By Gautam Sachdeva
A sadak pays tribute to Ramesh Balsekar, the maverick advaita sage, who turns 90 this month
I remember going across to Ramesh Balsekar’s home in June, 2003, to personally hand him the first copy of his biography that we had published: The Happening of a Guru. It was a small yet exquisitely produced hardbound book with pictures of Ramesh at different stages of his life, with an accompanying narrative. He was delighted to receive it. I saw him eagerly scan the pages; he was clearly searching for something specific. Having found it, he rushed excitedly to his wife Sharda to show it to her – it was the picture of his parents. This action moved me tremendously. For someone who was a former bodybuilder, bank president and subsequently a leading advaita sage, there were pictures covering all these facets of his life, yet the one he was most eager to find and show his beloved wife was that of his parents.
Being with Ramesh has been an incredible journey. While I started attending his talks in the year 2000, my close interaction with him began in 2001 when he and his then editor were looking for a new publisher for a very special book that represented for Ramesh the pinnacle of his teachings on advaita. Up till that time, he had written over 15 books. I confessed to the editor that ours was a small start-up with no major publishing ambition, but I would be glad to offer help in any way we could for this book.
meeting was fixed with Ramesh. We sat down over a cup of tea to discuss the possibility of working together, when Ramesh looked up and asked me which books I had read of his. I was momentarily taken aback as I had up till then not read a single book, but had only attended his talks on Sundays. When I replied, “None,” I half expected him to say that perhaps it would be better for them if the publisher were familiar with his work.
Instead, he said, “You haven’t read any of my books? Wonderful! Then you’re perfect for the job.” Of course, I realized from his statement that he was referring to my not being conditioned by his teaching and therefore able to offer an unbiased perspective, in terms of publishing his book. At the same time, I was quite touched that the man was not concerned that I had not read a single book of his. Any conventional guru would have probably taken offence, I thought, and shown me the door.
At 90 years of age, Ramesh is as vibrant as ever. The pivot on which his teaching revolves is all there is, is consciousness. And, consciousness has truly endowed this ‘body-mind organism’, to use his phraseology, with good health and vitality to deliver the teaching for over 20 years, every day, to seekers. A teaching that attracts people from all over the world, and from all social classes – from millionaires to those on the dole. Lawyers, soldiers, monks, businessmen, actors, healers, nurses, artists – people representing all pursuits land up at his home to hear him deliver a simple yet powerful message – nothing can happen unless it is God’s will. If something is destined to happen, no power on earth can prevent it from happening. Inversely, if something is not destined to happen, then no power on earth can make it happen.
Many take solace in the words of destiny’s star advocate. A mother who lost a son in a tragic accident and refused to accept it, blaming and accusing the guardian in charge of the children when they went on a picnic; a soldier who had killed enemy soldiers in war and could not live with the guilt; a world-famous musician whose manager swindled him of a large part of his fortune – all take comfort in the words of the Buddha in the Lankavatara Sutra which are oft-repeated by this advaita sage as the mainstay of his teaching: Events happen, deeds are done, but there is no individual doer of any deed.
Ramesh goes further to elaborate that all actions are happenings and not deeds done by anybody. If one is able to accept this, then one does not blame or condemn oneself or others for something they did or did not do; one takes pleasure but not pride in achievements, one does not feel guilt or shame for one’s actions, or hatred or malice towards the other.
With this attitude to life we need not fear God, and if we do not fear God then nothing prevents us from loving God, our Creator. It is in this way that we stay connected to the Source. For it is the same Source functioning through six billion ‘objects’, just as electricity functions through all the electronic gadgets.
He goes further to add that the difference between the sage and the ordinary person is not that a sage does not have an ego, for he wouldn’t be able to function in the world if this were so, but that the sense of personal doership has been removed from the ego of the sage. On the humorous side, he once mentioned to a persistent questioner who could not accept the concept of non-doership, “Next time you scratch an itch, find out who put it there in the first place!” Or he mentions the anecdote of the mother who, getting irritated by her son’s constant sneezing, tells him to stop sneezing, upon which the son replies, “But mom, I am not sneezing. It is sneezing me!” He went on to explain that if our actions are a result of a thought we had, and we have no control over what the next thought is going to be, then how can we call it our action?
The will of God
Where does this leave the concept of sin in his teaching? It’s thrown out of the window. For if you’re not the doer, then you simply cannot commit one! Of course, this does not absolve you from the consequences of your actions; the punishment as determined by society or life: a red flag for those who may misunderstand or misuse the teaching as a license to do something illegal or immoral (which would also be God’s will, if it happened!).
As Ramesh says, a psychopath did not choose to be a psychopath, but will be liable to face the consequences of his actions as determined by society. Some have a hard time swallowing this and argue that it leaves no room for one to choose to reform, to which Ramesh retorts that reform could happen only if it was God’s will.
And where does this leave free will? According to Ramesh, you certainly have free will but on investigation you discover that it is counterfeit. For what use is your free will if the outcome of your action is not in your control? Sometimes you get what you want, sometimes you don’t get what you want, and sometimes what you get is completely unexpected; many times for the worse, sometimes for the better. Which of the three things happens is never in your control.
So, in a given situation all one can do is what one thinks one should do, and leave the results to God. Besides, while we may know that everything is predetermined, we never know what it is that is predetermined. In other words, we should act as if we have free will, knowing that we do not.
Ramesh goes on to add that while free will has no practical value, it has no value in theory either. For our free will is based on two factors – our genes and conditioning – over neither of which do we have any control. For instance, we have no control over being born to particular parents in a particular geographical environment, in a particular social environment, in which we receive conditioning from day one – at home, school, society, church or temple! So, if our free will is based on two factors over which we had no control, then do we really have free will?
Ramesh’s concepts are acceptable to some, unacceptable to others. Either way, he presents his teaching with utmost clarity, with the knowing that whether or not it makes an impact on the listener is ultimately God’s will. And this he presents in an informal satsang in the living room of his home, where the tenet ‘Nobody is invited, all are welcome’ is followed.
These are strangers from all walks of life having access to the living room, and more importantly, the loo of the Balsekar household – every morning! Surely, only a family with a big heart could endure this on a daily basis. Accessibility is a diamond of quality with Ramesh. No ashram, no structure, no red tape, no guardians at the gate. It’s just you, him and fellow-seekers.
As an NRI millionaire said to me, “I was browsing through the books in the bookstore of the Taj in Mumbai, when I came across one book that caught my fancy. I read it in a day, saw that the author lived in Mumbai, got the contact details, and dialled a number only to have the author himself pick up the phone and give details on how to reach his apartment for the satsang! This completely floored me, especially after experiencing red-tapism to interact with some gurus that would rival the Indian bureaucracy.”
It’s nine am on yet another Sunday morning. An atheist knocks at his door, enters and sits on the seat opposite Ramesh only to hear Ramesh say, “An atheist could not be an atheist unless it was God’s will.” Seekers come. Some ask questions, while others listen. The sound of the occasional car honking filters into the room from the street below. The guru makes it clear that God is in the driver’s seat – a particular leaf from a particular branch of a particular tree in a particular field of a particular village in a particular state of a particular country will fall to the ground only if it’s God’s will.
On the eve of his 90th birthday, destiny’s child says he is ready to go home any time and does not care whatever happens the next moment. He quotes an old Zen roshi and says, “Forgive me for not dying,” letting out a booming laugh. What is for sure is that whenever it happens, the Source will welcome Its son with arms wide open.
Till then, Ramesh Balsekar will keep teaching what he is supposed to be teaching. One can hear him continue his conversation with the atheist “…the Hindu scriptures go a step further and say: ‘Thou art the speaker, Thou art the listener’. You think that I speak and you listen, but it is consciousness that speaks through one instrument and listens through the other…”
The satsang gets over. Seekers go. And the Balsekar household dissolves into the anonymity of just another ordinary household in the city of Mumbai, with no trace of the talks that transpired in the morning. And Ramesh Balsekar goes into his room to rest, till the next ‘happening’.
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This is my letter of eternal gratitude to You.
You gave me birth in a most respected Hindu family, but not high enough in social status to make me proud.
You gave me a physical form well-admired for its perfection, but it was small enough to keep me humble.
You gave me education high enough to be most useful in life, but not high enough to make me proud.
You gave me a career in which You took me high enough to be admired, but not high enough to make me arrogant.
You gave me a wife and family, for which I have always been eternally grateful, but You did not spare me some grief to remind me not to forget what life is all about, and to be always grateful for what I do have.
You did not forget to place an adequate number of temptations in my way, so that I may not be too critical of others who have to face their own temptations.
Perhaps the only wish that remains is that the long life You have given me will not carry a burden at the end.
But in that case, I know You will also give me the necessary courage to go with it.
You gave me a lot to show me how little is needed to be content, and how much could be given away.
And, undoubtedly, the most important of all – as if the bounty You have showered on me were not enough– You crowned Your achievement by using this psychosomatic apparatus to convey to the world the most important message of Advaita. Truly I am blessed. Or indeed, my Beloved, have You not blessed Yourself?
Finally, it occurs to me, if You were to design for Yourself a life in phenomenality, could it have been much different from this one?
And, for this thought, no tears are enough to wash Your Noumenal feet.