H. W. L. Poonja

Sri H. W. L. Poonja (/ˈpʊnə/; born Hariwansh Lal Poonja; 13 October 1910 (or later) in Punjab, British India – 6 September 1997 in Lucknow, India), known as "Poonjaji" or "Papaji" /ˈpɑːpɑːi/, was an Indian sage and jivanmukta (liberated being) who embodied and taught Self-enquiry, following the example of Ramana Maharshi.

H. W. L. Poonja
Papaji 1.jpg
H. W. L. Poonja, often known as "Papaji"
H. W. L. Poonja

13 October 1910 (or later)
Died6 September 1997
Lucknow, India
PhilosophyAdvaita Vedanta
Religious career
GuruBhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi

No teaching, no teacher, no student.


Early lifeEdit

H. W. L. Poonja was born in Gujranwalla, in western Punjab, now in Pakistan, in a family of Saraswat Brahmins. His mother was the sister of Swami Rama Tirtha.

At the age of eight, he claimed he had experienced an unusual state of consciousness:

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.[web 1]

As an adult he led a normal life: he married, raised two children and joined the British army, having alleged visions of Krishna.

Meeting Ramana MaharshiEdit

After all his attempts had failed he returned to his family in Lyallpur. A sadhu appeared at the door soon after and Poonja asked him the question he had asked swamis throughout the country: "Can you show me God? If not, do you know of anyone who can?" The sadhu told him that there was a person, Ramana Maharshi, who could show him God and explained how to find Ramana Maharshi at Tiruvannamalai in southern India. At the earliest opportunity, Poonjaji travelled to Tiruvannamalai to meet the sage Ramana Maharshi at Ramanashramam at Arunachala. This happened in 1944 when Poonja was thirty-three.

However, rather than giving another vision of God, Ramana pointed him in the direction of his own self:

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.[web 2]

Poonja under Ramana's gaze became aware of the spiritual Heart, which he felt was opening, though he was not impressed with the advice.[1] Poonja continued his devotion, having many visions of Hindu Gods. He was not yet convinced of the value of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy which Ramana was known for. When he had a vision of Ramana telling him that Krishna devotion was the only truth, Poonja returned to Ramanasramam and asked Ramana if he had indeed appeared before him. Though Ramana would not respond to his question verbally, while Poonja was waiting for an answer, a group of devotees arrived and gave Ramana a picture of Krishna. Ramana, looking at Krishna, wept so that Poonja became convinced that Ramana was a secret bhakta himself.[citation needed]


He found that he could no longer bring his mind to think of God, do japa or any other spiritual practice. He asked Ramana for help and was told that this was not a problem, that all his practice had carried him to this moment and it could be left behind now because it had served its purpose. When telling Ramana about the story of his search of the Self;

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.[web 3]

Poonja recognised this as the same state he experienced when he was eight years old, but this time it was permanent.[web 3]

Teaching othersEdit

After his transformation he stayed in southern India until 1947, when during the partition of India, despite Poonjaji's fierce longing to stay with his master, Ramana sent him to his old home in the Punjab (then in the new country of Pakistan) to bring his family to the safety of Lucknow, India. Ramana's last words to him were: “I am with you wherever you go.”

After this, Poonjaji met two other men "who convinced me that they had attained full and complete Self-realisation.",[web 4] a Muslim Pir and an unknown sadhu whom he met by the side of a road in Karnataka.[web 4]

In the following years H.W.L Poonja earned money to support his family, meeting with seekers and sharing satsangs. In 1953 he met Henri Le Saux, also known as Swami Abhishiktananda, who wrote many books on Advaita Vedanta and Christianity. Although not a disciple of his, the two formed a spiritual friendship and Swami Abhishiktananda wrote about their meetings and correspondences in his diary. In 1966 he retired and spent a lot of time in the Himalayan foothills.

At the end of 1968 Poonja met in Rishikesh Geneviève de Coux (born 1947), — later known as Ganga Mira — a young Belgian seeker, who became his disciple and with whom he would form a new family, after the ancient Vedic polygamic tradition. Their daughter Mukti was born in 1972.[2]

Poonjaji later settled in Lucknow where he received visitors from all around the world. Some well-known students of his and later self-appointed gurus of Neo-Advaita were Eli Jaxon-Bear, Gangaji, Arjuna Ardagh, Catherine Ingram, Isaac Shapiro, Madhukarji, Sam Harris, Dolano, Mooji, and Andrew Cohen, who later distanced himself from Poonja. David Godman moved to Lucknow in 1992, and stayed with him till 1997, and soon became his biographer, in the following years edited and published a number of books on him, including, Papaji Interviews, an anthology of interviews, and Nothing Ever Happened, a three volume 1,200-page biography.

In this biography it is clear that Poonjaji had very strong reservations regarding some of his well-known western students that posed as gurus:

David: You used to give experiences to a lot of people. Why did you do it if you knew that the effect would not be permanent?

Papaji: I did it to get rid of the leeches who were sticking to me, never allowing me to rest or be by myself. It was a very good way of getting rid of all these leeches in a polite way. I knew that in doing this I was giving lollipops to the ignorant and innocent, but this is what these people wanted. When I tried to give $100 bills to them, they rejected them. They thought that they were just pieces of paper. So I gave them lollipops instead.

David: Many of the people you gave lollipops to left Lucknow thinking that they were enlightened. Does the fact that they accepted the lollipop and left indicate that they were not worthy to receive the $100 bills?

Papaji: If one is not a holy person, one is not worthy to receive the real teaching. Many people think that they have attained the final state of full and complete liberation. They have fooled themselves, and they have fooled many other people but they have not fooled me.

A person in this state is like a fake coin. It may look like the real thing. It can be passed around and used by ignorant people who use it to buy things with. People who have it in their pocket can boast of having a genuine coin, but it is not real. But it has no value. When it is finally discovered to be a fake, the person who is circulating it, claiming that it is real, is subject to the penalties of the law. In the spiritual world, the law of karma catches up and deals with all people who are trafficking in fake experiences.

I have never passed on the truth to those whom I could see were fake coins. These people may look like gold and they may glitter like gold, but they have no real value.

There are many people who can put on a show and fool other people into believing they are enlightened.[3]

David: Many people have heard you say, ‘I have not given my final teachings to anyone’. What are these final teachings, and why are you not giving them out?”

Papaji: Nobody is worthy to receive them. Because it has been my experience that everybody has proved to be arrogant and egotistic…[4]

Poonjaji suffered from diabetes and died of pneumonia on 6 September 1997.

Teaching through silenceEdit

His teaching emphasises that words can only point to ultimate truth, but never are ultimate truth, and that intellectual understanding without directly realising the truth through one's own investigation is not enough. Like Sri Ramana he stressed that teaching through silence was more important than teaching through words. Once, when a French seeker informed Poonja that he was learning Sanskrit to better understand ancient scriptural texts, Poonja replied:

All your books, all the time lost in learning different languages! Are they any use for conversing with the atman, with the Self, for speaking to yourself? None of that leads anywhere useful. The atman has nothing to do either with books, or with languages or with any scripture whatever. It is — and that's all![1]</ref>[full citation needed]

The processEdit

Poonja mentions several events in his own life which "illustrate, in a general way, how the process of realisation comes about."[web 5]

  1. "There must be a desire for God, a love for Him, or a desire for liberation. Without that, nothing is possible."[web 5]
  2. "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."[web 5]
  3. "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."[web 5]
  4. The presence of the Master is the final ingredient: "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."[web 5]


His message, like that of his teacher Sri Ramana, was always that the Self is already enlightened and free. Like Sri Ramana, he taught self-enquiry, which involved locating a person's sense of "I" and focusing on and investigating this directly. Famous for eschewing all forms of practices or sadhana, Poonja nonetheless recommended self-enquiry as the only practice one should take up, but he didn't want people to take it up as a form of meditation. He would say, “Do it once and do it properly, and your spiritual quest will be over instantly."[1][full citation needed]


He emphasised that there is ultimately no difference between guru and devotee, no teacher, no disciple and even no message. Poonja was quick to point out that devotional bhaktas such as Kabir, Ravidas, Sukdev and Mirabai were also awakened in the same state of freedom known as Sahaj Samadhi, which they called God.


According to Poonja Self-realization is in itself liberating from karmic consequences and further rebirth. According to Poonja "karmic tendencies remained after enlightenment, [but] the enlightened person was no longer identified with them and, therefore, did not accrue further karmic consequences."[5] According to Cohen, Poonja "insisted that the realization of the Self had nothing to do with worldly behavior, and he did not believe fully transcending the ego was possible."[5] For Poonja, ethical standards were based on a dualistic understanding of reality and the notion of an individual agent, and therefore were not indicative of "nondual enlightenement:[5] "For Poonja, the goal was the realisation of the self; the illusory realm of relative reality was ultimately irrelevant."[5]



  • Wake Up and Roar: Satsang With H. W. L. Poonja (two volumes), edited by Eli Jaxon-Bear
  • The Fire of Freedom: Satsang with Papaji by David Godman, published by Avadhuta Foundation
  • The Simplest Way by Madhukar, Editions India, 2nd edition, USA & India 2006 (contains Interview with H. W. L. Poonja)

Overview of teachingsEdit

  • This: Prose and Poetry of Dancing Emptiness (the essence of Papaji's teachings) Edited by Prashanti, published by VidyaSagar Publications and Weiserbooks.com
  • The Truth Is (the essence of Papaji's teachings with dialogues) Edited by Prashanti, published by VidyaSagar Publications and Weiserbooks.com


  • Papaji: Interviews (A collection of Interviews with Poonja) by David Godman, published 1993 by Avadhuta Foundation
  • Papaji Interviews & Reflections (earlier Indian edition, essentially a different book), published 1992 by Pragati


  • Nothing Ever Happened (A three-volume biography). by David Godman, published by Avadhuta Foundation


  • My Master is My Self, by Andrew Cohen and Murray Feldman, (1989 account of his relationship with H.W.L.Poonja before the schism)

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c Godman 1998.
  2. ^ Ganga Mira biography
  3. ^ Godman 1998, Vol. 3, pp. 366‒367.
  4. ^ Godman 1998, Vol. 3, p. 362.
  5. ^ a b c d Gleig 2013, p. 194.


Printed sourcesEdit

  • Caplan, Mariana (2009), Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path, Sounds True
  • Jacobs, Alan (2004), Advaita and Western Neo-Advaita. In: The Mountain Path Journal, autumn 2004, pages 81-88, Ramanasramam, archived from the original on 18 May 2015
  • Gleig, Ann (2013), "From Being to Becoming, Transforming to Transcending. Andrew Cohen and the Evolution of Enlightenment", in Gleig, Ann; Williamson, Lola (eds.), Homegrown Gurus: From Hinduism in America to American Hinduism, SUNY Press
  • Godman, David (1998), Nothing Ever Happened, Volume One

Online sourcesEdit

External linksEdit