In the Puranas, the name Neelkanth is associated
with Lord Shiva, who drank the world's poison to redeem it. In the process,
the poison turned his throat blue; Neel meaning blue, kanth, the neck.
Ghanshyam's sojourns, through the forests of India, also attributed Him the
name Neelkanth, for His pilgrimage was to redeem.
He first visited sacred Haridwar - 'the gateway to Hari', on the holy river
Ganga. The sacred shrines of the Himalayas open up after Haridwar. From here
He arrived in Sripur where He encountered the first of many enticements.
The head of the mandir urged Him to lodge inside the walled area, safe from
wild animals. Neelkanth declined. He neither feared wild animals nor death.
He then sat in deep meditation under a tree. At night, a lion hunting in the
forest approached Him. The lion licked His feet, circumambulated Him and
then sat there. The inmates of the ashram observed this extraordinary
In the morning, with a wave from Neelkanth, the lion disappeared into the
forest. The mahant then prostrated at the feet of this eleven year old Yogi.
He offered Him the mahantship of the shrine, with its yearly income of one
hundred thousand rupees. Neelkanth explained that He neither craved for
mahantship nor money. He had come to redeem. Declining the offer, He left
for Kedarnath. From here, He trudged up and down mountain slopes, arriving
in Badrinath during Diwali, in mid October 1792.
The priest at Badrinath perceiving Neelkanth's divinity, offered Him prasad.
For the next six months the mandir closed down, since Badrinath would be
snow bound. The murtis of Nar Narayan in the shrine would be ceremoniously
paraded on an elephant, down to Joshimath. The priest urged Neelkanth to sit
in the palanquin with the murtis and stay at Joshimath, in his personal
bungalow. Neelkanth accepted the invitation to Joshimath, but declined to
From Joshimath, He climbed the treacherous mountain terrain to visit sacred
Manasarovar - the lake of the Creator's mind. This pristine lake, at a
height of 14,950 feet, lies secluded in the far reaches of Tibet, now
controlled by China. Sven Hedin, a Swedish explorer, extolled the glory of
this lake in his diary: 'Celebrated in grand hymns by the poets of remote
antiquity, a dwelling-place of mighty gods, a mirror beneath the paradise of
Brahma and the heaven of Siva, the goal of innumerable yearning pilgrims,
the most wondrous lake on earth lies dreaming among the snow-clad summits of
lofty mountains.... The sight of the lake makes the stranger involuntarily
Wearing only a loincloth, without a compass, guide, food, mountaineering
equipment, insulated clothing or boots, this part of His travels ranks as a
superhuman feat. As fiercely as the howling winds of the Himalayan winter
pierced His frail body, as snow and ice crunched and cracked under His bare
feet, Neelkanth trudged over the mountains alone, just as doggedly.
Ritually bathing in the ice covered lake, Neelkanth then returned; reaching
Badrinath in mid-April 1793. The priest had returned with the murtis and
Neelkanth took His first meal since leaving Badrinath in Diwali, six months
Here, Ranjit Singh, the Maharajah of Punjab, later to be famed as the last
and toughest adversary of the British, approached Neelkanth. Only thirteen,
one year older than Neelkanth, his heart reached out to the Yogi. Drawn by
His divinity, the king requested His permanent company. This being
impossible, Neelkanth promised to meet him again.
Later, when Neelkanth descended to Haridwar, He met the king who offered
some food. Gifting him a few words of spiritual wisdom, about the ephemeral
nature of material life, Neelkanth advised the king to recall His murti, for
peace and redemption. Placing His hands on the king's head, He blessed him
and left. From Haridwar, His route led back to Ayodhya.
He passed through the city, without entertaining the slightest wish to
return home. Later, He reached Vanshipur. Despite the grim emaciation caused
by His self-imposed austerities, His divine countenance captivated many.
Here, the king and queen enchanted by Neelkanth, offered their two
princesses in marriage. To the extremely insistent queen, Neelkanth
explained His mission to redeem infinite others. He then left Vanshipur.
His next goal lay in a bleak and chilly valley in Muktinath, Nepal. Here in
a shrine, He performed austerities standing on one leg, in meditation for
two and a half months, without food and water.
Still in Nepal, He then visited Butol (Butwal). Here, King Mahadatt Sen and
his sister Mayadevi, experienced profound enlightenment from Neelkanth's
stay and teachings. To prevent Him leaving, they placed guards on all exit
roads. Their love and devotional service kept Him for five months, after
which He stole away; in a hurry to proceed further. Remaining aloof from the
mundane enticements, His lifework lay in uplifting those engulfed by them.
Kingdoms, women and wealth failed to allure Him. Years later, in His
teachings, He revealed, 'It is not in My nature to reconcile with great men
of the world, since they possess ego of their kingdom and wealth. I, on My
part, indulge in the diametrically opposite attributes of, Vairagya
(detachment) and Bhakti (devotion). Worldly gifts are worthless to Me... On
closing My eyes to meditate on God, the happiness arising from the kingship
of the fourteen worlds pales into insignificance, in comparison to the
unfathomable bliss of God.'2
During His travels, He bore the morals of two stories from the
scriptures, at the forefront of His mind; that of Bharatji (5/7-8) and
Puranjan (4/25-29) from the Shrimad Bhagvatam.
Out of mercy in raising an orphaned fawn, Bharatji became attached to it and
so faltered from his spiritual quest. Consequently, he was born a deer in
the next birth. In his third birth, as a man named Jadbharat, he then
remained extremely wary, lest he became attached to anybody or any object
and so fall from the path of liberation.
Symbolically, Puranjan, an aspirant looked upon his Atma as a king; the body
as a kingdom and the mind and sense organs (indriyas) as the citizens. If
the king weakened, losing control over his people, they would overcome him.
In the same vein, an aspirant - the Atma, should ever remain vigilant over
the mind and sense organs.
Constantly aware of these morals, Neelkanth remained ever vigilant.
Neelkanth's route through the forests of the Himalayas and later, the
Sunderbans of Bengal, undoubtedly entailed dangers from wild animals. We get
a glimpse of the fauna from the British.
Col. Kirkpatrick, who visited Nepal two years prior to Neelkanth, in 1793,
noted that, elephants, rhinoceroses and tigers infested these forests.3
We get another account of the dangers in the Himalayan foothills from Jim
Corbett during the British Raj. Tigers and leopards which had turned into
man-eaters, had wreaked terror amongst the forest inhabitants of the Kumaon
region. Corbett, a civilian who grew up in the Himalayan jungle, was then
appointed to hunt down the predators.
On foot, Corbett had stalked and shot scores of man-eating tigers and
leopards during the day and at night, for over thirty years. Two of his
notable successes included shooting the man-eating leopards of Panar and
Rudraprayag. Between them, they killed and ate 525 human beings, during the
first quarter of this century. The latter picked off pilgrims walking to
Kedarnath, in addition to dragging people away from their houses, thus
receiving publicity worldwide .
Even a seasoned hunter such as Corbett experienced fear and describes one
memorable ordeal: 'I have been frightened times without number, but never as
I was that night, when the unexpected rain came down and robbed me of all my
defences (rifle soaked) and left me for protection a knife.'4
Besides tigers and leopards, other dangers lurking in the forest, that
Neelkanth probably encountered, included: bears, snow leopards, pythons,
cobras, scorpions, wild bees and amongst the flora, stinging nettles.
In 1864, a forest surveyor, Thomas Webber, on a survey expedition of these
highlands and rivers, noted the occurrence of the above, and was exasperated
by: '....big yellow gadflies stuck swords in through one's clothing, little
flies called moras light on the under sides of your hands and exposed places
and will insert a poison under the skin, which makes a round red blister....
mosquitoes abounded... and house flies swarmed in myriads.'
Regarding the forest floor, especially the banks of rivers and streams, he
observed: 'Here there are leeches on every stone, which fasten on your legs
and suck your blood with great avidity, if you do not use precautions in the
shape of thick puttees for protection. One of us, wearing only stockings,
had thirty bites and lost half a pint and from tearing off the venomous
brutes, suffered a good deal of irritation.'5
Later, Neelkanth's route coursed through Bengal. Here, in the forests of
Sunderbans, tigers and wild elephants abounded.6 Among Ganga's
deltas, there lurked other dangers: river thugs, alligators, buffaloes,
hyaenas, wolves and jackals.7 When He entered southern Gujarat,
the dense jungles surrounding Dharampur teemed with tigers and leopards.8
Further north, He traversed through the ravines of the river Mahi, another
tiger habitat.9 Later, His route led through southern Kathiawad,
the haven of the Asiatic lion. Other fauna here included: hyenas, wolves,
jackals, the wild cat, foxes and porcupine.10
Barefooted and barely clad by a loin cloth, Neelkanth's precautions against
the dangers of the pristine wilderness, lay in their singular absence. It is
all the more remarkable that despite such formidable dangers, He remained
undaunted, continuing His journey with a relentlessness that can only be
regarded as divine.
Mastering Ashtang Yoga
In the forests of Nepal, Neelkanth arrived at the hermitage of an aged yogic
master named Gopal Yogi. He accepted his guruship to practice Ashtang yoga -
eight fold yoga, revealing His earnest desire to master this formidable
yoga. His yearning, so immutable, He informed Gopal Yogi that He would be
undaunted even if the body perished in the process. He had subdued the fear
of death since leaving Ayodhya.
Simultaneously, He studied the Gita daily, paying special emphasis to the
second chapter, regarding the attributes of the Atma and the Sthitapragna
purush - a person with a spiritually stable consciousness.
In only nine months, Neelkanth became proficient and mastered Ashtang yoga.
For others, it would have taken a life time of ceaseless endeavours. As a
gift to the guru, Neelkanth revealed His divine form. This crowned the
guru's yogic and spiritual quest. Thus fulfilled and redeemed, he left his
body with his yogic powers. After performing his cremation rites, Neelkanth
left. A year with Gopal Yogi, made this, Neelkanth's longest stay at any one
place during His sojourns. He then proceeded to Kathmandu, in December 1795.
Here, He met the young king, Run Bahadur Shah. Suffering from an incurable
stomach illness, Run Bahadur used to demand a magical cure from visiting
ascetics. Hitherto, all had failed. Consequently he imprisoned them. To
Neelkanth, he made a similar demand. Pained by the plight of the ascetics,
Neelkanth cured the king and also explained to him the perishable nature of
the human body. He then requested him to release the ascetics.
Leaving Kathmandu, He crossed the Himalayan mountain chain eastwards to
Kamakshi (Guwahati) This area of eastern India was then frequented by
ascetics adept in tantra.11 One such powerful tantric named Pibek
confronted Neelkanth, casting evil spells and summoning deities to kill Him.
Instead, the deities pummelled Pibek senseless. He then surrendered to
Neelkanth12. Moving on, He passed through the fearful Sunderbans
forests of Bengal. From here, He coursed southwards to Jagannathpuri where
He spent six months. During this period, He projected Himself in the
shrine's murti and observed the deceitful behaviour of the priests. He then
resumed His journey southwards.
To the heads of monasteries and schools of philosophy in every holy place,
Neelkanth enquired about the nature of the five eternal realities - Jiva,
Ishwar, Maya, Brahman and Parabrahman. (These are dealt with in chapter
nine.) Nowhere did He receive a satisfactory reply. Observing the level of
religious and moral decadence in many sacred shrines, He noted the
degradation of the priests and heads, who in the name of religion,
propagated unethical and immoral practices amongst the masses.
On His way south to Rameshwar, Neelkanth met a sadhu named Sevakram, who
suffering from bloody dysentery was extremely weakened. With nobody to serve
him, he began to grieve. Neelkanth was in a hurry to proceed. But on
learning that he was knowledgeable in the Shrimad Bhagvatam - which extols
Lord Krishna's glory - He comforted, nursed and prepared a bed of banana
leaves for him.
Daily, Neelkanth cleaned up the ill sadhu's fluid excreta about twenty to
thirty times a day. From the jungle, He brought herbs to control the
dysentery. Sevakram gave Neelkanth gold coins to buy flour and grain from a
nearby village. Neelkanth also cooked for him. While he gorged this food;
Neelkanth begged for alms. Often He received none for days. He served
sincerely; Sevakram responded spitefully. Two months later, Sevakram
recovered. He then made Neelkanth carry his one maund (20 kg.) baggage.
Finally, convinced of his ungratefulness, and wanting to resume His journey,
Neelkanth left Sevakram. For those who would follow Him in the generations
to come, Neelkanth had set the ideal principles of seva - selfless service.
Further south, in Totadri (Nanguneri), Neelkanth visited the main seat of
Ramanujacharya, whose Vishishtadvaita philosophy He favoured. He met Jiyar
Swami, the seat's head and studied Ramanuja's philosophy for two months.
Though wishing to study further, but unable to bear seeing sadhus of the
ashram freely mixing with women, He left.
Arrival in Gujarat
Travelling southwards to Kanya Kumari, the tip of the sub-continent,
Neelkanth then turned north. After visiting over 17713 shrines,
sacred places and monasteries in His travels, He arrived in the Kathiawad
peninsula of Gujarat in 1799. In the seven years, and over 12,000 kms. of
arduous walking, He had walked for four years, remaining stationary for
The effects of the austerities at the physical level had been devastating.
Recollecting His travels many years later, He revealed the condition of His
body, that if the skin was punctured, only water (plasma) exuded, but no
blood.14 This yogic achievement, though seemingly impossible, has
a parallel in the Hindu scriptures; Kartik Swami, the elder brother of Lord
Ganpati, had similarly persevered to dry up his blood.
Neelkanth's sojourn was a planned pilgrimage to redeem. Far from being an
aimless wandering, He bestowed His grace on countless yogis in the Himalayas
and aspirants elsewhere, who had been offering devotion and performing
austerities to receive the Lord's grace.
Added to this, He visited the most important sacred shrines in India, to
observe the prevailing level of Dharma.
In Loj, a village near Mangrol in southern Kathiawad, He meditated,
lotus-postured, next to a step-well. Though reduced to skin and bone, He
radiated a tremendous aura of divinity. This divinity, ineluctably attracted
the women of the village coming to fill their water pots at daybreak. An
aged sadhu named Sukhanand, similarly captivated by the teenager, was rooted
to the spot.
After Sukhanand broke out of this mystically blissful experience, he
approached the Yogi. He invited Him to his guru's ashram, to meet Muktanand
Swami, the acting head. Neelkanth obliged.
The ashram belonged to Swami Ramanand, a notable sadhu in the state. To
Muktanand, Neelkanth posed His questions regarding the five eternal
realities. The Swami's answers impressed Him. These, coupled with his
saintly disposition, induced Neelkanth to stay, until the arrival of the
guru, who was touring Kutch at the time.
In the ashram, Neelkanth served by performing menial tasks such as
washing utensils and the sadhus' robes. He begged alms and collected cow
dung to make fuel cakes. To the fifty sadhus in the ashram including
Muktanand, He also taught Ashtang Yoga. The contrast between Muktanand Swami
and Neelkanth was intriguing. The Swami, a middle aged ascetic; Neelkanth, a
teenage Yogi. The Swami, fair-skinned and handsome; Neelkanth, emaciated,
yet lustrous. Muktanand, the guru; Neelkanth, the disciple. And yet, at
times, the roles reversed; Neelkanth, the guru and Muktanand, the disciple.
Soon after residing in the ashram, Neelkanth remarked to the Swami, that the
hole in the common wall between the ashram and a devotee's house, for
exchanging burning embers to light the kitchen fire, was in essence a hole
in Dharma. There would often be female members in the house. This could
potentially hamper the sadhus' strict observance of brahmacharya. He
requested the Swami to have the hole sealed. Amazed at Neelkanth's
foresight, he gladly agreed. The guru obeyed the pupil. When Neelkanth
introduced separate seating arrangements for men and women while they
listened to the sadhus' scriptural discourses, The Swami concurred.
Impatient to have the darshan of the guru, Neelkanth requested the Swami to
sit in meditation and visualise the physical body of Ramanand Swami.
Neelkanth then projected Himself into the Swami's mind, enjoyed the darshan
and then described the details to an astonished Muktanand!
Meanwhile, Ramanand Swami, whilst preaching in Kutch, commanded his
disciples to visit Loj, to have Neelkanth's darshan : He who is greater than
me, greater than Dattatreya, Rushabhadeva, and greater than Ramchandra. Just
as Krishna is greater than all other incarnations, He is even greater than
Krishna. He is verily the cause of all incarnations.15
He reminded them of his oft repeated proclamation of himself as a mere drum
beater, heralding the arrival of the chief player.
Now, that player had indeed arrived.