By Paula Horan
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. Do you see him now?’
‘No, Sir, I do not,’ Papaji answered.
‘So Krishna comes and plays with you and 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.’
Papaji found this a little deflating but was still not willing to listen to the Maharshi‘s advice. Back in Chennai, he continued his Krishna japa. One night when he was in his puja room, he heard people outside his door. When he opened the door he was both shocked and thrilled to find the Hindu deities Ram, Sita, Hanuman and Lakshman standing there. He invited them in and spent the rest of the night with them; the hours seemed like minutes.
The upshot of this visitation, noted Papaji, was that he not only became incapable of repeating Krishna’s name, but to do any form of sadhana. Dismayed, he sought advice from various spiritual authorities, but to no avail. The Maharshi then appeared to him again in a vision.
Papaji went to his ashram for help, and unburdened himself entirely, anguished by his inability to continue with this quarter century-long study of the scriptures and spiritual literature.
The Maharshi asked: ‘What happened when you got to the railway station at Tiruvannamalai?’
Confused, Papaji answered: ‘Well, I handed in my ticket and engaged a bullock cart to carry me to the ashram.’
‘And when you reached the ashram and paid the driver, what happened to the cart?’
‘Went back to town, I guess.’
‘The train brought you to your destination,’ said the Maharshi. ‘You got off because you didn’t need it anymore. Likewise with the bullock cart. They were the means for bringing you here. Now you do not need them. Your japa, your reading and your meditation have brought you to your spiritual destination. You do not need them anymore either. You did not give up your practices; they left you of their own accord because they had served their purpose. You have arrived.’
Under Ramana’s gaze, Papaji felt that his body and mind were being washed with waves of purity. Every atom was being purified, as if a new body was being created. A process of transformation was going on. Then Papaji understood: this man was, in reality, his own Self, what he had always been. The ‘I’ who had been looking for a god outside of itself perished in the direct knowledge and experience of the self. Papaji’s quest was over.
He spent every moment he could with the Maharshi, till Ramana sent him to Punjab to rescue his family during the partition, with the words: ‘I am with you wherever you are.’ Papaji says that there is no Papaji any longer, only emptiness where he used to be, emptiness and Sri Ramana.
After his awakening, he became very elusive. Papaji’s early devotees, seeking him doggedly, have many incredible stories of their awakenings in his presence.
Raman (Duncan) Ellis, an Australian who first discovered Papaji in 1975, had been attracted to Ramana Maharshi’s picture years earlier, and had even been named after him. He set off in search of Papaji, who he knew had been now of the Maharshi’s most formidable disciples. He finally caught up with Papaji in Delhi, India. Raman knew at once that he had come home. Over the next 10 years he was to return to India many times.
Says Raman: ‘Master was ruthless when it came to sweeping away concepts and experiences. My abiding memory of him is of a hard, tough destroyer who was always ready to smash any trace of duality he encountered in a disciple. Nowadays, people call him ‘Papaji’ and relate to him as a kind, loving grandfather. I never had that image. For me he was, and always will be, the Master, with all the awesome, authoritative connotations that this term denoted. A French disciple once told me that Master’s nickname in France in the 1970s was ‘the butcher’ because of the way he ruthlessly chopped away all pretensions, all ideas, all relationships.’
Today, the picture is, well, different—on the outside. An Indian sanyasi, known simply as ‘Swamiji’ who served Papaji, described an experience he had which connected him with the Heart of the Master: ‘During a satsang in Haridwar, Papaji had touched on the necessary qualifications for enlightenment. He said that desire for liberation must be unshakable.’
Swamiji remembers the longing he felt and the thought that moved through his mind ‘Oh, when will it be for me?’ He immediately burst out crying. Papaji responded: ‘The arrow has hit the target, now enjoy ananda (blissful happiness) .’
Being with Papaji, you could begin to understand what it meant to be in the world, but not of it. Rajiv Misra, who feels that Papaji’s grace has enabled him to compose beautiful bhajans (devotional songs), says: ‘Papaji has helped me to find balance. He’s taught me how to face the world as it is, and still be quiet in the Self.’
Jyoti Tasgonkar, an architect who dropped her career to serve Papaji, says that he had taught her to be conscious of all the seemingly small details of life.
Like Sri Ramana before him, Papaji has had a series of his devotees experience self-realization in his presence. He had sent a few of these out as messengers, such as Gangaji and Isaac, to hold satsangs on his behalf. Taking Vedanta to its logical end, he was adamantly against ashrams, and avoided any show of siddhis; nor did he leave any particular successor.
When Papaji was asked who he was, he retorted simply: ‘ I am that.’ The sacred texts say that we are ‘ Sat Chit Ananda’ (Awareness, Consciousness, Bliss). What happens in Papaji’s presence is a direct experience of precisely that, not just a regurgitated intellectual concept.
The advice he always gave was simply: ‘Keep quiet. Do not let a single thought arise.’
Papaji pointed out that in the practice of traditional meditation, there is still a separate entity that meditates. He tells a story to illustrate this point: ‘Once, a sadhu went into nirvikalpa samadhi for 15 years. When he came out of samadhi, he yelled angrily at his wife, ‘Where is my breakfast?’ (He had been promised breakfast shortly before he went into samadhi.) His wife, bewildered at his remark, admonished him that 15 years of samadhi had done nothing to eliminate his miserable ego. Fortunately for him, he got the point and immediately bowed at her feet.’
Papaji’s advice was to drop all doing, for ultimately all identification as a separate doer must disappear. He also told his devotees to follow Ramana Maharshi’s advice: ‘Direct all inquiry inward toward the self with the question, ‘Who Am I?’, without looking for an objective answer.’
The seeker simply disappears.
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