Meeting with Nisargadatta Maharaj
By Cathy Boucher
This is a narration of Cathy Boucher
of her experiences with Nisargadatta Maharaj .
Hur has requested that I share my experience of meeting Nisargadatta Maharaj in 1978. I never took notes when I was there in Bombay so these recollections have been sealed in my memory for the last 23 years.
In 1976 or 1977 ( I believe) a book review of 'I Am That' appeared in the Mountain Path Magazine. The Mountain Path is the in house magazine of Sri Ramanasramam in South India. It was a very positive and because Maurice Frydman had been associated with Sri Ramana Maharshi, it carried some weight.
This was the first time I found out that there could be a living Jnani, a realized Sage of the caliber of Sri Ramana Maharshi. I sent for the book, read it and was blown away. I wrote to Maurice Frydman and he began to correspond with me. At some point he asked me to find a publisher for 'I Am That' in the United States. So I began sharing 'I Am that' with various spiritual publishing houses. I specifically sent it to Shambhala, Rainbow Bridge and Unity Press. They didn't feel it was good fit for their publishing houses. Then I got a letter from Mr., Dikshit, publisher of Chetana Press (which is the publisher of I AM That) informing me that Maurice Frydman had died and my letter had been found on his desk. So I began to correspond with Mr. Dikshit. I decided that I really wanted to visit Nisargadatta and started a correspondence with Mr. Hate (who was Maharaj's son-in-law). Which brings me to January 1978 when I flew Air India to Bombay with the intention of meeting Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
We arrived ( my friend Rick and I) around 3 in the morning and sped at break neck speed from the airport to our hotel. The town looked like it was littered with corpses because so many people sleep in the streets. We got to our hotel room by stepping over the sleeping hotel staff and settled in for a little sleep. At promptly at six our phone rang, the management requiring our passports. The din outside our room turned on almost automatically, traffic racing up from Marine Drive. Across the street was the gray shiny Arabian sea.
I wasn't sure I could stand our hotel room when we first arrived but after some sleep and meditation we agreed that it was a good place to stay. Mr. Hate called and said that he would take us to see Maharaj later that day. Mr. Hate, who was thin, and wiry with a big smile said that we should bring an offering when we see Maharaj. So we drifted through the neighborhood marketplace and settled on some bananas. The street where Maharaj lived was round the corner from the Alfred Cinema. The noise in the streets was cacophonous. We came to his home and stepped in. There was no formal satsang going on. In fact, Maharaj was getting a shave from a roving barber. My first look at Maharaj was very intense, especially because his whole face was covered with lather and his eyes burned with an intensity that I could not fathom. Was this love, anger or just total Awareness? I kind of wondered to myself if this was all a big mistake. Maharaj was about my height, around 5'3'' give a few inches. So he looked directly into my eyes. He was so intense. Mr. Hate explained who we were, were we came from, etc. So much intensity flowed through his eyes, through his whole being. We were invited to return the next morning for Satsang.
Satsangs with Maharaj were predominately for western devotees and his Indian ones who had a discerning, discriminating mind. Maharaj also gave discourses for his Indian devotees and performed pujas. The Satsang room was a loft above the family living area. When I had read I Am That, I got the picture of Nisargadatta Maharaj building a little room, probably not tall enough to stand upright in. However, in reality, the room was spacious at least 10'x20' ( my guestimate.) One had to climb a narrow and sharply inclined staircase to get to it, but once in, there was quite abit of room. Of course, when you filled it with 10-20 visitors it would crowded. The room was ringed with photos and drawings of various gurus. Some I did not recognized, some were familiar. There was a large photo of Ramana Maharshi which was up above Maharaj's cushion, Maharaj sat directly below a mirror and on the opposite wall was another mirror. To the side of Maharaj was an his portrait. The room had pictures of the nine Gurus of his lineage and a huge silver altar with a large photo of Sri Siddharameshwar. On many of the framed and glassed pictures was a dot of kumkum. Maharaj would replace the flower garlands and refresh the kumkum. If you arrived early you could see him engaged in this devotional activity. Those who think that Maharaj was not devotional would find out that he was very serious in this.
When I came to Satsang for the first time, I was a bit full of myself. I hadn't met many women interested in non-duality and I assumed that I was kind of unusual. As I sat there before Maharaj I found out that a you woman from Germany named Barbara Eistel was beginning a guru-disciple relationship with Maharaj. She had come from Sri Ramanasramam where she had just found out about Maharaj. He was very solicitous to her. He was encouraging her to take initiation from him. It was like watching a romance, a dance. Meanwhile, I found that the circumstance had laid bare my conceit and it was a necessary take down. One thing that happened straight off was seeing that people were prostrating themselves before Maharaj. The first time, after bringing him the offering, to prostrate oneself was very intense. As an American I had not bowed to another human being. It strikes at one's individuality, But once I got hang of it, I loved to prostrate before Maharaj. Prostrating, I was told symbolized " None of me, Just you" or " I lay everything at your feet" For me it got to be such a blissful experience, I just loved to prostrate myself. Maharaj looked like it was no big deal for him. You got touch his feet, bow down to him. I just loved it, it was the best!!! There were several Indian translators. I don't know if it happened the first day but shortly about that time I was "assigned" a translator, Mr. Mullarpattan. Although Maharaj didn't speak english he would use a few phrases " Questions? Questions?" "Awareness". There was another outstanding translator, Mr. Sapre, whose command of non-dualtiy was impressive. Maharaj would sit, lighting many many incense sticks, light bidis to smoke. It would be a hazy affair. He would be focused on the questions while occupied with the many lightings of incense. Then he would speak and his answers would come out like a machine gun fire. He spoke in a coarse way , but it became like music to my ears. He would really press us to ask questions. "He would say, you are spending millions of rupees everyday to be here, ask questions." There was an incredible sense of camaraderie amongst us visitors and devotees. The room would be hot ( for me) but cool for maharaj. It was January and Maharaj wore an orange cardigan vest.
Mornings began abruptly in our hotel room. It would seem like raucous traffic would mingle with what I call Indian Morning Music, the loud expectorations of our fellow hotel mates. That would get us up and going. My friend Rick and I had discussed taking a side trip to Sri Ramanasrama in Tiruvanamalai. I had only 17 days in India and wondered what the correct thing to do. We visit the AAA ( actually it must have another name in India) to get some travel information. Then off to Satsang. Although I do not remember the exact chronology, I do remember that early in my visit Maharaj received a package and was very intent on opeing it to find out its contents. I turned out to be incense, which he promptly began to light. I remember being abit critical of Maharaj. But that felt absurd. Meanwhile the guru disciple play between Barbara and Maharaj continued. He was inviting her to take initiation (which would be a mantra initiation.) She considered it. Maharaj told a story . He said there had been a Siddha who had many powers. This siddha lived a few blocks away. One day Maharaj received an invitation from the Siddha saying "I am dying, come now and receive the transmission of all my powers." Maharaj said something to the effect that because he had met his Guru, he would not bother to travel the few blocks to receive this transmission.. Maharaj answered my questions and I felt that I had good rapport with him. At the end of the session as I was going down the stairs he turned to me and intensely said " You are not going to roam about are you?" I took this as an order, not a question and resolved to spend my entire visit at Maharaj's feet. I felt that he was pointing me to stay put, and with the opportunity of living Satsang beneath the photo of Ramana, I felt like I was visiting with the Maharshi as well. Maharaj had several Guru Bais. This means those who are fellow disciples of the same guru. In Maharaj's lineage, Siddharameshwar had more than one enlightened disciple. There was a Guru Bai, named Bainath Maharaj, who was also fully enlightened. He spoke fluent English but did not translate for Maharaj nor did he hold Satsang of his own. When he would show up at Satsang, Maharaj would show him the greatest defference. They had an obviously deep connection. I often wondered why Bai Nath didn't teach, but then again, Nisargadatta did enough for both.
Early on in my visit to Maharaj, we were invited to hear Maharaj speak at a spiritual center. The center was celebrating its 50th anniversary. The men and women were split by gender and we sat on a cold marble floor. Maharaj was a guest speaker as was a Shankara Order swami. In India, when a holy personage enters a room, everyone rises to their feet. I remember Maharaj coming in to the room with very dark sunglasses on. But he was not settled until his Guru Brother, Bhai Nath Maharaj was seated. He must have given a hours talk in Marathi. Of course I didn't understand a word he said but after the talk, Mr. Sapre gave a full translation (or his own illucidation) of the talk. People put offerings at Maharaj's feet. At the end of the program, Maharaj stood up, took the offerings and gave them to the the Swam, who has shared the dais with him. The next morning in Satsang Maharaj asked us if we knew why he had given the swami his offerings. Maharaj said " I gave him the offerings because speaks to feed his belly." This suprised me because I had not noticed Maharaj being critical. He went on to talk about people wearing the ochre robe to feed their bellies. So it became clear to me that Maharaj didn't really accord people any special status because of title or order. Maharaj, felt no patience with people who were pundits.
Because Bombay was a major departure point from India people who had been at Sri Ramanasramam would leave via Bombay and also take the opportunity to meet Maharaj. This is how Barbara Eistel came to meet Maharaj. Infact he said to Barbara, "if you stay for three weeks I will give you the whole transmission?" Now Barbara had to make a major decision because she was due to start medical school in Germany within two weeks. She had a discussion about staying and missing medical school but instead becoming something like a physical therapist instead. He really encouraged her to stay, and she did. I remember one time a man came from Sri Ramanasramam. I believe that he was the librarian there but lived in England and was on his way home. Mr. Sapre refused to put his questions to Maharaj. He felt the mans questions were not coming from the right place. This upset me quite abit because I feel that no one should come between the disciple and the Guru. Mr. Sapre did not think he was sincere enough, partly becasue this man had visited Anandamayi ma. Although Maharaj could and would throw people out, this guy didn't even get a chance. His questions were not put to Maharaj. It was horrid.
On a Sunday morning we went to sit with Maharaj.The ususal translators were not present although I believe someone was there to translate. It was informal and quite lovely. A young man about 30 showed up to pay his respects to Maharaj. He lived about an hours drive from Maharaj and did not attend daily satsang. As I expressed my understanding, he seemed to nod and smile and agree. At some point I noticed that he had awful teeth, I also had a strong sense that he had transcended identification with the body and that this was an advanced disciple. Later, after descending the steps, we stood by the outer door, getting ready to depart. He came to us, drinking some chai. He looked at me directly and said "By the grace of my Guru, I am completely satisfied." He then handed the cup of chai to me, and I took a sip. I feel that I met an enlightened disciple of Nisargadatta that day, but I have never known his name. If the lineage continues, I believe it continues through him.
A little about Mr. Hate. Mr. Hate (pronounced Hotay) was Maharaj's son- in-law. I don't remember what Maharaj's daughter died of but I do remember that Mr. Hate said when she lay dying, that her father visited her and she burst into laughter. Something like that. They had a daughter who was about 7 when I visited. Maharaj decided that Mr. Hate needed to remarry and so told one of his devotees that she would be a good match for Mr. Hate and that they should marry. When I visited they had been married one to two years and had a newish baby. They seemed perfectly suited to one another and were completely devoted to Maharaj. They lived in a suburb of Bombay called Vile Parle (pronounced Veal Parlay). Mr. Hate invited us to come to dinner, which we did. I was very impressed with how copacetic their relationship was, that they seemed deeply inlove and it was a beautiful family. And it was an arranged marriage by Maharaj. Maharaj was very wise in this because within a year or so of my visit Mr. Hate died of some instestinal or somekind of sudden illness. I always thought of how brilliant Maharaj was in finding a stepmother for his grand daughter and how perfectly they Hates were together.
When we went for dinner at Mr. Hate's house we discussed plans for a new spiritual center for Maharaj, a new Adhtatma Kendra. It had been designed but of course never came to be. I never felt that Maharaj desired another place and his loft had a rich patina of Bombay smog on the green walls. However they did get to paint his room before Maharaj dropped the body. Anyway, at dinner was the son of the enlightened guru brother. This guy was pretty westernized and worked for the huge advertising company J. Walter Thompson. He said that if we wanted we could come over and visit his father. We accepted the offer. That night when I went home I agonized over "roaming about" as I had take Maharaj's question very literally. I wasn't going to visit any other spiritual teachers and here I was off going to see Bhai Nath Maharaj. So the very next morning we sped of to Bhai Nath's house to leave a message that we would not be visiting at noon as planned. But immmediatly we were shown in and Bhai Nath said, "The truth is very simple: You are not the body and the ego is unreal, that is the whole of it." Then we left! We went right to satsang with Maharaj and I relayed the whole thing about not roaming about and seeing Bhai Nath. He laughed and laughed and said " Oh no, you are free to see anybody!" He thought it was hilarious. I made plans to see J. Krishamurti that very evening, with my translator friend, Mr. Mullarpattan.
Maharaj had spoken to a Rajneesh Sanyassin with much love and compassion when he aksed the sanyassin "Don't you get to ask your guru these kinds of questions?" The Sanayassin said that it was difficult to get close and ask these kinds of questions. The whole room was permeated by Maharaj's love and concern. It was an interesting time to be in Bombay, in 1978. There were many western seekers in the city. The Rajneesh sanyassins stood out in my mind because they all wore red or bright orange, yet the woman many times dressed in tank tops (orange ones) without bras. They had a very sexual presence. I am not a prude, but I think that India wasn't quite ready for them, couldn't quite make out the walking paradoxes they appeared to be, sexual sannayassins. There were also many Muktananada devotees. It was a revelation to me to see how many English, German and Dutch seekers there were, with a minority of American ones. I became aware of my own national pride which I had not been aware of, like how I was special because I was american. But there were many more sincere European seekers (more deluded ones too!).
This brings me to the day that J. Krishamurti came to Bombay to speak. Apparently Rajneesh had encouraged his sanyassins to come to town to hear him speak in the late afternoon, early evening. The young sanyassin whom Maharaj spoke so compassionately with brought a group of about twenty sanyassins to meet him. The first thing Maharaj did was divide us by gender. Then he told a mother who was a sanyassin to make her child pull in his legs (as they were stretched out towards Maharaj) as it was impolite. He started off saying that he had separated them by sex because although he wasn't concerned about sex, it appeared that they were very fixated on it and he felt that it would help them concentrate. He said" If it was up to me I would stack you one on top of another like a pile of wood, but you are so fascinated that I have separated you.' This is my paraphrase, but I clearly remember the part about stacking you one on top of another.
He asked for questions. I remember one woman relaying a Buddhist analogy about using skillful means as a boat to the other shore which is Nirvana. Maharaj said "I would put you all into the boat, send you to the other shore and I would stay here on this shore!" He was intent on breaking through their spiritual concepts and was not impressed with them in the least.
Before I left for Maine, I was telling you all about when I felt like I betrayed Maharaj because I had gone to see his Guru brother, Bhai Nath Maharaj. After sharing with Maharaj the whole of it, he laughed and said, "Oh no, you are free to see anyone!" I had taken his question " Are you going to roam about?" as an injunction not to seek and was too literal about it. My translator, Mr. Mullarpattan smiled and told me that J. Krishnamurti was going to be speaking that very evening. Now, I never really felt much interest in Krishnamurti but I was curious. Even in Maharaj's loft there was a line drawing of Krishnamurti. People seemed to speak about Krishnamurti with reverance. I remember there was even some talk about attempting a meeting between Maharaj and Krishnamurti. I was told it never happened because Krishnamurti's car could not fit down Ketwadi Lane. This may have been wishful thinking, not really what happened.
It was a very interesting scene. I went with my tanslator friend, Mr. Mullarpattan. It was held out of doors,in a kind of open park. There were many Rajneesh Sanyassins and afluent,young, intellectual Indians. Krishnamurti seemed peaceful, beautiful but fretful. There was a hillarious scene where he was saying "Nowadays the pressures of society deform the brain, we can't even see the birds." Meanwhile behind him there was a bird caught in a kite string. The Bombay Fire Department was trying to free it while buzzards were circling the poor trapped bird. It was a real Keystone Kops kind of a scene. And I thought," Krishnamurti, you are so caught up in your imagery of nature you can't see the birds as they really are!"
Next morning after speaking to Maharaj he said "Krishnamurti is a great thinker" I took that in a negative context while the rest of the folks thought he was complimenting Krishnamurti.I looked into Maharaj's eyes. I felt a oneness.I had to agree, Krishnamurti was a great thinker.
Just because a Guru might comment on a teacher doesn't mean that he is in competition with that teacher. Maharaj could be critical but does that mean that he felt in comptetion. No I don't think so. What was interesting to me was that everyone else took Maharaj's comment as a complement. They thought that being a great thinker was a great accomplishment. Competition in itself isn't bad, look at Shankara. He competed, debated and won. He reformed Hinduism as a result of that competition.
Bombay has many beggars. We would see many children beggars when we took walks on Marine Drive. People would flaunt their deformity and make our western minds swoon. Some days I would be giving money to anyone who asked. The next day I would refuse everyone. No matter what I did, I didn't feel comfortable. I was impressed with one young beggar who had a deformed lower leg. He would come up to our taxi as we were sitting in traffic and lift his leg and show us his deformity. We would keep running into him.After awhile, we would all be laughing, "You again!" One day in particular we ran into him in the area where Maharaj lived and then shortly afterwards in an another part of town. I was impressed that he was so mobile. That night I sat in my hotel room thinking about our beggar friend. He seemed bright and full of energy. I thought, I could give him all the money in the world but it would not be the same as bringing him to truth. After all, he lived in the same town as Maharaj. I talked to my friend Rick about this.After thinking about it some more, I decided I would invite my beggar to Satsang. I felt I could never really help the beggars of Bombay in a real way except in this fashion. I decided the next time I ran into him (and I knew I would!) that I would give him the address. The next day that happened. We laughed as usual, I think I gave him some money and a piece of paper with Maharaj's address written on it. Then we left him and went off to Satsang. Satsang was full underway. Then somehow we came to the point of the condition of a lame man. I had not instigated the current topic of conversation, it was a complete coincidence, when there was a knock on the door. Then the announcement that there was a lame man at the door.With great effort, people were able to get my beggar up the steep ladder stairs to Maharaj's loft. Once there, the beggar friend sat down. I remember he looked all around the room, blinking his eyes. It occurred to me at that moment that he had never been in a satsang kind of situation. I don't think I considered the fact that he came with out any clue as to what awaited him, but I hadn't given much of an explanation with the address. The dialog with Maharaj continued, however, I could see that Maharaj was much annoyed by the appearance of my beggar. After admitting that I was the one who had invited this man and being scowled at, I realized that I had made a faux pax. I guess inviting in local beggars was something that just wasn't done and Maharaj made no effort to hide his annoyance. I became more upset because I had never had Maharaj annoyed with me and I had all these noble ideas that were shattered. The beggar just looked astonished. He was quiet. At the end of the session Maharaj said to my translator " He is here just to feed his belly, give him twenty rupees!" Mr. Mullarpattan nodded his assent. We all got down from the loft and out on to the street. I stood quietly weeping. I went up to Mr. Mullarpattan who repeated what Maharaj had said to him. But Mr. Mullarpattan told me that when he went up to the beggar to give him the twenty rupees the beggar refused to take it! I thought, Wow! the beggar must have at least felt my love, even if he didn't quite get everything else! Twenty rupees is nothing to sneeze at when you you are poor. I felt wrung out feeling Maharaj's annoyment and my own ambivalant feelings about what I had done. Yet Mr. Mullarpattan was showering me with love and support and that let me feel that it was going to be all right!
I had been bringing offerings that I purchased in the marketplace. Somedays it was sweets, sometimes fruit, most days flowers. It is customary to bring them and since the first day when Mr. Hate suggested it, it became my habit. It was one of those things that just went with prostrating. I liked to bring a small garland of flowers, made out of jasmine or tuberrose, something pretty. One day I brought such asmall garland and Maharaj smiled and explained, through the translator that these garlands were actually decorations for women's hair. At this time Maharaj's grandaughter (by his son) was standing in the corner grinning. I had to laugh as it never occured to me that this was for another purpose than the one I had given. He beckoned to his grandaughter and gave her the little garland. In a moment she swooped down, got the garland and ran down the stairs, laughing. It must have been hilarious for her! There were so many Indian customs that I didn't know. When people brought sweets or fruit, they would be divided and distributed at the end of the talks. I remember that they would take an old school notebook and rip the pages out and fold the prasad into them. It struck me how everything was valuable in India, even a used notebook could be used for a higher purpose.
One day my friend, Rick and I took a taxi to Maharaj's home. As we approached the Alfred Cinema our taxi driver said "You like your Guru?" "No charge."
Now we had only told him to take us to the address near the Alfred Cinema and had not mentioned Maharaj. So my friend and I got out of the taxi and started walking (after thanking the driver.) The driver came running up and said, "No charge for me...but the petrol..." I felt like an insensitive boor, I hadn't understood that the driver had to pay for the petrol and it came right out of his pocket. We apologized profusely and paid him. He said "Enjoy your Guru." Now I do not know if he assumed that Westerners in Bombay would be visiting a Guru, or if he knew of Sri Nisargadatta. People in the neighborhood would, the local policeman, the people on the street. But no one would let on that he was a famous Guru.
Mr. Mullarpattan, my translator asked me if I would like to visit the samadhi of Sri Siddharameshwar (Maharaj's Guru). A samadhi is sort of like a monument or gravestone commemorating a saint or sage's grave. Although I wasn't sure if I would like to see it, I took Mr. Pattan up on his invitation. It took us two doubledecker busses to go from his house to the cremation ground by the Arabian Sea. Our translator explained that although most people were cremated, some enlightened beings were buried because they had already been cremated by the fire of Self Knowledge. This was the case in Sri Siddharameshwar's case. Cremated in life, it was unnecessaru to be cremated in death. The place was kind of intense, with the grey Indian Ocean in the back ground and the ashy empty biers. The samadhi was old. Mr. Pattan brought the requisite articles for a puja, a banana, some camphor, incense. We chanted and circumabulated the samadhi and he did an aarti for us. It was more inspiring than I had imagined and I felt moved and privilaged to be at this holy spot. I came to a deeper reverence for Sri Siddharameshwar.
The recent posts on devotion bring to mind my final evening in Bombay. I had been invited several times to come to an evening of chanting that was mostly attended by the Indian devotees. I figured that since it was my last evening I better go and check it out. Previously I had watched Nisargadatta clean and anoint all the holy pictures in his room. He would put fresh kumkum on the pictures of the Navnath Sampradaya, Siddharameshwar and other holy personages. This was done with great diliberation. I hadn't thought of Maharaj as a devotionally oriented Guru 'til then. But to sit in his room and see the huge silvery altar to his Guru, one got the feeling that it came naturally to him. There were also occassions when he would be re-enacting the devotion between Vithoba and Tukaram. ( I think these were the Marathi Saints.) Maharaj's face would light up, beatifically. I Am That never portrayed Maharaj in this fashion and I think that it needs to be pointed out now.
At Maharaj's place the chanting was loud, almost raucous.Maharaj himself, was in charge of a huge puja bell, looking like the Liberty Bell. He was ringing it vigorous. The sound was incredible. It shattered my head into a million pieces. In any other situation this would have been impossible, a real bummer, a migrane maker. However it was utterly blissful and I felt that Maharaj was destroying "me". Were there two at that time? Was there a separate "one" being venerated. I think not! Maharaj showed me that devotion to the Guru, devotion to the One with out a second, was possible. He was the exemplar. My other favorite part of the evening was the chanting of " Jai Guru Jai" Everyone there (except me) was familiar with this chant and it was sung with alot of gusto. At the end of the chant, Jai's are given to Nisargadatta Maharaj, Siddharameshwar Maharaj, Bhausahib Mahara (siddharameshwar's guru), His Guru's Guru and maybe even further back. To acknowledge the lineage going back in time was very powerful. And very alive. Infact, I left the house with the sound of more rousing "Jai Guru, Jai" spilling out into the street and following us to Grant Road.
Did I believe that Maharaj saw any dualism in his devotional activies. Absolutely not!
Years later I saw a video of Maharaj with his disciples at this same samadhi, doing puja, chanting. I believe it was either a death anniversary or so other important occassion. Having been there, I felt that I understood the experience more deeply. Of Maharaj's reverence for Siddharameshwar.
And in years after that, when I heard of Maharaj's own funeral, I could visualize it taking place. Supposedly, he was taken on the back of a truck, a brass band playing, the whole neighborhood turning out. Which was interesting because they acted like he was just an ordinary guy. Maharaj was cremated. But I think that is in keeping with the way he lived, like a common man, no fanfare.
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