‘I’ is a door – part 2: Nisargadatta Maharaj

by Philip Renard

In the first part of “‘I’ is a door” I described the striking phenomenon that in Advaita Vedanta the term ‘I’ is maintained to indicate even the higher levels of reality, the levels ‘beyond the person’. The help given in doing so is that by maintaining the term it is indicated that the notion ‘I’, so obvious for experiencing the person, in fact is deeper than the person presenting itself temporarily, and that this notion is there continuously, also now already. So in order to be able to get in contact with That which you really are, nothing needs to be eliminated or excluded first. In the first part I examined the approach of Shri Ramana Maharshi, and this time I should like to pay attention to the way Shri Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981) articulated this matter.

In my opinion Nisargadatta was one of the greatest teachers of the twentieth century. What makes him so great is particularly his fabulous ability to show that everything that was asked him is made up of concepts, and to annihilate these concepts by exposing their uselessness. Whatever question or response the visitor or disciple came up with, Nisargadatta pointed out that it boiled down to clinging to patterns of thought or concepts and he referred to its origin, its seed. Everything, everything really was undermined as being a concept and consequently not true, and that included also something he had himself just said. As he emphasized, the only thing true is the conceptless.

Since he is not alive anymore, the only way to learn from him is by reading his books (apart from a few moments of darshan through some video fragments). And whilst reading, it becomes evident that in fact it can be called humorous, that he himself, the great underminer of concepts, is continuously offering concepts. He jumped from level to level, used numerous Sanskrit terms for a certain level, used the same or closely related terms for another level, and then had the whole matter dissolved in what he called ‘the deep dark blue state of non-experience’.

Unfortunately this resulted in a lot of seekers that have caught a glimpse already of who they really are, to continue their search, because of the message ‘you are only the Absolute’. They assidiously claim  that they ‘know consciousness already’ but they also express frustration that they have failed to take ‘the next step’.

I dare to say here: there is no next step.

It is all about going to the limit of what can be experienced, and to remain still there. One should not be led astray by any comment on the Absolute and be lured to go in search of it.

But, as can be argued, Nisargadatta is making comments exactly on the Absolute all the time, and shows again and again that everything else is unreal! This surely is the impasse: to hear that we are That, and not be able to experience it, let alone search for it. That is the paradox: Maharaj is presenting us with all the time. How are we supposed to deal with this paradox?

Maharaj himself is answering this question – and that by offering a concept. One specific concept, which he indicated by using the term ‘the knowledge I Am’, or ‘I Am-ness’. Earlier in this article Nisargadatta Maharaj was called ‘great’ especially because he fearlessly undermined each and every concept. Burt really he can be called so just as well because in turn he presented this one concept. He considered this concept, ‘I Am-ness’, as something to be digested, swallowed, dissolved. And so he described it as ‘the ultimate medicine’. It’s true he called it ‘the disease itself’ at least as often, or even ‘itself a misery’, but in the same respect he indicated in many places the very same concept is exactly the medicine, and is the indicator to freedom. So again we are facing here with a paradox: something being a disease yet in its essential nature is the medicine itself.

There is a quote that holds the key to the entrance of this paradox. In my opinion it is the most beautiful quote there is, because the whole mystery of existence is described in a few sentences, including the handle to enter the mystery. Everything is in it, and all further texts of Maharaj can be interpreted from this perspective.

“This touch of ‘I Amness’ is in each being; this beingness has that touch of love for the Absolute, and it is a representation of the Absolute. (...) Only the Absolute prevails. The truth is total Brahman (Para Brahman)only, nothing else but Brahman. In a total Brahman state the touch of beingness, ‘I Am’ started, and with that, separation started, otherness has come. But this ‘I Amness’ is not just a small principle; that itself is the Mula-Maya, the primary illusion. (...) The great Maya principle is making you do all her tricks, and you are also abiding in what she says, and finally, that light of yours, that beingness, gets extinguished. (...) That Maya is so powerful that it gets you completely wrapped up in it. Maya means ‘I Am’, ‘I love to be’. It has no identity except love. That knowledge of ‘I Am’ is the greatest foe and the greatest friend. Although it might be your greatest enemy, if you propitiate it properly, it will turn around and lead you to the highest state.”1

The sense of ‘I Am’ is a universal principle, in exactly the same way present in each being, prior to the interpretation ‘I am John’ or ‘I am Ann’; in other words, ‘I am this person’. Nisargadatta (that is, his translators) used to indicate this sense of ‘I Am’ with the term ‘consciousness’ (chetana). It makes sense to linger over the meaning Nisargadatta ascribed to this term, just because he often called this consciousness illusory and because the term ‘consciousness’ has been used by other teachers to indicate exactly the Ultimate (indeed as the translation of the term chit in stead of chetana; see for instance “‘I’ is a door, Part 1”). He supplied numerous synonyms for it like ‘knowingness’, ‘Krishna state’, ‘child consciousness’, ‘seed’, ‘witness’, ‘God’, ‘being’, ‘beingness’, ‘sattva’, ‘the chemical’, ‘Saguna Brahman’, ‘the manifest’, ‘the supreme principle’: they all come down to the same. It is about a touch. Without any reason, something arises spontaneously, within something that is no experience, no knowledge, no form, not ‘a thing’ whatsoever. Only when you notice it, you can say ‘something arises’, not before. So manifestation and the noticing of it are one and the same. This is called the ‘touch’. It is this very first vibration, this most subtle form of touch which Nisargadatta called ‘consciousness’, the principle ‘I Am’.

The crucial element of this quote is to be found in the last paragraph: The knowledge of ‘I Am’ is the greatest foe and the greatest friend. It includes everything – and consequently you can be left here with an overwhelming feeling of disorientation. Very often this disorientation is only reinforced in other passages, by the emphasis on the illusory element (‘the greatest enemy’), because that which indeed is real, the Absolute, is described as ‘something that can not be experienced’. However here it is most strongly said that indeed, although it might be your greatest enemy, you would do well to fully worship it. So whether illusion or not, at this moment it does not matter at all, because ultimately it is only God, the ever creating principle that brings about everything. It is true this means that you can be seduced to cling to a form, but also by the same token you can be liberated from this clinging by the same principle.

In one of the Purana’s, the ‘old books’ of Hinduism, we find a passage that bears resemblance to the quote. “She, when pleased, becomes propitious and the cause of the freedom of man.”2 It is all about worshipping this principle as totally as possible, to pay attention to it, to please it. The sense of ‘you are’ is so common, so ordinary, that you overlook it easily and hence Nisargadatta is strongly emphasises not to do so, but on the contrary to fully honour precisely this, to worship it as the highest God. He keeps hammering at it uninterruptedly to keep quiet here and to devote yourself fully to this consciousness, to this touch.

“Worship atman (‘you are’) as the God; there is nothing else. You worship that principle only; nothing else needs to be done. This very knowledge ‘you are’ will lead to the highest, to the Ultimate. This ‘you are’ is there so long as the vital breath is present. And when you worship that ‘you are’ as the manifest Brahman (Saguna Brahman) only, you reach immortality. (...) You must continually remember, ‘chew the cud’. (...) You must continually think about it.”3

We wonder what exactly is ‘worship’, because the rise of a verbal prayer is associated with this word. In fact worship is ‘paying attention continuously to something with your whole heart’. The best example of this in the world is being in love. If you are in love, your attention is totally going towards your beloved, whether you ‘want’ to do so or not. You are full of it and everything that is going in the direction of the beloved occurs effortlessly. This you may call worship. So now we are invited to practice this worship, this being in love in regard to our ordinary consciousness itself, to formless experience as such, ‘the touch of beingness’, ‘the feeling of beingness’. How are we supposed to put this worship into practice?

It means that you totally merge with this beingness, with this primal vibration. Take all of your passion to this unlocatable ‘place’, cheer this vibration, and do not be worried about the fact that this is still a form of duality, a form of energy or ‘corporality’. Worship Her, cheer Her, do not hold back anything, give yourself totally to Her, so that you may melt with Her. Then She shows you, within the merging, that ‘two’ ceases to exist. She being an enemy can only be the case if you let yourself be carried along by Her temptation. “The very source of all happiness is your beingness; be there. If you get involved with the flow of Maya there will be misery. (...) Be still in your beingness.”4

It is here Nisargadatta points out how in the ‘supreme principle’, the ‘I am’ principle, the liberating element can be distinguished from the seducing, binding element. Sometimes I compare this with a fountain in a pond. The ‘I Am’ principle is the mouth of the fountain. At that point the water is powerfully spouting up high, causing thousands of drops being shaped to form together what is called ‘fountain’. The fountain’s mouth has hardly taken form yet; there is only the experience of the propelling-force to be, the drive towards form. Then the advice is: stay at the fountain’s mouth, abide there, and surrender to its formless vibration. Do not try in any way to manipulate the force itself. “What natural processes can you stop? Everything is spontaneous. Presently you are in the consciousness, which is stirring, vibrant. Don’t think you are something separate from this stirring, vibrant consciousness.”5 By staying at the fountain’s mouth, worshipping That which is giving all this, unfoldment, you are set free.

“The devotee with his firm determination and God by his fascination for devotion are attracted towards each other, and the moment they come face to face they merge, the one into the other. The devotee loses his phenomenal consciousness automatically, and when it returns, he finds that he has lost his identity – lost into that of God which cannot be separated again;”6 and “I am the God, I am the devotee, and I am worshipping; all the same, one common principle.”7

God’s character of Maya, Seducer, fades away as soon as you understand that you need not let yourself be carried away by Her to Her forms of creation. You just have to notice What is seeing Her. “Meditate on that which knows you are sitting here. Your feeling that your body is here is identification with the body, but that which knows that this body is sitting here is the expression of the Absolute.”8

The liberating character of the ‘I Am’ principle is present as much in the knowing aspect as in the aspect of surrender. At this point the approaches of jñana (knowingness, understanding) and bhakti (devotion) are blending totally into one another. Sometimes this means that surrender shows discrimination is no longer necessary, and sometimes this means that understanding prevents you from making the error that your surrender is submission to manifestation itself, to the transient forms themselves. Surrender is right only when it is surrender to That which is permanent. “First, I have seduced Maya, and once the Maya surrendered to me, I had no other use for Maya so I threw her out.”9

Noticing, for instance, the body sitting here could be called ‘knowingness’. This knowingness is in fact Knowing as such, and this is the liberating element, because knowingness is literally the expression of the Absolute, as said before in a quote (see note 8). Absolute Consciousness or Knowing10 expresses itself as ‘knowing something’. So ‘consciousness’ and ‘the Absolute’ are not two different things, just as is often imagined on the basis of much of Nisargadatta’s statements. There is only one Consciousness (or Awareness; it depends on the language-framework of the speaker or translator which term is considered ‘right’). It has an Absolute aspect and a dynamic, living, experiencing aspect, the ‘touch’. The only thing needed to see is that a certain vibration is always the knowing of that vibration, and that the knowing itself is Absolute Knowing. That there is not any separation in there. Within the Absolute there is just nothing to Know, hence Nisargadatta is calling this the ‘state of no-knowingness’, or ‘no-mind’, the state in which attention is dissolved in itself.

“There is only one state, not two. When the ‘I Amness’ is there, in that consciousness you will have many experiences, but the ‘I Am’ and the Absolute are not two. In the Absolute the ‘I Amness’ comes, and then the experience takes place.”11

One could say that ‘letting you be carried away by the Seducer’ comes down to giving credence to the power of your past, to the power of the tendencies, the vasana’s, instead of enduring that you don’t go beyond the ‘present touch’, the ‘present form’. The binding aspect of the ‘I Am’ principle consists in the creation of a personal history, the creation of a ‘subtle body’, an ‘I’ figure, a form that has to persist. The binding force itself could be called the ‘causal body’, the storehouse of the latent tendencies and the primordial beginning of individuality, of a jiva.12 The ‘causal body’ is a definition for the principle in us which causes now the creation of a form, and which seduces us to maintain and consolidate this form. It seduces us into not recognizing this form as ‘mere present form of Consciousness’, as something which dies immediately afterwards and is replaced again by another form. So this is what is meant by the term ‘causal’. The causal body brings about your losing sight of the fact that you are always new, unborn, now, now, now. And this ‘bringing about’ is occurring through the latent tendencies, which make you cling to the manifestations as soon as they are there, so that the form can continue to exist. Owing to its veiling and binding character, the causal body has in the Advaita tradition been equated with ‘ignorance’ (ajñana; also avidya).

Being strongly influenced in his linguistic usage by the Samkhya tradition, an old Indian school of Dualism, Nisargadatta sometimes explained this process of becoming bound by means of the terms sattva, rajas and tamas, borrowed from Samkhya. These are the three guna’s, the qualities determining and colouring all our actions (rajas is the exciting, the restless, that which incites to activity; tamas the inert, the solidifying, obscuring; and sattva the quality keeping the balance, the quality of beingness, knowingness, and lucidity).

Nisargadatta described the transition proceeding from sattva as follows: “During the waking state, to know that you are (sattva) is itself a misery; but since you are preoccupied with so many other things, you are able to sustain that waking state. This quality of beingness (sattva), the knowledge ‘I Am’, cannot tolerate itself. It cannot stand itself, alone, just knowing itself. Therefore, that rajas-guna is there. It takes the beingness for a ride in various activities, so that it does not dwell only in itself; it is very difficult to sustain that state. And tamas-guna is the basest quality. What it is doing is that it provides one with the facility to claim authorship for all the activities – the feeling ‘I am the doer’. Rajas-guna takes one into all the activities, and tamas-guna claims authorship or doership for those activities.”13

One could say that in fact the power of rajas originally is a rather free power, which in itself does not necessarily need to hook on to something. It is the effect of tamas only that makes things glue together. This quality causes us to be fixated, that we are attached to something, that we isolate ourselves, that we worry, etcetera. Because of tamas we come to stick a personal story, a history onto a spontaneous activity.

One could interpret Nisargadatta’s advice as follows: you can not but allow rajas to arise, because that is inherent to the spontaneous creative power; but welcome her and keep on recognizing its starting point, the very first ‘touch’. Nisargadatta called this touch also the ‘pinprick’. That is sattva. That is also the term ‘consciousness’ as is used by Nisargadatta, the pinprick, ‘the experiencing the touch’. That is what I called ‘the mouth of the fountain’: here you are witnessing as it were the marriage of sattva and rajas.Remain in stillness (sattva) in the splashing power (rajas).

By dedicating yourself to this, by honouring this pinprick, this ‘consciousness’, your search ceases to exist. Here you can let go of the ‘doing’, of the attempt to let yourself pass beyond this consciousness, because really that won’t help.

“You can never isolate yourself from the consciousness unless consciousness is pleased with you and gets rid of you. Consciousness opens the gate for you to transcend consciousness. There are two aspects: one is conceptual, dynamic consciousness which is full of concepts, and the other is transcendent consciousness. Even the concept ‘I Am’ is not there. Conceptual, qualitative Brahman (Saguna Brahman), the one that is full of concepts and is qualitative, is the outcome of the [reflection of Awareness (Nirguna Brahman) in the] functioning body.”14

So although it originally is important and correct to distinguish between consciousness (chetana) and Consciousness (or Awareness; Chit), it makes sense at a certain moment just to embrace consciousness in its being ‘the touch’, so that all resistance melts away, and with it all duality. The touch is the Helper which anoints you in your and Her surrender; it shows you that you have always been unaffected and unimpaired, free and unseparated, without the need to strive for it. So on the one hand Maharaj emphasizes: “I, the Absolute, am not this ‘I Amness’,”15 but on the other hand: “Understand that this ‘I’ is not different at different levels. As the Absolute it is the ‘I’ which in manifesting needs a form. The same Absolute ‘I’ becomes the manifested ‘I’, and in the manifested ‘I’ it is the consciousness, which is the source of everything. In the manifested state it is the Absolute-with-consciousness.”16

It is striking that here, as in many other places, Maharaj keeps on using the word ‘I’ as a word for the Ultimate. Apart from calling himself very often “I, the Absolute”, he says for instance: “Nothing exists except me. Only I exist”,17 and “When the state of beingness is totally swallowed, whatever remains is that eternal ‘I’.”18

So ‘I’ appears to be the term for us on all three levels: the person thinks and feels ‘I’, the touch of beingness is the experience of ‘I’ without thinking (without ‘mine’), and the Ultimate is ‘I’, without experiencing it. This means that the Real which we are is always so already, and now already. Also in the midst of identification with a certain form there is the invitation to recognize the most nearby, namely ‘I’, in its essential nature.

Is ‘I’ a door? The Teacher answers: “There are no doors to Parabrahman, dear son.”19

(English translation from Dutch: Johan Veldman)

Published in The Mountain Path, 2004, Aradhana (April); p. 45-57. www.ramana -

1. Prior to Consciousness (edited by Jean Dunn). Durham, NC: Acorn, 1985; p. 12-13. Capitals are added in Maya conform to the usage in other quotes.
2. Chandi (=Devi-mahatmya; this is part of the Markandeya Purana), I.57; also IV.9. Quoted by Vivekananda: The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. VII. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1986 (10th ed.); p. 216.
3. The Experience of Nothingness (edited by Robert Powell). San Diego, CA: Blue Dove, 1996; p. 51-52. (A Dutch translation of this book was published already in 1981).
4. Prior to Consciousness; p. 21.
5. Consciousness and the Absolute (edited by Jean Dunn). Durham, NC: Acorn, 1994; p. 78.
6. Self-knowledge and Self-realisation (Adaptation of the book Atmajnana Ani Paramatma Yoga). Translated by V.M. Kulkarni. Bombay: Ram Narayan Chavhan, 1963; p. 35.
7. Prior to Consciousness; p. 54.
8. Prior to Consciousness; p. 103.
9. The Experience of Nothingness; p. 86.
10. In the English language it is very hard to find a word for this Knowing-as-such, this Knowing in which ‘no thing’ is known. The term ‘Knowledge’ seems always to remain associated with a content, so a better term for this Knowing-as-such in fact could be ‘No-knowledge’. The paradox is, this No-knowledge state or No-beingness state does ‘know’. In the language of (one of the translators of) Nisargadatta: “The no-beingness state, the no-consciousness state alone knows that there is a consciousness.” (Seeds of Consciousness; p. 27). See also the discussion on terminology in The Experience of Nothingness, p. 18-21. There Nisargadatta argues that the point is that the word ‘Knowledge’ does bring in the qualities (guna’s).
11. Prior to Consciousness; p. 42.
12. The term ‘causal body’ that has been used in texts of the Advaita tradition (and also by Ramana Maharshi, for instance in Vichara Sangraham and Maharshi’s Gospel), points to the source of all forms, even in its most latent form. In the words of Ramana: “The source is a point without dimensions. It expands as the cosmos on the one hand and as Infinite Bliss on the other. That point is the pivot. From it a single vasana starts, multiplies as the experiencer ‘I’, the experience, and the world.” Talks; No. 616.
13. The Ultimate Medicine; (edited by Robert Powell). San Diego, CA: Blue Dove, 1994; p. 22.
14. Consciousness and the Absolute; p. 97. The addition between brackets is made in order to accentuate the connection between consciousness and Awareness (or Consciousness); it is made on the basis of numerous comments in the old Advaita tradition, and on the basis of I am That, p. 65: “consciousness (chetana) appears by reflection of Awareness in matter”.
15. Prior to Consciousness; p. 27, and many other places.
16. Prior to Consciousness; p. 114.
17. The Ultimate Medicine; p. 29.
18. The Nectar of the Lord’s Feet (edited by Robert Powell). Longmead, Shaftesbury (Dorset): Element, 1987; p. 43.
19. The Nectar of the Lord’s Feet; p. 57.