Edited by David Godman
Our rating: ★★★★★ 5 out of 5
Published by Avadhuta Foundation
THIS MASSIVE THREE-VOLUME biography of H.W.L. Poonja, known to his devotees 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.
The three volumes can be purchased individually. Each contains more than 400 pages.
In this book excerpt, Papaji is speaking.
SHORTLY AFTER MY RETURN [home] a sadhu appeared at our door, asking for food. I invited him in, offered him some food and asked him the question that was uppermost in my mind. ‘Can you show me God? If not, do you know of anyone who can?’
Much to my surprise he gave me a positive answer. ‘Yes, I know a person who can show you God. If you go and see that man, everything will be all right for you. His name is Ramana Maharshi.’
Not having heard of him before, I asked where he lived and was told, ‘Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai’. Since I had never heard of the place either, I asked him for directions to get there.
He gave me detailed instructions: ‘Take a train to Madras. When you get to Madras, go to Egmore station. That is where the metre gauge trains leave from. Take a train from there to a place called Villupuram. You have to change trains there. Then catch a train from there to Tiruvannamalai.’
I wrote all these details down with mixed feelings. I was very happy to hear that there was at least one man in India who could show me God, but I also knew that I had no means of getting to see him. I had spent all the money I had saved from my spell in the army on my unsuccessful pilgrimage, and I knew that my father would not give me any assistance. He disapproved of my spiritual trips, feeling, with some justification, that I should be devoting my time instead to supporting my family.
When I told my father that I wanted to go to the South to see yet one more swami, he exploded with anger.
‘What about your wife and children?’ he demanded. ‘Was it not enough to leave the army that you must now rush to the other end of India, indulging in your mad search for spiritual adventures?’
Obviously, no help would be forthcoming from that quarter.
Shortly afterwards I went into town and happened to meet one of my old friends. He was running a tea stall.
‘I haven’t seen you for a long time,’ he remarked. ‘I heard a story that you resigned your commission in the army.’
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I have given it up for good.’
‘So what are you doing now?’ he enquired.
‘Nothing,’ I answered. ‘I am looking for some sort of job.’
‘Well, sit down,’ he said. ‘I will give you some milk to drink. Since you are not employed at the moment, you don’t need to pay.’
I sat down and began to glance through a newspaper that was lying on one of the tables. Having just been reminded of my unemployed state, I turned to the page that listed all the job advertisements. One vacancy seemed to be tailor-made for me: ‘Ex-army officer required in Madras.’ The British army was looking for an ex-officer to manage all the stores in a canteen that was being run for British servicemen. I looked for the address to apply to and found that the contractor who had placed the advertisement was based in Peshawar, a nearby city. I sent my application there, along with a photo of myself in army uniform, and was immediately engaged. Not only that, the contractor gave me money to get to Madras and told me that I need not report for duty for one month. I thus got money to go to the Maharshi and an opportunity to spend time in his presence before I reported for work.
It was 1944 and I was thirty-one years of age.
I followed the sadhu’s advice and travelled by train to Tiruvannamalai. On disembarking there I discovered that the Maharshi’s ashram was about three kilometres away, on the other side of the town, so I engaged a bullock cart to take me and my belongings there. As soon as we reached the ashram, I jumped out of the cart, put my bags in the men’s dormitory, and went off to look for this man who could show me God. I peeped in through his window and saw, sitting on a sofa inside, the same man who had visited my house in the Punjab. I was disgusted.
‘This man is a fraud,’ I said to myself. ‘He appears in my house in the Punjab, tells me to go to Tiruvannamalai, then hops on the train so that he can get there before me.’
I was so annoyed with him I decided that I wouldn’t even go into the hall where he was sitting. Mentally adding him to the long list of frauds I had met on my first pilgrimage around India, I turned on my heels and went off to collect my bags.
As I was preparing to leave on the same cart that had brought me to the ashram, one of the residents accosted me and asked, ‘Aren’t you from the North? You look like a North Indian.’
I found out later that he was called Framji and that he owned a cinema in Madras.
‘Yes, I am,’ I replied.
‘Haven’t you just arrived?’ he asked, noting that I was making preparations to leave. ‘Aren’t you going to stay here for at least a couple of days?’
I told him the story of how I had come to be in Tiruvannamalai, and concluded by saying, ‘This man has been travelling around the country, advertising himself. I don’t want to see him. I came here because he said there was a man here who could show me God. If this man really does have the capacity to show me God, why did he not do it in my house in the Punjab when he came to see me? Why did he make me come all this way? I am not interested in seeing such a man.’
Framji said, ‘No, no, you are mistaken. He has not moved out of this town in the last forty-eight years. It is either a case of mistaken identity or somehow, through his power, he managed to manifest himself in the Punjab while his physical body was still here. Some girl from America came here once and told a similar story. These things do happen occasionally. Are you sure that you have not made a mistake?’
‘No,’ I answered, absolutely sure of myself. ‘I recognise the man. I have not made a mistake.’
‘In that case,’ he responded, ‘please stay. I will introduce you to the manager and he will give you a place to stay.’
I went along with his suggestion merely because my curiosity had been aroused. Something strange had happened and I wanted to find out exactly what it was. It was my intention to confront the Maharshi in private and ask for an explanation of his strange behaviour.
I soon discovered, though, that he never gave private interviews, so I decided instead that I would try to see him when the big room in which he saw visitors was relatively empty.
I ate lunch in the ashram. At the conclusion of the meal the Maharshi went back to his room with his attendant. No one else followed him. I didn’t know that there was an unofficial rule that visitors should not go to see him between 11.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. The manager had decided that the Maharshi needed to rest for a few hours after lunch, but since the Maharshi would not go along with a rule which prevented people from coming to see him, a compromise was reached. His doors would remain open but all visitors and devotees were actively discouraged from going to see him during those hours. Not knowing this, I followed the Maharshi into his room, thinking that this was the best time to have a private interview.
The Maharshi’s attendant, a man called Krishnaswami, tried to dissuade me. ‘Not now,’ he said. ‘Come back at 2.30.’ The Maharshi overheard the exchange and told Krishnaswami that I could come in and see him.
I approached him in a belligerent way. ‘Are you the man who came to see me at my house in the Punjab?’ I demanded. The Maharshi remained silent.
I tried again. ‘Did you come to my house and tell me to come here? Are you the man who sent me here?’ Again the Maharshi made no comment.
Since he was unwilling to answer either of these questions, I moved on to the main purpose of my visit.
‘Have you seen God?’ I asked. ‘And if you have, can you enable me to see him? I am willing to pay any price, even my life, but your part of the bargain is that you must show me God.’
‘No,’ he answered. ‘I cannot show you God or enable you to see God because God is not an object that can be seen. God is the subject. He is the seer. Don’t concern yourself with objects that can be seen. Find out who the seer is.’ He also added, ‘You alone are God,’ as if to rebuke me for looking for a God who was outside and apart from me.
His words did not impress me. They seemed to me to be yet one more excuse to add to the long list of those I had heard from swamis all over the country. He had promised to show me God, yet now he was trying to tell me that not only could he not show me God, no one else could either. I would have dismissed him and his words without a second thought had it not been for an experience I had immediately after he had told me to find out who this ‘I’ was who wanted to see God. At the conclusion of his words he looked at me, and as he gazed into my eyes, my whole body began to tremble and shake. A thrill of nervous energy shot through my body. My nerve endings felt as if they were dancing and my hair stood on end. Within me I became aware of the spiritual Heart. This is not the physical heart. It is, rather, the source and support of all that exists. Within the Heart I saw or felt something like a closed bud. It was very shiny and bluish. With the Maharshi looking at me, and with myself in a state of inner silence, I felt this bud open and bloom. I use the word ‘bud’, but this is not an exact description. It would be more correct to say that something that felt bud-like opened and bloomed within me in the Heart. And when I say ‘Heart’ I don’t mean that the flowering was located in a particular place in the body. This Heart, this Heart of my Heart, was neither inside the body nor out of it. I can’t give a more exact description of what happened. All I can say is that in the Maharshi’s presence, and under his gaze, the Heart opened and bloomed. It was an extraordinary experience, one that I had never had before. I had not come looking for any kind of experience, so it totally surprised me when it happened.
I [David Godman] have only heard Papaji speak once about this remarkable experience. It was in response to the following question I asked him:
‘Ramana Maharshi sometimes said that there is a very small hole in the spiritual Heart. He said that in the sahaja [natural, fully realised] state it is open, but in other states it is closed. Did your Heart open in this way in Bhagavan’s [the Maharshi’s] presence? Bhagavan also once said, in describing the realisation process, that “the downward-facing Heart becomes upward-facing and remains as That”. Did you have any experience akin to this?’
Though I had had an immensely powerful experience in the presence of the Maharshi, his statement, ‘You alone are God,’ and his advice to ‘find out who the seer is’ did not have a strong appeal for me. My inclination to seek a God outside me was not dispelled either by his words or by the experience I had had with him.
I thought to myself, ‘It is not good to be chocolate. I want to taste chocolate.’ I wanted to remain separate from God so that I could enjoy the bliss of union with Him.
When the devotees came in that afternoon, I viewed them all with the rather prejudiced eye of a fanatical Krishna bhakta. So far as I could see, they were just sitting quietly, doing nothing. I thought to myself, ‘No one here seems to be chanting the name of God. Not a single person has a mala [rosary] to do japa with. How can they consider themselves to be good devotees?’ My views on religious practice were rather limited. All these people may have been meditating, but so far as I was concerned, they were wasting their time.
I transferred my critical gaze to the Maharshi and similar thoughts arose.
‘This man should be setting a good example to his followers. He is sitting silently, not giving any talks about God. He doesn’t appear to be chanting the name of God himself, or focusing his attention on Him in any way. These disciples are sitting around being lazy because the Master himself is sitting there doing nothing. How can this man show me God when he himself shows no interest in Him?’
With thoughts like these floating around in my mind, it was not long before I generated a feeling of disgust for both the Maharshi and the people who surrounded him. I still had some time before I had to report for duty in Madras, but I didn’t want to spend it with all these spiritually lazy people in the ashram. I took off to the other side of Arunachala, a few kilometres away, found a nice quiet spot in the forest on the northern side of the hill, and settled down there to do my Krishna japa, alone and undisturbed.
I stayed there for about a week, immersed in my devotional practices. Krishna would often appear before me, and we spent a lot of time playing together. At the end of that period I felt that it was time to go back to Madras to make preparations for my new job. On my way out of town I paid another visit to the ashram, partly to say goodbye, and partly to tell the Maharshi that I didn’t need his assistance for seeing God because I had been seeing Him every day through my own efforts.
When I appeared before him, the Maharshi asked, ‘Where have you been? Where are you living?’
‘On the other side of the mountain,’ I replied.
‘And what were you doing there?’ he enquired.
He had given me my cue.
‘I was playing with my Krishna,’ I said, in a very smug tone of voice.
I was very proud of my achievement and felt superior to the Maharshi because I was absolutely convinced that Krishna had not appeared to him during that period.
‘Oh, is that so?’ he commented, looking surprised and interested. ‘Very good, very nice. Do you see Him now?’
‘No, sir, I do not,’ I replied. ‘I only see Him when I have visions.’
I was still feeling very pleased with myself, feeling that I had been granted these visions, whereas the Maharshi had not.
‘So Krishna comes and plays with you and then He disappears,’ said the Maharshi. ‘What is the use of a God who appears and disappears? If He is a real God, He must be with you all the time.’
The Maharshi’s lack of interest in my visionary experiences deflated me a little, but not to the extent that I was willing to listen to his advice. He was telling me to give up my search for an external God and instead find the origin and identity of the one who wanted to see Him. This was too much for me to swallow. A lifetime of devotion to Krishna had left me incapable of conceiving the spiritual quest in any other terms than that of a quest for a personal God.
Though his advice did not appeal to me, there was still something about the Maharshi that inspired and attracted me. I asked him to give me a mantra, hoping thereby to get his sanction for my own form of spirituality. He refused, although later, when I was back in Madras, he did give me one in a dream. I then asked him if he would be willing to give me sannyasa since I was not very keen to take up my new job in Madras. I had only taken it because it had offered me a way of getting to see the Maharshi. He refused that request too. Having therefore got, in my own jaundiced opinion, nothing from the Maharshi except a good experience and some bad advice, I returned to Madras to take up my new job.
I found a nice house to live in, big enough to accommodate my family, and began my work. The job itself did not interest me much but I did it dutifully and to the best of my ability because I had a wife and children to support. All my spare time and energy were devoted to communing with Krishna. I made a puja room in my house, informing my wife that when I was in it, I was never to be disturbed. At 2.30 each morning I would get up and begin my reading and chanting. Sometimes I would read the the various Krishna stories or the Upanishads or the Gita, but mostly I would do japa of the name. I synchronised the japa with my breathing. Calculating that I breathed about 24,000 times a day, I decided that I should repeat the name of God at least once for every breath I took. I cultivated the idea that any breath I took that was not utilised in uttering the divine name was a wasted one. I found this a relatively easy target to meet.
Then the thought occurred to me: ‘There have been years of my life when I did not chant the name at all. All those breaths were wasted. If I increase my recitations to 50,000 a day, I can make up for all those breaths I wasted when I was young.’ I soon achieved this new target, managing all the time to synchronise the chanting with some part of the breath.
I would stay in my puja room, chanting the name, from 2.30 a.m. to 9.30 a.m. and then leave to go to the office because work started there at ten. I always took my mala to work with me. While I was walking to the tram stop or sitting inside the tram on the way to the office, I would carry on with my japa. Even at work I would secretly be revolving my japa mala if there was nothing else that demanded my attention. There was a Krishna temple in Royapettah that was near my house. I would often go there in the mornings and evenings as I was going to and from the office. At the end of each working day I would return home, lock myself in my puja room again, and carry on chanting the name of Krishna until it was time for me to go to sleep. I also slept in the puja room, thus effectively cutting myself off from all interaction with my family. I even stopped speaking with them.
After some time in Madras Papaji had a vision that forced him to re-evaluate his previous, prejudiced conclusions about the Maharshi:
From my childhood on, from about the age of six, I had been in love with Krishna. I knew about Krishna bhaktas and how they behaved, but I had never heard of saints who just sat quietly. In the Punjab people showed their devotion by singing bhajans, not by sitting quietly. With this background I didn’t appreciate what I saw when I first encountered the Maharshi.
On my first visit I had some good experiences and I felt attracted to the Maharshi in some way, but I didn’t have much love for him. Nor did I trust him.
One day, though, all this changed. The Maharshi himself appeared before me in Madras and said, ‘Krishna bhakti alone is true. Krishna bhakti alone is true.’ By this time I knew that he never left Tiruvannamalai for any reason, so I had to assume that it was some kind of vision.
I went back to Tiruvannamalai to get confirmation of this manifestation. I wanted to ask him if he really had appeared before me and said these things about Krishna bhakti. I had had some disagreement with him on my first visit and this disagreement had somehow stuck in my mind. If someone always agrees with you, you don’t think much about him. But if you have had a quarrel with someone, that person and the quarrel you have had are always surfacing in your mind. That was what was happening to me in Madras. Thoughts of the Maharshi would often come to me because I didn’t agree with his views on God.
I went back to Ramanasramam and asked the Maharshi, ‘Are you the person who appeared to me in Madras and told me, “Krishna bhakti alone is true”?’ He heard my question but he didn’t give me a reply.
While I was waiting for an answer, a group of devotees came from Vrindavan. They were on a tour of pilgrimage places in the South. On their visit to Tirupati they had heard that there was a swami in Tiruvannamalai who was worth visiting. So, they all came along to have darshan. The leader of the group presented the Maharshi with a picture of Krishna playing the flute for Radha. It was a beautiful picture. As the Maharshi was looking at the picture, tears started trickling down his cheeks. When you have intense devotion for Krishna, you can easily pick out other devotees who have that same passion. I could see that these were real tears of devotion and that they came from the heart and not from the mind. As I watched the tears trickling down his cheeks, I felt them trickling into my own Heart. It was a divine shower that filled my own Heart with love. He was so happy looking at that picture, and I felt so happy looking at him appreciate it.
I thought to myself, ‘This man has been hiding his devotion from me. He doesn’t like to show it publicly, but now I have found out his secret. He is just as much a bhakta as I am.’
A bird cannot fly without two wings. After this revelation I saw that the Maharshi was soaring on the twin wings of bhakti and jnana [devotion and transcendental knowledge]. From that moment on, my doubts evaporated and I had immense faith in him.
This page was published on September 28, 2001 and last revised on May 26, 2017.