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 theevent, 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 tothe 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 thetime. 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 wasn’t the least bit repentant about my adventures. I retorted, ‘How can I be lost? Am I a buffalo that I can get lost and not know where I am? I always knew where I was.’ I didn’t have any appreciation of the worry and the concern I had caused my parents. By joining the sadhus I had merely expressed my yearning and hunger for God. I even went so far as to tell my father, ‘Why have you come to look for me instead of leaving me with God?’ My father, naturally, would not allow me to stay there. He lectured the sadhus on what he thought was their irresponsible behaviour and then took me back to town.
During my childhood other boys would act out their fantasies by playing soldiers or pretending they were famous sportsmen or rulers. I, on the contrary, had an urge to imitate sadhus. I knew nothing of the inner life of such people, but I was quite content merely to mimic the externals. I particularly remember one day when I decided to play at being a naked sadhu and persuaded my sister to join in the game. We stripped off, smeared our bodies with wood ash to imitate vibhuti and sat cross-legged in front of a fire which we made in out garden. That was as far as we could go because we didn’t know anything about meditation or yoga. One of our neighbours who happened to look over the common garden wall was understandably shocked to see a naked girl there, covered with ash. We were so innocent it didn’t occur to us that it wasn’t proper for young girls to sit outside with no clothes on. The neighbour summoned our mother and the game came to an abrupt end.
In Love with Buddha
My next major spiritual adventure occurred when I was about thirteen. It started when I saw a picture of the Buddha in a history book at school. This picture illustrated the period of his life when he tried to live on only one grain of rice a day. The face was very beautiful but the body was skeleton-like, all skin and bone. I immediately felt a great attraction to him, even though I didn’t then know anything about his teachings. I simply fell in love with his beautiful face and decided that I should try to emulate him. In the picture he was meditating under a tree.
I didn’t know that at the time, in fact I didn’t even know what meditation was. Undeterred, I thought, ‘I can do that. I can sit crosslegged under a tree. I can be like him.’
So I began to sit in a cross-legged position in our garden under some rose bushes that grew there, happy and content that I was harmonising my lifestyle with this person I had fallen in love with.
Then, to increase the similarity even more, I decided that I should try to make my body resemble his skeleton-like frame. At that time in our house we would collect our food from our mother before going off to eat it separately. This made it easy for me to throw my meals away. When no one was looking I would go outside and give all my food to the dogs in the street. After some time I managed to stop eating completely.I became so weak and thin, eventually my bones began to stick out, just like the Buddha’s. That made me very happy and I became very proud of my new state. My classmates at school made my day by nicknaming me ‘the Buddha’ because they could see how thin I was getting.
My father worked for the railways. At this particular period of his life he was working in Baluchistan as a stationmaster. Because his job was a long way away, we only ever saw him when he came home on leave. About a month after my fasting began he came home on one of his regular visits and was shocked at how thin I had got during his absence. He took me off to see various doctors and had them examine me in order to find out what was wrong. None of them suspected that I was deliberately fasting. One of them told my father, ‘He is growing tall very quickly, that is why he is getting so thin. Give him good food, lots of milk and dry fruits.’
My mother followed the advice, adding a bit of her own: every day she would say, ‘Eat more butter, eat more butter’. The dogs on the street got very fat and happy because the new diet went the same way as the old one.
The school history book which contained Buddha’s picture was a simple guide for children. The main biographical facts were there, but the concepts of meditation and enlightenment were not adequately explained. Presumably the author did not think that these very essential points would be of interest to children. So, I remained ignorant of what he was really doing under that tree and why his final accomplishment was so great. Nevertheless, I still felt attracted to him and still felt an urge to imitate him as closely as possible.
I learnt from this book that the Buddha wore orange robes and that he begged for his food, going from house to house with a begging bowl. This was something I could, with a little ingenuity, copy.
My mother had a white sari which seemed to me to be the ideal raw material for a robe. I took it when she wasn’t looking and dyed it ochre, the colour of the Buddha’s robes. I wraped it around myself in what I took to be the correct way and began to play at being a mendicant monk. I got hold of a bowl to beg with and walked up and down the streets of Faisalabad, asking for alms. Before I went home I would change into my ordinary clothes and wrap up the orange sari in a paper parcel. I kept the parcel among my school books, a place I thought no one would bother to look.
One of my friends found out what I was doing and told me, ‘You can’t get away with this. Somebody will recognise you and tell your family what you are doing.’
Feeling very confident about my ability to do it secretly, I told him, ‘Your parents know me. I will come to your house in my robes and ask for food. If I can fool them I can fool anybody.’
I put on my sari, smeared ashes all over my face to further my disguise, put a cap on my head and went off to their house with my begging bowl. It was about 8 p.m. so the darkness also helped my disguise. I called out ‘Bhiksha! Bhiksha!’ [Alms! Alms!] because I had seen sadhus beg for food by calling in this way. Since it did not occur to me that anyone might recognise my voice, I made no attempt to disguise it. My friend’s mother came to the door, showed no sign of recognition, and invited me in to eat.
‘Swamiji, Babaji, come in and eat something,’ she said, taking me in and offering me food.
I went with her, acting out the role I had assigned myself. ‘My child,’ I said to her, even though she must have been about thirty years older than I, ‘you will have children and get lots of money.’ I had heard swamis bless women like this. Since most women wanted to get rich and have several sons, itinerant swamis would give these fantasies their blessings in the hope of getting a better reception and something good to eat.
Then, laughing, she removed my cap and told me that she had always known who I really was. ‘Your appearance is quite good,’ she said, ‘but I recognised you from your voice.’ Then her husband came and she explained to him what was going on.
Scornfully he said, ‘Who will not recognise you if you go out begging like that? You will soon be detected.’
Now it was my turn to laugh because earlier that day I had begged at his shop and got a one paisa copper coin from him. I showed him the coin.
He had to revise his opinion a little. ‘I must have been busy with my customers,’ he said. ‘I must have given it to you without looking.’
‘No, that’s not true,’ I responded truthfully. ‘You saw me very clearly. I walked past your shop, begging. You saw me, called me back and handed me this coin. My disguise is good enough and I can get away with it so long as I don’t talk to people who might recognise my voice.’
These people were amused by my antics, not knowing that I was doing this sort of thing regularly in a stolen dyed sari. They didn’t tell my mother, so I was able to carry on with my impersonation.
My mother only had three saris. One day, fairly soon after I had taken the white one, she washed the other two and started looking for the third because she needed to wear it. Of course, she couldn’t find it anywhere. She never asked me about it because, since I was not a girl, it did not occur to her that I might have had any possible use for it. She eventually decided that she must have given it to the dhobi, and that he had lost it or forgotten to return it.
The final phase of my Buddha impersonations came when I discovered that he used to preach sermons in public places. This excited me because it was a new facet of his life that I could copy. I knew absolutely nothing about Buddhism, but the thought that this might be a handicap when I stood up to preach never occurred to me.
There was a clock-tower in the middle of our town and near it was a raised platform where all the local politicians used to give their speeches. It was very much the centre of Faisalabad because all the routes to other towns radiated out from it. I put on my usual disguise, strode confidently up the steps, and began to give my first public speech. I cannot recollect anything that I said—it couldn’t have been anything about Buddhism because I knew absolutely nothing about it—but I do remember that I delivered my speech with great flair and panache. I harangued the passers-by with great gusto, occasionally raising my arm and wagging my finger to emphasise the points I was making. I had seen the politicians gesture like that when they made their speeches.
I felt I had made a successful start to my oratorical career and taken a step further towards my goal of imitating the Buddha in everything he did. I went back to the clock-tower on several occasions and preached many sermons there. Unfortunately, Faisalabad was not a big city and it was inevitable that sooner or later someone who knew me would recognise me. It was not surprising, therefore, that one day one of my neighbours spotted me and reported my antics to my mother.
At first she was very sceptical. ‘How can it be he?’ she asked. ‘Where would he get an orange robe from?’ Then, remembering her missing sari, she went to the cupboard where I kept my books and found the paper parcel. The game was over, for that discovery effectively ended my brief career as an imitation Buddha.
It was an absurd but very entertaining episode in my life which, in retrospect, I can see as reflecting my state of mind at the time. I had this intense yearning for God but I had nothing to channel it into except the external forms of the deities. Something in me recognised the Buddha as divine and my childish and ignorant attempts to follow in his footsteps were merely a manifestation of that burning inner desire to find God. I wasn’t being mischievous. I never regarded it as some kind of childhood prank. Some power was compelling me to do it. Some old samskaras were coming up and compelling me towards reality, towards the truth of the Self. It was a serious attempt on my part to find my way back to the state of happiness and peace that I had once experienced and known as my own inner reality.
My mother did not get very angry with me. We had always had a good relationship and she could see the humour of the situation. Because she had been so young when I was born, we behaved with each other as if we were brother and sister, rather than mother and son. We played, sang and danced together, and quite often we even slept in the same bed.
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.
My mother used to chant all these ‘I am not…’ verses and I used to find them all very funny. I was, at heart, a bhakta. I could appreciate any sadhana which generated love and devotion towards God, but I couldn’t see the point of these practices which merely listed, in endlessly trivial ways, what one was not. When my mother had a bath she would chant, ‘I am not the urine, I am not the excrement, I am not the bile,’ and so on. This was too much for me. I would call out, ‘What are you doing in there? Having a bath or cleaning the toilet?’ I ridiculed her so much that eventually she stopped singing these verses out loud.
My mother’s Guru encouraged me to join a local lending library which had a good selection of spiritual books. I started to read books on Vedanta and Hindu saints. It was this library which introduced me to Yoga Vasishta, a book I have always enjoyed. One day I tried to borrow a book about Swami Ram Tirtha, a Hindu saint who went into seclusion in the Himalayas in his twenties and who died there when he was only thirty-four. I had a special reason for borrowing this book: he was my mother’s elder brother, so I naturally wanted to find out more about him.
The librarian had watched me borrow all these books with an increasing sense of alarm. In middle-class Hindu society it is quite acceptable to show a little interest in spiritual matters, but when the interest starts to become an obsession, the alarm bells go off. This well-meaning librarian probably thought that I was taking my religion too seriously, and that I might end up like my uncle. Most families would be very unhappy if one of their members dropped out at an early age to become a wandering sadhu in the Himalayas. The librarian, feeling that he was acting for the best, refused to let me borrow this book about my uncle. Later, he went to my mother and warned her that I was showing what was, for him, an unhealthy interest in mysticism. My mother paid no attention. Because her own life revolved around her sadhana, she was delighted to have a son who seemed to be displaying a similar inclination.
My mother’s Guru liked me very much. He suggested books for me to read and frequently gave me advice on spiritual matters. He owned a lot of land, had many cows, and spent half his time in teaching and the other half in managing his properties and possessions. One day he made my mother an astounding offer: ‘Please give me your son. I will appoint him my heir and spiritual successor. When I die everything I have will be his. I will look after his spiritual development, but to get all this he must agree to one condition. He must not marry and he must remain a brahmachari. If he agrees, and if you agree, I will take full responsibility for him.’
My mother had great love and respect for this man, but she was far too attached to me to consider handing me over to someone else. She turned down his offer. I too had great respect for him. If my mother had accepted his offer, I would happily have gone with him.
At around this time she announced that she was going to take me to a different swami because she wanted me to get some special spiritual instructions from him. I didn’t like the idea and I didn’t like the man she chose for me. I told her, ‘If you take me to this man I will test him to see if he has really conquered his passions. As soon as I see him I shall slap him in the face. If he gets angry, I will know that he has no self-control. If he doesn’t get angry, I will listen to him and accept whatever he has to teach me. My mother knew that I was quite capable of carrying out the threat. Not wishing to be embarrassed by my disrespectful activities, she dropped her plans to take me to see him.
When I was about fifteen I went to a friend’s house during the annual Holi celebrations. His mother offered me some pakoras which she had made for the festival. I happily ate two. As they were very tasty, I asked for some more. Surprisingly, she refused. I could see that she had been making them in large quantities, and that she planned to make a lot more, so I couldn’t understand why she was restricting me to two. The answer, as I was to discover later, was that she was putting bhang [cannabis leaves] in them and didn’t want me to ingest too large a dose. In those days it was quite common to put a little bhang in the food on festival days. At weddings, for example, the bhang would make the guests very happy and would also increase their appetites. Weddings were great occasions for overeating. With appetites stimulated by bhang, the guests would get ravenously hungry and would perform great feats of gluttony.
I went home and sat down to my evening meal. My mother was making chapatis. After consuming all the ones she had cooked I asked for some more because I still felt hungry. She made extra, but even they were not enough to satisfy my hunger. I ate them as fast as she could prepare them and kept on asking for more. It was not until I had eaten about twenty that she realised what had happened to me. She laughed and exclaimed, ‘You’ve been eating bhang, haven’t you? Who has been feeding you bhang?’ I told her about the pakoras and she laughed again. I was now beginning to understand why my friend’s mother had restricted me to two. In addition to being extremely hungry, I was also beginning to feel a little intoxicated.
That night we all slept in the same room. At about midnight I got out of bed, sat in the padmasana position, and called out in a loud voice, ‘You are not my father! You are not my mother!’ Then I went into a deep meditation. My parents woke up but they were not very alarmed by my behaviour. They just assumed that I was still suffering from the effects of the bhang I had eaten.
At 3 a.m. I was still sitting there with my eyes closed. My parents woke up because strange and unrecognisable sounds were coming out of my mouth.
They tried to wake me up but I was in too deep a meditation to be roused. My mother, thinking that I was getting delirious, persuaded my father to go out and find a doctor. He had a hard time persuading one to come because it was the middle of the night and a festival day. Eventually, though, he found one and brought him back to the house.
This doctor gave me a thorough examination while my parents watched anxiously. I was aware of what he was doing and of my mother’s worried comments, but I couldn’t bring myself out of the state or behave in a normal way. The doctor finally announced his decision.
‘Congratulations,’ he said, addressing my parents. ‘You have a very fine boy, a very good son. There is nothing physically wrong with him. He is just immersed in a very deep meditation. When it is over he will come out of it quite naturally and be perfectly normal.’
For all of that night and for the whole of the next day I was immersed in that state. During the day I continued to utter strange sounds which no one could understand until a local pandit passed by our house. He heard what I was saying, recognised it, came in and announced, ‘This boy is chanting portions of the Yajur Veda in Sanskrit. Where and when did he learn to chant like this?’
The answer, most probably, is that I learned in some previous life. At the time I knew Punjabi, my native language, Urdu, the language of the local Muslims, and a little Persian. I knew no Sanskrit and had never even heard of the Yajur Veda. The bhang must have triggered some memories and knowledge left over from a previous life. As the doctor had predicted, I eventually returned to normal—with no knowledge of Sanskrit or the Vedas—and resumed my usual everyday life.
My next unusual experience occurred when I was about sixteen years of age. I was attending a school which was run by the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement founded in the nineteenth century. The school was named after Swami Dayananda, the founder of the organisation. Because it was a residential school, I slept in a hostel with all the other boys.
Every morning we would assemble outside and sit in a semicircle while a prayer was chanted. It always ended with the words ‘Om shanti shanti’ [Om, peace, peace]. At the conclusion of the prayer, a flag would be raised in the school grounds with an ‘Om’ printed on it. As the flag was being raised, we all had to jump up and shout, ‘Victory to the dharma! Victory to Mother India! Victory to Swami Dayananda!’
One morning, at the conclusion of the prayer, the chanting of ‘Om shanti shanti’ caused my whole body to go numb. I became paralysed in much the same way that I had been when, as an eight-year-old boy, I had been offered the mango drink in Lahore. I was aware of everything that was going on around me, there was a great feeling of peace and happiness inside, but I couldn’t move any of my muscles or respond to what was going on around me. The other boys jumped up and saluted the flag, leaving me sitting on the floor in my paralysed state.
The teacher who was supervising the prayers saw me sitting on the floor and just assumed that I was being lazy or disobedient. He put my name on a list for punishment by the headmaster. This meant that I had to appear before him the next morning and be caned. The teacher left the scene without ascertaining the real cause of my immobility. The other boys, meanwhile, started to make fun of me. When they realised that I was not capable of responding to their taunts, they decided to stage a mock funeral. They picked up my body, stretched me out on their shoulders and then pretended that they were carrying me off to the cemetery to be cremated. I had to go along with their game because I was not capable of complaining or resisting. When they had had their fun, they carried me home and dumped me on my bed. I remained there for the rest of the day, paralysed, but absorbed in an inner state of peace and happiness.
he next morning, fully recovered, I reported to the headmaster for my punishment.
He took out his cane, but before he had a chance to use it I asked him, ‘Please sir, what am I supposed to have done? What mistake am I supposed to have committed?’ The headmaster had no idea. The teachers had merely given him a list of boys to be caned because the teachers themselves were not allowed to administer corporal punishment. He checked with the teacher who had sent me to him and was told about my act of ‘disobedience’ the day before.
I told him, ‘I didn’t refuse to stand up. I suddenly went numb all over and couldn’t move.’ I told him about the experience, explaining that it had been triggered by hearing the words ‘shanti shanti’ at the end of the morning prayer. This headmaster was a very good man. A supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, he did the job without taking any salary because he believed that Hindu boys should be brought up and educated in a Hindu environment. In those days, most schools were either secular institutions run by the government or Christian organisations operated by missionaries. Since he was supposed to be inculcating us with Hindu values and ideals, he recognised the absurdity of punishing me for having had a mystical experience as a consequence of listening to a Hindu prayer. He let me off and in later years we became quite good friends.
Because of my continuing interest in Krishna, I didn’t do well enough in school to go to college.
Instead, at the age of eighteen, I got a job as a travelling salesman. I enjoyed the work very much because it gave me the opportunity to travel all over India.Then, in 1930, when I was twenty years old, my father decided that it was time for me to get married. I didn’t like the idea at all, but to avoid a big family argument I agreed to marry the woman my father selected for me. I became a householder and in due course fathered a daughter and a son.
During the next few years my interest in nationalist politics temporarily competed with my continuing interest in Krishna. To understand this part of my story it will be necessary to give a little background information about the conditions we were then living and working in.
The 1930’s were a time of great political unrest. The British rule of India was being challenged in many ways. There was a feeling in the air that if we organised ourselves properly and put enough pressure on the government, we could put an end to the colonial occupation. Gandhi, the most well-known of the freedom fighters, was espousing a campaign of non-cooperation and non-violence, hoping that if enough Indians refused to obey the orders of the British, they would accept that the country was ungovernable and leave us to look after our own affairs. I didn’t accept this theory at all. I was and am a great believer in direct action and I felt that we should confront the British with a show of force. ‘If some people break into my house,’ I reasoned, ‘and take it over so completely that they have us running around obeying their orders, what should we do?’ The Gandhian answer would be, ‘Politely ask them to leave, and if they say “no”, refuse to obey any of their orders’. I thought that this approach was being pusillanimous. In my experience, squatters who have appropriated someone else’s property don’t listen to polite requests. I, therefore, was in favour of picking up a stick and driving them out by force.
But how to do it? The British were very well organised and I knew that a direct physical
assault would not make much of a dent in their power structure. I decided instead to gain some yogic siddhis and then use these siddhis to attack the British.I took to frequenting a graveyard at night, my idea being that if I could summon up spirits of the dead and gain control over them, I could then unleash these forces on the British. I succeeded in summoning up an assortment of spirits and even managed to control them enough for them to do my bidding, but I soon realised that these entities had very little power and that they would not be effective weapons against the British.
Undaunted, I joined a group of freedom fighters who had decided to take direct military action against the British. We were essentially a group of saboteurs whose aim was to conduct a guerrilla war against our rulers by attacking key military, economic and political targets. I was trained how to make bombs and looked forward to the day when I would see some direct military action.
Although I was not directly involved, our group was responsible for blowing up the Viceroy’s train as he was travelling to Peshawar. Our equipment was a bit primitive, for we had to rely on a fuse rather than detonation by remote control. The timing was not quite right and we ended up blowing up the carriage that was adjacent to the one which the Viceroy was occupying. The Viceroy escaped unhurt.
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.
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.
After these temporary glimpses, the experience goes away because there are still thoughts and latent desires which have not been extinguished. The Self will only accept, consume and totally destroy a mind that is completely free of vasanas. That was the state of my mind for the few days I was in Madras. But realisation did not happen in those few days because the final ingredient was not present. I needed the grace of my Master; I needed to sit before him; I needed to have him tell me, ‘You have arrived,’ and I needed to believe him; and I needed to have him transmit his power and grace via his divine look. When the Maharshi’s gaze met my vasana-free mind, the Self reached out and destroyed it in such a way that it could never rise or function again. Only Self remained.
I mentioned earlier that it was my mother who turned me into a Krishna bhakta. I discovered after my realisation that she had merely been the instrumental cause, for the roots of that particular passion for Krishna could be traced back to my previous life as a yogi in South India. When knowledge of this previous life came to me, it went a long way to explaining the pattern of my current life.
In my last life I was a great Krishna bhakta who had disciples of his own and who had built a temple dedicated to Krishna in which was installed a large, white, stone statue of the deity. During that particular life I had frequently reached the state of nirvikalpa samadhi, but I had not managed to realise the Self. One of my impediments then was that I still had a sexual desire for one of the workers in my ashram. She was a low-caste woman who used to do odd jobs there. I never made any advances to her and I tried hard to control my desire, but it never completely left me. When I was reborn as H.W.L. Poonja, this was the woman I ended up marrying. That one vasana had been enough to bring about a rebirth in which I had to marry her and raise a family with her. Such are the workings of karma.
My life as a Krishna yogi ended in an unusual and somewhat gruesome way. I had entered a state of nirvikalpa samadhi and remained in it for twenty days. My devotees thought that I had died because they could detect no signs of breathing or blood circulation. One man from a local village, who was supposed to be an expert in these matters, was brought in to see if the prana had left the body. He scrutinised my fontanelle before announcing that he was going to drill a hole there to see if there was any life still in the body. He borrowed a tool which was used to scrape out coconuts and gouged a hole in the top of my skull with it. Then he peered into the hole and pronounced me dead. My devotees accepted the verdict and buried me in a samadhi pit which was dug near the temple. I then died from being buried alive. I had been fully aware of the activities of the man who had drilled the hole and of the devotees who had finally buried me, but I was not able to respond in any way because I was so deeply immersed in nirvikalpa samadhi. It was uncannily like the experiences I had had as a boy in my current life, those experiences in which I had been immersed in peace and happiness, aware of what was going on around me, but unable to make any response.
Many years ago, when I was in the South, I went to have a look at this temple. I remembered enough of the route from my last life to direct the driver of the taxi from the local station, even though it was a long way from town with a lot of turnings at various junctions along the way. It was just as I had remembered it. The white Krishna statue I had installed was still there. I went off to look at my old samadhi, but it had gone. The local river had changed its course slightly and washed it away.
The Maharshi had taught me that I should not run after the forms of gods such as Krishna because they are ephemeral. Though I have followed his advice since he showed me who I am, nonetheless, images of gods still continue to appear to me. Even now, decades after my spiritual search ended, Krishna still regularly appears to me. I still feel a great love for Him whenever He appears, but He no longer has the power to make me look for anything outside my own Self.
Let me explain. When I was a young boy I thought that the body of Krishna was real because I could touch it. I now know that this is not the true criterion of reality. Reality is that which always exists and never changes, and only the formless Self meets that definition. With hindsight I can therefore say that, when I was a boy, the appearance of Krishna in my bedroom was a transient, unreal phenomenon which arose in consciousness, the one reality. All the other appearances of Krishna in my life can be classified in the same way. Now, abiding as the Self, I cannot be tricked or deluded by the majesty of the Gods, even the ones that manifest right in front of me, because I know that whatever power or beauty they may appear to have is illusory. All power and beauty are within me as my own Self, so I no longer need to look for them anywhere else.
After my final experience in the Maharshi’s presence, my outer life went on much as before. I went back to Madras, carried on with my job, and supported my family to the best of my ability. At weekends, or when I had accumulated enough leave, I would go back to Tiruvannamalai, sit at the feet of my Master and bask in his radiant presence. The cynical, sceptical seeker who had aggressively confronted the Maharshi on his first visit, had gone for good. All that remained was love for him.
In the first few months after my realisation, I didn’t have a single thought. I could go to the office and perform all my duties without ever having a thought in my head. It was the same when I went to Tiruvannamalai. Whether I was sitting in the hall with the Maharshi, walking around the mountain or shopping in town, everything I did was performed without any mental activity at all. There was an ocean of inner silence that never gave rise to even a ripple of thought. It did not take me long to realise that a mind and thoughts are not necessary to function in the world. When one abides as the Self, some divine power takes charge of one’s life. All actions then take place spontaneously, and are performed very efficiently, without any mental effort or activity.
I often brought my family and business colleagues to the ashram at weekends. Out of all the people I brought, the Maharshi seemed to be particularly fond of my daughter. She had learned quite good Tamil during her time in Madras, so she could converse with him in his native language. They used to laugh and play together whenever we visited.
On one of my visits she sat in front of the Maharshi and went into what appeared to be a deep meditative trance. When the bell for lunch went, I was unable to rouse her. The Maharshi advised me to leave her in peace, so we went off to eat without her. When we came back she was still in the same place in the same state. She spent several more hours in this condition before returning to her normal waking state.
Major Chadwick had been watching all this with great interest. After her experience ended, he approached the Maharshi and said, ‘I have been here for more than ten years, but I have never had an experience like this. This seven-year-old girl seems to have had this experience without making any effort at all. How can this be?’
The Maharshi merely smiled and said, ‘How do you know that she is not older than you?’
After this intense experience my daughter fell in love with the Maharshi and became very attached to his form.
Before we left she told him, ‘You are my father. I am not going back to Madras. I will stay here with you.’
The Maharshi smiled and said, ‘No, you cannot stay here. You must go back with your real father. Go to school, finish your education, and then you can come back if you want to.’
The experience had a profound impact on her life. Just a few weeks ago I overheard her telling someone in our kitchen that not a day has passed since then without some memory of that event. But if you ask her about it, she can’t give any kind of answer. If anyone asks her, ‘What happened that day when you were in a trance in front of the Maharshi?’ her response is always the same. She just starts crying. She has never been able to describe or explain, even to me, what exactly happened.
The Muslim Pir
On another visit I brought a Muslim pir I had met in Madras. As a professor in Baghdad he had had an inner awakening and taken to the religious life. He had come to India because he had suddenly felt an urge to visit some Hindu holy men to see what sort of state they were in. I encouraged him to join me on one of my visits to the Maharshi since I could not imagine a better example of a Hindu saint. At Tiruvannamalai we sat in the hall together for some time, looking at the Maharshi. Then the pir got up, saluted him and walked out. When I caught up with him and asked him why he had left so suddenly, he said, ‘I have smelled this one flower in the garden of Hinduism. I don’t need to smell any of the others. Now I am satisfied and can go back to Baghdad.’
This man was a jnani and in those few minutes with the Maharshi he was able to satisfy himself that the flowering of jnana in Hindus was no different from the highest experience attained by Islamic saints.
Such enlightened people are very rare. In the last forty years or so I have met thousands of sadhus, swamis, gurus, etc. I have been to Kumbha Melas which millions of pilgrims attended; I have been to many of the big ashrams in India; I have toured the Himalayas, meeting many reclusive hermits there; I have met yogis with great siddhis, men who could actually fly. But in all the years since my realisation I have only met two men, apart from the Maharshi himself, who convinced me that they had attained full and complete Self-realisation. This Muslim pir was one. The other was a relatively unknown sadhu I met by the side of a road in Karnataka.
I was waiting for a bus in an isolated location near Krishnagiri, a town located midway between Tiruvannamalai and Bangalore. An extremely disreputable-looking man approached me. He wore tattered, filthy clothes and had open wounds on his legs which he had neglected so badly they were infested with maggots. We talked for a while and I offered to remove the maggots from his leg and give him some medicine which would help his wounds to heal. He wasn’t interested in having any assistance from me. ‘Leave the maggots where they are,’ he said. ‘They are enjoying their lunch.’ Feeling that I couldn’t leave him in such a miserable condition, I tore a strip off the shawl I was wearing and tied it round his leg so that at least he could have a clean bandage. We said ‘good-bye’ and he walked off into the nearby forest.
I had recognised this man to be a jnani and was idly speculating on what strange karma had led him to neglect his body in such a way, when a woman approached me. She had been selling iddlies and dosas at a nearby roadside stall.
‘You are a very lucky man,’ she said. ‘That was a great mahatma. He lives in this forest but he almost never shows himself. People come from Bangalore to have his darshan, but he never allows anyone to find him unless he himself wants to meet them. I myself sit here all day, but this is the first time I have seen him in more than a year. This is the first time I have seen him approach a complete stranger and start talking to him.’
I have digressed a little into the story of the bedraggled jnani because he and the Muslim pir illustrate a couple of points that I want to make. The first I have already alluded to. Though many people have had a temporary direct experience of the Self, full and permanent realisation is a very rare event. I say this from direct experience, having seen, quite literally, millions of people who are on some form of spiritual path.
The second point is also interesting, for it reflects great credit on the Maharshi. Out of these people, the only three I have met since my realisation who have satisfied me that they are jnanis, it was the Maharshi alone who made himself available, twenty-four hours a day, to anyone who wanted to see him. The Krishnagiri sadhu hid in his forest; the Muslim pir, when he stayed at my house in Madras, kept himself locked up and refused to see visitors who wanted to see him. Of these three, the Maharshi alone was easy to find and easy to approach.
My own early visits demonstrate the point. He could have kept quiet on my first two after-lunch visits and allowed his attendant to send me away. Instead, sensing that I had an urgent problem, he allowed me to come in and talk about the things that were bothering me. No one was ever denied access to him because they were immature or unsuitable. Visitors and devotees could sit in his presence for as long as they wanted, all of them absorbing as much grace as they could assimilate. Through his jnana alone, the Maharshi was a towering spiritual giant. By making himself continuously available, the lustre of his greatness shone even more.
On my visits to Sri Ramanasramam I would sit in the hall with the Maharshi, listening to him deal with all the questions and doubts that devotees brought to him. Occasionally, if some answer was not clear, or if it did not tally with my own experience, I would ask a question myself. My army training had taught me that I should keep on questioning until I fully understood what was being explained to me. I applied the same principles to the Maharshi’s philosophical teachings.
On one occasion, for example, I heard him tell a visitor that the spiritual Heart-centre was located on the right side of the chest, and that the ‘I’-thought arose from that place and subsided there. This did not tally with my own experience of the Heart. On my first visit to the Maharshi, when my Heart opened and flowered, I knew that it was neither inside nor outside the body. And when the experience of the Self became permanent during my second visit, I knew that it was not possible to say that the Heart could be limited to or located in the body.
So I joined in the conversation and asked, ‘Why do you place the spiritual Heart on the right side of the chest and limit it to that location? There can be no right or left for the Heart because it does not abide inside or outside the body. Why not say it is everywhere? How can you limit the truth to a location inside the body? Would it not be more correct to say that the body is situated in the Heart, rather than the Heart in the body?’ I was quite vigorous and fearless in my questioning because that was the method I had been taught in the army.
The Maharshi gave me an answer which fully satisfied me. Turning to me, he explained that he only spoke in this way to people who still identified themselves with their bodies. ‘When I speak of the “I” rising from the right side of the body, from a location on the right side of the chest, the information is for those people who still think that they are the body. To these people I say that the Heart is located there. But it is really not quite correct to say that the “I” rises from and merges in the Heart on the right side of the chest. The Heart is another name for the Reality and it is neither inside nor outside the body; there can be no in or out for it, since it alone is. I do not mean by “Heart” any physiological organ or any plexus or anything like that, but so long as one identifies oneself with the body and thinks that one is the body, one is advised to see where in the body the “I”-thought rises and merges again. It must be the Heart at the right side of the chest since every man, of whatever race and religion, and in whatever language he may be saying “I”, points to the right side of the chest to indicate himself. This is so all over the world, so that must be the place. And by keenly watching the daily emergence of the “I”-thought on waking, and its subsiding in sleep, one can see that it is in this Heart on the right side.’
I liked to talk to the Maharshi when he was alone or when there were very few people around, but this was not often possible. For most of the day he was surrounded by people. Even when I did approach him with a question, I had to have an interpreter on hand because my Tamil wasn’t good enough to sustain a philosophical conversation.
The summer months were the best time to catch him in a quiet environment. The climate was so unpleasant at that time, few visitors came. One time in May, at the height of the summer, there were only about five of us with the Maharshi. Chadwick, one of the five, made a joke about it: ‘We are your poor devotees, Bhagavan. Everyone who can afford to go to the hills to cool off has left. Only we paupers have been left behind.’
The Maharshi laughed and replied, ‘Yes, staying here in summer, without running away, is the real tapas’.
I would sometimes accompany the Maharshi on his walks around the ashram. This enabled me to talk privately with him and to observe first-hand how he dealt with devotees and ashram workers. I watched him supervise the sharing out of the food, making sure everyone received equal portions; I watched him remonstrate with workers who wanted to prostrate to him rather than carry on with their work. Everything he did contained a lesson for us. Every step he took was a teaching in itself.
The Maharshi preferred to work in a low-key, unspectacular way with the people around him. There were no great demonstrations of his power, just a continuous subtle emanation of grace which inexorably seeped into the hearts of all those who came into contact with him.
One incident I witnessed illustrates very well the subtle and indirect way that he worked with us. A woman brought her dead son to the Maharshi, placing the dead body before the couch. The boy had apparently died from a snake bite. The woman begged the Maharshi to bring him back to life, but he deliberately ignored her and her repeated requests. After a few hours the ashram manager made her take the corpse away. As she was leaving the ashram she met some kind of snake charmer who claimed that he could cure her son. The man did something to the boy’s hand, the place where he had been bitten, and the boy immediately revived, even though he had been dead for several hours.
The devotees in the ashram attributed the miraculous cure to the Maharshi, saying, ‘When a problem is brought to the attention of a jnani, some “automatic divine activity” brings about a solution’. According to this theory, the Maharshi had done nothing consciously to help the boy, but at a deeper, unconscious level, his awareness of the problem had caused the right man to appear at the right place. The Maharshi of course disclaimed all responsibility for the miraculous cure. ‘Is that so?’ was his only response when told about the boy’s dramatic recovery.
This was typical of the Maharshi. He never performed any miracles and never even accepted any responsibility for those that seemed to happen either in his presence or on account of a devotee’s faith in him. The only ‘miracles’ he indulged in were those of inner transformation. By a word, a look, a gesture, or merely by remaining in silence, he quietened the minds of people around him, enabling them to become aware of who they really were. There is no greater miracle than this.
“I am with you”
In 1947 the British Government, under pressure from the Muslims, decided that after independence India would be partitioned. The areas with a Muslim majority would form the new state of Pakistan; the leftover territory would be the new, independent India. In the Northwest, the border ran roughly north-south and was located to the east of Lahore. This meant that my family would find themselves in Pakistan after independence, which was scheduled to occur in August. In the months preceding independence many Muslims from India migrated to the embryonic state of Pakistan. At the same time, many Hindus who were living in areas that would be in Pakistan left to live in India. Feelings ran high in both communities. Hindus trying to leave Pakistan were attacked, robbed and even killed by Muslims, while Muslims trying to leave India were subjected to the same treatment by Hindus. The violence escalated to the point where whole trainloads of Hindus leaving Pakistan were hijacked and gunned down by Muslims, while, in the other direction, Hindus were attacking trains of fleeing Muslims, and murdering all the occupants. I knew nothing about all this because I never bothered to read newspapers or listen to the radio.
In July 1947, a month before independence, Devaraja Mudaliar approached me and asked me which part of the Punjab I came from. When I told him that I came from a town about 200 miles to the west of Labore, he informed me about the forthcoming partition, stressing that my family and my father’s house were going to end up in Pakistan.
‘Where are all the members of your family at the moment?’ he asked.
‘So far as I know,’ I answered, for I didn’t have much contact with them, ‘they are still all in my home town. None of them is living in a place which will be in India.’
‘Then why don’t you go and fetch them?’ he asked. ‘It is not safe for them to stay there.’ He told me about the massacres that were going on and insisted that it was my duty to look after my family by taking them to a safe place. He even suggested that I bring them to Tiruvannamalai.
‘I’m not going,’ I told him. ‘I cannot leave the company of the Maharshi.’ This was not an excuse; I felt it was quite literally true. I had reached a stage in my relationship with the Maharshi where I loved him so much, I couldn’t take my eyes off him or contemplate the thought of going to the other end of the country for an indefinite period.
That day, as we accompanied the Maharshi on his evening walk outside the ashram, Devaraja Mudaliar turned to him and said, ‘Poonja’s family seems to be stranded in Western Punjab. He doesn’t want to go there. Nor does he seem interested in trying to get them out. Independence is less than a month away. If he does not go now, it may be too late.’
The Maharshi agreed with him that my place was with my family. He told me, ‘There will be a lot of trouble in the area you come from. Why don’t you go there at once? Why don’t you go and bring your family out?’
Though this amounted to an order, I was still hesitant. Ever since the day the Maharshi had shown me who I am, I had felt great love for him and great attachment to him. I genuinely felt that I didn’t have any relationship in the world other than the one I had with him. My attitude was, ‘I feel so much gratitude towards this man who has removed my fears, shown me the light and removed the darkness from my mind, I can’t have any relationship any more except with him’. I attempted to explain my position to the Maharshi.
‘That old life was only a dream,’ I said. ‘I dreamed I had a wife and a family. When I met you, you ended my dream. I have no family any more, I only have you.’
The Maharshi countered by saying, ‘But if you know that your family is a dream, what difference does it make if you remain in that dream and do your duty? Why are you afraid of going if it is only a dream?’
I then explained the main reason for my reluctance to go. ‘I am far too attached to your physical form. I cannot leave you. I love you so much I cannot take my eyes off you. How can I leave?”I am with you wherever you are,’ was his answer. From the way he spoke to me I could see that he was determined that I should go. His last statement was, in effect, a benediction for my forthcoming trip and for my future life in general.
I immediately understood the deep significance of his remark. The ‘I’ which was my Master’s real nature was also my own inner reality. How could I ever be away from that ‘I’? It was my own Self, and both my Master and I knew that nothing else existed.
I accepted his decision. I prostrated before him and for the first and only time in my life I touched his feet as an act of veneration, love and respect. He didn’t normally let anyone touch his feet, but this was a special occasion and he made no objection. Before I rose I collected some of the dust from beneath his feet and put it in my pocket to keep as a sacred memento. I also asked for his blessings because I had an intuition that this was our final parting. I somehow knew I would never see him again.
Last train from Pakistan
I left the ashram and made my way to Lahore. The atmosphere there was every bit as bad as I had been led to expect. Angry Muslims were running around shouting, ‘Kill the Hindus! Kill the Hindus!’ Others were shouting, ‘We got Pakistan so easily, let us now invade India and conquer it! Let us take it by the sword!’
I went to the station and bought a ticket for my home town. I found a seat in a nearly-empty carriage, put my bags there and went outside to have a drink at the platform tea stall. Surprised at finding the train so empty, I asked one of the passers-by, ‘What’s going on? Why is the train so empty?’
He gave me the reason. ‘The Hindus are not traveling any more. They are afraid to go anywhere by train because they are in the minority here. So many train passengers are being murdered, no one wants to travel that way any more.’
In those violent days, Hindus and Muslims were traveling in separate carriages so they could protect each other in case there was any trouble. The nearly empty carriages I was looking at were those occupied by the Hindus.
And then an inner voice, the voice of my Master, said to me, ‘Go and sit with the Muslims in their compartment. Nothing will happen to you there.’ Superficially it seemed like a good idea, but I had doubts about my ability to fool my Muslim fellow-passengers into believing that I was one of them. I dressed very differently and I had a highly visible ‘Om’ tattooed on the back of one of my hands. I came from a community of brahmin Hindus which thought that all Muslims were polluted and impure because they ate beef. Anyone who wanted to come into our house had to show the back of his hand first. All the local Hindus had an ‘Om’ tattooed there; the Muslims did not. The Hindus were allowed in, the Muslims were excluded.
I listened to the voice and took my seat with the Muslims. No one objected or questioned my right to be there. Somewhere in the countryside the train was stopped by Muslims and all the passengers in the Hindu carriages were gunned down. No one paid any attention to me, even though, to my own eyes at least, I was clearly a Hindu.
I disembarked from the train when it reached my destination and made my way to my family home. When I got there it, was locked and barred. Nobody answered my knock. Eventually my father appeared on the roof, demanding to know who I was.
‘It’s your son,’ I called back. ‘Can’t you see? Don’t you recognize my voice?’
He recognized me and showed his astonishment at my return.
He knew that my family obligations had never rated highly in my priorities before.
What have you come back for?’ he asked, somewhat incredulously. ‘The Punjab is burning. Hindus are being murdered everywhere. Anyway, how did you get here? Are the trains still running?’
‘Yes,’ I called back, ‘the trains are still running. That’s how I got here.’
My father thought for a while before coming to a major decision. ‘In that case,’ he said, ‘you must take the family out of the Punjab and get them settled somewhere in India. If the trains are still running, I can get railway passes for you all.’
The following day, equipped with the relevant passes, I took thirty-four members of my family, virtually all of them women, out of Western Punjab into India. The train we took from Lahore was the last one to leave that city for India. After partition, the trains never crossed the border again.
The Maharshi had sent me to the Punjab to do my duty. That was typical of him because he never permitted his devotees to abandon their family responsibilities. Telling me, ‘I am with you wherever you are,’ he sent me off to fulfil my obligations. When I first heard this remark, I only appreciated its philosophical significance. It did not occur to me that physically I would also be under his care and protection. Yet this was manifestly the case. He had told me where to sit on the train. For more than twenty hours after the massacre I had sat unrecognised in a Muslim carriage, despite having pierced ears and an ‘Om’ on my hand, both of them classic Hindu identification marks. In an environment of utter anarchy I had secured seats for a vast contingent of my family and got them out of danger on the last train that ever left Lahore for India. After independence the cross-border railway lines were pulled up and the border itself was closed.
Arrival in Lucknow
I took my family to Lucknow because I had a friend there from my time in the army whom I knew I could rely on for help. With his assistance I found suitable accommodation. There was no question of my returning to the Maharshi because I was the only potential earner in our group. Refugees fleeing Pakistan for India were stripped of all their possessions before they left. Even personal jewelery was taken. Arriving in India with little more than the clothes we were wearing, it became my responsibility to feed, clothe and support this vast group of destitute refugees.
Having listened to the Maharshi for several years, I knew by heart the advice he always gave to householders: ‘Abide as the Self and do your duties in the world without being attached to them in any way.’ For the next few years I had ample opportunity to live this philosophy.
I had to work night and day to keep the family going. I have always been a big, strong man, and in my youth I was a successful wrestler.
But even with all this strength at my disposal, I had a grueling, arduous time trying to keep up with all the needs and expectations of thirty-four dependants, all of us stranded in a strange land. It did not help matters that my family did not feel any need to economize. On the rare occasions I came home I would find a house full of women, drinking cups of tea and frying mountains of pakoras. I remember buying an eighteen kilo tin of cooking oil for them almost every week.
The Master Remains
There is one final episode I must tell before I complete the story of my association with my Master.
Many years later, sitting on the banks of the Ganga, I had an extraordinary vision of myself, the self that had been H.W.L. Poonja, in all its various incarnations through time. I watched the self move from body to body, from form to form. It went through plants, through animals, through birds, through human bodies, each in a different place in a different time. The sequence was extraordinarily long. Thousands and thousands of incarnations, spanning millions of years, appeared before me. My own body finally appeared as the last one of the sequence, followed shortly afterwards by the radiant form of Sri Ramana Maharshi. The vision then ended. The appearance of the Maharshi had ended that seemingly endless sequence of births and rebirths. After his intervention in my life, the self that finally took the form of Poonja could incarnate no more. The Maharshi destroyed it by a single look.
As I watched the endless incarnations roll by, I also experienced time progressing at its normal speed. That is to say, it really felt as if millions of years were elapsing. Yet when my normal consciousness returned, I realised that the whole vision had occupied but an instant of time. One may dream a whole lifetime but when one wakes up one knows that the time which elapsed in the dream was not real, that the person in the dream was not real, and that the world which that person inhabited was not real. All this is recognised instantly at the moment of waking. Similarly, when one wakes up to the Self, one knows instantly that time, the world, and the life one appeared to live in it are all unreal.
That vision by the Ganga brought home this truth to me very vividly. I knew that all my lifetimes in samsara were unreal, that the Maharshi had woken me up from this wholly imaginary nightmare by showing me the Self that I really am. Now, freed from that ridiculous samsara, and speaking from the standpoint of the Self, the only reality, I can say, ‘Nothing has ever come into existence; nothing has ever happened; the unchanging, formless Self alone exists’. That is my experience, and that is the experience of everyone who has realised the Self.
A few months ago, at one of the satsangs I conduct in Lucknow, someone gave me a note which concluded:
‘My humble respects and gratitude to you, especially to one who was a disciple of Ramana Maharshi.’ I couldn’t let this pass. ‘Why do you say “was”?’ I exclaimed. ‘Please correct your grammar! Please correct your grammar! I am his disciple! He is my Master. How can I throw him away into the past? There is no past and no future for the Master. There isn’t even a present because he has transcended time.’
When I left him physically in 1947 he told me, ‘I am with you wherever you are’. That was his promise and that is my experience. There is no one called Poonja left anymore. There is only an emptiness where he used to be. And in that emptiness there shines the ‘I’, the ‘I’ that is my reality, the ‘I’ that is my Master, the ‘I’ that he promised would be with me wherever I am. Whenever I speak, it is not someone called Poonja who is speaking, it is the ‘I’ that is the Maharshi who speaks, the ‘I’ which is the Self in the Heart of all beings.
I tried to explain this to the person who sent me the note. Who am I? What am I?
I never think it is I, Poonja, who am speaking. It is he, the Maharshi, the Master who is speaking. If I ever thought that this person called Poonja was speaking to you, I would have no right to sit here because whatever would come out of my mouth would be false. It is my own Master who speaks; it is your own Master who speaks.
It is your own Heart speaking; it is your own Self which is speaking to you. There is no one here claiming to be an intermediary. There is no one here claiming that he once had a Master called “Sri Ramana Maharshi”. There is only emptiness, and in that emptiness the “I” which is, not was, my Master speaks.
‘I am sitting here introducing you to my teacher and his teachings. He is the teacher, not I. He is your own Self. He is the teacher of the world. He was the teacher before you even knew him. He was there, waiting for you, smiling within your Heart. Now you are attracted by him, not me. I, Poonja, am not in the picture at all.’
Poonja has gone for good, but the Master remains and will always remain. He is seated in my Heart as my own imperishable Self. Shining as the ‘I’, he alone is.
On 6th September, 1997 Papaji passed away in the intensive-care ward of a Lucknow hospital, having succumbed to what the doctors there called ‘acute respiratory failure’. Papaji was cremated the following day and his ashes were immersed in the Ganga a few days later by Surendra, his son, and by the devotees who accompanied him.
Though his health had been poor for some time, Papaji continued to give regular public Satsangs till 25th August (Krishna Janmashtami), and the never-ending stream of devotees was made welcome at his home until a severe attack of viral fever, bronchitis and asthma forced his admission to hospital on 2nd September.