Dialogue on Advaita Vedanta

An excerpt from chapter two, when I come in contact with a Ramana Maharshi inspired guru who opens my eyes to Hinduism’s deepest wisdom.

The swank Mumbai pad was the antithesis of an ascetic Himalayan lair, where I imagined these sorts of teachers were commonly found. I could have been in a Manhattan high-rise for all I knew, but the smell of incense and chai made it unmistakably Indian. On the walls, I saw a picture of a bodybuilder (who I mistook for Schwarzenegger) alongside a laminated plaque that said, “You have total free will to do whatever you want, in any situation, at any time. However, what actually happens– together with the consequences– has never been in your control. It depends on destiny, on cosmic law…”

While the latecomers struggled to find a sliver of space on the floor, I sat comfortably in the hot seat alongside two other squeamish Westerners. He came in, Mr. Ramesh Balsekar the former CEO of one of India’s largest banks and champion bodybuilder, now an 89-year-old frail looking man missing most of his front teeth. Dressed in a simple thin, cotton white cloth, he eased himself into a rocking chair and shared a moment of smiling silence with the crowd. His eyes radiated a calm peace, as though they contained an assuaging truth behind them.

Following tradition, the satsang was more of a question and answer period than a discourse. A pregnant hush descended on the room, which he broke in a loving, grandfatherly voice by asking me,

“My, my, how does someone so young find their way to me?”

The frankness of his question caught me off guard. I didn’t care much for his abruptness, though. As though my youth were a liability or an obstacle to understanding! A certain part of me wanted to ask back, what does it really matter?  Instead, I mumbled some response about how I’ve always been inclined to ask questions, ramblings that quickly fizzled out into a silent stare-down, where I felt his penetrating gaze size me up to gauge my nonverbal response. Although it only lasted a few seconds, it did indeed feel like the temperature rose at least ten degrees in those initial moments, despite the quietly humming overhead ceiling fans. The heat evidently went to my head; I forgot everything that I rehearsed, like a novice samurai who prepares for an attack from in front and then is caught off guard when it sneaks up from behind.

Ramesh then asked me, “Tell me, young man, how and why is it that you arrived here to speak to me today?”

Should I tell him about the my first day in Mumbai (which by now seemed like a lifetime ago)? What about the two Peters? Or about probing the envelope of nothingness as a child? Where does the story begin? However valid, anything I could think of seemed fragmentary and partial, and incapable of capturing the essence of all the impulses that poked me at just the right time to align all the events that led me here. I wished I could just let silence convey my overwhelming incomprehension, and thinking back on it, that would have probably been the best answer.  Not knowing what he wanted to hear, I responded simply and generically.

“I suppose it is because I am seeking something you have to teach me.”

Grinning, he retorted, “But who are you? What is the essence of this ‘I’ you speak of when you tell me that ‘I am seeking’?”

With the memory of the monk who asked me such simple questions in public still fresh in my mind, I was careful to avoid easily misunderstood metaphysical terms like ‘soul’ or ‘essence’ to prevent being dragged into a definition game. So I shot back, “When I point to Daniel, I can point to my body and to my thoughts. I suppose I can be broken down into a physical structure, that is the sum of my body parts, and a mental structure that resides within.”

“So you are telling me that what or who Daniel is is simply his body plus his mind.”

Sounded good enough to me. Probably would have satisfied Descartes as well.

“If I had a picture of you when you were three years old, or 16, or from two weeks ago, would that still be Daniel in that picture.”

“Of course.”

“But the body has clearly changed form, and I can only assume the mind has become more mature as well. You’re claiming that who you are right now is the same as all your ‘past selves?’”

I paused before answering, feeling like an animal who instinctually senses he’s about to be trapped. But I went ahead with the first thing that popped into my head, thinking that this was no time for clever antics, and that I should just go along with the shtick.

“Yes, I suppose I am. My memory connects me sitting here right now with all my past incarnations, and my expectations and projections link me to the future.”

“But can you point to me where these memories that make your identity are? Do not all memory and expectation flow from the moment that is always present? And memories change over time, do they not?”

By this point, I was really fidgeting in the chair.  I couldn’t believe that I, of all people, having studied philosophy for four years in university, was having such difficulty responding to the simplest of questions- again.

“Daniel, when speaking of your ‘I,’ you are speaking of a concept that has no independent existence. “Daniel” is a mental abstraction, and functions in the life situations when you need it. It is convenient, it is useful, and it is necessary to look back on your life and connect your present reality with the past by saying, I choose this, then I did this, then I met this person, then I arrived here. But this is not really You. Just as money has value because it is a conceptual designation we place upon the function of a piece of paper upon which we agree, so too is the ego you call yourself.”

He leaned back in his chair with a look of serenity, a man at peace with the world, and unlike myself, comfortable with himself in any situation. I took this little break from the grilling to catch my breath, and let the feeling of embarrassment sink in.

My mind retreated into defensive questions and self-recriminations. Why did I even want to come here in the first place? Was German Peter all I really made him out to be? Why am I so obsessed with these questions that have no answers?

But then I took a look around the room, careful to avoid direct eye contact with anyone, until I noticed that no one was judging me but myself. Many of their coy grins said, “don’t worry, it happened to us too.” If they had been through this ringer, and come back for more, maybe they knew something I didn’t yet.

Ramesh continued, “The mistake you have made is in thinking that you are the seeker of your realizations; it was actually the mind-body organism as Daniel that was being sought to manifest this awareness. You didn’t choose to come and see me this morning. You cannot pretend that you are the doer of this deed.  Daniel’s mind-body organism is simply the vehicle through which all realization manifests, even the realization of the path itself. Consciousness is all there is.  The search comes to an end when you recognize that it is not you who chooses to search. How can you treat the deepest knowledge of yourself as something external?”

This didn’t sit right with me for a number of reasons. I didn’t have much trouble vocalizing the objections that came to mind.

“According to your theory, I didn’t choose to come here. But why do I still feel as though, even if I was compelled by circumstance, that I still had to make the free choice to follow what I thought I should do?”

“Let us look at your supposed free choice to come here,” Ramesh responded, looking like he had anticipated this rebuttal in advance. “Two things determine your choice in every given situation: genetics and social conditioning, neither of which you choose or have any control over. ‘You’ come to a place like India, and you interact with the conditions of the world that are presented, and this produces a certain course of action that appears most reasonable. Your free choice is an interplay between your background and the present circumstances.

“But that’s only one end of it, though: what actually happens when you choose? You probably got into a taxi to come here, but did you have any control over whether you actually arrived? Look back at any moment and ask yourself the same question. You are constantly at the whim of forces you don’t control, which could end your existence at any moment. So then I ask you: what good is your free will if you don’t control the circumstance that led you here, and you don’t control the consequences?”

I was prepared to admit that fate seemed like it had a role in bringing me here. But to extrapolate that out to the rest of my life, and life as a whole, seemed excessive and highly problematic. I agreed with Neo’s objection to fatalism in The Matrix: I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.

Ramesh continued, “If I found a stack of counterfeit money in my attic, I would rejoice, for on the outside it looks very impressive. But the moment I actually try to buy anything with the money, it will become clear just how valueless it actually is.”

Once again thinking about where it will all lead, I responded, “If what you’re saying is true, then I’m just like a sophisticated machine that cannot do otherwise. And if I can’t do otherwise, then I can’t take credit for what I’ve done.”

“Precisely. No ‘one’ really ‘does’ anything. And if no one really ‘does’ anything, then no one can be blamed, and no one has responsibility for what they do. Whatever you have done is God’s will, the Cosmic Law.“

“What?!” I didn’t even know where to begin with that one. I had heard just about enough misuse of that word in my life. “How can God will anything? Isn’t that just an anthropomorphic fantasy that God ‘wills’ in the same way…”

“Don’t get caught up in the metaphor. You can call it Cosmic Law or anything more impersonal, if you feel comfortable, if you wish. The mind wants to be a master of that which cannot be mastered by mind. Whatever it is, it is beyond your words.”

“OK, fine, let’s not get caught up in metaphor.” I paused before bringing up what I knew would be a sensitive topic.

“But what about the Nazis who chose to murder millions? What about responsibility? Is it really the “Cosmic Law” that we slaughter each other? What does that say about us? Not to mention God.”

I would later find out that many people bring up Nazism the first day. It seemed to be a common knee jerk reaction.

“Responsibility in the social world is something that is necessary to maintain a community in which we all can reasonably live. But on the ultimate level, individual responsibility as we normally conceive it does not really exist, because there is no such thing as an actor to whom we can attach it. It’s a careful, but necessary distinction.”

Ramesh then repeated the phrase that postered up on his wall: “Self realization, or enlightenment, is nothing more than the deepest possible understanding that there is no individual doer of actions- neither you nor anyone else. You are not the thinker of any thoughts, nor the experiencer of any experience.”

One book I kept with me during my trip was the Bhagvad Gita, a gift from a friend before I left. The highest teaching of Krishna in that book is, “seek to do your duty but lay not claim to its fruits.” On the battlefield that is a metaphor for our interior life, the warrior prince Arjuna looks across the field and sees his family. How can he kill his uncles and cousins? Krishna says, that is not for you to understand. You will never untangle the circumstances and the reasons behind what brought you here. It is beyond your understanding. Trust, surrender, and do you duty. Although I was far from truly grasping the meaning of the Gita, I heard a certain resonance in Ramesh’s teachings, and that lent them a veneer of plausibility.

Plus, it just seemed too strange to have had all these coincidences conspire to bring me here to this one place, to this one man amongst a billion in India with less than 100 hours before I left. During Vipassana, I was able to peer into the distant past to understand its necessity; here I was faced with an unfolding situation that I sensed had a meaning that I could not yet perceive.

Ramesh intuited that I had had enough for the day, and moved to the other first-timers seated next to me, who seemed grateful that I had taken the brunt of the assault. Not having slept the night before, I zoned out for the rest of the hour, feeling like I was blown apart by a tornado that completely rearranged my interior.

At the end of the satsang, the group started singing, and most of the others bowed down to his feet. Some even kissed them. What the hell was that all about?! I wondered. I didn’t know at the time that this was a rather customary guru-disciple rite, but at the time, I felt like I just wasted an hour of my life at a cult gathering.

But underneath the confusion, much like going to church as a child, I was nevertheless intrigued. My instinct to dismiss this as pure metaphysical nonsense was not strong enough to shut my open mind. There was something that really appealed to me about his teaching that drew conclusions from our ‘thrownness’ into the world, however logically tenuous. And I couldn’t deny that the journey that brought me to his living room- almost starting from birth- seemed to confirm what he said, that I really wasn’t the ‘chooser’ of my choices.  My inquisitiveness and curiosity, as I discovered during the Vipassana was only partially innate. Like a seed, it required specific environmental conditions in which to bloom. Subtract any one of the million necessary conditions, any one of the ways in which I was being chiseled and molded into who I am, and no India, no Ramesh. But was this just an ad hoc rationalization after the fact? Had the previous day’s experience and the intervening sleepless night increased not only my childish excitement, but my credulity as well?

I wanted to understand Ramesh, knowing that what may appear to be true may not ultimately be so, but how could I accept something that didn’t fully accord with my own reason? As I left his apartment, I promised myself I’d return every morning until I left.