Nisargadatta Maharaj is one of the most popular Advait mystics of the 20th century. His life depicts how a rare diamond can manifest in the most unusual way in the world.
He was born in Mumbai on 17 April 1897. His parents named him Maruti as he was born on Hanuman Jayanti. As a child he would be quietly absorbed in listening to the conversations between his father (who was an ardent pious soul) and friends. After his father's death, he went to Mumbai in search of a job to support his family and got a job as an office clerk. Later he left the job and began selling beedis (dry leaf-rolled cigarettes) and establish a chain of beedi retain shops. also later selling garments and cutlery. He then married and had three daughters and a son.
In 1933, he met his Master and received initiation from Sri Siddharamesvar Maharaj, who was a grihastha (householder) nondualistic mystic from the Navnath Sampradaya, under the lineage of Gorakshnatha under Lord Dattatreya. His transformation was such powerful that all his 30-50 employees too became initiated under his Master. He became more and more rooted in his blissful deep awareness. Soon people began visiting his shop seeking spiritual wisdom and he would casually talk to them all with his spontaneous talks. When sick people visited him seeking remedy for their disease, he would often ask them to go to a nearby cafe and drink water, which began curing many. Hearing about this, his Master asked him to stop doing such healings, as these healings were nothing compared to their actual need of being relieved from the disease of being identified with the body and forgetting their real Self.
Over the years, many miracles occurred. He eventually became known as Nisargadatta, meaning "one living in pure awareness". Mystical words and poems began flowing naturally out of him and his Master cautioned him to give it up as he found him enjoying composing poems. His master wanted him to even go further towards the ultimate destination of merging with the Absolute than being in his beingness.
Nisargadatta Maharaj began entering into deep trances and deep absorptive natural samadhi, termed as Nisarga Samadhi or Sahaj Samadhi, which is beyond all other trance states involving visions and other such experiences, which are ever changing and temporary and still rooted in the dual mode.
His Guru lived about 200 kilometers away and visited the village of Nisargadatta once in every 4 months for less than a month. It was hardly about 2-1/2 years that he had the fortune of being in touch with his Guru but it brought him profound transformations. His Master always reminded him "You are the Parabrahma (Absolute Reality)." Nisargadatta Maharaj always took every word of his Master very seriously and so he stuck on with these words and had no other doubts or questions of any kind.
His Master said to him, “Go back to that state of pure awareness, where the ‘I am’ is still in its purity before it got contaminated with ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that.’ Your burden is of false self-identifications—abandon them all. Trust me, I tell you - you are Divine. Take it as the absolute truth. Your joy is divine, your suffering is divine too. All comes from God. Remember it always. You are God, your will alone is done.”
Nisargadatta Maharaj took these words very seriously and soon had realization of his Master's words. Maharaj said, " I believed him and soon realized how wonderfully true and accurate were his words. I did not condition my mind by thinking, “I am God, I am wonderful, I am beyond.” I simply followed his instruction, which was to focus the mind on pure being (Shifting Into Awareness), “I am,” and stay in it. I used to sit for hours together, with nothing but the “I am” in my mind and soon the peace and joy and deep all-embracing love became my normal state. In it all disappeared—myself, my guru, the life I lived, the world around me. Only peace remained, and unfathomable silence." Maharaj would say, ".....meditate on and remain as this "I-Am-ness...... Just be, and don't get restless 'trying' to be, just be...... just be in your beingness."
After the Samadhi of his Guru, he left his home and took up the life of a renunciate. He walked to the sacred town Pandharpur. Shedding his worldly priced clothes, he wore a simple loincloth and a simple cloth covering, he then wandered towards Gangapur and from there travelled by foot to many holy places and temples of South India. He never had any problems with his food or other needs. Once, when he needed shelter and food in a barren place, an old man and a house materialized, thus helping him with food, water and rest. After he left the place, he had only taken a few steps and turned back to see that the whole house along with the old man had vanished!
By the time he had wandered South to North India, he was self-realized. He returned back to his family in Mumbai after 8 months of wandering. All his business had disappeared but he just maintained one street shop for the purpose of income for his family. His bodily needs were almost negligible and he would be seen absorbed in his deep meditative awareness or sometimes singing bhajans or even reading scriptures like Upanishads, Yoga-Vasishtha, Jnanesvar's Amritanubhava, Ramdas' Dasbodha, and Eknatha’s Bhagavat, Saint Tukaram's poems, Adi Shankaracharyas scripts, and also his Guru's teachings that were collected by the disciples. He could explain his Guru's teachings well to others through his own exalted awareness of living the teachings.
According to David Godman, Nisargadatta Maharaj was not allowed by Siddharameshwar to appoint a successor, because he "wasn't realised himself when his Master passed away." It was only after 1951 that Nisargadatta Maharaj started to initiate people, after receiving an inner revelation from his Master. Nisargadatta himself explains:
"The Navnath Sampradaya is only a tradition, way of teaching and practice. It does not denote a level of consciousness. If you accept a Navnath Sampradaya teacher as your Guru, you join his Sampradaya. Usually you receive a token of his grace - a look, a touch, or a word, sometimes a vivid dream or a strong remembrance."
Nisargadatta also once mentioned:
"I sit here every day answering your questions, but this is not the way that the teachers of my lineage used to do their work. A few hundred years ago there were no questions and answers at all. Ours is a householder lineage, which means everyone had to go out and earn his living. There were no meetings like this where disciples met in large numbers with the Guru and asked him questions. Travel was difficult. There were no buses, trains and planes. In the old days the Guru did the traveling on foot, while the disciples stayed at home and looked after their families. The Guru walked from village to village to meet the disciples. If he met someone he thought was ready to be included in the sampradaya, he would initiate him with mantra of the lineage. That was the only teaching given out. The disciple would repeat the mantra and periodically the Guru would come to the village to see what progress was being made. When the Guru knew that he was about to pass away, he would appoint one of the householder-devotees to be the new Guru, and that new Guru would then take on the teaching duties: walking from village to village, initiating new devotees and supervising the progress of the old ones."
Nisargadatta Maharaj repeatedly reminded on of their true Self, that everyone forget and mistaken themselves to be this or that, with some identity in the play of consciousness. He would always say that there is only one consciousness - "Look upon all as your Self," and that "Consciousness is the same in all........ It is the same Consciousness in Lord Krishna, a human being, a donkey, or an ant.... " He said, You are I only and I am you.... my real nature is your real nature..." He constantly reiterated the need of Shifting Into Awareness.
Nisargadatta Maharaj’s physical health took toil twice, once with tuberculosis and at another time with cancer, but his faith in his Guru and his regular 500 daily prostrations before his Master's image restored his health. Nothing would disturb his state of pure awareness, not even the death of his daughter nor the turbulent environment during India's independence struggle in the late 40s. He would speak to the gatherings in his small house and this is where the priceless teachings were shared, which are beautifully compiled in the most beautiful book called "I Am That: Conversations with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj" (click to buy this assent for Advaita seekers).
Like all other mystics, he was unpredictable, often serving blows to the egos of the visitors. He would flare up and also send away many after insulting. A few courageous sincere seekers would return but many went away and Maharaj would say, "They are cowards. I didn't send them away, I sent away the part of them that was not acceptable here." All those going to him could well anticipate that they are going for the cremation of the ego. He once said, ""When you come here, you will be cremating yourself. Whatever identity you have, whatever idea you have about your own self, will be cremated."
Whatever Nisargadatta Maharaj taught was later termed as "Nisarga Yoga", which is defined as living life with "harmlessness," "friendliness," and "interest," abiding in "spontaneous awareness" while being "conscious of effortless living." This is the same what modern spirituality today popularised as mindfulness, but still not being upto the mark of what it actually meant. The practice of this form of Yoga involves meditating on one’s sense of "I am", "being" or "consciousness" with the aim of reaching its ultimate source prior to this sense, which he called the "Self".
In the book "I Am That" there is this passage:
"This dwelling on the sense ‘I am’ is the simple, easy and natural Yoga, the Nisarga Yoga. There is no secrecy in it and no dependence; no preparation is required and no initiation. Whoever is puzzled by his very existence as a conscious being and earnestly wants to find his own source, can grasp the ever-present sense of ‘I am’ and dwell on it assiduously and patiently, till the clouds obscuring the mind dissolve and the heart of being is seen in all its glory."
Nisargadatta Maharaj did not prescribe any specific practice for self-knowledge but advised his disciples, "Don't pretend to be what you are not, don't refuse to be what you are." He frequently spoke about the importance of having the "inner conviction" about one's true nature and without such Self-knowledge one would continue to suffer. He claimed that the names of Shiva, Rama and Krishna were the names of nature (Nisarga) personified and that all of life arises from the same non-dual source or Self. Remembrance of this source was the core of Maharaj's message:
‘You are not your body, but you are the consciousness in the body, because of which you have the awareness of ‘I am’. It is without words, just pure beingness. It has become soul of the world. In the absence of your consciousness, the world will not be experienced. Hence, you are the consciousness… remember what you have heard… meditate on it. Meditation means you have to hold consciousness by itself. The consciousness should give attention to itself. This consciousness is Ishwara. As there is no God other than this consciousness, worship it.’ ‘The knowledge “I am” is God. It is Ishwara, as well as maya. Maya is God’s power. All the names of God are of this consciousness only in different forms. Remember the fact “I am not the body” and get firmly established. That is the sign of a true seeker.’
The Seven Principles of Nisarga Yoga (As identified by Nic Higham, 2018)
- Non-identification and right understanding
- Interest and earnestness
- Spontaneity and effortlessness
- Attentiveness to being
- Right action
- Going within to go beyond
- Awareness of Self
He was averse to any kind of publicity, but attracted mysteriously many seekers of Truth from the globe. He spoke of only what he was experiencing consistently and made his life itself a message. He often spoke for hours very casually and freely, nourishing all who were present there. His talks never had any distinction of gender, caste, religion, any kind of 'isms' or any formal knowledge. He was aloof of all worldly matters. Celebrations of his birthdays and Gurupurnima happened regularly, though he never liked the idea of celebrating his own birthday, but allowed only for the sake of his eager disciples. He used to travel a lot but by late 70's his health restricted his travels. By 1980 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and thus he spent the rest of his days speaking to all those who visited him, often new visitors, because he never was interested in amassing a following which is why he never allowed any ashram to be built. He rather advocated that his students must contemplate sincerely and live his teachings.
Once when someone in anger said to Maharaj, "You will die." He said, "I am dead already. Physical death will make no difference in my case. I am timeless being.". On September 8, 1981, Nisargadatta Maharaj, who was well aware of his nearing physical end had called in for only a few close individuals to meet him that evening and late evening his breathing became shallower and shallower and finally stopped at 7:32 p.m.
His golden words:
“You may die a hundred deaths without a break in the mental turmoil. Or, you may keep your body and die only in the mind. The death of the mind is the birth of wisdom.”
Credits: Many details taken from the writings from one of his disciples, Timothy Conway, and articulated into this article.