By Paula Horan February 1997 Paula Horan, an American reiki master and writer, found her search for a guru ended when she met H.W.L. Poonja—the spiritual teacher— affectionately called Papaji. Around the time I met Papaji, the spiritual teacher, in 1992, I was so disappointed with my experience with some well-known gurus that I was planning to write a book, The Age of the End of Gurus. I have been seeking, in vain, someone who could mirror the truth of who I am and stretch me to becoming more of an expression of the heart and less of the head. When I arrived at the Satsang Bhawan (where Papaji meets people) in Lucknow, capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, I was at first jolted by the Osho Commune-like atmosphere. Many of Osho’s sanyasins had recently migrated to Lucknow after the sudden awakening of one of their flock in Papaji’s presence. The new atmosphere must have been an adjustment problem for Papaji, too. In 1990, due to a growing difficulty in walking, he had given up his nomadic lifestyle. Never one to allow large groups to accumulate around him, Papaji was now thronged by a new generation of seekers. East-West Journal and many Buddhist publications in the West had started writing about him. As word got out, people were drawn from every continent to experience his presence. A longtime devotee of Papaji’s encouraged me to have a direct dialogue with the master, explaining that the best way to do so would be to submit heartfelt questions to him. After an initial period of silence, it is customary for Papaji to engage each questioner. One morning, I brought my earnest appeal to the master: ‘Please help me alleviate, once and for all, my miserable monkey mind.’ I added: ‘I have a burning desire to surrender my mind, but at the same time I have tremendous resistance.’ Papaji crossed out the second part of the sentence and underlined the first. He said: ‘Give me one second, no, less than a second. You only have to give me $10 and I will give you a million!’ Bewildered, my mind tried to figure out how to give him that second. Sensing my identification with the mind, he took a different tack straight to the heart of things. During that first interaction which lasted 45 minutes, he skillfully brought me from the head to the heart, enough to make me admit to him, tears in my eyes: ‘I need you.’ When he asked me what I needed most, I replied: ‘Love.’ When I returned to Lucknow the next year, Papaji showered me with his love and attention. He gave me the opportunity to be with him and to get to know him, and to develop a bond of trust. He was over 80 years old then, but barely looked 60. A very passionate man, he exuded shakti (spiritual power), although shakti is only a small part of him. I found him to be a perfect blend of the really strong masculine and the receptive compassionate feminine. I needed a teacher who I could laugh and joke with and who would call me on my blind spots. Papaji was all that and more to me. It wasn’t until later that I realized the true master that he was. Most seekers who were drawn to him had come after years, perhaps lifetimes, of a focused spiritual odyssey. In his presence they finally experienced the great, peaceful silence of the heart. To better understand the effect Papaji had on others, it may help to recount some of the high points of his own life, which elucidate the making of this true master. Of course, Papaji would probably contradict me here and say that a master just happens, as nothing is ever ‘made’. Many years ago Papaji was a seeker himself, visiting every known guru. It was around 1943 that he finally met Ramana Maharshi, who stole his heart by telling him the single unequivocal truth: ‘God is within you. He is not apart from you. If you find the source of the mind by asking yourself ‘Who am I?’ you will experience Him in your Heart as the Self.’ Today, Papaji wryly says that if he had met the Maharshi earlier in his life, he would probably have saved himself many years of fruitless searching in the world outside. Papaji remembered his first awakening very clearly. In 1919, eight-year-old Hariwansh Lal Poonja accompanied his parents on a visit to Lahore, then in undivided India. He was offered a mango drink, which he would have normally relished. But, recollected Papaji: ‘I made no attempt to stretch out my hand to receive it. It was not that I didn’t want it. I had just been engulfed and consumed by an experience that made me so peaceful and happy that I was unable to respond to the offer.’ Perplexed, his relatives tried to rouse him, slapping, pinching, even lifting him, but he was too deep into the experience. Even a local exorcist couldn’t crack his cocoon of bliss. When he came out of samadhi two days later, his mother, a Krishna bhakt (devotee), assumed that his happiness came from a mystical experience involving Lord Krishna. She soon immersed him in her own form of worship. Spurred by a desire to return to his experience of indescribable transcendence, Papaji developed a passionate love for the form of Krishna. It was this intensity of passion that brought him devotion’s most sought after gift: a god’s visit. According to Papaji, Lord Krishna began to appear to him in his bedroom and often kept him up at night, playing. When he was 11, Poonja briefly joined a group of itinerant sadhus (monks) passing through his village, telling them: ‘My parents are dead. Will you look after me?’ His frantic parents, who finally tracked him down a few miles from the village, found him entirely unrepentant. ‘How can I be lost?’ he asked them. ‘ Am I a buffalo that I can get lost and not know where I am? I always know where I am. Why have you come to look for me instead of leaving me with god?’ Papaji’s next major ‘spiritual adventure’ occurred two years later, when he was attracted to a picture of the Buddha in a history book at school. The picture was of the Buddha beatified when he was trying to live on a single grain of rice a day. Papaji chose to fast, secretly throwing his food to the dogs, until he was reduced to little more than skin and bone. Two years later, he accidentally ingested bhang (a cannabis derivative) at a festival, flaked out, and awoke with a start in the middle of the night. Snapping into the lotus position, he declared: ‘You are not my father! You are not my mother!’ Then, the catharsis externalized, he went into deep meditation. In the night his parents awoke again to the chanting of strange, unrecognizable sounds. A local pandit recognized the chant as the Yajur Veda—in Sanskrit. The lad had not only ever studied Sanskrit, he had never even heard of the Yajur Veda! Papaji spent a good part of his earlier life juggling the demands of the physical universe and his internal spiritual domain. He took a job, got married, and had children. He even joined a group of revolutionaries who worked for the cause of India’s freedom by infiltrating the British army, and became a military officer. After India’s Independence, he served in the army for some time, but his devotion to Krishna made it impossible for him to continue. He arranged a discharge, and then went on a tour of India, seeking a guru, but returned home unrewarded. Back in Punjab, he asked a sadhu who appeared at his door: ‘Is there a master who has seen god and who could also show him to me?’ The sadhu gave him the name of one Ramana Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai in what is now Tamil Nadu, a southern state of India. Papaji found that there was a job going for an ex-army officer in Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. On his way, he made a stop at Ramanashram. He peered through the window of the hall where Sri Ramana sat—and saw the sadhu he had met earlier. Just as he grabbed his bag to leave, a resident who had seen him arrive asked him why he was going away so soon. Papaji said that he wasn’t interested in any guru who was out ‘collecting’ disciples. The resident said that it couldn’t have been Sri Ramana who Papaji had met in Punjab because he hadn’t left the area in 48 years. Curious, Papaji decided to stay. After lunch, he followed Sri Ramana to his private quarters and challenged him: ‘Are you the same man who came to see me at my house in Punjab?’ The Maharshi kept his counsel. Finally, Papaji asked him: ‘Can you show me god?’ Brutally truthful, Sri Ramana replied in the negative. ‘God is not an object that can be seen,’ he said. ‘God is the subject. He is the seer. Don’t concern yourself with objects that can be seen. Find out who the seer is.’ And then he uttered the words that would transform Papaji’s perspective and spiritual focus for life: ‘You alone are god.’ The Maharshi looked into Papaji’s eyes and a bolt of energy ran through his body. He became aware of his spiritual heart. As the Maharshi continued to gaze at him, Papaji felt ‘something like a closed bud opening and blooming in the heart of the heart, which was neither inside the body nor out of it’. Yet, Papaji soon found himself becoming critical of the devotees and even of the Maharshi himself. He took off for the other side of Arunachala hill and found a quiet spot in the forest where he could do his Krishna japa (chant) undisturbed. He stayed there for about a week. When it was time to report back for work in Chennai, Papaji decided to pay a visit in passing to the Maharshi. The Maharshi asked him: ‘Where have you been? Where are you living?’ ‘On the other side of the mountain, playing with Krishna,’ Papaji replied. ‘Very good. Very nice.
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