The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


  '"Brahma, the Creator," he said. "Vishnu the Preserver, and Siva the Destroyer. The three manifestations of the Ultimate Reality."

  '"I'm afraid I don't quite understand," I said.

  '"I'm not surprised," he answered, with a little smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, as though he were gently mocking me. "A God that can be understood is no God. Who can explain the Infinite in words?"

  'He joined the palms of his hands together and with just the indication of a bow strolled on. I stayed looking at those three mysterious heads. Perhaps because I was in a receptive mood, I was strangely stirred. You know how sometimes you try to recall a name; it's on the tip of your tongue, but you just can't get it: that was the feeling I had then. When I came out of the caves I sat for a long while on the steps and looked at the sea. All I knew about Brahminism were those verses of Emerson's and I tried to remember them. It exasperated me that I couldn't and when I went back to Bombay I went into a bookshop to see if I could find a volume of poetry that had them in. They're in the Oxford Book of English Verse. D'you remember them?

  They reckon ill who leave me out; When me they fly, I am the wings; I am the doubter and the doubt, And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

  'I had supper in a native eating-house and then, as I didn't have to be on board till ten, I went and walked on the Maidan and looked at the sea. I thought I'd never seen so many stars in the sky. The cool was delicious after the heat of the day. I found a public garden and sat on a bench. It was very dark there and silent white figures flitted to and fro. That wonderful day, with the brilliant sunshine, the coloured, noisy crowds, the smell of the East, acrid and aromatic, enchanted me; and like an object, a splash of colour that a painter puts in to pull his composition together, those three enormous heads of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva gave a mysterious significance to it all. My heart began to beat like mad, because I'd suddenly become aware of an intense conviction that India had something to give me that I had to have. It seemed to me that a chance was offered to me and I must take it there and then or it would never be offered me again. I made up my mind quickly. I decided not to go back to the ship. I'd left nothing there but a few things in a grip. I walked slowly back to the native quarter and looked about for a hotel. I found one after a while and took a room. I had the clothes I stood up in, some loose cash, my passport, and my letter of credit. I felt so free, I laughed out loud.

  'The ship was sailing at eleven and just to be on the safe side I stayed in my room till then. I went down to the quay and watched her pull out. After that I went to the Ramakrishna Mission and routed out the Swami who'd spoken to me at Elephanta. I didn't know his name, but I explained that I wanted to see the Swami who'd just arrived from Alexandria. I told him I'd decided to stay in India and asked him what I ought to see. We had a long talk and at last he said he was going to Benares that night and asked me if I'd like to go with him. I jumped at it. We went third-class. The carriage was full of people eating and drinking and talking and the heat was terrific. I didn't get a wink of sleep and next morning I was pretty tired, but the Swami was as fresh as a daisy. I asked him how come and he said: "By meditation on the formless one; I found rest in the Absolute." I didn't know what to think, but I could see with my own eyes that he was as alert and wide awake as though he'd had a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed.

  'When at last we got to Benares a young man of my own age came to meet my companion and the Swami asked him to find me a room. His name was Mahendra and he was a teacher at the university. He was a nice, kindly, intelligent fellow and he seemed to take as great a fancy to me as I took to him. That evening he took me out in a boat on the Ganges; it was a thrill for me, very beautiful with the city crowding down to the water's edge, and awe-inspiring; but next morning he had something better to show me, he fetched me at my hotel before dawn and took me out on the river again. I saw something I could never have believed possible, I saw thousands upon thousands of people come down to take their lustral bath and pray. I saw one tall gaunt fellow, with a mass of tangled hair and a great ragged beard, with nothing but a jock-strap to cover his nakedness, stand with his long arms outstretched, his head up, and in a loud voice pray to the rising sun. I can't tell you what an impression it made on me. I spent six months in Benares and I went over and over again on the Ganges at dawn to see that strange sight. I never got over the wonder of it. Those people believed not halfheartedly, not with reservation or uneasy doubt, but with every fibre of their being.

  'Everyone was very kind to me. When they discovered I hadn't come to shoot tigers or to buy or sell anything, but only to learn, they did everything to help me. They were pleased that I should wish to learn Hindustani, and found teachers for me. They lent me books. They were never tired of answering my questions. Do you know anything about Hinduism?'

  'Very little,' I answered.

  'I should have thought it would interest you. Can there be anything more stupendous than the conception that the universe has no beginning and no end, but passes everlastingly from growth to equilibrium, from equilibrium to decline, from decline to dissolution, from dissolution to growth, and so on to all eternity?'

  'And what do the Hindus think is the object of this endless recurrence?'

  'I think they'd say that such is the nature of the Absolute. You see, they believe that the purpose of creation is to serve as a stage for the punishment or reward of the deeds of the soul's earlier existence.'

  'Which presupposes belief in the transmigration of souls.'

  'It's a belief held by two thirds of the human race.'

  'The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth.'

  'No, but at least it makes it worthy of consideration. Christianity absorbed so much of Neo-Platonism, it might very easily have absorbed that too, and in point of fact there was an early Christian sect that believed in it, but it was declared heretical. Except for that Christians would believe in it as confidently as they believe in the resurrection of Christ.'

  'Am I right in thinking that it means that the soul passes from body to body in an endless course of experience occasioned by the merit or demerit of previous works?'

  'I think so.'

  'But you see, I'm not only my spirit but my body, and who can decide how much I, my individual self, am conditioned by the accident of my body? Would Byron have been Byron but for his club foot, or Dostoyevsky Dostoyevsky without his epilepsy?'

  'The Indians wouldn't speak of an accident. They would answer that it's your actions in previous lives that have determined your soul to inhabit an imperfect body.' Larry drummed idly on the table and, lost in thought, gazed into space. Then, with a faint smile on his lips and a reflective look in his eyes, he went on. 'Has it occurred to you that transmigration is at once an explanation and a justification of the evil of the world? If the evils we suffer are the result of sins committed in our past lives we can bear them with resignation and hope that if in this one we strive towards virtue our future lives will be less afflicted. But it's easy enough to bear our own evils, all we need for that is a little manliness; what's intolerable is the evil, often so unmerited in appearance, that befalls others. If you can persuade yourself that it is the inevitable result of the past you may pity, you may do what you can to alleviate, and you should, but you have no cause to be indignant.'

  'But why didn't God create a world free from suffering and misery at the beginning when there was neither merit nor demerit in the individual to determine his actions?'

  'The Hindus would say that there was no beginning. The individual soul, co-existent with the universe, has existed from all eternity and owes its nature to some prior existence.'

  'And does the belief in the transmigration of souls have a practical effect on the lives of those who believe it? After all, that is the test.'

  'I think it has. I can tell you of one man I knew personally on whose life it certainly had a very practical effect. The first two or three years I was in India I lived mostly in
native hotels, but now and then someone asked me to stay with him and once or twice I lived in grandeur as the guest of a maharajah. Through one of my friends in Benares I got an invitation to stay in one of the smaller northern states. The capital was lovely: a rose-red city half as old as time. I was recommended to the Minister of Finance. He'd had a European education and had been to Oxford. When you talked to him you got the impression of a progressive, intelligent, and enlightened man; and he had the reputation of being an extremely efficient minister and a clever, astute politician. He wore European clothes and was very natty in appearance. He was rather a nice-looking fellow, a little on the stout side as Indians tend to become in middle age, with a close-cropped, neat moustache. He often asked me to go to his house. He had a large garden and we'd sit under the shade of great trees and talk. He had a wife and two grown-up children. You'd have taken him for just the ordinary, rather commonplace Anglicized Indian and I was staggered when I found out that in a year, when he reached the age of fifty, he was going to resign his profitable position, dispose of his property to his wife and children, and go out into the world as a wandering mendicant. But the most surprising part was that his friends, and the maharajah, accepted it as a settled thing and looked upon it not as an extraordinary proceeding but as a natural one.

  'One day I said to him: "You, who are so liberal, who know the world, who've read so much, science, philosophy, literature – do you in your heart of hearts believe in reincarnation?"

  'His whole face changed. It became the face of a visionary.

  '"My dear friend," he said, "if I didn't believe in it life would have no meaning for me."'

  'And do you believe in it, Larry?' I asked.

  'That's a very difficult question to answer. I don't think it's possible for us Occidentals to believe in it as implicitly as these Orientals do. It's in their blood and bones. With us it can only be an opinion. I neither believe in it nor disbelieve in it.'

  He paused for a moment and with his face resting on his hand looked down at the table. Then he leant back.

  'I should like to tell you of a very strange experience I had once. I was practising meditation one night in my little room at the Ashrama as my Indian friends had taught me to do. I had lit a candle and was concentrating my attention on its flame, and after a time, through the flame, but quite clearly, I saw a long line of figures one behind the other. The foremost was an elderly lady in a lace cap with grey ringlets that hung down over her ears. She wore a tight black bodice and a black silk flounced skirt – the sort of clothes, I think, they wore in the seventies – and she was standing full face to me in a gracious, diffident attitude, her arms hanging straight down her sides with the palms towards me. The expression on her lined face was kindly, sweet, and mild. Immediately behind her, but sideways so that I saw his profile, with a great hooked nose and thick lips, was a tall gaunt Jew in a yellow gabardine with a yellow skullcap on his thick dark hair. He had the studious look of a scholar and an air of grim and at the same time passionate austerity. Behind him, but facing me and as distinct as though there were no one between us, was a young man with a cheerful ruddy countenance, whom you couldn't have taken for anything but an Englishman of the sixteenth century. He stood firmly on his feet, his legs a little apart, and he had a bold, reckless, wanton look. He was dressed all in red, grandly as though it were a court dress, with broad-toed velvet shoes on his feet and a flat velvet cap on his head. Behind those three there was an endless chain of figures, like a queue outside a movie house, but they were dim and I couldn't see what they looked like. I was only aware of their vague shapes and of the movement that passed through them like wheat waving in a summer breeze. In a little while, I don't know whether it was in a minute, or five, or ten, they faded slowly into the darkness of the night and there was nothing but the steady flame of the candle.'

  Larry gave a little smile.

  'Of course it may be that I'd fallen into a doze and dreamt. It may be that my concentration on that feeble flame had induced a sort of hypnotic condition in me and that those three figures that I saw as distinctly as I see you were recollections of pictures preserved in my subconscious. But it may be that they were myself in past lives. It may be that I was not so very long ago an old lady in New England and before that a Levantine Jew and somewhere back, soon after Sebastian Cabot had sailed from Bristol, a gallant at the Court of Henry Prince of Wales.'

  'What eventually happened to your friend of the rose-red city?'

  'Two years later I was down south at a place called Madura. One night in the temple someone touched me on the arm. I looked round and saw a bearded man with long black hair, dressed in nothing but a loincloth, with the staff and the begging-bowl of the holy man. It was not till he spoke that I recognized him. It was my friend. I was so astounded that I didn't know what to say. He asked me what I'd been doing and I told him; he asked me where I was going and I said to Travancore; he told me to go and see Shri Ganesha. "He will give you what you're looking for," he said. I asked him to tell me about him, but he smiled and said I'd find out all that was necessary for me to know when I saw him. I'd got over my surprise by then and asked him what he was doing in Madura. He said he was making a pilgrimage on foot to the holy places of India. I asked him how he ate and how he slept. He told me that when anyone offered him shelter he slept on the veranda, but otherwise under a tree or in the precincts of a temple; and as for food, if people offered him a meal heate it and if they didn't he went without. I looked at him: "You've lost weight," I said. He laughed and answered that he felt all the better for it. Then he said good-bye to me – it was funny to hear that guy in a loincloth say, "Well, so long, old chap" – and stepped into that part of the temple where I couldn't follow him.

  'I stayed in Madura for some time. I think it's the only temple in India in which the white man can walk about freely so long as he doesn't enter the holy of holies. At nightfall it was packed with people. Men, women, and children. The men, stripped to the waist, wore dhoties, and their foreheads, and often their chests and arms, were thickly smeared with the white ash of burnt cow dung. You saw them making obeisance at one shrine or another and sometimes lying full length on the ground, face downwards, in the ritual attitude of prostration. They prayed and recited litanies. They called to one another, quarrelled with one another, heatedly argued with one another. There was an ungodly row, and yet in some mysterious way God seemed to be near and living.

  'You pass through long halls, the roof supported by sculptured columns, and at the foot of each column a religious mendicant is seated; each has in front of him a bowl for offerings or a small mat on which the faithful now and again throw a copper coin. Some are clad; some are almost naked. Some look at you vacantly as you pass; some are reading, silently or aloud, and appear unconscious of the streaming throng. I looked for my friend among them; I never saw him I again. I suppose he proceeded on the journey to his goal.'

  'And what was that?'

  'Liberation from the bondage of rebirth. According to the Vedantists the self, which they call the atman and we call the soul, is distinct from the body and its senses, distinct from the mind and its intelligence; it is not part of the Absolute, for the Absolute, being infinite, can have no parts, but the Absolute itself. It is uncreated; it has existed from eternity and when at last it has cast off the seven veils of ignorance will return to the infinitude from which it came. It is like a drop of water that has arisen from the sea and in a shower has fallen into a puddle, then drifts into a brook, finds its way into a stream, after that into a river, passing through mountain gorges and wide plains, winding this way and that, obstructed by rocks and fallen trees, till at last it reaches the boundless sea from which it rose.'

  'But that poor little drop of water, when it has once more become one with the sea, has surely lost its individuality.'

  Larry grinned.

  'You want to taste sugar, you don't want to become sugar. What is individuality but the expression of our egoism? Until the s
oul has shed the last trace of that it cannot become one with the Absolute.'

  'You talk very familiarly of the Absolute, Larry, and it's an imposing word. What does it actually signify to you?'

  'Reality. You can't say what it is; you can only say what it isn't. It's inexpressible. The Indians call it Brahman. It's nowhere and everywhere. All things imply and depend upon it. It's not a person, it's not a thing, it's not a cause. It has no qualities. It transcends permanence and change; whole and part, finite and infinite. It is eternal because its completeness and perfection are unrelated to time. It is truth and freedom.'

  'Golly!' I said to myself, but to Larry: 'But how can a purely intellectual conception be a solace to the suffering human race? Men have always wanted a personal God to whom they can turn in distress for comfort and encouragement.'

  'It may be that at some far distant day greater insight will show them that they must look for comfort and encouragement in their own souls. I myself think that the need to worship is no more than the survival of an old remembrance of cruel gods that had to be propitiated. I believe that God is within me or nowhere. If that's so, whom or what am I to worship – myself? Men are on different levels of spiritual development, and so the imagination of India has evolved the manifestations of the Absolute that are known as Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, and by a hundred other names. The Absolute is in Isvara, the creator and ruler of the world, and it is in the humble fetish before which the peasant in his sun-baked field places the offering of a flower. The multitudinous gods of India are but expedients to lead to the realization that the self is one with the supreme self.'

  I looked at Larry reflectively.

  'I wonder just what it was that attracted you to this austere faith,' I said.

  'I think I can tell you. I've always felt that there was something pathetic in the founders of religion who made it a condition of salvation that you should believe in them. It's as though they needed your faith to have faith in themselves. They remind you of those old pagan gods who grew wan and faint if they were not sustained by the burnt offerings of the devout. Advaita doesn't ask you to take anything on trust; it asks only that you should have a passionate craving to know Reality; it states that you can experience God as surely as you can experience joy or pain. And there are men in India today – hundreds of them for all I know – who have the certitude that they have done so. I found something wonderfully satisfying in the notion that you can attain Reality by knowledge. In later ages the sages of India in recognition of human infirmity admitted that salvation may be won by the way of love and the way of works, but they never denied that the noblest way, though the hardest, is the way of knowledge, for its instrument is the most precious faculty of man, his reason.'

 
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