That there should be yet another addition of I AM THAT is not surprising, for the sublimity of the words spoken by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, their directness and the lucidity with which they refer to the Highest have already made this book a literature of paramount importance. In fact, many regard it as the only book of spiritual teaching really worth studying.
There are various religions and systems of philosophy which claim to endow human life with meaning. But they suffer from certain inherent limitations. They couch into fine-sounding words their traditional beliefs and ideologies, theological or philosophical. Believers, however, discover the limited range of meaning and applicability of these words, sooner or later. They get disillusioned and tend to abandon the systems, in the same way as scientific theories are abandoned, when they are called in question by too much contradictory empirical data.
When a system of spiritual interpretation turns out to be unconvincing and not capable of being rationally justified, many people allow themselves to be converted to some other system. After a while, however, they find limitations and contradictions in the other system also. In this unrewarding pursuit of acceptance and rejection what remains for them is only scepticism and agnosticism, leading to a fatuous way of living, engrossed in mere gross utilities of life, just consuming material goods. Sometimes, however, though rarely, scepticism gives rise to an intuition of a basic reality, more fundamental than that of words, religions or philosophic systems. Strangely, it is a positive aspect of scepticism. It was in such a state of scepticism, but also having an intuition of the basic reality, that I happened to read Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s I AM THAT. I was at once struck by the finality and unassailable certitude of his words. Limited by their very nature though words are, I found the utterances of Maharaj transparent, polished windows, as it were.
No book of spiritual teachings, however, can replace the presence of the teacher himself. Only the words spoken directly to you by the Guru shed their opacity completely. In a Guru’s presence the last boundaries drawn by the mind vanish. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj is indeed such a Guru. He is not a preacher, but he provides precisely those indications which the seeker needs. The reality which emanates from him is inalienable and Absolute. It is authentic. Having experienced the verity of his words in the pages of I AM THAT, and being inspired by it, many from the West have found their way to Maharaj to seek enlightenment.
Maharaj’s interpretation of truth is not different from that of Jnana Yoga/Advaita Vedanta. But, he has a way of his own. The multifarious forms around us, says he, are constituted of the five elements. They are transient, and in a state of perpetual flux. Also they are governed by the law of causation. All this applies to the body and the mind also, both of which are transient and subject to birth and death. We know that only by means of the bodily senses and the mind can the world be known. As in the Kantian view, it is a correlate of the human knowing subject, and, therefore, has the fundamental structure of our way of knowing. This means that time, space and causality are not ‘objective’, or extraneous entities, but mental categories in which everything is moulded. The existence and form of all things depend upon the mind. Cognition is a mental product. And the world as seen from the mind is a subjective and private world, which changes continuously in accordance with the restlessness of the mind itself.
In opposition to the restless mind, with its limited categories -- intentionality, subjectivity, duality etc. -- stands supreme the limitless sense of ‘I am’. The only thing I can be sure about is that ‘I am’; not as a thinking ‘I am’ in the Cartesian sense, but without any predicates. Again and again Maharaj draws our attention to this basic fact in order to make us realise our ‘I am-ness’ and thus get rid of all self-made prisons. He says: The only true statement is ‘I am’. All else is mere inference. By no effort can you change the ‘I am’ into ‘I am-not’.
Behold, the real experiencer is not the mind, but myself, the light in which everything appears. Self is the common factor at the root of all experience, the awareness in which everything happens. The entire field of consciousness is only as a film, or a speck, in ‘I am’. This ‘I am-ness’ is, being conscious of consciousness, being aware of itself. And it is indescribable, because it has no attributes. It is only being my self, and being my self is all that there is. Everything that exists, exists as my self. There is nothing which is different from me. There is no duality and, therefore, no pain. There are no problems. It is the sphere of love, in which everything is perfect. What happens, happens spontaneously, without intentions like digestion, or the growth of the hair. Realise this, and be free from the limitations of the mind.
Behold, the deep sleep in which there is no notion of being this or that. Yet ‘I am’ remains. And behold the eternal now. Memory seems to being things to the present out of the past, but all that happens does happen in the present only. It is only in the timeless now that phenomena manifest themselves. Thus, time and causality do not apply in reality. I am prior to the world, body and mind. I am the sphere in which they appear and disappear. I am the source of them all, the universal power by which the world with its bewildering diversity becomes manifest.
In spite of its primevality, however, the sense of ‘I am’ is not the Highest. It is not the Absolute. The sense, or taste of ‘I am-ness’ is not absolutely beyond time. Being the essence of the five elements, it, in a way, depends upon the world. It arises from the body, which, in its turn, is built by food, consisting of the elements. It disappears when the body dies, like the spark extinguishes when the incense stick burns out. When pure awareness is attained, no need exists any more, not even for ‘I am’, which is but a useful pointer, a direction-indicator towards the Absolute. The awareness ‘I am’ then easily ceases. What prevails is that which cannot be described, that which is beyond words. It is this ‘state’ which is most real, a state of pure potentiality, which is prior to everything. The ‘I am’ and the universe are mere reflections of it. It is this reality which a jnanihas realised.
The best that you can do is listen attentively to the jnani -- of whom Sri Nisargadatta is a living example -- and to trust and believe him. By such listening you will realise that his reality is your reality. He helps you in seeing the nature of the world and of the ‘I am’. He urges you to study the workings of the body and the mind with solemn and intense concentration, to recognise that you are neither of them and to cast them off. He suggests that you return again and again to ‘I am’ until it is your only abode, outside of which nothing exists; until the ego as a limitation of ‘I am’, has disappeared. It is then that the highest realisation will just happen effortlessly.
Mark the words of the jnani , which cut across all concepts and dogmas. Maharaj says: “until once becomes self-realised, attains to knowledge of the self, transcends the self, until then, all these cock-and-bull stories are provided, all these concepts.” Yes, they are concepts, even ‘I am’ is, but surely there are no concepts more precious. It is for the seeker to regard them with the utmost seriousness, because they indicate the Highest Reality. No better concepts are available to shed all concepts.
I am thankful to Sudhakar S. Dikshit, the editor, for inviting me to write the Foreword to this new edition of I AM THAT and thus giving me an opportunity to pay my homage to Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, who has expounded highest knowledge in the simplest, clearest and the most convincing words.
Douwe Tiemersma, Philosophical Faculty, Erasmus Universiteit, Rotterdam, Holland June, 1981