The Humble David Godman Asks The Great Nisargadatta About Enlightenment

In this beautiful interview, “Remembering Nisargadatta Maharaj,” (thanks, Alexandra, for sending this to me!), David Godman, who has done much to make Ramana Maharshi’s teachings more widely available, speaks of his meetings with Nisargadatta. Everything below the “*” is from Godman’s interview/essay. Especially moving is what Nisargadatta says at the very end.


My question was really, ‘If one discounts the theory of reincarnation, which you seem to do, how can someone like Ramana Maharshi get enlightened with no desire for it, no effort and no practice, while everyone else struggles unsuccessfully for decades and fails?’

‘It’s the chemical,’ announced Maharaj. ‘Some people are born with a pure chemical and some are not. Those with a pure chemical get enlightened, and those with an impure chemical don’t.’

‘The chemical’ was one of Maharaj’s idiosyncratic analogies or metaphors. I think it was derived from the chemical on a roll of film. We are all issued with a ‘chemical’ at the moment of conception, said Maharaj, and that is our destiny for this life. In one sense it is like a roll of film, a script that has been given to us for this life. Traditional Hinduism teaches that we have prarabdha karma, an unchangeable destiny for this life that is an inevitable result of actions that have been performed in previous lives. Maharaj couldn’t incorporate past-life activities into his ‘chemical’ theory, but he did have an alternative selection of factors to offer.

I can’t remember whether it was during this particular conversation or on some other day, but I remember asking him about the components of ‘the chemical’. He replied that it was a combination of a wide variety of factors: parents’ genes, astrological configurations at the time of conception, the future environment that one was going to be brought up in – these were just a few that he mentioned. These all coalesced at a particular moment and issued a body, or rather an embryo, with its appointed destiny.

‘This is all very deterministic,’ I said. ‘If the purity of the chemical determines whether or not we get enlightened, why should we even care about it or not? What is the point of trying or not trying, wanting or not wanting, if the purity of the chemical has already decided the matter for us in advance? We may as well all go home.’

Maharaj replied, ‘No, it is not completely determined in advance. The vast majority of people in the world are born with a dirty chemical. Nothing they do or don’t do will make any difference. Enlightenment is not for them, and most of them won’t even care about such matters. At the other end of the spectrum there will be an extremely small number of very pure beings who will become aware of their true nature without any striving or inclination.’

He didn’t say so, but I assume he would have put Ramana Maharshi in this category.

‘Between these two extremes,’ continued Maharaj, ‘there are a small number of people whose chemical is only slightly impure. These people have a chance to get enlightened. If they can meet with a Guru who can show them the truth and if their earnestness and seriousness are high enough, they can purify their slightly dirty chemical and find out who they really are. That is why we are all here today. People who come to a teacher with a strong thirst for freedom are the ones who have only a few impurities. They are the ones for whom liberation is possible.’