By Roozbeh Gazdar
Ranjit Maharaj, a relatively unknown guru outside Mumbai, lived a simple life and tarted teaching only at the age of 70. From his one-room apartment in Girgaum, he expounded a powerful philosophy of Advaita and Bhakti to seekers from all over the world
As the evening shadows lengthened, a cold breeze started blowing in from the sea. The samadhi of Ranjit Maharaj at Banganga, Mumbai, was almost deserted except for a caretaker. Kishor Chopda, a businessman dealing in books and art objects, had just finished performing a puja in the memory of his master. Three pairs of feline eyes stared unblinking from the marbled floor as a family of kittens huddled together seeking warmth, their white and grey camouflaged against the patterns in the stone. As the sun sank below the horizon, the last snatches of orange disappeared from the clouds and ocean and sky merged in a veil of grey.
“The world is a long dream, take it for granted,” Kishor was elaborating on his master’s teaching It was twilight, that time of the day when ceaseless activity, having climaxed, reaches a state of inertia, and calm and tranquillity pervades all existence. A little later, the spell broken, our taxi was grinding its way through the choked streets of Mumbai. Our destination, Narayan Building on Dubash Road, Girgaum, is one of many old and crumbling buildings in the congested locality. In the dingy interior, Room No 45 would have been indistinguishable from any of the other tenements, but for its entrance, crowded with bhajan singers. It could have been a middle-class family celebration anywhere in Mumbai. But the motley group collected here betrayed a more trans-national origin. Few westerners are part of the celebration, at ease singing in Marathi. It was in this room that Ranjit Maharaj lived and gave spiritual discourse to seekers who came from around the world.
The singing over, the distribution of prasad brings the building’s resident cat running for her share. As the gathering disperses, the room interior comes into focus. Austerely furnished, on its walls are hanging framed pictures of various saints including Ranjit Maharaj’s. His picture shows an obviously aged man on whose beautiful face life seems to have etched each passing year with its lines. It is not a face one can associate with the gurus and godmen advertised on posters and billboards seen all over the country. And yet, there is the compelling familiarity of the friendly neighbourhood elder, always ready with an indulgent smile, to guide, give solace or share in a joke. Bal Naik, a disciple described him later as “having a godly face that would make one want to bow down before him”.
A liberated soul who lived most of his life in relative anonymity, it was the void created by the death of his gurubandhu (co-disciple, Nisargadatta Maharaj, that forced Ranjit Maharaj, only at the age of 70, to don the mantle of guru. Nisargadatta Maharaj, a cigarette vendor, became much sought after by seekers, especially from the West, after the publication of his philosophy in a book I am That, written by a disciple named Maurice Friedman. He and Ranjit Maharaj shared a common spiritual lineage in their guru, Siddharameshwar Maharaj.
Satish Awadh, industrial relations consultant, remembers his first introduction to Ranjit Maharaj in 1939: “Appearing like a prince, he was never shy to sing in the loudest voice.” Ranjit Maharaj, he explains, shared an excellent equation with Nisargadatta Maharaj, who would always be requested to speak at his functions. “A wonderful speaker, Nisargadatta Maharaj referred to him as one who always spoke only about the fundamentals.” Says Awadh: “Both understood their master in such a way that he dwelled within their hearts. It was as if Sri Siddharameshwar himself was speaking one language from both mouths.”
After meeting his guru, Ranjit Maharaj continued living a normal life. After completing his schooling, he tried his hand at various jobs, including that of a bar manager, before becoming an accountant. Because of his shy nature and respect for his senior colleague, Awadh explains, Ranjit Maharaj refrained from taking on disciples of his own. When faced with a request, however, from Siddharameshwar’s son Yashwantrao, to give mantra diksha to his daughter-in law, he could not refuse and ultimately agreed to carry on the spiritual lineage.
Sri Siddharameshwar, born in 1888 in Patri, a village near Solapur in Maharashtra, was a disciple of Sri Bhausaheb Maharaj, who advocated meditation and internal renunciation, while continuing with one’s worldly life. After him, Siddharmeshwar imparted understanding of the Final Reality to disciples from 1925, till his death in 1936 in Mumbai.
Born in 1913 in a Gujarati family, Ranjit Maharaj met his guru at the age of 12. Intensely spiritual as a child, he used to fervently worship Lord Krishna. “But when I saw my guru I forgot Lord Krishna,” he would say later.
While Bhausaheb Maharaj, Siddharameshwar’s guru, taught the long and difficult path of dhyana or meditation, Siddharameshwar directly communicated knowledge, gyana, of the Final Reality to the disciples. This way, he said students could attain enlightenment very fast, like a bird flies from tree to tree and so called it Vihangam Marg or the way of the bird as opposed to the Pipilika Marg or the way of the ant taught by his Master. It was this path that Ranjit Maharaj also taught his disciples.
Ranjit Maharaj, teaching in simple and direct language, aimed at the disciple’s direct experience of his words: “You are already That.” He used to say. “Reaching reality requires nothing because it is already there.”
Once we accept this Truth, then it is very easy to attain enlightenment, but it is only our reluctance to relinquish the hold of the ego that prevents us from realising freedom. “Forget everything and He is there,” he used to say.
The first step to liberation, then, is simply to discriminate between true and false; to ‘separate Reality from Illusion’. Thinking over the knowledge imparted by the teacher helps to free oneself from the false identification with the ego and to realise the truth about one’s true reality.
Ranjit Maharaj said: “In the end that knowledge must be submerged in the Final Reality. To remove ignorance knowledge is necessary, but finally both must dissolve into reality. Your self is without ignorance, without knowledge.” Thus, knowledge is only a cure for the illness of illusion; once it has served its purpose, it too ceases to exist. “They (words) are illusion, but they give meaning thereof,” he used to say. “All is illusion but to understand the illusion, illusion is needed.”
As the very aim of Ranjit Maharaj’s teaching was to separate Illusion from Reality, he did not give any method to improve upon this illusion. To listen to the guru, he used to say, is the best practice to attain the Final Reality beyond ignorance and knowledge. The ‘Stateless State’ he called it. “Ignorance came by hearing. It must go off by hearing.”
Bal Naik, retired senior supervisor, Philips India, was one of his earliest disciples. Because of his scientific background, he would not take anything for granted. “I always used to put questions—ask him to prove whatever he said and he always solved my queries. Applying his teachings to life was almost like solving a tricky maths problem, which you could solve step by step,” he recalls.
Ramesh Manjrekar, retired from Air India, recalls how he, along with a few friends, would visit Ranjit Maharaj, either at his home or at the furniture shop where Maharaj worked as an accountant, to discuss spiritual issues. “I was attracted to the simplicity in his teaching, the gist of which was that the power inside is your only reality. The body, mind and the world are illusion and all sukha (happiness) and dukha (suffering) is because of your involvement with these. If you realise that you are not the body, it is over.”
As his disciples grew, Ranjit Maharaj soon began going to Manjrekar’s spacious apartment in Andheri where many more people could listen to his Marathi discourses every Sunday. The teachings were given in a traditional manner where passages from Marathi spiritual classics such as Das Bodh and Sadachaar, were first read and later discussed.
When disciples from the West started pouring in, he started teaching in English from his Girgaum flat. Because of the small size of the room, disciples often sat outside the open door, while Maharaj sat inside and answered questions put by them.
Kishor Chopda, who used to regularly attend these sessions, says: “The teachings were so simple, to the point and penetrating that everything I had read or heard earlier was erased. Today, four years later, I still feel completely untouched by either sukha or dukha.
Ujwala Shinde, vice-principal of a school for the deaf and mute, was introduced to Ranjit Maharaj shortly after a devastating tragedy of the death of her husband. She immediately accepted him as her guru and took the naam diksha on the first day itself. “Though I had no spiritual interest, I was attracted to his teaching. As I listened I came to realise how relevant to life the teachings were.”
His unassuming simplicity and ever accessible and accommodating nature was a living expression of the non-duality of his teachings that even denied that master and disciple are separate. People dropping in at any time of the day or night were always welcomed and disciples recall losing complete track of time as engrossing discussions continued late into the night.
Younger disciples like Murali Raghavan, a manager with Air India, found the barriers of age and generation dissolving in his presence. “I found more a friend in him at his age than anyone else and with him I could discuss politics, girls, games and jokes,” he says.
Ujwala explains how free and open she felt in front of him. “I had heard that realised people could see through you, but with Maharaj it never bothered me.” Disciples love to recall how the master enjoyed watching cricket and playing cards or making and serving tea. Ramesh recalls: “Initially it felt very awkward to have your guru make and serve you tea, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.” So untouched by any pride was he that he continued working as an accountant even after he was formally preaching. Only after much persuasion from concerned disciples did he give up the job at the age of eighty!
Ujwala, like most other disciples, experienced her guru’s grace not just from his words but by living close to him. “Every small thing that he did was a kind of teaching,” she says. As a bachelor living alone, Ranjit Maharaj depended on oily unwholesome food ordered from hotels, refusing any intervention in the matter. When he finally accepted Ujwala’s offer of home-cooked meals, he stubbornly insisted on paying for them. “I realised only later that it was such an effective lesson on ego,” she remembers.
Murali cherishes the memory of a two-month trip to Europe with his master. “How a guru lives his day-to-day life can be known only when you live with him. His life itself was a lesson to learn and his living a teaching by itself. A magnificent power around him capsised everyone around,” he explains.
Prem Nirmal, who owns an electronic goods business, also had an opportunity to travel with Ranjit Maharaj. He remembers some intense and profound experiences. “His energy field was so strong that it was easy to remain aware in a moment with effortless ease. Sitting in close proximity with him meant that the mind had to stop chattering. In such a state, awareness deepened and in that expanded state, everything around—the people, the vehicle and the trees—was inside me. It was so strange.”
Ranjit Maharaj’s teachings were free from any rules or taboos. A staunch vegetarian himself, non-vegetarian devotees were free to indulge even in his presence and on one occasion a particularly stressed out disciple was even advised to take a ‘peg’ and retire to bed.
Those used to keeping idols or observing certain rituals were often gently chided about the futility of mechanical observances. In Bal Naik’s household, the annual Ganpati festival was celebrated traditionally. Soon after meeting Maharaj, he discontinued the practice. “Where was the question of worshiping an idol, when he taught me to go beyond ritual and see the One God in everyone and everything. This knowledge from his teaching has made me so vast,” he explains.
In spite of its very strong Advaita nature, bhakti, devotion towards one’s guru, is a are important part of the teachings handed down from Bhausaheb. Both Ranjit Maharaj as well as Nisargadatta Maharaj showed exemplary devotion to their master. Despite preaching non-duality even between master and disciple, Ranjit Maharaj never failed in the performance of the daily puja and four bhajans as taught by Siddharameshwar. According to Kishor Chopda, this extreme bhakti was not a path to attain realisation, but in fact arose from there.
“Once you have understood, what is left for you to do? Only pray to the one who has taught you these things. Make duality there, make incompleteness, but only for the thanking,” Maharaj said while explaining his own devotion to his master, and devotees recall how the slightest lapse during the performance of the puja or bhajans always met with strong rebuke.
In 2000, Ranjit Maharaj suffered a stroke, which left him paralysed on one side. In a touching expression of his devotion, even in this state of health, he travelled almost 1,000 km by ambulance for the annual pilgrimage to Siddharameshwar’s samadhi in Bagewadi in Karnataka.
The Manjrekars were saddened by the loss of the weekend visits of their Maharaj and Ramesh remembers the one last time he graced their home after the stroke. Late one evening, he insisted on being driven down to their house. Once there, he spent some time with them, ate a little food and lay down to rest. Then, late into the night, he asked to be driven back home. “My wife asked him to stay till the morning bhajans, but he insisted on returning saying: “You wanted me to come, didn’t you? Well, so I did. But now I must leave.” Couple of days later, on November 15, 2000 he passed away. His words during his last few days were: “It is of no use now, this has to go.”
His master Sri Siddharameshwar’s samadhi, which he unfailingly visited every Sunday, lies just next to where his own stands today in Mumbai.
Contact: Shri Sadguru Siddharameshwar Adhyatma Kendra,Mumbai. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Ranjit Maharaj was the gurubhai of Nisargadatta Maharaj (right), the well-known advaita teacher whose book I am That has become a modern spiritual classic. Their guru was Siddharameshwar Maharaj (left) who directly communicated knowledge, gyana, of the Final Reality to his disciples