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Close Encounters of the Advaita Kind
The Euphoric Nihilism of Ramesh Balsekar
by Chris Parish
Imagine, if you will, that you awaken one morning in another world. As you rub your eyes to get accustomed to the bright sunshine, you see that it is in many respects a world not unlike this one. All around you there are creatures that, to your eyes, look identical to the human beings with whom you are used to sharing the world. You observe them going about their daily activities, living their lives, engaging in conversation with others, making the myriad choices and decisions that life inherently demands. The picture looks reassuringly familiar and normal.
But you soon discover that in this world things are not necessarily as they seem. For these are not human beings. No, these are "body/mind organisms" that, unlike their human counterparts, do not have the ability to choose between options or to make decisions. In fact, these organisms do not have anything even resembling what we would call free will. The scripts of their entire lives were written in stone long before they were born, leaving them only to go mechanically through the motions of acting out their programming. These seemingly human creatures, it would appear, are not unlike machines. While to all appearances they seem to behave like ordinary freethinking individuals, busily engaged in daily activities, strangely, when asked, they maintain that they are not doing anything at all. In fact, in this peculiar world, they say
that there are "no doers." Furthermore, no one in this world is ever held accountable for anything. Even when one of these beings appears to harm another, there is no remorse felt and no blame assigned. If you were to ask one of these body/mind organisms about it, the response would be that there was no one who had done anything. Ethics is an unknown concept here. The laws of nature do not seem to apply in this brave new world. Or maybe they have been rewritten here, since the beings do seem to observe some strange laws. You wonder where on Earth you could be. But you are not on Earth. You have landed on Planet Advaita.
I had come to Bombay to interview Ramesh Balsekar, one of the best-known teachers of Advaita Vedanta alive today. He lives in the heart of this vast, chaotic city, in an exclusive beachfront area, which my taxi driver informed me is home to many VIPs. The doorman at his apartment building, automatically assuming that, as a Westerner, I must be coming to see Ramesh Balsekar, directed me to an upper floor, where Balsekar has a very spacious and well-appointed residence. Balsekar was a courteous host, greeting me warmly, immaculate in traditional Indian attire. His demeanor was bright and animated, and I had a hard time believing that he was eighty years old.
Ramesh Balsekar has an unusual background for an Indian guru. Educated in the West, he went on to complete a highly successful
career as an executive, retiring from his post as president of the Bank of India when he was sixty. And while he states that he had always been inclined toward a belief in fate, it was not until after he retired that he began his spiritual search, a search that led him quickly to his guru—the renowned Advaita Vedanta master Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Nisargadatta was a fiery teacher who became famous in the West in the 1970s when an English translation of his dialogues entitled I Am That
was published—a book that has become a modern spiritual classic. Within less than a year of meeting Nisargadatta, Balsekar came suddenly to what he has termed "the final understanding"—enlightenment—while he was translating for his guru. According to Balsekar's account, Nisargadatta authorized him to teach just before he died, and since then, he has been constantly sharing his message as a successor to this highly regarded teacher. Balsekar has published many books of his teachings and has taught in Europe and the United States as well as widely in India. He holds satsang
[audience with a spiritual master] in his apartment every morning, and a constant stream of almost exclusively Western seekers find their way to Bombay to see him.
We initially wanted to interview Balsekar both because he is a popular and influential Advaita teacher—now with students whom he has authorized to teach in their own right-and because he is considered by many to be the successor to one of the most renowned teachers of Advaita in the modern era. However, on studying Balsekar's writings, we soon realized that he was teaching an unusual and possibly idiosyncratic form of Advaita that led to what we felt, quite frankly, were questionable and even disturbing conclusions. For while Indian thought has long been criticized for its deterministic inclinations, it appeared that Balsekar had taken this fatalism to an unprecedented extreme. It was, in the end, as much a desire to explore these troubling areas as to pursue our overall interest in the teachings of Advaita that ultimately brought me to Bombay to speak with him. And while I had come anticipating a challenging meeting, looking back on it now, it is clear to me that, as coffee was poured for us and we arranged ourselves comfortably in his living room, there was no way I could ever have prepared myself for the dialogue that was about to take place.