Gnanananda Early Life

Sadguru Sri Gnanananda

MID. Bulletin 64, May 2000 © Copyright 2000 by www. monasticdialog. com


by Swami Nityananda Giri

Sadguru Sri Gnanananda, the guru of Swami Abhishiktananda, in my concluding address.


I. Sri Gnanananda’s Life and Teachings

Sri Gnanananda was a Himalayan sage and great yogi. He was a monument of a man, a legend in his own lifetime. He had conquered the aging process of his body and kept all people guessing about his age. He would parry all questions about it, as many were curious to know the secret of his longevity. He would exhort them to inquire about the Immortal Spirit within and not about the mortal perishable body, Its vehicle. Nor would he speak about the past, his sadhana, spiritual attainments, which were obviously extraordinary. He considered that all achievements belong to the realm of the ego. Nor would he talk about the disciples who would have come to him in the past years for his guidance. He lived from moment to moment, in the Eternal Now, with no thoughts of a dead yesterday and unborn tomorrow.

Hence Sri Gnanananda’s early life is shrouded in mystery. But in all lives of great men, what is there on the surface to see? It is believed that he was born in the early years of the last century in a village near Mangalore on the west coast of South India. Even as a boy, he experienced a Descent of Grace, saktinipata, which took him to Pandharpur, a great center of Maharashtra mysticism. There he met his guru, the pontiff of the northern regional center of advaita at Badrinath, established by the great philosopher saint Sri Sankaracharya. He had come to South India on pilgrimage. Sri Gnanananda accompanied his guru to Srinagar in Kashmir and after the latter’s mahasamadhi he spent many years performing austerities in the higher altitudes of the Himalayas. He visited Kailash in Tibet, Nepal, Burma, and Sri Lanka before he came to Tamil Nadu. The earliest we hear of him in South India is around 1860 near Chidambaram. In the course of his wanderings on foot over many decades as a parivrajaka or itinerant monk he had come into contact with the spiritual luminaries of the last century and the present one. Around the turn of the century he was staying in the Sampathgiri Hills of Polur near Tiruvannamalai. He was with Sri Aurobindo after his arrival at Pondicherry from Chandarnagore. Sri Gnanananda also recalled his meeting with Sri Ramana Maharshi in the Virupaksha Cave.

The swami was first and foremost a paramahamsa parivrajaka, a true wandering monk without belongings or obligations. He exemplified in himself that spontaneous love of insecurity and anonymity which is the hallmark of a genuine sannyasin. He moved away as disciples built ashrams for him. It was only towards the end of his phenomenally long spiritual ministry that he settled down at Thapovanam on the outskirts of the ancient temple town of Tirukoyilur on the banks of a sacred river and within the spiritual aura of Arunachala. The ashram is situated about a kilometer away from the four-hundred-year-old samadhi tomb of another great Hindu saint, Sri Raghottama Swami. It is located on the Tiruvannamalai-Tirukoyilur highway, about 200 kilometers from Madras.

The earliest inmates of the ashram, which grew around the sage’s presence, were monks mainly from Sri Shivananda Ashram of Rishikesh in the Himalayas. Later, householders working in schools and offices nearby, as well as retired householders, settled down in the ashram to serve the swami. In this way a great many persons, including women and children, were exposed to the influence of an ashram life. Brahmacharis came for spiritual guidance and had ample scope for service of the guru and the study of scripture under monks who trained them. There were also retired householders who came for initiation into monastic life. Sri Gnanananda was deeply interested in monastic revival and gave initiation into traditional sannyasa to a few of those who had a genuine calling and were well prepared with the disciplines of asceticism and interiorization. The renunciate disciples were all given facilities for the study of Vedanta and the pursuit of a contemplative life. In 1969 Sadguru Gnanananda established a retreat center for them at Yercaud, a hill station, and called it Sri Gnanananda Pranava Nilayam. As the name itself indicates, the center is for meditation on Atman, symbolized by the ardhamatra or half-nasal ending of “OM”, the pranava. There is no ritual or communal worship at Yercaud. The pictures of Sri Gnanananda, Sri Buddha, Swami Vivekananda, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the Kaaba at Mecca adorn the walls of the central hall.

Sri Gnanananda underlined the importance of Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga and held the traditional view that only one who has attained purity of heart, single-minded concentration, and a good degree of desirelessness by cultivating intense devotion to God is qualified for intense study of Vedanta and Self-inquiry. In order to meet the needs of the largest group who came to him, he constructed and consecrated an ashram temple with various deities. Thus we find at Thapovanam sannyasins engaged in study and practicing meditation side by side with bhaktas, devotees singing kirtans in the praise of the Lord. There are others who prefer ritualistic worship with Vedic chants. Thus the unique institution represents the many facets of the Master’s personality.

It was at Thapovanam in December 1955 that Swami Abhishiktananda met Sri Gnanananda. As you know, the former was Fr. Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine monk from the monastery of Kergonan in France. He, together with Fr. Jules Monchanin, founded a Christian ashram at Shantivanam, Kulitalai, near Trichy in Tamil Nadu. He was already acquainted with the teachings of Bhagawan Sri Ramana Maharshi, the Sage of Arunachala and of the Upanishads, and was attracted to the caves of Arunachala at Tiruvannamalai. Sri Gnanananda also made a very deep impression on him. As advised by him, he came again to Thapovanam in February 1956 for two weeks of retreat in silence and meditation. He wrote a book, Guru and Disciple, in which he describes his encounter with the Master. He speaks of the retreat with him as “Days of Grace, days of peace and fullness, when one knows one exists in the depth of oneself where all appearances are left behind and one is on the level of the True “. Sri M. P. Pandit of Sri Aurobindo Ashram writes: “I personally consider the book Guru and Disciple to be one of the major spiritual documents of the present century, far, far superior to many books from the West that have appeared of late.” Swami Abhishiktananda gives a vivid and moving account of his first meeting with Sri Gnanananda, whom he recognized as his guru and reflects on the mystery of the guru: “The Guru is one who has himself first attained the Real and who knows from personal experience the way that leads there; He is capable of initiating the disciple and of making well up from within the heart of his disciple the immediate, ineffable experience which is his ownthe utterly transparent knowledge, so limpid and pure, that quite simply ‘he is’ …When the vibrations of the Master’s voice reach the disciple’s ear and the Master’s eyes look deep into his, then from the very depths of his being, from the newly discovered cave of his heart, thoughts well up which reveal him to himself. “When all is said and done, the true guru is he who, without the help of words, can enable the attentive soul to hear the ‘Thou Art That’, ‘Tat-Tvam-Asi’, of the Vedic Rishis.

Abhishiktananda speaks about guru darshana with great feeling:

Meeting in depth is darshana. Darshana is, etymologically speaking, vision. It is coming face to face with the Real. In a way, this is possible for us in spite of our human frailty. There are philosophical darshanas, the systems of the thinkers which aim at making contact with the Real in the form of ideas. There is also the darshana of the sacred places or kshetra, of the Temples and holy images or murti, where the Divinity who transcends all forms is willing to don the numerous forms invented by man’s imagination when set on fire by faith. Above all there is the Darshana of holy men, the most meaningful of all for the man who is on the right wavelength. The Darshana of the Guru is the last step on the path to the ultimate Darshana, when the final veil is lifted and all duality is transcended.

He writes: “Sri Gnanananda refused all cheap spirituality. His teaching is fundamentally the way of total renunciation so that finally there is no ego left to manifest itself. May the sceptic try the way of Dhyana, which he taught!” His teachings are the same as that of the Upanishads. Behind the appearance of the veil of the empirical and phenomenal ego is the Ultimate Reality, which could also be called the Immortal Self of All, which is the same as God in the absolute transcendence as Godhead. The Ultimate cannot be an object of knowledge or experience. One has to be It and that is the only way of knowing It. Being is Knowing. So, the Knower of Brahman, the Godhead, is the Brahman Itself, proclaim the scriptures. The external guru with the form is gurumurti, who, having realized Atman, the Self, shows the way. He makes the disciple take the high dive and reveals his true form as the inner guru, the Atman, ‘I AM’, who is akhanda, undivided, and advaitic, nondual. Gnanananda again and again tells Abhishiktananda that guru darshana is the direct and immediate realization of Atman, the Self, ‘I AM’.

When one attains this state of unitive consciousness, of being one with the Self of All, the sarvatmabhava, he becomes verily an embodiment of Infinite Love. Swami describes Sri Gnanananda: “Gnanananda’s whole being radiated a pure and tender love, a love which was complete for each one and the same for all. The joy of being loved by Him exclusively filled everyone and resulted in a high degree of detachment, for who does not dream of being loved apart from others and with a preferential love? Yet at the same time each man felt as if he were enveloped in a plentitude of love. One felt that with Gnanananda all distinctions, bheda, had been overcome and had vanished. It was the personality of the Self alone, the Atman, in each person which was immediately perceived by Him. “

Sri M. P. Pandit, a great disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, has written of Sri Gnanananda as follows:

He had infinite compassion, a compassion born of strength, Atmabala, strength of Bliss. In one of the most ancient Upanishads, there is a description of the one who has realized the Divine Self. He is Atmakridha, one who sports with the Self, Atmamithunah, one who has the Self for his companion, Atmananda, one whose delight is in the Selfwhenever he looks at a child, a plant, a flower, or an animal, he sees only the Self. He lives and joys in the Self, Atmaratih. Sri Gnanananda is such a one who has stepped out of the pages of the Upanishads.

Sri Gnanananda received devotees of all ages, of all stages in life, of all races, men, women, and children. He reminded them again and again that human birth is rare to obtain and the goal of life is God-experience, that is, Self-realization. A Jesuit priest from Tamil Nadu who was drawn to advaita was advised by Swami Abhishiktananda to meet Sri Gnanananda. He asked the sage whether he should become a Hindu to pursue his advaitic Vedantic sadhana. Sri Gnanananda told him that there was no need to change his religion. Vedanta is the transcendent element in all great religions. He should go deep into his own religion and would discover it there. Advaita would make a Christian, a true Christian. Later the priest became an internationally known teacher of Zen meditation.

Sri Gnanananda often used to emphasize that one should graduate from the religious life to the interior and contemplative life so that he might realize God as his own Self, which is the transcendent element in all religions. This seems to have made a deep impression on Swami Abhishiktananda. In his brilliant and inspired essays on sannyasa, he says:

Every religion is for its followers the supreme vehicle of the claims of the Absolute. However, behind the namarupa, the names and forms, external features such as creed, rites, etc., by which it is recognized and through which it is transmitted, it bears within itself an urgent call to men to pass beyond itself inasmuch as its essence is to be only the sign of the Absolute. In fact, whatever the excellence of any religion, it remains inevitably at the level of the signs and it remains on this side of the Real not only in its structure and institutional forms, but also in its attempts to formulate the inevitable Reality alike in the mythical and conceptual images. The mystery to which it points overflows its limits in every direction. Like the nucleus of the atom, the innermost core of any religion explodes when the abyss of man’s consciousness is pierced to its depth by the ray of Pure Awakening. Indeed, its true greatness lies precisely in its potentiality to lead beyond itself.

Bulletin 64 • Sadguru Sri Gnanananda • May 2000

from: Monastic Dialog

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From: Resources on the Niketan – About the Sri Gnanananda Niketan.



About five decades ago, Sadguru Gnanananda Giri Maharaj, (Life of the Guru) a Himalayan sage chose a quiet spot on the northern bank of the river, South Pennar near Thirkoilur in Tamil Nadu in South India to be his Abode.

It was the concluding phase of his phenomenally long life (Life of the Guru) of spiritual ministry. Sri Gananananda was a Mahayogi and Gananasiddha in the lineage of Jyotir Mutt, the northern spiritual seat established by Sri Adi Sankara Bhagavatpadacharya.

Gradually, an ashram, SRI GNANANANDA TAPOVANAM grew around his presence. According to tradition, this region around Tirukoilur (Life of the Guru, Getting there) coming with in the spiritual aura of Arunachala, was sanctified by the penance of the sage Mrigandu and had been associated with great saints through centuries.

Not much is known about the earlier life of the sage Gnanananda. From his casual references it was gathered that he was born at Managalapuri near Gokarna on the west coast in Karnataka. Even as a boy he was drawn to Pandharpur, the famous pilgrimage center in Maharashtra. There he met his Guru Sri Sivarathna Giri Maharaj, pontiff of Jyotir Mutt. He was under his tutelage at Srinagar in Kashmir. After his Guru’s Mahasamamdhi, Sri Gnanananda spent many years in penance on the higher altitudes of the Himalayas. Later, he travelled all over India. Passing through Nepal, Burma and Sri Lanka, he came to Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu by about 1860. He had met many spiritual luminaries of the last two centuries.

Sri Gnanananda was a Paramahamsa Parivrajaka Acharya, a wandering monk teacher, par excellence. It was only at Attayampatti near Salem, he allowed the devotees to build an ashram for him. For some years he used to move around from there. In 1940 he shifted to Siddhalinga Madam situated at about six miles from Thirukoilur on the southern bank of the river South Pennar. As he now allowed himself to be known, devotees thronged to him in great number.

Hence in 1951 the sage moved to Sri Gnanananda Tapovanam on the northern bank of the river. He called the ashram an Adhyatma Vidyalaya, a school for Self-knowledge and initiated disciples into Sannyas in a traditional manner. His teaching was pure Vedantha, the timeless message of the Upanishads.

A French Benedictine monk, Swami Abhishiktananda (GURU and DISCIPLE) (Henri Le Saux O.S.B), introduced Sri Gnanananda to the West through his book Guru and Disciple, (GURU and DISCIPLE) in which he has described his encounter with the sage.

Sadguru Gnanananda attained Mahasamadhi in January 1974. A Shrine of Grace has been constructed over his Samadhi.

The ashram has grown to be an important spiritual center in Tamil Nadu.


Meeting with his Guru

Sadguru Sri Gnanananda Giri Maharaj, a Himalayan Sage, Mahayogi and great Gnana Siddha lived to a phenomenally long and undetermined age. Not much is known about his early life. Many were curious to know the secret of his conquest of the aging process of the body. He would discourage their queries about his age, saying with a gentle smile “Ask me about the immortal Atman within and not about the perishable body”. But, from his chance remarks, those close to him have made out an account of his life. He was born of orthodox Brahmin parents in Mangalapuri near Gokarna, a sacred pilgrimage center in Karnataka, most probably in the early years of the nineteenth century. While a boy of tender years, he experienced Saktinipata or Descent of Grace and was led by a light to the famous Kshetra in Maharashtra, Pandharpur on the banks of Chandrabhaga River. There he met his Guru Sri Swami Sivaratna Giri, belonging to Jyotir Mutt, the northern regional mutt established by Adi Sankara Bhagavatpadacharya. Whenever he referred to his Master, emotion surged in him obstructing the flow of words. Obviously, years spent by him in the tutelage of his preceptor were replete with scintillating episodes of joy and experience.

Himalayan Sage – Paramahamsa Parivrajakacharya, wandering monk, par excellence

After the Mahasamadhi of his Guru, Sri Gnanananda renounced his title to the pontificate and retired to the remote heights of the Himalayas for intense penance. How long he remained there and how long he traversed the entire length and breadth of India, Nepal, Burma and Sri Lanka could only be a matter of conjecture. But he revealed familiarity with most of the places in these parts of the sub-continent at a time when modern means of transport did not exist. He was fully conversant with the writings of Tamil saints acquired most probably from his long stay in Tamil- speaking areas of Sri Lanka. His knowledge of Sanskrit was good. He could converse freely in Hindi, Malayalam and Telugu with the same facility as in Tamil and Kannada. It was clear from his casual references that he had come into touch with spiritual luminaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ramalinga Swamigal, Saibaba of Shirdi, Sendamangalam Avadhoota Swamigal and his Guru known as “Judge Swamigal”, Vithoba of Polur, Seshadri Swamigal, Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, Aurobindo and several others were amongst them. During his stay in the Narasimha Guha of Sampatgiri hills near Polur, he used to visit Sri Ramana when he was in Virupaksha cave. Many devotees believe that “Kulla Swami” mentioned by the patriot poet Mahakavi Subramanya Bharati refers to Sri Gnanananda who was in Pondicherry at that time.

Attayampatti and Siddhalingamadam

Sri Gnanananda was a Paramahamsa Parivrajakacharya, an itinerant Sannyasin teacher par excellence, who loved anonymity and obscurity and moved about freely avoiding permanent stay at any particular place. However, early in the twentieth century when he came to Attayampatti in Salem district he yielded to the entreaties of the poor people and allowed them to construct an Ashram for him. In the late thirties, he moved to Siddhalingamadam situated at about six miles from Tirukoilur, in South Arcot district, on the southern bank of the South Pennar River, renowned as Dakshina Pinakini – southern Ganges. From time immemorial, the place was associated with Siddhas. In 1951, he shifted to a mango grove on the northern bank of the river. An ashram called Sri Gnanananda Thapovanam grew around his presence. It is believed to be the sacred spot where sage Mrigandu, the father of the immortal Markandeya performed penance. It is situated at about 3 km from Tirukoilur on the highway to Tiruvannamalai.

Spiritual eminence of Tirukoilur

According to ancient religious tradition, this part of Tamil Nadu known as Krishnaranya in the hoary past, was sanctified by the presence of great saints through the centuries. Here, Lord Krishna , pleased with the penance of the sage Mrigandu gave darshan to him as Vamana, the Trivikrama Avatar of Vishnu. The first three Alwars (Sri Vaishnavaite saints) met and ecstatically sang the glory of the Lord in this ancient temple. Tirukoilur is an important center for Saivaites also. Kilaiyur shrine is one of the Ashta Veerattana or the eight special temples of Siva. Saivaite saints have offered hymns in praise of the Lord who had slain the demon Andhakasura. Avvayar, the Siddha poetess pleased Sri Ganesa in the same temple by offering her immortal composition “Vinayakar Agaval” replete with deep insights of yoga. Saint Gnanasambandar was steeped in ecstasy on the sight of Arunachala from the shrine of Atulyanatheswara situated on a big rock on the northern bank of the river. Nearby is the Mula Brindavana of Swami Raghottama Tirtha, a saint highly venerated in Madhwa tradition. He took his Eternal Abode in Samadhi more than 400 years ago.

Situated within easy reach from Tiruvannamalai, Tirukoilur partakes of the spiritual grandeur of Arunachala, as Lord Siva has decreed that its potency will help all aspirants living within the radius of 3 yojanas from the holy hill attain Sayujya, no separate diksha being necessary for cutting off the knots of bondage.

Considering the spiritual importance of this hallowed spot dating back to many centuries, it seems no accident that Sri Gnanananda has chosen it for locating his Ashram towards the close of his long spiritual ministry and for resting in it in Samadhi for eternity, keeping unbroken the tradition of the eminence of the Kshetra.

Adhyatma Vidyalaya

In the initial stages of its development, Sannyasins were the main inmates of Thapovanam. Later, when Sri Gnanananda settled down there permanently, shifting from Siddhalingamadam, devotees came to him from all parts of India and abroad. He called the Ashram an Adhyatma Vidyalaya, a school for Self-knowledge and initiated a few disciples into Sannyas in the traditional manner. He encouraged the study of Vedanta and personally guided their Sadhana or spiritual practice.

His Teachings

Sadguru Gnanananda’s teaching was pure Vedanta, the timeless message of the Upanishads. It is fundamentally the way of total renunciation, so that finally there is no ego left to manifest itself. He is the Vedantic Ideal living in the Spaceless Here and Eternal Now. By unintermittent Tapas of constant awareness of Self, he has with his Presence, sanctified the entire world. He is a true Sadguru in the line of Adi Sankara, abiding in the peaks of spiritual experience. The traditional message issues forth from him in such pristine purity that its import is always clear and the direction safe and authentic.

He was easily accessible to all. An inexhaustible fountain of Divine compassion, God’s mercy flows through him equally to all, to the saint and to the sinner alike. His gentle response to those who came to him for succour used to be “Let us pray”. Though he did not overtly perform miracles and in fact emphasized that they were mundane and belonged to the realm of illusory phenomena, extraordinary things happened in the presence of the great Jeevanmukta. He is verily a Kalpaka Vriksha, a wish-fulfilling celestial tree who gives the devotees what they want so that they may gradually turn Godward with a desireless love and total self-offering and develop keen aspiration for attaining Self Knowledge, which is what he really wants to bless them with. Truly, Sri Gnanananda is like an immense iceberg much of that is hidden from our vision. Established in Sahaja Samadhi, he was the greatest Bhakta among Bhaktas, a peerless Yogi among Yogis and a Gnani of unequalled stature among Knowers of Atman. Above all, he is Guru par excellence among the preceptors, who teaches the import of the Mahavakyas by his presence as Jeevanmukta. As the inner Guru, he lights up the Lamp of Wisdom in the hearts of his disciples. Speaking to them in his eloquent language of silence he transmutes their ego consciousness into constant Self-awareness. Sri Gnanananda has been introduced to the west by a French Benedictine monk, Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux O.S.B). He has written a book ‘Guru and Disciple’ in which he describes his encounters with the Sage in whom he discovered his Guru.


The great teacher who was embodiment of Absolute Truth attained Mahasamadhi in January 1974. As per his instructions he was laid to rest in the traditional manner, in a hexagon-shaped Samadhi chamber constructed by him a few years earlier. The Jeevanmukta has cast off the limitations of the physical body and now his presence in Videha Kaivalya has become all pervading. An abiding peace encompasses and permeates the Ashram premises and the very air is redolent with his powerful Presence. Indeed it is not confined to Thapovanam. As before, even now wherever devotees may be, they find his unfailing Grace and immediate support in a more potent inner Presence. They now realize the significance of his oft-repeated assurance “Swami will always be with you”. For him, a Jeevanmukta, there is no coming or going away.

Although the eternally youthful, lustrous, sweet and smiling face of the sage, lotus-like in tinge and form, may not be visible to their gross vision, his uninterrupted Presence and constant shower of Grace have been the definite experience of all devotees who surrender to him.

Shrine of Grace

It was indicated by the sage that his Samadhi with his eternal living Presence, which is the very heart of Sri Gnanananda Thapovanam would become a place of pilgrimage and grow to be a great center of spiritual sadhana for keen aspirants. As per his instructions, the Sanctum Sanctorum of the shrine has been constructed in a hexagonal shape. Twin forms of Ganesa, Siva, Vishnu, Surya, Devi, and Subramanya are sculpted in the six pillars, as he is coming in the lineage of Adi Sankara who is Shanmatha Sthapanacharya. Mahakumbhabhisheka and final consecration of Sri Gnanananda Mahalinga were performed on 9th June 1978 with due Vedic rites, sanctifying to eternity, one of the holiest places on earth.

Subsequently, a Prakara (vestibule) around the Sanctum Sanctorum and a sixteen pillared Mahamandapa in front of it have been constructed with lovely paintings on the ceiling and ornamented pillars with appropriate sculpted figures of Lord Siva. Rajagopura of noble and imposing appearance with five terraces has been erected over the main entrance on the southern side leading to the Shrine of Grace of Sadguru. Mahakumbhabhisheka of the Rajagopura was performed on 22nd June 1989. Kumbhabhisheka was again performed in May 1999, after renovation of the Ashram temple and the Samadhi Shrine of Grace. Sri Gnanananda Thapovanam is now one of the well known centers of spiritual importance in South India.