David Godman explains his memories about Nisargadatta Maharaj
One afternoon two of us waded through the floodwaters to Maharaj’s door. We were both staying in a cheap lodge about 200 yards away, so it wasn’t that much of a trek. We scrubbed off the filth with water from a tap on the ground floor and made our way up to Maharaj’s room. He seemed very surprised to see us. I think he thought that the floods would keep everyone away. He said in Marathi that there would be no session that afternoon because none of the translators would be able to make it. I assume he wanted us to leave and go home, but we both pretended that we didn’t understand what he was trying to tell us. After one or two more unsuccessful attempts to persuade us to go, he gave up and sat in a corner of the room with a newspaper in front of his face so that we couldn’t even look at him. I didn’t care. I was just happy to be sitting in the same room as him. I sat there in absolute silence with him for over an hour and it was one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had with him. I felt an intense rock-solid silence descend on me that became deeper and deeper as the minutes passed. There was just a glow of awareness that filled me so completely, thoughts were utterly impossible. You don’t realise what a monstrous imposition the mind is until you have lived without it, completely happily, completely silently, and completely effortlessly for a short period of time. For most of this time I was looking in the direction of Maharaj. Sometimes he would turn a page and glance in our direction, and when he did he still seemed to be irritated that we hadn’t left. I was smiling inwardly at his annoyance because it wasn’t touching me in any way. I had no self-consciousness, no embarrassment, no feeling of being an imposition. I was just resting contentedly in my own being.
After just over an hour of this he got up and shooed us both out. I prostrated and left. Later on, I wondered why he didn’t sit in silence more often since there was clearly a very powerful quietening energy coming off him when he was silent. Ramana Maharshi said that speaking actually interrupted the flow of the silent energy he was giving out. I have often wondered if the same thing happened with Maharaj.
Harriet: And what was your conclusion?
David: I realised that it was not his nature to keep quiet. His teaching method was geared to arguing and talking. That’s what he felt most comfortable doing.
Harriet: Can you elaborate on that a little more?
David: I should qualify what I am about to say by stating that most of it is just my own opinion, based on observing him deal with the people who came to him. It doesn’t come from anything I heard him say himself.
When people first came to see him, he would encourage them to talk about their background. He would try to find out what spiritual path you were on, and what had brought you to him. In the face of Maharaj’s probing questions visitors would end up having to justify their world-view and their spiritual practices. This would be one level of the interaction. At a deeper and more subtle level Maharaj would be radiating an energy, a sakti, that quietened your mind and made you aware of what lay underneath the mind and all its ideas and concepts. Now imagine these two processes going on simultaneously. With his mind the questioner has just constructed and articulated a version of his world-view. Underneath, though, he will be feeling the pull of his beingness, the knowledge of what is truly real, as opposed to the ideas that he merely thinks to be real. Maharaj’s energy will be enhancing awareness of that substratum all the time. At some point the questioner will become acutely aware of what seem to be two competing realities: the conceptual structure he has just outlined, and the actual experience that underlies it. There was a certain look that appeared on some people’s faces when this happened: a kind of indecisive ‘which way should I go?’ look. Sometimes the questioner would realise immediately that all his ideas and beliefs were just concepts. He would drop them and rest in the beingness instead. This, for me, was the essence of Maharaj’s teaching technique. He wouldn’t try to convince you by argument. He would instead make you argue yourself into a position that you felt to be true, and then he would undercut that position by giving you a taste of the substratum that underlay all concepts. If you were ready for it, you would drop your attachment to your concepts and rest in what lay underneath them. If not, you would blunder ahead, going deeper and deeper into the minefield of the mind. Some people got it quickly. Others, who were desperate for a structure to cling to, would come back again and again with questions that were designed merely to refine their understanding of his teachings.
Talking to visitors and arguing with them was an essential part of this technique. For it to work effectively Maharaj required that visitors talk about themselves and their world-view because he needed them to see that all these ideas were just concepts having no ultimate reality. He needed people to look at their concepts, understand their uselessness and then reject them in favour of direct experience.
I should mention here the limitations he put on the types of question that he was willing to answer. He would sometimes tell new people, ‘I am not interested in what you have heard or read. I am not interested in second-hand information that you have acquired from somewhere else. I am only interested in your own experience of yourself. If you have any questions about that, you can ask me.’
Later, after you had had your initial dialogues with him, he would introduce an even more stringent test for questions: ‘I am not interested in answering questions that assume the existence of an individual person who inhabits a body. I don’t accept the existence of such an entity, so for me such questions are entirely hypothetical.’
This second constraint was a real conversation killer. You couldn’t say, ‘How do I get enlightened?’ or ‘What do I do?’ because all such questions presuppose the existence of an ‘I’, an assumption that Maharaj always used to reject.
I still have vivid memories of him listening as translators explained in Marathi what some questioner had said. As he understood the gist of what the question was Maharaj’s face would sometimes turn to a scowl. He would clench his fist, bang it on the floor and shout ‘Kalpana! Kalpana!’ which means ‘Concept! Concept!’ That would sometimes be the only answer the questioners would get. Maharaj was definitely not interested in massaging visitor’s concepts. He wanted people to drop them, not discuss them.
When this second restriction effectively cut off most of the questions that people like to ask Gurus, Maharaj would fill the vacuum by giving talks about the nature of consciousness. Day after day he would continue with the same topic, often using the same analogies. He would explain how it arises, how it manifests and how it subsides. In retrospect I think he was doing what the ancient rishis of India did when they told their disciples ‘You are Brahman’. When a jnani who is established in Brahman as Brahman says to a disciple, ‘You are Brahman,’ he is not merely conveying a piece of information. There is a power and an authority in the words that, in certain cases, makes the listener become and experience Brahman as he hears the words. This is a power and an authority that only jnanis have. Other people can say ‘You are consciousness,’ ‘You are Brahman,’ endlessly, but these will just be pieces of information that you can store in your mind. When a jnani tells you this, the full authority of his state and the full force that lies behind it are conveyed in the statement. If you take delivery of that information in the heart, in consciousness, then you experience that state for yourself. If you take delivery in your mind, you just store it there as an interesting piece of information.
When Maharaj told you endlessly ‘You are consciousness,’ if you received that information in utter inner silence, it activated an awareness of consciousness to such an extent that you felt, ‘He isn’t just telling me something; he is actually describing what I am, right now in this moment’.