GURU DEV Biography

Jai Guru Dev

Guru Dev

Swami Brahmananda Saraswati,
Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath
Known by His disciples simply as Guru Dev

• Guru Dev Biography

His Divinity Swami Brahmananda Saraswati
Jagadguru Bhagavan Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath, 1941 - 1953

A Brief Biography

Our Guru Dev was born "Rajaram" on Thursday, December 21, 1870 in the village of Gana, Uttar Pradesh, India. As a son of a distinguished family of Brahmins, his future was all but determined by strict social rules and family obligations. But Destiny had different plans for young Rajaram. At the tender age of 9 he became convinced of the futility or worldly pursuits and decided to leave home in search of God. Several times, his family tired to stop him…first by force and then by persuasion. But his determination was strong and eventually his parents reluctantly gave permission with one condition. His mother asked that he never become a begging sadhu (wandering ascetic) and that if he was ever in want, he would come home. Rajaram gave his word and set out on foot to the Himalayas.

Although young in years, the boy ascetic was mature in understanding and firm in his resolve. He had made up his mind that he needed a proper guru and that anyone worthy of that position should fulfill three requirements. First he should be a fully realized spiritual master. Second, he should be well versed in Vedic philosophy. And third, he should be a life celibate, an ideal that the young renunciate himself had decided to maintain. During his search, he met many teachers but none who measured up to these high standards. After 5 years of wandering, he made his way to Uttar-Kashi where he met Sri Swami Krishnanand Saraswati. There and then, the young ascetic had found his master and he surrendered himself fully and without hesitation.

A close master/disciple relationship gradually developed between the young brahmachari (monk) and Swami Krishnanand. After several years of devotion and study, his desire for realization had become a burning flame in his heart. When the master sensed the student was ready, he gave him advanced meditation instruction and sent him to spend time in a cave, away from the other disciples. While the rest of the world continued to turn, the young renunciate entered the cave, vowing not to come out until his spiritual quest was complete. We don’t know how long he kept himself locked away. But at some point, the Self-luminous Truth revealed itself as it always has for those rare devotees who are ready. He stepped off the wheel of samsara (endless cycle of action and reaction) and stepped out of the cave a jivanmukti (liberated soul). As Guru Dev was later to say,

"The dawn comes to dispel the darkness of night, by the light of the sun, which is self-luminous. Likewise, spiritual teachings come to destroy ignorance. But they cannot throw light on the Self. The Self is Light."

In 1906, our Guru Dev, then age 36, attended the Kumbh Mela in Prayag. At this auspicious gathering, he was formally ordained by Swami Krishnanand, and given the title Sri Swami Brahmananda Saraswati Maharaj.

Prior to his public life, as Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath, Guru Dev spent long stretches of time in seclusion, in forest caves and remote jungles where even the light of day is unable to penetrate the thick overgrowth. For much of his life, he remained in these isolated places, deeply involved in his love affair with the Divine. Outwardly, he lived in total harmony with nature, whether among people or animals. Even during some chance encounter with a tiger or other wild animal, each would pass one another and go their own way, without fear or discord.

Whenever he ventured into the towns and villages of the region, his physical presence and spiritual charisma attracted people from all walks of life wishing to receive his darshan (‘sight’ or blessing). Inasmuch as he was able, he avoided notoriety and sought the solitude of a reclusive life. Yet despite his efforts to remain anonymous, local residents as well as spiritual leaders throughout North India became aware of this rare saint who lived in the forest…a sage of the highest order and a radiant beacon of spiritual light.

The seat of Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath is the principal seat of the four maths (monasteries) originally established by Adi Shankara some 1,500 years ago. The seat had remained vacant for 165 years, largely because a fully qualified candidate could not be found. According to tradition, the Shankaracharya should be a Brahmin, someone linked by guru-disciple relationship to Adi Shankara, a Dandi Swami ('staff bearing', advanced renunciate) well versed in the Vedic Literature and a fully realized embodiment of Advaita Vedanta (School of Non-duality). The Indian Religious Federation, as well as various state and spiritual leaders, came to the conclusion that Guru Dev was not only qualified, but that he was perhaps the only qualified person to appear during the last century. When they approached him to take the seat of Shankaracharya, Guru Dev remained silent and they left disappointed. For over 20 years, they tried repeatedly to persuade him to accept the holy throne, but without success.

At last, religious leaders, heads of state and others from many walks of life prevailed upon him and Guru Dev reluctantly agreed to take the seat. However, two days before the installation ceremonies in Varanasi, Guru Dev mysteriously disappeared, hoping that the ceremonies might go on without him and someone else would be chosen. A call went out to postpone the ceremonies while everyone searched frantically for the sage. Three weeks later, he reappeared and the Federation leaders again asked if he would accept the seat of Shankaracharya. As he had done many times before, he remained silent. Having learned from past mistakes, the Federation leaders decided to interpret his silence as consent. Not wanting to lose the opportunity again, they seized on the moment and installed Guru Dev as Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath, on the spot. Afterwards, he was carried out in a grand procession and his installation was marked with all the traditional Vedic ceremonies.

Guru Dev was known for his self-sufficiency and would not accept donations from anyone, whether rich or poor. In fact, a sign was erected at his ashram which said,

"Worthy of Worship, Infinitely Bestowed, The Universal Guru Shankaracharya Jyotirmath, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati Maharaj prohibits any offerings of wealth."

Among the sages of India, the concept of self-sufficiency has a special meaning. First, it means one who is filled with love of the Divine and beyond personal human relationships. Second, it means one who is beyond personal attachments and cannot be swayed from right action. And third, it means one who lives without any earthly means of support.

Often people tried to curry favor with Guru Dev by offering money or other valuable goods, but he maintained his independence and never accepted gifts. On one occasion, a merchant confided to Guru Dev that he was involved in a legal problem and was being sued. Guru Dev listened to his story without making any comment. During the next few days, the law suit was settled in the man's favor. Assuming that Guru Dev had mysteriously helped in some way, he returned to the ashram bearing an offering of gold coins. When Guru Dev learned of the offering, he said to the man,

"You offer me money but you don't offer it to those poor who ask you for it. To those who need it, you offer nothing. You offer it to me? Do I have a son or daughter I need to marry off? Take the money and go. Give it to those who need it. If you want to give me something, give me your greed, your lusts, your weaknesses. That is what you really hold dear above all else. Give me everything that stands between you and God."

As Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath, Guru Dev took on the responsibility of restoring the Shankaracharya tradition throughout Northern India. This was a huge task involving many tours as well as the acquisition of property and reconstruction of temples and monasteries, with costs running into the millions of rupees. Several times large fund raising campaigns were planned but Guru Dev always vetoed these proposals. In mysterious ways, sufficient resources always appeared, when and as needed, to accomplish the projects at hand. The question foremost on everyone's mind, "How does Guru Dev accomplish this? He seems to have no access to money and as a Dandi Swami, he doesn't even touch money. How can a person who has been a renunciate from the age of 9 and who never accepts donations, arrange for these expensive transactions?" When pressed for an answer, Guru Dev simply said, "No human being has been involved in these things". When begged by his followers to elaborate, he went on to say,

"During the time of the Mahabharat, when the Kauravas unabashedly tried to strip Draupadi naked, wherefrom did come yard upon yard of the sari she was wearing?? And it was of the same color and pattern, thousands of yards. Not a different color. Not a different pattern. Same color and pattern, yard upon yard. When God gives, He gives all that is required: the whole thing…the real thing. What could happen at the time of the Mahabharat, can take place now. God has not changed. He is ever the same."

On at least one occasion, Guru Dev spoke openly about his ability for attracting resources. It was in December 1952, that Guru Dev was visited by then President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. When making a point about the master/disciple relationship, Guru Dev related one of his own experiences as a disciple of Swami Krishnanand.

"When I first met Guruji in Uttar-Kashi, my first request was, 'Please give me that knowledge which will make me self sufficient so that I do not have to beg anything from anyone.' It is my Guru's grace that to this day I have never had to stretch my hands before anyone."

Thus, by the grace of his guru, he fulfilled the promise he had made to his mother many years earlier when he left home.

During the next 12 years, Guru Dev created a powerful wave of spiritual regeneration in North India. In his book, God and Love, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi writes this about Guru Dev during his tenure as Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath.

"His policy of spiritual enlightenment was all embracing. He inspired all alike and gave a lift to everyone… All parties found a common leader head in Him. All the differences and dissensions of castes, creeds and smapradayas dissolved in His presence… Such was His Universality and all-embracing nature.

His entire personality exhaled the serene perfume of spirituality. His face radiated that rare light which comprises love, authority, serenity and self-assuredness; the state that comes only by righteous living and Divine realization. His Darshan made people feel as if some ancient Maharishi of Upanishadic fame had assumed human form again; and that is it worthwhile leading a good life and to strive for realization of the Divine."

In 1953, Guru Dev was in his 83rd year. After 12 years, the restoration of the Shankaracharya tradition in North India was now on solid footing. But the pressures of public life had taken its toll and his health was failing. At 1:00 P.M. on May 20th, while resting in bed, Guru Dev asked to be helped up into a sitting position. He crossed his legs and closed his eyes. By 1:15 P.M., he was gone.

Guru Dev's body was transported via special truck, then train and finally barge to the Kedar Ghat on the banks of the Ganges near Varanasi. Enroute, tens of thousands of devotees and mourners wept and crowded close in an effort to receive one last darshan from the master. From Kedar Ghat, his body was transferred to a specially constructed stone casket and taken by a fleet of boats to the middle of the Ganges where it was lowered over the side.

It is documented in several written accounts that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, then known as Brahmachari Mahesh, dove into the water and held onto the casket as it sank to the bottom. After being under the water for over two minutes, he surfaced, took a breath and dove down again. Onlookers were frightened that perhaps they might lose Brahmachari Mahesh too. Finally, he came up and returned to the boat.

Recalling these events years later, Maharishi said that he too had "dropped the body" while he was under water, but that Guru Dev had sent him back. Several times, Maharishi tried to stay with his master and finally, Guru Dev said to him,

"Where do you think I am going? You are not through here. You should stay."

It was then that Maharishi realized Guru Dev wasn't leaving but that he lives forever in the hearts of his devotees.


While sitting with Maharishi in 1975, someone asked, "What did Guru Dev actually do?" Maharishi was quiet for a moment and then said softly and with the simplicity of a child, "He made me."

On another occasion, a similar question arose and Maharishi said that aside from his role as Shankaracharya, on the outer planes of expression, Guru Dev worked continuously on the inner planes for the benefit of all mankind.

From the mind’s point of view, outward action is the only measuring stick of achievement. From this perspective, such questions about Guru Dev’s work are natural. At the same time, they reveal a narrow view about a master’s true role in the cosmic play. In the structure of a building, what role does a window play? It doesn’t really do anything. The window is just a hole in the wall. It doesn’t bear weight nor does it have a positive structural function like a shelf or a roof. Yet, by virtue of this hole, the inner space is flooded with air and light and thus made useful in countless ways. Likewise, a spiritual master is a window in the collective consciousness through which Divine Light enters into the world. Without such windows the world would be a spiritual desert, completely devoid of living spiritual guidance. From this perspective, it isn’t what the master does that is important. It is the width of the opening created by his spiritual presence that is the true measurement of his greatness.

On other occasions, questions would arise about what methods of spiritual practice did Guru Dev teach and what was his own practice. Again, it is important to consider the role of a spiritual master of Guru Dev’s stature. Charlie Lutes once said that Guru Dev was a "Universal Guru" and as such, taught a number of different spiritual practices, according to the nature and capacity of the disciple.

In the Vedic tradition, there are three main paths to God realization: Bhakti-marga or the path of Divine love and devotion; Jnana-marga or the path of knowledge and spiritual understanding; and Karma-marga or the path of action in alignment with Divine Law. From the discourses that follow, it is clear that Guru Dev placed equal emphasis on all three methods. This supports the view that Guru Dev was a Universal Guru and embodiment of the Veda. Continued reading of his words will enliven deeper levels of God Realization in the reader.


Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; Love and God, Maharishi International University, 1973

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