When Swami Kriyananda read Autobiography of a Yogi for the first time, the power of the book so altered his way of thinking that he immediately left his former life behind.
Three days after he purchased the Autobiography, he stepped aboard a bus bound for Los Angeles to meet Paramhansa Yogananda.
At their first meeting, on September 12, 1948, Yogananda initiated him as a disciple and a monk. It was a whirlwind courtship – the initiation took place within an hour of his first glimpse of the Master.
When he entered the room, Yogananda said, “What can I do for you?” And the first words Swamiji uttered to the guru were, “I want to be your disciple.”
What is the power that allows us to know with complete certainty that a person is Self-realized, and that they can introduce us to God?
It isn’t a matter of careful reasoning. A Self-realized person emanates a radiance of such overwhelming divine love and bliss that it gives us a life-changing taste of divinity. We are powerless to resist, because we know that this person has everything that we’ve ever been seeking.
In the intervening fifty-seven years, Swami Kriyananda has had many life experiences. People are astonished when they discover how difficult his life has been, with endless challenges that have included betrayals, lawsuits, and financial tests.
When we become disciples of a great master, we may be tempted to assume that from here on it will be smooth sailing. But Swami Kriyananda’s life has been fraught with tremendous tests. Even now, the obstacles posed by his aging body are stunning. And yet, through it all, his faith has never wavered.
In The Path – My Life with Paramhansa Yogananda, Swamiji describes how he discovered the Autobiography. It happened at a time when he was a very bold, extremely well-educated and articulate 22-year-old. As he put it, he could best anyone in an argument, and he enjoyed the competition.
But after he found the Autobiography, his only desire was to meet Yogananda.
Upon picking up the book, in a bookstore in New York City, he felt a power radiating from it. But when he opened it and saw the dedication – “To Luther Burbank, an American saint” – he impatiently put it back on the shelf, thinking, “An American saint? That’s impossible!”
Swamiji was dismissive of what the materialistic consciousness of America. How could this country, with its endless pursuit of money and things, nurture a saint? So he closed the book and left the store.
He’d walked no farther than two blocks when he felt his body being turned by a strange force and directed back to the bookstore. With great excitement, he rushed to the store and grabbed the book. And, as he relates in The Path, he held it close to his heart, like a long-lost friend.
As he was leaving the store, he ran into an acquaintance who began talking with great enthusiasm about his plans to go into the advertising business and make a pile of money. And Swamiji describes how he hugged the book even more tightly, as if he and Yogananda were united in recognizing that the pursuit of worldly wealth is a waste of a lifetime.
Now, this is the power of the divine consciousness that comes to us, when our longing for truth is deep and sincere.
Each of us comes to God in our own way. Many of us came to the spiritual path after reading Autobiography of a Yogi. In my case, God drew me through my first meeting with Swami Kriyananda. There’s a point when you know without a doubt that you’ve found your life’s path, and that it’s time to drop everything else.
Christ promises, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” But how many of us can give ourselves completely to God?
The Bhagavad Gita describes how people will put their minds on the spiritual path for a little while, and then their heart will find something to distract it – some outward desire, or some intriguing new self-definition that pulls them beyond the reach of the power of Spirit again.
On the one hand, we have Christ’s promise: “ask, and it shall be given.” On the other, we find that there’s a fine line that we must walk, if we want to keep that blessing.
In India, they have a celebration called Diwali. For Indians, it’s as important as Christmas is for us here in the West. It’s also called the Festival of Lights, because it celebrates the victory of Light over darkness.
Diwali celebrates the day when Lord Rama and his beloved Sita were reunited after a long and painful separation. The Ramayana tells the story of how Sita was abducted by a demon, and how, after many struggles, Rama succeeded in slaying the demon and rescuing her.
Upon being reunited, Rama and Sita walked for nineteen days to return to their kingdom, and Diwali marks the day when they arrived. It symbolizes the return of the Lord, which is to say, our return to our true home in Spirit.
While we were in India recently, Swamiji held a Diwali celebration at the Ananda ashram in New Delhi. In his talk, he described a woman who met Master, and who was somewhat mentally unbalanced. On one occasion, she said something that was very disruptive to several people. Afterward, Master described how bitterly she regretted the difficulty she had caused, and how uncomfortable she felt because of her mistake.
Swami’s comment was interesting. He said, “to feel guilty, or even regretful about something you’ve done is to affirm that wrong behavior.”
Isn’t that an interesting way to think of our mistakes?
Firm faith comes when we’re able to overcome the distractions that try to pull us away from God, including the delusive desire to identify with our mistakes and weaknesses.
The faith that enables us to know with absolute certainty that God will respond to our prayers is born of experience. It’s born of knowing that we are His children, and that what He has is ours as our natural birthright. It’s not for those who believe they need to beg God for His favor. “oh, please help me. Oh Lord, please help me.”
When I tell my hand to pick up a glass, I have no doubt that my hand will reach out and bring the glass to me. It’s not something I have to beg for – “Oh, please, hand me the water!” I’m confident because I know from long experience that my hand will respond to my bidding.
Now, we can boil down the entirety of the spiritual life to this simple understanding – that if we can simply succeed in dissolving the illusion of our separateness, we will know that the entire power of the universe is ours – in fact, it is us.
We are born with the false idea that our actions originate in our little ego-self, and not in God. But this is an illusion that God has created through the power of His maya – the force that tries to make us feel that we are separate from Him.
There’s a wonderful passage in the Gita that urges us to offer ourselves completely to the Lord. It begins by exhorting us to give everything, body, mind, heart, and soul. But then, recognizing that not everyone is ready to make that supreme sacrifice, it modifies the challenge. It urges us to give as much of our hearts as we can. Finally, with great compassion, it tells us that if we aren’t able to make even the smallest self-offering – “bring Me thy failure.”
It’s so sweet, because it tells us that there is no possibility that we can ever be outside the realm of Spirit, no matter how deep our ignorance may be.
I recall Swamiji telling us, “God is pleased when you give him your successes, but He’s even more pleased when you give him your mistakes.”
This is something worth contemplating. It means that no matter what we offer to God, His sole concern is that we give it with love and total sincerity. It isn’t a matter of confessing our faults in formal words: “Mea maxima culpa!” There must be a heartfelt substance in our offering.
We feel so proud when we forgive others, and when we’re kind. But Divine Mother’s love is of a very different order.
Years ago, Swamiji was blessed to spend time with a great Indian saint, Anandamayi Ma. She gave him a very unusual amount of her attention. And one day, overcome with gratitude, Swamiji thanked her for letting him spend so much time with her.
To his surprise, Ma said, “would you thank your own mother?”
Swamiji said, “yes, in my country, I would.”
Ma said, “In India, it would be considered an insult to thank your mother.”
In India, too much thanking is considered ungracious, as if to say that someone has worked very hard to overcome his terrible selfish inclinations and do us a favor. In India, giving is recognized as flowing naturally from the heart. It’s our nature to give – to share as readily with others as we would give to ourselves. As we dissolve the sense of separateness, there comes a wonderful, liberating joy.
In his book on renunciation, Sadhu, Beware!, Swamiji suggests many exercises that we can practice to help free our hearts and reduce our sense of identification with the little, limited ego.
For example, if you have a strong desire to acquire material possessions, you can use that desire to expand your heart by buying things for others. As you experiment with giving, even in small ways, you’ll find that it brings you wonderful blessings of happiness. Yogananda said that when you can spend as freely for others as you would spend for yourself, you will have removed a major barrier that separates you from God.
What method dissolves the bondage of ego more effectively than any other? Devotion, and the power of love.
When I was nineteen, my closest friend got pregnant and had a baby. I’ve always had an affection for children, and at one point motherhood seemed a natural path for my life. But as I watched my friend care for her child during its first year, I realized that being a mother is an all-consuming, unrelenting, full-time job.
My friend and I tried to have a conversation one day – but there was no longer any such thing as a normal conversation in her life. Every few seconds, she would have to stop and chase the child.
After this happened several times, I said, “How can you stand it?”
Her answer was so sweet and simple. She said, “when you look at us, you see two separate beings. For me, there’s no separation between this child and myself. As I live and breathe and act, I live and breathe and act to take care of this baby.”
Now, I believe that the reason Divine Mother created a universe in which countless people marry and raise children is to give us a chance to experience selfless love. In expanding our awareness to the child, we discover a joy that isn’t limited by the boundaries of our little ego.
Now, by no means does having children guarantee that we’ll have spiritual liberation!
In fact, some people view the blessings of parenthood in entirely the wrong way, thinking that they can expand their ego through their children. But that kind of possessiveness only makes us more bound. This is why Yogananda criticized the too-common tendency of families to define their life together as “us four and no more.”
In a contractive family, the ego is as tightly bound as if the parents had never had children.
Swami Kriyananda remarked that people often try to paint over their selfish desires by claiming good intentions. “I’m doing it for my wife.” “I’m doing it for the children.”
But it’s the same, self-limiting ego, so long as the focus is on “me, my, mine.”
A friend of ours who’s a parent said, “I thought I was kind of an unselfish guy, until I had these two boys, one after the other.”
What pleases God is when the father ceases to exist and becomes the servant of the children. God wants us to understand the sheer joy of selfless service.
It’s almost the same as what happens when you can meditate deeply. You transfer your consciousness from the medulla, where the separate ego is centered in the body, at the base of the skull where it joins the neck, to the spiritual eye, where your awareness can expand into cosmic consciousness.
When we’re able to go deep at that point, we begin to see that our little wave of individuality is part of the great ocean of Spirit. When we can see ourselves as a little wave on the ocean, we understand that everything in the ocean is ours.
This is why devotees are willing to go to exaggerated lengths to break the sense of separateness, to the extent that materialistic people think we’re being much too extreme. But it’s because we realize, “God is the only source of my freedom.”
We understand that this is where my power lies. Not in affirming the individual wave, as if I could hold it separate from the ocean, but by relaxing our sense of ego into the great ocean of Spirit.
The wave doesn’t have to struggle to be part of the ocean. In fact, quite the opposite. The wave has to struggle to be deluded and confused and filled with desires, in order to sustain the illusion that it is separate.
This is what meditation does, and why it is so important. The power of ego tries to pull us into a sense of separateness which is focused in the medulla oblongata, at the base of the brain. When our consciousness is centered at that point, we think of ourselves as defined by this little, separate self that lives and dies and feels compelled to compete with others.
But when we meditate and gaze into the spiritual eye, and merge our consciousness with the star at the center of the sphere of blue light, surrounded by an aura of shimmering gold, we suddenly realize that we are nothing but a wave on the bosom of the cosmic sea.
As a chant by Yogananda says: “I am the bubble – make me the sea!” The wave dissolves in the ocean, and in that state we no longer have to ask for anything, because everything that we could ever want is ours.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on November 6, 2005.)