A Practical Religion

In his book The New Path: My Life With Paramhansa Yogananda, Swami Kriyananda describes a conversation between the master and a group of the monks.

Kwai Chang Caine
Kwai Chang Caine (actor David Carradine) with blind master Po in the TV series Kung Fu. A somewhat ideal representation of the spiritual path… (Click to enlarge.)

Master asks his secretary to read a section of his Gita commentaries, where he explains that when one realizes God, “In effect, the dream-child wakes up in cosmic consciousness to find himself God once more.”

One of the monks, a fiery Bengali named Debi Mukherji, tries to get Yogananda to admit that he is God. A spirited discussion follows. Finally…

Recognizing that the distinction was, perhaps, too subtle for many to grasp, Master concluded, “Well, he who says he is God, isn’t God. And,” he added with a smile, “he who says he isn’t, isn’t!”

And there the subject rested, amid general laughter.

It’s an amusing episode. Aside from the humor of it, it illustrates the natural way Yogananda related to his disciples, and how relaxed he was with his state of complete oneness with God.

It’s a different image than we get from books and movies, where the spiritual teacher floats serenely through gilded temples illuminated by thousands of flickering candles, uttering profound sayings in ponderous tones.

The truth is that human nature is essentially the same in every age. You read of a father who expresses distress over his son’s riotous behavior, and you find that it was written in 300 A.D. It’s the same old story of fathers and sons in every age.

I read a novel that took place in the time of Christ. The author described how people went about their daily lives dressed in white robes, and how they conducted endless ritual washings and ceremonies. I had to laugh, because I envisioned how inconvenient it would be to perform a ritual washing, in white robes, every time you walked through a door. It struck me that you’d spend your whole day changing clothes and doing the laundry.

It isn’t how life works. At this time, we’re moving away from an older approach to religion that was obsessed with rules and dogmas. Nowadays, people want a spirituality that’s more practical, relaxed, and natural. We want to know how we can use our energy to change our consciousness and commune with God within.

I noticed over the years at Ananda that people who tended to be attached to rigid ways of thinking were often baffled by Swami Kriyananda. In fact, I remember him remarking that in the early years, people born under the sign of Virgo had trouble understanding him, because they wanted everything to be done precisely, and he was never as exacting as they would have liked.

The beginning of Ananda was quite a mess, to be honest. There’s no other way to describe it. We had acquired hundreds of acres of land that were impossible to manage, because we had very little money. So we carved out a few areas where we could live and work.

Recently, my friend Seva and I were recalling the day in 1969 when we moved into the new publications building, which is now Hansa Temple.

As I walked around the interior, I became aware of a terrible lack.

I said to Seva, “There’s no heat in this building.”

She said, “Yeah, we ran out of money before we could put it in.”

Nun walks to work at Ananda Village.
Winter at Ananda. A nun walks to work at “Pubble.” (Click to enlarge.)

The winters were very cold at the Village. It rained and snowed a lot, and we tramped around in felt-lined boots and rain suits. We bought little space heaters and sat huddled against them while it snowed outside. In photos, we all look like chubby people because we had to wear so many clothes.

One of the girls kept an electric heating pad over her typesetting machine, because it wouldn’t work in the cold. She had gloves with the fingertips cut out so she could type without her fingers getting stiff from the cold. Later, we installed a big propane heater downstairs that kept the building warm.

In that rough-hewn environment, it would have been impossible to dress in white robes and go around chanting and performing ceremonies all day. We were doing a pioneering work, and we had to be practical.

It was interesting to see how Swamiji dealt with the endless problems we faced. I would see him do things that made absolutely no sense to my rational mind. For example, whenever we had a financial crisis, which was often, instead of pulling back, as most people would do, he would launch a major project.

An example is the forest fire that swept through the community in the spring of 1976, destroying 21 of the community’s 22 homes. As the fire raced through the property, it seemed to decide deliberately which direction it would take. The fire seemed to make a conscious choice to extend a finger out to an isolated house and burn it, then change directions and reach out and burn another house.

House after forest fire at Ananda.
Durga and Vidura’s house after the fire. (Click to enlarge.)

It burned all of the houses where the families lived. It left the little trailers where the monks and nuns lived, and it left Swamiji’s house, the publications building, and the market. But it took all the family homes except one – and then a month later a big oak tree fell on it.

Swamiji’s response was to launch two nationwide speaking tours. He was very enthusiastic. He said, “We need money to rebuild. We’ll tour across the country and come back with thousands of dollars.”

He bought a motor home and a van, and he took a dozen people to tour forty cities in three months, giving talks and sharing our music. He called it the Joy Tour. They returned to the Village for several months, then they went out again.

We lost tens of thousands of dollars on the effort. Many people said, “Swamiji, you don’t know what you’re doing. You aren’t being practical.” But fifteen or twenty of our most dynamic members came to us because of those tours.

Swami Kriyananda gives a class.
Swami Kriyananda teaches a class during a Joy Tour, 1976. (Click to enlarge.)

We lost money, but we found devotees like Sheila Rush (Nayaswami Naidhruva), who contributed her expertise as a former law professor, and devoted twelve years of her life to help save Ananda from oblivion in SRF’s lawsuit against us.

After years of watching Swamiji start projects that were baffling to a normal, rational mind, it finally dawned on me that he wasn’t working with material forces, he was working with energy and magnetism.

Now, you might think that it would be obvious. After all, Paramhansa Yogananda talked often about working with energy. But when you see someone actually working in a way that contradicts your reasonable expectations, it can be difficult to shift gears and understand how effective it is.

I mentioned the lawsuit. It ended in a courtroom trial that was a complete travesty of justice. I won’t go into the details, but absolutely everything went against us – the judge, our own attorney, absolutely everything. We faced defeat after defeat, every day for several months.

Swamiji later remarked, “The law of averages says that at least something will go your way. When everything goes against you, you know that Divine Mother is running the show.”

Ananda legal team
Ananda legal team members clown around, 1976. L-R: Keshava, office manager; Rambhakta, office assistant; Sheila Rush (Naidhruva), attorney. (Click to enlarge.)

Swamiji and the members of the legal team were staying at our house. We would have breakfast together, then troop off to the courtroom to have our reputations savaged. And then we’d read about it in the newspapers the next day. It was just an absolute disaster.

Every morning Swami would sit at the breakfast table with us and say, “I feel like today is the day the tide is going to turn. I was watching juror number six, the one who’s been so sour, and I think he’s beginning to come around to our side.”

And every morning we would say, “Not a chance, Sir! No way!” As if it was our duty to make sure he knew that the tiniest bit of optimism was unrealistic.

We wondered, “Is Swami sitting in the same courtroom?” But he was more aware of what was happening than we were. Yet no matter how hard he tried, we were determined to make sure our rational minds weren’t being fooled.

On the last morning, I thought, “He isn’t stupid. He probably knows what he’s doing.”

I thought, “I bet he’s working with energy and magnetism. I bet he’s trying to generate a positive force that will counteract the negative energy that’s trying to overwhelm us.”

When Swami said, “I think the judge is turning our way,” based on no facts whatever, I said, “Yes, sir, I think that’s true.”

Everybody looked at me as if to say, “Not you, too! Is it something in the orange juice?”

Months later, I said to Swamiji, “Sir, I was thinking about those breakfasts where you tried to be a little positive, and we made sure nobody was positive before we left. You were trying to generate a positive magnetism, weren’t you?”

He said, “Of course.”

I said, “And every morning we did our best to cut the ground out from under you, didn’t we?”

“Yes,” he said. “You did.”

I said, “But it’s a very fine line, isn’t it, Sir, between being positive because you’re living in a dream world, and generating an actual power because you’re seeing a higher reality?”

Swami said, “Yes, it’s a very fine line. You have to be very careful.”

We’ve all met people who were positive but had little energy behind their idealism. Swamiji had the power, as Yogananda put it, to stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds. He could look over the horizon and know what was possible, if the energy was right.

Meditation, Ananda Village
Noon meditation at Pubble, 1976. How many can you name? (Hints at end of article.) (Click to enlarge.)

He was in touch with a divine force that’s infinite in its power, and that completely ignores our little reasonings. It’s the power of God’s light that incarnates in the form of the masters.

The greatest requirement that God asks of us is that we stay in contact with that power, even during the dark times.

Every darkness is followed by the dawn. There’s nothing on earth greater than the divine force within. Everything in the material world responds to the power of Spirit.

Several years ago, Swami was near death with various illnesses. He was staying with us in Palo Alto, and at one point he came out and stood smiling at us. Shanti, who’s a physician, said she’d never seen such a contrast of complete physical weakness and spiritual power. The doctor in her was poised to rush forward and revive him when he fell over, as she fully expected he would do. And the devotee in her was motionless with the spiritual power that was pouring from him.

Later, Swamiji was near death with pneumonia. As he lay on a hospital bed in India, one of the doctors sensed that Swamiji could help him spiritually.

He said, “I have a dilemma. It’s hard to make the money I need without cutting corners. But it hurts my moral spirit not to live in dharma. What can I do?”

Swami said “Maybe we can talk about it tomorrow.” But that brief conversation gave him the inspiration to write a series of lessons on how to achieve material success without compromising our honor.

Now, Swamiji never cared about people acquiring lots of money. So these lessons aren’t about setting up a personal get-rich-quick scheme.

He wanted to help people understand how to relate to the material side of life from a spiritual level – by giving ourselves to God and then using His power. If we understand this world to be constructed of energy as an expression of consciousness and spirit, there has to be a way that we can be successful by attuning ourselves to that higher reality.

Bringing spiritual principles into our search for success puts the lie to the way people generally approach getting ahead. “I’ll grab for myself. I won’t care about anyone, so long as I can get what’s mine.”

It makes sense, if your perception of yourself and your competitors is of waves crashing against each other. But if you understand that both waves are manifestations of the same great ocean of spirit, then where does the power of your own wave come from? And how much power can we have as separate individuals, compared to the power we would have if we could learn to merge our consciousness with the ocean of spirit?

Now, that is the divine power that incarnates again and again, as the Bhagavad Gita tells us, “when virtue declines and vice ascends.” When we’re tempted to look for easy answers and imagine that we can cut corners, the divine force, you might say, incarnates within us to restore us to the truth.

A friend of ours was having lots of trouble with her son. For years, her way of coping had been to hope that she could simply outlast him. But when he became a rebellious teenager, she realized she would have to face up to the hard work of raising her child.

She said, “I thought I would get away with it. I thought I wasn’t going to have to put out the energy to be a mother.”

Life after life, we try to think of how we can get away with it. We’ll be a little bit selfish, a little bit snide, a little revengeful, and we’ll cling to our pride. “I’m making lots of money and I have a nice home. I think I’m going to get away with it.” But sooner or later our happiness fades. Because to the extent that we violate the divine law, we end up suffering.

It isn’t complicated. We suffer when we go against God’s law. God gives us challenging lessons, but only so that we’ll be driven to seek joy more deeply inside.

God will never be satisfied to give us only a little of His happiness. He wants us to receive the infinity of His Bliss. When we lose awareness of the goal, God takes form, sometimes blessing us, sometimes sending us trials. In one way or another, God takes form to restore the virtue of our hearts, to restore our understanding, to restore the light within us, to restore our bliss.

(Photo hints L-R: Jyotish, (unknown, rear), Uma, Kasandra (rear), Asha, Durgadas, Maitri,, Anandi, Ganesha, Vairagi, Agni, Lakshman Simpson?, Devi)

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