Remembering Nisargadatta Maharaj

David Godman explains his memories about Nisargadatta Maharaj

Harriet: Were the translators all good? I have been told that some were better than others.

David: Yes, there were good ones and not-so-good ones. I think everyone knew who was good and who was not, but that didn’t result in the good ones being called on to do the work if they happened to be there. There seemed to be some process of seniority at work. The translators who had been there the longest were called on first, irrespective of ability, and those who might have done a better job would have to wait until these more senior devotees were absent. When I first went a man called Sapre did most of the morning translations. He was very fluent and seemed to have a good grasp of Maharaj’s teachings, but he interpolated a lot of his own stuff in his English answers. Two sentences from Maharaj might turn into a two-minute speech from Sapre. Even though most of us didn’t know any Marathi, we knew that he must be making up a lot of his stuff simply because he was talking for so long. Several people complained to Maharaj about this, but he always supported Sapre and generally got angry with the people who complained about him. That was the cause of the outburst I just mentioned. Maharaj thought I was yet another person complaining about Sapre’s translations.

Mullarpattan was next down the pecking order. I liked him because he was very literal. Possibly not quite as fluent as some of the others, but he scored points with me because he stuck to the script both ways. I once asked Maharaj a question through him, and when the answer came back, it made absolutely no sense at all. Mullarpattan, though, was beaming at me as if he had just delivered some great pearl of wisdom.

I thought about it again and it still made no sense, so I said, somewhat apologetically, ‘I don’t understand any of that answer. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.’

‘I know,’ replied Mullarpattan, ‘it didn’t make any sense to me either. But that’s what Maharaj said and that’s what I translated.’

Somewhat relieved, I asked him to tell Maharaj that neither of us had understood what he had said and requested him to explain the topic a little differently. Then we got on with the conversation.

I really respected Mullarpattan for this. He didn’t try to put some sense into the answer, and he didn’t tell Maharaj that his answer didn’t make any sense. He just translated the words for me in a literal way because those were the words that Maharaj had intended me to hear.

Right at the bottom, in terms of seniority anyway, was Ramesh Balsekar. He didn’t come to see Maharaj until some point in 1978. I thought this was unfortunate because in my opinion, and in the opinion of many of the other foreigners there, he was by far the most skilful of all the translators. He had a good understanding of the way foreign minds worked and expressed themselves, and a good enough intellect and memory to remember and translate a five-minute rambling monologue from a visitor. He was so obviously the best, many of us would wait until it was his turn to translate. That meant there were occasionally some long, embarrassing silences when the other translators were on duty. Everyone was waiting for them to be absent so that Balsekar could translate for them.

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David Godman explains his memories about Nisargadatta Maharaj

Harriet: From what you are saying, I get the feeling that Maharaj had a great respect for the foreigners who came because they came looking for the truth about themselves, not for some palliative, a practice or belief that would keep them happy for a while.

David: In one sense, yes. I did hear him say a couple of times that he respected the fact that we had all abandoned our lives in the West in order to come to India in search of liberation, but that didn’t mean that in practice he treated us respectfully. We all got shouted at on various occasions, and we all got told off from time to time because of things we did or said. We were all a little fearful of him because we never knew when the next eruption would come. We had all come to have the dirt beaten out of us, in the same way that the dhobis clean clothes by smashing them on rocks. Maharaj smashed our egos, our minds and our concepts on the immovable rock of the Self because he knew that in most cases that was the only way to help us.

I told you a few minutes ago that Maharaj discounted all theories of reincarnation, but he did tell one story that possibly indicated that we had all been searching for God in India before.

‘At the end of the Ramayana,’ he said, ‘all the animals who had helped Ram to win the war were given rewards. The monkeys were all told that they could go to a monkey heaven. Now, what is heaven to a monkey? Vast quantities of food, lots of fighting, and limitless sex. So, all the monkeys were reborn as human beings in the West in the twentieth century to experience their idea of “heaven”. After some time, though, they all began to get bored of all this excess. One by one, they all started coming back to India because they wanted to find Ram and be with him again.’

Harriet: What did he shout at you for?

David: I remember one time trying to talk to him about effort. I think I was talking about the various efforts I had made to realise the Self. This was soon after I started going to see him. I didn’t realise at the time that the word ‘effort’ was a no-no in that room. He really didn’t like anyone using it. The idea that there was a person who did something to achieve some spiritual state was a complete anathema to him. He seemed to feel that it showed a complete lack of understanding of his teachings.

When he started to get annoyed with me for using the word, I just ploughed ahead, thinking innocently that he probably hadn’t understood what I was trying to say. The more I attempted to describe my ‘efforts’ and justify them, the more annoyed he got with me. I ended up getting an earful about my wrong understanding and wrong attitude. I was quite taken aback at the time. I had never come across a teacher before who disparaged hard work and effort on the spiritual path. On the contrary, all the others I had encountered had heartily endorsed such activities. That’s why I initially thought that there must have been some kind of misunderstanding. I realised later that when Maharaj spoke, he wasn’t giving instructions that he wanted you to act on. He was simply telling you who and what you were. You were supposed to understand and experience what he was talking about, not turn it into a practice. Making a practice out of it simply confirmed for him that you hadn’t really understood what he was saying. One question that always rubbed him up the wrong way was, ‘Yes, Maharaj, I understand intellectually what you are saying, but what do I do to actually experience it?’ If you said that, you didn’t understand him, or what he was trying to do, at all.

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David Godman explains his memories about Nisargadatta Maharaj

Harriet: Ramesh Balsekar used to say, ‘The only effective effort is the immediate apperception of reality’. Some people would take that to mean that if you don’t get the direct experience as the Guru, in this case Maharaj, is talking to you, you are not going to get it at all. Are you sure you are not just suffering from a case of wishful thinking?

David: There is something in what you say. If you could keep your intellect out of the way when Maharaj was speaking, his words, and the authority behind them, would do their work. When he spoke he wasn’t asking you to join in the process at all. How could he be asking you to do anything when he knew that you didn’t exist? He wasn’t asking you to understand, and he wasn’t saying, ‘Do this and you will be enlightened’. He wasn’t addressing you at all. He was directing his words at the consciousness within you in an attempt to make you aware of who you really were. However, if his words didn’t immediately produce results, he knew that they might deliver the goods later on. Remember what happened in his own case. Siddharameshwar told him that he was Brahman. Nisargadatta struggled with this for three years until he finally dropped his doubts and realised it to be the truth.

There is a power in a jnani’s words and that power does not dissipate two seconds after the jnani has uttered them. It lingers and it carries on being effective; it carries on doing its work.

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David Godman explains his memories about Nisargadatta Maharaj

Harriet: Have you obeyed his instructions? Have you stopped thinking about the teachings?

David: Until you showed up today I hadn’t really thought about the teachings for years. I haven’t even read many of the new books of dialogues that have come out about him. That answer I gave a few minutes ago, ‘The more I listen to Maharaj, the more I understand what Bhagavan is trying to tell me,’ is in one of the books but I didn’t find out until a few years ago.

My former wife Vasanta was reading the book and she said, ‘There is someone here from Ramanasramam. Do you know who it is?’

She read a few lines and I realised that it was me. I used to read I am That cover to cover about once a year, but I don’t even do that any more. Sometimes, if I am in the Ramanasramam library, I pick up I am That and read the opening sequence of chapter twenty-three. It is a beautiful description of the jnani’s state that I never tire of reading. Other than that, I rarely read or think about the teachings any more.

Having said that, I think it would be correct to say that I have more than enough other concepts in my head which are all acting as a herbicide on the words of truth that Maharaj planted within me. However, I have great faith in the irresistible power of Maharaj’s words. Sooner or later they will bear fruit.

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  • We are the creators and creatures of each other, causing and bearing each other’s burden.

  • I find that somehow, by shifting the focus of attention, I become the very thing I look at, and experience the kind of consciousness it has; I become the inner witness of the thing. I call this capacity of entering other focal points of consciousness, love; you may give it any name you like.
    Love says “I am everything”. Wisdom says “I am nothing”. Between the two, my life flows. Since at any point of time and space I can be both the subject and the object of experience, I express it by saying that I am both, and neither, and beyond both.

  • Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image.

  • A quiet mind is all you need. All else will happen rightly, once your mind is quiet. As the sun on rising makes the world active, so does self-awareness affect changes in the mind. In the light of calm and steady self-awareness, inner energies wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part.

  • The world is like a sheet of paper on which something is typed. The reading and the meaning will vary with the reader, but the paper is the common factor, always present, rarely perceived. When the ribbon is removed, typing leaves no trace on the paper. So is my mind – the impressions keep on coming, but no trace is left.

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David Godman explains his memories about Nisargadatta Maharaj

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’.

Harriet: Did this ever happen to you?

David: Yes, and I think that this is what he was referring to when he talked about ‘getting the knowledge’. It wasn’t an intellectual knowledge he was talking about, and it wasn’t Self-realisation either. It was a state in which concepts temporarily dissolved leaving a simple awareness of the being that underlay them. While they lasted the states were very useful; they gave you the conviction and the direct experience that there was something real and enduring that exists whether the mind is there or not.

Harriet: All this is very interesting, but as you have said, a lot of it is your own personal conjecture. Did Maharaj ever confirm himself that this is what he was doing, or trying to do, with the people who came to him?

David: Not directly. He never explained or analysed his teaching methods, or not while I was there. Most of what I have just said comes from my own experience and my own interpretation of what I saw going on there. Other people may have other theories to explain what was going on. However, the facts of the matter are indisputable. People came to Maharaj, had talks or arguments with him, and at some point dropped their accumulation of ideas because they had been convinced that a direct experience invalidated all the long-held cherished notions they had accumulated.

Let me tell you about one conversation I had with because it gives some good circumstantial evidence for what I have just been trying to explain. Firstly, I should mention that I sometimes used to argue with Maharaj simply because I knew that he liked people to argue with him. He seemed to like the cut and thrust of debate, and if no one had anything to say or ask, I would pick up the ball and start a discussion with him.

I can’t remember any more exactly what we talked about on this particular day, but I do remember that we spoke for about five minutes, during which time I was ostensibly pointing out what I claimed were contradictions in his teachings. He, meanwhile, was doing his best to convince me that no contradictions were involved. It was all very good-humoured and I think he knew that I was only disputing with him because, firstly, we both liked talking and arguing about spiritual topics and, secondly, no one else had any urgent questions to ask. After about five minutes, though, he decided to bring the discussion to a close.

‘I don’t think you really understand the purpose of my dialogues here. I don’t say things simply to convince people that they are true. I am not speaking about these matters so that people can build up a philosophy that can be rationally defended, and which is free of all contradictions. When I speak my words, I am not speaking to your mind at all. I am directing my words directly at consciousness. I am planting my words in your consciousness. If you disturb the planting process by arguing about the meaning of the words, they won’t take root there. Once my words have been planted in consciousness, they will sprout, they will grow, and at the appropriate moment they will bear fruit. It’s nothing to do with you. All this will happen by itself. However, if you think about the words too much or dispute their meaning, you will postpone the moment of their fruition.’

All this was said in a very genial tone. However, at this point, he got very, very serious.

Glowering at me he said very sternly, ‘Enough talking. Be quiet and let the words do their work!’

End of conversation.

I always recollect this exchange with happiness and optimism. I feel I have been graced by his presence and further graced by the words of truth he has planted within me. I think those words will always be with me and I know that at the appropriate moment they will bloom.

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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’.

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