I just finished all 531 pages of I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj, translated by Maurice Frydman. I started reading it in late May and just finished now in mid-September. Why did it take me so long? It certainly wasn’t that he used complicated words. Any high school student could understand it if they have the patience to decipher some the Sanskrit terminology that can be found in the book’s appendix. It certainly wasn’t long drawn out chapters. The book contains 101 chapters which are two to four pages long. It took me so long because the concepts in the book, when thought about and considered, are among the deepest one may experience.
The book is in the the typical question and answer format one reads in most of the non-dualist genre. Nisargadatta Maharaj gave satsang, or spiritual teachings, based out his Bombay (Mumbai) apartment until his death in 1981. He wasn’t a typical yoga practitioner. He made a living making and selling cigarettes on the street and chain smoked them as he gave his teachings. He liked to argue with his disciples, and would kick them out if he felt they have overstayed their welcome after receiving the essence of his teachings. He only spoke in Marathi, and would employ translators for Westerners.
In all of his eccentricities, his teachings get to the heart of the matter: we are not what we take ourselves to be, we are the very universe itself. He foremost rejects that he is his body which is repeated ad nauseum in this text. He rejects that he is his mind, which he says belongs to the body. “As long as one is burdened with a personality, one is exposed to its idiosyncrasies and habits.” He says he is that which does not change: the purusha. Purusha can be translated as “soul” but Maharaj gives it a much more nuanced and textured meaning throughout his book.
His basic teaching is summed up in this dialogue:
Maharaj: How can an unsteady mind make itself steady? Of course it cannot. It is the nature of the mind to roam about. All you can do is to shift the focus of consciousness beyond the mind.
Questioner: How is it done?
Maharaj: Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought ‘I am’. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally without any interference on your part. (page 17)
This may sound a lot like the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Maharaj’s teachings are very similar with the exception that Maharaj was not silent the way Ramana Maharshi was (Maharshi said very few words to his devotees). But by using his preferred format of argument, the teachings of Nisargadatta yield more concrete “instructions” that are well suited for the Western mind.
I would recommend this book after one is familiarized with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, as many of the concepts draw from that classic text. In fact if you struggle with the Sutra-s in terms of how prakriti and purusha interplay, I Am That offers elegant explanations and possible solutions. To read this book properly, I wouldn’t advise taking on more than a chapter a day (3-4 pages), and really think about the words. You won’t be the same after reading it.
Linked below is a pdf of the book, and also a video which can be viewed as a primer to the teachings.