Nisargadatta Maharaj and Health & Healing

by Peter Madill, M.D.

Nisargadatta Maharaj and Health and LivingPeter Madill, M.D., spent several weeks with the contemporary teacher and sage, Nisargadatta Maharaj, during June of 1980. Nisargadatta lived in Bombay, India, and taught a direct, non-dualistic approach to Self-Realization. Several books are available that chronicle his talks, the best known of which is I Am That. Peter Madill was one of the few physicians who treated Maharaj for throat cancer, during 1980-1981. Dr. Madill currently lives in Northern California where he has a holistic medical practice.

It is hard for me to remember just what I learned from Nisargadatta Maharaj, because it is difficult to separate the meetings and conversations with him from the inner flowering that occurred and continues to occur as a result of that contact. Nisargadatta Maharaj represents a luminous and creative inner force in my life and greatly influences my work in the areas of health—especially what causes people to get sick.

Since talking with Maharaj in 1980, I have been working on several approaches to help mobilize the body’s innate healing system, also known as the spontaneous healer, the vital force, prana, chi, or whatever one chooses to call it. These approaches center around an increased understanding into what obstructs the free functioning of this power in each individual.

I believe that the health or illness of an individual is inextricably intertwined with the larger issues of suffering, grace and spirituality. Ever since meeting with Nisargadatta, I have a strong sense that there is more to illness than a random, capricious, cruel, and ultimately meaningless event in an individual’s life. Since those days in Bombay, I have had an almost insatiable drive to discover what else illness could represent, other than a “flat tire on the road of life.”

My most prominent memory of Maharaj’s teachings on the subject of health is that the Self will “stoop” to whatever level necessary to get one’s attention. He indicated we should be mindful of the multitude of early warning signals that are given to us before the Self pulls out the big guns of major illness, accident, or even death itself. Maharaj often commented that wise persons will take note of their actions and those of others that lead to suffering and illness and choose not to repeat those actions. In his view, actions that lead to suffering and illness were generally initiated on the basis of the mistaken belief that they would somehow lead to happiness or grant permanent relief from suffering. Only a full grasping of the illusion of “I” as an individual entity grants us true relief from suffering—the relief we all so desperately seek.

I understood from Maharaj that people in general do not consciously chose to get sick and that many illnesses reflect “mistakes in living.” I also intuited from him that there are no accidents of life, that even widespread calamities were a settling of karmic (destined) issues. To Maharaj our so-called “mistakes” do not mean that we have failed and are in need of salvation, for we are forever free. These incidences simply represent occasions for learning and gaining insight into how previous actions generate suffering in our life. Many have noted how particularly free Maharaj was and how he actively refrained from judging other people or making rules they should follow. His view was that people should create their own rules based on their own experiences, and even if those rules work for them, they should not force them on to others.

I always felt that Maharaj believed we should focus our efforts, at least initially, on employing therapies that are designed to increase the availability of prana (vital energy) or healing energy; therapies that facilitate the right flow of life force in the body. In an effort to alleviate his own cancer, Nisargadatta employed homeopathic remedies both from myself and prominent Bombay homeopaths. It was one of my great pleasures to prescribe remedies for him and express-mail them from California to his residence in Bombay. He also tried a variety of traditional Ayurvedic remedies but reported to me that he received more help from the homeopathic remedies. Although Maharaj refused surgical intervention and was not interested in the orthodox chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatments that Bombay cancer specialists recommended, I never felt any harsh judgment from him of Western scientific medicine. My sense was that he felt all the healing and medical traditions, including naturopathic, homeopathic, herbal, Ayurvedic, and traditional Chinese medicine, as well as contemporary Western, all had their place in the scheme of things and should be employed on an individual basis. One should take into consideration the nature of the illness, the degree of development, and also the belief system of the ill person.

Even though he was over eighty years old when I met him, he was in full possession of all his mental faculties and evinced great interest in new ideas and discoveries. This reminds me of the “beginners mind” referred to by Suzuki Roshi, or the insistence of many great teachers that our mental attitude needs to be like that of a child: open, accepting, without premature judging, seeing things as they are and not how we think they should be.

Far more important to me than any conceptual instruction I received from Maharaj was the personal example he demonstrated in dealing with his own cancer. When I went to visit Nisargadatta in June of 1980, he had just recently been diagnosed with cancer of the oropharynx, or if I remember correctly, of the uvula and soft palate. What I recall most poignantly was how unconcerned about the whole affair he was, despite the palpable dismay and grief that a number of his devotees clearly manifested. I remember on several occasions devotees imploring Maharaj to take the treatment of his cancer more seriously, if not for his sake then for theirs. He would sweep away their entreaties with his customary hand-waving and Marathi expletive: “Subject closed!” I accepted his counsel stating that if the seeker’s need and earnestness were great enough, then the Guru, even without the physical form, would appear in some manner to comfort and guide him or her. Maharaj always couched such a comforting promise with the warning that one had better be careful about what was asked for, because the desire may manifest in the form of a lesson that the seeker will be forced to face.

Maharaj experienced discomfort from the cancer that had presumably metastasized to his abdominal area and eventually resulted in a symptom called tenesmus, which involves a lot of additional painful intestinal cramping. Yet, I never sensed that these symptoms dragged him down or distracted him from the commitment to be available for those who came to be in his presence or from the unwavering adherence to his daily schedule. The latter included morning and evening recitation of bhajans (devotional singing) and, more importantly, the twice-daily periods of discussion when he would answer questions from those who sought his spiritual instruction.

Maharaj was clearly mischievous and loved to be “challenged” in discussion. When confronted by a questioner, the subsequent “battle royal” that ensued seemed to make his day. The nonchalance with which Maharaj approached his cancer clearly reflected the depth of his enlightenment and complete freedom of concern about death. Maharaj’s sense of being an individual entity had “died” many years before; I believe that as part of a great soul’s realization, such a one would have experienced a kind of physical death, almost like a “dress rehearsal” for the real event.

Maharaj, was not inclined to live up to any prevailing definitions of sainthood, at least so far as diet and personal habits were concerned. Consistent with the caste into which he was born, he included meat as part of his diet. However, his habit of smoking dismayed some of those who visited him and even led a few to dismiss him outright. Despite several indignant protests over his incessant smoking of biddies (hand-made Indian cigarettes), Maharaj, when asked why an enlightened man continued to smoke, responded: “Even after enlightenment the body is allowed to continue a few of its habits and to me it is not a big deal. Wake up, look through apparent appearances, examine your own righteousness and judgment, and separate the wheat from the chaff. If you can’t see beyond surface appearance and get caught up in your superficial judgments, then you have no business being here with me.”

Just prior to my visiting Maharaj and after he was diagnosed with cancer, he had apparently given in to the entreaties of his close devotees to stop smoking. But to my surprise, I found him sneaking a daily dose of nicotine through the surreptitious use of snuff; he was truly a noncompliant rascal! When he knew that I had uncovered his trickery, he gave me a wonderful sly grin with a glint in his eye—the kind you usually see in the eyes of children for whom the thirst for play had not been squelched. I still remember this moment as if it were yesterday.

I think that Maharaj’s response to his cancer was that this was the predestined process with which his physical life was to end. Being well into his eighties, he simply accepted his condition, never giving it any further thought. Even on his deathbed he implored people to continue with their questions. This example of unrelenting and passionate commitment to a sense of duty or personal dharma in life, along with the recorded teachings, is, for me, his most abiding legacy. Nisargadatta Maharaj truly lived an authentic life consistent with the expression of his teaching.