Sri H.W.L. Poonja – Papaji

Sri H.W.L. Poonja - Papaji

* * * The Great Krishna Bhakta Sri Papaji * * *

Sri H.W.L. Poonja, lovingly referred to as Papaji, was born on October 13, 1910, in a part of the Punjab that is now in Pakistan.

He had his first direct experience of the Self at the age of nine. He met his Master, Sri Ramana Maharshi, in 1944. Shortly afterwards he realized the Self in the presence of his Master. Being a householder, he continued to work and support the many members of his extended family until his retirement in 1966. After extensive travel Papaji settled down in Lucknow, India, where he received visitors from around the world. He left the body on September 6, 1997.

This first-person account of Papaji’s life was written by David Godman and approved by Papaji himself. It is published as the first chapter in the Papaji Interviews book.


*** Earliest Memory ***

My earliest memory is of a striking experience which occurred when I was about eight years old. The year was 1919. The British, having recently triumphed in the First World War, had given all schoolchildren a one-month holiday so that they could join in the victory celebrations. They even gave us a little badge to wear to commemorate the victory. We were living in Faisalabad at the time, in a part of the Punjab that is now in Pakistan. My mother decided that this unscheduled vacation would be an ideal time to go and visit some of our relatives who lived in Lahore. The visit must have taken place in the summer of that year because I distinctly remember that mangoes were in season at the time.

One evening, while we were all sitting in my relative’s house in Lahore, someone started to prepare a mango, milk and almond drink for everyone. It should have been a mouth-watering treat for a boy of my age, but when a glassful of it was offered to me, I made no attempt to stretch out my hand to receive it. It was not that I didn’t want to drink it. The truth was, I had just been consumed and engulfed by an experience that made me so peaceful and happy, I was unable to respond to the offered glass. My mother and the other women present were both astonished and alarmed by my sudden inactivity. They all gathered around me, trying to decide what had happened and what to do.

By this time my eyes were closed. Though I was unable to respond to their queries, I could hear the discussion going on around me, and I was fully aware of all their attempts to bring me back to my usual state.They shook me, they gently slapped my face, they pinched my cheeks.

Someone even lifted me up in the air, but nothing elicited any kind of physical response from me. I was not being stubborn. The experience was so overwhelming it had effectively paralysed my ability to respond to any external stimuli. For about an hour they tried everything they could think of to bring me back to a normal state of consciousness, but all their attempts failed.

I had not been sick, this had not happened to me before and, just prior to its commencement, I had not been exhibiting any strange symptoms. Because of the suddenness of the event, because it had never happened before, and because no amount of shaking could wake me, my family came to the conclusion that a malevolent spirit had suddenly and mysteriously possessed me. In those days there were no doctors or psychiatrists to run to. When something like this happened, the standard response was to take the victim to the local mosque so that the mulla could perform an exorcism. We even used to take our buffaloes to him when they got sick or failed to give milk in the hope that his exorcisms and mantras would somehow remove the affliction.

So, even though I came from a Hindu family, I was carried to the local mosque and shown to the mulla. He chanted some words while simultaneously running some metal tongs over my body. That was the standard way of performing an exorcism. The mulla, with his usual optimism, said that I would soon recover, but his efforts, like those of my family before him, failed to bring me out of the state I was in. Still paralyzed, I was carried home and put to bed. For two full days, I stayed in this peaceful, blissful, happy state, unable to communicate with anyone, but still fully aware of the various things that were going on around me.

At the end of this two-day period I opened my eyes again. My mother, who was an ardent Krishna bhakta, came up to me and asked, ‘Did you see Krishna?’ Seeing how happy I was, she had abandoned her initial idea that I had been possessed and had substituted for it a theory that I had had some kind of mystical experience involving her own favourite deity.

No I replied, ‘all I can say about it is that I was very happy.

As far as first causes were concerned, I was as much in ignorance as my family.

I did not know what I had been experiencing or what had precipitated this sudden immersion into intense and paralyzing happiness.

I told my mother when she pressed me further, ‘There was tremendous happiness, tremendous peace, tremendous beauty. More than that I cannot say.’ It had been, in fact, a direct experience of the Self, but I did not understand this at the time. It was to be many years before I fully appreciated what had happened to me.

My mother would not give up her theory. She went and fetched a picture which portrayed Krishna as a child, showed it to me and asked, ‘Did you see anyone like this?’

Again I told her, ‘No, I didn’t’.

My mother used to sing Krishna bhajans in our house. She had married when she was sixteen and given birth to me when she was eighteen. So, when all this happened, she was still a young woman. Since both her face and her voice were extremely beautiful, her bhajans attracted many people to our house.

Although it did not tally with my own direct experience, my mother somehow convinced me that the happiness had been caused by coming into contact with Krishna. She encouraged me to become a devotee of Krishna, saying that, if I meditated on Krishna and repeated His name, the experience I had had of Him would sooner or later return. This was a powerful argument for me. Ever since I had opened my eyes, I had felt a great longing to have that experience again. Since I could think of no other way of getting it back, I followed my mother’s advice and began to worship Krishna. My mother herself taught me how to perform all the various rituals and practices associated with the Krishna cult. Once I began, it did not take me long to develop an intense and passionate love for the form of Krishna. I soon forgot that the purpose of my devotion was to get back to that state which I had experienced for two days. I became so fascinated with Krishna, so enamoured of His form, the love I felt for Him soon displaced my desire to get back to that original experience of happiness.

I was particularly attracted to one picture of the child Krishna, the same one that my mother had shown me on the last day of my experience. To me, the face was so indescribably beautiful, so magnetically attractive, I had little difficulty in pouring all my love and devotion into it. As a result of this intense bhakti, Krishna began to appear before me, taking the same form as the picture. He would regularly appear to me at night, play with me, and even try to sleep in my bed. I was very innocent at the time. I didn’t realise that this manifestation was one of the great deities of Hinduism, and that some of His devotees spent whole lifetimes striving to get a single glimpse of Him. Naively, I thought that it was quite natural for Him to appear in my bedroom and play with me.

His physical form was as real as my own—I could feel it and touch it—but He could also appear to me in a more subtle form. If I put a blanket over my head, I could still see Him. Even when I closed my eyes, the image of Him was still there in front of me. This Krishna was full of playful energy. He always appeared after I had gone to bed and His childish and enthusiastic playing kept me awake and prevented me from going to sleep. When the novelty of His initial visits had worn off, I started to feel that His appearances were becoming a bit of a nuisance because He was preventing me from sleeping, even when I was very tired. As I was trying to think up some way of making Him go away, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea if I sent Him off to see my mother. I knew that, as an ardent Krishna bhakta, she would be delighted to see Him too.

Why don’t you go and sleep with my mother?’ I asked Him one night. ‘You are not allowing me to go to sleep. Go to my mother instead.’ Krishna seemed to have no interest in my mother’s company. He never went to see her, preferring instead to spend all His time with me.

One night my mother overheard us talking and asked, ‘Who are you talking to?’

‘I am speaking with your Krishna,’ I replied, ingenuously. ‘He disturbs me at night and doesn’t let me sleep. If I close my eyes I still see Him, sometimes more clearly than when they are open. Sometimes I put a blanket over my head, but I still see Him. He always wants to sleep with me, but I cannot sleep while He is here.’

She came into the room to investigate, but she didn’t see Him. In all the times that Krishna came to our house, she never saw Him once.

When He wasn’t there I always felt a desire to see Him. I really did want to see Him and play with Him. The only problem was that I was often so tired when He came I felt that He should, after a decent interval, leave me in peace so that I could lie down and get some sleep.

He didn’t come every night. Sometimes I would see Him and sometimes I wouldn’t. I never doubted His reality; I never had the idea it was some kind of vision. I even wrote a postcard to Him once, telling Him how much I loved Him. I posted it and wasn’t at all surprised when I got a reply from Him, properly stamped and franked and delivered by the postman. He was so real to me, it seemed quite natural to correspond with Him by post.

From the moment that Krishna first came into my life, I lost interest in my schoolwork. I would sit in class, apparently paying attention, but my mind and heart would be on the form of Krishna. Sometimes, when waves of bliss would surge up inside me, I would abandon myself to the experience and lose contact with the outside world.

From the time of my first experience a desire to search for God and a hunger in me for Him were always present. I was always, unconsciously, looking for an outlet for these feelings. When I was about eleven, for example, a group of sadhus passed by our house. I was immediately attracted to them and tried to join their group. ‘My parents are dead,’ I told them. ‘Will you look after me?’ They agreed and we walked off together to a place about twenty kilometres away from the town. I didn’t tell my parents, so they, of course, spent several days frantically looking for me. Then, following up a rumour that I had been seen with these sadhus, they tracked me down to our camp.

I remember my father exclaiming, after he had finally found me, ‘I thought you were lost! I thought you were lost!’

I have already mentioned that my mother was an ardent Krishna bhakta. I should also mention that she had a Guru who was a well-known teacher of Vedanta.

He knew many vedantic works and could lecture on them all with great authority. His favourite was Vichar Sagar by the Hindu saint Nischaldas. My mother could recite large portions of it by heart. Many years later, when I became acquainted with Sri Ramana Maharshi, I found that he too liked it and that he had even made a Tamil abridged rendering of it under the title Vichara Mani Mala.

My mother’s Guru had made her memorise many vedantic slokas which she used to chant at various times during the day. Traditional vedantic sadhana is done by affirmation and negation. Either one repeats or contemplates one of the mahavakyas such as ‘I am Brahman’ or one tries to reject identification with the body by saying and feeling, ‘I am not the body, I am not the skin, I am not the blood,’ etc. The aim is to get into a mental frame of mind in which one convinces oneself that one’s real nature is the Self and that identification with the body is erroneous.

Life in the army meant keeping up an outer front of normality and military sobriety.

Open exhibitions of love for a Hindu god would have been frowned on to such an extent that they would have jeopardized my career.

This caused me to lead a dual life. By day I played the officer-sahib, complete with stiff upper lip. At night, behind locked doors, I would transform myself into a Krishna gopi. I would dismiss my orderly, telling him not to disturb me with the usual 5 a.m. cup of tea.

That gave me the whole night with my beloved Krishna. I was not content with doing japa of His name, or with worshipping an inanimate picture or statue, I wanted Krishna Himself to appear before me, as He had frequently done when I was young, so that I could pour out my love to Him directly.

I pretended I was Radha, the consort of Krishna, because I thought that if I imitated her in every way, Krishna would come and appear before me. I dressed myself in a sari, decorated my body with bangles and women’s jewelery, and even put make-up on my face. I got into the bhava that I really was Radha, pining away for her divine lover. It worked. Krishna would appear and I would pour out my heart to Him. On the mornings after Krishna had appeared to me my face would be lit up with the happiness of divine love. One of my superior officers mistook my state for drunkenness and gave orders to the barman in the mess that I should not be given more than three small drinks a day. He was told by the barman, quite correctly, that I never drank at all, but he didn’t believe him. He simply couldn’t understand how someone could look so radiantly happy without having had any alcoholic stimulants.

My nationalist ambitions withered and died during my brief spell in the army, but, on the contrary, my passion for Krishna increased to the point where I could think about little else. The army was not a congenial place for a bhakta who only wanted to indulge in his obsession for Krishna, so I resigned my commission. It was a difficult thing to do during wartime, but with the assistance of a sympathetic commanding officer, to whom I explained my predicament, I managed to free myself from my military obligations.


*** Seeking God ***

I returned home to face the wrath of my father. Having a wife and family to support, he found it inexcusable that I had given up a promising career without having anything else to fall back on.

It was true—I could have had a glittering career in the army. All my classmates from the officer’s training school who made the military their career went on to occupy all the senior positions in the army in the years that followed independence in 1947. I didn’t care. Nothing mattered to me anymore except finding God and holding on to Him.

After leaving the army, I had no desire to get a job. I felt instead that I needed a spiritual Master who could help me to consummate my love affair with Krishna. I had been sporadically successful in getting Him to appear before me, but I wanted Him all the time. Since I was unable to summon up Krishna at will, I felt that I should find a Master who could help me to do it, or who could do it for me. There was, therefore, only one quality I was looking far in my prospective Master: he must have seen God himself, and he must have the ability to show Him to me. No other qualifications mattered.

With this criterion in mind I began a tour of India which took me to almost every famous ashram and guru in the country.

I went to see such well-known people as Swami Sivananda, Tapovan Swami,Ananda Mayi Ma, Swami Ramdas, two of the Shankaracharyas and a host of lesser-known spiritual figures.At each place I stopped I asked the same question: ‘Have you seen God? Can you show me God?’ All of them responded in much the same way. They tried to give me a mantra, or they tried to make me meditate. All of them made a point of saying that God could not be produced like a rabbit out of a conjuror’s hat, and that if I wanted to see Him I would have to undergo years of strenuous sadhana. This was not what I wanted to hear. I told all these swamis and gurus, ‘I am asking you if you can show me God. If you can, and if you can do it immediately, then say so. If there is a price to be paid, then tell me. Whatever the price is, I will pay it. I am not interested in sitting here, year after year, chanting one of your mantras. I want to see God now. If you can’t show Him to me right now, I will look for someone else who can.’ Since none of the people I met claimed they could show me God, I eventually had to return to my father’s house, disillusioned and dispirited.


*** Meeting Ramana Maharshi ***

Shortly after my return 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 him 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 which 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 which 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-four years of age. I followed the sadhu’s advice and took a train to Tiruvannamalai. On disembarking there I discovered that the Maharshi’s ashram was about three kilometers 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 round 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, concluding 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 these 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 discourage 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, instead, the source and support of all that exists. Within the Heart I saw or felt something like a closed bud. It was very shining 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.

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 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 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 inquired.

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.


*** Life in Chennai ***

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 sadhana. Sometimes I would read 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., at which point I had to leave to go to the office. Work started there at 10 a.m. 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.

One morning, around 2.00 a.m., I heard voices outside my door. I knew it could not be my wife because I had given her strict instructions that I was not to be disturbed while I was inside my puja room.It then occurred to me that it might be some of my relatives from the Punjab who had come to visit us. The train from the Punjab usually arrived at Madras in the evening, but it seemed quite possible to me that the train had arrived several hours late and that the passengers had only just managed to reach our house. My curiosity piqued, I decided to open the door to find out who they were.

Imagine my astonishment, on opening the door, when I saw not a group of relatives but the shining forms of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman standing outside. I couldn’t understand what they were doing there. I had spent most of my life calling on Krishna, never feeling much attraction to Rama, or any interest in Him. Nevertheless, I prostrated to them all with great awe and reverence.

It was Sita who raised her hand and began to speak to me. ‘We have come from Ayodhya to visit you because Hanuman told us that there was a very great Krishna bhakta here in Madras.’ I looked at her raised hand, noting casually all the lines that were on the palm. That image must have imprinted itself permanently on my memory because every time I recall that vision, I clearly see all the lines on that hand just as they were on the day she appeared before me. Their bodies were not, so far as I could ascertain, normal human bodies because I could see through them and dimly take in what was behind them, but they were all exquisitely beautiful. After some time the vision changed into a landscape in which I saw a mountain and a great garuda flying in the sky, moving towards me, but never reaching me. There was no perception of time while all this was going on.

The vision seemed only to last a short time, but I was eventually drawn out of it by my wife calling to me that if I didn’t leave soon, I would be late for work. I suppose, therefore, that it must have lasted from about 2.30 in the morning till about 9.30 a.m. Because of the vision, this was the first day on which I failed to fulfil my self-assigned quota of 50,000 repetitions of Krishna’s name. Though the vision had been awe-inspiring, I still felt guilty that I had neglected my japa. I did not mention the night’s events to anyone in the office because I had got into the habit of keeping my conversation there to a minimum. I would speak when there was business to be transacted; otherwise I would keep quiet.


**** Dark Night of the Soul ***

Later that day, when I tried to resume my chanting, I found that I could not repeat the name of Krishna any more. Somehow, my mind refused to cooperate.

I couldn’t read any of my spiritual books either. My mind, thought-free and quiet, refused to concentrate on or pay attention to any of the spiritual objects I tried to put in front of it. It was all very mystifying. For a quarter of a century the divine name had been flowing effortlessly through my mind; now I couldn’t even utter it once.

I immediately went to see the head of the Ramakrishna Mission in Madras, a man called Swami Kailasananda, and told him that I was having problems with my sadhana. I explained that I had been chanting the name of God for years and that I had also been reading many spiritual books. Now, I told him, no matter how hard I try, my mind will not focus on anything to do with God.

Swami Kailasananda responded by telling me that this was what Christian mystics call ‘the dark night of the soul’. It is a stage in sadhana, he said, in which the practitioner finds, after years of effort, that practice suddenly becomes very hard or unrewarding. After asking me not to give up trying, he told me to come and attend the regular satsangs which were being held at the Mission because he felt that in such an atmosphere I might find it easier to resume my thoughts of God. I didn’t find his advice very satisfactory. I never went back, nor did I ever attend any meetings. I went to several other well-known swamis in Madras, but they all told me more or less the same thing: ‘Don’t give up trying, attend our satsangs, and we are sure that the problem will soon go away.’

I never attended any of these meetings, partly because I didn’t think much of the advice, and partly because I didn’t think that these people were qualified to advise me. Though I could see that they were quite good sadhaks, I also felt that they had not had a direct experience of God, an experience which would, in my opinion, have made them more qualified to pass judgement on my case.

My thoughts turned once more to the Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai. I had recently had a vision of him in my puja room in which he had stood smiling before me.

He had not said anything to me and at the time I had not attributed much significance to the appearance. Now I began to revise my opinion.

This man,’ I thought, ‘came all the way to the Punjab in some form, appeared at my door and directed me to come and see him at Tiruvannamalai. I went there and got a very good experience when I sat with him. This man must be qualified to advise me. Perhaps his appearance in my room here means that he wants me to go and see him again in Tiruvannamalai. Anyway, since there is no one else in Madras whose opinion I value, I may as well go to him and see what he has to say.’ I still had no interest in his philosophy, but I did recollect that I had been quite attracted by his personality and presence.


*** With Maharshi Again ***

The following weekend I was scheduled to have a half-day holiday on Saturday afternoon. Sunday, of course, was a holiday every week. I took the train on Saturday and made my way once more to the hall where the Maharshi sat. As on my first visit, I felt that my business was private, so I looked for another opportunity to talk to him when no one else was around. Resorting to the same ruse I had used on my previous visit, I went to see him after lunch. I knew the hall would be empty then. As on my previous trip, the attendant tried to persuade me to come back later, but again the Maharshi intervened and gave me permission to enter and speak to him.

I sat in front of the Maharshi and began to tell him my story. ‘For twenty-five years I have been doing sadhana, mostly repeating the name of Krishna. Up till fairly recently I was managing 50,000 repetitions a day. I also used to read a lot of spiritual literature. Then Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman appeared before me. After they left, I couldn’t carry on with my practice. I can’t repeat the name any more. I can’t read my books. I can’t meditate. I feel very quiet inside but there is no longer any desire in me to put my attention on God. In fact, I can’t do it even if I try. My mind refuses to engage itself in thoughts of God. What has happened to me and what should I do?’

The Maharshi looked at me and asked, ‘How did you come here from Madras?’
I didn’t see the point of his question but I politely told him the answer: ‘By train.’
‘And what happened when you got to the station at Tiruvannamalai?’ he inquired.

‘Well, I got off the train, handed in my ticket and engaged a bullock cart to take me to the ashram.’
‘And when you reached the ashram and paid off the driver of the cart, what happened to the cart?’
‘It went away, presumably back to town,’ I said, still not clear as to where this line of questioning was leading.

The Maharshi then explained what he was driving at. ‘The train brought you to your destination. You got off it because you didn’t need it anymore. It had brought you to the place you wanted to reach

Likewise with the bullock cart. You got off it when it had brought you to Ramanasramam. You don’t need either the train or the cart any more. They were the means for bringing you here. Now you are here, they are of no use to you.

‘That is what has happened with your sadhana. Your japa, your reading and your meditation have brought you to your spiritual destination. You don’t need them anymore. You yourself did not give up your practices, they left you of their own accord because they had served their purpose. You have arrived.’

Then he looked at me intently. I could feel that my whole body and mind were being washed with waves of purity. They were being purified by his silent gaze. I could feel him looking intently into my Heart. Under that spellbinding gaze I felt every atom of my body being purified. It was as if a new body were being created for me. A process of transformation was going on—the old body was dying, atom by atom, and a new body was being created in its place. Then, suddenly, I understood. I knew that this man who had spoken to me was, in reality, what I already was, what I had always been. There was a sudden impact of recognition as I became aware of the Self.

I use the word ‘recognition’ deliberately, because as soon as the experience was revealed to me, I knew, unerringly, that this was the same state of peace and happiness that I had been immersed in as an eight-year-old boy in Lahore, on the occasion when I had refused to accept the mango drink. The silent gaze of the Maharshi re-established me in that primal state, but this time it was permanent. The ‘I’ which had for so long been looking for a God outside of itself, because it wanted to get back to that original childhood state, perished in the direct knowledge and experience of the Self which the Maharshi revealed to me. I cannot describe exactly what the experience was or is because the books are right when they say that words cannot convey it. I can only talk about peripheral things. I can say that every cell, every atom in my body leapt to attention as they all recognised and experienced the Self that animated and supported them, but the experience itself I cannot describe. I knew that my spiritual quest had definitely ended, but the source of that knowledge will always remain indescribable.

I got up and prostrated to the Maharshi in gratitude. I had finally understood what his teachings were and are. He had told me not to be attached to any personal God, because all forms are perishable. He could see that my chief impediments were God’s beautiful form and the love I felt towards Him. He had advised me to ignore the appearances of these ephemeral Gods and to enquire instead into the nature and source of the one who wanted to see them. He had tried to point me towards what was real and permanent, but stupidly and arrogantly I had paid no attention to his advice.

With hindsight I could now see that the question ‘Who am I?’ was the one question which I should have asked myself years before. I had had a direct experience of the Self when I was eight and had spent the rest of my life trying to return to it. My mother had convinced me that devotion to Krishna would bring it back and had somehow brainwashed me into undertaking a quest for an external God whom she said could supply me with that one experience which I desired so much. In a lifetime of spiritual seeking I had met hundreds of sadhus, swamis and gurus, but none of them had told me the simple truth the way the Maharshi had done. None of them had said, ‘God is within you. He is not apart from you. You alone are God. If you find the source of the mind by asking yourself “Who am I?” you will experience Him in your Heart as the Self.’ If I had met the Maharshi earlier in my life, listened to his teachings and put them into practice, I could probably have saved myself years of fruitless external searching.

I must make one other comment about the greatness of the Maharshi. In the days that followed my vision of Rama I went all over Madras, looking for advice on how to start my sadhana again. The swamis I saw there gave me pious platitudes because they could not see into my Heart and mind the way the Maharshi could. Several days later, when I came and sat in front of the Maharshi, he didn’t tell me to keep on trying because he could see that I had reached a state in which my sadhana could never be resumed again. ‘You have arrived,’ he said. He knew I was ready for realisation and through his divine look he established me in his own state.

The real Master looks into your mind and Heart, sees what state you are in, and gives out advice which is always appropriate and relevant. Other people, who are not established in the Self, can only give out advice which is based on either their own limited experience or on what they have heard or read. This advice is often foolish. The true teacher will never mislead you with bad advice because he always knows what you need, and he always knows what state you are in.

Before I carry on with my story I should like to recapitulate some of the main events in my spiritual career because they illustrate, in a general way, how the process of realisation comes about. Firstly, there must be a desire for God, a love for Him, or a desire for liberation. Without that, nothing is possible. In my own case, the experience I had had when I was eight awakened such a great desire for God within me that I spent a quarter of a century in an obsessive search for Him. This desire for God or realisation is like an inner flame. One must kindle it and then fan it until it becomes a raging fire which consumes all one’s other desires and interests. A single thought or a desire other than the thought ‘I want God’ or ‘I want Selfrealisation’ is enough to prevent that realisation from taking place. If these thoughts arise, it means that the fire is not burning intensely enough.

In the years I was an ecstatic Krishna bhakta I was fanning the flames of my desire for God, and in the process burning up all my other desires. If this inner fire rages for long enough, with sufficient intensity, it will finally consume that one, central, overwhelming desire for God or the Self. This is essential because realisation will not take place until even this last desire has gone. After this final desire disappears, there will be the silence of no thoughts. This is not the end, it is just a mental state in which thoughts and desires no longer arise. That is what happened to me in Madras after Rama appeared before me. All my thoughts and desires left me, so much so, I couldn’t take up any of my practices again.

Many people have had temporary glimpses of the Self. Sometimes it happens spontaneously, and it is not uncommon for it to happen in the presence of a realised Master.

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