Gnanananda Early Life

Sri Gnanananda

Bulletin 64, May 2000
Copyright 2000 by
monasticdialog. com


by Swami Nityananda Giri

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


I. Sri Gnanananda’s Life and

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

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

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

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

from: Monastic

to Beezone

From: Resources
on the Niketan – About the Sri Gnanananda



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

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

Spiritual eminence of

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

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.