Sri Gnanananda Giri was a contemporary of Sri Ramana Maharshi, and another Advaita Vedanta jivanmukhti living near Arunachala. When we took our recent trip to Tirukkoyilur, we stopped by Sri Gnanananda’s ashram, Thapovanam (sometime spelled Dhabovanam). We had not heard of him before this visit to his ashram. In some ways, it is like Sri Ramanasramam, with devotees living at the ashram, and the daily performance of pujas, chanting and worship.
He is said to have visited Ramana during the Virupaksha days.
As I have researched Sri Gnanananda, he does seem remarkable. His mahasamadhi was in 1974. They have no idea when he was born. It is said to be in the 1700s or early in 1800, and that he was perhaps 250 years old at the time of mahasamadhi (see this post). No one knows the story of his early life, prior to Self-realization. He said basically that this is an unreal story of an unreal person, so of what use is such a story? This is exactly what I had heard from my teacher, Nome, so I appreciate the point of view.
He wandered for many years throughout India, established, then left, a number of ashrams, and finally settled in Tirukkoyilur, because of the spiritual power he perceived in this place. He had close contact with spiritual gurus such as Ramana Maharshi , Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Aurobindo, Seshadri Swami, Vallalar, Shudhananda Bharati and Yogi Ramsuratkumar.
His life story is told in this post:
It is believed that that Swami Gnanananda was born long ago at Mangalapuri in the North Kanara district to an orthodox Brahmin couple Sri Venkoba Ganapatigal and Smt. Sakkubai. The child was named as Subramanya. At his young age Subramanya did not show interest in formal education. He was indifferent to external things of life and deeply absorbed in knowing thy self. At the age of 12 Subramanya followed a divine light and reached Pandharpur. There, he had a divine darshan of Lord Panduranga and-Rukmayi. It is in this place boy met his Guru, Swami Sivaratna Giri of Jyotirmutt, one of the four mutts established by saint Adi Sankara.
Sri Sivaratnagiri Swamiji judged his spiritual depth and accepted him as his disciple. The boy was duly educated in “Ashtanga Yoga, Hindu scriptures, upanishadic truths etc. Subramanya was given “Sanyasa” and was named “Sri Gnanananda Giri.”
After Mahasamadhi of his Guru, Swami Gnanananda Giri became the peetathipathi of Jyotir Mutt (one of the four mutts founded by Adi Sankara). Swamiji did not show any interest in Peeta and nominated Swami Ananda Giri as his successor, and started out to the high Himalayas for undertaking intense penance. Swami Gnanananda wandered high into the snow-covered mountains of Kashmir, Nepal and all over the Himalayan range and met several yogis. The sages of Himalayas performed rare kayakalp treatment on him and inserted special herb in to a vein of his forearm. It is the obsolete method of preserving the body in health and vigor for more than 100 years for performing extreme spiritual penance in harsh climatic conditions at higher altitudes.
After long period of spiritual discipline, meditation and Samadhi, swami Gnanananda traveled extensively on foot, spanning the whole of India, Tibet, Nepal, Burma and Sri Lanka. He stayed in the famous Shri Lankan Shrine of Kathirgamam for 60 years. In Tamilnadu itself the sage had stayed for more than a hundred and seventy years in various places – Kalpattu, Kolli Malai hills, Polur etc.
For those ready to plunge into the deepest practice, he taught that dhyana (meditation) was what is needed, and that all other forms like karma yoga, bhakta yoga, chanting, austerities, etc. are not only not needed but can get in the way of deep practice. For those not ready to plunge in, he taught to follow the traditional practices to ready the mind for practice. At Thapovanam, the traditional practices and rituals are done every day.
The swami never bothered about the status of a person. The swami had a very nice way of deflating people’s ego, so that the self may be renounced. Indeed there is no other way of describing the personality of the swami than by calling Him a “Paramananda Vigraham”.
Swami’s simplicity, sweet amiability and his knack of being at home with everyone he talked to, be he a saint or sinner, merits special mention. Anyone meeting him for the first time would feel completely at ease.
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 Tirukkoyilur on the banks of a sacred river and within the spiritual aura of Arunachala.
Swami Abhishiktananda (Fr. Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine monk from the monastery of Kergonan in France) on meeting Sri Gnanananda:
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.
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. “
We visited this Ashram during a recent trip to Tirukkoyilur, and took the photos below. Here is their map, showing the location of the Ashram. Note that the map has North pointing DOWN, not up.
It has a five-tier gopuram that faces the road. If motoring in from Tiruvannamalai, this is to the left, just when the town area begins, after a long stretch of road through the countryside.
Just inside the entrance, to the left, is Sri Gnanananda’s samadhi.
It is about 9:00 in the morning, and the curtain has not yet been raised. It will be opened soon.
To the right of the entrance is a long hall. As we will see later, the ceiling has many paintings from Hindu and Vedic lore.
Just past the samadhi is Krishna. Puja was going on for Krishna.
Bowing to Krishna.
There are two Krishnas here, with a smaller on in front. They are wonderfully decorated and dressed.
A procession walks through the grounds, headed, I think, for the samadhi.
Swami built temples for the deities of GnanaGanesa, GnanaSkanda, GnanaPurisa, GnanaAmbika, GnanaMahalakshmi, GnanaVenugopala, GnanaAnjayeya, GnanaBairava, Durga, Navagraha and Chandikeshwara. The deities were given chaitanya (power) by Swami through his graceful look and sankalpa, and the deities today shower their “anugraha” to all those devotees who pray and surrender.
We found that the deities here are very well taken care of and decorated. Each day they receive loving care.
There is a central building in which most of the deities are housed.
Here is someone with his two consorts. Anyone know which god this is?
This murti is about two feet high. Who is he?
Here is Durga’s vahana, a lion.
At the entrance into the main shrine are these two representations of Sri Gnanananda. One is cut out so it looks like swami is meditating with us.
In the main shrine are Ganesh and Murgan. I cannot take their photos, but they let me shoot their vahanas.
Here is Nandi.
And an ornate lingam.
Now at the samadhi, puja has been done and a group of women sit in front singing. This reminds me of Ramanasramam. The same love and care, just fewer people.
Now we start walking through the hall with all the painted panels.
Here is Dakshinamurti.
Not sure of this figure. He carries a trident (trishul), so I guess it is Siva.
Here is Arunachala, with the column of fire.
A dancing god, Siva.
Nataraja. We all wait for the foot to be lowered.
This is Bhakta Kannappa, one of the 63 Tamil Nayanmars. He is cutting out his eyes, so that he can give them to Siva in the form of this lingam. He is a hunter and has offered the lingam meat!
From forums.sulekha.com, story of Kannappa:
Arjuna feels very powerful after Kurukshtra war, when he vanquished Kaurava army with the help of Sri Krishna. He conveniently forgets that the Pandava revival began as soon as he earns Paasupatastram from Lord Shiva. If you chronicle the events from that point onwards in Mahabharata, you will find that Pandavas were on the ascendancy. Lord Shiva and Parvati decide to provide a re-birth for Arjuna, with the hope that he would realize the power of Lord Shiva.
Arjuna takes re-birth and was left to be found by a tribal Chief, who names him as Kannappa. The boy hates sacrifices in the name of Goddess [who is believed to protect the Bhil tribe] and does not worship her. The Chief’s daughter falls in love with Kannappa, but she propitiates Parvati. Kannappa marries her, but has to leave the tribe as he does not believe in the Goddess.
Kannappa questions his wife’s faith in Shiva, until he encounters Lord Shiva. Arjuna’s aatma will be carrying ahankara until this point of time. He then realizes the power of Lord Shiva and seeks to propitiate him with the stuff he finds while hunting animals. The local head Archaka does not like his defiling the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Kalahasti Shiva temple and frames Kannappa for jewel theft. Lord Shiva feels sad, as Parvati questions his helplessness. As a result, the Shiva Lingam sheds tears of blood from both eyes…….
Kannappa vows to end the blood flow and he gouges his own eyes one by one, hoping to provide eyes to Lord Shiva, to the amazement of all the priests. Lord Shiva is pleased with Kannappa’s effort, appears before him, reminds him of his past, reminds the World that he is a great jnaani, appreciates his big heart and provides the couple with moksha. Anyone learning about this story is blessed to cleanse their inner thought process and is expected to realize their true potential.
Arjuna with his chariot and Krishna as the driver.
Vishnu with one leg raised to the heavens. This is a form of Vishnu worshiped in the nearby Vishnu temple.
Balaji, an avatar of Vishnu.
Here is another murti of Sri Gnanananda.
Commemorative plaque, saying that much work has been done, including these great paintings. This was done by Swami Haridhos Giri, the chief disciple of Swami Gnanananda Giri.
Thapovanam was not a place we expected to go, and Sri Gnanananda Giri was not anyone we knew of. After visiting the ashram, and feeling a deep sense of peace from it, and researching the Swami, we now recognize this ashram as celebrating yet another contemporary of Ramana Maharshi, less well known, but teaching the same deep thread of Advaita Vedanta. There is only one Truth. There are many gateways to this Truth.
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