‘You seem to want instant insight, forgetting that the instant is always preceded by a long preparation. The fruit falls suddenly, but the ripening takes time.’
I am only the Self — Documentary Extract
Mary Adams – ‘My Summer with Nisargadatta’
I AM That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (1973).
Nisargadatta Maharaj
In Summary

A humble man with big insights converses with his disciples about the nature of our true Self, revealing what it is by pointing out what it isn’t.


When Nisargadatta Maharaj was asked how old he was, he replied that he was never born. He was not born to a peasant farmer and servant in 1897. His father did not die when he was a teenager; he did not have to move to Bombay as a youth to support his bereaved family; he did not start a successful retail business. Nisargadatta did not marry in 1924 nor meet his guru in 1933. His wife and daughter did not die in the 1940s; his heart was not shattered into a thousand pieces. He did not retreat to a small flat above the Mumbai streets; he did not disciple spiritual seekers in that room for decades. His talks with these students were not later translated and published in 1973 as I AM That. He did not go from a humble worker to a world-renowned guru. He did not die in 1981. These things may have felt real to him when they were happening, but Nisargadatta believed they were illusions of flesh and bone. Our true Self is not our body nor experiences nor memories but That which is behind and beyond all things.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj became a global guru almost overnight with the publication of I AM That, providing a non-dualist account of what our true Self is and is not. The text is a collection of 101 conversations between Nisargadatta and spiritual seekers who came to his small flat. These talks were recorded and translated by his student Maurice Frydman, a Jewish refugee from Poland, who helped spread the guru’s gospel. Nisargadatta is also well known for Nisarga yoga and for popularising the Inchagiri Sampradaya lineage in the West, continuing to inspire devotees decades after his (non-real) death.


According to Nisargadatta, reality is ultimately beyond words. As such, we cannot begin by articulating what our true Self is but rather by saying what it is not. We are not our body, with its wrinkles and inevitable demise. We are not our personality, which changes from season to season through experience, traumas and growth. We are not what we do nor what has been done to us. We are not our accomplishments, relationships or memories. We are not our mind nor the thoughts it slowly unpacks, hence the inability of words and reason to express what we actually are. All these earthly identities change with time and so cannot be the lasting foundation and source of our true, unchanging Self.

We have mistaken our bodily, egocentric, personality-driven, individualised incarnations for our true Self. Yet this is all illusion; none of this really exists. Though our experience of the world is real, the world itself does not exist independently of us. The things that individualise us as one person rather than another are all external, fleeting and bodily, and when these false identities are shed, we come to accept and witness that there is only one Self behind the world. In this way, individual rejections of what ‘I am not’ makes us explicitly conscious of what I am. ‘All there is is me, all there is is mine. Before all beginnings, after all endings – I am.’

Yet even words and phrases like ‘consciousness’, ‘witness’ and ‘I am’ are ultimately limited to the categories and articulations of the mind. While these are helpful signposts that point us in the right direction, they will not come along with us. The true Self is beyond all language, reason and duality and must therefore be experienced directly rather than spoken or repackaged in words. The truth transcends consciousness and the very duality of conscious and unconscious. Nisargadatta even claims he is beyond being conscious of the very conversations he is having in the book, for he now speaks and thinks in the same automatic way he digests food or regulates his nervous system.

Truth is also beyond the duality of pleasure and pain. Identifying with the false self leads to rejoicing when we get a promotion or welcome a newborn child and mourning when we get fired or lose a loved one (just as Nisargadatta lost his wife and daughter). While pleasure is gratifying, it inevitably sets us up for failure when that pleasure is taken away – ‘Pleasure puts you to sleep and pain wakes you up. If you do not want to suffer, don't go to sleep.’ Desires fulfilled breed only more desires, launching an unending rollercoaster of illusion, for pleasure and suffering only exist in your mind, not in reality itself. Thus, you do not need to change or better your circumstances; you only need to change the attitude your mind takes to your circumstances. True bliss comes from rising above the false opposition of pleasure and pain. In turn, love for others comes from overcoming the polarity of Self and other to see yourself in others, just as a parent’s love comes from seeing themselves in their biological child (‘All is the Self, all is myself. To see myself in everybody and everybody in myself most certainly is love’).


I AM That is written as a conversation consisting of questions and answers, making complex philosophical subjects seem more like a casual discussion around a dinner table. There are even some dramatic personal moments in which the author reveals his own annoyance and anger, helping further draw the reader in and stay engaged. While the conversation runs deep, Nisargadatta’s humble origins still shine through, using accessible language and practical imagery for seekers of all stripes and experience.

Ultimately, Nisargadatta summons all those who feel trapped in the cycle of pleasure and pain, who feel enslaved to insecurity and the need for something concrete to which they can fasten their identity, and who long to love yet don’t quite know how. As someone who has personally experienced the pleasure of love and the horrors of tragic loss, Nisargadatta is offering a path that he has previously trodden and now cleared so that others may follow.

Further Reading By This Author

While I AM That remains Nisargadatta’s best known work, numerous other collections of his previously unpublished talks and discussions have been released, such as I AM Not the Body, The Ultimate Medicine, Beyond Freedom, or the collections of Jean Dunn (for example, Prior to Consciousness and Seeds of Consciousness).

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