He does not perform any miracle. He is one himself. With kidneys that failed about 18 years ago, forcing him to go for dialysis twice a week, his entire body is in a terrible condition. Sometimes, he feels the pain of blows from a stick; at others, he does not have the energy to get up from his bed. His food intake is modest: daal and a couple of rotis in a day. Going by the regular standards of health, he should be collapsing. But he displays no such signs. Instead, he seems to be in the pink of health, ‘working’ all day.
Meet Premanand ji of Vrindavan, a bhakti path guru, who is like a wave sweeping over the land of Radhe-Krishna, and the cyber world. His daìly discourses, available on YouTube, get millions of views. Such is his attraction that a random Indian viewer quit her lucrative job in Dubai and headed back home to be under his wings.
Premanand ji’s day starts at 1.30 am. And when he walks energetically along the two kilometers of the Parikrama Marg of Vrindavan at about 2.30 am, tens of his immediate followers have a very hard time managing the crowd of thousands. People of all ages and from all parts of the Hindi-speaking and Hindi-knowing India wait along the road for a glimpse of Premanand ji. To avert a stampede, the shishyas have to hold the crowd behind ropes they carry as part of their tool kits. There are others who carry torches and cameras.
Almost all parts of the road are covered with flowers, and rangoli made out of rose and marigold petals by distant devotees. The intricate patterns reflect their labour of love. They work through the night to see Premanand ji walk on the carpets made by them. The morning traffic would splinter them all, but the devotees know there is a tomorrow. The daily darshan has been going on morning after morning for months, and Permanand ji has become a must-see for pilgrims. He stopped the morning walk for some reason, but tearful protests of the devotees forced him back on the road.
Other than the miraculous energy in the face of a serious health issue that the 60-year-old Premanand ji represents, what is so special about him that thousands crave to see him everyday, without caring for freezing cold and rain? Devotees bring their old, ailing and dying parents on cots and wait for Premanand ji. They know he would glance, stop and say a little something, a once-in-lifetime moment for them.
Walking briskly in a white dhoti and yellow kurta, he acknowledges the loud greetings of “Rade-Radhe” with a bowed head, smile and folded hands. Sometimes, even he is caught by surprise. It is 3 am. A five-year-old, dressed like a monk, greets him in his sweet voice. Premanand ji bends down to ask him, “Neend nahi aati tumko (aren’t you sleepy?)”
As he reaches the entrance to the ashram and two of his shishyas flanking him literally lift him by the shoulders up the few steps he cannot climb, Premanand ji’s physical vulnerability hits you hard. But then you know he has four to five hours more of the morning practices, of pooja and satsang, and he had his last meal at 4 pm the previous day.
Premanand ji surely does not live by bread alone. His is a world of light, obscure to most, but nonetheless magnetic for its impossible happenings. It is he who has created his world, with extreme tapas from the age of 14 when he left his home in a village in Kanpur. Premanand ji wandered along the banks of the Ganga for a quarter century before being guided to Vrindavan–by Lord Shiv himself, and you know it to be the truth simply because Premanand ji is saying it.
He talks about the celestial beings with impossible charm: the Shiv path (of vairagya and tapas) is his “maika” or parental home. Now that he is married to the bhakti path, it won’t be proper for him, he says, to talk of anyone but Shri ji and Krishna. And yet, he knows Shiv and Shyam are one. That is fundamental knowledge in his world, although the devotees, especially Hindus, who perceive the spiritual world as divided by countless forms and names, ask him whose name they should chant. His answer is simple: chant any name in any form or language you know, it would lead you to the one and only God.
He himself is a Shri ji/Radha bhakt. According to him, Lord Krishna is best pleased when one chants the name of his ardhangini or better half. When the lord is pleased, Radha of Barsana, he asserts, literally showers her blessings on the devotee.
To him, the holy name is the best cure for all diseases, a sure solution to all worldly problems, and the simplest, most doable means to reach God. He emphasises that the state of the human body in the present times is too rickety to do the demanding spiritual practices required for alternative paths, and there are too many charlatans parading as gurus to do any good to the needy and gullible seekers.
Premanand ji discourages discussion on contemporary spiritual leaders, genuine or fake, but warns people against getting fooled by “frilly talkers”. Seekers being who they are, have a barrage of questions about whether God is nirakaar or sakaar, whether to chant the name of Radha or Krishna, Ram or Shyam, Shiv or Durga or Hanuman. “Just chant any name you like, you would get all the answers.”
When Sikh religious leaders and followers come, and they come in droves upon hearing the constant echo of Guru Nanak’s teachings in Premanand ji’s discourses, he quotes lines from Gurbani. Through gurgles of joy, Premanand ji recounts the words of Guru Nanak: “Nanak naam jahaz hai, chade so utre paar (the holy name is the ship that would carry the chanter ashore).” Like gurus in the lineage of Nanak, Premanand ji upholds the supreme importance of chanting the holy name. It is packed with unimaginable power, he says: “More power than that of God himself.”
The consistent practice of chanting the name, he underlines, “will create a tide of spirituality, sweeping away all confusion, doubt and ambiguity.” It would lead you to a guru if you need one, and you would get a mantra if you so desire. What about prarabhda or past actions in other lives? Aren’t we all circumscribed by it? “No. If that were the case, there would be no difference between humans and animals.” Naam shakti, he asserts, can wipe out all negative actions of the present and past lives.
Devotees ask him about the opposition to their spiritual practices they face in the family. Pat comes the answer: “Must you chant aloud? Do it under your breath or in your mind.” Premanand ji has a simple and practical answer to every question. In his view, there is no limit to the boons integral to chanting the holy name, and the best part of this path, he emphasises, is that “you are the only medium you need to connect with God.”
There is no need to seek “aashirwaad ( blessings),” “raakh (holy ash)”, amulets and lucky charms from anyone when you can build your own connection with the divine by chanting the name. That is his simple message for all, garnished with wit and wisdom. “There is no expenditure involved in chanting, it requires no qualification, no action, no condition and there is no scope for deception simply because there is no other person involved in this exercise.” No wonder, people find him so convincing.
For those who think it is too easy to be true, there are more surprises. Even thoughts and intentions while chanting don’t count, he says, and this is why. “Whether you touch fire intentionally or unintentionally, the result would be burns; whether you drink poison mind fully or accidentally, the result would be death.” In other words, when you follow the path prescribed by Premanand ji, you simply can’t go wrong and you have the means to be the master of your own destiny.
The questions he is asked are perennial–about life, death, afterlife, rebirth, good and evil, heaven and hell, human bonds, bondages and suffering, and about social strife. While he answers most questions with patience, compassion, and interesting anecdotes from India’s spiritual history, he is apparently less receptive to nonsensical and common questions about “bhoot- prait”. For he knows that the fear of these vagabond souls keeps the gullible hooked on the frauds claiming to have control over them.
He advises the questioners not to get trapped in these beliefs. Although the negative and positive are an integral part of nature (and Premanand ji has had encounters with wandering souls), he tells seekers to always remember that there is nothing more powerful than the holy name. What to talk of banishing the negative, he says, “Bhagwan ko adheen kar lo ge, aisi adbhut shakti hai naam mein.” (You can enslave God by simply chanting His name, such is its amazing power.)
It is such forceful, rational and empowering arguments–combined with his credibility (remember his failed kidneys)–that bring people of all classes and vocations to him. He is the only proof of the pudding they need, and he is irresistibly simple. The morning gatherings at the ashram attract students, housewives, artistes, advocates, politicians, judges, bureaucrats, saints, and army men.
One fine morning, three foot soldiers of the Indian army reach the ashram along with a Lt. Col. The officer is in plain clothes and the soldiers in uniform. They salute Premanand ji in characteristic style, but are apparently too awed to ask him anything. He knows, and tells them: “It is because you are bravely guarding the borders and laying your lives for the country that people like us are carefree, and able to do bhajan. Rest assured, just as your services benefit me, you, too, will receive the fruits of my practices.” Could the humble soldiers have asked for more?
Devotees report indescribable peace and love in his presence. They are also attracted to him for his easy accessibility and even treatment of all, regardless of status. In the past 40 years as a journalist, who has studied and reported on a vast number of personalities, including those from the spiritual world, I have not known anyone as modest, simple and sincere to the masses craving guidance as Premanand ji. He offers immense hope to the dejected and he liberates them from their fears and anxieties with simple words. Most of all, Premanand ji is living proof of God love and the power it brings. He is in body, but so above it. It is not for nothing that Premanand ji is pulling millions to him like a magnet.