Should Yogis Be Activists?

People on the spiritual path often wonder if they should take a stand on politics and current events.

My husband David and I are part of a local association of ministers. It’s a diverse group – with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Christian Scientists, Quakers, Mormons, Catholics, and others.

History takes an ironic view of our efforts to make a perfect world. “If you’re seeking freedom in a revolution,” goes a song lyric by Swami Kriyananda, “you won’t find it there. For once the guns stop blazing, you’ll find it’s amazing, how the world can drag on just as before.” (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Jayel Aheram)

History takes an ironic view of our efforts to make a perfect world. “If you’re seeking freedom in a revolution,” goes a song lyric by Swami Kriyananda, “you won’t find it there. For once the guns stop blazing, you’ll find it amazing, how the world can drag on just as before.” (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Jayel Aheram)

We call ourselves a “faith community.” And I think it’s a good term to identify our common ground, because it says “We all have faith in something, but let’s not look too closely at our differences.”

At one of our meetings, someone asked how everyone decided whether to take a stand on political issues, and how to be sure their stand was in harmony with their beliefs.

It’s not as if the scriptures mandate the stance we should take on every issue. we can’t simply open the book and look up the correct stance on peace, global warming, and the environment.

As Self-realizationists, if people ask us about our position on various issues, we really have to say, “We don’t have a position.” Because we don’t have a doctrine that says we’re pacifists, environmentalists, or activists of any kind.

In the Bhagavad Gita, God says that there are no absolutes in His material creation. He says that while absolute truth exists, it isn’t a feature of the world in which we presently find ourselves.

Jesus said, “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” A subtle meaning to be taken from these words is that we can’t find perfection in this world, but only “in heaven.”

In fact, no matter how well-intentioned and sincere we are, all of the efforts we make to freeze this creation into a perfect form are bound to fail.

The scriptures tell us, over and over, that we cannot look to this world for satisfaction. It’s the nature of this world of duality that we can never find enduring happiness here.

How can we decide whether we should go out and march in favor of peace? Reason may tell us, “Of course we should go – how could anyone be in favor of war?”

The nature of this world, however, is that it is relative. Thus a great deal depends on who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. We need to decide which actions will move us forward, and what lessons we need to learn individually. Our lessons are bound to be different from those of the person standing next to us. It’s the nature of this relative world. But we can be assured that we are moving in the same direction. Everyone in this relative world ultimately wants the same thing: complete happiness, and freedom from suffering.

Behind this world of fluctuating dualities, there are clear principles by which we can reliably guide our lives. There are true principles that we can feel secure in following. And the first and foremost is to be loyal to the divine presence within us.

This is the greatest principle of all: to have the courage and strength to live as God wants to guide us.

When Paramhansa Yogananda was a young monk in India, a group of men asked him to lead them in a revolution against the British. They sensed his spiritual power and knew he would be a great force on their side. But Yogananda refused. He said, “You go ahead.”

The men tried to overthrow the British rule, and were arrested and executed for their actions.

Later, someone asked Master, “why did you tell them to go ahead?”

He said, “because it was their karma. It’s what they were born to do.”

They were born to face that reality, to do their best and die in the attempt.

We sometimes need to view this world from a very different perspective than our sentiments dictate, or our rational mind suggests.

When a child grows up, we don’t say that the child has died. But, in a sense, that little being who was once a child has left us.

Where is that adorable little four-year-old today? I remember how my father said, “The part of you that I was part of when I raised you as a child – that part is gone. It’s as if it were dead.”

No matter how beautiful today’s reality is, it will leave us. If we’re wise parents, we’ll be able to adjust gracefully to this simple fact of life.

There was a woman at Ananda who had AIDS. She had several after-death experiences, and as a result she had no fear of death.

She would get up in the morning and say, “How do I feel? Can I walk? Can I breathe? Am I dead yet?” Then she would say, “You aren’t dead yet. Then why not live in the way you have to live right now?’

Our regrets for the past and fears for the future corrupt the quality of our lives in the present. Living in the past and future steals the energy we’re could express in the present, where we stand here and now.

When we need to know what we should do, there’s a simple principle we can follow.

The job of a Self-realizationist is, as far as possible, always to be in tune with God, and to express that attunement in every moment.

Our job is to be loyal to the principles and practices that enable us to live in oneness with the God who is our true reality.

We also need to understand that however world events play out, including wars and cataclysms, it isn’t human beings who will determine what happens.

There are great karmic forces at play in this world. Paramhansa Yogananda said that Adolf Hitler wasn’t personally responsible for all of the terrible things he did as Germany’s leader. He said that Hitler was an instrument for the karma of the German and Jewish peoples, and for some of the karma of the world.

Many souls had to be born to play out that great drama, and Hitler was the individual who had to be at the helm to make it happen. Naturally, he reaped terrible karma for his role. But the entire karmic burden wasn’t his.

Political demonstrations could not have changed history at the time. Yogananda said that Gandhi’s methods of peaceful resistance might have worked against the Nazis, but they could only have succeeded at the cost of tremendous suffering. He said that they wouldn’t work at all against the communists, because they were utterly without conscience.

The masters operate behind the scenes of history, in ways we can’t clearly understand. But life places before us at every moment the opportunity to ask ourselves, “Will I think of God?”

In this moment, will I allow my fears and concerns for short-term realities to blind me to higher realities?

No one can tell us what we should do. It’s up to us to live the values we’ve been given. The Self-realization response to politics is to be a good Self-realizationist.

There’s never been a time when the world hasn’t been subject to change; not only through politics, but through movements of consciousness.

Fifty years ago, in the early 1960s, the health food movement started to introduce an awareness of organic foods, sustainable agriculture, and the benefits of a vegetarian diet. I was part of the new stream of consciousness, and I remember how most people thought we were crazy.

A relative of mine insisted that I tell her everything I was eating. She then took the list to a doctor, who pronounced it the healthiest diet he’d ever seen. But it wasn’t conventional, and my relative feared that I was destroying my body.

I had stepped outside the boundaries of conventional consciousness. Nowadays, everyone is aware of the health-giving power of organic food, and the need to avoid pesticides. That massive change in consciousness didn’t occur because of politics, or by the government passing laws. It happened because our awareness changed.

How did it happen? By individuals who believed deeply in what they were doing and had the courage to stand up for their beliefs and live them.

I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite books by Swami Kriyananda, Cooperative Communities: How to Start them and Why.

Swami was living in San Francisco in the 1960s, and he wanted to buy land in the country and start a community where people could live by high ideals.

It was an idea that had come to him when he was fifteen, and that Paramhansa Yogananda had reinforced in him, because he, too, believed that small spiritual communities were the way of the future.

Swamiji realized that nobody understood what he was talking about. So he wrote this little book, and because it expressed the principles clearly, people began to understand the power of this new way of living.

Swami believed that small communities would offer an environment where, as Yogananda put it, people would find it easier to think of God. They would be environments where Yogananda’s spirit and teachings could be understood and spread by example.

He knew that by creating a basic community where the principles were firmly established, you could let the community, and the movement, grow naturally from there.

In the forty-four years that I was involved with Swamiji, I saw that he was absolutely loyal to the principles he understood to be true. Those principles were Master’s. They were Self-realization through Kriya Yoga, attunement to divine consciousness, serving others, and helping people discover for themselves the satisfactions of following divine principles.

That’s how the world changes – not by demonstrations and laws but by changing our consciousness.

Swami Kriyananda

A single man of Self-realization, the masters testify, has greater power to uplift the consciousness of mankind than any number of demonstrations and laws. (Click to enlarge.)

In the 1960s, hardly anybody knew what a guru was, or chakras, karma, or meditation. It wasn’t government that made those things clear. It was individuals who changed themselves, one by one, and influenced the general consciousness by their example.

Why is everybody so interested in yoga and meditation today? Because they’ve seen others doing it, and they’ve seen that it works.

Someone comes into the office and says, “I’m doing yoga. It’s really working for me.” Then someone else goes, and the consciousness starts to shift, by individuals acting according to what they experience.

I’m not a pacifist. I can’t say, as many others do, “Peace at any price!” That’s not a phrase that resonates with my heart. There are principles we have to be willing to die for.

Master said, “Loyalty is the first law of God.” He didn’t mean the kind of blind loyalty that says “My country, right or wrong.” But there are principles of loyalty and faithfulness that we must adhere to, if we want to expand our consciousness and grow into higher levels of happiness.

“What do I believe in more than anything else?” Do I believe I need to stand up against war? The answer depends on your personal karma. Do you feel you’d rather go to jail than enlist in the army? Or would you rather be killed for your country?

You may not know what’s a forward direction for others. But you must find out what’s your own direction toward greater happiness, and have the courage to live it.

Let’s listen to the masters. Let’s study the scriptures. Let’s not be guided by what we’ve thought in the past, or what our parents said, or what seems sentimentally sweet.

Swami Kriyananda subscribed to several outlandish newsletters published by people who wanted to tout their pet conspiracy theories.

For years, he dutifully passed those newsletters along to us, with the expectation that we would apply our common sense, even though they sometimes seemed like the ravings of maniacs.

He read it all with a level-headed understanding that some of these things do happen. Many of the people who hold public positions of power in this age have very low consciousness. This isn’t an age when the noblest souls rise naturally into high positions. We get the leaders we deserve, determined by mass consciousness. Fortunately, God plays a hand in choosing our leaders, and in guiding world events, to bring about meaningful changes and teach His children important lessons.

It isn’t easy to know what’s right in every situation. But we should have the courage, as Master said, not to be guided by sentiment.

Sentiment means we’ve fallen into a comfortable habit of feeling a certain way, without courageously examining our first principles and acting on them.

We should realize that Self-realizationists don’t live in this world with the same values as others. God has chosen us to follow where He leads us. We need to understand, “I’m passing through this world. I have a divine duty to live as God guides me.”

Nayaswami Jaya came to Ananda in the very early days. Jaya has the vibration of an American Indian chief. He’s very strong in himself, very quiet, and in many ways very detached.

Jacqueline and Padma were in New York City, and at one point Jaya drove them across town. The traffic was heavy, and Jacqueline reported later, “He drove like a New York cabbie! Here was this man who’s lived in the country forever, and he drove like a crazy New York cab driver!”

I said, “Jaya isn’t a country person. He’s centered in himself, and when circumstances demanded that he be a New York cab driver, he set his powerful consciousness on being a cabbie. He knew exactly what to do, and he sped through town with that consciousness.”

How can we decide what’s right for us? By living deep in ourselves, we can know. Instead of wasting our energy running around in circles, wondering what the rest of the world expects, let’s use our energy to meditate and ask God, “What should I do today?”

A long time ago, I was involved in a complicated situation. After struggling with my options, I consulted Swamiji.

I said, “How can I resolve these conflicting factors?”

Swamiji cut right through my dilemma. He said, “The answer is that you need to be able to feel that you’re being guided by God in the moment. You need to feel the superconscious solution, and not merely respond from your subconscious habits. You’ll never be able to do that in a crisis, unless you’ve practiced when it was easier.”

If we want to know what we should do in a difficult situation, we’d better practice before times get hard. We’d better live at the absolute best of our ability. And if we aren’t very good at it, we need to say, “God, help me get better.”

Maybe we feel it’s too big a prayer: “How can I live by Your will?” Maybe the best we can pray is, “Lord, I don’t have a clue, even how to ask You to help me do Your will.”

Whatever it might be, start practicing. Nothing will ever stay the same. We suffer because we’re unable to adapt to the simple fact of constant change. We suffer because we haven’t practiced when it was easy.

In every situation, we have a simple choice. Will we think of God? All of our other options are an illusion.

How can we know what to do? This is the answer. Practice the constant prayer: “Here I am, Lord. I have this to do. How would You have me do it?”

(From a talk at Sunday service, February 2, 2003)

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