September 14, 2020
One of the most precious gifts I received while being with my teacher, Ramesh Balsekar, for almost ten years, was to be there with him during the last few months of his life. It was a tremendous learning experience to see someone so comfortable with dying. The ease with which he had lived each day was the same ease he now felt about dying. He used to say, “If one is not afraid of living, then one will not be afraid of dying.”
Ramesh passed away at the ripe old age of ninety-two. Ten years ago, when I had started attending his talks, he used to tell visitors, “I am in the transit lounge.” Well, he was in the transit lounge for much longer than he anticipated. He would often say that he was ready to go ‘home’ anytime, and did not care whatever happened in the next moment. He would quote an old Zen roshi (elder master), “Forgive me for not dying,” and let out a booming laugh!
It was only in the last year or so that his health started declining. However, each time he had a fall or visited the hospital, he was promptly back on his feet. He couldn’t wait to start speaking at the daily satsangs and would often not heed the advice of his doctor or his beloved wife Sharda to rest some more until he got his strength back. The satsangs were clearly what kept him going. I remember the time when he had a fall and got a big black eye as a result. Apart from the fact that it looked quite ugly, he did not feel much discomfort. I casually went into his room one morning before satsang to say hello. During these mornings, DVDs were played of his previous talks, while he rested in the room. Knowing that in all probability he wouldn’t speak, I still found myself asking, “Guruji, will you speak today?” Before he could answer, Sharda replied in her protective voice, “He needs to rest.” I asked him if he felt any discomfort and he said no. Then pointing to the black eye he said, “But look at this!” I said that it wouldn’t bother us in the least bit, and if it didn’t bother him then he should come out and speak. I knew I had crossed a certain line with his wife, but I also knew he looked forward to speaking. “You’re right,” he replied. And he was out in the living room in five minutes, for yet another satsang.
However, as the months passed, it took a bit of coaxing to get Ramesh to come into the living room to speak. What’s more, he had started saying, “What had to be said has been said.” I was informed that usually when a master passes a statement like this, he is giving his disciples a sign that he won’t be around much longer. It is traditionally said that after such a sign is provided, masters are known to have dropped their body within six months. Another incident I took as a subtle sign was when, one day, I saw a pile of books lying on a table in Ramesh’s verandah. Ramesh was giving away all his books from his personal collection, and anyone was free to take one or more. This I took as a clear sign of things to come.
Some mornings, we used to see his assistant having to literally hold him while he walked into the living room from his bedroom, his feet dragging heavily across the floor. It was a painful sight for us to witness. His body was losing its energy. Nevertheless, Ramesh couldn’t have been bothered in the least, as long as he could make it to the rocking chair on which he used to sit and give satsang. In a way, it was a delight to see his enthusiasm; his mind was sharp and he was as clear as always. Once he was in the chair, the teaching simply flowed through him.
During this time, the subject of the talks invariably revolved around death. This happened in a spontaneous, unplanned way. A new seeker would come for the satsang and ask a question related to death, even though he was clueless about Ramesh’s precarious condition. Somehow, Consciousness manoeuvred the conversations so that this subject was brought up. Ramesh’s answers were short, as he did not have much energy. But one statement he used to constantly utter was: “I don’t understand what is the big deal about death. After all, isn’t death the end of duality – the end of the pleasures and pains of daily living? Who wouldn’t want that?” Someone asked him, “At this stage in life, do you have any unfulfilled desires?” He replied, “None. But a new one has arisen. I want to die. But at the same time, I know it will happen when it is supposed to happen.” And then he would laugh.
I was quite amazed as well as amused to witness Ramesh’s attitude towards his death. What a refreshing perspective it was! No fears associated with what was inevitable, rather a welcoming of it – just like a weary traveller who looks forward to a good night’s sleep. In one of his talks, when someone asked him how he felt about dying, he said, “I don’t look forward to it, but I welcome it.”
Over these last days I would, like other disciples, visit him at his home and in the hospital. Three such visits to the hospital struck me. While I was away in London, he had been admitted to the ICU. As soon as I returned, I went to see him. He was sitting up in bed. There wasn’t much to say but I knew something had changed. He asked me how my trip was and then fell silent. Standing beside his bed, I asked him after some time, “Guruji, are you tired of all this?” He looked at me and said, “Yes,” with a gentle, fleeting smile. It was from then on that I started wishing he would go ‘home’ sooner rather than later, so he wouldn’t have to suffer much more.
On another trip to the hospital, I asked him whether he was getting bored of lying in bed all day for so many days. He raised his hands and replied, “Witnessing is happening. But yes, I’d like to go home.”
It was the next visit that was the last straw for me. I went to see him in the afternoon, thanks to a visitor’s pass given to me by a family member. I was sitting in the room with him and a nurse barged in. It was time for his medication. She was rough. And, she was loud. She spoke to him in Marathi and said words to this effect: “Come on old man, it is time for your medication and let’s make it fast. I have other things to do, so don’t waste my time.” The sharp tone of her voice and the way in which she administered the medicine was heartbreaking. I wondered whether I should say anything to her but then I thought, ‘What’s the point?’ My only consolation was knowing that she too was ‘being lived’ to be the way she was. God alone knows what stress she must be going through at work during the day. That’s when I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer to God, to let the end come soon.
During these last few months, I had started attending Ramesh’s talks on Saturdays in addition to the Sundays when I would regularly go. Now that I felt there wasn’t much time left, I stopped going to work on Saturdays and instead, attended the talks. I remember, on my second visit to him ten years ago, he told me at the end of the talks, “Be careful… you have come two Sundays in a row… this could become your Sunday church!” – which it eventually did.
Now that he was really unwell even my travel plans out of town depended on his health. I saw to it that I made short trips. Before each trip I would visit him and tell him where I was going and when I would be back. Of course, this was done for my own satisfaction; Ramesh was not really concerned about the details of my itinerary. Nevertheless, it felt good to keep him informed.
One particular weekend in June, I found Ramesh’s talks quite powerful. They were short – lasting about twenty minutes instead of the usual ninety minutes, and were punctuated by long gaps of potent silence. After the talk on Sunday, I went into his room and told him what I felt about the talks over the last two days. I said that the thought came to me of getting them transcribed, and when I shared it with Sanjay, a friend and another long-time disciple of Ramesh, he seconded the idea. Ramesh was thrilled to hear this and said, “I was thinking of exactly the same thing.”
Two days later, Ramesh lost his dear wife Sharda in the early hours of the morning. She was ninety and they had been married sixty-nine years. That afternoon, I went over to visit him. I entered his room and saw him sitting in his chair by the window, calm and serene. The lightness in the air was ethereal, as was the light of the afternoon sun that gently streamed into the room through the curtain. Somehow, it did not feel like Sharda had passed away.
It was as though she was sitting in the chair next to him exactly the way they always sat over the years. Ramesh perked up and said, “I talk on death over the weekend, and see what happens!” A moment later, the phone rang. It was a condolence call. Ramesh listened into the phone and kept saying, “Yes… yes…” Then, his face lit up with a smile and he said to the person at the other end of the line, “Can you imagine? We were told our horoscopes matched. It is no wonder that we were married for sixty-nine years!” He was the picture of equanimity that day. In fact, it half-seemed as though Ramesh was offering condolences to the person at the other end.
When I felt it was time to leave, I got up and not knowing what to say or do, I just knelt in front of him and put my head in his lap. The next thing I knew, he was patting me on the back of my head as if to say, ‘It’s okay, my child, it’s okay…’ I thought the situation was comic yet profound. When I raised my head and got up to leave, he suddenly enquired, “Can you find out?” “Sure, what?” I asked. “I wonder how long I have.” I had a flummoxed look on my face though I knew quite well what he meant. He then let out a small laugh and said, “Never mind… I was just curious.” And I thought, ‘As though the situation isn’t surreal enough!’
I went home and mentioned this to my mother. I also wondered whether it would be appropriate to ask some astrologers about how much more time Ramesh had left. She said that it would not be appropriate to ask such a question and, what’s more, no authentic astrologer would provide an answer for that would mean playing God. Nevertheless, I felt that since Ramesh had asked me, I should make an attempt at least to find out. Access to astrologers was relatively easy since, being on the spiritual path even in terms of the book publishing business, I had the good fortune of meeting many. And so, the next day I asked a few astrologers how much time they thought Ramesh had left. In doing so, I just proved my mother right. The astrologers initially said that it was not appropriate for them to comment on it, especially as according to them, someone like Ramesh could, to a large extent, influence the process of determining when to leave (so much for Ramesh’s teaching on ‘non-doership’). Anyway, I had done my bit so to speak.
However, the next day I was pleasantly surprised to get feedback from all of them. They were quite unanimous in predicting that October would be a difficult month for Ramesh. In fact, they said that if Ramesh were to see October through, then he would probably live on for another couple of years. I knew I had the answer, for it was clear just how eager Ramesh was to ‘merge into the pool of Consciousness’ as he often said.
The following Sunday, I went into Ramesh’s room and mentioned to him, “Guruji, I found out what you asked me to…” He looked a bit puzzled, as if he had no idea what I was talking about. It had probably slipped his mind. And then I added, “They said that you need to take care of your health in October.” So much for my subtlety. Ramesh was quick to pick up the cue, and had his answer. He looked a bit dejected. “October?” he said, “Let’s see…” He started counting the months on his fingers… “July, August, September… still three more months?” I was non-plussed. Here he was, actually counting the days till his departure, and not being happy with the fact that it was still three months away. He saw the surprised look on my face and folding his hands in a ‘namaste’ said, “Thank you, Gautam. You have no idea what a beautiful gift death is.” I returned the namaste with a heavy heart, and quietly left the room.
Ramesh used to say that it was Sharda’s wish that she should go before Ramesh, for she could not bear to see him die. And that is exactly what happened. Once she passed away, it was clear that Ramesh would not hang around for long and so, the prospect of losing him in October became more and more real.
All this time, I was working hard to get the transcripts ready for what I knew was the last book I was working on with him. The deadline was set by Consciousness, if the astrologers turned out to be accurate: October. Ramesh had asked me to also transcribe his two talks given after Sharda passed away as he felt they formed a set. I jokingly told him, “Only two more…” He laughed. He had this habit of adding more and more notes or transcripts to a manuscript that was supposedly ready for printing. He would say with all sincerity, “Gautam, if we make the book a little thicker, we can charge more!” Always the banker, Ramesh.
I recall visiting him one day after work, for some clarifications on the manuscript. I called his home and asked his daughter Jaya, who was visiting him from Bangalore, if I could come over. I went across but, by the time I reached there, some members of their family had dropped in to pay a visit. I stood in the verandah till their conversation ended. Ramesh spotted me and when he saw the manuscript in my hands, his eyes lit up. Midway through the conversation he got up and started walking towards two empty chairs, gesturing to me. He had no energy to do so on his own and his attendant rushed in, lest he fell. I felt embarrassed as I had broken into the conversation, but I knew Ramesh’s priority was the teaching. We swiftly went through the text, and then I left.
Throughout these last few months, I made it a point to express gratitude to Ramesh for his impact on my life. I remember that when my mother’s guru passed away, she was fortunate that she happened to see him during his last days without knowing that those were his final days. It gave her a tremendous sense of completion. I knew Ramesh’s time was approaching, and so I began thanking him for all things big and small.
I remember once I had said that thanks to him and the satsangs I had made so many friends the world over and, what’s more, they were friends who were close and stayed in touch. He looked at me, smiled and said, “It’s a happening.” On another occasion, I told him that I was wondering where I got the confidence to write. Then the memory arose of the Foreword I had written for the first book I worked on with him – The Ultimate Understanding. I was compelled to write the Foreword. I even remember telling my mother, “What if he thinks it’s really bad? Would I be putting him in an awkward position?” Nevertheless, I mustered the courage to send it across. The next day, the envelope came back. It looked like he hadn’t opened it at all. Even the two A4 size sheets did not look like they had been unfolded. I looked at the first one and saw no note or remark from him. I flipped it over to check the next one and, to my delight, I found a post-it note on which he had written, Excellent! Thanks. RSB. I told Ramesh that it was now quite clear to me that it was his note that gave me the confidence to write subsequently, and so I thanked him for the same. Once again he smiled and said, “It’s a happening.”
That’s what I loved about Ramesh. He was a fount of impersonal love. There was no stickiness. There was no give and take. There was no ‘you’ and ‘me’. Everything was a happening that was supposed to happen because it was God’s will. If it was not meant to happen, no power on earth could make it happen. If it was meant to happen, no power on earth could prevent it from happening. We are just instruments through whom Consciousness functions. Who is to thank whom and for what? Once, when I had gone across to my mom’s guru’s meditation session, someone had, at the end of it, thanked him for the wonderful meditation. To this he replied, “Thanking me is like your left hand thanking your right hand.”
On one of my visits, I thought I would tell Ramesh that I would do my best to see that his books stayed in print. Now both he and I knew that that was stating the obvious. I generally don’t believe that everything needs to be stated, and I know that the obvious certainly need not be stated to be heard. Perhaps, it is heard louder when it isn’t stated – words can, at times, water down the sanctity of the silence of a deeply profound knowing.
Still, the need arose to state it to the ‘Divine banker’, for the record as it were. He let out a most feeble ‘thank you’ and smiled. It was more like, ‘Of course I knew that you would, but in any case as you are being formal, so will I’. I then told him, “Thanking me is like your left hand thanking your right hand.” I was dying to use this phrase, and got the opportunity. We both had a hearty laugh.
The end of September arrived. One Friday, I visited Ramesh. I had actually planned to visit him the following day, Saturday, but his daughter Jaya called and said she was returning to Bangalore on Saturday, and wanted to hand me her father’s notes written over the years. Although I could have collected these notes when I went there on Saturday, I thought it would be a good opportunity to visit them on Friday and meet Jaya as well.
I left work early, and reached Ramesh’s home in good time. I first went into the room to sit with Ramesh. He had been drifting for a while in and out of what I could best describe as an ‘altered state’. I was carrying the new cover design of his book The End of Duality. The book was almost ready. I knew he was really in no condition to see it or comment on it. Nevertheless I just wanted to let him know – at any level – that the book was ‘happening’. I had been keeping him updated on its progress over the last few weeks, but I also knew how happy he was every time he saw the cover of one of his new books. He loved commenting on the creative aspect of the books on which we worked together. His attendant informed me that the right time to speak to Ramesh was when he would turn in his bed, as the effort of doing so made him a bit more alert. So, I sat beside him and when he was about to turn, in a voice louder than usual, I said, “Guruji, this is the cover of your new book.” I held it in front of his eyes so that he didn’t have to strain. His eyes opened, lit up, and he smiled, and in all of twenty seconds he slipped back into his semi-conscious state. I thought to myself that he really couldn’t be bothered about the book at this stage, yet he had managed a smile. It was incredible!
In one hand I was holding the book, and with the other I was holding his hand. He was restless and kept turning sides constantly. I waited for the opportune moment to release my hand. I remember thinking how strong his grip was in spite of his weak condition. Not surprising though, considering he had been a body-builder in his younger days.
On Sunday morning, while getting ready for satsang, I was just lighting some incense in my bedroom when the phone rang. It was Jaya. She said she had just spoken with Shivdas, her brother, who told her that Ramesh’s condition had deteriorated. She said I should be prepared. I told her I would leave immediately and go across, but she said that perhaps I would not want to see him suffering. I said that I just had to go. I got ready and was at the door when my phone rang again. I rushed back and it was Chaitanya – Ramesh’s younger brother. In a tearful voice he said, “My brother just passed away.”
I used to drive to Ramesh’s home, but that day, afraid that I might not find parking space easily, I jumped into a taxi. It usually isn’t easy to find one in my lane on an early Sunday morning, so I thanked my stars when one approached me. It seemed like the longest drive to Sindhula (the name of Ramesh’s building), although it took the usual time. The building’s watchman had no clue as to what had happened upstairs, and told me as I entered: “Saab, aaj aap jaldi aa gaye” (You have come early today). Upon entering the apartment, I saw Shivdas and some members of the family in the living room. I went into the bedroom, kissed Ramesh on the forehead, and sat next to him for a while. Suddenly, the memory came up of something he had said to me many years ago: “Don’t run after the taxi. Let the taxi come to you!” I don’t know whether it is possible to laugh and cry at the same time, but I think that’s what happened to me.
Family, friends and disciples streamed into Sindhula throughout the day, to say their goodbyes. We also sang bhajans in his bedroom.
We left for the funeral grounds at around 5 p.m. and the funeral took place around 9 p.m. There were no rituals performed as Ramesh did not believe in them. We placed a few garlands on him and gave him a quiet send-off.
It was only the next day that the memory arose of what one of the astrologers had mentioned to me. A few days after he had said that the month of October would be difficult, he had called me up and said that after studying the charts further, it seemed there was a window of a possibility of Ramesh leaving between the 21st and 27th of September. He said that those days offered a soft nudge into the other world as far as Ramesh’s chart was concerned. While it would not have any impact on most of us who need a ‘push’ or a ‘shove’ to cross over, a gentle nudge was perhaps all that was needed for someone like Ramesh, and in any case, he was eager to leave. Of course, I never mentioned this to Ramesh for I felt there was hardly any difference between the end of September and October. Ramesh passed away on the 27th of September.
After his passing, I started picking up his earlier books to read – the ones he had written much before I met him. Barring a few, I had not read most of them and was now thoroughly enjoying reading them. In a way, I was glad that I hadn’t read them earlier for I was able to appreciate them all the more now, after having spent ten years in personal contact with him. One night, before switching off the lights, I was lying in bed reading his book A Duet of One – The Ashtavakra Gita Dialogue (1989). I sat bolt upright when I read the following passage:
“In ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, Zarathustra gives his disciples the ultimate message: Whatever had to be said has been said; whatever had to be understood has been understood. Now forget whatever has been said. Forget everything I have said except this last message. Beware of Zarathustra!”
In quoting this paragraph, Ramesh was pointing to the fact that a teaching should not be just an intellectual understanding, but something tested in the fire of one’s personal experience. He was driving home the fact that there is always a limit to what can be gathered intellectually by listening to a master’s words. This is what Zarathustra meant when he said, ‘Beware of Zarathustra’. Rather, one must live the teaching. What it is pointing to is: Be Aware of Zarathustra.
While this essay was taking shape, my friend Gabriel sent me a snippet of something Ramesh had said during one of the talks, that appealed to him. It was on the subject of death, and Gabriel’s mail came at the most appropriate time. It said:“You have to be there to contemplate the terror of death and your impending absence therewith! Paradoxical, that you must be present first to give rise to the terror of your absence! In fact, the thought of not being here can only be contemplated precisely because you are always here! So death is an idea of absence within your presence!”
During one of the last satsangs of Ramesh, he used the term ‘Vishal Hriday’.
What is Vishal Hriday? It literally translates as ‘Big Heart’. What it actually means is ‘One Heart’. To place it in the context of his teaching, it translates as ‘All there is, is Consciousness’.
Consciousness functions through each one of us; we are instruments through whom the same Consciousness functions. Nobody truly ‘does’ anything, but all events are a happening that had to happen according to the will of God… the Source… Consciousness. There is no ‘other’ to blame, condemn, or hate. When there is no ‘other’ to hate, there is truly no ‘other’. When there is no ‘other’ there is no ‘me’ as well, separate from the ‘other’. When there is no ‘me’ or ‘other’, then everything is all there is – and all is exactly as it is supposed to be in that moment. This is impersonal love: the absence of separation. Impersonal, for there is no ‘other’ separate from ‘me’ to love personally. Living this understanding (not just thinking it) is Vishal Hriday – a total acceptance of ‘what is’: acceptance of people exactly the way they are – including oneself, of situations exactly the way they are, and even of death – the end of the existence of ‘me’ as a separate entity.
Could there be a greater love than accepting whatever life brings in the next moment? Could there be a greater love than accepting people exactly the way they are? Could there be a greater love than not hating anyone? Ramesh used to say, “I’m not telling you to love everyone. All I am saying is, just don’t hate anyone.”
No more Ramesh.
No more Sunday church.
It is the end of duality for him.
The river has merged with the ocean.
What was a reality for ten years is now consigned to the vaults of my memory. And whenever a memory of Ramesh does arise, it brings forth a smile and a tear at the same time. ‘Where do they come from?’ I wonder. Where else, but from where Ramesh has always been, and always will be: the Heart. Not the one pumping in the left side of the chest, but the Heart of hearts – Vishal Hriday. Consciousness.
This essay is from the book Explosion of Love, by Gautam Sachdeva
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