Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Milo Clark recalls "A Day with Maharaj"
Milo Clark's exceedingly warm, witty, vividly "you-are-there" reminiscence of being in the Bombay mezzanine loft in the late 1970s with the great nondual advaitin sage, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981), was printed in Robert Powell (Ed.), The Blissful Life: As Realized through the Teachings of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Durham, NC: Acorn Press, 1984, pp. 15-27. It is reproduced here for a wider audience, with a few boldfacings simply to easily highlight topics covered by Clark.
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"A Day with Maharaj," by Milo Clark
"Maharaj," to me, was just a temporal title of an Indian potentate until I met this lineage holder of a spiritual title [in the Navnath sampradaya], which, in this man's case suggests nothing regal, encompassing no estates, grants no domain. His physical circumstances are very simple yet apparently lacking nothing to him. The bulk of his being is entrusted to a small room, perhaps 10 by 15 feet in size, and filled with objects related to his being there as Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. The entitlement brought no affectations, only some objects related to the linkage which he did not seek. Along with the other tenants of Vanmali Bhavan (the name of the building on Tenth Lane in the Khetwadi district of Bombay, where Maharaj lives with his family), he walks down the long hall to the far end of the building to use the communal toilet faculties. With a mischievous twinkle rarely absent from his unusually bright eyes, he scoffs at all the guru business and trappings. With a sweeping wave of his hands, he says that when he goes about he is just an old man out for a walk so nobody bothers him and he can go as he pleases.
Maharaj, as most of the Westerners in attendance called him, holds court in his little room much of the day and evening. The room is reached by a small, steep ladder which looks like a fold-up attic ladder from the Indian equivalent of Sears Roebuck. He will be found near the top—to the right side in the morning and to the left later in the day. On approaching a spiritual master of a Hindu tradition, one customarily touches head to floor in respect for the tradition bearer. Given the space involved and the immediate proximity of Maharaj to the top of the ladder, a rather adept maneuver is required to bring this off with some sense of grace and proportion. A visitor learns to keep legs in the stairwell and to execute the bow on emerging. Any alternative method requires a suppleness of spine worthy of an inchworm.
The space is no more than six feet high and was created many years ago by dividing the front room of this two-room suite in half vertically. There are numerous opportunities to impale one's head. A heavy central beam, at least six by six inches, has three heavy books for hanging large bells during ceremonies. On the side of the beam facing Tenth Lane, there is a metal rod, perhaps half an inch in diameter, extending from one side of the room to another. From this rod, at its easternmost end toward the outside wall of Vanmali Bhavan, hangs a heavy brass with a base diameter of about six inches. This bell would swell the chest of any respectable yachtsman. We shall hear more about this later.
I do not know how long Maharaj has been in this space, but it feels like a very long time. Maybe as long as 50 years, since this is also the location of his beedie shop, now boarded up below, which was his business before his spiritual enlightenment and, I understand, for some years afterwards. Beedies are very potent Indian cigarettes with an acrid, quite vile-smelling smoke. They are made by rolling some crumbled tobacco in a small leaf finished off with a wisp of colored string which also clues the addict as to which end to light while holding the whole thing together. In honor of his former trade or, perhaps more accurately, in testimony to the addictive powers of the beedie, Maharaj chain-smokes the little devils. It was hinted that Maharaj still helps out on beedie rolling now and then. His son carries on the family trade in a tiny alcove shop just down the alley to the east before the tea shop on the corner.
Maharaj states his age (at the time of my visit) as 82 years of suffering in this body. He says so or, more correctly, is translated as having said so in his native Marathi, with a wry smile and toss of his eyebrows, hinting that it may not have been all that bad.
The room has a patina and shine coming from much rubbing and wiping on its objects and surfaces. The floor is covered with a collection of rugs and carpets typical of the "as-is" section of a Goodwill store. My guess, nevertheless, is that a shrewd rug merchant would be delighted with some of them.
There are two low windows, one to the south facing Tenth Lane
and the other in the eastern wall about two thirds back into the room. This latter opening is to a narrow space between buildings. The view includes a bit of rusted-through, corrugated roofing fallen from the adjacent building, some crumbling masonry, and various metal-reinforcing rods festooned with bits of cloth of indeterminate ancestry and circumstance. The windows are masked on the inside by heavy wire mesh. Both walls, what little is uncovered, and wire mesh were painted the same bilious green once dear to American hospitals. On opposite sides of the room about three feet or so back from the front wall along the longer side walls are two quite old appearing but once fine mirrors now losing their silvering here and there. By carefully placing oneself, there are reflections of a multitude of self-images.
At the far interior end of the room is a wooden case and chest of drawers laden with important-looking articles and secret recesses containing items for ceremonies and Maharaj's personal needs. Toward the side and above the low windows can be found a set of cushions, a backrest and two folded animal skins lined with velvet cloth. I have not seen this group of articles used during my visits, and sense that these were used during the late-night sessions, which were attended primarily by Maharaj's Indian devotees and conducted in Marathi with no translation offered.
By the center of the wall, also on top of the case mentioned above, is an elaborate (for these circumstances) altar arrangement backed by a large, silver-framed picture or a stern-visaged Indian of apparent importance garbed in a richly decorated uniform of Western cut. My impression was that this was a previous lineage holder of the Maharaj title now held by Nisargadatta. The altar itself has many silver pieces of differing sizes and shapes. A small flame burns continuously in a tall stand centered on the picture. There are two impressive lions on duty flanking the altar and heavy drapings along the edges of the frame. The base and panels are deeply embossed silver of complex designs and reliefs. There is no doubt that this altar arrangement holds significance to those who regularly attend Maharaj in this space.
Around the perimeter, in those areas not occupied by mirrors, altar and throne cushions, a wainscoting runs along about four feet above the floor. Oh, yes, I must also mention two formidable oil paintings of the current Maharaj. One is placed to the interior side of the altar arrangement mentioned. Under this portrait and between the altar case and a big dark wooden armoire is a tiny square of floor that became my refuge and support during the painful hours spent on that hard floor. The second portrait hangs on the interior (western) wall between the mirror and the front wall. Against the opposite wall lies a pile of cushions. Upon and above the wainscoting is a collection of framed representations of human faces and bodies, mostly photographs of various vintages. I recognized several that would be of Maharaj, and one of Ramana Maharshi. Another, more a drawing than a photograph (but who is to know?), conveys the impression of Babaji, the Avatar dear to Yogananda (Founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship). The others were unknown to me and ranged from additional figures in fancy dress similar to the distinguished gentleman over the altar to those in simple dhoti or loincloth pictured in various yogic poses with faces composed in samadhi or spiritual rest. When, during a slack moment, I ventured to ask the translator whom some of these visages may represent, Maharaj (who purports to know no English) sternly wagged his finger at me, fixed me with one of his dark looks of great import and let loose a torrent of words which were translated as, "When you know who you are, you will know who they are!" That was followed instantly, if not simultaneously—so quick are his changes—by the kind of merry twinkle old Saint Nick is supposed to have given before laying finger to nose and disappearing up the chimney with a
"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night."
Minor details abound. There is a trap door with counter-weight which folds up to the interior wall. Above the trap door is a small railing to warn the unwary. At the head of the ladder, high on the wall right under the central beam, is a round, brass-cased doorbell button. This button, when pushed, rings a buzzer down in the living quarters below. Maharaj, at the start of bhajans (the chanting ceremonies), would stalk about the room banging cymbals mightily and glaring at the head of the ladder in expectation of the desired attendance of his family. They would hardly ever put in an appearance, but Maharaj would scowl and go over to push many times upon the button. Sometimes his [last surviving] daughter would come up and join in and, satisfied, Maharaj would go back to intent concentration on his cymbals.
To the front left are some small shelves with items related to housekeeping. You should also know that Maharaj sleeps in this room. The pile of cushions in the eastern corner conceals the bedding and frame which are brought out and assembled by his daughter for afternoon nap and nighttime sleep. And, on the two window sills, both about eight inches deep (the thickness of the walls), are flower vases, water pitchers, metal stands, trays and ashtrays. Yes, holy ashtrays (sounds like something from "L'il Orphan Annie" or "Batman" comics). Maharaj's endless succession of beedies comes out of a silver box kept by his side. The silver looks almost worn through to the wood of the box. He seemingly is involved with lighting a beedie or new stick of incense almost all the time. He used one of those Ronson type coffee-table butane lighters (given to him by some admirer) with a childlike fascination in its workings yet carried off with a casual aplomb. I was there during a better part of the year, I was told, yet the air in Bombay, at least during my visit, averaged a stage-two smog alert by Los Angeles standards. Maharaj carefully keeps ten or more sticks of incense burning from his seven incense holders. His favorites seemed to be "pacholi" and "Everest." At times other than discourses—i.e., bhajans, readings, puja (worship)— additional incense would be lit before the altar and at other places in the room. As though that were not enough, ritual camphor was burned at least three times daily. All of this contributes richly to the patina constantly applied and dutifully rubbed. Needless to say, the reek of Maharaj's omnipresent beedies was well camouflaged.
Maharaj's day begins very early with orthodox Hindu ceremonies attended primarily by his Indian devotees. About 8:00 a.m., he supervises meditation for an hour to an hour and a half. Then comes the first bhajans of the day. Women and men are separated along some invisible lines created to fit the occasion by Maharaj, which he will imperiously enforce with much motioning and posturing until everyone is arranged to his liking. This room is his territory and let no one forget that. Over a period of time, however, it becomes clear that he will change the rules frequently to fit the circumstances as he sees them.
Bhajans start with selections chanted from a small book in [...] Marathi. I have heard the rhythms before and, now and then, recognize some familiar phrases so that I can join in with words as well as sound. Next there are readings from, first, a very thick old leather-bound book; then, a slightly smaller volume; and finally, a small and quite thin little book with a paper cover such as a school child might use. The readings are very pleasant to the ear, and the intent is clear even if the words are not. After readings, more chanting. During the chanting, the women are clustered to the back of the room and allowed to participate from memory. They are given access neither to the books nor to the impressive collection of cymbals brought out from a chest hidden by the bed frame and distributed to the men to use.
Bhajans with Maharaj was a deeply moving time. Imagine this little room with its sooty low ceiling and eight-inch thick walls stuffed with people singing mightily and pounding cymbals and bells with some force. The build-up of sound pressure forces something vital to happen. Never forget that big bell hanging from the central beam and the three large hooks folded up against the beam. During bhajans, one of these hooks gets a much bigger brass bell. The chest also gives up some big brass plates, which are ritually smashed with mallets to add to the whole process.
Now we start. Chanting, hand cymbals, rhythms led by some of the Indian devotees and accented by Maharaj who gets the biggest cymbals. After a lot of working along through some heavy verse, interspersed with an occasional, vehement "Jai Guru" ["Hail to the Guru!"], someone takes away Maharaj's larger cymbals to replace them with the very largest ones. Simultaneously, up goes the big bell, and two devotees of some distinction go to work with great enthusiasm to keep the Queen Mary safe in heavy fog. Various other gongs and bongers appear to add to the wondrous cacophony. Something explodes in the middle of my skull, and the rocket ship takes off. The climax of Beethoven's Ninth played at maximum volume barely comes close to this three times daily concatenation in Maharaj's tiny room.
But there are other, no less awesome moments in a day with
Maharaj. Discourses begin with Maharaj pointing an imperious finger at some hapless victim. But, first, we should arrange the room again, which takes quite a bit of time between sessions. In the morning everything is cleared from the floor except for a vase of tall flowers placed about two thirds of the way toward the front—in men's territory. Also, in front of the rear side window is placed a silver stand with a reading rack and some other things. Books are stacked on the side. The reader sits on a lower silver platform between the case and the bookstand table. Maharaj's seven incense burners and their tray are here, too.
In the early stages of morning bhajans, Maharaj will often go downstairs to read the newspaper or attend to whatever occupies him during the readings. On his return, he bustles about stoking up the altar and seven incense burners, trims the wick on the oil lamp in front of the big picture over the altar, changes bowls on the altar, and fusses with this and that until it meets his satisfaction. When the time is right, he goes over near the doorbell button at the head of the trap door and hits another button which produces four loud rings. Back across the room, he gets his smaller set of biggest cymbals and starts in.
If anyone has a garland for him, this is the time to present it. Some also go up to put flowers between his toes and to kiss or touch his feet, in classic Hindu obeisance. Maharaj stands through it all with a slightly disapproving look. In comments at other times, Maharaj says that he goes along with the orthodox Hindu rituals, since that is the custom and he belongs to the tradition. The garlands are usually taken off immediately and handed to one of the retainers, with a gesture indicating which picture is to be graced with the offering. That done, we really get with the bhajans.
After morning bhajans, there is a half-hour break to rearrange the room for morning discourses, a period of teaching, question and answer, show and tell with Maharaj. During this time, the Westerners tend to congregate in the corner tea shop for cha, or chai, the Indian potion composed of the dregs from the tea harvest mixed with milk and copious amounts of sugar. Cha is to English breakfast tea as beedie is to Pell Mell.
When we come back, the floor is cleared and Maharaj is in morning position under the mirror on the interior wall facing east and barely away from the trap door opening as people come and go during discourses. The translator is next to him, as a rule, even closer to the opening, although sometimes the translators will sit elsewhere toward the front and eastern side. Then, with men arranged to the west and women to the east, or vice versa, depending upon whatever logic governs at the time, discourses begin. The finger is pointed.
Maharaj's message is always the same. Maharaj says that he and Krishna are the same. In context, that statement implies that what he has to say had already been stated in myriads of ways and thence interpreted, analyzed and commented upon way beyond the capacity of one's intellect to absorb. Once the mind games were surrendered, then whatever one needed to know would be known. Although the message may be the same, the process of arriving at it varied with the person selected for the moment's play. Maharaj delights in the play of words, personalities and languages. He is animated and speaks quite rapidly as a rule. Sometimes he goes into long speeches. Other times he gestures, points, bounces up and down, grimaces, chortles, harrumphs, fusses, coughs or grabs at something or someone within range to illustrate his point. The contents of this consummate actor's bag of tricks and his range of expression seem limitless.
His translators vary in capacity, but almost always someone
of quite good English comes along. The main variation is in the
type of English spoken. At the top of my comprehension scale are two of the translators, one man and one woman, who have a very broad capability to use idioms and accents from both American English and British English. Then come several other translators whose competence is limited to Indian English. This takes some getting used to, especially since it is spoken very rapidly with a wonderful mush-mouth quality. There are clear indications of a pecking order among the translators. The two most competent linguistically are also most competent otherwise in Maharaj's view, since he allows them considerable latitude in interpreting his comments. Others are subjected to critical comments and corrections by Maharaj, who seems to understand English very well but will not speak a word of it. The international character of the audience leads to frequent forays into other languages, too. A comment can go from Marathi to English to Spanish to French to Italian to Polish before getting around the room, although this is rarely the case. Now and then, long exchanges go on in local languages which are not translated, only summarized.
Maharaj's rural upbringing and earlier adult years spent in this district as a beedie merchant have colored his speech with, I am told confidentially, an earthy and even bawdy manner. After a while, the twinkle in his eyes and the rapid changes in color of the translator's faces under the dark Indian skins would hint at the graphic nature of his comments. The translators would gulp and scan their minds for some way to exorcise that comment before passing it on. The contrast between the Krishna of contemporary ultra-puritanical Hinduism and the earthy aspects of the Gopi stories of sensuous abandon and celebration from earlier Hindu tradition is brought to mind in Maharaj's earthy style. After all, he says with that raunchy twinkle, he and Krishna are one.
Maharaj has a great sense of humor, and he delights in little puns and games. His mostly toothless face lights up and plunges to dark depths in instants. He makes more faces than a clown or mime could generate. He can work on someone who is deaf, dumb and blind with compassionate patience, as he did one American woman whose pilgrimage to India seemed to require lecturing Maharaj on subtle points of Sanskrit and Hindu doctrine. Her every sentence began with, "Yes, but..." He would work and work with her, going along each of her lines of thought and always coming back to the same simple point of Advaita, which is the very essence of his teaching. With others, he cuts right in and heavily if he does not like the answer. He does not wait for translation either. During my first days with him, he asked me frequently if I had any questions. Once he said that I should play flint and steel with him, because from that kind of friction comes a spark and he likes sparks.
His handling of people as they come along was instructive. Whenever a new head would appear at the top of the ladder, Maharaj would usually ask what brought them here. The replies varied, of course, but generally contained some variant of, "I came to see you." On more than one occasion he would curtly reply, "You have seen me, you can go now." Others would be told to stay until he said they could leave, or that 2, 5, 15 or some other number of days was how long they should remain. As my indefinite stay lengthened, I found my niche between the altar case and the armoire and settled in there for meditation on "All this is the Self and I am That." I paid less attention to the translations per se and more to Maharaj's being.
He would shock me awake now and then with a summons for grilling and instruction on some particular point. I was reading the Bhagavad Gita daily. Invariably, he would make a point of speaking directly about the verses I had worked on that day. Others reported the same thing. He would speak directly on whatever they happened to be studying at the time.
Each day, year round, year after year, Maharaj followed a routine taking him from early morning to late at night in the service of his teaching. Yet, within this routine, he seemed always open, always fluid. The evening of our Christmas Day 1978 was very different and, yet, totally within his context. All in all it was an open, relatively unstructured period. There were few Indians present and those that were there were familiar faces. There was Jenny, Australian, but mostly in England for the past five years; Jean, French [male]; myself; a younger Indian couple who were very casual and comfortable with Maharaj; an older, garrulous Indian gentleman, and the also older Indian gentleman whom I called "Keeper of the Faith." The younger Indian man was translating with some help from his wife, whom Maharaj clearly doted upon, with some occasional vehement interjections from the older, garrulous Indian gentleman.
Early in the session a group of Indians (two couples and one small boy) came. They had not been there before and were just shopping, I guess. The little boy, without being bothersome, got into being a little boy and the translator suggested that he be taken below. Shortly thereafter, the group picks up to go with ritual bowing, foot touching and such, which Maharaj barely tolerated. The men shuffle around in their pockets for some money to leave. Having settled on whatever they thought appropriate, a bunch of bills is offered to Maharaj who scowls, waves his hands about in disdain, takes the money and jabs it back at them. There is a shattering moment of confusion and disbelief among the visitors, while the translator insists that Maharaj never takes money just for people being there. So, the visitors take the money back and leave in disarray.
Then the quality of the session changed radically; the rather young translator seemed to enjoy Maharaj's confidence, and, as mentioned above, his very beautiful wife (Radha incarnate) was a favorite of Maharaj. Both were free to make interpretations and comments without interference from him. The discussion slowly changed from the question-and-answer format between Maharaj and individuals to an open exchange among the group, which Maharaj orchestrated and enjoyed much. Jean is trying very hard to get through Marathi and English to French. Jenny and I try to suggest French words, and Maharaj would indicate which ones he thought appropriate. He would rattle off a vehement string of words and point out this or that person to try to translate (without the translator's intervention) into English or French, and then coach us through like a game of charade. The time ran on rapidly and the older Indian gentlemen got into quite a tizzy with Jean, with much gesturing, pointing, very rapid Indian English (which has got to be a third language), laughing and grabbing. Everybody gets into the act and Maharaj is very involved in the whole thing. Meanwhile, Keeper of the Faith was getting nervous about the time for bhajans passing. Maharaj was studiously ignoring him. According to my plan, I was to leave for Madras the next morning (unaware that I would be back in Bombay four days hence for my second and longer visit with Maharaj). I told the translator how much I admired the big ship's bells and that I collected bells at home.
Later, when Keeper of the Faith prevailed and the small group present begins bhajans, there is a very different quality to the session. Jean, who usually holds back during bhajans, comes in strongly and Maharaj gets into an exchange with him on setting the rhythms. We get a bit syncopated. Keeper of the Faith frowns strongly, but then surrenders to the beat. When bell ringing time comes, Maharaj assigns me to the bigger brass bell. Keeper of the Faith is shocked, but, with him leading on the other big bell, we get it going at a high level and he once again finds himself enjoying the whole thing. Bhajans went around twice that evening, and I shall never again have trouble with being in Bhakti ananda (devotional bliss).
Another incident earlier that evening says much about Maharaj, I feel. On my first stay, I quickly got into the habit of stopping at a stand on the way to Tenth Lane to get some fruit or flowers for offering, that being my understanding of Hindu tradition to honor the guru with flowers and provide something for prasad, or offering. The room is full of flowers and garlands, so it must please people to give them. He takes the flowers, makes some little fuss over them (very little) before handing them to his daughter or one of the Indians with orders about which vase or place to put them—the logic of which I cannot discern, if there be any. For the evening session on Christmas Day, which I thought would be my last day with him, I cast about for something more personal to give to him, something which would please me more. I came upon a small stuffed heart sent to me by a dear friend for a Christmas present in India, which had touched me deeply. I was sure the sender would be as delighted to give it to Maharaj as I was. I was under no illusion that it would make any real difference to Maharaj, the difference was only to me. I wanted to make as little as possible of it, in any case, and just slip it to him on leaving. I also bought some sugar candy for prasad.
When I arrived, no one else had arrived. We were alone there. I gave him the sugar candy for prasad and the heart. He took both, gestured the question whether the candy was prasad, which I acknowledged. The heart, he turned around and upside down and squeezed before putting it on his little table next to the beedie box and lighter. Later, when the young couple came who were to translate, he picked up the heart and let out a long stream of Marathi which was translated as, "He asks, what is this?" I replied, "It is only a heart shape." Radha incarnate asks, "Is it yours?" and I say, "Of course." She then explained that everything is the same to Maharaj, but that he recognizes that all things presented to him are not the same to the donor. When they are seen as the same by the donor, the latter is closer to realizing the I AM consciousness. I understood.
There is a pert little lady, maybe 11 years old, who is Maharaj's granddaughter. She brings a special light to his eyes whenever she comes up. She orders him around for this and that, and he mock-meekly complies in a little game all their own. The next time she stuck her head up the trap door, he called her over and gave her the heart which she seemed to like very much, and the cycle completed itself very nicely to my mind.
As mentioned, I was unaware that I would soon be back for more. During the second, much longer stay, I ceased trying to fix attention on concepts or put symbols to words translated. I simply tuned in, and thoughts formed and passed as they would. Every once in a while he confirms where I am and puts me through whatever he puts me through for the place of ignorance I am in at the moment.
One evening a lightning bolt of comprehension hit, much fell
into place and I spent the balance of my time there well focused on my "mantra": All This is the Self and I am That.
Maharaj says he has never seen God and knows nothing of those things about which religions make so much. For him, truth is truth in any costume and he entertains no concepts about God, only the reality of "I am That." Yet he will go on at great length spouting concepts and Sanskrit names triggered by a question. After he has demolished both the question and the questioner with concepts, he will tell a story or give an example demolishing himself and his most recently espoused concepts. The message is always clear that there is nothing but what is; and what is, is whatever your mind/body creates for itself so long as you refuse to give it all up. He says that once you know yourself and are neither attached nor detached to your actions, whatever you do will be right.