselves, but for the Infinite that is in them. I wanted to live again and again. I was willing to accept every sort of life, no matter what its pain and sorrow; I felt that only life after life, life after life could satisfy my eagerness, my favor, and my curiosity."
In other words, if reincarnation is true, bring it.
And so the next morning he starts down the mountain, bids farewell to the sage, and a week later boards a ship at Bombay and is back at Marseilles. His plans thereafter are simply to live "with calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness, and continence." The latter because as the wise men of India contend, "chastity intensely enhances the power of the spirit."
Darrell's ideal is self-perfection, and his plan is to dispense with his small income, work menial jobs when in need of money, travel and write. He writes a collection of essays, which he publishes at his own expense and gives to a handful of friends (something to which I can certainly relate); his book is about individuals who have made a supreme success out of life, written because he is curious to find out what comes of success. He is never heard from again.
It's really a great novel, indeed it's the author's most enduringly popular book, even moreso than his classic, Of Human Bondage. What's more, written as it was in 1944 it is remarkably prescient, predating the Beat culture which popularized Eastern spirituality by almost a decade. Not to mention it was made into a (rather forgettable) 1980's movie with Bill Murray (miscast) as the lead.
The book got me thinking about two things. First about the term Aryan, which in modern times has come to be associated with Nazi Germany, the Aryan race being a Nordic physical ideal, the light-skinned master race Hitler hoped would take over the world. And yet we find that just as with the swastika symbol, which comes from the Sanskrit meaning "good fortune," the Fuhrer borrowed the term from the East. Aryan is derived from the Sanskrit arya, meaning noble; it was used in India millennia before the present age to designate those originating in northern India, in the region of the Himalayas, among them the seers and sages who composed the ancient Indian scriptures known as the Vedas and from which modern metaphysics derives. Arya is an epithet of honor used in the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabarata, and it is not exclusive to India. Indeed airyan was also used to denote people from Iran. Only much later was the term used to refer to certain European cultures such as Scandinavians.
By extension anyone who subscribes to the notions put forth by the true Aryans - those compilers of vedanta, which posits an Absolute Reality omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, a version of God borrowed by religions the world over - can proudly call him or herself Aryan in the true sense of the word. Welcome to our little family, which gets bigger by the day. Anyone is welcome. We all are One and the same.
But it also got me thinking about the expression of Hinduism throughout the ages. And it is true that historically times were so harsh, in the dusty climates hounded by barbaric hordes, where the strongest desire was to escape from the harsh realities of life, and spirituality seemed to offer the means. Plunge in meditation and you can find peace and if you're lucky won't get reborn to this hell-hole called earth, was the prevalent philosophy perpetrated throughout the ages. But these days for many, even for most, life is pretty good. We live in a land of plenty, and enjoyment is a click away. So a philosophy that encourages escaping from life and avoiding rebirth may fall on deaf ears, since like the story's protagonist, people have a lust for life and just want to live.
But it is possible to remain in the world, to enjoy life's transient pleasures and pains, possible to bring the stillness of meditation to whatever task or treat life brings your way. We don't need loin cloths and begging bowls. We need not retire to caves. Realization is a thought away, so do whatever it is you do, just don't think too hard about it. As such you can be like our protagonist, who vowed to be, like the Hindu holy men, "a shining light in the darkness," his influence being like the gentle ripple caused by stone thrown in a pond, perpetuating itself through others.
Maugham begins the book with a quote from the Katha-Upanishad. It reads: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."
It can be hard, now more than ever, with so many distractions vying for one's attention. But it needn't be. There was a time not too long ago where trans-Atlantic flight was unheard of, where talking to a friend on the other side of the world didn't seem possible, and forget about virtual reality and all the wonders computers have brought. Make use of modernity. Where before this age of information your spiritual quest would require a voyage to the ruins of India, as did Darrell's (and my own, my father taking my family on several trips to a southern Indian ashram), nowadays books like Maugham's and others serve as signposts to the Self, and they are just a mouse-click away. All that remains is for you to take the step. The Aryan Race is humanity. Welcome home.