Among the very few of Jesus’ followers who didn’t abandon him after he was crucified, Mary Magdalene was a shining light.
Imagine Mary’s anguish, knowing that he had left them, and that their hopes for how the world would change as a result of his presence had been utterly dashed.
At the first moment when the Jewish law allowed, she rushed to the tomb where the disciples had laid his body. And she was stunned to find that it was gone – as she imagined, taken by the authorities who, not satisfied with inflicting horrible indignities and gruesome death on him, had removed his body so that it couldn’t be venerated.
Mary was on the point of running off to tell the others the shocking news, when she glimpsed a figure standing nearby. At first she assumed that it was the gardener, but when he spoke to her, she recognized that it was the living Christ.
It’s an amazing story, and it gives us a hint of the extent to which this world is under the effortless control of those great ones who have achieved dominion over it. It hints also at the reality behind the pale fabric of this world, which is the boundless light of God.
How could Mary mistake the Christ whom she so dearly loved for a simple gardener? It was because a shadow had fallen over her mind and prevented her from recognizing him.
He asked her, “What’s wrong?” And she sobbed, “They’ve taken him away!” Then he said, “Mary…” And the veil fell away, as she recognized that it was Jesus himself standing before her.
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda recalls how he was overcome with grief at his master’s passing. And it seems almost a paradox – why would it make the slightest difference to a master that his guru was no longer present in this world, if he is one with him in eternity? And yet, for even an avatar such as Yogananda, the guru’s human form is inexpressibly dear.
There was a period in Swamiji’s life when he was gravely ill; his physical body was so unwell that he would occasionally express a wish to dump it and be rid of it.
On one of those occasions, I said to him, “Sir, you’ve done enough work for hundreds of lifetimes; and if you decide to leave, no one could fault you.”
I added, “But it won’t be nearly as much fun to live on this planet without you in it.”
Quietly, but very seriously, he said, “I know. I’ve been through it.”
Swamiji had the incomparable blessing to live with Paramhansa Yogananda for three and a half years. And then, after the master’s passing, he was on his own for more than fifty years, leading a life of perfect discipleship without his Master’s physical presence in this world.
For Mary Magdalene, and for all those who loved Jesus, it didn’t matter that they could feel him in their hearts, perhaps even more strongly than ever since his passing, because they missed him dearly. And after Sri Yukteswar’s mahasamadhi, Master had to delay his departure from India, because he wasn’t ready, in his grief, to return to the work he had to do in America.
Then Sri Yukteswar appeared to him in a Bombay hotel room, and Master describes how he knelt and touched Sri Yukteswar’s familiar canvas shoes, and how he could feel the toes in the shoes. And then he stood and embraced his Guru, and they had a long conversation about the life after death.
Master tells how, as he clung to his Guru’s physical form, Sri Yukteswar said, “I would find it easier to speak if you loosened your grip a little!”
In the lives of the masters, we find two stories being told: the human life, and the life divine.
When Jesus died, Mary Magdalene faced a horrific reality – Jesus’ death had been brutal, and his loss had been sudden and completely unexpected. And then, when she saw the gardener and he spoke her name, the veil that had clouded her mind parted, and she was able to recognize him.
He said, “Don’t touch me yet.” And I suspect it was because he wasn’t fully back in his body. But she knew that he was resurrected, because she could see that his form was flesh and bone. It was not a vision, and she ran to tell the others: “He is risen!”
Jesus had been brutally killed, and the priests had become puffed-up in their pride that they could do such wicked and terrible things. The mob had risen against him, and the disciples didn’t know if their lives were in peril. So they gathered together to draw the strength to carry on.
Swamiji said, “The fact that they came together made it possible for them to see the resurrected Christ.”
If their faith had been weaker, they might not have come together. But the power of their love for him bound them to one another. And in this most frightening moment, their heartfelt desire to affirm their inner connection with him overrode their fears.
It enabled Jesus to appear in their midst, and he allowed them to touch the wounds in his hands. They had seen him be taken by the mob, and they had watched him die. Mary Magdalene had placed his body in the tomb. And now he stood among them.
I’m strangely reminded of those adventure courses where they put a harness on you that’s attached to a rope, so you can do dangerous things like swing between tall trees. You aren’t in any real danger, but there is a degree of fear.
I have a strange vertigo that comes on me unexpectedly. I’ll climb four or five feet up a ladder and be completely paralyzed. There’s no logic to it, because even if I fell, nothing terrible would happen. But the thought of danger can blossom strangely in the mind, and then that danger is very real to us.
In our lives it’s as though we are wearing a harness, and the harness is God’s love. The reality is that, even though we think we’re in charge and independent of outside influences, it’s a complete illusion.
Swami told how he went to Disneyland with friends from Italy, and how one of the men, who was an in-charge kind of guy, felt that he was actually driving the jungle boat. When Swami tried to get his attention, the man didn’t dare look up, because he was afraid to give up control of the boat, when in fact it was running on a rail beneath the water.
He didn’t understand that his control over the boat was an illusion. And this is our situation, that we’re devoting so much energy and attention to trying to keep our world under control and our lives on course, when in fact we’re much less in control than we imagine.
How much control do we actually have over our lives? How many of us can even fathom our karma – why we were born in this particular body, and at this particular time? Why aren’t we living on the other side of the world? And why aren’t we women instead of men, or men instead of women, and taller or shorter, with skin of a different color?
There are so many forces at work in our lives that we are completely unaware of. We are like leaves on the ocean, being carried along by the tide. And yet we are so terribly anxious that we might lose control, because we aren’t aware that God has us in His harness.
I remember, many years ago, watching a tiny spider run over the keys of my typewriter – this was before computers. I could see that the spider had a lot of charisma, and I imagined that he was the leader of his little spider clan. He would run from one side of the typewriter to the other, and he would race across the spacebar and climb to the top and run across the roller, and then he would stand on one side, and you could see the comical sense of pride in him, and the feeling that he was master of his world.
I don’t have a thing against insects, but I thought it might be a good idea to snuff out this little life. And I said to him, “You have no idea how much danger you’re in. You have no idea how much power I have over you.”
And all of a sudden I felt a giant presence floating over my head, and I felt Divine Mother say, “You think you’re so much in charge, you charismatic little spider!”
If She decided to take you away, you would be gone in an instant, and this world would no longer be there for you. It’s not that the world disappears, but our relationship with it changes when we’re gone, because we’re no longer able to identify with it.
The only reason this world seems so real to us is that we’ve gotten used to it, to the point where we’ve identified with it. We’ve taken the infinity of our consciousness and shrunk it to this little body. And then we confidently proclaim, “This is me – just see how important I am, and how completely I’m in charge!”
And then every so often, thank God, the masters come into this world and put on a human form to give us a glimpse of the truth. As Yogananda said, “When I see the body that I have to put on, and the personality I have to assume, it’s like putting on a heavy overcoat on a hot day. At first it’s itchy and uncomfortable, but then I get used to it.”
The master has to put his infinite consciousness into a little human form. And so it was with Christ. He had no reason to come into this world, but he came for these poor little beings, running around so confused about what they’re doing. And, above all, so afraid, for no reason.
So many things frighten us. How will we eat? How will we take care of ourselves? Who will be nice to us? Who will insult us? How will we die? It’s an endless cycle of fears, because we’ve become so thoroughly identified with this little thing that’s happening to us, and it hurts us so much.
The masters show us that our ways of thinking and living in this world are completely wrong, and that it’s possible to live without being bound by these little ego-identifications.
Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says: “What is day to the worldly person is night to the yogi.” What the worldly person thinks of as light, the spiritual person sees as painfully dark and confining. And what the yogi sees as light, the worldly person sees as uncomfortably dark and constricting.
Which is all to say – where does our greatest joy come from? What is it that gives us life? Where does our pleasure come from? What is it that gives us happiness? Who are we? Why were we born?
People who follow the spiritual path can look forward to giving up more and more. Instead of dreaming of ending their lives with the greatest possible accumulation of things, they think of becoming ever more free in the simple joy of inner communion with God, and of living like tourists passing through this world.
Why should we be forever trying to accumulate the things of the world? This is why beings like Christ come to us, to walk in this world and demonstrate the truth to us, and show us where our greatest happiness lies.
The Bible gives us the beautiful words of Jesus (Mathew 6:28):
“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?”
We know in our hearts that these words of Jesus are true. Yet we imagine that we have no inner connection to God, and that we aren’t harnessed by his love.
Christ counseled us not to be passive, or foolish or presumptuous in our faith. He sent his disciples abroad to preach the gospel with great energy, but in a very practical way. He told them, “Be fearless in what you do in the name of God. Be fearless in following the truth as you understand it. Be fearless in facing whatever God gives. Because this life is just an exercise and a test, to see if you will hold steady in the single thought of God’s presence no matter what may come.”
The masters don’t merely tell us these things, they walk the path in a human form to show us what the divine life looks like. There is no greater story than Jesus’ life: his absolute courage, and his willingness to face circumstances that we would recoil from in horror.
He said “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” (Mathew 8:20)
Swamiji pointed out the great irony that Jesus, the guru of the West, was an ascetic and a renunciate, while Krishna, the guru of the East, was born a king.
It seems strangely backwards. And it’s why people have changed so much of Jesus’ teachings to suit their own preferences.
Jesus said, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Mathew 19:21) And he meant it literally. But, most important, he was telling us to hold that freedom in our hearts.
If you claim anything of this world, you may indeed receive the things of this world. But Yogananda said: “What God gives, accept it.” And the essential question is not what you have, but whether you let your happiness be defined by it.
When they came for Christ, he said, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) And Pontius Pilate, who couldn’t figure out what sort of man it was that stood before him, said, “So then, you are a king?” And Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And he said, “You only have power over me because my Father gave it to you.”
Think of the many circumstances of our lives that come not by our own choosing. And the only reason they have power over us, and that these things happen, is because our Father wills it so. He wants to give us the opportunity to become absolutely independent of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Think of all the things we fear, and how, in that fear, we have no freedom.
I had a tiny backache some weeks ago. It was a small problem, thank God, and I’m grateful that it wasn’t more. But I was sort of moving around and feeling the discomfort and thinking, what if this never changes? What if I become debilitated, and what if my whole life will shift from this point forward. And then a little bit of anxiety touched my heart. But then I thought of Paramhansa Yogananda, and of Jesus Christ. And, you know, it isn’t presumptuous to compare our situation with theirs. Why not solve the tiniest problems of our lives by referring them to the topmost authority? Because all of our problems have the same answer.
I thought of Master, and I wondered, what would it feel like to be afraid of nothing? And I thought of Christ. What would it feel like to be able to face the most unimaginable nightmares: to be insulted and dragged through the streets to face a frightful death, and to have your divinely appointed mission seemingly come to nothing, and then to have your disciples run away, all except for a bare handful. And to face it with absolute equanimity, knowing that this form that you’re wearing is but the divine harness of God. Because there is nothing that can happen in this world that is outside of that. There’s nothing that can happen to us that can ever be outside the will of God.
I had a friend who was passing through a difficult period. I was feeling very emotionally distraught on her behalf, and I was praying to God and crying because of her suffering. I was watching all of this suffering and I couldn’t bear it. I was sitting in my car, crumpled over the steering wheel, and all of a sudden I heard a voice in my mind that asked a simple question: “Do you think this is happening outside the will of God?” And I had to answer, “Of course not.”
How could anything be happening outside the will of God? How could any situation be other than a step on the path toward our freedom, and a step toward a greater joy for everyone? I had to stop crying, because what was I crying about? All of my pity was for myself – oh, just see how I’m suffering! – with so much self-concern. I said, “Well, then, Lord, if this is Your plan, then You’d better help those people get through it.”
And that’s the way we should pray. We should demand of God: “All right, if You are giving this to me, then You must give me the strength to deal with it. And if You’re giving these people this test, then You must give them understanding.”
When my parents were at the end of their lives, it was a horrific situation because they were so unwell. And I just couldn’t help it, I was tempted to pray that they die. As Haridas put it, “Maybe it’s time for them to be sipping astral lemonade in some astral mansion.” Maybe it was time for an astral vacation.
But I thought to myself, you know, my desire to have them die is really for my convenience. I had to be completely honest and say, it’s really painful for me to watch them go through this. I’m certainly not content to have them go through this – so how should I pray? And I shifted my prayer and said, “Master, you had better help them learn what they need to learn, really fast! Give them wisdom, give them courage, and give them the ability to face what they have to face.”
It’s a very honest prayer. Because I wasn’t pretending that what they were going through was perfect. It wasn’t perfect; it was ghastly, and much of what happens to us in this world is ghastly. When Jesus was crucified, it was horrible. It was cruel and hateful, and for those who did it, it was a terrible mistake. Yet Jesus prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The end of the story is the resurrection. Because you cannot let yourself be mired in the suffering. You must go all the way through the experience and see Christ bathed in light, appearing in the darkness.
I saw a cross in a church in Vienna. And I’m not much for the crucifix, but in this instance it portrayed Christ with his head held up in such a way that I thought: just look – isn’t this an incredibly courageous attitude?
You don’t usually think of his last moments that way, because in most portrayals you see him with head bowed. But his head was held up, because he had walked into those circumstances and taken them onto himself of his own volition. They seemed to be holding him, but they hadn’t any hold on him, and he accepted the situation with open arms. And why was he not afraid? Because he wasn’t seeing the suffering. He was seeing the illusion of this world and the foolishness of our attachment that makes us think we are suffering. We don’t suffer. We live always in the joy of God.
Swamiji said that the deepest experience he had while he was in the Holy Land was at the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus’ body was laid, and where he was resurrected. Because this is the whole story of Christ’s life. It’s telling us that, yes, we have to be born in this world, and yes, we have these things that we must work out. But in Jesus’ case it wasn’t his own karma that he was working out; he was working out the karma of his closest disciples. And, yes, there was a great deal of difficult karma, and a lot of suffering. But Jesus comes to help us, and that’s why he went through these events, to work out the karma of his disciples. And that’s the true meaning of that old stock phrase, “He died for our sins.”
He died for the sins of many of his disciples, and by doing so he brought them great spiritual advancement. But he did it joyfully and effortlessly, to show us that nothing is ever happening in this world but the working of the divine light. The waves of the ocean are rising and falling, and ultimately they merge in the vast ocean of bliss.
This is the story of Easter. And what do we have to fear? What do we have to mourn? Meditate on the resurrection of Christ, and feel the resurrected Christ in the midst of whatever comes to you. God is always with you, and His divine nature is joy.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on April 11, 2004.)