An interview with Lucia Osborne
Lucia Osborne came to India in 1942 and settled at Sri Ramanasramam soon after. Sher preceded her husband, Arthur Osborne, who was to follow but was placed in an internment camp for for several years before the end of World War II. They built a cottage at the foot of the sacred mountain, Arunachala, where they spent the latter part of their life with Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Malcolm Tillis: I was just thinking that you must be Bhagavan’s (Ramana Maharshi) last living Western disciple who knew him in the flesh. How did you meet him?
Lucia Osborne: The last? Oh yes, perhaps I am. You see, my husband was teaching at the University of Bangkok; at the time, I was interested — very interested — in sculpture. I was involved in a sort of self-inquiry; it wasn’t “Who am I?” but “Who are you?” Someone sent us a booklet on Bhagavan with a picture. I saw the face and thought: “That’s the most fascinating face I’ve ever seen, the most living and, at the same time, the most serene. It would make a marvelous subject for a sculpture.” That was my first idea. I had been trying to find out who I am since childhood, wondering, asking, judging.
MT: Where did you spend your childhood?
LO: In Poland. I was born there. In Poland, we are interested in physical beauty. I thought I was ugly when I looked in the mirror; I was horrified.
There was a girl at school who was really beautiful, and I thought I would like to change with her. I didn’t know about transplants then, but I was thinking, “Could we change the heart or brain?” Then I thought: “Am I the heart and brain?” That started it: who am I really? But in Siam, I was caught up in sculpture, and all that lapsed. When we came to India, we had three small children; the youngest wasn’t even a year old.
MT: When was that?
LO: 1943—no—beginning of 1942. Our friends arranged for us to stay in Kashmir to avoid the hot season, although my husband wanted to come straight to the Ashram. Since he was a schoolboy he had been interested in spirituality. It was he who brought me to it.
After a few months, the British High Commissioner said women and children shouldn’t go back to Siam as the war was getting serious. My husband went back to his post, and we were offered a house here. I was then able to meet Bhagavan. I had some preconceived ideas, but when I saw him—oh! . . . everything fell away. His eyes were transparent, looking through you. When you sat with him, there was a feeling of oneness, everything is one, is one, is one!
MT: Was he speaking in those days?
LO: Yes, of course, I spoke with him; I used to show him my letters. My children were the first Western children who came here; they were made a tremendous fuss of. From that meeting, all my interest in sculpture fell away, no longer important. So that’s how it started.
MT: What age were you then?
LO: Now I’m seventy-six—I’ll soon be seventy-seven—so I suppose I was, yes, thirty-eight. I have spent exactly half my life here. Now although I had no news from my husband for four years—not one letter—nothing mattered.
MT: That was because of the war?
LO: He was interned: they interned all Westerners, although he was a civilian.
It may have been some sort of test for us. I sent my three-year-old son to Bhagavan. He said, “Bhagavan, please bring my daddy back safely.” From that moment, I didn’t worry.
MT: What were your early days like with Bhagavan?
LO: We all ask ourselves why we are here; what’s the purpose of life? I found from the beginning you get all the answers here; in fact, you don’t have to ask any questions. By sitting in Bhagavan’s presence, everything was resolved. When I came, I knew the most important thing is to find out who you really are. Those who are sincere get glimpses of that state, and they know. From that, the striving to make the experience steady starts.
In Bhagavan’s presence, the silence was so powerful; it was the most potent teaching. Words, he used to say, are diffused silence. So, bathed in that silence, you were, so to say, out of yourself. All your cares were thrown among the lilies to use a beautiful expression. That was sadhana.
You know, after he passed away, people thought we would become desolate. Nothing of the sort. To my surprise, I was walking on air; there was a feeling of elation. Do you know why? Suddenly you realized he is the inner guru dwelling in the heart, ever present.
He had said, “I’m not going anywhere; where can I go?”
Since then, you can feel his presence more than ever. That’s why people come here more and more. They experience that radiation.
MT: Can you share some of the more personal incidents you experienced with Bhagavan?
LO: He was so exact, and nothing was wasted. Once, I saw him bend down to pick up three grains of rice from the floor. It was like seeing the Divine before you. Every act, every moment expressed this. He had a thousand faces. He had stilled the mind, but that didn’t mean he was like a block of wood. On the contrary, he was not hemmed by individual thought. He was omniscient. He was the master of thoughts, not its slave.
MT: You were fortunate to be drawn to a living saint.
LO: Yes, we must find a genuine guru, genuine. He who has not found the way himself, how can he lead, except through all sorts of byways?
Those really sincere find the way. The real guru is the inner guru of the heart. The outer guru is his decoy, who creates conditions to turn you to the inner guru.
MT: What were Bhagavan’s teachings about leaving the physical body at the time of its death?
LO: The body is but a garment. We don’t die; we never die. Schopenhauer said, “There isn’t an inch of ground that hasn’t been a human being.” Why? We drop the physical body, it turns into earth, a tree grows, that eventually turns into coal or ash; it’s a perpetual mobile.
Our life here is like a moment in which we prepare our future state. It’s very important what we do now. I had to give a speech in Bombay. I told them, “Do you know what your real bank account is? Not what you have, but what you do. That goes with you; everything else is left behind.”
It’s important how one lives because our thoughts go with us at the time of this physical death; they determine our future, most definitely. This is also according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Death can be a wonderful experience; it’s a transition.
You can almost say that our life is death and our death a rebirth. To go into the Beyond is our true birth.
What is encouraging is earnest effort; it never fails. People sometimes say no effort is necessary; you are there already. But we are as we are, with all our inherited tendencies. We should be as we should be. Yes, we are It already, but we have to work hard to know It, experience It.
Knowing It intellectually isn’t enough. If you want to learn to play the piano or to ski, it requires effort until it becomes effortless. So why shouldn’t this apply when the objective is infinity? Do you agree?
MT: Yes, I do.
I wonder, have you met during your long years in India any other enlightened saints?
LO: No one came up to Bhagavan. He was extraordinary. Just to see him walk, just to watch his actions, they conveyed something. And I want you to really understand about his silence; it was most potent. With others, such silence could be embarrassing . . . I won’t say any more.
– – – – – – –
Malcolm Tillis was a musician with the Halle Orchestra during the 1950s. He and his wife, British novelist Kate Christie, lived in India for eleven years. Returning to India for eighteen months, from approximately 1979-1980, they traveled throughout the country, interviewing men and women who had given up their lives in the West in search of spiritual renewal in India.
From Turning East: New Lives in India: Twenty Westerners and Their Spiritual Quests. Edited by Malcolm Tillis and Cynthia Giles. Reprinted by arrangement with Element Books.