Story behind the Book Choice
If you are not into spirituality, this book and therefore this post is not for you. As Sri Maharshi would probably say now (well, he would not speak but maybe write), not being in touch with spirituality is not even possible. It all depends on the words we use for all this, of course. Just like, if you know anything about Buddhism, you know that we are basically all enlightened/awakened, you also know that we, many of us, simply do not know about this — consciously. Does this sound very complicated already?
If yes, do not worry. If you get into spirituality and the teachings of Buddhism, you will learn that neither worries nor “rational” understanding matter in any way. Of course, what also does not matter is sophisticated and/or theoretical writing about all this. But what can I do, right? I just had to read this book finally after it has been sitting on my shelf for more than a year now. For books on Buddhism, this is quite a long time. It tells me that I am losing track of my spiritual development. Or, rather, I am running the risk of going backwards. But that is also a very Western notion of determinism. If you listen to Maharshi and basically all other gurus, it is not possible to fall back after you have fully gained the highest level of consciousness (samadhi) and left behind your ego. Unfortunately, many of us only taste glimpses of these moments in different stages of meditation and we do not remain there.
Maharshi’s teachings are presented in the Q&A format in the book. This makes it hard to read sometimes but it also provides a very authentic idea of his voice. Maharshi cared about guiding people but he spent most of his life in silence. What I found really helpful where the short introductions — you can actually call them summaries — at the beginning of every chapter. They might still be a bit confusing for people who are completely unfamiliar with Buddhist teachings. Yet, they are also very helpful for “advanced” seekers and disciples when it comes to delineating Maharshi’s lessons from the ones of other spiritual teachers. So, let us explore some highlights to see what makes Maharshi such an outstanding figure.
As with any spiritual teacher, they usually teach their own path to “enlightenment,” to spiritual awakening. I am putting that term into quotation marks because it actually does not make much sense if you are familiar with what being present and aware actually means in Buddhism. This is because we are all “awakened” but do not realize it — unless we have walked the path towards leaving behind he “I-thought” already. So, Maharshi gained his awakenings by walking the path of what he later called “self-enquiry.” This is the cornerstone of his philosophy.
So, in general, there are two very broad ways of gaining full consciousness; freedom and happiness. These are meditation and knowledge, as the editor also describes above. Maharshi’s practice basically relates to the second one, whereby, obviously, one cannot draw a strict line between the two. What is important is that for Maharshi, the questioning of “Who am I?” and “What is Self?” is key to actually finding Self. And if this happens, then the division of self and other obviously vanishes in favor of union with “God” and eternal wisdom (jnana).
I often wonder these days what people are doing who only used to do Yoga in groups in the gym (before the outbreak of the pandemic). Do they continue doing it at home (all the YouTube yogis suggest this…)? Did they give up on it and they wait till the gyms open again? Do they not care about it all because it is just something they do randomly, something that can easily be replaced? I did take classes in groups at the beginning but then I quickly moved to turning Yoga into my everyday practice — a ritual. Many years ago, I would not have thought this would ever play a role in my life. But my journey brought me to it, like brushing my teeth and meditating.
The important point about the concept of “Yoga” is that, most people in the West nowadays, have an image in their mind that has nothing to do with what Yoga actually means in spiritual practice. And what this is you read above. Maharshi does not teach anything different from most others in this respect. Yoga, for one thing, is a collection of different elements or practices. So, it is not just the physical exerceises that many laypersons commonly think it is. The other point is, and that is even more crucial, that you do not need Yoga at all for reaching spiritual awakening. Yes, one says that Yoga asanas prepare your body for meditation and meditation then finally brings you closer to discovering Self (in Maharshi’s terms). But really, you do not need any of this.
If you have reached the highest state of samadhi, you do not need anything. You are constantly in meditation or Yoga or whatever. It does not matter. It does not take any preparation or practice to get you into this state of mere being. You simply are — there is not more to say. What is interesting about Maharshi is that he does contradict some other dominant teachings about core pillars of Buddhism. And the role of physical exercise and Yoga is one, as you can read above. The other one concerns his teachings about reincarnation in which he was basically saying that, since there is no birth, there is no rebirth. But he was also a good “diplomat,” I guess, B´because in many passages, the editor shares that he gave in to people who pushed him on that. By giving in, I mean that he did respond in a way that made the listeners/students hold on to their notion of reincarnation.
By the way, this issue of not taking a position, of not trying to convince the students of a certain form of teaching, is, of course, immanent in the state of complete consciousness. Since all these things, like judging something as right or wrong, are just thoughts that have nothing to do with the Self as Maharshi (and others) understands it, there is no such thing as judgements or opinions. Therefore, there is also no way of making Maharshi convince any student of anyhitng. The only answer is always:
“See for whom the question arises. Unless the questioner is found, such questions can never finally be answered.” — Godman 199
3. Suffering and Ego
The chapter on “Suffering and Morality” must be quite a challenge for many who are not familiar with the “positive” role suffering plays in Buddhist thought. What I mean is that suffering is the flip side of joy — one cannot exist without the other and usually, extreme suffering precedes “enlightenment.” What this means is — and that is the case in any teachings — letting go of the ego, i.e., the thought of the ego, to be more precise. And this is also what Maharshi gets at here in these passages when asked about how someone who has reached the state of samadhi can help others, can help prevent or at least reduce suffering.
Maharshi’s answer to this question is very clear and probably startling for many: you should not do anything about the suffering of others at all — at least not intentionally, if it does not just come to you. One reason for this is that, as soon as you say “others are suffering,” there is obviously a division between Self and others which does not exist in the awakened state. And the other reason is the one that Maharshi talks about here. If you perform some kind of “helping” act, it is usually the ego driving it. This is “wrong” in the sense of not coming from the source, from the Self.
As you can also read above, this does not totally deny the idea of helping to ease suffering. But it is a kind of help that completely negates any idea of ego, of identity. And this is something that I find so liberating but I understand that people, especially in these times when people are dying and others are fighting to save their lives, can only be misunderstood because it sounds really cruel. But I do mean it in the way that Maharshi talks about it. If you follow what comes to you without any ego intention then there is only pure helping, nothing more. I understand that we might not be able to run a state or hospitals on this logic but who knows? In any case, we would reduce all the suffering that emerges because people who are helping do so because they want to be seen and recognized. No matter how human that is, according to Maharshi’s (and others’) teachings, this is not help from the fountain, from the Self.
Especially the latter thoughts about morality and free will in the book are quite striking. I think, if you are not familiar with Maharshi and/or Buddhism at all, I might even recommend starting to read the book from end to beginning. If you want to understand what it really means to give up your ego thoughts, this becomes very clear when looking at this aspect of reducing suffering at the beginning. If you really understand what all this is about, there is no suffering to worry about because even death is nothing that you will fear, since fear as well is only a thought, not more. It can pass without “you” doing anything with it.
No matter how confused or upset you are now, I encourage everyone with the words of Maharshi to start the journey wherever you are now:
“See youself first and then see the whole world as the Self.” (Godman 215)
1) Are you a spiritual person? How would I notice if I met you?
2) Which associations to you have with Yoga? Where do they come from?
3) How do you think about men and women who become monks/nuns? Did you ever consider this option in the past?