Paul Brunton was born a Jew, Raphael Hurst, in London on October 21, 1898 and died in Vevey, Switzerland, 1981. He married relatively young and in 1923 his only child, Kenneth Thurston Hurst, was born. He has written a hagiography of his father - Paul Brunton: A Personal View. This marriage failed. Brunton's first book published in 1931 was titled 'A Search in Secret India' and is a combination travel book, introduction to Indian mysticism of the Theosophical flavour and relates stories of his meetings with Indian mystics, yogis & gurus, most notably Ramana Maharshi of Arunachula.
He published another 11 books many of which were available in Theosophical bookshops when I was a teenager. These books began portraying himself as a skeptical journalist and spiritual seeker but by the end of the Second World War he was claiming guru status himself. As his books moved from the sensational secret searches to the "philosophical" his readers diminished and he published his last book 'The Spiritual Crisis of Man' to critical derision in 1952.
He was only a minor figure in the growth of the 'New Age' interest in the spiritual of the last half of the 20th century but in 1993 the controversial author Jeffrey Masson published a book revealing his childhood with Brunton living in his home as his family's guru. While the book is small and somewhat disappointing (it seems to have been written over a long weekend) it nevertheless reflects a clever child's remembrance (confirmed in discussion with his family) of a guru from a personal perspective rarely available.
Brunton's philosophy was Theosophical and relatively unsophisticated and magical, he claimed to have had many previous lives on planets like Venus and that he was endowed with special wisdom. He had descended to Earth from a realm inhabited by superior beings - Sirius. At night, he could travel anywhere in his astral body. Meditation, he said, could lead to higher wisdom and spiritual knowledge, but physical desires had to be overcome if the spirit was to flourish. Vegetarianism, no smoking or drugs, long periods of fasting and abstention from sex would help the disciple's progress along 'the Path' to enlightenment. Like many gurus, Brunton did not always abide by his own rules, since he married four times and fathered a son. It is also characteristic that he lived off his disciples, who were please to support him financially and to offer him accommodation. Brunton had no higher education, although he claimed a PhD and often made grandiose claims of offers of teaching positions at major universities.
Brunton was an unusual guru as he also seems to have been a true believer and practiced spiritual disciplines to increase his spiritual growth. He was strictly vegetarian, lived very simply and sat for meditation daily both with his followers and alone at night. Though he married 4 times to 3 different women there is some doubt as to whether sex was part of his later marriages. The 19 year old wife he married when 54 said "PB did not need sex in the ordinary sense". Though he lived at the expense of his followers, he lived abstemiously, if not obsessively frugally, keeping balls of old string and cutting any unused pieces of paper from his letters, with tea drinking and travel being his major physical indulgences. He lived reclusively partly to protect his aura from the black magnetic influences of the unspiritual and from the millions of evil earth-bound spirits. He did not want people to know he was Jewish and had plastic surgery on his nose and in the mid 1950's and prescribed the same to the Massons.
Jacques Masson had travelled to India in 1946 and stayed with Brunton for four months and became his disciple. Brunton made many spiritual promises and predictions of "illumination" to Masson senior that did not eventuate. Family disillusionment did not set in for nearly 15 years until Brunton (who had always claimed to be involved in cosmic battles with unseen malignant forces which manifested themselves as "communists") foretold a nuclear holocaust in the early 1960's because the world was ''sex-ridden' and he advised his disciples to move to South America where they could survive in a few chosen localities. Many of them migrated, at great personal cost to the less wealthy, but Brunton did not move to South America and the war (as you probably know) did not eventuate.
Jacques Masson was a wealthy diamond dealer who had only let his spiritual beliefs interfere with his business instincts on a few occasions (to his financial loss) and this failure of prediction was not enough to end his connection with Brunton. However, in their South American travels the family met people who were involved in more sophisticated and apparently joyful and spiritually rewarding groups which gave them a different perspective of Brunton's claims.
The most salient points that emerge from the book include:
- The problems that arise when members of a family with differing personalities and intensity of belief live with a demanding guru, especially one who condemns normal activities such as sex, eating for pleasure and "ego." By claiming that sexuality and "spiritual progress" are incompatible, Brunton, who obsessively discussed the sex life of others, created the classic Catch 22 for his devotees. As sexual abstinence is impossible for the majority of men (the only sex I have personal knowledge of), there is a perfect reason for their lack of spiritual attainment.
- Brunton tried to avoid making any open, specific claims about himself while constantly hinting and alluding to his advanced state and experiences with nod, nod, wink, wink responses. This is standard operating procedure amongst more reticent gurus.
- The constant deception that can be part of the "spiritual life" - especially when your guru wishes to remain relatively incognito except to followers. Brunton was openly polite when meeting other spiritual teachers or mystics but then disparaged their beliefs and experiences with his followers behind their backs. They didn't seem to see this hypocrisy and spite as unworthy of a "realised soul".
- The instant changes to doctrine that can occur eg when Brunton decided to get married to a girl half his age after denigrating marriage and sex for years.
- The intense if not insoluble problems raised amongst normal teenage boys by the requirement of celibacy in spiritual practice.
- Jacques Masson was a wealthy man who travelled freely and enjoyed the association with Brunton even if it had been ultimately futile and Brunton's charlatinism had become obvious. His much poorer brother who had not enjoyed the same worldly success and had invested a far higher percentage of his emotional and financial capital in Brunton's delusional belief system was eventually enraged by Brunton's actions especially over the move to South America. Relationship with a guru can be a fascinating frisson to a wealthy person but can create real hardships for the idealistic poor.
- Brunton was a complex and unusual man who travelled through India in the 1930's as a journalist, had beliefs about communists and his ongoing spiritual battles with evil spirits that seem obviously paranoid and delusional, used the belief in him by others to his own minor social and financial advantage but mainly lived abstemiously and reclusively again to a point that appears neurotic but enjoyed that natural environment, walks at sundown, etc and seemed happeir to be considered a friend than a guru. Like most of us he does not allow for a simple explanation but I see no need to introduce the supernatural to adequately explain his life.
At 19 Jeffrey Masson went to Harvard to learn Sanskrit so he could study the Indian scriptures directly and help Brunton in his writing. It did not take too much expertise in Sanskrit and experience in academia for him to realise Brunton's limitations and deceptions and that he was a populist charlatan. Nevertheless when at a family gathering he interrogated Brunton as to the origin of his phony credentials as a doctor his family's politeness would not allow the 22 year old Masson to continue his public humiliation of Brunton even when he detected him attempting to lift the table at a seance.
After the South American fiasco Brunton moved to Switzerland where he lived quietly and reclusively continuing to add to his notebooks which were published posthumously in 16 volumes.
There is a Brunton home page at www.paulbrunton.org/ but he did not have enough followers to generate the controversy that would create opponents on the Internet.
- Search in Secret India
Search in Secret Egypt
The Secret Path
Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga
Quest of the Overself
Wisdom of the Overself
The Notebooks of Paul Brunton Series,Vol. 1 - 16
- MY FATHER'S GURU: A Journey Through Spirituality and Disillusion
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.
As every psychiatrist will recognize, Brunton's beliefs about himself and the world constitute a paranoid delusional system. Mental hospitals contain many patients holding closely similar beliefs that are labeled delusions because they are impervious to reason and obviously fantastic. So how do gurus like Brunton survive? The ordinary paranoid psychotic usually gets into trouble because his delusions cannot be shared and therefore isolate him socially. Eventually he usually engages in some form of bizarre or antisocial behavior that causes him to be deemed mentally ill. But if he can share his beliefs, the picture is entirely different.
Gurus like Brunton survive in the community because they succeed in imposing their delusion on others through their writings and teaching. So long as they retain disciples, they can function socially and continue to find support for the delusion of possessing special powers that has become necessary to maintain their self-esteem. We may marvel at the gullibility of Masson's father, but we are none of us immune to taking on irrational beliefs, especially if social circumstances become chaotic or hopeless. What we don't know is why some people feel a strong need for gurus even when life if good, while others remain entirely unimpressed. Brunton was a harmless guru compared with Jim Jones or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. But, as I'm sure Jeffrey Masson would agree, all gurus eventually turn out to have feet of clay.
from a review in The Washington Post, Anthony Storr, February 19, 1993~
[The reviewer is a psychiatrist and fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. His most recent book (2002) is "Music and the Mind."]
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