He was born Maruthi Shivrampant Kambli in 1897 and died as Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj in 1981. He worked as a shopkeeper for much of his life in what used to be called Bombay (now Mumbai), selling children’s clothes and Beedies, those aromatic hand-made cigarettes consisting of a dried tobacco wrapped in a golden temburni leaf and tied with a piece of string.
He would also have people gather in his living room in the evenings after work and engage them in conversations that would have given Socrates a serious run for his money.
For these were Soul-Searching conversations, Serious Existential Conversations, the kind of conversations that a lot of us desperately want or even need to have (I know I do), but very rarely are we given the opportunity to do so face to face with other human animals, especially in our adult years.
Perhaps because our culture often tosses these conversations into the box designated for “Teenage Angst” rather than Profound Reflection – the latter being given over to matters scientific or therapeutic in our increasingly atomised and digitised times.
The questions however don’t go away.
What is consciousness (nobody can really give us a definitive answer to this one yet, though many suppositions abound)?
How does “the mind” work?
Why do we suffer?
How can we suffer less?
What is the “purpose” of life in general?
And maybe even more so, “our” lives (mine, yours) specifically.
I guess you could call him a reluctant guru. He never benefited monetarily or sexually (as far as I know) from sharing his wisdom – something a lot of other male gurus, particularly in the 20th century, struggled to do. But even as a reluctant guru at some point he saw the need to change his name to the single moniker: Nisargadatta. A bit like the unreluctant pop stars, and Influencers after him (Madonna, Prince, Lorde, Bono, Gaga) – no more a person, but a brand or signifier. Hopefully his wife was still allowed to call him Maruthi. When I address him in my head, I like to call him Nis.
The reason I keep on returning to Nis’s words, as I know many do, is in order to remind myself again and again of there being a world, a reality outside the self-limited and self-limiting confines of our occasionally tyrannical minds.
I don’t know about your mind, but mine is often inflexible, overly-attached to my own partisan and biased opinions, needlessly reactive, and also just plain “stupid” or “silly” at times. Our minds are so full of “stuff”: from the culture in which swim, our past experiences, or whatever signal is just randomly firing in our neurons at any given time. Is it any surprise then that not all of this “stuff” is genuinely useful or life affirming in any understandable way? Is it any surprise that most of us are not tortured at a psychological level occasionally? Or at the very least uncomfortably inconvenienced, by other human creatures, but also by our own thoughts and emotions?
There are many practices that offer to help us with this, especially meditation. But when we are suffering acutely, some of us human animals (I know I am one of these) might also require words of consolation delivered to us through the voice of another suffering creature so that we might hear in these words, the warmth, the vulnerability, the humanity of our crazy little species.
This is also why I like to call him Nis. Because Nis, like you, me, Bono and Prince, was just a bloke, a human animal whose mind worked in a particular way, a deeply therapeutic way I would say, even though the medicine is often quite strong and maybe not always delivered in the polite, touchy-feely language we are now used to and maybe even expect from therapists and self-help books.
This morning, I wondered to myself what it might be like to record such a cherished book of wisdom in my own voice, mainly for myself to listen to when I need it, but thanks to the Internet also shareable, and so available to you if you need or want it.
So for the next 100 days I plan to read aloud for myself, and for you, the whole of Nisargadatta’s classic text I Am That, and see where that takes us.
The text reads as a series of questions and answers, as this is how it emerged: in the form of a conversation. His words, and the questions directed at him from interested friends, fellow seekers, and all the other Bombay folk who participated in these weekly discussions, were then transcribed and translated into English by one of his admirers: a Polish engineer and businessman called Maurice Frydman, who came to India in the late 1930s as a Jewish refugee from Warsaw and fell in love with Hindu non-dualistic philosophy, especially when expressed through the mouth and mind of his friend, Nis. Frydman thus began to act as a kind of Plato to Nis’s Socrates, a Boswell to his Johnson, a Holmes to his Sherlock.
Because the text exists as a series of questions and answers, it can sometimes be confusing when read aloud through just one voice. For this reason when a question is asked I will use the phrase “You say” or “You ask” and for Nis’s response I will preface these utterances with the words “Life says“. Or “Life answers”. I do this so as not to be continually referring to Nis himself, or to get too bogged down in how the text came about. For what you are about to hear is something we might think of as timeless wisdom, and for that reason, could have been spoken by any human animal in the last 150,000 years possessing a symbolic language: you, me, Jesus, Freud, whoever.
I also don’t want to get caught in the trap of using the sometimes distancing, (because culturally and temporally specific) language of obedience and power differentials which are inherent in words like Maharaja, and Guru (at least to our Western ears). These words don’t really have any meaningful place my vocabulary or worldview. As far as I am concerned, this was a bloke from Bombay who had some pretty cool things to say (sounds like a limerick, doesn’t it?), couched in the language of non-dualism (also known as Advaita Vedanta if you want to Google that) which offers a kind of pathway to What-Is as opposed to the mind’s continual What-Could-Be or even more frustratingly, What-Should-Be.
But it also feels as if approaching the reading in this manner is keeping with the spirit of the text itself. Nis counsels us again and again to not get too caught up with words and concepts, the packaging if you like, in our pursuit of understanding what it means to be alive, to be fully conscious, and to know that one is so. This is even more the case when it comes to the hard, human part of this, which we might describe as “being OK” with the reality of our lives as we experience them, maybe even finding a way to “fall in love” (?) with this human animal consciousness, even if it often feels torn and tattered by thoughts and emotions.
If you are a fan of Nis’s book and/or enjoy these readings, please do get in touch (email@example.com) and tell me a little bit about your relationship to I AM THAT or Nis.
I know for a fact that all of our current 21st Century “gurus” (people like Sam Harris, Tolle, Helen “Course in Miracles’ Shucman, Katie Byron, and the like) really anyone at all who has a keen interest in spirituality and the psyche, refers to this book in interviews as a one-of-a-kind entity, a deeply precious and nurturing gateway to the lives we all want to lead.
I myself though have yet to meet or talk to anyone who even knows about”I Am That”, so do please get in touch if it holds a special place on the shelf for you, and especially if you are reading or listening to it now, for the first time. It would be fun to engage with someone else who is equally taken by Nis’s words.
As you might gather, it is more than just a book for me, perhaps better thought of as a kind of thread, or path, or Way. I recognise now that this path, this “cure for the soul”, is also a kind of medicine, a very strong medicine for our crazy-making minds, but one that psychotherapy manuals ( I’ve read many of these as a psychotherapist) hardly ever go near, perhaps because it is seen as being too strong for our somewhat fragile 21st Century Ego?
Freud “discovered” (if that’s the right word, though it seems pretty obvious if you think about it now) that we all have a profound need to sit or lie down with another human animal in a non-judgemental way and talk about what most troubles us, or shames us, or perplexes us; to share the struggle of being conscious in these bodies, these minds, this world as it is, rather than the mind, or body, or world we would like to have, or feel we should be living up to, or beyond. And in this way, Sigmund declared that our neurotic suffering and misery, the relentless form of it that seizes our minds like bear-trap at times, might be transformed into “ordinary human unhappiness”. At which point you’re “cooked” as far as the psychoanalysts are concerned, job done.
Nisargadatta’s therapy, if you want to call it that, starts from this place of “ordinary human unhappiness”, digging away at the roots of consciousness itself, the source of everything we perceive and experience, rather than working (as most psychotherapists do, including me) on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and other people, our situation, the events happening around us.
Freud, deep reader and cogitator as he was, who treated his patients as texts to be read and theorised about, led us to believe that this is the only way to address human suffering. Just get interested in the stories, and ordinary human unhappiness will soon be well within your grasp. And he was right. But maybe psychology and psychotherapy, as we know them in their current guises, can only take us so far. By digging at the roots of consciousness itself, Nis challenges this preconception.
I have said his words are strong medicine, the strongest I know of. I also get the sense that he wasn’t always the easiest person to hang out with. He is often, as you will see, blunt and somewhat obstreporous, even though it doesn’t seem to be coming from a place of ego. But maybe this is a projection on my part: me projecting a kind of authoritarian patriarch onto the shoulders of this Bombay shopkeeper. So perhaps it is wise if we consume medicine with as much kindess and compassion (that is certainly the tonal frame for my reading of the work), and let the medicine wash over us to some extent, rather than approaching it like a puzzle to be solved.
I think if we do so, we might discover here something that our psychotherapeutic culture has forgotten, or wasn’t really that interested in in the first place, focused as it often is on a bid to fix and improve our flaws and foibles, to make our stories better or bigger, or more successful, rather than to make us more sophisticated, or just less neurotic participants in the flow of life as it occurs around and through us.
I would like to think that these two modes that I have described (life as a story, and life as an experience) might co-exist, and that also that one needs the other as a counter-balance. That is certainly how I try to practice when doing this thing we call therapy.
But as usual, I am talking too much, saying more than is required, so I’m going to shut up now, and let you taste the medicine, which once tasted, I believe, can never be forgotten. To my palate, Nis’s remedies are truly delicious, as well as comforting: platitude-free, full of crunchy thoughts and ideas that if you let them work on you, may quite literally blow your mind. As in: demolish the whole higgledy-piggledy, Tower of Babel structure, like a crane or a stick of dynamite, taking down a conceptual edifice that can’t in its current guise hold the joy, peace, inner freedom and diminished suffering that we all seek. Applying his words therapeutically, I think they suggest that we might need to “construct” in our minds different conceptual structures and ways of being present with our experience, ones that are more able to contain these sought-after states.
If so what are they? Nis covers all the bases when it comes to the fundamental human questions previously mentioned, as well as all the others, so stick around if this has whetted your appetite.
Let’s see, shall we, if see if spending some time in the company of Nis and his interlocutors significantly adds value to your existence, maybe even completely reshaping the way you and I currently experience our selves and our minds, which is also to say our lives, as these are often a direct extension of what is going on in our thoughts and feelings.
If you’re up for having that experience with me, this is how it begins.