Q.342 – Teachings of Nisargadatta and Ramana

Q: Is there a difference in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj?

A (Dennis): This is too general a question, really. The short answer is that the bottom-line message of any teacher of Advaita must be the same, obviously. But the methodology depends upon the teacher lineage. Nisargadatta did have a lineage, although his own style developed somewhat! And Ramana did not have a lineage at all. The absence of a lineage means that what is said lacks rigor and is subject to differing interpretations etc. This is why the recommendation is always to try to find a qualified, traditional teacher.

Q: I do realize that my question was too general and could not be dealt with in a short answer. What I had in my mind was with regard to their approaches to meditation/ self enquiry or the “path” recommended by them. In self enquiry Ramana stated that while enquiring into “who am I?” the I that is enquired into is the individual or the ego and not the Self. According to him, focusing on the ego or I would make one realize that it is a phantom and thus lead one to the Self. Nisargadatta, on the other hand, seems to suggest that one should focus directly on I am, which is the same as the Self. In this sense, I thought there was some difference in their teaching.

 I also read somewhere that Nisargadatta’s  later teachings were more advanced than his earlier teaching. I do not know whether this is correct and if so, in what respect his later teachings were different from his earlier ones.

 I also have a problem with Ramesh Balsekar.  I had met him in Mumbai, have read his books and I find that, like  Acharya Rajneesh(Osho), he is a brilliant writer but the personal lives of both were not quite exemplary. Should one ignore their poor standards of morality and read their writings for  their very clear exposition of their interpretations of advaita, as one goes to a cancer specialist for his expertise and is not concerned about his personal life, or ignore them altogether ?

 I fully agree that one should go to a qualified traditional teacher, but the problem is of finding one and even more difficult to know whether he is genuine. Ideally, the teacher should be one who is self realized, but unfortunately, a truly realized teacher will not declare that he is realized. I find finding a genuine teacher is a minefield and I have decided to continue my Sadhana following the teachings of Ramana and Nisargadatta and hope that when I am ready a teacher will appear and take me further. Incidentally, Nisargadatta said that a personal Guru is not essential, books can be taken as one’s teacher. Further, although Ramana did not have any lineage or sampradAya, as Nisargadatta had, I find his teachings are fully consistent with traditional advaita as formulated by Shankaracharya in his prasthAna traya and are extremely precise and clear and are not open to varying interpretations, nor has anyone, to my knowledge, attempted to do so.

A (Ramesam): Every teacher expresses the Oneness message of Advaita, undoubtedly, in his/her own way. Even though the “bottom-line message of any teacher of Advaita remains to be the same” as already pointed out by Dennis, one can notice some difference or the other prevails in the teaching when examined with a fine comb.  We have to admit that such differences were prevalent even in the very ancient times.

Just like each individual has a unique voice and intonation, the personality and background of the teacher does get reflected somewhere or other in the teaching.  Moreover, in these days of a “commercialized” approach each teacher has to brand himself/herself to be ‘different’ because of the force of circumstances and if not the teacher, we find that it is not uncommon for his/her followers to project a ‘unique selling point’ for their particular favorite teacher.

About the “Who am I” enquiry: Though many people attribute the enquiry starting with the question “Who am I” to Ramana, one finds that Self-inquiry begins with this question in many of our ancient scriptural texts. You find that to be the case in ‘anugita’ in MahabhArata, in aparokshAnubhUti etc.

To my mind, I could be wrong, what Ramana taught or talked about immediately after his understanding of the ultimate Truth was silence.  It is some others who were steeped in the ancient texts who supplied the words to Ramana. Seven questions were initially posed to him by a person who studied the Upanishads. The silent hand signals of Ramana were interpreted by the questioner according to his understanding. These seven questions and answers got expanded and enlarged to 14, then 21 and so on in later versions by his disciples.

Having said that, we have to accept that Ramana popularized the approach of enquiry beginning with the question “Who am I?” and guided many sincere seekers with simple and straight answers to the doubts posed to him.  Such answers of his were later on bundled by his followers as his teachings.  What we have to appreciate is the fact that each of his replies was specifically addressed to that particular seeker asking the question at that specific point of time. Therefore, Ramana’s answer may or may not have validity for another seeker.

Books like ‘upadesa saram’ were written by Ramana at a far later period and these works express the Upanishadic teaching in a condensed form.

Ramana hailed from a traditional Tamil Brahmin family and was educated till something like 11th Standard. In his days children born and brought up in such families were exposed to the orthodox Vedic philosophical systems and cultural practices whether one wanted it or not. So Ramana had this undeniable background.

As some people try to project, it is not correct to say that Ramana’s teaching stopped with understanding the falsity of the egoistic “I” who is the inquirer.  They say that in the equation “tat tvam asi”, his teaching deals with one half only (the tvam padArtha) and leaves the other half. But that is not the full picture. Ramana does ask you to realize that you are That which remains after knowing that there is no one to inquire, and goads you to abide as that nameless formless One.

Nisargadatta Maharaj was totally an uneducated village boy. He belonged to one of the lower classes of the society and hence was not privileged to study Vedas and Upanishads. At the suggestion of a friend of his, he attended the discourses of a teacher who taught him a simple principle to identify what he was not and drop it.

In sentences like “I am so and so”, “I am such and such” or “I am this and this”, the object part keeps changing. So Maruti (Nisargadatta’s original name) was asked to stay with “I am” and try seeing himself without any descriptors like “this” in the above sentences.  In a couple of years of constant meditation on this, he could understand what “I am” meant in the absence of any descriptors. That was his teaching also for all those who approached him.

Later on, he taught that one should give up even “I” and stay as just impersonal, formless, timeless “Amness” or “Beingness.” We see this aspect of his teaching more reflected in the publications that have come up after Maurice Frydman’s “I am That.” As he became aged and nearer to his death, Nisargadatta did emphasize this teaching; but we should also bear in mind that he was refusing to entertain novices for a dialog during his last days and as such his teaching in those times was addressed to advanced students. 

Thus you can see that both the teachers take you from being one with an identifiable name and form to the totally formless, nameless, infinite and indescribable “Whatever-that-is.”

Re: Ramesh Balsekar:  If you liked his clarity in expression, and if you are focused on his teaching, understood it and are with it, how could your attention go to any where else? Does it mean that it is a shortcoming of Ramesh or your mind is playing tricks with you? 

I do not mean to defend or support anything by asking this rhetorical question. (In fact, I have not read any books of Ramesh!). But I may be permitted to say, notwithstanding the glorification by devout followers who may take offence at me, even the most revered Guru was involved in sex, deceit and even murder. It would all depend on how one interprets it. Morality, freedom and compassion are not functions of a code of conduct or belief systems evolved by puny minds for societal regulation. True morality shines when there is no individual. It thrives in Oneness.

Re: A realized Guru:  There are no visibly discernible parameters to identify a realized man. The only ‘touchstone’, in my opinion, is that with increasing understanding  that a man achieves (by this I mean that his mind returns less and less often to its habituated pattern of activity), there will be an increasing disinterest and detachment in worldly matters and corresponding diminishing  desire for anything.

If a person recites all the Upanishads and commentaries to the last t, it does not mean he understood what Truth is. He will be a scholar of Truth and not a Knower of Truth.  It is up to the student and his/her intensity of yearning to understand the Truth. And that is the only thing that counts.

Choosing a teacher and choice of a Guru should not matter in these days of internet and excellent resources available both online and through other media. In ultimate terms, the True Guru is within you, propelling and impelling you to some action. It is up to that inside Teacher when the net of the world gets cast and when it is withdrawn. The only thing you can do is to remain in readiness by demolishing any artificial firewalls and separation boundaries that you erect in the interest of the self-serving ego.

Re: Meditation: It is difficult to cover comprehensively what meditation is in a short space.  It deserves to be addressed as a separate topic by itself. Initially focusing, concentration, name repetition, observation of breath etc. may help train the mind to stay on course and sharpen it so that it can take up self-inquiry without getting diverted by extraneous distractions. After the message of Oneness is imbibed, meditation may again be considered as a doable activity in order to help the seeker to pull back his mind as and when it sways away from the understanding of Oneness. Beyond this, it should be understood that ‘meditation is not what you do, meditation is what you are’, as Rupert Spira says so often.

A (Peter): Namaste Gurudas, I must confess to not having sufficient in-depth knowledge of the writings of the mahatmas you mention to hold a view about their comparative merits. So my response to your question is going to be general.

 You need to ask yourself if your interest is concerned more about non duality or more with realizing the truth of your own self being the unchanging, eternal Reality, one without a second. If your main interest is in the former then, arguably, you cannot find better company than the works of Ramana Maharshi or Nisargadatta Mahārāj – they can be bowed to as inspiring mahātmas but not as teachers. If, however, you are interested in discovering the truth of who you are, then these mahātmas will be less helpful because, strictly speaking, they were not teachers: their great contribution was to inspire by example, speaking from what they knew, without any systematic teaching. By this I mean they did not undertake a systematic unfoldment of the prasthāna traya (Gītā, Upaniṣads, Brahmasutras) and prakarana granthas. Traditional advaita vedānta hold these works to hold the key to self knowledge, mokṣa, and no amount of talking around the subject will lead to the vision of self.

 My second observation arises from your question itself which points to two facts worth noting:

1) That the understanding gained solely from books is not enough on its own: if continuing your ‘sādhana following the teachings of Ramana and Nisargadatta’ was enough all your doubts will be lifted thereby, and there would be no need for this exchange. When Swami Chinmayananda was asked whether book learning was enough or whether one needed a living teacher, he famously responded: Go ask your books.

2) Finding a teacher is not going to happen if, in the romantic belief that when you are ready ‘a teacher will appear’, you do not actually study with the best teacher to your present knowledge. The teacher, together with śāstram, is the pramāṇa (means of knowledge). The pramāṇa needs to be employed for you to experience its effect. Unless you study with a teacher you will not know how effective the teacher is or whether studying with the person you chose is working for you. ‘Working for you’ means that your understanding of who you are deepens and starts to make itself felt in how you live. If the teacher does not help, or when the teacher stops to help, then find another one. (Waiting for a realized master is a recipe for putting off engagement forever, as you will never be in a position to recognize one).

 Finally, in response to your statement about varying interpretations of Ramana’s writings, if you want an unfoldment from a traditional advaita vedānta perspective I can recommend Swamini Atmaprakasanandaji’s talks on Upadesha Sāram. (requires registration).

A (Dennis): The teachings of both, as far as we have access to them, are inevitably episodic since all we have are recorded, and usually translated (not necessarily by someone who could be guaranteed to have understood them) talks as opposed to a systematic unfoldment of an Upanishad for example. So the extent to which a seeker can understand them as they were intended depends upon how thoroughly they have studied all of the other writings and transcriptions. It is all very hit and miss.

The latter transcriptions of Nisargadatta read almost like the writing of some neo-advaitins, speaking as they do as if from the standpoint of absolute reality.

Based on what I have read (not much), Ramesh initially sounds good but later seems repetitive, almost to the point of obsession with the absence of free-will. The best of Osho is very good indeed but again lacks a systematic approach, a problem exacerbated by the fact that he looks at so many different traditions.

As far as I know, scarcely any of those current teachers who claim to be disciples of N or R can actually be regarded as genuinely and consistently good teachers. I suggest that this observation must be significant.

You should not worry too much about behavior. There is no necessary relation between this and either the ability to teach or enlightenment. There are many questions on this topic at the site (see the list of Q&As).

I’m afraid I have never had much faith in the notion that a good teacher must inevitably come to a sincere seeker! But you are right that a good teacher is hard to find. I always recommend trying to find a nearby disciple of Swami Dayananda or a Chinmaya Mission. Failing that, read good traditional stuff – systematic! – rather than random books of talks which may or may not say something useful to you at that time. The best I know of is Swami Dayananda’s Gita Home Study Course. This is expensive but will provide wonderful material which will take you months to cover.

Regarding your claim that Ramana is not open to differing interpretation, I beg to differ. I wrote an article some time ago which neither Mountain Path nor the Ramana Maharshi UK Newsletter would publish because it disagrees with, for example, the interpretation of Michael James. See https://www.advaita-vision.org/manonasha-not-the-literal-death-of-the-mind/.

2 thoughts on “Q.342 – Teachings of Nisargadatta and Ramana

  1. Concerning Ramesh Balsekar, I find something strange in what he taught. While repeatedly insisting, as Dennis notes above, that there is no free-will (individual man/woman, is not a ‘doer’, an agent), yet he also maintained that every such individual – including sages – is stuck, fixed for life, with a name-and- form, a personality. The reason, or explanation, he gave is that when somebody calls his or her name s/he will turn his head around (!). A direct follower of Nisargadatta (Ed Muzika) has remarked that “there is too much Balsekar and too little Nisargadatta” in him (Balsekar).

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