Nisargadatta’s Teaching In 5 Verses

The earlier teaching of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (as opposed to the late teaching focused centrally on the sense of “I am”) is nicely summarized in what I’ll term five verses to be found at the beginning of Maurice Frydman’s beautifully edited I Am That (1973):

[Verse 1:] The seeker is he who is in search of himself.

[Verse 2:] Give up all questions except one: ‘Who am I? After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The ‘I am’ is certain. The ‘I am this’ is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality.

[Verse 3:] To know who you are, you must first investigate and know what you are not.

[Verse 4:] Discover all that you are not: body, feelings, thoughts, time, space, this or that; nothing, concrete or abstract, which you perceive can be you. The very act of perceiving shows that you are not what you perceive.

[Verse 5:] The clearer you understand that on the level of mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker will you come to the end of your search and realize that you are the limitless being.

Verse 1: Self-knowledge

Verse 1 tells us two important things. First, what will be laid out, in what follows, is the path of knowledge (jnana)–not that of devotion (bhakti) and not that of action (karma). This too is how Shankara’s Atma Bodha begins. Second, it must be understood that the seeker does not ultimately seek happiness, peace, goodness, or God–not per se. Instead, the seeker only seeks himself. This point is worth contemplating deeply.

Therefore, this that follows is the path of self-knowledge.

Verse 2: The Central Question

Once one realizes that one is only seeking oneself, it becomes clear that one must ask: “Who am I?” or “What am I?”

After all, one can readily see that one one does not yet really know oneself. The only thing one knows for certain is that “I am.” I know that I am, but I do not know what I am.

This “gap” in understanding allows the central question to arise with the utmost earnestness. Hold fast to the question, to the flavor of the question–and nothing else.

Verse 3: The Negative Way, Part 1

To Western ears, it may sound strange to hear that we can’t know who we are (since, in these verses, knowledge is understood solely in a dualistic key). But we can know what we aren’t.

This is the hallmark of the negative way. Therefore, we’re entreated to see clearly everything that we’re not–and to set ‘all this’ aside, to dispense with it, even.

Through this means, two things become clear. First, we cease identifying with what we knowingly are not. Second, we open more deeply to what, wordlessly, we are.

Verse 4: The Negative Way, Part 2

In Verse 4, Nisargadatta offers us an inventory of what we aren’t. Of course, we need to see this first-hand: these are just clues, or pointers. Needless to say, we are not “this” or “that”–not any “this” or “that.” In which case, “I am,” standing alone, cannot be docked to any object.

Then we learn a very important Vedantic principle: whoever perceives cannot be what is perceived. Atmananda in particular uses this principle to good effect throughout his teachings.

We’re knocking on the doorstep of The Upanishads: if we are not a “this” or a “that,” nonetheless we are That which makes possible all risings of “this” or “that.” We are the “unseen seer.” Has this been directly understood?

Verse 5: The Limits of Mind

The key qualifier here is “on the level of the [finite] mind.” Verse 5 sums up what has been learned in Verses 3 and 4. That is, after one has seen that one is “not this… not this…,” one can take a backward leap and realize, “Oh, this spells out the limits of mind. Objectifying is just how mind works.”

At which point, there is relaxation, sinking, openness, welcoming, receptivity. In the late teaching, Nisargadatta will emphasize, right at the outset, abiding in the “I am” since this, right here, is the “portal” or “doorstep” or “gateless gate” to Divine Grace. In I Am That, which is first published in 1973 and which counts as an earlier teaching, however, Nisargadatta is still keen for us to use the power of the mind to realize the limits of the mind. Either way, there must be a passive-active act of surrender. Since the ego is nothing but a ghost, shall we joke and say that we must “give up the ghost”?