Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

Homage to Yogaswami

by Susunaga Weeraperuma

Yogaswami of Nallur, the Sage of Lanka
who lived from 1872 to 1964

In 1970, a few years after the death of Yogaswami, a booklet of mine was published called Homage to Yogaswami. The following is a revised version of my memorable interview with this extraordinary spiritual master:

Even when Yogaswami was alive he had a considerable reputation in Sri Lanka and India as a truly enlightened sage. His devotees naturally tended to exaggerate his spiritual accomplishments. He had been hailed as the greatest seer the world had known since Shankara who was born in the eighth century A.D. There were sceptics who dismissed Yogaswami as just another yogi with psychic powers. Even those who questioned whether he had been fundamentally transformed in the spiritual sense did nevertheless readily concede that he had extraordinary powers.

Yogaswami was reputed to have been remarkably clairvoyant. He was known to disappear from one place in space and reappear at several places at the same time. Three of his devotees claimed to have met him at the same moment in time in places as far distant as Jaffna (Sri Lanka), Madras and London. One of his close friends recalled incidents which illustrated that anything wished by Yogaswami immediately materialised.

For instance, this person once accompanied Yogaswami on a long walk in the country across many miles of rice fields. Having experienced the pangs of hunger and fatigue, Yogaswami had casually wished for a car ride back to town. No sooner had he uttered this wish than there were several cars on the scene. The drivers of the cars were all requesting Yogaswami to step into their cars. The drivers were vying with each other for the privilege of being of some assistance to a holy man. On this occasion Yogaswami had raised his hands and exclaimed how dangerous it was to wish! Spiritually liberated persons, I was told, were incapable of wishing in the psychological sense as their egos had dissolved but their wishes were confined to purely physical needs.

On another occasion, at the end of one of Yogaswami's rare visits to Colombo, a large crowd of admirers had thronged a railway station in Colombo to see his departure. Some devotees were chanting hymns in Sanskrit and Tamil while a few others were offering him garlands of flowers. It was getting late and one of Yogaswami's friends had alerted him to the importance of catching his train in time. "Don't worry," replied Yogaswami with assurance, "the train cannot leave without me." That evening there had been engine trouble and the train failed to start at the right time. After leisurely greeting all his friends Yogaswami finally decided to enter his railway compartment and the train thereupon started to move.

Although I had heard of Yogaswami there were several reasons why I had never felt a compelling urge to visit him up to the time of my interview. First, at that time, I could not afford the train fare to Jaffna which is in the far north of Sri Lanka; second, it seemed to me then, as it does now, that one must discover God or Truth oneself and that no external agency could really help one in this matter; third, Yogaswami chased away most of his visitors.

Many persons unfortunately regarded Yogaswami as a mere fortune-teller with the gift of making accurate forecasts. At one time Yogaswami had a stream of visitors every day from dawn to dusk. They came to him with various personal and other problems. Those who were privileged enough to be received by him usually regarded themselves as doubly blessed. Some of those who were rebuked by Yogaswami regarded themselves as spiritually chastised. If Yogaswami wished to avoid a visitor he was known either to disappear or to make himself invisible for long periods of time.

An interesting explanation of Yogaswami's behaviour is the following. The minds of human beings who are in bondage are in a state of animation -- animated by karma in the Hindu-Buddhist sense. This karma is no other than the sum total of the innumerable psychological influences that have conditioned the mind and hence stand in the way of liberation. These psychological factors coalesce to create the delusion of the "I" or the ego.

Liberated persons, however, experience a state of pure consciousness owing to their transcending this shell of the self. It would be correct to describe the state of liberation as one of non-animation since a liberated mind would not be animated by karma. As a liberated mind is therefore comparable to inanimate matter, it could be animated or given momentum by a non-liberated mind which would necessarily be characterized by animation or karma. Besides, a liberated mind has the advantage of being a mirror in which a non-liberated mind can see itself as it truly is.

Now, if Yogaswami seemed to lack an unchanging personality it was presumably because his "personality" temporarily acquired the characteristics of his visitors. Not surprisingly, therefore, proud persons invariably found Yogaswami behaving arrogantly towards them. To those who were haunted by fears Yogaswami's manner seemed timid.

A South Indian sannyasin (recluse) had recited a stanza from the Bhagavad Gita to Yogaswami. Thereupon Yogaswami had repeated the stanza with alterations and clever puns on certain words so that the sacred lines acquired an erotic significance. Yogaswami could not help doing that for he was merely reacting to the hidden sexual imagery in the unconscious mind of that recluse. Consequently, this ascetic, like many other of Yogaswami's visitors, was not only irritated but also embarrassed.

In a sense Yogaswami was a Zen master who awakened people from their psychological slumber by shocking them without deliberately wishing to do so. The people of Jaffna regarded Yogaswami with a curious mixture of veneration, affection and fear. Some of his ardent admirers seemed more to fear than love him. To be received by Yogaswami it was necessary to approach him without any ulterior motive whatsoever. That motiveless state of pure being seemed the unattainable, the zenith of spirituality: indeed, if only one could attain that purified state of consciousness would not one be oneself a Yogaswami?

Now, the lack of confidence in my ability to face Yogaswami without any recognisable motive was also an important reason why I had been curbing the desire to see him.

I had been walking a great distance along the sea shore in Colombo. The fishermen were hurriedly pushing their boats on the sand before sunset at Dehiwala. Their cries and their baskets of fish disturbed the peacefulness of that quiet evening. So I walked away from them and chose an isolated spot on a rock facing the sea at Bambalapitiya. The skies were gradually getting lit with many colours by the setting sun. The evening was pleasantly cool and the refreshing sea breeze had an exhilarating effect on one's nerves. The ceaseless roar of the sea and the sight of the waves breaking against the rocks seemed an appropriate subject for contemplation.

Those tireless waves must have dashed against those rocks for millions of years but the rocks remained unyielding. Was not the spiritual quest of man throughout the ages also like that? Man endlessly searched and struggled to find Truth or God which seemingly remained unknown and mysterious.

The sea is comparable to universal consciousness out of which waves or little egos spring. These waves dash against Truth and dissolve but only to become transformed again into other waves.

These were my thoughts when suddenly a very dark and elderly man approached me and almost demanded that I should listen to him. I was rather taken aback. His manner was mildly aggressive but his attitude was on the whole kindly and sympathetic as I soon discovered.

"Young man?" he said, "why idle away your time?"

Our acquaintance quickly developed into a warm friendship. This person introduced himself as a retired government official who lived in Tellippallai (a village close to Jaffna) with his wife and family. Within minutes of my getting to know this person he was telling me about Yogaswami with great enthusiasm.

"It is disgraceful," he observed, "that you haven't bothered to visit our sage who lives in this island."

This gentleman very kindly offered to pay my train fare to Jaffna and also invited me to live in his home as long as I wished. We spent several eventful weeks together in Jaffna. He took me to all the famous Hindu temples in that part of the country including the sacred Nallur temple.

Being a devout Hindu, he sincerely believed that it was necessary to purify me as a preparation for the forthcoming visit to Yogaswami. In the mornings before sunrise his wife would recite hymns from the Hindu scriptures. Frequently I had to dress in a white dhoti with sandalwood paste and holy ash applied liberally on my body as a necessary requirement before entering certain temples. I did not quite see the religious or spiritual significance of these rituals but perhaps they added a certain colour to these otherwise drab and solemn occasions.

As the weeks passed by, much though I was enjoying the hospitality of my generous host, I was nevertheless beginning to feel rather impatient that we had not yet visited Yogaswami. I even wondered whether my friend was subtly trying to convert me to the Hindu way of life. In any case, such a course seemed pointless as I was already rather sympathetic to Vedanta philosophy. Later I realised that my friend was sincere in his assurance that a preliminary period of preparation was absolutely essential before having an interview with Yogaswami.

Nearly a month had passed and I was longing to return home to Colombo. As I was fast losing my earlier interest in Yogaswami, I finally decided to leave Jaffna without visiting him. When I broke the news of this decision to my friend he gleamed triumphantly.

"Ah, I think the right moment has come. Now that you are losing interest in him you are in a fit state to see him. We shall go tomorrow."

After he had spoken I was convinced for the first time as to the real purpose underlying this long period of waiting and preparation. We decided to meet Yogaswami the following morning at sunrise which was supposed to be the best time for such a meeting.

It was a cool and peaceful morning except for the rattling noises caused by the gentle breeze that swayed the tall and graceful palmyra palms. We walked silently through the narrow and dusty roads. The city was still asleep. Yogaswami lived in a tiny hut that had been specially constructed for him in the garden of a home in the Jaffna suburb of Columbuthurai. The hut had a thatched roof and was on the whole characterised by the simplicity of a peasant dwelling.

Yogaswami appeared exactly as I had imagined him to be. He looked very old and frail. He was of medium height and his long grey hair fell over his shoulders. When we first saw Yogaswami he was sweeping the garden with a long broom. He slowly walked towards us and opened the gates.

"I am doing a coolie's job," he said. "Why have you come to see a coolie?" He chuckled with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

I noticed that he spoke good English with an impeccable accent. As there is usually an esoteric meaning to all his statements, I interpreted his words to mean: "I am a spiritual cleaner of human beings. Why, do you want to be cleansed?"

He gently beckoned us into his hut. Yogaswami sat cross-legged on a slightly elevated platform and we sat on the floor facing him. We had not yet spoken a single word. That morning we hardly spoke for he did all the talking. Talking to him was unnecessary for one had only to think of something and he replied instantaneously. I did not have to formulate my questions in words for Yogaswami was aware of my thoughts all the time.

After we had comfortably seated ourselves on the floor, Yogaswami closed his eyes and remained motionless for nearly half an hour. He seemed to live in another dimension of his being during that time. One wondered whether the serenity of his facial expression was attributable to the joy of his inner life of meditation. Was he sleeping or resting? Was he trying to probe our minds?

My friend indicated with a nervous smile that we were really lucky to have been received by him. Yogaswami suddenly opened his eyes. Those luminous eyes brightened the darkness of the entire hut. His eyes were as mellow as they were luminous --- with the mellowness of compassion.

I was beginning to feel hungry and tired and thereupon Yogaswami asked "What will you have for breakfast?" At that moment I would have accepted anything that was offered but I thought of idli (rice cakes) and bananas which were popular items of food in Jaffna.

In a flash there appeared a stranger in the hut who respectfully bowed and offered us these very items of food from a tray that he was holding. A little later my friend wished for coffee but before he could express his request in words the same man reappeared on the scene and served us with coffee.

After breakfast Yogaswami asked us not to throw away the banana skins, which were for the cow. He spoke loudly to the cow that was grazing in the garden. The cow clumsily walked right into the hut. He fed her with the banana skins. She licked his hand gratefully and tried to sit on the floor.

Yogaswami held out the last remaining banana skin to the cow and said "No leave us alone. Don't disturb us, Valli. I'm having some visitors."

The cow nodded her head in obeisance and faithfully carried out his instructions. After the cow had left us Yogaswami closed his eyes again and he seemed once more to be lost in a world of his own. I was indeed curious to know what exactly Yogaswami did on these occasions by closing his eyes. I wondered whether he was meditating. It was an apposite moment to broach the subject but before I could ask any questions he suddenly started speaking.

"Look at those trees. The trees are meditating. Meditation is silence. If you realise that you really know nothing then you would be truly meditating. Such truthfulness is the right soil for silence. Silence is meditation."

Yogaswami bent forward eagerly. "You must be simple. You must be utterly naked in your consciousness. When you have reduced yourself to nothing --- when your 'self' has disappeared --- when you have become nothing then you are yourself God. The man who is nothing knows God for God is nothing. Nothing is everything. Because I am nothing, you see, because I am a beggar --- I own everything. So nothing means everything. Understand?"

"Tell us about this stare of nothingness," requested my friend with eager anticipation.

"It means that you genuinely desire nothing. It means that you can honestly say that you know nothing. It also means that you are not interested in doing anything about this state of nothingness."

What, I speculated, did he mean by "know nothing" --- the state of "pure being" in contrast to "becoming"?

"You think you know but in fact you are ignorant. When you see that you know nothing about yourself then you are yourself God."

Yogaswami frequently alluded to this state of silence. He spoke of it as though it were his very life. To one who has not experienced this state of samadhi any description of it will necessarily remain an abstraction. In his presence one caught a fleeting glimpse of that bliss. Whether Yogaswami's consciousness expanded to include those in his immediate presence or whether this feeling of indescribable elation or peaceful bliss or samadhi was based on self-deception are matters that cannot be easily decided.

Almost everything that Yogaswami said seemed so amazingly simple that one could not help becoming temporarily oblivious to the practical implications of his statements.

Then for a moment, as though to assert the independence of my mind, I tried to scrutinise his sayings in my mind without asking any questions. Is this state of silence an act of divine grace? Is it possible to induce this state in oneself? Does one come by this state accidentally without any exertion of will? Would not any attempt to induce silence inevitably activate the the ego?

Yogaswami who was evidently aware of these doubts and difficulties came to my assistance with an unforgettable pithy remark: "There is silence when you realise that there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose."

Our conversation, which was taking an interesting turn, was interrupted by a man who walked into the hut. This person was apparently an ardent devotee of Yogaswami. He lit a candle, placed a few jasmine flowers on the floor and finally prostrated himself on the cold cement floor before kissing Yogaswami's feet.

"Bloody fool!" yelled Yogaswami, "this is not an altar! Are you worshipping me or are you worshipping yourself? Why worship another?" The poor man withdrew into a corner of the hut with reverence and trembling.

"Do you think," went on Yogaswami, "that you can find God by worshipping another? You do such silly, stupid things --- offering flowers and lighting candles! Do you think that you can find God by giving bribes?"

In situations of this kind Yogaswami's strictures did not appear to originate from his pedagogic role of a guru or spiritual teacher as many of his disciples would probably have supposed but were rather the casual and incidental remarks of someone who was deeply moved by human folly. Indeed, Yogaswami discouraged the recording of his sayings which he likened to rubbish that did not deserve preservation. He apparently considered that the significance of a spontaneously uttered statement depended on the unique and unrepeatable circumstances that gave rise to it.

Yogaswami waved his hands with disapproval at the man who had just worshipped him. He then pressed his quivering hands against his heart in an eloquent gesture and exclaimed loudly "Look! It is here! God is here! It is here!"

For a few brief moments he closed his eyes again. These interludes were probably intended to allow the meaning of his pronouncements to sink gradually into the minds of his listeners. There was a strange, majestic and Buddha-like dignity whenever Yogaswami closed his eyes in meditation --- the erect spine and the cross-legged posture together with the face that was apparently asleep but yet supremely awake.

"The time is short but the subject is vast," he whispered with extreme gravity. This enigmatic statement may mean that the subject of understanding God or reality is vast whereas the time at one's disposal is so limited that it should not be wasted in unessentials such as perhaps rituals and ceremonies.

There was a question that I had hesitated to ask but it was an important one for me at that time: how does one overcome depression? No sooner had I formulated this question in my mind than Yogaswami answered it instantaneously.

"Now, what is depression? You mean pessimism, don't you? Pessimism and optimism are the same. They are two sides of the same coin. You are no better off when you are pessimistic than when you are optimistic and you are also no better off when you are optimistic than when you are pessimistic. Optimism and pessimism as reflected in joy and sorrow are different angles from which you view life. But life is neither one nor the other. If you look at life exactly as it is and not from either of these angles, free from this duality, then life is neither pessimistic nor optimistic."

As he was discoursing there walked in an elderly American lady who quickly removed her sandals and joined our company on the floor. The familiar manner in which she smiled at everyone present and the affectionate way in which she greeted Yogaswami indicated that she was probably a frequent visitor to the hut.

"What have you been up to?" Yogaswami asked her rather playfully.

"I've been to the Hindu temple in the neighbourhood. It was so peaceful there."

"You mean that stone temple?" asked Yogaswami laughingly.

"You went to worship the stone gods in the stone temple!

There is only one temple and that is the temple in yourself.

And to find God you have to know this temple.

There is no other temple. No one can save you!"

"What about Christ and Buddha? Can they not help us?" interjected the American lady. From her demeanour it was clear that her question was not motivated by a desire to elicit information but was rather the reaction of her wounded religious susceptibilities arising from Yogaswami's remarks.

"The Buddha and Christ saved themselves through their own efforts. Afterwards the priests got hold of the rubbish and propagated it. The priests played the fool. Each man for himself --- in this spiritual business. Don't believe anyone who promises to help you. No one will help because no one can. Another may point the way but you have to do the walking."

As Yogaswami continued to talk we listened to him with rapt attention, devouring every word and treasuring every moment spent in that dingy hut. Several persons were now standing at the narrow entrance to the hut which was fast becoming crowded.

"Why do you all come to see me?"

It was a question that was addressed to everyone present and not merely to the latest visitors.

"I am just as much a fool as any of you. I am searching, groping in the dark, trying to understand. I really cannot help you. There is nothing that I can give you. There is nothing that you can take away from here. Nobody believes that I am a fool. I am a fool."

"But you are not," snapped the American lady with impatience as though to expose his false modesty. "Perhaps," observed Yogaswami, "I'm a different sort of fool --- a fool who willingly admits the fact of my foolishness."

Yogaswami died in 1964 but what he imparted in his characteristically casual manner will always remain living truths and a source of inspiration to all who met him. The experience of conversing with a living master in a remarkable interview was far more instructive than reading many books expounding the ageless spiritual and philosophical wisdom.


"Yogaswami: The Strange Saint of Sri Lanka" by Susunaga Weeraperuma