Ramesh Balsekar is being recognised by a growing tribe of spiritual aspirants as a contemporary master of advaita. ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM on the man and his philosophy.
Author and thinker Ramesh Balsekar.
HE is a retired General Manager of the Bank of India. An avid golfer. A family man with wife, children and sundry grandchildren. A small, silver-haired and mild-mannered octogenarian, he lives in a spacious, comfortably furnished apartment in a genteel south Mumbai residential locality. In short, he fits the prototype of an unexceptional bourgeois Maharashtrian Brahmin gentleman, who has earned his leisure after a long and fulfilling life one that has offered him plenty of fodder for geriatric reminiscence.
But there is one additional biographical detail: Ramesh Balsekar is also recognised by a growing tribe of spiritual aspirants as a self-realised sage, a contemporary master of advaita. He has authored several books on the subject, has travelled overseas on many lecture tours, and graciously engages a motley bunch of 50-odd seekers in his home in a lively daily exchange. This assembly of seekers is heterogeneous, and includes a fair sprinkling of celebrities, ranging from singer Leonard Cohen to Hollywood actress Meg Ryan. These "meaning-of-life" discussions with diverse people from all over the globe are skilfully moderated by the venerable Vedantin, and inevitably culminate in extemporaneous sutras, delivered by him in a style that is lucid, accessible, humorous, and yet uncompromisingly rigorous, and conspicuously shorn of sentimentality and turgid punditry.
And so Ramesh Balsekar isn't exactly your average, unremarkable old pensioner, after all. He himself would probably be at pains to emphasise, however, that he is. For this is the same man who enjoins his listeners to remember that the "awakening" if and when it happens is likely to be a non-dramatic, unobtrusive affair. No celestial visions, no out-of-body epiphanies, no cosmic shudders; just a quiet arrival at the deepest possible understanding that "you are no longer the doer".
Balsekar's own description of his "enlightenment" is, in fact, remarkably prosaic and matter-of-fact. No, he did not run home to tell his wife about it. He did not even feel the compulsion to mention it to his guru. Apparently, Nisargadatta Maharaj simply looked at him some days later and said, "I'm glad it has happened." And the disciple silently concurred though he knew he needed no certification even from his teacher. Indeed, there is nothing remotely hagiographic about Balsekar's life-story. He was a reasonably bright student, passionately fond of math (he recalls fervently hoping he wouldn't die before his algebra exam). And no, he wasn't having mystical premonitions of future greatness at the age of six. There was, however, he admits, a somewhat shadowy, inarticulate early understanding "that nothing really was in my control or in anyone else's an acceptance that whatever happens, happens according to cosmic law or God's will".
There was also an abiding fascination from the age of 14 with the teachings of Ramana Maharishi, and later with Lao Tzu. The result, he says, was a fairly philosophical attitude to life at an early age, but no more. A degree at the London School of Economics, marriage, children and an accomplished professional tenure as a banker followed. But a certain detachment persisted. "My inherent early understanding that I was not the doer helped me," reflects Balsekar. "It made me an honest worker, unconcerned about promotions, or about bootlicking my superiors. Paradoxically, that attitude made me more successful professionally."
His first spiritual mentor proved, by Balsekar's own description, to be "first a brahmin, and then an advaitin". In the year 1978, after his retirement, when he walked into a humble loft in Mumbai's decidedly down-market area of Girgaum to meet a somewhat unconventional combination of mystic-cum-beedi merchant, he knew he had come home. Nisaargadatta Maharaj possibly knew it too. For he welcomed the newcomer with the words, "You've come at last, have you?" A year later, on Diwali day, Balsekar's spiritual journey reached its fruition. It happened when he found himself performing the function of translating his guru's Marathi teaching into English with a sudden fluency and spontaneity. "It was as if Maharaj was translating into English and I was merely sitting there, a witness."
Were there any life-changing decisions after this? A major re-evaluation of priorities? None at all, responds the resolute advaitin, who maintains that enlightenment, like any other happening, is "an impersonal event" and that "there is no individual to be conscious of that awareness". In fact, his reticence even after his self-realisation prompted his teacher to actually raise himself up on his death-bed and ask with a strength and vigour surprising in one afflicted with throat cancer: "Why don't you talk?" It was after this that Balsekar started expounding his master's teaching more freely. But it was only when an Australian disciple of Swami Muktananda visited him one day, and subsequently started bringing fellow-seekers with him that the practice of morning satsangs at the Balsekar abode was spontaneously established. ("I have never advertised my talks," points out Balsekar.) And so the transition from seeker to sage was complete. Does Balsekar's teaching depart significantly from that of his master? By his own admission, it does. He highlights the fact that Maharaj once told him that he himself did not parrot his own guru's teaching either. He said, "Whatever comes out of my lips is what you need, not what my colleagues and I need." And so the first question Balsekar asks those who tell him they want enlightenment is what they want it for. "Most have a foggy idea that life is going to change after that, and all will be wonderful," he remarks. He, however, is quick to disabuse them of this notion. "What you will get," he tells them, "is the ability to face life from moment to moment, knowing that whatever happens is your destiny, and yet be anchored in peace and tranquillity." After all, the reason they hanker for peace, he reminds them, is because they have experienced it at various moments in their lives. All it takes to regain that peace, he is fond of reiterating, is the acceptance of those four words in the Bible, "Thy will be done."
To enable the seeker to test the teaching in the fire of her own experience he advocates the simple sadhana of reflecting daily for some 20 minutes on how many of one's actions in the day have really been one's own. "You may believe that your decision is the result of personal volition, but you realise that it was actually based on your own conditioning (which is shaped by forces of intellect, education, experience and background), and, of course, you have no control over the consequences either." He recognises that the percolation of the understanding from head to heart often makes for an arduous journey. While he confesses to never having confronted "the long dark night of the soul" himself, he believes in a particularly compassionate approach towards those who have felt thus forsaken. "You didn't choose to become a seeker. It happened," he frequently emphasises. "So why don't you leave it to the same power that made you a seeker to proceed whichever way it wants to?" For when the dualism between subject and object collapses, the dichotomy between free will and determinism becomes specious as well. "Consciousness has produced this play. Consciousness has written the script. Consciousness is playing all the characters. And Consciousness is witnessing the play. It's a one-man show." And if it is consciousness that plays and perceives this vast, unruly, crazy, tormenting and pleasurable epic drama, the question follows, what else is there to do. "Just watch whatever goes on, there's nothing else to do," is Balsekar's maxim. "When you arrive at the understanding that the only truth that cannot be denied is the impersonal awareness, `I am', the `me' ceases altogether, questions fall away. And even those that arise, are cut off with the question, `Who cares?'"
In the meantime, life goes on as usual. And so when his son appears at the door, Balsekar terminates our conversation abruptly to hurry to the barber's for a haircut. From the metaphysical to the mundane, from the sublime to the samsaric the transitions are made swiftly. "Events happen, deeds are done, there is no individual doer thereof", remains his oft-quoted line from the Buddha. And so there are appointments to be kept, commitments to be honoured, hair to be cut, barbers waiting to perform their dharma. Except that in the case of Ramesh Balsekar, there remains no doubt whatsoever of the essential inseparability of the shearer and the shorn.
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