Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

An Interview with
Ramesh Balsekar

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The Godfather of Soul Part III

Part I Part II

Ramesh Sadashiv Balsekar was born in Mumbai on 25 May 1917: 'Ever since I was a child, ever since I can remember, I had the intuitive feeling everything is going to happen exactly as it is supposed to. The result of knowing that, for me, made life very simple.' Born into a Hindu Brahmin family, Ramesh was surrounded by traditional spiritual practices � at the age of 12, he made a promise to his mother that he would daily chant the Ramaraksha Stotra, which he continues to do even to this day.

In 1936, Ramesh went to study commerce in England for three years at the London School of Economics and, upon returning to Mumbai, obtained a post at the Bank of India as a clerk: 'When I started working, I saw absolutely no reason to pamper and flatter whomever was my boss. I knew with the deepest possible acceptance that if I were going to get a promotion, no power on earth could stop it. And if I were not to get a promotion, no power on earth could get it. No matter how much bootlicking I did, I am not going to make it happen.'

With this philosophy as his principal guide, when Ramesh was instructed to accept a posting out of Mumbai he refused � his father was ill and he was needed to help out at home. Knowing that to go against the boss's wishes would mean the loss of his job, he immediately wrote out a letter of resignation. However, his boss, realizing that Ramesh was a man of noble character fulfilling his domestic duties at the expense of his career, not only allowed Ramesh to continue working in Mumbai but, from that moment onwards, took him under his wing, advising and helping with his career in the bank. So much so that Ramesh received promotion after promotion, culminating in the highest position of the President of the Bank of India, a post he held for 10 years until his retirement at the age of 60 in 1977.

Ramesh's first guru was a Hindu Brahmin from Poona. 'He was a genuine teacher but, within a week or two, I knew that despite what he said about Advaita was acceptable , he was too much inclined towards being a Hindu.' However Ramesh continued to seek his guidance for more than 20 years. 'Then the book, I Am That, Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, came out. There was a review of it in the magazine, The Mountain Path, which is published by the Ramanasramam. So I read that review and it had such an impact on me that I went to see Maharaj straight away. And the first day I knew � I am home, this is where I belong. I went to Maharaj in 1978, exactly a year after I retired.'

Ramesh started to translate Maharaj's talks from Marathi into English right up until Maharaj's death in 1981. The following year, when an Australian man turned up at Ramesh's home early one morning, he started holding talks of his own. The next day a few more people came and so it went on until today. Indeed, every morning, each day of the year, Ramesh speaks about Advaita. As he says himself, 'No one is invited and everyone is welcome.' Ramesh has been married for 60 years to his wife, Sharda, with whom he has had three children.

P: What was Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj like?

R: He was quick of anger but had nothing in his heart. He was a loveable old man really but this fiery temper was always there and it confused many people. And he used to smoke continuously so people used to miss something. They would say how can he be a sage, how can he be a jnani � he smokes all the time, he shouts at people, he gets angry!

P: You went every morning to his talks and translated for him?

R: Yes, I went every morning but I didn't go in the evening because, after the talks, there was a bhajan � not the kind of bhajan we have here but the traditional bhajan where they sing and they bang the bells and the cymbals and so on. I was there once and I couldn't stand it! So Maharaj said, 'Why don't you come in the evening?' So I said, 'Maharaj, two reasons. What I learn in the morning is heavy enough for me to last for the day and quite frankly I can't stand the noise, I can't stand the noise.' He smiled!

After going for six months, sometimes he said to me to do the translation. So I said OK and the translation that I did was much appreciated by the foreign people because the other translator didn't have the knowledge of English that I have. So, there was a certain amount of deep understanding and a control over the English language and everyone was delighted. Maharaj could see that.

P: Was there a moment in time for you when the understanding arose?

R: There was a specific occasion. It was the festival called Diwali, the festival of lights. There was no talk in the morning because the tradition was that, on that day, a group of seven or eight volunteers would come and do the spring cleaning once a year. A friend of mine suggested having the talk at his place. Maharaj thought it was a good idea, so that day we had the talk at my friend's place. And, since he was busy looking after the people, Maharaj suggested that I do the translation that day.

And it happened on that particular occasion. Somehow, something happened and the translation was utterly spontaneous. Normally the translation was hard work. Maharaj had no teeth so his words were not terribly clear! Sometimes I had to ask him, 'What did you say?' And once he said, 'Are you deaf?!' I was 61 and he was 80 so I said, 'I'm getting deaf because of my age!' and we both had a big laugh. So first I had to understand his words and the meaning, then I used to have to translate them into English because he spoke in the local language, Marathi. So it used to take some time between his talk and my words coming out. But that morning he could hardly finish and the words would be flowing out of me, you see. In fact, I knew what he was going to say. I could hardly wait for him to finish before the words started. And at the end of the talk, my friend said, 'You are in great form today, Ramesh!' I said, 'In what way?' He said, 'You talked louder, with authority, you make gestures which you never made before and it was spontaneous.' So I said, 'I know, I felt it too.' And Maharaj also knew it. So that particular day, I knew that something had happened. The words came out spontaneously. So that was the morning that I could pinpoint that something had happened.

P: That was beyond your control?

R: Absolutely. Totally.

P: Did you carry on translating for Nisargadatta?

R: Oh yes, until he died. And a curious thing happened. About a month before he died, on a Sunday, a group of people had come from a place about 200 miles from Bombay. And at that time Maharaj was ill and was lying in bed. So he told them, 'Ask your questions and he will answer them,' pointing to me. Everybody was surprised. But they didn't want that, so no questions came. So of course I gave no answers. That was the first time he had authorized me to talk on his behalf So then Maharaj said, 'What's going on?' And then he was angry � nothing was happening. I said, 'Maharaj, they don't want to listen to a speaker, an instrument, a recording machine, they want to speak to you!'

I took it as an authorization to talk only on that morning but I did not take it as an overall authorization to talk on the subject. So afterwards, I never talked and he knew I didn't talk. He knew people would come to me but there was no serious talking taking place. So, two days before he died, suddenly he got up on his elbow and shouted at me and said, 'Why don't you talk?' He shouted and then he fell back, so I thought that was the end but it wasn't! He lived for two days more but he had shouted, 'Why don't you talk?' and the meaning was clear � 'I authorized you to talk, why don't you talk?'

From that day, I talked whenever it was necessary and that's how it started. One man came and he was a medical student and I talked to him. He read my book, Pointers, and he said he had to come here and that he was very grateful and could he come again. And I said yes, so the next day he called from the railway station and said, 'I am here, I am coming, I have four people with me, is that alright?' I said sure, so those four people came and then it grew. It was only because people came here that I started talking. I didn't advertise or ask people to come to me. God sends them to me and God makes me talk.

P: So, to turn to the teaching, in the West everybody thinks about philosophy as 'I think, therefore I am.' But in the East, it's the other way round, 'I am, therefore I think.'

R: Absolutely correct.

P: So, what I really want to ask you is this. What is the final truth?

R: The final truth is only one thing and that is, in the absence of Consciousness, there is neither you nor me, he nor she. Therefore, Consciousness is the very basis of everything. In the absence of Consciousness, there is no manifestation and no functioning of manifestation � therefore there is no life. The very manifestation depends on the existence of Consciousness. That is the first truth.

P: Why did Western philosophy go off at such a different tangent?

Western philosophy has been attaching too much importance to proof being obtained. 'I think, therefore I am.' Here, we say, 'I am, therefore I think.' The West says, 'I believe it if I see it,' you see. In Eastern philosophy, believe it and then you will see it!

P: The teachers I have met, for example you and Wayne Liquorman, talk about the teaching in a very precise, conceptual way. But there are teachers who come from Papaji for example, who say I should forget concepts �just be here now.

R: But what do they mean by 'be here now'? If just 'be here now', then there is no question of any talk, any conversation.

Anything anybody has said or will say is bound to be a concept because some people will accept it and some people won't. The only truth is the impersonal awareness of 'I am', not as I am Paula or Ramesh or so and so. I am this impersonal awareness is the only truth. And when you are in that impersonal awareness, nothing happens. So, 'be as you are' happens when there is no thinking. That's all there is. 'Be as you are' simply means there is nothing to be done � don't think, don't do anything, be as you are.

But in life, you have to think, you have to make decisions, you see. Decisions have to be made as if you are an individual entity with volition. What happens in life is that you're making decisions all the time. And what is our experience, everybody's experience? Our experience is that we make a decision � sometimes it turns into an action, a happening, sometimes it doesn't. Whether a decision turns into an action or not is not under our control. That is everybody's experience. But we still say, 'I am in control of my life.'

P: I can understand that there is no free will � that everything is God's will, I can accept that. But to come to the understanding that I am not the doer, is that also God's will, that understanding?

R: Whether you are able to accept that you are not the doer and that no one is a doer is itself God's will.

P: But I read that Ramana Maharshi said that the only choice that you do have is to turn in � that implies a form of choice on the part of the individual.

R: I know it does! Then, the question would be, those who do not turn in, have they decided not to make this enquiry � you see what I mean? What I am saying is they are either interested or they're not interested. Those who are interested are told to find out who wants to know, Who am I? Those who are not interested are not concerned because they are not programmed to have any interest in this spiritual seeking. So the question of making a choice doesn't arise. By 'choice' what Ramana Maharshi probably means is that you have the choice to go by any path and you will go by that path, which is indicated by your programming. So you are free to make the choice which way you will go; whether you will go by Self Enquiry or whether you will go by bhakti, repeating God's name, or by social work, like Mother Teresa, you have the choice but that apparent choice, upon investigation, is found to be based on your programming.

P: So it's apparent choice to turn inwards.

R: Apparent choice. So the choice you are supposed to have - which path you are supposed to take � is only an apparent choice because that choice is invariably based on your programming, genes and conditioning.

P: Something I have struggled with in the teaching is this kind of paradox � at the phenomenal level, I exist, but on the noumenal level, I don't.

R: You cannot know at the noumenal level, that is the point. At the noumenal level, you are only Consciousness. At the noumenal level, there is nothing other than Consciousness. So, whatever you are thinking about can only be at the phenomenal level. That is why, if you recollect, I always say why do you want Self-realization? Why do you want Self-realization, Paula?

P: Because I think it is a good thing to have!

R: The reason I am asking is, when there is Self-realization, 'me' wanting Self-realization as an individual entity with a sense of doership does not remain. So, that is why my point is when you want Self-realization it is because you expect that realization will make you or give you peace or happiness in life.

P: Wayne says you want to he around when Self-realisation happens!

R: That is the whole problem, you see. Self-realization means the absence of the 'me' wanting Self-realization. 'Me' as the doer, as an individual entity with a sense of doership. When that is totally gone, that what remains is merely identification with the body-mind organism to enable that body-mind organism to function in life, knowing that whatever happens in life, there is no one doing anything. The basic understanding, Self-realization, enlightenment, is � according to my concept � that there is no individual doer. There is no action that is done by an individual entity. All action is a happening because it happens to be God's will or if you don't like the words God's will - and some don't - let's say nothing can happen unless it is according to a cosmic law. And that cosmic law no individual can ever know.

P: There are other teachers and religious traditions that say you need to relax, you need to meditate, you need to do this, that and the other.

R: And that is the conditioning I am talking about. Everything has to be done the right way. There is a right way and there is a wrong way. So, the right way according to the English man may not be the right way according to a French man. Therefore there's truly nothing right or wrong.

P: So what about things like morality or ethics?

R: Again, you merely do what you think you should do. That is the only criteria you can go by. I mean, in the state of Kerala in India one hundred years ago, it was considered improper for a lady from a good family to wear anything on top. It was only the woman of loose virtue who wore anything on top, so that she could attract the attention of somebody. You see the logic of it? You take a nudist magazine � the first time you open it, you have a shock! You turn the pages and see 10, 20, 30 women with nothing on top. But then you see anything covered or half-covered, it attracts your attention more.

P: Yes, it's because of the mystery.

R: Yes, what's behind that.

P: Like the teaching can be mysterious.

R: Yes. Whereas something that is bare, open � you don't look at it, you see. So again, what I am saying is environmental conditioning makes you think what you think. So what you think you should do at any time is almost entirely a matter of genes and conditioning. The natural design and programming in that body-mind organism.

P: In neuroscience, the genome � the complete chromosome blueprint of the human being � has recently been discovered.

R: In the last year or so, more and more research is being done into genes. The latest one I heard - it's quite amusing but research shows it - if you're inclined to cheat on your partner, blame it on your genes! You cannot help not being faithful to your spouse.

P: Ramana was asked about adultery, wasn't he?

R: This particular case you mention about adultery is not contained in many books on Ramana because, if it were included, then it would be construed that Ramana condones adultery. What he means is whether adultery is to happen or not, is not in your control � that is what he means. This particular account is of a young man, recently married and it was exactly the same time in Kerala when the women went bare-breasted, in the early part of last century. So he comes to Ramana very sincerely and he says, 'I'm newly married, I love my wife but I'm afraid of committing adultery.' In other words, 'I am afraid of committing the sin of adultery because I am tempted by the breasts of a young neighbour of mine.' Ramana Maharshi must have realized that the man was sincere and an honest seeker with a certain amount of spiritual effort already done. So he tells him, 'You are always pure. You cannot commit any sin.' Then he says, 'Even if adultery happens, there is no "me" to think about it. You have not done any action. Nobody can do any action. Whatever action seems like action is a happening, which could not have happened unless it was the will of God. So, if adultery happens, you need not think about it as you having committed the adultery. It happens because it was supposed to happen and you need not think about it afterwards.'

P: There are many people who say they know about the truth and appoint themselves as teachers or gurus. And yet, all the time one hears about financial and sexual abuse associated with these people. Is that still God's will?

R: It has happened, so it has to be God's will. Hitler could not have happened unless it was God's will. Mother Teresa happened because it was God's will, Saddam Hussein, Stalin, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, Ramana Maharshi happened. Everything, all happening because of God's will. And why so many false gurus? Because in the Bhagavad Gita there is a verse, which says, 'Among thousands there is one seeker and among thousands of seekers, there is hardly one who knows me in principle.' So that thousands of seekers fumble about in confusion, they need false gurus. So, false gurus happen and according to the destiny of those who are supposed to go to the false gurus, they go.

P: It is difficult to accept.

R: It's not easy.

P: What about the theory of reincarnation? It struck me that people like that theory because it makes life appear to be fair and just � this person is suffering because of bad karma in a previous life, whereas that person is having a great life because of good karma.

R: So, my point on this question is simply one thing. Paula is only in this life, with this body-mind organism. There was no Paula in an earlier life. There was some other ego in a previous life, which doesn't exist in this life � the ego died with that body. And that ego does not know anything about Paula's suffering or enjoyment of life. And Paula is not going to know any ego in a future life.

The theory of karma simply means theory of causation. Cause, effect, cause, effect � a chain of causation. So the karma theory is right � karma basically means action but not a personal action. Causation is right but not someone's causation.

P: But Ramana talks about birth and death. He says that for the jnani who no longer believes he is the doer and whose mind has therefore become inactive, he remains unaffected by birth and death. But for the ordinary man, Ramana says that after the death of the physical body, the mind remains inactive for a while but then it becomes active again in a new body. This seems to imply a so-called 'rebirth'.

R: So, what it means is a fresh birth happens.

P: Just another mind?

R: Just another body-mind organism � another birth.

P: Not the migration of a specific mind?

R: That is my point because there is nothing to migrate. My point is nothing can get destroyed, so all your hopes and failures and frustrations, they all go, let us say, into the pool of Consciousness � all thoughts, all aspirations of all beings. When a new conception happens, what goes from the pool of Consciousness into that conception, nobody knows. It may be that, in a particular case, 70 per cent or 80 per cent of the aspirations and frustrations of one particular life may go into the other life. But it may be one per cent. Nobody can know.

P: So that would explain why some people do have recollections of a previous life.

R: Yes. What I am saying is that they may have a recollection of a previous life. Therefore, what I say is there have been births, there will be births, but no rebirths. And Ramana Maharshi has said there was no rebirth and this is the truth.

P: So finally, Ramesh, who am I?

R: The 'I' that you are talking of is really the 'me', isn't it? You see? Paula is merely the name given to a body-mind organism, which is a programmed instrument through which the 'I', as the source, functions. 'Me' is the name given to a uniquely programmed instrument through which 'I', or the source or God, functions and brings about such actions as are supposed to happen according to the cosmic law.


Ramesh is utterly courteous and generous throughout our hour of conversation together. However, I am conscious of the fact that he begins to grow tired in the growing shadows of the late afternoon sunshine - I feel instinctively that I must bring our interview to an end, as much as I would like to go on all night. As I take his photograph, he asks me if I have read his book, Sin and Guilt: Monstrosity of Mind: I confess that I haven't - he disappears, returning a few moments later waving a copy in his hand, which he offers to give to me. 'Would you sign it for me?' I ask. 'Sure,' he replies, walking over to his desk and then scribbling an inscription inside the cover. 'With warmest affection and love, Ramesh S Balsekar, Oct. 9, 2000,' it reads. I am deeply touched, I tell him. Ramesh then wishes me every success with the book and says that he is looking forward to reading it. 'I hope that I have given you enough material to work with.' Ramesh walks me to the lift and once again he cups my face as we say goodbye. What a privilege, I think, to have met such an extraordinarily wise and humble man.

Peace reigns in my heart as I journey back to Colaba. I return to the Taj for an evening drink - a delicious sweet lassi, made of chilled yoghurt. Life continues to play itself out in the view from the window onto the street below. I am filled with such an indescribable sense of well-being. Not exhilaration, not even bliss; rather a feeling of total acceptance, of a quietly joyous resignation to the fact that everything is as it is. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Just here and now, as God deems it so.

As the day wears on, I too start to feel tired with the heat and the earlier adrenaline surges of excitement. I return to my room to rest and I drink litres of mineral water and eat a couple of small overripe bananas. Tonight, my penultimate night in Mumbai, I am finally beginning to adjust my sleeping pattern. It is just after nine in the evening and I retire to bed and fall into a deep and satisfied sleep...

There is someone in the room. I cannot see their face but it is a presence I am aware of. I am not afraid. 'The only choice you have is to turn inwards,' the presence says. But it is my voice.

I awake with a start. The crows have started screeching in the new day. I lie on the bed looking out of the window, out onto a surreal landscape of exotic trees and hotel rooms with verandahs full of drying clothes. The search is over, I think. There is no need to see anyone else. All I need to do is turn around and see.

My final full day. I stroll around the bustling streets, through crowded and noisy markets, absorbing all the sights and smells of urban Indian life, watching phenomena manifest and dance in front of my eyes. I buy some Assam tea and masala spice in a nearby shop and then return to my room for a siesta. Suddenly I don't feel so well. I am aware of a growing pain in my abdomen � a gripping ache that seemingly replaces the peace of the day.

By evening, I am wracked with physical pain...

[Extract taken from The Teachers of One: Conversations on the Nature of Nonduality
by Paula Marvelly]

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