His mother wanted him to become a banker but Hans Hablützel renounced worldly ambitions to embark on a spiritual journey from Switzerland to India, never to return.
"It is wealth, and love that control the world. Around these two powers the whole world revolves," Hans Hablützel remembered his mother saying.
Hablützel’s father, a well-off Zurich chartered accountant, died of tuberculosis when he was just three years old, leaving his mother alone to fend for them. She wanted him to become a director at a bank so he could control the flow of money and hence take charge of his destiny.
But it was not be. In 1952, at the age of 23, he left Switzerland for India determined to find a guru that would help him find inner peace. A fortnight before leaving he shared his plans with his mother and friends asking them not to contact him for 12 years. None of them took him seriously and thought he would only get as far as Greece. Hablützel would never see any of them again.
Fifty years later, he would become a guru himself, with his own followers in search of enlightenment. He died in November last year in the northern Indian city of Dehradun. He was buried in a nearby village in a seated, cross-legged position, as is the tradition for Swamis.
“He was totally devoted to God and did not believe in fame or creating his own ashram,” Sudhakar Mishra told swissinfo.ch in a telephone interview from Dehradun, India. Mishra, who first met Hablützel in 1971, describes himself as a “disciple, follower and friend” of Swami Jnanananda - the monastic name given to Hablützel by his guru. Mishra even wrote a book about him called “A Swami with a difference”, which describes Hablützel’s unwillingness to become a famous guru with all the trappings that come with it.
According to Mishra, most of Hablützel’s disciples were Indian, even though he had a few western followers. One of them is American-born Swami Bodhichitananda, who has lived in the Indian Himalayas since 1991 and now has his own ashram or spiritual retreat. According to Bodhichitananda, his guru was not keen on talking about his Swiss life.
“As Sannyasis [renunciates] we are discouraged generally from speaking much of our Poorvashram life, life before our renunciation,” he told swissinfo.ch in an email.
Instead, Hablützel would refer the curious to his autobiography "Transcendent Journey", when he felt the information about his past could inspire others to progress in their spiritual life.
Attraction of the East
Not much is revealed about his Swiss life in Hablützel’s autobiography. However, swissinfo.ch was able to confirm that he studied for one year at the Montana Institute boarding school in the Swiss canton of Zug. He was put there by his mother while she visited friends in Europe.
The family’s properties in Germany were destroyed during the bombings of the Second World War and their financial situation became a cause for concern. Hablützel was enrolled in the local government school.
His father’s premature death got him interested in questions about the afterlife. But it was a near-death experience that pushed him towards spirituality. While roller-skating down the road outside his Zurich home, he heard a voice asking him to stop. He obeyed, jumping on to the ground to reduce his momentum, and narrowly escaped being run over by a passing truck. Hablützel became convinced that “life was indeed in the hands of an all-powerful providence”.
As a teenager, he would seek solitude on the banks of the river Sihl near Zurich and meditate like the eastern spiritual masters he read about in books. It was a book - Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda – presented to him by his aunt, which kindled in him a desire for a different life. He concluded that he would only find spiritual satisfaction in India with the help of a guru there and set off on a three-month overland journey to the subcontinent through Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.
Life in India
One week after arriving in India, Hablützel managed to find his guru - Swami Atmananda - and established himself in his monastery near the eastern Indian city of Calcutta. A little over three years later he was ordained as a Hindu monk and given the new name of Swami Jnanananda. He lived a life of a renunciate, meditating, listening to spiritual discourses and making pilgrimages to holy sites. He remained with his guru for 12 years until he died.
He then became a spiritual nomad wandering in sacred places like the Ganges river and the Himalayas, absorbing the teachings of the many holy men and women who lived there. Life was not easy for the young monk. For sustenance, he was dependent on the kindness of strangers, as he had exhausted the last of all his savings. He also fell ill contracting diphtheria which confined him to eating only liquid foods for a while. Other hazards included wild animals like bears in Himalayan forests and being bitten by a scorpion. He finally gave up his nomadic lifestyle and established himself in a forest hut near the town of Mussoorie in the Garhwal Himalayas. Eventually, at the urging of a disciple, he moved down to the plains to the city of Dehradun where he spent his last years.
“He was very keen on devotional music and his followers would join him in the evening for prayer music,” says Mishra.
Hablützel had no regrets about leaving Switzerland. He claimed that Switzerland was within him. He also did not regret sacrificing a comfortable life in Europe to become a Hindu monk.
“I believe the time will come when only those who meditate will be able to sleep at night. The total dependency on money and the security we imagine it brings is total ignorance if we are afraid to be alone without material possessions,” he said in an interview.
Ashram: Spiritual retreat or dwelling followers establish for their guru.
Guru: Spiritual leader and teacher who instructs those seeking spiritual enlightenment. Can be formal, following an established tradition, or informal based on affinity.
Yogi: A practitioner of yoga and related meditation practices.
Swami: A yogi who has been formally initiated into a monastic order founded by a guru.
Sadhu: One who has renounced the material world and lives like an ascetic.
Sanyassi: A renunciate like a sadhu who joins one of the ten orders set up by Hindu philosopher Shankara in the 8th century.
Hablützel started out as a Yogi and became a Sanyassi, after which was then given the name of Swami Jnanananda and finally became a guru later in life. He had no ashram but lived in the house of a disciple.