YOU ARE LOOKING at a photograph of the man who is probably more responsible than anyone else for the current wave of interest in “nonduality” in the West. His admirers call him Papaji, and he was a devotee of Sri Ramana Maharshi. There are at least four reasons for Papaji’s remarkable influence. First, he was very effective at giving people glimpses of enlightenment. Second, he emphasized the aspect of neo-Advaita that appeals most to Westerners: the idea that realization is available immediately without effort. Third, he authorized hundreds and even thousands of Westerners to be his “ambassadors” which many of them interpreted as permission to teach. And fourth, after Osho died in 1990, many of Osho’s followers flocked to Papaji.
The modern Western satsang movement was created by his students when they came home from India to teach.
Hari Wench Lal Poonja was born into an upper-class Brahmin family on October 13, 1910 in Gujrunwala in western Punjab, a part of India that is now in Pakistan, and raised in nearby Lyalpur, now called Faisalabad. He was the nephew of Swami Rama Tirtha, a famous saint who died four years before Poonja's birth.
He was a spiritual seeker from a very young age. When he was a small boy he saw a picture of Buddha as a skeletal ascetic and began to starve himself. His father had to take him to a doctor to make him eat again.
His first samadhi occurred when he was eight or nine. Since he lived in a Moslem part of India, he was taken to the local mosque, where his trance was diagnosed as possession.
The samadhi lasted several days. After it ended, in an effort to re-experience it, he followed his mother’s example and became a devotee of Krishna, chanting mantras for hours each day. His mantra practice continued until he reached his mid-thirties.
At age twenty, his marriage was arranged to a Brahmin girl, and he entered the army as an officer. Within a few years the couple had two children, Surendra and Surendri.
While in the army, Poonja woke up at two a.m. to seek visions of Krishna. They often occurred, but the experiences weren’t permanent, and he felt a painful sense of separation from God. He decided to leave the army so he could search for a guru who could help him stabilize permanently in a state of awareness of God.
He moved his family into his father’s house, resigned his commission, and left home to look for a guru. His search ended when he met Ramana Maharshi, who pointed out to him that visions of Krishna come and go, but the seer — the one who sees Krishna — is permanently present. “God cannot be an object that appears and disappears,” said Sri Ramana, “so find out who the seer is.”
As Poonja later recalled:
For the first time ever I heard, “Find out who the seer is.”
With the master [Sri Ramana], I got the experience. This experience was already here. When we love God, we think he is an object. But he is the subject. So you have to surrender to the subject. The ego is the object.
You merge into the subject so that no object is left behind. God will speak, God will walk, and God will see. I got this from my master. I saw the seer. I realized the seer through my master, and I prostrated before him.
Wake Up and Roar by Eli Jaxon-Bear
Poonja took a job in Madras for four years so he could visit Ramana's ashram on weekends. After Ramana died in 1950, Poonja worked for a mining company in southern India. After his retirement in 1965, he moved to Lucknow in northern India, where his wife and children had lived since 1947.
Even before his retirement he had begun to develop a reputation as a self-realized man and guru. In 1966 he began to travel in India, Europe, and North America, and his reputation grew.
Poonja’s devotees called him “Papaji”.
In the late 1980s, several prominent American meditation teachers visited him including Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein.
In 1990, Osho died and many of his followers began to visit Poonja instead. The number of visitors grew so large that a satsang hall had to be built near Poonja’s house.
Just before he died in 1997, he asked the people in his hospital room, “Where is Buddha?” When he saw that they understood he was asking a rhetorical question as a teacher for their benefit, he said, “Bring him in, bring him in.” These were his last words.
Our sources for this biography:Papaji Biography by Arjuna Nick Ardagh (no longer on Web).
‘About Sri Poonjaji’ in Wake Up and Roar by Eli Jaxon-Bear
Poonja stressed the idea that the seeker is already self-realized, so no effort needs to be made. If the seeker can drop all efforts for just a moment, the ego stops and the Self is revealed.
Here’s a short excerpt from a satsang that captures the gist of this:
Student: You are telling us to let go, but it is very difficult.
Poonja: That’s because you have the idea that letting go is something that you have to do. To move from one place to another may be difficult if the journey is long and hard. But if you don’t have to move at all, how can you say that it is difficult? Just give up the idea that you have to do something or reach somewhere. That’s all you have to do.
During satsangs, Poonja often told students to “go home now and share this with your friends.” He sometimes referred to such people as his “ambassadors.” He is said to have deputized thousands in this fashion. As a result, a large number of people with connections to Poonja are now teaching in the West. For a partial list, see below under Links.
In the following excerpt from an interview he talks about his students including the “ambassadors“ he authorized to teach.
David: You used to give experiences to a lot of people. Why did you do it if you knew that the effect would not be permanent?
Papaji: I did it to get rid of the leeches who were sticking to me, never allowing me to rest or be by myself. It was a very good way of getting rid of all these leeches in a polite way. I knew that in doing this I was giving lollipops to the ignorant and innocent, but this is what these people wanted. When I tried to give $100 bills to them, they rejected them. They thought that they were just pieces of paper. So I gave them lollipops instead.
David: Many of the people you gave lollipops to left Lucknow thinking that they were enlightened. Does the fact that they accepted the lollipop and left indicate that they were not worthy to receive the $100 bills?
Papaji: If one is not a holy person, one is not worthy to receive the real teaching. Many people think that they have attained the final state of full and complete liberation. They have fooled themselves, and they have fooled many other people but they have not fooled me.
A person in this state is like a fake coin. It may look like the real thing. It can be passed around and used by ignorant people who use it to buy things with. People who have it in their pocket can boast of having a genuine coin, but it is not real. But it has no value. When it is finally discovered to be a fake, the person who is circulating it, claiming that it is real, is subject to the penalties of the law. In the spiritual world, the law of karma catches up and deals with all people who are trafficking in fake experiences.
I have never passed on the truth to those whom I could see were fake coins. These people may look like gold and they may glitter like gold, but they have no real value.
There are many people who can put on a show and fool other people into believing they are enlightened.
Nothing Ever Happened Vol. 3. by David Godman, p. 366‒67.
David: Many people have heard you say, ‘I have not given my final teachings to anyone’. What are these final teachings, and why are you not giving them out?”
Papaji: Nobody is worthy to receive them. Because it has been my experience that everybody has proved to be arrogant and egotistic…
Nothing Ever Happened Vol. 3. by David Godman, p. 362.
By David Godman
This massive three-volume biography of H.W.L. Poonja, widely known as Papaji, is one of the most comprehensive attempts ever made to document the life and teachings of a self-realized person. Papaji was a direct disciple of Sri Ramana Maharshi. He is largely responsible for the satsang movement in the West because he helped hundreds of Westerners attain glimpses of the Self and then sent them home to teach.
Edited by David Godman
This book consists literally of interviews. Ten people sat down with Papaji and asked him questions, and the resulting conversations were transcribed. The questioners include Catherine Ingram, Wes Nisker, Shanti Devi, Chokyi Nyima Rimpoche, and Godman himself. The book also includes a 62-page biography of Papaji.
Edited by Eli Jaxon-Bear
This book was originally published as two separate volumes. They are now combined into this single book. It contains transcriptions of satsangs given by H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji) between 1990 and 1992. It includes a wonderful foreword by the editor, Eli Jaxon-Bear, describing how his spiritual quest ended when he met Papaji.
The following sentence no longer applies.
Be aware that each of the two volumes is slender and printed in big type; the contents of both would have fit easily into a single book. Some readers may feel that this makes the series overpriced.
Many Westerners with connections to Poonja hold themselves out as teachers. Some of them publish websites with information about Poonja. Here’s a partial list:
Second photo of Papaji courtesy of DavidGodman.org
This page was published on March 1, 2001 and last revised on May 25, 2017.