Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi – Papaji (Hariwansh Lal Poonja)

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Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi – Papaji (Hariwansh Lal Poonja)Back


Papaji (Hariwansh Lal Poonja) (1910-97), an Indian Army officer, was born at Lyalpur, West Punjab. Since his boyhood, his deep devotion to Krishna gave him vivid visions of the Lord.

After relinquishing his commissioned post in Indian army in favour of spiritual attainments, Papaji went from place to place and met numerous spiritual gurus including Swami Ramdas(no.81), Swami Sivananda, Swami Tapovanam (no.82) and Anand Moyi Ma, a devotee of Sri Ramana. But no one could answer his oft-repeated query: “Have you seen God? Can you show me God?”After all his journeys, when he returned home ‘disillusioned and disappointed’, a sadhu resembling Sri Ramana appeared at his door asking for food, which was given to him. Then the sadhu was asked: Can you show me God? If not, do you know of anyone who can? Papaji says:

Much to my surprise, the sadhu said, “Yes, I know a person who can show you God. His name is Ramana Maharshi and he lives at Tiruvannamalai.” He gave me detailed instructions on how to reach there. I noted these down carefully. But I had spent all the money I had saved from my brief spell in the army on my unsuccessful pilgrimages. Through an amazing coincidence, I came across an advertisement offering job to an exarmy officer in Madras. After I got the job, my employer gave me money to get to Madras and told me that I need not report for duty for one month, thus giving me an opportunity to be in the Maharshi’s presence before I reported for work. It was 1944, and I was thirty-four years of age.

As per sadhus instructions I reached Sri Ramanasramam. Before entering the hall, I peeped through the window and saw, sitting on a sofa inside, the same man who had visited my house in the Punjab. I was disgusted. I said to myself : “This man is a fraud. He appears in my house in the Punjab, tells me to go to Tiruvannamalai, and then hops on the train so that he could get here before me.” I felt so annoyed that I decided to leave the Ashram.

As I was preparing to do so, one of the residents asked,”Haven’t you just arrived?” I told him the story as to how I got cheated. The person said, “You are mistaken. He has not moved out of the town during the last 48 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 girls from America came here once and told a similar story. These things do happen occasionally.” This aroused my curiosity and I decided to stay.

I had lunch in the Ashram. At the conclusion of the meal the Maharshi went to the hall followed by his attendant. As he needed rest after lunch, devotees were not allowed to see him during 11.30 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. Not knowing this, I followed him. While his attendant was persuading me to come later, the Maharshi overheard the exchange, and I was allowed to get in.

I approached the Maharshi in a belligerent way, “Are you the man who came to see me at my house in the Punjab?”The Maharshi remained silent. I tried again, “Did you not come to my house and tell me to come here?” Again the Maharshi made no comment. Since he was unwilling to answer, I moved on to the main purpose of my visit. I asked, ” Have you seen God? 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.” He answered, “No, 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.” He also added, “You alone are God.” His words did not impress me. I would have dismissed him and his words without a second thought had it not been for an experience I had.

As he looked at me and gazed into my eyes, my whole body began to tremble and shake. A thrill of nervous energy shot through my body. My nerve ends 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 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 in my Heart. It was an extraordinary experience. It totally surprised me when it happened.

Though I had an immensely powerful experience, the Maharshi’s statement that ‘You alone are God’ and his advice to find out who the seer is did not have a strong appeal for me. I thought to myself, ‘It is no good to be a chocolate, I want to taste chocolate’. I want to remain separate from God so that I could enjoy the bliss of union with Him. My views on various religious practices were limited. I thought to myself, ‘No one here in the hall seems to be chanting the name of God. How can they consider themselves to be good devotees? All these people may have been meditating but so far as I was concerned, they were wasting their time.’

I still had some time before I had to report for duty in Madras. But I did not want to spend it with all these ‘spiritually lazy’ people in the Ashram. I found a quiet spot in the jungle on the other 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.

Before going to Madras to join my duty, 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 everyday through my own efforts. When the Maharshi asked where I had gone, I told him with a great amount of smugness that I was playing with my Krishna.

The Maharshi commented, “Very good, very nice. Do you see Him now?” I replied, “I see Him only when I have visions.” The Maharshi said, “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 to make me listen to his advice. 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. Having therefore got, in my jaundiced opinion, nothing from the Maharshi except a good experience and some bad advice, I returned to Madras to take up my new job.

I found a nice house to live, and began my work. All my spare time and energy were devoted to communing with Krishna. I synchronized 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. One day, I found that when I tried to resume my chanting, I could not repeat the name of Krishna any more. Somehow, my mind refused to cooperate. Not finding any solution to my problem, even after consulting well-known swamis in Madras, my thought turned to the Maharshi. I said to myself, ‘This man came all the way to the Punjab in some form and directed me to see him at Tiruvannamalai. I went there and got a very good experience. I may as well go to him and see what he has to say.’

Taking a train to Tiruvannamalai, I reached the Ashram. In order to talk to the Maharshi alone, I went to the hall after lunch. As on my previous trip, the attendant wanted me to come later. But again the Maharshi intervened and I got an opportunity to tell him that for twenty five years I have been doing sadhana, mostly repeating the name of Krishna. Now 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 did not see the point of his question but told him politely, “By train.” Then he inquired, “What happened when you reached Tiruvannamalai?” “Well I took a bullock cart which brought me here.

The Maharshi then explained what he was driving at: “The train brought you to your destination. You got off it because you did not need it anymore. Likewise, with the bullock cart. Now you are here, they are of no use to you. That is what has happened to your sadhana. Your japa and your meditation have brought you to your spiritual destination. 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 away with waves of purity. His silent gaze was purifying them. Under that spellbinding gaze I felt every atom of my body being purified. It was as if a new body was 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, there was a sudden impact of recognition as I became aware of the Self. The silent gaze of the Maharshi established me in that primal state that was permanent. The ‘I’ which had for so long been looking outside perished in the direct knowledge and experience of the Self, which the Maharshi had revealed to me. I cannot describe what the experience was, but I knew that my spiritual quest had definitely ended; and the source of that knowledge will always remain indescribable.

In a lifetime of spiritual seeking I have met hundreds of sadhus, swamis and gurus, but none of them could reveal the truth the way the Maharshi had done. I must make one more comment about the greatness of the Maharshi: he could see that I had reached a state in which my sadhana could never be resumed again. He knew I was ready for realization and through his divine look he established me in his own state.

After my final experience in the Maharshi’s presence, my outer life went on much as before. I went Backto Madras, carried on with my job, and supported my family. At weekends, or when I had accumulated enough leave, I would go to Tiruvannamalai, sit at the feet of my Master and bask in his radiant presence. The cynical, skeptical seeker, who aggressively confronted the Maharshi on the first visit, had gone for good.

In the first few months after my realization, I did not have a single thought. I could go to the office and perform my duties without ever having a thought in my mind. It did not take me long to realize 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 much mental effort or activity.

On one of my visits to Tiruvannamalai, I took my seven-year old daughter with me. She sat before the Maharshi and went into a deep meditative trance. She spent several hours in that condition before returning to her normal waking state. Major Chadwick [No.42], who was watching all this, 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 efforts. How can this be?”The Maharshi merely smiled and said, “How do you know that she is not older than you?”

My daughter did not want to go Backto Madras.The Maharshi advised her to first finish her education and then come Backif she wanted to do so. If anyone asked her, “What happened that day when you were in trance before the Maharshi?” she could not answer and just cried.

I would sometimes accompany the Maharshi on his walks around the Ashram. I watched him remonstrate with the workers who wanted to prostrate to him rather than carry on 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 and in an unspectacular way. There was no demonstration of his power, just a subtle emanation of grace, which seeped into the hearts of those who came into contact with him.

One incident that I witnessed illustrates very well the subtle and indirect way the Maharshi worked. A woman brought her dead son to the Ashram. The boy had apparently died of snakebite. The woman cried and begged the Maharshi to bring him Backto life, but he did not respond to 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 a snake charmer who claimed that he could cure her son. The man did something to the boy’s hand where he had been bitten, and the boy immediately revived.

The devotees 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 has done nothing consciously to help the boy, but at a deeper, unconscious level, his awareness of the problem has 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 him.

The Maharshi never performed any miracles. 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 could quieten the minds of people around him, enabling them to become aware of who they really were.

In July 1947, a month before Independence, Devaraja Mudaliar [No.35] told me about the problems which I could face if I did not bring my family to India from the Punjab, which was soon to become a part of Pakistan. I told him, “I am not going. I cannot leave the company of the Maharshi.” I had reached a stage in my relationship with the Maharshi where I loved him so much, I couldn’t take my eyes offhim or contemplate the thought of going to the other end of the country for an indefinite period.

When Mudaliar told the Maharshi that Poonja’s family seems to be stranded in West Punjab and he did not want to go there, the Maharshi told me, “There will be a lot of trouble in the area you come from. Why don’t you go and bring your family out?” Though this amounted to an order; I was still hesitant. 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 that I cannot take my eyes off you.

“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. I accepted the decision. I prostrated before him and for the first time in my life I touched his feet as an act of veneration, love, and respect. He will not normally let anyone touch his feet, but this was a special occasion and he did not object. Before I rose, I collected some of the dust beneath his feet and put it in my pocket as a sacred memento. I also asked for his blessings because I had an intuition that this was our final parting.

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. I went to the station and bought a ticket for my hometown – Lyalpur. In those violent days, Hindus and Muslims were travelling in separate carriages so that they could protect each other in case there was any trouble. The nearly empty carriages 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 a doubt about my ability to fool my Muslim fellow-passengers into believing that I was one of them. I dressed differently and had a highly visible ‘Om’ tattooed on the Backof one of my hands. I listened to the voice and took my seat with the Muslims. No one questioned my right to be there. Somewhere in the countryside, Muslims stopped the train and all the passengers in the Hindu carriages were gunned down. Nobody paid any attention to me, even though I was clearly a Hindu sitting in a Muslim compartment.

After disembarking from the train I went to my family home and found 34 members of my family, most of them women, stranded there. I succeeded in bringing them Backsafely to India.

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 offto fulfill my obligations.

When I first heard this remark, I appreciated only 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 unrecognized in a Muslim carriage, despite having pierced ears and an ‘Om’ on my hand, both of them classic Hindu identification marks. Further, 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 left Lahore for India.1

I took my family to Lucknow because I had a friend there from my time in the army. There was no question of returning to the Maharshi because I was the only potential earner in my group. Arriving in India with little more than the clothes we were wearing, it became my responsibility to feed and support this vast group. I had to work night and day to keep the family going.

At 8.47, on the evening of April 14,1950 2 I was walking down a street in Lucknow. I suddenly felt an enormous spasm in my chest, which nearly knocked me down to the ground. I thought it must be some sort of heart attack. A few seconds later I saw a few people pointing to a large meteor, which was trailing across the sky. This was the meteor that thousands of people all over India saw in the first few seconds after the Maharshi’s death.

Many years later, sitting on the banks of the Ganges, I had an extraordinary vision of my various incarnations through time. I watched the Self moving from body to body, from form to form. It went through plants, through animals, through birds, through human bodies, each in a different place at a different time. The sequence was extraordinarily long. My own body finally appeared as the last one of the sequence, followed by the radiant form of the 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 had destroyed it by a single look.

Sometime ago, at one of the satsangs which I used to conduct in Lucknow, a note handed over to me concluded: “My humble respects and gratitude to you, especially to one who was a disciple of Ramana Maharshi.” I couldn’t let this pass. I exclaimed, “Please correct your grammar. I am his disciple! He is my master. How can I throw him away into the past? I never think it is I, Poonja, who is speaking. If I ever thought that this person called Poonja was speaking to you, I have no right to sit here because whatever would come out of my mouth would be false. It is my own master who speaks. I am sitting here introducing you to my teacher and his teachings. He is the teacher; not I. Poonja has gone for good, but the Master remains and will always remain. He is seated in my heart as my own imperishable Self.”

[David Godman, from whose book Nothing Ever Happened the above has been extracted, says: Having just finished interviewing Papaji in 1992, about the events when he was at Sri Ramanasramam in the 1940s, I wanted to know as a conclusion, if he could say a few words of gratitude or appreciation, summarizing what the Maharshi did for him. Papaji opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. After two or three seconds tears started flowing down his cheeks. Turning his head to hide his tears, he said, “I can’t answer that question. I can’t speak about it. No words can ever express it.”Godman however refers to a poem, which Papaji wrote to one of his devotees in 1982: ‘My Master spoke in silence. / My Master spoke through his eyes. / My Master spoke through words. / All the three languages I have heard.’]

1. On an enquiry about any other case where Sri Ramana provided physical protection to a devotee as happened in case of Papaji, David Godman, who has done extensive research about Sri Ramana and his devotees, replied that he knew no other example of this nature.

2. The time when the Maharshi entered his mahasamadhi.

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