Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian spiritual guru known by his followers as Maharaj–ji, has had a significant impact on the lives of many people through his teachings and work, including such influential persons as Ram Dass, Jai Uttal, and Julia Roberts.
Hallmarked by his wisdom, simplicity, and unconditional love, Neem Karoli Baba’s life continues to inspire seekers on their spiritual journeys, leaving a lasting impression on individuals from diverse backgrounds.
Neem Karoli Baba’s legacy is not without controversy, however, with a number of allegations of misconduct levied against him, casting a shadow on his otherwise revered status.
In this article, we’ll be looking at:
- Early Life and Background
- Spiritual Teachings
- Disciples and Legacy
Early Life & Background
While information about Neem Karoli Baba’s early life is somewhat elusive, it is believed that he was born as Lakshmi Narayan Sharma in Akbarpur in Uttar Pradesh, India around 1900 to a Brahmin family.
At the tender age of just 11, he was married off by his parents. In response, Neem Karoli is reported to have left home where he became a wanderer, leading him to a spiritual pilgrimage as a holy man (sadhu).
Throughout his wandering, Baba met many people and learned many things about the world, existence, and God and it is believed by many that this is where his enlightenment began.
After some years, his father was informed of Baba’s whereabouts and was asked to return home. Obeying his father’s request, he returned to married life as a young adult, where he fathered two sons and one daughter.
Neem Karoli Baba: Behind the Name
Indeed, while not much is known about his birth and early years, disciple Ram Dass does tell of the story whereby the guru left home to restart his spiritual pilgrimage in 1958, and where he attained his most famous name: Neem Karoli Baba.
Then known as Baba Laxman Das, during his second wandering Baba boarded a train without a ticket, leading the conductor to halt the train and force Neem Karoli Baba to disembark at Neem Karoli village in the Farrukhabad district of Uttar Pradesh.Following this, the train refused to start despite several attempts. Realizing the situation, someone suggested allowing the sadhu (Baba) back on board, to which he agreed under two conditions:
Firstly, the railway company should build a station in Neem Karoli village (as the villagers had to endure a long walk to the nearest station), and secondly, the railway company and employees should treat Sadhus with greater respect.
The officials agreed, and Baba boarded the train, which then continued its journey.
The requested train station was constructed soon after in Neem Karoli village, where Baba spent some time. To signify his connection to the place, he received a name from the locals: Neem Karoli Baba (Baba meaning father, grandfather, wise old man).
Baba then continued on his pilgrimage, traversing the northern regions of India under various names, including Lakshman Das, Handi Wallah Baba, and Tikonia Walla Baba, contributing to the cloudy timeline of his life’s journey.
As Ram Dass writes in his book Miracle of Love “There can be no biography of him [. . .] Facts are few, stories many. He seems to have been known by different names in many parts of India, appearing and disappearing through the years.”
After many years of travels, teachings and renunciation, Neem Karoli left his body during the early morning hours of 11 September 1973, around 1:15 AM, in a hospital located in Vrindavan, India, due to a diabetic coma.
Soon after, his samadhi shrine (a shrine commemorating the deceased) was erected within the premises of the Vrindavan ashram (mentioned below), and continues to contain some of his personal belongings.
Spiritual Philosophy & Teachings
Neem Karoli was a devoted follower of the Hindu deity Hanuman, commonly known as “the monkey god” which has informed much of his spiritual philosophy.
Hanuman, a devotee of Lord Rama, is deeply revered for his qualities of unwavering devotion, strength, service, loyalty, selflessness, courage, and intelligence.
As such, Neem Karoli’s philosophy was rooted in the path of bhakti (devotion) and encompassed various aspects of spirituality. His emphasis lay in giving seva (selfless service) which he held as the highest form of unconditional devotion to God.
He encouraged us to prioritize acts of selfless service as a means of expressing our devotion (bhakti) and love for the divine, believing that serving others with compassion and kindness was a direct path to experiencing God and deepening one’s spiritual connection.
Speaking about his teaching style, Ram Dass remarked on themes of simplicity and intimacy:
“Just as he said, he was “nobody”. He gave no discourses; the briefest, simplest stories were his teachings. Usually, he sat or lay on a wooden bench wrapped in a plaid blanket while a few devotees sat around him.”
Despite the wide reverence for Neem Karoli Baba, there have been a number of controversies associated with him, the most prominent being:
Neem Karoli Baba Abuse Claims
The personal experiences of a devotee, involving sexual and violent interactions with Neem Karoli Baba, were shared in recent years, triggering a significant debate.
Writer Matthew Remski finds many accounts of Neem Karoli to fit the sad pattern of spiritualizing sexual abuse in yogic and guru circles. Many come from the book ‘Miracle of Love‘ by Ram Dass which have a whole chapter dedicated to “Krishna Play”:
“With the women, on the other hand, in addition to those roles, he seemed frequently to assume roles like that of Krishna, as child and playmate and lover.“
“And [Neem Karoli Baba] sat on her lap and he was so light and small, just like a child. He sucked on her breasts and milk poured out of them”
While many see this as a continuation of a regretful pattern of gurus abusing their position of power for sexual gains, others, including the devotee in question, seem to question whether the encounters did not fit the typical dynamics of guru-disciple abuse.
Instead, some have characterized the incidents as instances of “gray rape.”
This term seeks to acknowledge the complexity of sexual interactions, recognizing the lack of unison on what constitutes sexual violation as well as how power dynamics and cultural beliefs complicate notions of and ability to give consent.
For example, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California-Riverside, Amanda Lucia argues:
“For devotees [sexual interaction] is the guru’s līlā (divine / Krishna play) that affects positive spiritual transformation in ways beyond human comprehension . . .
. . . Of course, outsiders can choose to argue that this claim is merely a theological veneer for the nefarious aim of the guru’s sexual gratification, but we should not ignore these perspectives. Neither should we supplant them with our own moral standards.”
For any readers interested in this debate, I really recommend reading both accounts mentioned here.
Disciples and Legacy
As well as touching the lives of such individuals as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Julia Roberts, Neem Karoli Baba has a long list of notable, dedicated disciples that some readers might recognise, including:
#1: Ram Dass (Richard Alpert):
A prominent spiritual teacher, author, and lecturer, Ram Dass is one of Neem Karoli Baba’s most famous disciples – hence why he’s mentioned so much here! He played a pivotal role in introducing the teachings of Baba to the West and wrote many acclaimed books including “Be Here Now.”
#2: Krishna Das (Jeffrey Kagel):
A renowned kirtan singer and chant master, Krishna Das spent much time with Neem Karoli Baba and absorbed his teachings and devotion. He has since become one of the foremost voices in the Western kirtan movement.
#3: Jai Uttal:
A Grammy-nominated musician and kirtan artist, Jai Uttal has been deeply influenced by Neem Karoli Baba’s teachings. He blends traditional Indian music with Western sounds and has released numerous albums.
#4: Bhagavan Das:
Bhagavan Das is a spiritual teacher, author, and musician who lived with Neem Karoli Baba in the 1960s. He is known for his distinctive chanting style and his collaboration with musicians such as the abovementioned Krishna Das.
#5: Dada Mukerjee:
A devotee of Neem Karoli Baba, Dada Mukerjee is a spiritual teacher and has dedicated his life to spreading the teachings of his guru. He established the Dada Mukerjee Ashram in India.
#6: Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati:
Originally known as Joyce Green, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati was an American spiritual teacher and founder of the Kashi Ashram in Florida. She considered Neem Karoli Baba as her guru and incorporated his teachings into her own spiritual path.
#7: Shri Siddhi Ma:
Shri Siddhi Ma, also known as Riddhi Baid, was a beloved and highly revered female saint who dedicated her life to spiritual practices. She was deeply influenced by Neem Karoli Baba’s teachings and was considered one of his prominent female disciples.
The Love Serve Remember and Seva Foundation
After his passing, disciples Ram Dass and Larry Brilliant returned to the United States, founded the Seva Foundation in 1978, with the aim of alleviating global poverty and social inequality pertaining to vision impairment by following the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba.
Since its inception, the Seva Foundation has been making a positive impact in the world, guided by Baba’s principles of compassion and service.
Their focus on preventing, treating, and curing various forms of vision impairment in developing countries is guided by the philosophy that sight = freedom.
They report that nearly 90% of individuals facing vision impairment live in developing countries, which traps them in a life of dependence and poverty, by significantly hindering their capacity to work, provide for themselves, and meet their fundamental needs.
During the late 2000s, a separate organization was founded by Ram Dass known as the ‘Love Serve Remember Foundation,’ established with the goal of preserving and continuing the profound wisdom and guidance provided by Neem Karoli Baba for future generations.
Neem Karoli Baba Ashram
To honor the life’s work and teachings of Neem Karoli Baba, two main ashrams have been established in his honor as well as over 100 temples to commemorate his legacy.
The first ashram, located in Kainchi, came into existence in 1964 and initially began as a humble platform to accommodate the yagnas (sacred fire rituals) performed by local sadhus named Premi Baba and Sombari Maharaj.
However, as the number of devotees grew, the ashram expanded, culminating in the construction of a Hanuman temple, which has now become an esteemed pilgrimage site for both local people and spiritual seekers from every corner of the world.
Amid the sacred city of Vrindavan, a place widely believed to be linked with Lord Krishna, stands the second notable ashram devoted to Baba.
This ashram has also flourished over time, evolving into a vibrant hub of devotion and pilgrimage, drawing in many devotees who offer reverence and seek enlightenment – serving as a spiritual refuge where followers can fully engage in Baba’s wisdom and find solace.
As mentioned, Baba has over 100 temples in his legacy which serve as sacred spaces for devotees to gather, offer prayers, and connect with the divine energy that resonated so powerfully within Neem Karoli Baba.
Each temple hopes to represent a physical manifestation of the deep reverence and gratitude felt by his followers, ensuring that his teachings continue to touch the lives of people for generations to come.
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