Prior to Consciousness
Consciousness and the Absolute:
The final Talks of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
By Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Edited by Jean Dunn
Publisher: Acorn Press, Durham, NC, 1985 and 1994.
ISBN: 0-89386-024-7 and ISBN: 0-89386-041-7
These two texts edited by Jean Dunn and published nine years apart represent the final talks of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj which took place between April 4, 1980, and July 1, 1981. The ‘talks’ are recorded conversations or question-and-answer sessions. Numerous translators worked on converting the conversations from Nisargadatta’s native Marathi into English, but Jean Dunn (1921-1996) organized them for publication. Dunn was a longstanding devotee of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj who carried on his work after he died. She did so from her home in California until her death.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1983) was born Maruti Shivrampant Kambli. He was a disciple of Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj (1888-1936). When he met his master in 1933, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj was a householder and shopkeeper, married with children and living in humble circumstances in Bombay. His master died three years later, and soon after he became a renunciate and wandered in India. But after eight months he realized that true renunciation lay within, and returned home. For the following twenty-five years Nisargadatta divided his time between his family duties, managing a small dispensary, and discourse with his fellow disciples. In 1951, following an inner revelation from his master, he began giving initiation. In 1966 he retired from work into full-time spiritual instruction. With the publication of Peter Brent’s 1972 book Godmen of India and Maurice Frydman’s 1973 book I Am That, Nisargadatta’s teachings reached a worldwide audience. He died in 1983 at the age of 86.
Nisargadatta was an exponent of Advaita Vedanta, or non-dualism. These teachings are also known as Jnana Yoga or Atma-Vicara, the path of self-inquiry into knowledge of the Absolute. He belonged to the Inchagiri Sampradaya, a lineage of teachers from the Navnath Sampradaya (the Nine Masters tradition originating from Dattatreya: a syncretistic deity considered as an incarnation of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) and Lingayat Shaivism (a monotheistic religion mainly of South India). Nisargadatta stressed that a profound difference exists between consciousness and primordial formless awareness, which he calls the Absolute. The title Prior to Consciousness indicates the importance he placed upon going beyond all form, that is, beyond all duality. As he told one disciple:
Things to be done must be done, things to be understood must be understood. Things to be done are normally your present worldly life and these you must carry out. In spirituality, you have to understand, there is no question of doing. In spirituality there is no name and form. Name and form are necessary for your practical worldly life. The one who understands that name and form are not his identity is in spirituality.… One who understands spirituality through various concepts will be caught up in a vicious circle … the circle of concepts … rebirth, reincarnation, these are all concepts. If you are caught up in these concepts you are bound to have them. Out of concepts the forms are created, such as buildings, etc. Originally you make a plan, you have a concept, the concept is born out of you, and you give the concept a shape, but it remains a concept.
In Nisargadatta’s teaching, our awareness of our existence, the first concept ‘I Am’, spontaneously arises from the Absolute and becomes consciousness. Consciousness, he explains, arises from the three gunas (attributes born of Nature) andisassociated with form. Ramesh S. Balsekar, oneof Nisargadatta’s disciples, put it this way: “Consciousness is with a form, a reflection of awareness on the surface of matter. One cannot think of consciousness apart from awareness; there cannot be a reflection of the sun without the sun.”
This reflection creates duality, which is sustained by food. Identity, says Nisargadatta, is the outcome of the food we eat. When the food-body is discarded, consciousness returns to the Absolute. We experience something of this situation in deep, dreamless sleep, where consciousness rests while awareness remains.
We have this conviction that I am, I exist, I’m alive. That conviction is because of the consciousness, and consciousness is not aware of itself unless the body is there.… Consciousness is the taste of the physical form. If the form is not there, the taste is not there. The body is the essence of the food and the consciousness is the essence of the physical form. If this is understood, is there any individuality? This individuality is a process of manifestation.
Consciousness, Nisargadatta points out, is our constant companion. Much of his teaching consists of reminding his audience that continuous awareness to one’s stream of consciousness is what takes one back to pure Awareness. To accomplish this task, thought, memory and anticipation must be gradually replaced by awareness: this is the mind directed within. This directing of the mind cannot be accomplished by the intellect; rather, repetition and devotion are needed. As he said, “Recite the sacred name, that is all right, but the important thing is to recognize and understand what is the presiding principle by which you know you are and by which you perceive everything else…. The riddle of spirituality cannot be solved by your intellect.” The purpose is to eliminate all duality: “There is no duality between the Guru and the Bhakta. In That which Is, there is no duality, has never been any duality. The word Bhakta means devotion, but in actuality it indicates togetherness, one only, unity.”
At the time Ms. Dunn began transcribing these talks, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj was in a great deal of pain, though she tells us he never showed it. In the introduction to Consciousness and the Absolute, Ms. Dunn notes: “He was whatever was needed: kind, gentle, patient, abrupt, abrasive, impatient. Moods passed over him like a summer breeze. The force of his message resounds with his singleness of purpose: ‘Give up all you have heard and just BE. You, as the Absolute, are not this “I Am-ness’”
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s last talks, recorded in these two books, are unique, even within the powerful but often confounding literature of non-dualism. These talks, coming from a time when he was so close to dying, are terse and aphoristic. No room is left for questions beyond our ultimate purpose in having life. Every word of each session is extemporaneous. His answers are compact, even abrupt, but still convey an overwhelming sense of concern for each questioner. When a questioner asks, “Oh, when will I understand what Maharaj is telling us?” he responds:
It will come gradually, because of all the concepts. You have to get rid of those and that takes time. Some people are in search of knowledge which is acceptable to their mind and intellect, but the sphere of mind and intellect is of no use to receive this knowledge. All your experiences and visions depend upon your knowledge ‘I Am’ and this itself is going to dissolve. For this knowledge there are no customers, no devotees, because they want something concrete in their hand, but when your knowingness itself is going to dissolve, is it possible to hold onto something? Your guru tells you that you have a true identity, but it is not this. It is formless, Parabrahman. That Parabrahman is without any doubts. It is not conditioned by maya, because with reference to Parabrahman, maya does not exist.
Nisargadatta’s last discourses give us a modern perspective on the ancient tradition of non-dualism. His language is precise and focused upon what he believes we, as individuals, need to do to understand our true inner nature. The talks are also stark, even austere, representing a worldview almost void of emotional and bodily concerns. At one point he says:
Finally, what is the result of all the experiences that are going on in the realm of consciousness? They are just gone, ending up in pure space. The whole world is in an ever-changing state. No form will remain permanently. Finally all the forms will vanish in space and become formless. I am talking directly from my own experience.
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