Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj was an Indian spiritual teacher, philosopher and a Guru. One of the most acclaimed 20th century’s exponents of the school of Advaita non-dualism (which says that there is just One Eternal Spirit in existence, and that everything in the Universe derives from it and is an inseparable part of it), Sri Nisargadatta, with his direct and minimalistic explanation, is considered the most famous teacher of Advaita. In 1973, the publication of his most famous and widely translated book, “I Am That”, an English translation of his talks, brought him worldwide recognition and followers.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj came to life on April 17, 1897, at break of dawn to a devout Hindu couple in Bombay, India. He grew up amidst his family of six siblings, two brothers and four sisters, and deeply religious parents. His father worked as a domestic servant in Mumbai and later became a petty farmer.
As a young boy while observing the village life he developed a liking for tending cattle, tilling land and gardening. He particularly liked taking household cattle for grazing far in the open. He spent happy time in the jungle with the young herdsmen of his age.
The mystery of nature always posed him with a problem. How, when there is nothing but soil in the field, abundant grains come out of it? How is it that mangoes come out of the tree? Why the seed of a cashew fruit is outside the fruit when all the other fruits have their seeds inside them?
These and such other mysterious questions tormented his young mind. Adult replies did not satisfy him. The mysterious and wonderful play of nature enthralled his mind and provided him inspiration for love of the Universe. He was from the very beginning of an obliging nature. He immediately responded to a needy call. In times of distress he ran to help them put out fires, pull out a cattle from a well, etc. For this, he made no distinction as between castes.
How did poverty still exist when the world had long been in existence? When the villages were very old why were pathways leading to them so primitive and difficult? When all human beings were similar, why are we regarded high and the others low? Such questions tormented him. If the world existed before I was born, how was it that I did not know that it was there? He brooded over such occult questions also.
In 1915, after his father died, he moved to Bombay to support his family back home, following his elder brother. Initially he worked as a junior clerk at an office but quickly he opened a small goods store, mainly selling beedis – leaf-rolled cigarettes. Owing to his industrious and friendly nature, he started getting stability in business and soon owned a string of eight retail shops.
In 1924 he married and had three daughters and a son.
In 1933, he was introduced to his guru, Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj by a friend. His guru told him, “You are not what you take yourself to be…”. He then gave Nisargadatta simple instructions which he followed verbatim, as he himself recounted later:
“My Guru ordered me to attend to the sense ‘I am’ and to give attention to nothing else. I just obeyed. I did not follow any particular course of breathing, or meditation, or study of scriptures. Whatever happened, I would turn away my attention from it and remain with the sense ‘I am’. It may look too simple, even crude. My only reason for doing it was that my Guru told me so. Yet it worked!”
Following his guru’s instructions to concentrate on the feeling “I Am”, he utilized all his spare time looking at himself in silence, and remained in that state for the coming years, practising meditation and singing devotional songs.
After an association that lasted hardly two and a half years, Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj died on November 9, 1936, though by that time he had done his task. Maruti (Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s name at birth) had reached self-awareness. Soon he adopted a new name, “Nisargadatta” meaning “naturally given” in the unfragmented, seamless, solid Awareness.
In 1937, he left Mumbai and travelled across India. Through realising the shortcomings of a totally unworldly life and the greater spiritual fruitfulness of dispassionate action, he eventually returned to his family in Mumbai in 1938. It was there that he spent the rest of his life.
According to Sri Nisargadatta the purpose of spirituality is to know who you are, a viewpoint he expounded in the talks he gave at his humble flat in Mumbai, where a mezzanine room was created for him to receive disciples and visitors.
Sri Nisargadatta stated that our true nature is perpetually free peaceful awareness, referred to as Brahman. Awareness is the source of, but different from, the personal, individual consciousness, which is related to the body. The mind and memory are responsible for association with a particular body; awareness exists prior to both mind and memory. It is only the idea that we are the body that keeps us from living what he calls our “original essence”, the True Self, referred to as Atman.
He describes this essence as pure, free, and unaffected by anything that occurs. He likens it to a silent witness that watches through the body’s senses, yet is not moved, either to happiness or sadness, based on what it sees.
For Nisargadatta, the Self is not one super-entity which knows independently, regardless of things; there is no such super-entity, no Creator with infinite intellect. God does not exist independently from creation. What does exist is the “total acting” (or functioning) of the Ultimate or Absolute Reality along the infinite varying forms in manifestation. This Absolute Reality is identical to the Self.
Nisargadatta’s teachings also focus on our notion of causality as being misinterpreted. He understood that the interconnectedness of varying forces in the universe is so vast and innumerable that the notion of causality, as presently understood, is wasted. The endless factors required for anything to happen means that, at most, one can say everything creates everything; even the choices we make are predetermined by our genetic code, upbringing, mental strivings and limitations, our ethical and philosophical ideals, etc., all of which are uniquely combined to each person and recontextualized accordingly.
This leads to the radical notion that there is no such thing as a “doer”. According to him and other teachers of Vedanta, since our true nature or identity is not the mind, is not the body, but the witness of the mind and body, we, as pure awareness, do nothing. The mind and body act of their own accord, and we are the witness of them, though the mind often believes it is the doer. This false idea (that the mind is the self and responsible for actions) is what keeps us from recognizing our Self. Nisargadatta cautions:
“The life force (prana) and the mind are operating (of their own accord), but the mind will tempt you to believe that it is “you”. Therefore understand always that you are the timeless spaceless witness. And even if the mind tells you that you are the one who is acting, don’t believe the mind. […] The apparatus [mind, body] which is functioning has come upon your original essence, but you are not that apparatus.”
He talked about the ‘direct way’ of knowing the Final Reality, in which one becomes aware of one’s original nature through the practice of meditation. In addition, he proposed to use one’s mental faculty to break from the unreal to the real, and the mind’s false identification with the ego, simply by listening to and constantly thinking over what the master has said, and knowing that “You are already ‘That’”.
Self-realisation had made Sri Maharaj cool towards the ups and downs, the happiness and misery in his life. The loss of a dear daughter, devoted wife and a revered mother during the years 1942 to 1948 and the severe loss in his business did not ruffle him. On the contrary, these shocks hardened his dispassion. Owing to lack of attention, his landed property was literally thrown to the winds. Braving great miseries one after other, he once coolly exclaimed, “Fortunate shall I be, if miseries do befall me.”
Experiencing his spiritual height and powers, his well wishers and devotees started gathering around him. To avoid distraction he used to avoid them. If some one persisted, he cut him short by giving him a short shrift. The well-wishers and the devotees were, likewise, irresistibly attracted towards him. They used to get their spiritual doubts and difficulties cleared by him. Mundane matters were a taboo with him.
He is against using spiritual powers (siddhis) for performing miracles. Most of his time of the day being spent in his shop, the spiritual discussions used to be in front of his shop. Some aspirant or other was always seen standing in front of his shop. To avoid encumbrances he never used to invite others to him or to go to them.
After he retired from his shop in 1966, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj continued to receive and teach visitors in his home, giving discourses twice a day, until his death on September 8, 1981 at the age of 84, of throat cancer.
Many of Nisargadatta Maharaj’s talks were recorded, and these recordings form the basis of “I Am That” and all of his other books. His words are free from cultural and religious trappings, and the knowledge he expounds is stripped bare of all that is unnecessary.
Summed up in the words of Advaita scholar and a disciple, Dr. Robert Powell, “Like the Zen masters of old, Nisargadatta’s style is abrupt, provocative, and immensely profound — cutting to the core and wasting little effort on inessentials. His terse but potent sayings are known for their ability to trigger shifts in consciousness, just by hearing, or even reading them.”