By Suma Varughese
Former banker Ramesh S. Balsekar seems to be the new destination of serious spiritual seekers. In words reminiscent of J. Krishnamurti, he tells them that they are already there; only they have to realize it
It was a disconcerting start for an interview. ‘There is no me,’ asserted the voice. Who then was this spare little man in white kurta pajamas, eyes beaming softly from a chiseled ascetic face, sitting in a cozy little room in his flat in Mumbai, western India, with a small group of Indians and foreigners?
‘What you see is a body-mind organism called Ramesh Balsekar,’ clarified the apparition gently.
It gets worse.
‘All that is, is Consciousness.’
‘An individual has no free will. Everything happens according to God’s will.’
‘Reality is a concept.’
‘There is no birth and no death. The final truth is that nothing has happened, there is no creation. There is no seeker and no sought. We are dreamed up creatures.’
Each statement hits the mind like a bullet, ripping through and shredding your conditionings, convictions, attitudes, thoughts, destroying every comfortable crutch, every attribute of identity, leaving you with nothing, not even yourself. No self, no will, no reality, no birth, no death, no creation… only the Upanishadic neti, neti (not this, not that). Such ruthless negation can be frightening, even disorienting. Yet, Balsekar’s students cannot have enough of it. Gabriela Jungblath, a young German woman who has been to Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tamil Nadu, southern India, and to H.W.L. Poonja in Lucknow, northern India, before coming to Balsekar, explains why: ‘With the others, I had to do very hard sadhana. Here, Ramesh tells us it is not necessary to do anything, as there is ‘no one’ to do it. A burden has lifted off my shoulders!’
For most foreigners, Balsekar is the guru of the last resort, turned to when a lifetime’s spiritual search fails to yield result. Indeed, one Indian disciple calls Balsekar’s group ‘the graduate class’. The Indians drawn to him are not professional seekers, but even they find value in his uncommon philosophy.
‘I’m falling more and more in love with him,’ sighs Manjushri, a video-film editor. Murthy, a former lecturer and now a bookie at Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Race Course, adds: ‘The first time I met him, he cut off all my concepts. He didn’t leave me anything to think about. There’s no more learning, just love. Last week, I gave away 200 of my religious books.’
Kavita Mukhi, who runs a health food shop, reports: ‘The idea of Divine Will has changed the way I view everything, including relationships. There is no enmity, jealousy, or anger once you realize that no one’s responsible for his or her actions.’
Sit in on one of his sessions, and it is easy to see why Balsekar elicits such love or is held in such high regard. When listening to a student unburden himself, he is deeply attentive. ‘Oh, I see,’ he responds with infinite compassion, or ‘I understand’, and you know he does. He validates his students, confirms their insights and sends them on their spiritual journey.
Balsekar is not a guru for the masses, but his popularity has been growing among a select band of people in India and abroad, kindled by the seminars he has conducted in the USA and Germany between 1987-93, his annual fortnight-long seminars at Kovalam beach, Kerala, southern India, and his talks. Since last year, however, he has restricted himself to daily morning sessions at his home.
Many people, however, would know him through his books. Starting with Pointers From Nisargadatta Maharaj , an expansion of his guru’s philosophy, he went on to write A Duet of One, an analysis of the Ashtavakra Gita, Experiencing the Teaching, The Final Truth, From Consciousness to Consciousness, Consciousness Speaks, Ripples, and Consciousness Writes. Published in the USA, his books brought him to the notice of Westerners, who have traditionally opted for the jnana (knowledge) route to enlightenment.
Ramesh Balsekar is an unlikely guru, somewhat in the mold of Jiddu Krishnamurti. He hasn’t systematized his teaching nor set up an organization to promote it. A former general manager of the Bank of India and a golfer, he lives in the upmarket Warden Road area of Mumbai. The spacious, tastefully furnished apartment, the upper middle class ethos, his flawless English and drawing room manners area far cry from the traditional ochre-robed hirsute gurus. He isn’t above swapping the occasional dirty joke, though admittedly washed clean by the sheer joy of narration.
Balsekar even savors his role as a family man. He lives with his wife, while a daughter and a son live away from Mumbai. Both his children, he says, are interested in his teaching. His eyes twinkle with pride when he talks about the recent prize his granddaughter won for being the most popular girl in school.
Balsekar sums up his philosophy in four words: ‘Thy will be done.’ This acceptance of the absoluteness of Divine Will is based on the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta. When Balsekar says: ‘All that is, is Consciousness’, he means that the Universe, including us, is a manifestation of the Creator and has no separate existence. Truly understanding this intellectually and experientially reveals the illusory nature of the Universe and the self, enabling us to know ourselves as we really are—beyond attributes, beyond mind-body, time and space. Each one of us is omnipresent, eternal, the nothing that contains everything. In short, the Self is God.
Surrendering to Divine Will eliminates all sense of personal doership, of pride in success, of guilt or shame in failure, or enmity at another’s actions. All action is an expression of Totality, and has nothing to do with us. Free of worry or remorse, we experience freedom.
Further, our subject-object relationship with the world changes to one of witnessing. ‘Things happen. Anger happens, compassion may arise,’ says Balsekar, as opposed to ‘I am angry’ or ‘I am compassionate’. Witnessing eventually leads to the state of ‘I am’, where we are able to know ourselves without any attribute, save the one truth that we exist.
To rub home the primacy of Divine Will, Balsekar juxtaposes Mother Teresa with a psychopath. ‘Good things happen through Mother Teresa and bad things through a psychopath, because that is how their body-mind organisms have been programmed. Neither had any choice.’
Isn’t the trap of fatalism lurking here? No, explains Balsekar, ‘because the energy inside won’t let you do nothing’. The best plan of action, he recommends, is to continue doing whatever you are doing, safe in the knowledge that what you do is what God wants you to do, otherwise the thought would not have entered your head. All thoughts, feelings and desires are reactions of the brain to outside stimuli. Therefore, it is erroneous to attribute ownership to any of them.
This reasoning pre-empts the existence of individual soul or personal karma. ‘When we die, we go back to the pool of Consciousness, which sends forth other body-mind organisms to continue the cycle of cause and effect. Where is the question of reward or punishment when there is no ‘you’?’ he asks acerbically.
His own life is proof that even spiritual seeking is due to God’s grace. His quest started when he was just 12, but in fulfillment of a prediction, he found his true guru, Nisargadatta Maharaj, only a year after retiring from his job at the bank.
Unlettered and poor, Nisargadatta was a beedi (an Indian variation of the cigarette) shop owner when enlightenment dawned. His clear and lucid elucidation of jnana yoga proves that wisdom has little to do with learning. His talks, compiled in I Am That by a foreign disciple Maurice Friedman, is a classic of our times.
Nisargadatta lived in a small loft in a congested area in Mumbai, where Balsekar went to meet him. Maharaj was alone. On seeing Balsekar, he said: ‘So you have come at last. What took you so long?’ Soon after, Balsekar attained realization, which he narrates in Consciousness Speaks.
Even before Nisargadatta Maharaj’s death from throat cancer in 1981, Balsekar was authorized to speak on his behalf. In due time, Maharaj’s mantle fell upon him. While their philosophy is identical, Balsekar’s presentation is often quite different. His higher level of education and knowledge add clarity to Nisargadatta’s statements. He has coined many terms to distinguish different concepts.
And while Maharaj still addressed the person rather than Consciousness, Balsekar refuses to do so. Nisargadatta did prescribe ways to reach enlightenment, such as staying in the ‘I am’ or practicing desirelessness and fearlessness. But for Balsekar, there is no question of getting there since we already are there. All we need is to know that. No spiritual practice can speed up the process. ‘If meditation is to happen, it will happen,’ he says.
Such a rigorous approach seems to be producing results. According to one of his disciples, at least five or six of his students have realized whatever they had to realize. Balsekar himself, however, says that there is no way to judge if a person is enlightened or not from his behavior. This is because the experience may or may not bring any change in the body or the mind.
What then is the benefit of enlightenment? None, because there is no one left to enjoy it, he points out.
His characteristic negation extends to his own teaching. Once he began a talk by saying that he was not teaching anything to anybody, and then promptly corrected himself: ‘I’m selling something that is nothing on behalf of the Divine Entity, which is really no entity and therefore nothing either. And the biggest joke is I’m selling this nothing to you who are all nothing! This is really a joke. But until the joke is realized as a joke, it can be a terribly tragic joke.’
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