Maugham, like Hermann Hesse, was remarkably prescient, anticipating an embrace of Eastern culture by Americans and Europeans almost a decade before the Beats were to popularise it. (It should be noted that Americans had explored Eastern philosophy prior to these authors, notably in the first half of the nineteenth century by the Transcendentalists.) Maugham himself visited Sri Ramana Ashram, where he had a direct interaction with Ramana Maharshi in Tamil Nadu, India in 1938. Maugham's suggestion that he "invented nothing" was a source of annoyance for Christopher Isherwood, who helped him translate a verse 1.3.14 from the Katha Upanishads for the novel's epigraph – उत्तिष्ठ जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत | क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति || (uttiṣṭha jāgrata prāpya varān nibodhata| kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā durga pathas tat kavayo vadanti|| ) – which means "Rise, wake up, seek the wise and realize. The path is difficult to cross like the sharpened edge of the razor (knife), so say the wise."
Many thought Isherwood, who had built his own literary reputation by then and was studying Indian philosophy, was the basis for the book's hero. Isherwood went so far as to write Time magazine denying this speculation. It has also been suggested that a man called Guy Hague was an important influence in the character of Darrell, although it now appears that he was not at Ramanasramam when Maugham visited. The English poet and translator Lewis Thompson is thought to be a more likely candidate. David Haberman has pointed out that Ronald Nixon, an Englishman who took monastic vows and became known as Krishna Prem, served as a fighter pilot in the First World War and experienced a crisis of meaninglessness that was "strikingly similar" to that experienced by Larry.