Who was Trailanga Swami?

Every once in awhile we’ll take a break from yogic teachings to remember some of the true saints and Gurus that have graced the Earth. Since the word “Guru” has lost some of its shine over the last thirty years, thanks to the number of false gurus roaming around, it’s important to remember that enlightenment is a real and attainable state. The fact that we can witness enlightenment in the flesh and blood is an important part of yoga since it validates our own spiritual efforts. Otherwise, if all we have are the mythical images of Gods and Gurus to rely on, some of us would feel skeptical over the high claim that we have the power to transcend our individuality. When we stand before a human being who manifests the full light of Consciousness, we come to understand the truth of the scriptures.

The physical Guru serves another important function: he or she acts like a lightning rod of Grace that enables us to accelerate our spiritual progress.

This week we honor the great saint of Benares, Trailanga Swami, who was a real but almost mythical figure in his own right. He belongs to a class of saints known in Sanskrit as avadhūta (excluded, disregarded), who are so absorbed in perfect Self-awareness that they move and live above societal norms. They are mysterious and elusive figures, as was my own Guru, Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, and their hagiographies are filled with tales of their miraculous deeds. Trailanga Swami was no exception.

Born in 1607, he was reputed to have lived for 280 years. He was a contemporary of Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Ramakrishna, great saints in their own right. Trailanga Swami was a fervent devotee of Lord Shiva and spent many years living in Varanasi, which is where he rose to prominence.

Trailanga Swami was initiated by his mother at a young age into the Kali mantra. After her death, he renounced the world and moved into a cottage near a cremation ground. He only met his Guru around the age of forty, after practicing for twenty years. In 1685, Bhagirathananda Saraswati initiated Trailanga Swami into sannyas (monkhood) and gave him the name Swami Ganapati Saraswati.

He continued practicing severe austerities for many years, roaming around different parts of India until he finally settled in Varanasi, where he became known as Trailanga Swami (referencing the fact that he spoke Telugu and was from Andhra Pradesh). Living the carefree life of an avadhūta, Trailanga Swami moved through the city naked, in the custom of ash-smeared yogins, and exhibiting his powerful siddhis (yogic powers). Some of his well-known miracles are as follows: eating deadly limestone when offered to him in a dare, which caused immediate agony for the person who gave it to him (instant karmic transfer). Sitting/floating for hours on the surface of the Ganges river (without sinking) or remaining submerged under the water for hours. Sitting motionless surrounded by five small fires under the punishing Indian sun. Being locked up by the police for his persistent nakedness only to appear on the roof of the jail. This feat looked all the more dramatic since Trailanga Swami had a very large body, 300 pounds by some estimates, even though he ate very little.

There are many more legends associated with this walking Lord Shiva, and we might wonder why such physics-defying masters appear from time to time? Their larger-than-life presence, like Shirdi Sai Baba and Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, is designed to imprint in our minds that the material world is not a solid as it seems. When an avadhūta incarnates on Earth, the confusion that arises from following lesser yogins who are highly accomplished but still under the influence of the ego is swept aside. Then we see the power of Consciousness in its full glory, which greatly motivates our own efforts and deepens our faith. Such Gurus can inspire spiritual seekers for many generations. In addition, their power to initiate and guide seekers persists long after their deaths.

It goes without saying that the exhibition of supernatural powers is no guarantee of authenticity or final liberation. (There have been more than a few charlatans). Miraculous powers do not establish someone as Self-aware. In fact, only fully liberated beings are free to use them since they cause the downfall of lesser yogins who are still on the path. (Most scriptures warn seekers against thirsting after such powers). When powers manifest in a fully realized being, they tend to happen spontaneously and on many occasions without the conscious involvement of the master. In short, siddhis are a side-effect of the mastery over nature that true Self-realized beings possess. What really marks a yogin as fully liberated is the amount of peace, bliss, and knowledge we receive when we bask in their presence.

When do these siddhis manifest? There are four vehicles for their appearance: the use of mantras, the use of substances such as herbs, the practice of severe austerities, and as a natural result of perfect unity with pure Consciousness (as in the case with authentic Gurus). The first three vehicles are accessible to yogins who are still on the path, which is why we should never judge a person enlightened only by the powers they manifest. Advanced meditators gain siddhis after the Kundalini Shakti shoots up the central channel and pierces the Ajna chakra between the eyebrows. If they indulge these powers, they fall from the path. We’ll explore the phenomenon of yogic powers in a future post.

When we read the stories of great saints and their miracles, we don’t need to accept anything wholesale. In fact, I’ve noticed that the exact same miracle story often appears in the biographies of different saints and get passed around by disciples who try to ascribe the miracle to their own Guru. So in many cases, the line between reality and legend becomes blurred.

In Trailanga Swami’s case, what matters is that he was one of those great masters whose enlightenment was so profound that even other well-known saints sang his praises. (Paramhansa Yogananda writes about him in his Autobiography of a Yogi. Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda both knew him as well.)

Shiva Lingam Trailanga Swami

Photo Credit: Shree Ma

As Trailanga Swami’s fame spread far and wide, thousands of people came to see him. In his final years, he would sit like a statue for hours while being worshiped as a living God. He left his body on December 26, 1887. Although like my own Guru, he exhibited many miracles, Trailanga Swami is remembered not for his feats and powers, but because of his complete absorption in pure Consciousness.


Photo credit: Shree Ma

When I stayed in Varanasi, I visited his samadhi shrine, the temple where he is buried, which I encourage you to visit. Within, there is a massive Shiva Lingam stone that Trailanga Swami purportedly lifted right out of the Ganges with his own hands. Inside the small temple is a life-size mūrti or statue of the great saint, which makes a strong impression with its large white eyes. I sat behind the mūrti for some time, meditating in the serene atmosphere. When I left, I felt extremely blessed at having the chance to offer my devotion to this supreme yogin.

If you would like to spend some time with Trailanga Swami (when we read the biographies of the saints, I like to think of it as spending time with them since we hold them in our memory), please see this book, published by the Shri Guru Ashram Trailanga Math.

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