Jeffrey Masson’s father’s guru PB Brunton, known in the family as PB, unlike Sri Ramakrishna, was not given to ecstatic fits or animal possession. A small neat man with a pointed beard he inspired the devotion of Masson’s father Jacques and his uncle Bernard without performing any spectacular feats.
This book is a fascinating look at a childhood and youth spent in the company of a man given to gnomic utterances and highly revered by Masson’s parents and his uncle. The Masson family were diamond merchants and the original family name was Moussaieff. His father changed their family name to Masson but his great grandfather was a Bukharan Jew, Shlomo Moussaieff, and a student of the Kabbala. Perhaps this is where Jacques and his brother Bernard gained their passionate interest in the development of spiritual powers. They were quite competitive about this and vied for the favour of PB Brunton.
Brunton lived with the Masson family during Jeffrey’s youth and adolescence, and for this time he regarded Brunton as the font of knowledge on all questions related to the spiritual. The father and uncle seemed to be more interested in gaining the ability to read minds, but in order to move to a higher plane they were prepared to go through the rigours of fasting and sleeplessness prescribed by Brunton. He himself slept very little, seemingly a characteristic of the guru.
Masson gives quite a sympathetic account of his parents but does question their wisdom in leaving him so much under the influence of Brunton. The opening words of his Introduction show Brunton at his most enigmatic (and what a fantastic opening line.)
‘PB why is it you don’t drive a car?’ I asked Paul Brunton, my father’s guru.
He smiled, somewhat mysteriously, and waited rather a long time before answering. The smile conveyed to me he was remembering times long past, that there were things he could not yet tell me…Children invest a great deal in certain adults. For me he was one of those adults. I was perhaps ten, he was about fifty.
‘Jeffrey, on Venus there are no cars.’
I waited for more explanation, but he looked off into a vast distance, and I knew no further answer would be forthcoming. And how could I ask for more? Had he not just hinted- forget hinting, he had as much as said that he came from Venus. PB was from Venus!
Later Brunton seemed to hint that Sirius was his original home. He did not display any the amazing feats of trance or mystical insight shown by Ramakrishna. But he spoke about The Mind of Being, he professed knowledge about past lives and a strong belief in the protective nature of the Overself. His technique for avoiding awkward questions was always to stare meaningfully off into the distance as if to say, ‘my lips are sealed.’
Although relentlessly questioning Brunton, Jeffrey Masson could not get answers that satisfied him. His parents were more accepting. In 1956 Brunton convinced them a third world war was imminent and the family moved to Montevideo.
From here Jeffrey Masson went to university to study Sanskrit and gradually became aware that Brunton had no real knowledge of the language, apart from words he had learned by heart in India. It became clear to Masson Brunton was himself deluded about his powers.
Given the influence of Brunton on his life and his doubt about the wisdom of much of that, Jeffrey gives a loving portrait of his family life lived in proximity to this odd man. As usual his father and other supporters were picking up the tab, but Masson comes to the conclusion that Brunton was not a deliberate fraud. His final view of him is compassionate.
Growing up with ‘greatness’ left its mark on Masson, though. Used to questioning PB and expecting his opinion to count, Masson found, when he arrived at university his teachers were mostly unimpressed by his views and unwilling to engage in dialogue with him. Also he was woefully behind in many areas of study. His knowledge of literature was abysmal. A steep learning curve faced him before he became a Sanskrit scholar at Harvard, gained a PhD and taught in a university. From there he became a psychoanalyst and has written a fascinating account of his researches in the Freud Institute and his disenchantment with Freud, which caused him to become a pariah in the psychoanalytic community.
Perhaps the habit of questioning he gained through living with PB never left him and in what was essentially a shrine to Freud administered by his daughter Anna, Masson could not refrain from digging deeper.
Today he lives in New Zealand, is vegan and a passionate advocate for humane treatment of animals about which he has written books with titles like, The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats, When Elephants Weep, and one I intend to review soon, The Pig who Sang to the Moon.