I had a serious misunderstanding in my relationship with Swami Kriyananda that it took me a long time to correct.
It had to do with the fact that he was very impersonal with himself.
“Impersonal” in this context is an interesting word. It doesn’t mean that Swamiji didn’t feel life’s joys and sorrows as other people do, but that he wasn’t ego-identified with those feelings.
The Sanskrit word for the little ego-self is jiva. The jiva is the spark of Spirit that inhabits a body and then acts out its separate existence through that body and identifies with its desires, its culture, and its outward conditions in this world.
A free soul like Swami Kriyananda, or an avatar like Yogananda feels the experiences of this world as keenly as we do, but he feels the entire ocean at the same time.
I remember sitting with Swamiji many years ago and talking about Dwapara Yuga, the age that this planet has recently entered, and that will bring with it certain good points, but will also have some really rotten features.
Whenever I read about the bad things that are happening in the world nowadays, I think, “We’re living in the early part of Dwapara Yuga. What do you expect?”
The planet isn’t very enlightened at this time, and many dark forces are attracted to being born here, along with a much smaller number of bright souls.
Sitting with Swamiji, I said, “Sir, the next time we come back, why don’t we wait for Satya Yuga (the most enlightened age), because it will be a higher and more pleasant time, don’t you think?”
Swamiji was having lunch, eating a sandwich, and he had just taken a big bite. Without finishing what he had in his mouth, he said, “I never intend to come back. I’m finished.”
Later, he said, “But I know myself. If I’m needed, I know I’ll come back.”
I said, “Yes, Sir, I know you will.”
He said, “Even in Satya Yuga, when the planet is at its highest point spiritually, it’s still the material plane. It’s more pleasant, but it’s still not God-realization.”
He added, “But in Satya Yuga, people like us are in charge.”
I said, “So the whole planet is like one big Ananda?” And he said, “Yes, so it’s much more pleasant to live here. But still, to the degree to which we are identified with our limitations, to that degree we are still bound.”
It took me years to understand the depth of Swamiji’s feelings. And after a long time of being unclear about it, I said, “You’re very impersonal about your feelings, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t feel things as deeply as everyone does.”
He said, matter-of-factly, “Yes.”
For decades, I hadn’t taken his feelings seriously, believing that because he was a yogi of high stature and inwardly free, he was wholly above all human feelings. It took me a long time to understand how tender his heart was, and how deeply he was in sympathy with the feelings of other people.
We’re approaching the date of Yogananda’s mahasamadhi – the “great Samadhi,” when he left his body and merged his consciousness with God. And I’ve been contemplating how Yogananda’s life has, to a very large extent, been whitewashed by Self-Realization Fellowship.
Swami Kriyananda wrote a biography in which he sought to correct the image that SRF has tried to present of Yogananda, suggesting that, among other things, he was wholly above this world.
In Swamiji’s book, Paramhansa Yogananda, a Biography, he describes the endless challenges that Yogananda faced, and the sheer energy it took for him to come to America and start a mission that would change the course of a civilization.
We picture Yogananda marching triumphantly into America, and all the bricks falling in place for his mission to succeed. But that wasn’t how it happened. It was a struggle at every step of the way. On more than one occasion, in his correspondence and his writings, he talked about how fed up he was with this country, for the way it insisted on rejecting the teachings. He said, effectively, “I’ve had it with America. It’s just crazy in this country.”
When he returned to India in 1935-1936, they begged him to stay. He talked of meditating by the Ganges, and how someone came up and poured a pile of rupees in his lap and said, “We’ll build a temple. We’ll take care of you. We’ll do everything for you.” Whereas in America he had to pay the bills, and people would come for a time and then wander off, saying dreamily, “Oh, I think I’ll go to Mt. Shasta, I understand there are some spiritual beings there.” And Yogananda would say, “All right, go.”
Yogananda’s life, as it has been revealed to us by SRF, doesn’t give us a picture of his struggles. And that’s unfortunate.
I was lamenting this to Swamiji, because it turns Yogananda into a two-dimensional figure, and we begin to feel that if we have difficulties on the path, it must mean that we aren’t being loyal to the Master, because if we were truly spiritual we would be able to rise above it all, as he would.
And, you see, this is the mistake I made with Swami. I think that we often don’t enter deeply enough into the lives of these great spiritual figures, so that we can feel how they are both perfectly divine and perfectly human in their nature.
Master’s mother died when he was around ten, and he writes in Autobiography of a Yogi, “It was years before I was reconciled with God over His taking my mother.”
Now, just think of that. “It was years before I was reconciled with God.”
When we find ourselves unable to rise to meet our life’s challenges, there’s absolutely no reason why we should feel that we’re doing something irremediably wrong – that it’s somehow a fatal weakness that we aren’t able to escape in freedom as easily as a master can.
There’s a chant that says, “Come to me as sorrow, because in sorrow I will never forget Thee.” Very often, it’s the agonizing pressure of our suffering that keeps us longing to draw closer to God.
Part of the problem is that Master didn’t talk about his own former lives, except those lives when he had already achieved freedom. Swamiji said that Master attained Self-realization a very long time ago. And Master himself said that he was Arjuna at the time of Krishna, when Arjuna was already a God-realized soul.
By the time he was William the Great in England, and then Ferdinand “The Saint” in Spain, Master was a fully realized being. But we don’t hear about the long cycles of time when he was striving and failing and picking himself up and stumbling forward again. We see the avatar participating in this world as a perfect expression of God. And it’s extremely helpful to remember that he became Self-realized, and to remember that no matter what delusions we’re facing, Master at some time stood at those same crossroads.
As an expression of his compassion for us in our struggles, Swamiji told us about several lives of his when he made serious mistakes.
He talked of a life when he was married and then he decided to leave, because he wanted to serve God alone. So he left his wife and lived in an ashram for many years. And then his wife came and wanted to join him, but he had become too much of a renunciate, and he sent her back. Later in that life, he realized his lack of compassion, and he tried to go back and make amends to her, but she had died. And he said that it had serious repercussions that he had to work out in later lives.
He talked of another life that I believe at least partially explains why he was so deeply reviled by Self-Realization Fellowship, and why they were so suspicious of his motives.
Swamiji’s main detractor in SRF was a very senior nun named Tara Mata. After Tara died, a man flew all the way from New York to deliver a message to Swamiji which he said he had received in a vision of Tara.
She had asked him to go to Swamiji and apologize to him on her behalf. In the vision she described a life in which Swamiji had betrayed Master and split the ashram and left – all of the things she’d accused him of in this life, but of which he was completely innocent.
That memory had prejudiced her against him, and now she realized that she was wrong. After the man delivered the message to Swamiji, he didn’t even stay for lunch, but immediately turned around and flew back to New York.
Think of the anguish we feel for our small mistakes that loom so large for us – and then imagine the anguish that Swamiji’s memories must have created for him. To realize that he had been a disciple of Master, and that through doubt, or arrogance, or who knows what delusion, he had set himself against the guru and left him for who knows how many lives.
Swami’s play, The Jewel in the Lotus, tells the story of a man who turned against his guru, and then realized his error and spent many lives working out that karma until he could come back and be with his guru forever.
Swamiji said that one of the reasons he had to teach so much in this life is that he had to atone for those doubts, and for the misunderstanding that separated him from the guru.
Swamiji would talk about these things quite matter-of-factly and dispassionately. “I had sabikalpa samadhi, but I argued with my guru and I went off for a time.”
He talked about it with a complete lack of attachment to the anguish it caused him. And yet he wasn’t always so free. But he became free.
The truth is that whatever is making us miserable now will someday be “a long time ago.” The time will come when it’s cancelled out in a big zero – all the anguish, despair, disappointment, attachment, and tears will be wiped away.
It isn’t easy to be impersonal and detached when our hearts are being gripped by anguish or sorrow or fear. But whether it’s the grand catastrophe of a lifetime or a mere fleeting irritation, it will eventually be “a long time ago.” And why waste all that time?
God is within our reach as much now as He ever will be, in this moment, exactly now. And let’s not blind ourselves to His presence by clinging to our mistakes and sorrows. Let’s seek Him in every moment, as the only Reality behind it all.
(From a letter to the Ananda congregation in Palo Alto, California.)