SHRI PUROHIT SWAMI was the third influential yogi, following Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda, who came from India to the West. He published several excellent books but they never gained the wide readership they deserve, and he has fallen into obscurity.
Purohit Swami is the author of the first (and probably best) autobiography of a yogi ever written, and he collaborated with W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, on an English translation of the principal Upanishads whose literary merit (as opposed to textual fidelity or academic precision) probably exceeds all others.
His remarkable Autobiography of an Indian Monk, a commercial failure when first published in England in 1932, despite its introduction by W.B. Yeats, was reprinted in 1992 in India.
Shankar Gajanan Purohit was born in Badnera, Vidarbha, India on October 12, 1882 to a wealthy Maharashtran Brahmin family.
As a child he became proficient in Marathi, English, and Sanskrit. He was well educated, obtaining a B.A. in philosophy at Calcutta University in 1903 and a law degree from Deccan College and Bombay University.
As a teenager, he decided to be celibate, but in 1908 he accomodated his parents’ wishes and married Godu Bai. After the birth of daughters in 1910 and 1914 and a son in 1915, he resumed his vow of celibacy.
A year or two before his marriage, he met a young man only four years older than himself named Natekar. In his autobiography Purohit says this meeting “was love at first sight,” and Natekar, who later took the monastic name Hamsa Swami, became Purohit’s guru.
Despite his law degree, Purohit never practiced as a lawyer. He worked as a manager of a candle factory and wrote books; for a time he took a position as an ordinary household servant. In 1923 his guru directed him to embark on a mendicant pilgrimage the length and breadth of India. Begging bowl in hand, he passed several years in this way.
In 1930 he went to Europe where he met W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, who became a friend and helped arrange for the publication of Purohit’s books by leading London publishers. The two men collaborated on at least one of those books, The Ten Principal Upanishads, and Yeats wrote introductions for several others.
Purohit Swami died in the late 1930s or 1940s. According to an editor’s note in The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Vol V he died in 1941 but no source is cited for that fact.
When we published this page for the first time in 2000, we wrote in this spot, “Unfortunately, Purohit Swami has fallen into nearly complete obscurity and we have been unable to find any links to information about him on the Web.” Now, in 2017, as we revise this page, we’re glad to say that at least one link exists:
By Shri Purohit Swami
This book was originally published in 1932 as An Indian Monk: His Life and Adventures. This new edition, published in 1992, includes the original contents plus a 16-page biography by Vinod Sena.
This wonderful book is the first autobiography of a yogi ever written. After a university education and years of wandering as a renunciant in his native India, Purohit Swami came to England in 1930 where he became friends with the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who encouraged him to write this book. (The two men also collaborated on a translation of the principal Upanishads.) With artful prose and intriguing stories, Purohit does a remarkable job of communicating the experience of becoming a yogi. He also provides vivid glimpses of aspects of Indian culture (such as renunciation) that are particularly valuable for Western students of yoga.
We recommend this book highly.
Translated by Shree Purohit Swami and W.B. Yeats
There are translations for the heart and for the head; those that recreate the poetic, literary greatness of the original, and those that aim at academic fidelity. This may be the best English translation of the first type that has ever been made of the Upanishads. Shri Purohit Swami was an enormously talented yogi who came to London in 1930, and W.B. Yeats was one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century.
This page was published on September 12, 2000 and last revised on June 19, 2017.