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Essays

Was Nisargadatta Maharaj a great teacher?



When I first read Nisargadatta Maharaj several years ago, I had already had years of Buddhist practice under my belt and was exploring Neo-Advaita. As part of my long list of reading, I looked at many of the books attributed to Nisargadatta and found his answers to seekers' questions fascinating. While I didn't understand everything, there were many parts that still deeply resonated with me.


Later, skeptical of the Neo's and wanting to get closer to the source, I began investigating traditional Advaita Vedanta—an ancient and venerable tradition and means of knowledge that explains consciousness, and removes a sense of limitation. The methodology of Advaita Vedanta includes the preliminary stages of karma yoga and upasana yoga (also known as raja yoga), and then moves onto actual Vedanta, or jñana yoga (the yoga of knowledge; aka Self-inquiry).


The traditional steps for learning Self-inquiry are shravana (listening), manana (contemplating; removing doubts), and nididhyasana (assimilation of the teachings; fully identification with atman). This method requires a qualified teacher who is capable of revealing the meaning of the Upanishads, not to mention certain qualifications including the ability to discriminate the truth from the non-truth, dispassion, discipline, and a burning desire for freedom.


Even the process of progressing through the Upanishads and its commentary has a method. For example, you don't just start out with the Mundukya Upanishad with Karika. You traditionally begin with the Tattva Bodha by Shankaracharya, then, Bhagavad Gita, Vivekachadumani, etc....until you reach the more advanced texts, such as Panchadashi, or Advaita Makaranda (see suggested reading list). There are no short-cuts in traditional Advaita Vedanta, and all the traditional four yogas are necessary, including bhakti yoga, which encompasses the other three aforementioned (karma yoga, upasana yoga, and jñana yoga).


Flash-forward ten years later, I am once again reading the seminal book, I Am That by Nisargadatta as recorded and translated by Maurice Frydman, but I now have a more seasoned point-of-view. First, I still appreciate this book, possibly even more so now that I have a greater understanding of Vedanta. I'm highlighting passages and full paragraphs. I still find much of what Nisargadatta said, profound, even after studying the Upanishads, writing my own books on Vedanta and familiarizing myself with many of the metaphors and analogies used in the tradition. Nisargadatta was a brilliant sage, and had a way with words (credit is due to his translators too!).


But what he shared weren't his own teachings (it can all be found in the ancient texts), and even if it sounds like blasphemy, he wasn't a good teacher. Let me explain.


If you look at most of the conversations Nisargadatta had with seekers from all over the world that came to visit him, the seeker is almost always left utterly frustrated with Nisargadatta's response. This isn't because they were stupid. In fact, it's obvious that many were very intelligent and sincere. There's a reason for this: Nisargadatta was always responding from the perspective of the Self, which, if one doesn't know the Self, can come off as sounding very enigmatic, even bizarre, especially if one suggests that they were never born and will never die! This gave seekers a very other-worldly feel impression of him, which is exactly what many of them believed! They thought he was living in a different realm and that the normal rules of being human, didn't apply to him (and intellectually, they don't if you identify with the Self instead of the body-mind-sense complex). They were completely baffled by his lack of concern on issues regarding the health of the body, death, or violence. And this was because they thought he was talking about himself, "Nisargadatta," when he was really talking about his universal, impersonal Self (atman).


This lead many seekers to interpret what he said erroneously, in many cases, believing that Nisargadatta had had a special enlightenment experience. Here was a man who was apparently very learned in Advaita Vedanta, but presented the knowledge as if he were some kind of modern-day oracle. There was no process or methodology as inquirers desperately tried to pin down the great sage in order to get him to answer their questions in a way that didn't leave them pulling their hair out. And yet, his answers felt so profound and were so brilliantly worded, that he couldn't just be dismissed as some kind of spiritual lunatic. Even seekers with very little spiritual knowledge recognize that Nisargadatta isn't just spouting nonsense. Nevertheless, a response to a question might sound like the following:


There can be no experience without desire for it. There can be gradation between desires, but between the most sublime desire and the freedom from all desire there is an abyss which must be crossed. The unreal may look real, but it is transient. The real is not afraid of time. [I Am That—Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, chp.69]


A brave individual apparently once asked Nisargadatta, "What are you talking about?" Nisargadatta's reply reveals his preferred method of interacting with seekers:


Do you want a lecture? Better ask something that really touches you, so that you feel strongly about it. Unless you are emotionally involved, you may argue with me, but there will be no real understanding between us, If you say: 'nothing worries me, I have no problems', it is all right with me, we can keep quiet. But if something really touches you, then there is purpose in talking.  [I Am That—Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, chp.69]


So as I read his talks again, I struggle to come up with a label for him. The best I can do is think of him as a poet-philosopher. Perhaps he was Advaita Vedanta's greatest poet-philosopher. Was he a teacher? Perhaps, but as I try to argue here, not a very good one. A good teacher recognizes at what level the student is, and doesn't talk over their heads. A good teacher is able to show the truth from many angles, including, in the case of Vedanta, from the point-of-view of jiva (individual), jagat (world), Ishvara (God), and the Self. A good teacher uses a process—just as you would expect from anyone teaching a complex topic. When you're in school, you don't just start with calculus (if pursuing math) or physics (if pursuing science). A good teacher, first, reveals the goal, and then takes a step-by-step method to reaching that goal. He or she also quashes any myths or grave misunderstandings, which can be damaging and send individuals on a wrong path—sometimes for years.


The satsang style (Q&A) Nisargadatta employed has it's place, but it's not where you start. It's where you end a lesson in order to remove any doubt about what was heard by the student. It's unclear to me why Nisargadatta chose to share what he knew the way he did. Perhaps he, too, didn't see himself as a teacher? Perhaps he was just emulating his own guru? Perhaps he swore to never deviate from his actual, true identity as the Self? Perhaps he just enjoyed a good satsang! On the other hand, perhaps judging him by what others recorded and translated into books is unfair?


He left us with much to contemplate, and for better or worse, influenced an entire generation of seekers who to this day, still see him as a mysterious, other-wordly entity.     

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