Trailanga Swami (also Tailang Swami, Telang Swami) (reportedly 1607 – 1887) was a Hindu yogi famed for his spiritual powers who lived in Varanasi, India. He is regarded as a legendary figure in Bengal, with many stories told about his yogic powers and longevity. According to some accounts, Trailanga Swami lived to be 280 years old, residing at Varanasi between 1737-1887. He is regarded by devotees as an incarnation of Shiva. Ramakrishna referred to him as the “The walking Shiva of Varanasi”.
A member of the Dashanami order, he became known as Trailanga Swami after he settled in Varanasi. His biographers and his disciples differ on his birth date and the period of his longevity. According to one disciple biographer, he was born in 1529, while according to another biographer it was 1607. His pre-monastic name was Shivarama and was born in Holia at Vizianagaram in Andhra Pradesh. His parents were Narashingha Rao and Vidyavati Devi, who were devotees of god Shiva. After the death of his parents, at the age of forty, he was said to have renounced the world and lived the life of a recluse in a cottage near a cremation ground. After practicing sadhana (spiritual practice) for twenty years, he met his preceptor swami, Bhagirathananda Saraswati, in 1679 from Punjab. Bhagirathananda initiated Shivaram into sannyasa (monastic vows) and named him Swami Ganapati Saraswati in 1685. Ganapati reportedly led a life of severe austerities and went on a pilgrimage, reaching Prayag in 1733, and finally settling in Varanasi in 1737.
In Varanasi, till his death in 1887, he lived at different places including Asi Ghat, the Vedavyas Asharama at Hanuman Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat. He was often found roaming the streets or the ghats, naked and “carefree as a child”. He was reportedly seen swimming or floating on Ganges for hours. He talked very little and at times not at all. A large number of people became attracted to him upon hearing of his yogic powers to ameliorate their sufferings. During his stay in Varanasi, several prominent contemporary Bengalis known as saints met and described him, including Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Mahendranath Gupta, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Abhedananda., Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati, Vishuddhananda Saraswati, and Mahatma Vijaykrishna Goswami. After seeing Trailanga Swami, Ramakrishna said, “I saw that the universal Lord Himself was using his body as a vehicle for manifestation. He was in an exalted state of knowledge. There was no body-consciousness in him. Sand there became so hot in the sun that no one could set foot on it. But he lay comfortably on it.” Ramakrishna also stated that Trailanga Swami was a real paramahansa (lit:”Supreme swan”, used as an honorific for a spiritual teacher) and that “all Benares was illuminated by his stay there.”
The Swami had taken the vow of ayachaka (non seeking) — remaining satisfied with whatever he received. In the later stage of his life, as his fame spread, pilgrims visited him in multitudes. During his last days, he took up ajagaravritti (living like a python) in which he sat still without any movement, and devotees poured water (abhisheka) on him from early morning till noon, looking upon him as a living incarnation of Shiva. He died on Monday evening, December 26, 1887. His body was given salilasamadhi in the Ganges river, according to the funeral customs of the monks of the Dashanami sect, in the presence of a multitude of mourning devotees standing on the ghats.
Legends and Stories
There are many stories told about Telang Swami and his spiritual powers, such that he has become a nearly mythical figure in India. Robert Arnett writes that Telang Swami’s miracles are “well documented” and “he displayed miraculous powers that cannot be dismissed as myth” and there were living witnesses to his “amazing feats”. He was reputed to have lived to be around 300 years, and was a larger than life figure, reportedly weighing over 300 pounds (140 kg), though he seldom ate. One account said that he could “read people’s minds like books.”
On many occasions, he was seen to drink deadly poisons with no ill effect. In one instance, a skeptic wanted to expose him as a fraud. The monk was accustomed to breaking his long fasts with buckets of clabbered milk, so the skeptic brought him a bucket of calcium-lime mixture used for whitewashing walls instead. The monk drank the entire bucket with no ill effect — instead, the skeptic fell to the ground writhing in pain. The monk broke his usual silence to explain the law of karma, of cause and effect.
According to another story, he often walked around without any clothes, much like the naga (or “sky-clad”) sadhus. The Varanasi police were scandalized by his behaviour, and had him locked in a jail cell. He was soon seen on the prison roof, in all his ‘sky-clad’ glory. The police put him back into his locked cell, only to see him appear again on the jail roof. They soon gave up, and let him again walk the streets of Varanasi.
Thousands of people reportedly saw him levitating in a sitting position on the surface of the river Ganges for days at a time. He would also apparently disappear under the waves for long periods, and reappear unharmed. Swami Sivananda attributed some of his miracles to the siddhi or yogic power Bhutajaya — conquest over the five elements, “Fire will not burn such a Yogi. Water will not drown him.”
With respect to his reportedly yogic powers, miracles abundant in his biographies and exceptionally long life, Swami Medhasananda writes that according to the “science of yoga”, attainment of these is not “impossible”.
His teachings are extant and are available in a biography by Umacharan Mukhopadhyay, one of his disciples. He described bondage as “attachment to the world” and liberation as “renunciation of the world and absorption in God.” He further said that after attaining the state of desirelessness, “this world is transformed into heaven” and one can be liberated from samsara (the Hindu belief that life is a cycle of birth and death) through “spiritual knowledge”. He remarks that attachment to the “evanescent” world is “our chronic disease” and the medicine is “detachment”.
He described man’s senses as his enemy and his controlled senses as his friend. His description of a poor person as one who is “very greedy” and regarded one who always remains content as rich. He said that the greatest place of pilgrimage is “Our own pure mind” and instructs to follow the “Vedantic truth from the Guru.” He described a sadhu as one who is free from attachment and delusion.