Swami Jnanananda Giri

Barlow Ganj

15th December 1980



New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

I am back in my home in Landour, Mussoorie. I now have five Interviews but have not taken a single photograph (I will have to go back for those later). But where to go from here? Before I left for Hardwar, I wrote to the Radha Soami Satsang in Beas to ask permission to Interview someone living there whose work I admired (she prepares most of their books for publication). They replied, No. Kalu Rinpoche’s secretary never even replied. The secretary to the Theosophical Society never replied. My letter to Father Bede Griffiths has been returned: the address is wrong. Radha Dasi in Vrindavan says: You will love the special atmosphere of Vrindavan — do come — but, sorry, my own interviewing days are over.

There are two positive replies. Swami Satchidanand — he signs himself: Ever your Self — he says Mother Krishnabai will be happy to welcome me to Anandashram (the Ashram of the late Swami Ramdas). The other is from General Joginder Singh in Chandigarh: he is a sort of secretary-devotee of Sant Gulab Singh who is over 100 and has one American girl disciple who has lived with him and served him many years. I had assured them the Interview would be painless — they have given me a date next month.

With these two hopeful signs: one will take me to the south of India, the other to the north — the problem is what to do and where to go inbetween? My wife says: Just turn up at all the places you want to go to and play it by ear — writing to Ashrams is hopeless!

The next day, this new approach is encouraged by our Swiss friend, Swami Jnanananda, who has walked up the hill to see us from his forest retreat. He says: Do this book as part of your sadhana — selflessly — and you will see, as you go from place to place you will be guided to those who are already marked to give the Interviews.

He is aware of my apprehensiveness about travelling. In the past, wherever I had to go in India I was accompanying my guru as part of his entourage: all arrangements were made by others — I was just to follow, to get into the car or train or plane. It was the same with accommodation: Please, this is your room.

Swami Jnanananda is right: I start packing, sort out my audio cassettes and begin studying the Ashram map of India.

But before I can leave on the search for the already marked and chosen, I am going to a nearby village I know well. There is a simple hut surrounded by flowers and woods and superb views: here enveloped in peace and solitude lives our Swiss Swami friend, wise, gentle and ever encouraging…a true friend.


Interview 6

Swamiji, the last Interview was given by the Duchessa Simonetta Colonna de Cesaro; she was so volatile that she started her story in the middle and gave the beginning at the end. So if you don’t mind, could you start at the beginning? Of course, I know you are Swiss by birth and that you have lived in India continuously for nearly 30 years — but can you tell me something about your past?
For anyone who has renounced the world, there is no past.

Were you not a musician in your early life in Europe?
I was never a professional musician. I had a deep interest in music, but from the age of 14 I was inspired by Eastern teachings. Even then I wanted to come to India. At the age of 23 this was realized: I came leaving Switzerland and my past for good. I have never gone back.

When you said there was no past, what did you mean?
At the time of initiation, the guru absolves you of your past, hence a New Life — you enter the New Life.

Did it take you long to meet your guru?
One week.

Oh! You must have heard about him before coming here.
No, no!

But how did you find him? Coming to India in those days at the age of 23 wasn’t so common.
True — I had never heard of anyone who had done it. So many tried to discourage me, but as soon as I arrived here everything happened. The guru actually expected me — he knew I was coming on such-and-such a date. I didn’t know myself. He told a disciple a person would arrive while he was away and to ask him — me — to wait three days. I waited. I could have chosen between two persons — each could have been my guru. But my natural inclination drew me to the person who kept me waiting.

Where did all this happen?
Calcutta — Dakshineswar.

How long did you stay with your guru?
Twelve years — as long as he lived. After he left this world I never returned to Calcutta, I stayed in the Himalayas. My guru took me each year for five or six months to Rishikesh or Hardwar and gave me a place by the Ganga for meditation. During those twelve years I spent all my time by the banks of the Ganga.

Can you speak about the spiritual discipline he taught?
He taught kriya yoga. He insisted on regular practice. Along with renunciation, discipline is essential. There must be regular practice of a guru-given technique and mantra. In order to realize these practices, I was drawn to complete renunciation: it is the best way to have sufficient time and to leave off thoughts of the world.

How did you support yourself?
The guru took care of me in every way. He blessed me for the future, and he’s still taking care of me now.

You haven’t mentioned his name. Was he connected with Paramahansa Yogananda, as he taught kriya yoga?
His name was Swami Atmananda Giri. His guru was Swami Kevalananda, Yogananda’s Sanskrit teacher. But my guru, Swami Atmananda Giri, actually took sannyas initiation from Yogananda.

How old was your guru when he left the body? As you were still so young, did you feel the need to go to another guru for instruction?
He was 68. No — No — there was no need! He told me how to carry on, he told me before his passing.

Did you wait long before taking sannyas?
Three years. First I lived in the Ashram as a brahmachari.

Can you give an explanation of sannyas?
We belong to the order known as Dasnaami sannyasis which was founded in the nineth century by Adi Shankaracharya. Sannyas means renunciation; it is the fourth Ashram in Indian culture. The first is brahmacharya — student life. The second is grahastha — the householder’s life. The third is vanaprastha — the life of retirement from wordly pursuits. The fourth is sannyas — the life of complete renunciation dedicated to the teaching of divine knowledge. The divisions can be described like this: the first is one of addition, for a student must acquire knowledge. The second is one of subtraction, for a householder supports his family. The third is one of multiplication because having retired from the worldly life one has nothing else to do but acquire inner knowledge. The fourth is one of division; that is the time to distribute these inner riches for the enlightenment of others. So really to enter sannyas means to dwell in God.

You are non-Indian, non-Hindu, non-caste. Are you accepted by other sannyasis?
I have not only been accepted, but legally also. There are some orthodox sections that may not accept this, but those in authority do. I became a sannyasi according to Hindu rites.

When you say legally, what does that mean?
It has been attested by the Court, by the Government.

But why?
The guru said it would be of some use.

Are you an Indian citizen?
I deem myself so. According to a Hindu law which is now not in vogue, by entering sannyas I automatically become a Hindu. As it’s not the prevalent law I abide by the present rules — my foreign nationality has stayed all these years, and I get a yearly visa which is a formality, nothing more.

Can you speak more about the teachings?
All spiritual teaching are the same: the essence is to dwell in God, to dwell in the Reality at all times. By spiritual practice one aims to lose one’s little self to become one with the Ideal.

Do you accept disciples and teach?
I pass on what my guru taught me when there is a demand.

But you do have disciples?
There are some people who call themselves disciples. These teachings are in the traditional line, but specifically adapted to the individual. Beside the technical aspect of yoga, one has to pass on the subtler aspect which leads to the ultimate transformation of each person who takes to the teachings. No two are alike. The exact nature of the teachings cannot be disclosed. It is beyond any words — call it grace, God’s grace! To pass on grace, and to be receptive to grace, that is itself grace.

In the early days did you have to study Sanskrit, or did your guru teach in English?
He spoke to me in English. But there was not much talking. He asked me to practice what he taught me. Studying the ancient scriptures was my own liking: his emphasis was on regular meditation, discipline, the remembrance of God. It was not a question of study from books to add to one’s knowledge. It was to surrender to the Divine to feel what is meant by Reality or Absolute Truth. To feel this is to know It. Such feeling comes by intense self-giving. It is the grace of the unspeakable power of the Divine that opens the way to bestow the new life.

Earlier you mentioned our backgrounds, hinting perhaps at our karmic destiny. Would you say it is this that causes us to be drawn to a particular guru?
Everything is due to past determination. There must be sincere longing, sincere prayer — plus God’s grace. It is that grace and the blessings of some good soul. Such good souls are everywhere in the world. The blessings of a good soul in the West may help a person to go to the East.

Swamiji, can you say something about the five thieves — lust, anger, greed, attachment and pride?
They are known as the five thieves because they steal true happiness: they take man away from the eternal joy which lies in Reality. These thieves are the deluding factors, for man easily gets identified with lust, anger, greed, infatuation and ego. All spiritual practice is to enable us to eradicate these evils. Otherwise, there’s no meaning in any practice. Holiness, purity, is when we are transformed and these evils have no existence within us. When they are unmasked, love shines forth.

What are the outer signs of a person who has controlled these thieves?
He is detached. He is detached even when they are present in his environment. Attachment to the five thieves is due to ignorance. Detachment is due to knowledge.

What advice do you give to someone wishing to break away from these thieves?
If they haven’t yet found a guru, they should pray to God ceaselessly for a guide. After finding a guide — a teacher — they should serve him in any way they are capable and follow the teachings as far as possible. If one does not have a guru, one at least should cultivate the company of good persons, seekers of the way: they can learn much from them.

Would you say it’s essential to have a living teacher?
I would say so.

These days there’s no shortage of imperfect teachers. How can sincere seekers avoid falling into their hands? Or is there no such thing as an imperfect, false guru?
If one is false the guru will also be false. In the guru-disciple relationship there are many obstacles, the greatest being doubt. There will be persons questioning the disciple: How do you know if your guru is realized, if he’s competent? They try to awaken doubts, and should there be doubts, this is not a true disciple. Personally speaking, I found the guru who happened to be my guru was much better, more evolved than I was, so it was to my advantage to follow him. One follows the guru because one wants to follow God, and if one is sincere in following God, then the guru will become the instrument of God.

Also, it is not a question of my guru and your guru and someone else’s guru: there is only the Guru. Guru is a state of consciousness — it is not a person. The person is only the instrument through which the power of guru flows. Hence to say: My guru, is belittling the guru. It’s also the cause of much confusion.

Would you say there’s any advantage to studying spiritual books or scriptures without having a living teacher?
Yes, they prepare a person for more personal guidance.

Is it essential to receive initiation from the guru?
That depends on the guru. To have a guru usually means one gets initiation from him, but some gurus don’t give formal initiation. It depends entirely on the guru’s will.

What should be the aim of a seeker after Truth?

You spoke about the importance of meditation. Can you speak about the meditation you practice?
It all depends on the guru’s instructions, which are usually given in secret. But essentially, meditation means to quieten the mind — more than that, to quieten oneself. That means silent in mind, body, feelings, thoughts; above all, to be steady at heart within, for at heart thou art. To be steady in the foremost centre of one’s being, or consciousness, practice of equanimity, practice of renunciation, practice of the remembrance of God are essential. Then alone one can take refuge in the innermost silence. The state of being is beyond silence itself: it’s inexpressible.

Swamiji, do you still sit at fixed times for meditation, or do you consider your daily activities as meditation?
No. The particular time to meditate is one of the conditions laid down by the guru. It should go on indefinitely, irrespective of any thought that one has realized or not realized anything. But of course, the whole day should be spent in practicing the presence of God, practicing the presence of that Being.

Do you sit at any particular time?
In the early morning — it’s called the hour of Brahma — 4 o’clock till sunrise. This is traditionally the time when yogis and sanyasis practice meditation. The difference between a beginner and an adept is that for the beginner it’s an effort, for the adept it’s natural.

Again, would you say this naturalness comes from our background inclinations?
Every sort of practice becomes natural in course of time. But here we are dealing with the intrinsic nature of one’s own self, one’sown being. So one can say that when meditation becomes one’ own nature it is natural.

Like most sannyasis you wear simple orange cloth, do you consider that important?
This sort of uniform is helpful in the beginning: it’s like hedging a small plant, because like this one is not troubled by the world. One ultimately outgrows the colour. One ultimately outgrows all outward signs. In the life of renunciation, simplicity is foremost.

Do you observe any rituals?
None of my own; sometimes I observe the rituals of my friends. To place a flower in a vase is a ritual. One can make one’s whole life a ritual without making it a rite. Everything can be a ritual if all one’s actions are offered to God. A ritual means to commune with God.

Is it possible to be married and live a spiritual life?
In the path I am following, marriage is not advocated. It is a way taken after one has done with the world. But generally speaking, marriage is no obstacle on the spiritual path. Most rishis and sages of bygone times were married.

If a young man wishes to take the path of renunciation, how should he overcome sensual desire, which is instinctive?
That path of renunciation is not advisable for young people; it is advocated in exceptional cases when the guru through insight knows it is possible. Generally, one should pass through the life of a householder, but on reaching a certain stage, retire from the worldly life — it can be along with one’s wife — and then devote one’s time entirely to the spiritual life.

Is this practical for those living in the West under the present hectic conditions?
I cannot say what is happening in the West; it is the natural evolution of man that he should retire from material involvement when he grows old wherever he lives. Otherwise the purpose of life is unfulfilled. Family life, earning money for a reasonable living, doing good for one’s country, etc., is called dharma — good actions. This one should do. But above all, one should know how to retire from these outer actions because the inner life also has a demand. The later stage of one’s life is for contemplation — everything becomes subordinate to realizing God.

Now you have asked me about the hectic conditions under which most people live in the West. I believe the time will come when only those who meditate will be able to sleep at night. The total dependency on money and the security we imagine it brings is total ignorance if we are afraid to be alone without material possessions. At the time of death even millionaires are alone — nothing outside can help us. We are alone with our fears if we are rooted to the body, and we carry those impressions with us into the Beyond. Those who have meditated will also be alone when they leave, but will be filled with peace and they will carry that peace with them. To forget the world makes man a pilgrim; to forget the next world makes him a saint; to forget the ego gives him self-realization; forgetfulness of the forgetful is perfection.

Swamiji, that’s extremely moving, but can these profound teachings be applied by those living in the West?
In truth there is neither East nor West — there is one humanity: these teachings are Eternal, they propagate the Eternal, they help humanity to realize that which is Eternal. Man’s involvement in materialism is an experiment; he plays with nature and nature plays with him. Gradually man wants to become the master, so he puts away his toys and looks towards himself to find a marvel — there is no greater creation than himself. He can then probe the mystery of his own being, and it is here that the Eternal teachings come as a guide. So anybody anywhere can follow such teachings. For someone like myself, India seems to be the place for this life’s evolution, but that does not mean that those who yearn for the new life cannot find it in the West. We should go beyond the names and forms they represent and arrive at the nameless, the formless Truth that has Its being everywhere. It is universal understanding, universal realization, complete identification with the higher life that alone brings salvation to Christians in the West as well as Hindus in the East.

Can you ever see yourself living again in Switzerland?
Switzerland is within me.

Swamiji, when I wrote to you about these Interviews, you replied the idea was good but would I be able to get the truth? What did you mean?
Very few know the truth. If you are in quest of the truth, you cannot get the untruth. Life changes for everyone; while living in this life we are to start a new life. The new life has to become the real life, then only is it to be mentioned as something auspicious. Otherwise the new life may change into a newer life or even change back into the old life. The question is: Who is living? What is life? What is the aim of life?

As you go on collecting these Interviews, try to get at the truth by asking these questions. People often ask me why I have chosen this path. From my early days I wanted to know the purpose of life, what one can attain within a lifetime. If I become an artist, what is the ultimate art? If I become a poet, what is the ultimate poem? If I become a musician, what is the ultimate music? I tried all these things; very soon I realized there is no ultimate. So then I wanted to know the purpose of this life which is made up of so many moments: what is a moment of life — a moment of consciousness — a moment of existence? And as I was asking these questions — I was living in England in those days — I was asking: What is time? The reply was: We have no time to know what time is. Then my thoughts went to the East, for traditionally it has always been the place where people have found time to enquire into time.

You see, I didn’t find any purpose in this life. What to do? Whatever one achieves, is there an ultimate satisfaction? Now I will tell you because I know you were a musician: I went to London to enroll at the Royal College of Music. They said: You are too old! That’s strange — I thought — hardly 20 and too old… already one life gone. It was only when I met the guru that I understood — he told me: First look for God, then everything else will be given to you. We are all running after the lights and delights of the world not realizing we are sacrificing God Himself.

Swamiji, everyone is seeking happiness…it’s the true nature of our being. But what is the secret of happiness?

How is it achieved?
Not by seeking happiness.

How does one know when it is achieved?
Because you will be happiness yourself.

So what is the difference between happiness and contentment?
Contentment is self-inherent happiness. Whereas the happiness one strives for is illusion. It is never in the present. Man is happiness himself. But due to lack of contentment he misses that happiness. Contentment is poise. Poise is attained through self-purification.

What is the impurity in man’s nature and being?
His impurity is his state of self-forgetfulness. I don’t mean impurity in a material sense, or even in a mental sense. It simply means man has forgotten his identity, that is spirit, that is being. And he has lost himself in the world of becoming, thereby forgetting his being.

Can you expand on what you were saying about inner calm at the time of our physical death?
Life can be beautiful if enriched by inner silence: what you may call silently loving, silently feeling, silently thinking; such a life fulfills the purpose of life. That is to live correctly. If we live correctly, we are able to face death fearlessly. That incident in life known as death we have to face without fear, otherwise death becomes distorted and we cannot pass through it in peace. So if we find the right way of living, the secret way of dying will be revealed. Death is the door through which we pass into life renewed.

Although I know you live this solitary life in peace with yourself, are you ever lonely?
There’s no such thing as loneliness. One likes company for the sake of spiritual discussion, for the sake of satsang, for the give and take which is part of life. The reason why there’s no such thing as loneliness is because when one is alone, one is alone with God, and when one is in company, one is in company with God.

Can you say something about this one-roomed dwelling which just has a bed, some books, a corner fitted as a simple kitchen? Have you been here long?
The owner of this estate met me when I was living on the banks of the Ganga. He suggested I should try the solitude of the forest. Reluctantly I came here. At first I stayed only a few months at a time. It has become a bit like a permanent abode. When I am here I manage everything myself. But a sannyasi is homeless — it is one of the conditions. The whole world is his home, and as such, he is not bound by any one place. Living this simple way has never been a problem because everything had to be given up, everything had to be forgotten.

We should never forget — those of us who have been drawn to live in India — we are living here by God’s will. The spiritual life is the beginning, the middle and the end of all life: everything is subordinate to the spiritual ideal, everything else is a play. I found the one great difference between the East and the West is that in the West everything of this world seems real, whereas in the East one sees everything is a play, and only God is real.

…… Now I think we should stop. You should eat some food here. As you know, I only make rice and lentils, but I am happy to share them with you.

There is no need, really.
Look, I have to eat, you have to eat, you can join me. This is what I eat every day. It must have taken you an hour to walk here.

Well, I have brought some biscuits and fruit…
Good. We will share. Today God is giving us a feast.

Swami Jnanananda Giri after having lived in India for over 50 years is in his mid-seventies and now lives in a stone hexagonal 2-story cottage in Dehra Dun. It was designed by a famous architect and built for him by his main disciple. The interior is unique as every room is like a temple. The grand sweeping curved staircase is approached through a large wide arch at the foot of which is an enormous bronze baby Ganesh, 4-feet by 3-feet, poised to crawl up the stairs. There is a great deal of traffic noise outside, but once inside this enchanted domain one is blissfully unaware of such things.

Swamiji’s small Tibetan Apso dog called Dharma, to whom he has become extremely devoted, has also become famous. The dog keeps the devotees who come for the evening satsang and kirtan very much on their toes, and is not above biting them. When this happens, Swamiji smiles and says that Dharma is helping them to work off their karma! The dog arrived one day alone in a taxi from Delhi when Swamiji was away. His disciple, Maitreyi, was sure Swamiji, no fan of pets, would not want to keep him, but when she contacted him by phone he said mysteriously that the dog had come for a reason and should stay. It now keeps all - even the most serious seekers - in line.

“Transcendent Journey”, Swamiji’s long-awaited autobiography, has recently been published, and such is Swamiji’s breadth of vision and his inspiring experiences in the company of some of India’s greatest visionaries and saints, it will surely take its place along-side the perennial, “Autobiography of a Yogi”, by Swami Yogananda.


With his Tibetan dog in 2005


Swamiji walks me part of the way up the hill back to Landour. He is giving me more advice. I realize an important point: an Interviewer should never talk about his own guru or path — unless asked. All disciples believe they have the greatest guru in the world so it’s unlikely they will want to know about yours anyway.
Swamiji is telling me a story:

"I was invited to visit an Ashram…the guru was having a tremendous success abroad. One of the devotees asked me: What do you think of our guru? I replied: Nothing! Stunned offence. Our guru is God in human form — the devotee protested. I asked: What do you think of my guru? They didn’t know who my guru is. Then I said: Just as you don’t know anything about my guru, I don’t know anything about yours — but in fact, there’s no such thing as my guru or your guru…there is The Guru because God Himself cares to work through some human form we call guru".

From today I will not compare gurus or paths or practices — I am simply to record whatever those whom I Interview care to tell me about them.
From today I am to see myself as an extension of the tape recorder, nothing more.
From today I am to be detached from caring whether those approached give me an
Interview or not; it’s enough to ask.
From today I am to float along and enjoy; wherever I am to be dragged will be right, whatever happens will be right.



© Malcolm Tillis 2006