In the Gospel of John, we find Jesus talking to his disciples about the tremendous contrast between the false promise of a worldly life and the perfect fulfillment of the spiritual life; between the tribulations of this world and the promise that we can eventually overcome them all, as he did.
“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 17:1-32)
“Be of good cheer,” Jesus says. I love that phrase! And isn’t it striking how often the spiritual life boils down to such simple precepts?
Our minds love to make the world more complicated than it is. For some unfathomable reason, we love complexity and fear simplicity. Perhaps because we know that living by simple principles will be difficult, and by spinning complex thoughts we can put off the day when we’ll have to face the simple truth.
Jesus is telling us that in every circumstance, positive or negative, we can be of good hope and cheer. And imagine what it would mean, if we could always be cheerful, even as we work to overcome the world.
The Bible reading for this Sunday speaks of the progress of our individual souls, and how beautifully it mirrors the great events that are told of in the scriptures.
“The law came from Moses, but grace and truth came from Jesus Christ.” This saying has been very widely misunderstood. People have believed it’s saying that Jesus was a new, improved version of Moses.
We find this statement in the Gospel of John, of whom the Bible says that he was the most beloved of Jesus’ disciples, because he had the deepest inner understanding of the teachings.
We would never find a disciple of John’s stature claiming that Jesus was in competition with Moses. Yet the popular interpretation is that John was dismissing Moses with an impatient wave of his hand, as if to say, “Oh, very well, Moses did a certain amount, but now we have Jesus, and he came to bring us grace.”
People have tried to elevate Jesus above all the other great masters whose consciousness was equally infinite. And it has opened doors to endless petty squabbling: that this saint is pretty good, and so is this other one, but this one is supreme and cannot be bettered. And it’s very far from the truth that the saints have come to give us.
In his own time, the people of Israel viewed Jesus as merely an inspired rabbi who came to help the Jewish people. But he was vastly more than a simple rabbi. He was an incarnation of God in human form, an avatar who came with a great divine message for the people of Israel. And if he came particularly for the Jews, it was because they were the only people of that time and place who had chosen God as the highest object of their worship and devotion.
Moses came as the first great teacher to the Jews, at a time when they were enslaved in Egypt. They were being very seriously oppressed and were trying desperately to hold on to their vision of a true spirituality, in the face of the terrible paganism all around them. And God heard their prayers.
In the Festival of Light, we hear, “And a prayer of love went up from earth, and God responded. A ray of His light flashed out from the heart of infinity, burst downward through night skies of consciousness, and was born on earth for the salvation of mankind in human form.”
The Festival continues, “Not once only, but many times has that light descended, drawn to earth by the call of aspiring love.”
So it was that a call of aspiring love went up from the hearts of these oppressed people who yearned to be in a close relationship with their God. And the call was heard, and God came to them in the human form of Moses. Paramhansa Yogananda said that Moses was a true avatar, an incarnation of the Lord.
The spiritual need of the time was for a teaching that would be very clear and unmistakable, and that would enable the Jewish people to stay strong in their faith under the worst conditions, by showing them how to live a simple, divinely attuned life.
Moses brought them a teaching that gave them a sense of their spiritual identity, and their special relationship to God. And by following Moses’ teachings, the Jewish people became powerful and strong, and deeply focused in their worship.
But, as always seems to happen, the original inspiration of the teachings began to wane, in time. And when Jesus came, their spiritual needs had changed, and so he brought them a new message.
The Jews had gone about as far as they could with the notion that God is a stern judge who had given them a set of rigid laws for right living. And Jesus brought them a new dispensation that told them how they could relate to God in a more personal and intimate way.
Jesus wanted them to understand that the grace of which he spoke was not his exclusively, and that it was time for them to receive it as their own.
But the Jewish people had become stuck in their rigid interpretation of the law, so they largely ignored this new message that said: “God is your father. And will your father give you a stone when you ask for bread, simply because you’ve failed to conform to a set of niggling rules? God loves you as your parent. You are His child. You are His own.”
Jesus told the Jewish people, “We’ve come a certain way together, and now we must go farther.” And most of the Jews proved incapable of adjusting their understanding.
I’m not singling out the Jews, because there’s a very powerful allure in a religion that’s based on rules. It gives us a sense of solidity and security that can resist change, and it was what the Jews needed during their time of captivity in Egypt; but it wasn’t what they needed now.
The people of Israel were souls who had the karma to receive the lessons they needed. And even though they decided to reject Jesus’ teachings, there’s no particular onus on the Jewish people as a race because their ancestors rejected him.
We can draw very interesting lessons for our own lives from the great historical landscapes that the cosmic Artist has painted. Just as Moses came before Jesus to bring the Law, so in the beginning of our spiritual life, our interest turns naturally to learning the rules – learning how to behave, as we struggle to transcend our former attachment to worldly ways.
From our deep longing to lead a better life, we commit ourselves to following the rules that will lead us out of the darkness of ignorance. And as we follow the rules, we find ourselves growing into a certain clarity. We receive the commandments of Moses, and as we learn to live in harmony with the divine law, we begin to enjoy a higher understanding that gives us greater happiness.
In that initial relationship, there’s an element of fear. People often come to the spiritual path after great suffering. And when we accept the need to follow the law, we’re fearful of the possibility that we might fall away again, whether we envision the punishment as hellfire or some other dire fate. So, in the beginning, there’s a fear of error. And it’s not entirely a bad thing, because it motivates us to cling very strongly to the rules.
A little fear can be helpful, or else we might not have a sufficiently strong determination to change. But as we refine our behavior, we find something sweeter and deeper entering our lives. And this is the start of the inner spiritual relationship, where we begin to know God as His love and joy and grace. We begin to attract God’s love and friendship, even as the Jewish people attracted Jesus, who told them how they could take the next step and enter that loving relationship.
This is why Jesus told the Jews: “Look, the relationship with God is not about your external behavior. It’s not about performing the right rituals, and getting the external forms exactly right. It’s not about leading a pious life that will make a favorable impression on others. It’s about your inner reality, and the love and grace of God. It’s about a divine consciousness that you can discover within yourself and experience as a perfection of bliss.
This is the relationship we must focus on in the spiritual life, as we transcend the rule-bound religion of laws. We must focus on the essence of God’s nature, cannot be found outside ourselves but only inside, because it is an inborn part of us and must be sought within.
Jesus was challenging the priests, the establishment, and the common people to receive a completely different dispensation from God’s hands.
He urged them to have the courage to look beyond the old forms, and search in their hearts for the essence of spirituality. And the Jews as a people were unable to rise to the challenge, even though he told them, “I came for you. You are the ones I came for, because it was your call that drew me.”
When Jesus left his body, his disciples tried their best to present the teachings to the Jewish community. But they simply weren’t interested, and so the disciples went out into pagan lands where they began spreading the teachings among people who had no rigid traditions to raise up against them.
When you read the letters that Paul writes in the Acts of the Apostles, you find him talking about a curious controversy that took place after Jesus’ passing.
Judaism had defined itself as the one true religion, and many people were now questioning whether the teachings of this great rabbi should be shared with people who weren’t Jews. Of course, the whole controversy seems quaint to us today, but at the time it was a serious concern.
And for us, quite apart from the historical facts, it’s a symbol. When we’re offered an opportunity to go deeper in the spiritual life, how will we respond?
Will we raise all sorts of reasonable objections? And when we’re asked to do things that aren’t comfortable, what will our reaction be? And when the people all around us are saying, “This is how it’s always been done, and we must follow these traditions if we want to be safe and secure” – how will we respond? And when a great Self-realized master who is filled with the presence of God passes among us, will we be ready to receive him and follow?
This was the power that Jesus brought to this earth, that he could light a fire of divine aspiration in people’s hearts, even if they only saw him briefly, in passing.
We have the story of the woman of Samaria who met Jesus by Jacob’s well. He spoke with her, and at first they were conversing casually, because they had come to the well for water.
She said, “I can’t give you water, because I’m of a low caste, and it would pollute you to accept the water from my hands.”
Jesus said, “If I drank the water from this well, I would thirst again. And if you drink the water of this well, you will thirst again. But if you drink of the water that I can give you, you will never thirst again.”
And it’s amusing how the woman misunderstood his meaning. She replied, “But this is very good water!” She said, “And our people have drunk this water for a long time.” She didn’t realize who Jesus was, and she latched on to something concrete that she could understand.
But Jesus must have touched her with his consciousness, because we find the discussion turning from the quality of the water, and suddenly she’s asking him deep spiritual questions.
“Some people say that we should worship here, some there. And what do you say is true?”
As Jesus answers her, we see that something deeper is taking place. At one point, he asks about her husband, and she says, “I have no husband.” Then Jesus looks at her piercingly and says, “You have been truthful. In fact, you’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re with now is not your husband.”
In other words, she was a fallen woman. And Yogananda expands on the story touchingly. He says, “This was a woman that Jesus met by chance at the well, and he had sent his disciples away on an errand so that he could meet her alone, because she was a fallen disciple of his from a former life.”
She had been Jesus’ disciple before, and Yogananda explains that she had left the path and strayed into an immoral life. And then a call of love went up from her heart, and Jesus was drawn to come to the well and find her.
Master describes how Jesus was conversing with her informally, and exploring her consciousness to see if she was ready to return to the path. And when he asked about her husband, he knew the answer, but he wanted to see if she would have the courage to answer truthfully.
If she had tried to protect her delusion, he would have walked away, and waited for a time when she would be ready. But she was able to feel who he was, and the Bible says that she was so inspired that she ran to tell everyone about this man who knew everything about her. And she brought many to see him.
There was nothing in the external circumstances of the meeting to cause her to expect such a deep experience. And it was given to her entirely because of her readiness.
Jesus was a simple itinerant rabbi, and the woman wasn’t even Jewish. He was a poor man associating with people of low caste, and not recognized by anyone. But he was able to give her an experience of God’s grace, and she had the courage to receive it and to follow.
Even so, from time to time in the progression of our lives, we become mired in some lower form of consciousness. And when the master comes, we must be ready to receive his message in our hearts and rise up and follow him.
Yogananda said that the outward forms of spirituality actually have an important role, especially in an age like ours, when the culture is so dissonant with spiritual things, and so profoundly materialistic. He said that people of high aspiration need to gather together and establish an organization that will give a focus and definition to what they’re doing.
Yogananda started such an organization. And in the West, of course, it’s a very common thing to do, because Western spirituality has always tended to define itself by its institutions. But in India it’s not common at all. In fact, the very slight organization that they have is more or less limited to the four Shankaracharya swamis, who are to Hinduism something like what the Pope is to Catholicism.
The Shankaracharyas serve as spiritual leaders to millions of Hindus in four separate regions of India. And in clear distinction to the Catholic popes, the Shankaracharyas greet people without the slightest pomp or ceremony. In fact, you might find a Shankaracharya swami seated under a tree in a plain and faded robe, where people are free to come and sit and talk with him.
In India, the structure and form of religion is universally understood to be internal. But Yogananda had to start an organization and establish a headquarters, for two interesting reasons.
He said that in America, people’s energy and attention is so scattered and diffused that we need to pull our teachings into a tangible focus so that people can see what we’re about.
We need to create a unique place, with a unique name and a unique symbol, and a unique system, because we aren’t living in India, where there’s a widespread understanding of the nature of the spiritual life. And we aren’t accustomed, here in the West, to finding saints wandering about and available to answer our questions.
The second point that Yogananda made about religious organizations was also quite interesting. He said, “In the West, there’s so little respect for spiritual authority that everybody would take this teaching and define it in their own way, and it would soon dissipate into nothing.”
He said that spiritual institutions are helpful because they focus a body of wisdom and lend it a certain authority that the Western mind can acknowledge and respect.
Americans are very independent, which is a good thing, in its way. But it can lead us into the dangerous thought, “Nobody can tell me what to do.”
So there needs to be a certain formality and structure to convey the idea that there is a higher truth and a higher authority behind this work, and that will let people know, “This is a path that was given to the world by God, and this is how it is done.”
On the other hand, the danger of religious organizations is that they can become a terrible trap. While the institution can clarify the teachings and preserve them in the way the master intended, at the same time, we must always have the freedom, as Yogananda put it, to individually “make love to God” in our own way.
The central truth of the path of Self-realization is that we must never allow ourselves to imagine that belonging to an organization and conforming to its rules will bring us into a state of grace. The first principle of our teachings is that grace is an experience that no institution or set of outward rules and rituals can give us. And nothing else matters in our lives but our ability to have that experience in the silent temple of our souls.
To accept the inner presence of a loving God is not easy! To truly know that the Divine is within us, and that there is no other reality, is a tremendous challenge, because it requires that we learn to open our hearts completely, in every circumstance, with full energy and without the slightest hesitation or doubt.
We say that we want truth and the experience of God. But that experience, and that truth, are so different from the world in which we’re used to living that it requires a tremendous expansion of our awareness, and an utter willingness to leave this familiar world behind.
This world of familiar systems with their recognizable forms and orderliness, is very different from the real world, of which Yogananda speaks in his beautiful chant “In The Land Beyond My Dreams.” And it isn’t easy, or the accomplishment of a moment or a lifetime, to learn how to turn our attention completely inward and know that this life is only and entirely about our inward relationship with the Infinite.
It’s a relationship of which the Bhagavad Gita speaks very comfortingly:
Cling thou to Me!
Clasp Me with heart and mind! so shalt thou dwell
Surely with Me on high. But if thy thought
Droops from such height; if thou be’st weak to set
Body and soul upon Me constantly,
Despair not! give Me lower service! seek
To reach Me, worshipping with steadfast will;
And, if thou canst not worship steadfastly,
Work for Me, toil in works pleasing to Me!
For he that laboureth right for love of Me
Shall finally attain! But, if in this
Thy faint heart fails, bring Me thy failure! find
Refuge in Me! let fruits of labour go,
Renouncing hope for Me, with lowliest heart,
So shalt thou come; for, though to know is more
Than diligence, yet worship better is
Than knowing, and renouncing better still.
Near to renunciation – very near –
Dwelleth Eternal Peace!
Make this your only aspiration. Forget everything else in your passion for the experience of the Divine. Everything else exists to support us in that noble cause. Our practices, our organizations, our friendships, our groups, exist only to support us in our search. And all of our life ultimately boils down the pursuit of that inner relationship.
We should never make the mistake of thinking that anything matters more – more than meditation, more than prayer, more than devotion. Devotion, above all, and attunement with the Divine.
Yogananda said, “Attunement is everything.” If we will do all that we can to live in God’s ray, and to remain in the vibration of Spirit whatever comes, we will find that power supporting us in our search.
Always feel that everything that comes to you is from God. Say, “This world is a dream that I am dreaming for only a little while.”
A friend of mine said something that inspired me very much. She said, “It appears that in our lives we have many decisions to make. But we really have only one decision: either we’ll remember God or we’ll forget Him.”
And if we will resolve to remember God and keep the fire going, whether it’s by meditating regularly, or chanting, or serving, or just living our lives in the most expansive and inspired way we’re able, let us always remember: I am a child of the Infinite. Divine Mother and I are walking through this life together. And whether we walk in mountains, meadows, freezing streams or burning desert sands, we are walking together.
The forms of religion are meant to guide us toward Self-realization. They can support us, but let us not forget that their purpose is to bring us to grace. And grace is the power to receive God in our hearts, and to discover that the Divine Mother is now and forever our own.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on February 20, 2000.)