An Interview with H.L. Poonjaji
by Catherine Ingram
published in Yoga Journal 1992
After years of wandering, this contemporary Indian sage is now attracting hundreds of Western seekers to his residence in Lucknow. His message is simple: Who we are is pure consciousnessfreedom itself. We need not attain this freedom; we need only realize it.
As a young man, Harivansh Lal Poonja wandered for years throughout India in search of someone “who had seen God.” His seeking led only to disappointment, until 1944 when he met Ramana Maharshi, the great sage of south India, who would die six years later. During one of their visits, Poonja, a dedicated Krishna devotee at the time, proudly described to Ramana his many visions of Krishna, as well as those of Rama, Sita, Lakshman, and Hanuman, superstars in the Hindu pantheon of deities. Quietly Ramana asked the young man, “Do you see these Gods now?”
“No,” Poonja replied.
“What is the use of Gods who appear and disappear?” Ramana inquired. “Only the seer has remained. The sight has disappeared. Find out who the seer is.” On hearing these words, Poonja’s search was over. Instantly, he realized that “God is not an object but the subject itself.”
Now Poonja himself represents the end of the search for those who come to him. And in the last two years the numbers of people making their way to the unlikely town of Lucknow, India, where the master resides, have swollen from three or four in 1990 to many hundreds in 1992. For it is only in the last few years that Poonjaji (the suffix “ji” denotes respect), now 81 years old, has allowed students to collect around him.
Poonjaji’s teaching is simple:
Who we really are is pure consciousness in the absolute here and nowalready free, always freeour fundamental nature, freedom itself. We need not attain this freedom; we need only realize it.
For many people who have spent years and, in some cases, decades in meditation practice, striving for the elusive goal of enlightenment, his message comes as a welcome relief. His visitors have numbered seekers from all traditions, including Ram Dass and other Neem Karoli Baba devotees and Buddhist vipassana teachers like Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Christopher Titmuss, and James Baraz. There has also been a steady stream of vipassana students, many of whom, weary of the relentless noting of mind moments, have been drawn to India by the promise of being able to “settle into the eternal, seamless now.” In addition, several “messengers” of PoonjajiWesterners who have spent time with him and are now teachers in their own righthave contributed to the surge in travel to Lucknow, most notably Gangaji (Antoinette Varner), a dynamic 50-year-old who met Poonjaji in 1990 and now holds regular satsangs in Hawaii.
By far the most numerous of his visitors, however, are Osho (Rajneesh) followers, known as sannyasins, who began to hear about Poonjaji when a German sannyasin spent a brief time with him in early 1991 and returned to the West proclaiming his own enlightenment in one of the Osho publications. Thus began a continual flow from Pune, India, where Osho had set up his ashram and where 5,000 sannyasins still reside during the winter season.
Poonjaji’s message is not new. It is found in the ancient philosophy of advaita (nonduality), a subdivision of vedanta philosophy whose roots can be traced to the Upanishads (800-500 B.C.). The fundamental teaching of these texts may be summed up as follows: Consciousness is the atman (the Highest Self), and “thou art that.” Advaita vedanta is considered an expression of the perennial philosophy, the understanding of absolute oneness manifested in diversity, timeless and spaceless, yet including all time and all space. The great proponents of advaita, from the scholar-saint Sankara in the eighth century through Ramakrishna and Vivekanada in the 19th century and Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramana Maharshi in more recent times, to Jean Klein, Ramesh Balsekar, and Poonjaji today, have emphasized that this absolute unity is to be realized as our true nature, not merely believed.
For Poonjaji himself, a powerful experience of nondual consciousness occurred at the age of eight, but it would be many years before he would abide in it, years spent in fervent seeking. He was born on October 13, 1910, in Gujranwala, India, and spent his childhood in Faisalabad (both cities are now in Pakistan). His father was a railroad traffic controller (who before his death would become his son’s disciple), but his spiritual influence in those years came from his mother. An ardent devotee of Lord Krishna, she was also the sister of India’s celebrated saint Swami Rama Tirtha, who went into seclusion in the Himalayas at the age of 34 and died in 1906.
As a child, Poonjaji’s love for the holy life was so strong that he would secretly dress as a sadhu (spiritual mendicant) and wander through the town. When he discovered a drawing of a serene ascetic Buddha in his history book at school, he fell into a trance of rapture and began fasting in order to emulate his emaciated hero. Inspired by his mother, he later began mantra practice, chanting the name of Krishna throughout the day and night, a practice he continued until he met Ramana Maharshi.
When he was 20, his parents arranged for him to be married. Although he had no interest in family life, he and his wife had two children, a girl and a boy. Determined to satisfy his filial obligations, he joined the army as an officer, but his spiritual calling haunted him, and he quit his post and returned home, to his father’s dismay. He then set off on the quintessential seeker’s quest, combing Himalayan caves and holy pilgrimage sites but finding only “businessmen disguised as sadhus.” “Nowhere did I see that fire which was burning in me,” he would later explain. He was forced to return again and again to the home of his father, where he languished in yearning. Then a strange event occurred.
A sadhu passed by Poonjajis family home one day. Poonjaji invited him for lunch and, impressed by the man’s composure, asked him if he knew of anyone who could show him God. The man replied that there was such a person living near the town of Tiruvannamalai in south India whose name was Ramana Maharshi. Poonjaji was thrilled. Coincidentally, the next day he found a job advertisement seeking an ex-army officer to run a canteen in Madras, also in south India. He applied for and won the position and one month later was on a train heading south.
His first stop was Ramanashram, the center that had grown up around Ramana Maharshi. After being shown into the hall and seeing the great master, Poonjaji stood up and brusquely walked to his bullock cart to leave. One of the ashram residents stopped him, “What is your hurry? Haven’t you come all the way from the north to see Ramana?”
“Yes,” Poonjaji replied. “But this man is a fraud. He is the very same sadhu who came to my home one month ago and gave me his own address.”
“You are mistaken, my friend,” said the Ramana disciple. “Everyone here knows that the Master has not left this place for the past forty years.”
Over the next three years, Poonjaji spent as much time as possible with Ramana while continuing to work in Madras. When in 1947 Poonjaji was forced to leave and help his family during the riots of partition, another peculiar incident transpired. As he walked to the train for Lahore, Muslims all around him shouted, “Pakistan! We have won at last!” An angry mood prevailed in the station, and Poonjaji looked forward to getting into the Hindu compartment of the train in order to be with his own people. However, as he was about to board, he sensed Ramana telling him to enter the Muslim compartment instead. He obeyed this strange message, and when the train had gone 20 miles, the Muslim forced it to stop, pulled everyone out of the Hindu compartments, and gunned them down before Poonjajis eyes. Despite his clear markings of a Hindu Brahminpierced ears and an om sign tattooed on his handPoonjaji journeyed unnoticed for the next 20 hours among the Muslims.
The day after he arrived home, Poonjaji arranged to get 35 members of his family out on the last train leaving Lahore, which was now in the newly declared Muslim state of Pakistan. Because he knew an army officer in Lucknow who would help them, he brought his family there, and they have made this city their home for the past 45 years. Until recently, however, Poonjaji himself has spent little time in Lucknow. Mindful of his duties as a husband and father, he found work wherever he could in order to put his children through school and see that they were married. During one period, he worked as an engineer in a mining corporation in south India, where he lived in a simple hut in the forest. Since he had always loved nature, this was a particularly satisfying time for him, and he was near enough to Ramanashram to visit, although Ramana had by then passed away.
By 1966, when the children were grown, Poonjaji retired from work and again began to wander, this time not as a seeker but as one who had discovered what he was looking for, “that which was never lost.” During this period he might be found living on the banks of the Ganges and cooking dal, the lentil stew of India, for anyone who passed by. Or he might be spotted at an ashram in Rishikesh, or at one of the auspicious Indian religious festivals, known as melas, that occur periodically.
Throughout his adult life Poonjaji enjoyed the company of the wise, and he spent time with many of the great lights of India, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and J. Krishnamurti. He also found many others who were unknown. But, of course, for Poonjaji, Ramana Maharshi was always the master.
During these years, many seekers discovered Poonjaji, and stories of their encounters abound. He was particularly impressed with the young hippies of the late ’60s who found their way to India’s holy spots and who seemed to be genuinely searching for freedom. As time went by, some of these seekers invited Poonjaji to teach in different parts of the world. He would go to South America, Europe, Australia, the United Statesbut he would not allow an ashram or center to be built for him, nor would he ever accept donations for his teachings (a policy he continues to this day). He preferred not to have people collect around him and would sometimes just disappear for long periods, leaving no trace but a postal box address in Lucknow.
Now all that has changed. Due to various ailments, which have made travel too difficult, Poonjaji has become somewhat of a captive guru. As recently as one year ago, those who came to him had the opportunity to speak with him in small groups of four or five. He would provide satsang, tea, and lunch in his house and then take the group for a walk. One year later, the numbers had swollen to nearly 300. Nevertheless, he cheerfully welcomes all who come to him and bids them warm farewells when they leave, wanting nothing and offering freedom, which he says is our “birthright.”
Five days a week, he arrives at the rented “bungalow” of some of his students, where an L-shaped hall is used for satsang. He begins the morning session with half an hour of silence followed by the words “Om shanti, shanti: let there be peace and love throughout the universe.” For the next several hours, Poonjaji answers questions, either from those sitting in front of him or from letters that pile up by his seat. No matter what the question, however, Poonjaji inevitably invites the student to find the source of the question and the source of the questioner.
When I arrived in Lucknow, I initially felt that I had missed the boat, that the time to meet Poonjaji had passed. I reacted adversely to the behavior and questions of some of the Osho followers, and I longed for the days I had heard about from friends when one had the master more or less to oneself. In addition, I became sick from the extreme pollution of Lucknow, which, like most large Indian cities, has lead levels many times higher than that of maximum dangerous allowances.
But after a short while, all difficulties dissolved into profound gratitude as it began to dawn on me that I was experiencing that rarest and most precious event of a lifetimebeing in the presence of one who has not only realized the truth but who has the power and clarity to transmit that realization. The following interview took place in several sessions over the course of six weeks in the winter of 1992.
what is freedom?
Freedom is to know your own fundamental nature, your own Self. Nothing else. Easiest of all, without your thinking, is freedom.
And what is that Self?
This is indescribable. It is not intellectual, not even transcendental. Think of one without even the concept of two. Now drop the concept of one.
You often speak of surrender. Surrender to what?
To that Source through which you speak, through which you see, through which you breathe, through which you taste and touch, through which this Earth revolves and the sun shines, through which you have asked this question itself. Everything happens through that consciousness in which even emptiness is housed. That supreme power which is beyond the beyondyour own Selfto that you have to surrender.
Is the consciousness of which you speak eternalunborn and undying?
Consciousness is beyond the concepts of birth and death, beyond even any concept of eternity or emptiness or space. That which accommodates the space or emptiness or eternity is called consciousness, within which everything is existing.
Yet there is the appearance of birth and death.
You see, existences and destructions happen ceaselessly. All these manifestations are like bubbles and waves in the ocean; let them happen. The ocean doesn’t find that they are separate. The bubbles, the eddies, the wavesthey may appear to themselves as separate, but the ocean itself has no trouble with them. Let them move on it, let them have different shapes and different names, coming and going. This body will be the food of worms and ants. From earth it came and to earth it will return. You are that which shines through it. The consciousness is untouched.
Do you propose that we identify, with the oceanthat Sourceinstead
of with the waves?
No, you need not identify with anything. You only need to get rid of your notions. Do not identify with any name or form which is not real, and no name or form is real. Now to reject name and form you need not make any effort or employ any kind of thinking or identification. You have been identifying with names and forms which have caused you to feel separate from the fundamental nature which you always are, so you have to disidentify with something which is not true. No need to identify with the ocean or Source. You are the Source. When your identification with the unreal has vanished, then you will be what you have been, what you are, and what you will be.
What is mind?
Never mind! [Laughing] Show me the mind. You have used the word “mind.” No one has seen what the mind is. Mind is thought existing as subjects and objects. The first wave is “I,” then “I am,” then “I am this, I am that,” and “This belongs to me.” Here the mind begins. Now you keep quiet, and do not allow any desire to arise from the Source. Just for this instant of time, don’t give rise to any desire. You will find you have no mind and you will also see that you are somewhere indescribable, in tremendous happiness. And then you will see who you really are.
So when you inquire “Who am I?”, this will take you home. First reject the “who,” then reject the “am,” then you are left with the “I.” When this “I” thought plunges to its source, it ceases to exist and finds Being itself. There you can very well live without mind. If you do it practically, you will find that something else will take care of all your activity more wisely than the mind is doing for people who are using mind. We can see today what the result is of using the mind, how the world is behaving by using the mind. I believe that if you keep quiet and let the supreme power take charge of all activities, then you will see how to live with all beings. The one who knows himself will know what it is to be animals, plants, rocks, everything that exists. If you miss realization of your own Self, you have not known anything.
People who are spiritually oriented struggle with what is called
Let us see where the ego is rising from. Ego has to rise from somewhere to become ego. The ego arises, then mind, then sensesseeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, touching. There must be “I” before ego arises. This notion of “I” is the root cause of ego, the mind, manifestation, happiness, and unhappinesssamsara. Now return to “I” and question what this “I” is. Where does it rise from? Let us try.
I have done this many times, but
You may have done it, but now don’t do it. Just land into it. Nothing to do. When you see the process of doing, you must return back again. Ego, mind, sensesthis is called doing. What I am talking about requires no doing at all, just intelligence. You have only to be watchful, vigilant, attentive, serious. No doing, no thinking, no effort, no notions, no intentions. You leave everything aside, simply keep quiet, and wait for the result.
This results happens now with you, but…
Yes, then you start now from this happening. With this happening you have broken at least this process of ego, mind, senses, and manifestation. Now you return from the happening. You can also step out of this, but you do so as a king when he rises from his throne and goes to the garden. He is not a gardener; he is still the king. You are this happening.
The Buddha spoke about practicing this awareness. He taught a meditation
practice to enable people to taste this.
I have not found any results from these practices, but they are going on. I don’t give you any practice. I just remove your old burdens. Don’t expect that I will give you something new. If you gain something new, its nature is not eternal, and you will lose it. Freedom cannot be the effect of any cause. You already have everything. You are an emperor. Throw away the begging bowl.
Practice is needed when you have some destination, something to attain. Abandon this concept of gaining something at a later date. What is eternal is here and now. If you find freedom after 30 years of practice, it will still be only here and now. Why wait 30 years?
Just sit with a cool mind and see where you have to go and where you are now. Question yourself: What do I practice for? For practice you need somebody to practice and some intention for practicing. What is that through which you practice? Through what do you derive this energy to put anything into practice? Do you get my point? If you want to go somewhere, you have to stand up and walk to reach the destination, so there must be some energy to stand and walk to the destination. What makes you stand up?
Yes, but where is the desire rising from? Who makes the desire arise and from where? People are doing practices for freedom, so I want you to seehere and now, before going to the destinationwhat you want. If you want freedom, then find out what is the bondage, where are the chains, what are the fetters. Sit down calmly, patiently, and question, How I am bound? What binds you except these notions, concepts, perceptions? Forget about all these things. Don’t give rise to any notion, any intention, or any idea. Just for a second. Get rid of these notions, instantly. Now who is seeking freedom? The seeker himself is not yet tackled.
There’s a saying, “What you are looking for is what is seeking.”
Yes, find out who the seeker is, or Who am I. You have not to move anywhere because it is here and now. It has always been here and now. You are already here and you are already free. You think or have a notion that you have to search for something, to meditate. You have been told this many times. Now just for a short while, sit quietly and do not activate a single thought. You will discover that what you were searching for through methods or sadhanas was already there. It was what was prompting you to meditate. The desire for freedom arises from freedom itself.
Most meditation is only mind working on mind. You are somewhere where the mind cannot trespass. The real meditation is simply to know that you are already free.
Yet thoughts come uninvited, as unwelcome guests. And it seems that
through meditation practice there is a lessening of thoughts. By systematically
keeping quiet, in a calm place, thoughts slow down and even go away altogether…
Then you have a tug of war with the thoughts. So long as you are powerful and you are checking, they are not there. When you don’t check, the thoughts come again. Don’t worry about the thoughts. Let them come and play with you as the waves play with the ocean. When the waves disturb the tranquility of the ocean, it doesn’t mind. Let the thoughts arise, but don’t allow them landing space.
So much emphasis is placed on getting rid of the thoughts, as though
a mind without thoughts is tantamount to an awakened state.
No, no, no. Let the thoughts come. If you reject them, they will invade forcibly through your door. Remove the door. Remove the wall itself. Who will come in now? In and out is due to wall, and this wall is I am separate from consciousness.” Let the thoughts come: they are not different from the waves of the ocean. It is better to be at peace with thought. ego. the mind. the senses, and manifestation. Let us not fight with anything. Let us be one. You will see your own face in everything. You can speak to plants. You can speak to rocks, and you are the hardness of the rock itself. You are the twittering ot the birds. You have to see. I am the twittering of the birds. I am the shining of the stars,
Isn’t a still, silent mind more conducive to this depth?
There is no depth. It is immaculate emptiness. No inside, no outside, no surface, no depth. No place to go. Everywhere you go is here. Just look around and tell me the limits of this moment. Go as far as you can go. How is it measured? Its length? Breadth? Width? This moment has nothing to do with time or depth.
Is it really so simple?
Yes. When you know it, you will laugh! People go to mountain caves for 30 years just to find Being itself. Being is just here and now. It is like searching for your glasses while wearing them. What you have been searching for is nearer than your own breath. You are always in the Source. Whatever you are doing, you are doing it in the Source.
Poonjaji, religions always promise some afterlife. Is this Source
that you speak of a promise of everlasting Beingness?
I don’t believe in these promises which will happen after death. This experience I am speaking of is here and now. What is not here and now is not worth attempting or attaining. To enjoy this here and now is to get rid of notions that you are not here and now.
Truth must be simple. Complication is in falsehood. Where there are two, there is fear and there is falsehood.
Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and even the Buddha referred
to this life as a dream. Why?
Because it is not permanent. Nothing has been permanent. Therefore they don’t differentiate between this waking state and the dream state. In a dream you are seeing mountains, rivers, and trees which appear real. It is only when you wake up that you say, “I had a dream.” Upon awakening, those things are seen as transitory, and you call them a dream. The state you have woken up into now seems real, permanent, and continuous when compared to that dream. Like this, when we wake up into consciousness itself, then this so-called waking state also appears to be a dream.
What is the function of the guru or teacher?
The word “guru” means “that which removes ignorance, that which dispels darkness” the darkness of “I am the body,” “I am the mind,” “I am the senses,” and “I am the objects and manifestation.” That person who has known the truth himself and is able to impart this knowledge somehow to one who needs some helpI don’t use the word student; we all are onethat person who gives his experience is called guru
Many people think of you as their guru.
They are speaking of the body, then. Guru sees only Self unto Self. You are my very own Self. I am your very own Self. This relationship is no relationship. Your Self and my Self, what is the difference? I am speaking to that Self which you truly are. I am speaking to my Self.
Others may be preachers of some sect, some dogma, but a guru gives you his own experience, and this experience is timeless consciousness, nothing else. Guru does not give you any teachings, method, or anything that is destructible, impermanent. That is not guru. You are not to follow anyone. You are a lion, and where a lion goes, it cuts its own path.
There are many Osho [Raineesh] students here in Lucknow with you
and more coming everyday. As you probably know, he was a very controversial
teacher with a bad reputation. What are the differences between you and
I don’t indulge in any kinds of differences. The divine is playing. Whatever it is doing, it is being done by the commands of that supreme source. All are my own Self, having different roles to play, and it is being beautifully played.
You say that this divine is playing itself out, but let’s look at
the suffering on this planet. For instance, there is an ecological destruction
that is creating a living hell for people and other beings who are not awake
in this dream, as we can easily see here in India. We are creating a desert
of this Earth and poisoning our land, waters, and air. Many more people
will face starvation and live in degraded circumstances. Worldwide tensions
will increase, and so on. People who are primarily interested in spiritual
matters, at this particular point in history, are sometimes accused of being
selfish. What do you feel about rendering service to the world, and from
where does the passion arise for service if this manifestation is seen as
Having known the supreme state, our own Self, from inside there arises compassion. Automatically we are compelled. It’s not service. Service has to do with somebody else. When the command is compassion, there’s no one doing any service for anybody else, as when you are hungry you eat. You are not in service to the stomach, nor are the hands the servant when they are putting food into the mouth. Like this we should live in the world. Service is the responsibility of the Self. Otherwise who is doing this service? When the action is coming from the ego, there is hypocrisy, jealousy, crisis. When the doer is not there, then compassion arises. If a person is realized, then all his actions are beautiful.