10 August 2013

Ramana’s and Nisargadatta’s Differing Concepts of Self-Realization--AMENDED Aug. 14

Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj were contemporaries in the wisdom tradition known as Advaita Vedanta. However, both entertained profoundly different philosophy of Self, and of what exists, otherwise known as ontology.

Many people believe that all enlightened people have exactly the same experience and merely express it differently depending on their background, education, and the people around them. However, this is just an assumption. No one can really know the mind of another or the experience of another except by speculation, or in the cases of some very empathic individuals, by direct experience. However, even if I were to have a direct experience of Ramana Maharshi’s experience, it would still be filtered through my body-mind apparatus, and therefore would never be pure Ramana.

Instead of assuming that both of these two great gurus spoke identically in terms of ontology, or more importantly, about the Self, or “Truth,” let us look at what they actually said.

The keywords in exploring the ontology of both of these teachers are as follows: ‘I’, ‘self’, ‘Self’, ‘Consciousness’, ‘Turiya’, and ‘Turiyatata’.

One of the key differences between Nisargadatta and Ramana, was that for Ramana there was only Consciousness. For Nisargadatta, there was Consciousness and the witness behind Consciousness, the absolute, the noumenal, which was entirely separate from Consciousness. Sometimes it appears he uses "witness" almost like  pointer towards an entity. However, and entity would have to be in existence or Consciousness.  At other times, he refers to it as the "principle" that knows both knowingness and non-knowing, or nothingness.

For Ramana there were two I’s, the I of the mind that is destroyed by self inquiry, and the “true” I of the heart, which is experienced when the mind is silent and one rests in one sense of presence in the area of the heart in the body. The locus of concentration/energy, drops from the brain, face, and mouth into the thorax and heart area, entirely quieting the mind. This is called abiding in the Self.

For Nisargadatta, in essence, there were three I’s: the I thought; the I of Atman or the witness of the three states of Consciousness found in Turiya; the absolute witness, the noumenal Self, the Self that does not exist in Consciousness, and therefore “exists” prior to Consciousness.

For Nisargadatta, following the lead of his teacher Siddharameshwar, enjoined the student practitioner to focus on the inner sense of I am, which usually is first experienced as energy in the area of the heart, and with concentration thereon, grows into a sense of presence.

Nisargadatta has the student focus on the sense of I am, then turn around and rests in the sense of I am or abides there in the sense of I am, with a sense of love and acceptance of that I am sense.

Eventually, Nisargadatta states that that sense of I am, almost as a physical presence, disappears, leaving one in the absolute, which is beyond Consciousness, and is the ultimate witness of Consciousness.

Ramana somewhat differently has the student concentrate on the I-thought, watching where it arises and where it passes away.

If one actually practices this way for a long time, one will actually see the thought as an entity arising out of emptiness and disappearing into emptiness, which he calls Self, Turiya, or the real I as opposed to the false I of the I-thought.

That is, for Ramana, the real I is the ground state, feeling of Turiya, which is the basic essence of sentience, or the conscious life force. I believe this is what Nisargadatta calls “beingness.”

If we meditate deeper, and watch that I thought disappear into the emptiness, one will find that emptiness is really filled with knowingness, sentience, or a sense of presence. It appears as a lighted presence within oneself, within the empty space that is our inner void, and which, after a time, one takes to be oneself. Ramana calls this the true I.

For Nisargadatta, at least in his experience, even Ramana’s true I of Consciousness is illusory, and his true I is the witness which is entirely beyond Consciousness, and which is the noumenal, the absolute, and which can never know itself as object. In other words, the true I is entirely a mystery, and the source from which all of Consciousness arises and passes away.

For Ramana, it is different. For him there is only Consciousness.

Ramana stated after he had an experience of death and realized that the body dies but Consciousness is not touched by death:

“I” am immortal Consciousness. “I” [that is the true I or Self] was reality, the only reality in this momentary state. All conscious activity that was related to my body flowed into this “I.” From that moment all attention was drawn as if by powerful magic to the I or “Self.” The fear of death was permanently extinguished. From this time I remain fully absorbed in the “Self.”

You have to realize that Ramana did not actually die. He pretended to die. A fear of death came to him and instead of running from the fear, decided to introspect into it, and pretended to die. He held his breath. He clenched his eyes. I he laid down as a corpse and imagined it was ready to be burned in the fire of cremation.

Then it dawned on him that the full power of his own beingness continued to exist unabated. He realized in this moment the separation of Consciousness from the body, and that Consciousness had its own separate life force from the body. It is because of his terrible fear that this experience that “ordinary Consciousness” was so meaningful. Other people find out that they are not their bodies in other ways, and with somewhat different experiences.

For Ramana there was only Consciousness. It was not conceivable to him that there was a noumenal unknowable witness that existed prior to Consciousness. For Ramana there was only Satchitananda, existence-knowledge-bliss. There was nothing outside of existence-knowledge-bliss. That is there was no prior to Consciousness; all that there was, was Consciousness.

Nisargadatta would agree that all that there is, is Consciousness. But he would posit the existence of a principal beyond Consciousness that was aware of the coming and going of Consciousness, which he called the Absolute, or the Witness, equivalent to the Western concept of noumena, the unknowable subject of existence, which was not in existence, but beyond it, or prior to it.

One might use an analogy of en entity from another dimension who stuck his head into our 4-dimensioanl universe, witnessed it, but was not of it.

In his life as a matter of fact, Nisargadatta retreated more and more into this witness state the older and sicker he got, but he stated that for the aspirant who wants to attain Jnana, one cannot ignore Consciousness, which he called “knowingness.”

On page 53 of Consciousness and the Absolute he states:

     “the absolute state cannot be explained by words. You are that absolute, the unchanging.

     “Consciousness, or the knowingness, is homogeneous and one only. When you were in that state of Consciousness, it is all one, all the same, only the expressions are different.

     “Everything which gets consumed, exhausted, is unreal. Your knowingness will, in due course, be consumed, will disappear, so it can’t be real; but you can’t just dismiss it, you must understand it fully.”

In other words, Nisargadatta is saying that Consciousness is unreal in the sense of being temporary, and also dependent on the existence of the body, and becomes burnt up by life after period of time, but for the purposes of Jnana, self-realization, it cannot be ignored, for it is the gate to awakening.

Self-realization for Nisargadatta meant something entirely different from self-realization for Ramana. For Ramana self-realization is the recognition that you are the entirety of Consciousness arising from your recognition that your essence is the Satchitananda of the Turiya “state,” and also all experiences that arise from and disappear into Turiya. In other words, you are that expanded sense of presence that comes from dwelling in the silence of the heart with the mind held silent, the beingness or presence that experiences everything, and which remains during sleep, waking and dream states. For Ramana everything in the world, everything in your body and mind, reside in that sense of presence, Satchitananda or the real I, or Turiya.

But not for Nisargadatta. He identifies himself with the witness of Consciousness, the witness of I am. In a sense he appears to be identifying with the witness or the real I that Ramana calls Turiya, but Nisargadatta objectifies Consciousness, the object, while the absolute is the noumenal subject.

Concerning this, Robert Adams rejected Nisargadatta’s assumption of the split between the absolute and Ramana’s real I of Turiya, saying that Nisargadatta added unnecessary complications to Ramana’s pure theory.

Nisargadatta’s absolute in a sense is initially a speculation based on the assumption that there must exist a principal which recognizes Consciousness and also the absence of Consciousness which is beyond Consciousness. One can never experience this prior to Consciousness “existence” because it is entirely outside of Consciousness. As Nisargadatta states, one can never witness the witness, one can never witness the absolute, one can only be the absolute. Therefore there can never be any experiential proof of the Absolute, but only a conviction.

When one becomes that witness for Nisargadatta, one has attained a level beyond existence and nonexistence, which he states as is one’s true nature, and it is this which he called self-realization.

(In fact, as I explain elsewhere, it is more than         conviction. One develops a faith that is beyond the intellect, beyond conviction because of the continuity of Se;f even through unconsciousness states.  Ramesh Balsekar called with "apprehension.")

For Ramana on the other hand, self-realization is the experience of Satchitananda, or identification or immersion in Turiya, the real Self, “the only reality.” He stated that “all conscious activity that was related to my body flowed into this I (Turiya). From that moment, all attention was drawn as if by powerful magic to the “I” or the “Self.”

For Ramana, self-realization was entirely experiential. He felt the power of the self within, of Turiya, of Satchitananda, and from that moment on was always aware that he was the self. This was the true I. The I did not dissolve as for Nisargadatta, although the false I of the mind did. All things in the world arose from and  subsided into the Self. For Nisargadatta, all things arose from and disappeared into the absolute, the noumena.

One reconciliation is possible between these two concepts of self-realization is to join them both together, and make Turiya the flip side of the absolute witness, and the absolute witness the flip side of Turiya or essence of Consciousness.

Nisargadatta appears to be suggesting the same in Consciousness and the Absolute.  In one paragraph he calls the ‘Self’ the “feeling ‘I-Am’,” which is love to be, while in another paragraph he says the ‘I’ is the Absolute unmanifested, while Consciousness is the manifested world, Consciousness, which is experienced the same by all.

      Nisargadatta: Now, understand the subtle difference, what are you and what do you understand to be you? The body is not you. The body is the food you have consumed, the taste of the body is the knowledge "I Am". That is Self, the feeling "I Am", that is the love to be. That love to be is all-pervading.

     Everything happens out of our own Self. Thi consciousness is spontaneously felt in the Self only. This "I" is not an individual. What is, is the Absolute unmanifested. What appears, as if in a dream, is the manifested, relative world, and this experience of the dreamlike state is the same, an identical state, for everyone.

In fact, for me this is an essential assumption to explain my own experiences, the first of which was to experience myself as totally separate from the states of Consciousness which came to me, and enveloped me, but did not touch me. This is what Robert Adams acknowledged as self-realization in me.

In this experience I myself was unknowable; all that “I” knew was the coming and going of states of Consciousness. Without the coming and going of states of Consciousness there would be no awareness of myself as the absolute, apart from Consciousness. It was only through witnessing Consciousness that I had an existence as a total mystery, as some principle or thing beyond Turiya.

In my third awakening experience, I felt an explosion of life force, energy, and bliss arising from within my presence in a constant eruption, with a deep, deep knowing that this was my Self. There was utter and total certainty that this energy, light, bliss and self-recognition was myself. The knowledge was unshakable. Because of the simultaneous presence of visual light, bliss, a sense of profound grace, self-acceptance, surrender, and love, I call this Christ or Krishna Consciousness. This is the complete opposite of my second awakening stated in the previous paragraph.

In the second awakening I identified with the untouchable absolute witness just observing Consciousness. In the third awakening, I became the explosion of the light force, of Turiya, Satchitananda, Consciousness on steroids. And I found this awakening far more powerful, riveting, and “enlightening” than either my first or second awakening recognized by Robert Adams.

However, exploring Nisargadatta’s works, one reads his first book, Self-Knowledge and Self-Realization, and finds that he is a true Bhakta, filled with love, devotion, and divine energies, and experiences Krishna Consciousness. In fact he talks about Satchitananda and the constant feeling of bliss, surrender to his group, love of his guru, and love of that basic life in a state which he calls the child Consciousness.

Thus it may well be that Nisargadatta originally experienced the same awakening as Ramana to the life force, to Turiya with all of his attention fixated on it, and eventually it disappeared, and his identification was no longer with Consciousness, but more and more with the absolute experienced as a profound conviction (apprehension).  He did strongly feel the lessening of his own life force along with the severe pain of his cancer, and practically begged Consciousness to leave him.  Not so Ramana.

This may be the case, or it may be the case that Nisargadatta was just tired of life in the world and chose to begin to ignore Consciousness and the happenings in Consciousness, and cleaved to the conviction/apprehension of That which knew the coming and going of Consciousness which was prior to Consciousness, and which was immortal.

     Nisargadatta: My present state is such that this consciousness and all this physical suffering are unbearable. I am prepared to dispose of it right now. Nevertheless, people come here and these talks emanate out of the consciousness. I am addressing you as consciousness; you are the Godly consciousness. 

     I am telling you about the consciousness. In my true state, if I had been aware of consciousness at the moment the body formation was taking place, I would have rejected it. But at that highest state such knowledge is not there and this body formation and consciousness are both spontaneous.

For me, I think I have come to express in my own teachings the primacy of Ramana’s saying YES to Consciousness and the life force, as opposed to Nisargadatta more or less dismissing Consciousness and fading away into the noumena, into the hypothetical subject beyond Consciousness.

For me, the constant burning explosive awareness that runs through my sense of presence and my body is so powerful, so commanding and inviting at the same time, that my previous existence up until two years ago, and which included 15 years of awakening in a Nisargadatta style, was all just a dream.

Only now when I burn and explode with life energies, my body is acutely attentive to everything, my sense of presence fills my body and the space around me with a different kind of knowing, a knowing through the heart directly rather than through the mind and the brain. To me this is true awakening.


  1. Ho-ly-shit-Ed!

    Amazing post! I am dumbfounded.


    Such force and clarity, presentations of these other Muktis I did not fully comprehend. Thanks so much!

    Also you so clearly chiseled away the chaff and presented what I was trying grab hold of--and present: even for the seeming awakened, reality/liberation is not what is seems... the fullness without limit or other... BAck to the breathe--Ramana and Nisaradatta--inhalation/exhalation--not seperate but necessary part of the full, full dynamic, who cares where you stop to rest. We can all hold our breathe, but we have to breathe, breathe! Liberation as inhalation or just exhalation are not satisfying in themsleves--I Agree! cause they are not complemented, not complete, so not one, not SELF! its the full cycle of breathe, as it, watching it, abiding with it that is complete--of course--that, that is SELF!

    Hell ya Edji!

  2. Wow, this is such a clear and honest dissection of two great teachings! Very puzzling from an aspirants standpoint to understand what Ramana and N. are getting at. I like that you include the practical side of their teachings, instead of just finishing with theory. I need to know how to apply these things and I really appreciate how often you bring theory to practice. I hope to one day see these teachings in a similar way to how you must see them, with a knowingness and a direct experience. Thank you for these posts, Edji! I feel your sincere attempts at bringing us out of confusion. Thank you!


  3. What was Robert's take on that?

    Didn't Ramana suggest to his students that the "bliss state" of "Self Realization" was one step before the ultimate? The ultimate being that sweet delicious peace that passeth all understanding, far beyond the (almost unbearable/almost annoying) bliss?

    As far as Ramesh"s teacher maharaji is concerned: wasn't he really pissed with life and (at times- or most of the time) with people in general??

    1. I could answer that based on commentary made about Maharaj and they may not at all have had some "agenda" which biased their viewpoints when they were in his company.

      Maharaj seemed to express an annoyance or irritation with people whom he felt were foolishly existing in a state of almost sublime ignorance but who he judged should know better and therefore had to be vehemently awakened from this ignorance, requiring that he dispense with all politeness. His level of tolerance then wasn't especially what one might expect of a "typical" spiritual guide. In fact, he made one quote(which I'm paraphrasing)that his words would tear people's concepts about spirituality to shreds.

      So to get back to your last question, he wasn't pissed with life or people in general. He was pissed on those occasions when(as I explained above) he felt that bouts of anger and rudeness justified the kind of response he directed at them based on his perception of where they were at(as if to say, "the ends justified the means").


    2. That is not true. Read his last 3 books by Jean Dunn. Over and over he says he is done with consciousness. So was Robert Adams. In fact, he is quite clear in his last quote above:

      Nisargadatta: My present state is such that this consciousness and all this physical suffering are unbearable. I am prepared to dispose of it right now. Nevertheless, people come here and these talks emanate out of the consciousness. I am addressing you as consciousness; you are the Godly consciousness.

      I am telling you about the consciousness. In my true state, if I had been aware of consciousness at the moment the body formation was taking place, I would have rejected it. But at that highest state such knowledge is not there and this body formation and consciousness are both spontaneous.

    3. So Ed.....

      You're saying in effect he was never pissed based on the observations made by others attending his Satsangs or that any sorts of annoyance/irritation he expressed were tied to his deteriorating physical condition when the cancer was more advanced?


  4. No, I didn't say that. Yes others irritated him at times--or it appeared so.

    But he also said he was done with the world and Consciousness.

    Robert often said the same thing, even when he was not suffering with cancer.

  5. @ AK Even if bliss state is one step before the ultimate,it is a state,it ll go,this needs to be understood.There is no time when one is not the ultimate,we can have this premise to begin with,or everything would be about becoming and anything we become,we can unbecome.Many seekers waste time in different kind of samadhis just trying to prolong the experience,which is never going to happen.The meditation-inquiry combo type seeking revolves around juicing up consciousness,exploring it,or in other words replicating the experiences if you take the "one step before the ultimate " line.I don't see any postulates.Ultimate when described in terms of bliss,etc is not described in terms of psychological states,it's described in opposition to it's dual opposite,but then it is not the ultimate.When we try to attribute bliss,etc to ultimate,we are actually objectivising it.It's no good in the long run.

  6. Rahul, you ought to take more time and rewrite this post. Separate the ideas into separate paragraphs.

    Bliss is not necessary a state or step prior to the ultimate, because sequentially, one can experience it after absorption into the Witness during the return journey.

    Also, any description of an ontology puts limits on both the speaker and listener. Really, what is ultimateand what is relative outside of a theory?

  7. Ok Edji. What am meaning is this:

    1)There can be no postulates for any bliss state or any state.

    2) Experiences of people can be replicated,for example if one tries to follow Siddharameshwar one might go step by step,again there is no guarranty that one ll have the same expereinces.

    3) By objectivising the ultimate I mean retaining the Subject and stopping there: Usually,most begin with the subject-object separation,then one identifies with the subject,this identification must go too.I think,one can use ontology or philosophical type inquires or questioning and benefit.I was looking for some as Maharajs phraseology was confusing for me,and I found the exact answer in traditioanl vedanta teachings.

    You have said the same things in your last comment,I think.

    I think explaining doubts,giving pointers in terms of ontology is not limiting.After all ppl have done this for ages.Without it,where would one start to look? Description on the other hand is totally different.I think all this spiritual business is about looking,it's hardly a theory,also nothing objective to be found.If you want I can give you example from my expereinces,I had written this to you months back,but you never replied and had said that you lost the emails:

    One example is: I just dont find things as solid,as made of solid mass,rigid.I just dont find things as solid now.I dont see physicality as made of some rigid solid mass.Do you remember Jean Dunn told you the same thing(if i recollect correctly,you had mentioned this long ago,and you had written that it was not ur expereince......something like that).But I still check traffic before crossing the road.I have fellow seekeer buddies here,some of them are in their 60s.....not a single person share the same take on physicality,they just dont see it,it is not their expereince.

    1. In deep sleep, is there any difference between Ramana and Nisargadatta?

  8. "In deep sleep, is there any difference between Ramana and Nisargadatta?"

    Ed: No!

  9. Most of the attributes of Self-realisation like Oneness, peace, bliss, are the outcomes of long period of study of traditional advaita teachings and conviction arising of such practices. Nisargadatta belonged to the traditional school while Ramana was a free lancer.

    Self as such is only existence (that too temporary till the body lasts) and recognition (awareness of that existence). Nothing more, nothing less and without any attributes or qualities.

    In deep sleep, even recognition becomes dormant. Then only existence is. But without recognition, existence is of no use or importance for even existence too. Hence the confusion. The same situation arises in the case of long period of coma or death.

    In traditional advaita, the goal is to finish the cycle of birth/death, and nothing more which is served well by reaching the stage of consciousness only (Braham as Sat-Chit-Ananda in manifested form). What is there beyond it has not been touched by even the ancient gurus and is only based on inference only.

  10. Siddharameshwar, Nisargadatta and I teach two seorts of self-realization. The first is as you say; but the second is identification with Turya, the base of Consciousness, which is filled with bliss, energies, knowledge of existence, and existence itself. Maharaj called it Krishna Consciousness. This is the realm of the saint, not the Jnani.

  11. Sir, to each his own. But as far as Advaita is concerned, its path is only upto the point of erasing the feeling/sense of 'I am' (without words or thinking) in brain/mind when it is clearly established that consciousness alone is, and contains both the phenomena and the subject. And if one has not followed traditional vedantic practices of purifications, all the older tendencies/needs for food, shelter, comforts, sex and sleep remain intact even after erasing of 'I am', in a much subdued form.

    Rather, after that, every practioner is free to go his own way. Shankaracharya built temples, monasteries, indulged in Tantra, enjoyed queens of a famous King; Ramana continued living at his Ashram and did all the work relating to it; Nisargadatta continued his house holder life and business work; Siddharameshwar (a renouncer) continued preaching his teachings. Only Ramakrishna Paramhansa reverted back to the path of Bhakti (sainthood) again, after getting Advaita Knowledge because he was an adept saint earlier - it means he also reverted back to his old lifestyle. A Jnani just has to pass his remaining time and for passing his time, nothing is better than his old job/ work / hobbies without any attachment/ passion. When you know that everything is illusion (from the point of view of individual entity), then whether you help the world or just use it, is of no importance.

    Sorry for taking you time and please pardon my english.

  12. I love Ramana, but my life has been consumed by Nisargatta's teachings.

    As a father, I would take my children to the public library and there was a copy of "The Ulimate Medicine" and I would check it out (borrow) it over and over.

    One of the last times I visited the library with my maturing kids, I checked the book out again and my daughter says: "Dad, why do you keep re-reading that book?"

    I said, "I don't know. It just never gets old."

    Ha. Anyway, this present article is excellent. It lays to rest my question of the differences between two jnani's that I respect.

    I think it is interesting how things have developed or expressed itself as "Consciousness" seeking to know itself.

    I have a feeling that a billion years ago or a billion years hence, that knowledge will never capture what is and is not.


  13. Excellent post.Immersed into Nisargadatta's teachings and inspired by Ramana's silence,i really appreciated it,as well as the comments.Thanks to all.
    “Forget me, forget Maharaj, even forget the teachings, and just stay in the consciousness, and your own unique path, whatever that may be, will emerge for you.”~Sri Nisargadatta

  14. unfortunately in his late teachings Nisargadatta deeply fell into intellectualism. A lot of play of words on the unspeakable which don't add anything except confusion. I think people should stick to "I am that".

  15. Just FYI - Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta's words were both translated into English. Unfortunately, they did not use the same English words for the same thing.

    For example, Nisargadatta's translator used "Awareness" for the Absolute source, and "Consciousness" for a relative individual awareness (as in the common English sentence "I am conscious of a noise in the room"). However, the usual practice is the opposite - "Chit" = "Consciousness" and awareness is the relative level (as in "I am aware of a noise in the room").

    For at least two hundred years, the translation of spiritual terms into English has caused major semantic difficulties. The translation of "maya" as "illusion" was a giant setback for comprehension of Eastern spirituality in the West.

    While Nisargadatta vouched for his translator Maurice Frydman's spiritual understanding, Frydman's English skills and scholarly expertise were not at a high level. (And given the limited number of hours in a lifetime, that's a normal tradeoff.)

    Ultimately, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta were both sages providing techniques to followers. They were not theologians.

    If you want a precise description of the nature of the Universe, then you need Kashmir Shaivism (eg Abhinavagupta). Perfect, precise and flawless.

  16. Nice post on the differences. However, both Ramana and Nisargadatta, map on perfectly to the map provided in Buddhism on the arupa jhanas. Ramana's experience sounds exactly like the "dimension of infinite consciousness" and Nisargadatta's like the "dimension of neither perception nor non-perception." Nisargadatta was definitely more advanced than Ramana. Check out my review here: